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A St. Petersburg Christmas

Some countries live off collective memory—rough-hewn stone monuments, mournful anthems, goats ritually slaughtered in honor of some lunar god—but here in Russia the national pastime is forgetting. After being in St. Petersburg for less than four hours I can no longer remember many things: my reason for being here, the Russian word for "taxi" (it's taxi), the name of my hotel, my own first name and patronymic. There are little snippets of consciousness floating in a sea of black. At one point I am sitting on a glacial bench with a friend breathing in thimbles of cold night air; now I am falling down in the marble vestibule of a familiar metro station, my galoshes making comical half-circles above my head; and finally I am parked amid the Art Nouveau curlicues of the Grand Hotel Europe's Lobby Bar with a lit Cohiba in one hand, a glass of Fonseca port in the other, and several bewildered young women across the table listening to me pontificate.

And then it's all coming back to me. I'm here in St. Petersburg, Russia, to witness the holiday season to end all holiday seasons. According to a new law passed by the country's insane parliament, Russian workers now enjoy a 10-day respite (from January 1 to January 10) from whatever employment they may still have. This extended winter break, centered around the Russian Orthodox Christmas—which, according to the Julian calendar, falls on January 7—was greeted with alarm by conscientious citizens. Some Petersburgers feared an unprecedented booze binge, others a crime spree that would rekindle the city's reputation as an Al Capone–era Chicago. In actuality, after all was said and drunk, the city's criminals mostly stayed home with their loved ones, while the number of residents hospitalized for alcohol poisoning increased a meager 10 to 15 percent. My trip to Petersburg was an attempt to partake in this mad winter carnival without somehow joining the merry band in the hospital. On my first night, I nearly did.

It all started with a perverse case of jet lag and a chest cold that would outwit the Western world's most powerful antibiotics. When my friend K. picked me up at the airport, I was performing the unique trick of somehow coughing and sneezing and hiccuping at the same time. "We need to get you well," K. said, and I knew exactly what he meant. The Russian cure for any ailment ranging from stomach ulcers to delusions of grandeur is 150 grams of vodka (about three shots). But for a cold this serious K. prescribed two bottles of gorilka, a Ukrainian firewater blended with honey and pepper.

K. and I have a tradition—the first thing we do when I get to town is head to the Mountain Eagle (Gorny Oryol) restaurant. The Eagle used to sit humbly by the Petersburg zoo; it was an ad hoc outpost of plastic chairs and wooden tables that served the best Georgian cuisine and the most delicate mutton kebabs in the city. But all that humility, wood, and plastic are now gone, replaced by an overlit gaudy palace fit for a minor Romanov. In its size and style, the new Mountain Eagle's entry hallway recalls an abandoned train station at midnight, and the rest of the place is a kind of architectural guide to New Russian taste—columns, pediments, fountains, fortress towers, massive unexplained outcroppings of stone and marble. The once eclectic clientele has been replaced by midlevel biznesmeni conspicuous by their shaved heads and fatalistic expressions. "We are in the land of Zurab Tsereteli!" I sneeze at my friend, referring to the sculptor who in the past decade has disfigured the Moscow skyline with a 310-foot statue of Peter the Great that looks like a baroque Russian Godzilla. I am faced with two possibilities: either the tasteful, stoic city of my birth is gone, or I have accidentally landed in Moscow.

And then the bottles of Ukrainian gorilka are brought out. We toast our friendship, our families, Ukraine's recent Orange Revolution and the hope that a similar one will someday sweep Putin out of power in Russia. The Ukrainian alcohol has a bright and chewy taste, the honey and pepper coating one's tongue with thick sheets of sugar and spice. We chase the gorilka with a plate of pickled peppers, cabbage, and garlic, and follow that up with khachapuri, a Georgian flat bread filled with soft ricotta-like cheese. Soon, with the first bottle of gorilka safely inside me, the jet lag, the unvanquished flu, and the alcohol combine to rob me of what little sense I had cleared through customs. I fall victim to what I call Dostoyevsky Disease: the need to be overbearingly kind to some person in lesser circumstances, which in poverty-stricken Russia presents a fairly wide tableau. So when the homely young waitress brings the bill I hand her an unheard-of tip: $20.

"What, are you crazy?" K. says.

The waitress blushes, her little red nose twinkling. "Thank you!" she cries. "Thank you, young man! This will be my New Year's present!"

"O-ho, life is short, life is short!" I happily intone. "We must be good to one another, dear one!" And after those words are uttered we cut to the episode I have already described: my tenure on the ice-crusted bench, my stumble down the metro, my lost evening of Cohibas and port and pontification at the Grand Hotel Europe Lobby Bar. Throughout the ensuing night, covered with an immense winter comforter, I am atremble with happy fraternal thoughts and sunk deep into my own forgetting. A fairly typical start to most Russian visits.

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