the kvass machines were all over leningrad--big gray machines that looked sort of like the lockers in my high school. each machine had its own pile of stacked glasses. you took a glass, turned it upside down over a spigot, pressed down, and water shot up to rinse out the inside of the glass.
then you turned the glass right-side-up, placed it under a tap, and dropped in your kopecks. a few kopecks bought you a glass of water; a few more bought you a glass of kvass, a lightly fermented drink, sort of like beer. i believe it's made from rye bread.
smaller towns had kvass trucks that hauled it from neighborhood to neighborhood and sold it to you right out of the barrel. but leningrad had the dispenser machines.
people lined up on the street for drinks from these machines, but in those days -- this picture is from 1991 -- people lined up for all kinds of stuff. i think the woman in the headscarf is drinking water, but the guy in the suit beside her has kvass.
i had a glass of kvass, too. it had a wheaty, yeasty flavor, and it wasn't chilled. i tried not to think of the germs that might lurk on that glass; i didn't want to be a fastidious american. sixteen years later, i appear to have contracted no exotic diseases.
in russia, most of my meals were in cafes and what i called pectopahs--the word actually is ресторан. it means restaurant. i have no idea how to pronounce it, but i memorized its appearance so that i wouldn't starve to death. (i also memorized the word for cafe: кафе.)
once, i found a place through observation--i noticed people coming up out of a basement, chewing. i took a chance and went into the basement myself. voila! a кафе!
the picture above was taken in a cafe in 1986. the salt shakers had no tops; you salted your food the old russian way--by digging some out with the end of your fork, and then knocking the fork gently over your plate. that place was unusual in that it had chairs; most of the cafes had tall tables you stood up at. everyone ate hastily (and often left the cafe still chewing).
the napkins were triangles of paper stuffed into a water glass; they had almost no absorbancy. i had brought packets of "wet ones" with me and used one to clean my hands. i left it on the table (there were no garbage cans) and as i walked out i glanced back and saw a crowd of people gathered around, looking at it.
one day, i went out to lunch with tom, an american in our group who was fluent in russian. the cafe had one choice: a meat patty, topped with an egg fried hard. the coffee came in tall glasses set in metal holders (called, i think, podstakannik), and was already sugared. it was very sweet.
that evening, tom and i went to a fine restaurant for dinner. the room was vast, and more than half of the tables were empty. at the far end, a band was setting up. they worked very slowly. eventually, they got up on stage and played two songs, and then they took a break and were gone for the rest of the evening.
a bowing waiter handed us tall menus of heavy cream-colored paper. i opened mine; the list of dishes was long and impressive, but everything had been X-ed out on a manual typewriter. tom told me that the polite thing to do was to study the menu and then hand it back gravely, and say, "i'll have the meat."
so this is what i did. the waiter bowed again, and vanished.
it was an hour before he returned. fortunately, there was plenty of very nice light Georgian wine to keep us occupied in the interim.
all the waiters came back at once. they were loaded down with heavy round trays, each one carrying four or five dinners. each plate held exactly the same meal: shredded red cabbage, diced tomatoes with sour cream, and -- just like my lunch -- a meat patty, topped with an egg, fried hard.
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