Kitsch and minimalism are locked in a daily struggle throughout St. Petersburg, and at the Triton restaurant, on the banks of the Fontanka River, kitsch is winning. It's a seafood restaurant, you see, but just in case you missed the point, there's a porpoise hanging from the ceiling, a waterfall dripping above your bouillabaisse, and actual aquariums set into the walls, floors, and even the toilet's water tank. Upon entering the joint I see a fat rich kid, about five years old, in a Dolce & Gabbana outfit sullenly gawking at the prized osetra sturgeon scurrying underfoot. I'm not sure who his parents are, but the restaurant is filled with several "proactive" Russian men in gray sports jackets and black turtlenecks, as well as the nine-foot-tall women in yellow leather pants who love them. Passing through, I catch snatches of conversation from two fellows at another table:
"What do we do about Sergei?"
"It's a delicate question."
Indeed. Meanwhile, as Sergei's future is settled, the outrageously priced food takes both good turns and bad. The tartare of salmon and tuna is pleasantly rife with spring onion and sea salt. The grilled Scottish salmon in cream sauce—the most simple dish around—is succulent, but the lobster is so tough it should be taken out back and roughed up a little. Possibly so should Sergei.
After the daylong gorging process is complete, it is time to turn to the spiritual. Tonight is Christmas Eve, according to the Russian Orthodox tradition. The date is not the only thing that differentiates Orthodox Christmas from our own. Unlike the dollar-denominated shop-a-thon back home, Christmas here is still a low-key affair, an austere meal of honey-soaked wheat kasha being one of the highlights. For the midnight mass, I head to the city's main functioning church, the Kazan Cathedral, an elegant early-19th-century rip-off of St. Peter's in Rome. Approaching the church past the snow-covered empty streets, I am mesmerized by the yellow-lit cupola and the sound of the bells slowly rising in pitch and purpose. Inside, the proceedings are suffused with a lavender glow, flickering amber candles, and overpowering incense. I see women in woolen scarves, their thick purple glasses hiding the kernels of blue eyes. On the previous day I visited the church to get permission for a British photographer to take pictures of the midnight mass. I spoke to an angelic-looking young priest with a small flaxen mustache who gladly gave us permission. On the night of the mass, the mustached priest is conducting the services, and we are confronted by an elderly church worker, his face as red as a beet, a single tooth in his crooked mouth. We tell him that a priest has blessed our request to photograph the service, but the old fellow's not buying it. "This is our holiday, our Orthodox holiday," he says, staring down my Jewish nose. "We don't need your people here."
"Merry Christmas," the British photographer says to him.
My Christmas does get merrier the next day when my friend K.'s girlfriend, Yanna, invites us to a holiday dinner in a small apartment in the southern suburbs. Yanna's family is from Yakutia (also called Sakha), a Russian republic that occupies most of the northeastern part of the Asian continent and is home to the Pole of Cold, the absolute coldest point in the Northern Hemisphere. As freezing as their land may be, the Yakuts receive us with a warmth, openness, and hospitality I find genuinely touching. Yanna's mother is a shamaness, and after I walk through the door she whips me with a white horse's tail to drive out evil spirits. After my whipping we are treated to an incredible meal of pony rib meat practically falling off the bone, salty iced fish, and a smooth horse-blood sausage that takes me as close as I've ever come to experiencing the essence of an animal. By the end of the evening, thanks to either the horse-tail whipping or the medicinal bear intestine still sticking to the inside of my cheek, I emerge from the Yakuts' cozy lair with my flu finally vanquished.
My health restored, K. and I decide to finish off Christmas day with a trip to the Colorado Father strip club on the far side of Vasilevsky Island. Most of Petersburg's nightlife can be characterized by Susan Sontag's dictum on popular culture: "So bad it's good." And by that measure the Colorado Father (Koloradsky Otets) is very good. It's hard to tell why the club's owners decided that the great state of Colorado somehow represented their brand of melancholy vice, but the walls are indeed covered with huge murals of mesas, cowboys, cacti, and (fairly or unfairly as far as the female population of Colorado is concerned) women with gigantic asses. Before heading into the Amsterdam room, where the actual stripping takes place, we give the disco a shot. Here girls of roughly student age release their Slavic pheromones to the music of 50 Cent, their flea-market miniskirts held together by bobby pins and sheer will. In the Amsterdam room, desperation and testosterone tickle the nose in equal measure. After several vodka shots chased with beer, I settle into another Dostoyevskian moment—feeding the G-string of some poor damaged blonde a series of 100-ruble notes whilst mumbling something about life and beauty and redemption. On Wednesdays, I'm told, the members of a male strippers' collective called the Colorado Stallions shake it up Western-style. Luckily, it's Friday.