For the many travellers out there, it started off like any other night at hostels around the world.
Cigarette smoke filtered through the air as guests tried to find some common ground with their fellow inhabitants of their unfamiliar abode, the place they were to call home for a night or more.
Whilst numerous languages were spoken, a human connection was not hard to find when the drinks were flowing.
Body language interpretation became a most useful skill as supporters from all corners of the globe began a night of frivolity, celebrating the rivalries and stories of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The Australians were drinking beer, the Americans were talking with pride about their fake ID’s they used to drink at college, the English were speaking in an accent that only they could understand and the Argentinians were trying to chat up the pretty receptionists. Over the top of the chatter an Israeli voice shrilled in despair and anger at the misplacement of his toothbrush.
This night however was not like most others. Earlier that day there had apparently been an important battle take place not far from our hostel. Clearly audible, even over the upbeat atmosphere of the common area inside, people were on the streets suffering some sort of mania.
Faces painted in their tribes native colours like camouflage, loudly chanted war cries to make their allegiances known to all. Evidently at any other time of the year they were inconspicuous from most other humans going about their daily business. But at this time, in this year, in this location. They weren’t just citizens of a country. They were members of a clan. The clan better known as Russia.
Word filtered through that the clan had claimed an important victory over their rivals. This was good news to the vagabonds and travellers from lands abroad. Because in Saint Petersburg it is known that the natives can get restless when things don’t quite go their way.
Saint Petersburg, originally named Sankt-Peterburg, was founded by the legendary Russian Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. Located on the North East corner of Russia, the Neva River flows through the city, leading into the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. Historically Saint Petersburg was Russia’s most important city, being capital of Russia from 1713 to 1728 and from 1732 to 1918.
Being in such close proximity to Europe, Saint Petersburg is also Russia’s most European city with the streets lined in European inspired architecture. The buildings whilst impressive, are all no taller than the Winter Palace after the Commission of Stone Buildings of Moscow and Saint Petersburg ruled that no structure in the city can be taller. This gives the city a somewhat less imposing presence despite the grandness of the structures themselves.
A victory to the natives meant one thing. Celebrations. In this town there is only one place for the common folk to congratulate each other on their mutual victory over the enemy.
Pronounced Doom-sky-a, Dumskaya street in central Saint Petersburg is a 300 meter stretch of road that caters for clansman of all kinds. Almost. From all walks of life. Almost. Where a good night can be had by all. Almost.
Our motley crew of new best friends were all feeling quite merry as we departed the safety of our shared home to join the locals in their native habitat. As we traversed the wide stretched roads lined with epic manmade structures that were as grand as anywhere in the world, we continued drinking via vodka disguised in bottles of Sprite.
This was not out-of-place as clansmen and women consumed their beverages openly in this celebration of patriotism. From President Putin himself down through the many complex layers of Russian society, Russia for all its misconceptions, is first and foremost, a civilised society. One where public perception is held in the highest regard.
But on this day, it seemed, all notions of reputation, elegance and upstanding mannerisms of behaviour, were gone. As we continued to sip from our inconspicuous plastic bottle I wondered why that was.
What was it that caused this most upstanding and almost pretentious society to become…wild. Our journey to our destination was also getting wild. The closer we got to Dumskaya, the more we sensed an ever-volatile combination of national pride, fuelled by alcohol and mixed with something indescribable. It was as though a pressure valve had been released.
In a society where the State is ever present in their daily lives, where private habits become public record, perhaps this was the moment to unleash all the built up tension and exhibit human behaviour at its most primitive.
The police and security forces were also ever present, but even though they were supremely trained at not over reacting, their sense of pride could not be contained. Staunch faces had mellowed, and their smiles were obvious despite the uniform. Perhaps that was a non-verbal cue to the natives that this was a night for leniency. Where normal forms of behaviour could be paused for a moment to enjoy a victory so rare and unexpected, that to not enjoy the feeling would be to declare that the States impositions had won the war completely over human nature.
The impending doom of Dumskaya was increased as we entered the famous party hub. The clubs and bars heaved, filled to capacity so much so that the overflow spilled onto the street. Locals mixed with foreigners as the venues strained to contain the energy of the crowd. Cars moved slowly, horns blaring as though they also wanted to join in the festivities. Coloured sheets adorned many of the clans people’s backs indicating their national status, draped over them like capes of a superhero. Was it these capes that gave the people a sense of invincibility on this night?
By this stage, our Serbian friend had joined us and as we scanned the many and various bars one stood out to him like a call sign. Belgrade Bar. How could we not start here, he suggested in a tone of authority. Nothing bad had ever happened in Belgrade…had it? We shared the remnants of our mobile cocktail around, finishing the contents. Wading through the crowd was difficult but being Serbian his 2 meter large frame gave us just enough room to cut through the mass of people and find what appeared to be the entrance.
Boom! Enter Stage 1 of Doom
The room was vibing with energy that was electric though some of the electricity was not all positive. It had been Serbia’s long-time foe, Croatia that was also doing impressively well at this tournament for clan supremacy and much of the discussion surrounded other clan battles that had occurred or were to follow in the coming days of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The night blurred on into the early hours of the morning. Strangely by 3am the sun was rising, Russia’s famous white nights mixed with the consumption of various blends of drinks meant it was time to move on. Locate doorway. Exit. Shield eyes. Haphazardly scan the street. Light a cigarette. Hand out a cigarette to a clansman in need. Pose for pictures with new best friends. Search for next venue. Target located. Venue identified. Entitled – Bad Habits.
My mind laughed and asked itself, was this the universe trying to tell me something? Nevertheless the place was pulling at me and in my state of drunken euphoria I pondered my life choices as I lead the group to this appropriately named venue to continue this night of hedonism.
Boom! Enter Stage 2 of Doom
As we stumbled in to Bad Habits I nodded in acknowledgement to a hard looking and very large bouncer manning the front door. I entered and behind me some chaos emerged, the bouncer had pounced, moving at a speed that defied his size, like a goal keeper flying to save the ball from the back of the net, he carried away one of my new best friends back onto the street.
Minutes later I noticed the fellow traveller drunkenly utilising Google Translate to convey his feelings of lust to a local clanswoman on the street. It must be going well I thought briefly as they walked away with his hand on her ass. Technology facilitating our most primal urges!
Our group of 7 had dwindled down to 4 as we explored this dark and mysterious vortex, known as Bad Habits. Intense beats of bass and electronic melodies surged through my body. It took me some time for my night vision beer goggles to kick in to full effect but once they had I was greeted with with a most peculiar sight.
Suddenly a drink was in one hand and in my other…a balloon? Scanning the room with my newly found vision I made out the silhouettes of human like shapes that also held these balloons in various states of size. Some were attached to their mouths as though a permanent connection, like a baby feeding from its mother.
Inhaling, I took the balloon like a hit from a bong, trying to drain the contents in one big breath. This was proving to be an impossible task. Turning to the barman for advice, he mentioned some words that were indiscernible over the crowds’ noise. I motioned to this maniac that I couldn’t hear what the hell he was saying. He then proceeded to attach a piece of rubber to the nozzle of what looked like a large, 1-metre tall tank of gas of some sort. As he opened the flow, the balloon formed shape and just when it looked like it was about to burst he closed the valve and in one motion expertly tied off the end of the balloon.
Turning to me he shouted over the crowd that the gas was Nitrous Oxide, otherwise known as laughing gas. He then used various hand gestures and inhaling motions. Ahhh, now I understood what this lunatic was talking about. I reattached my mouth to suckle at the rubbery teat and again inhaled deeply. The balloon deflated and as I reached my maximum inhalation, I held, then exhaled, not out into the open air but directly back into the balloon. I continued to repeat this procedure several times over the course of what seemed like a few seconds. Yes, I did it! The crazy barman gave me a peace sign. The balloon was now flaccid and drained of its contents.
Boom! Enter Stage 3 of Doom
The next minute or two was like a floating earthquake had reached 8.5 on the Richter scale inside. My balance was fine, but an internal tremor meant that my body movements were erratic like a drowning comic trying to chase after his punchline but never quite reaching it. A friend began to talk at me. The noise was loud and hearing was difficult and it had seemed that all my skills in behavioural interpretation and lip-reading had left me, so I presumed it was to ask about the balloon and how I felt. I yelled loudly that the balloon was great despite the feeling of a brief internal floating earthquake and he gave me an odd look and repeated his question.
Turns out he had not mentioned the balloon at all but asked me about the location of my jacket. In that moment I cared not for such trivial things and feeling the last aftershocks of the internal feelings subside, I launched into full party mode, engaging with a local Russian clans’ woman as she moved her body provocatively. We intertwined seductively and, in a manner, befitting the moment, we found a private location to celebrate our mutual victory, as I also raised my flag.
Boom! Final stage of Doom
Back at my home base now. Hazily I reached for the access card to enter the hostel and come up empty handed. No jacket. No phone. Fuck! Just as I was about to ring the buzzer I heard, then saw, a most confronting scene approach me. The Serbian and American friend from earlier were climbing the stairs, dripping wet, wearing nothing but their underwear. Our Israeli friend cackled in laughter as he relayed the story of their late-night swim in the canal. It happened after the consumption of a balloon – located next to the impending doom of Dumskaya.