(Excerpt from the book RUSSIA: A JOURNEY TO THE ARCTIC)
May Day Celebrations
Sunday May 1
May Day, also known as “Spring and Labor Day,” is a time when the Russian people spend time with family and friends in celebration of springtime, gardening, and flowers. This day lost its Socialist meaning after the Soviet Union’s collapse. For one hundred years, from 1890 to 1990, May 1st was a symbol of class struggle in Russia with workers demanding better working conditions and higher wages. Workers held annual protests on this day from 1890-1917. On May 1, 1918, this day became a public holiday known as, “The Day of International Solidarity of Workers.” Most cities and towns held parades and marches on this day until 1990. In 1992, the Russian parliament renamed this holiday as “Spring and Labor Day.”
[Summarized from the internet]
When we arrived at Restaurant 65, the night was still young, but the place was filling up fast. We waited for Eva the hostess and owner who, upon recognizing us, graciously welcomed us to one of the few tables left. As we sat down, she listed off the evening’s meal, all of course spoken in her native tongue.
“Spasibo,” was our lone, thankful response. Our Russian was improving. We didn’t need translation books for that one, but at the same time, still had them in our pockets.
The atmosphere was friendly and lively with a hub of conversations throughout the room. Everybody was moderately enjoying their drinks and eating their meals. A few people from other tables, recognizing us as foreigners, greeted us jovially. We settled in nicely amongst the crowd, but somehow were mistakenly labelled, initially in a friendly manner, as “Americans.” We tried to explain to them that we were “Kanadtsy,” Canadian, not Americans, but nobody seemed to understand. A band was setting up on stage, off to one side, gearing up for the evening’s festivities.
Twenty minutes in, after our initial drinks were served, another waitress came and presented us with platters of food; wiener schnitzels, three types of salads including the usual cucumber and tomato, salted or pickled fish entrees, and a sufficient number (at least for the time being) of beers and vodkas. It was a night of celebrations to look forward to; good food, good people, good conversations, what more could a person ask for. After we ate our meals, and the plates taken away, the evening turned into a night of music, dancing, drinking, and toasts.
The band started playing and their lead singer started the night off with an energetic, lively Russian ballad. Toasts were cheerfully given from one table to another as the singer, in his husky baritone voice, dedicated the first song, incorrectly, to us, “The Americans.”
At about this time, as more people continued to flow into this Restaurant-turned- nightclub, three young, attractive ladies walked in, looking for a place to sit. Since we probably had the only seats yet available, they came over and presumptuously, but politely, sat down next to us. We felt flattered and honored to have them sit with us, but at the same time felt awkward with the language barrier between us. But Bob took charge quickly and after finding out their preferences, ordered drinks for them. Meanwhile, the rest of us quietly got our Russian translation books out and by furtively glancing down at them now and then, hoping not to look like dorks in the process, tried to provide them with some sort of decent conversation.
However, this did not sit well with the people at the table next to us, especially one man in particular, who seemed to have an animosity to “Americans” hitting on their women. Initially his catcalls and banter were friendly in nature, and we took it all in stride. The party continued on.
When supper duties were finished, Eva came over to visit with Bob. Soon afterwards, she and Bob proceeded to the dance floor to dance the night away. Despite his big frame, Bob was a pretty good dancer. The three ladies at our table were soon escorted to the dance floor as well, by the two Peters, and John Fitcher, while Ray and I sat quietly, enjoying the atmosphere, sipping our beer and vodka.
The night wore on, more drinks were consumed, and the verbal and non-verbal skills improved, slowly breaking down the cultural barriers. This all added to the irritation of our Russian friend next to us as he became more belligerent. He was a small, yet fiery person, who just wouldn’t quit. His taunts become more aggressive and his voice got louder over the music. At this time, we didn’t need our dictionaries to tell us what he was saying, other than “Go home you Americans,” along with a few expletives.
He continued on with his tirade for a while, and then said something which drew a swift response from everyone around him. The atmosphere from that moment on changed. We never did find out what he said, but the people around him weren’t happy. He went over the line, and everyone told him, in no uncertain terms, to cool it. Even the ladies, including the waitress and Eva, came over to tell him to knock it off. We tried to stay calm and keep quiet, but now knew the situation was starting to boil over.
What happened next, to this day, I’m still not sure if I heard or saw the events correctly. When he made those last disparaging remarks to us, the conversations in the room became quieter. Other than the band continuing to play and the singer singing, the attention now focused on us. Up to this point, other than the words “You Americans,” everything he spoke was in Russian. But now, perhaps in one last attempt to intimidate us and save face he stood up, pointing to himself, and with a loud voice in perfect English declared… “I’m with the Russian mafia.”
Nobody spoke. There was silence in the crowded room. Even the continuous vodka toasting came to a brief halt, as the focus was on what would happen next.
…(To be continued.)