Vodka, Part 1: Story of My Best Friends

Vodka Means Water in Russian: A Story of Brenda, Anna, and Laura

On our train ride from St. Petersburg to Moscow at the start of our great adventure on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Brenda Muir and I share a sleeping car with two Russian men. I pray they don’t stink or snore.

I discover, however, that train cars have a way of catalyzing and accelerating fleeting friendships. So does vodka.

“No ice. No nothing!” says one of the men when I ask if the Russians really drink vodka like it’s water as he pours Russian Standard into small plastic cups.

“Do you know,” he says with a heavy Slavic accent, “what vodka means in Russian?”

I tell him.

“That’s right! And you add water to water?”

Before I can answer he says, “Nyet! Now we drink!”

That is the beginning of our adventure on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Train cars, however, have a way of catalyzing and aggravating grievances within friendships after three weeks.

By the time we get to our final destination, Beijing, both Brenda and I nursed fairly awful colds and are getting on each other’s nerves. I want to rip her hair out. So in true over-privileged Westerner form, we break out into an all out screaming match on Tiananmen Square where student protesters were shot down in 1989 for voicing their hopes for economic and political reform and freedom of the press.

I don’t really remember what we are fighting about—I don’t think it was for economic and political reform and freedom of the press–and there is a moment when I step outside of myself and realize that I am in Beijing, standing at the gates of the Forbidden City and what the hell am I doing arguing with my friend?

Needless to say, Brenda and I continue to be friends. She lives in Heidelberg where there is the Philosopher’s Walk; Hegel used to take long strolls along it while he worked out his philosophy. He knew all too well the vagaries of friendship from his fallout with Schelling, how sometimes two friends can get into a screaming match in a middle of a foreign city and then go have dinner together.

* * *

Years later, my love of vodka deepens with the Ketel One martini at the Top of the Hub, a restaurant bar at the top of the Prudential building in Boston. It’s the nicest place I’ve been to since moving to this city. Perhaps it’s the live jazz music by the three piece band playing before the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the nighttime cityscape of Boston and the Charles River. Perhaps it’s my boyfriend at the time romancing me four months into our relationship. Likely it’s the very dry Ketel One martini with three olives, the best cocktail since whiskey sour, my cocktail of choice at nineteen with a dull and untutored palate.

My vodka story comes full circle when I go on a weekend trip to NYC with my two best friends, Laura Wilson and Anna Reischl. We accidentally find ourselves in the Russian Tea Room and are served Russian Standard vodka martinis. Three olives. Maybe it’s the company, maybe it’s the glorious crimson space of the Russian Tea Room, maybe it’s the Russian waiter who gives us all the olives we want. In any case, the Russian Standard vodka martini—I hope those Muscovites from the train aren’t reading this and finding out that I put vater in the vater—outdoes the Ketel One version. It also reminds me of Brenda and Anna and Laura, three dear friends. That could also be why it tastes so good.

Double Vodka & Red Bull: Another Story of Fran, the Other Dear Friend

All right. I’ll tell you about the story of the Double Vodka and Red Bull.

I’m in Brussels with Fran. It’s the night of the Rugby World Cup and the English team is in the finals. Who cares? I normally wouldn’t, but this bit of trivia becomes important later on.

While in the capital city of lace, waffles, chocolate, beer, moules et frites, and aioli, we go for a sushi dinner and Japanese beer. Afterwards, we walk into an Irish pub. Fran orders a DVRB. She’s gunning for inebriation. She orders DVRBs when she’s serious about getting hammered. I get serious.

“Order me one of those.”

I chug the first one and promptly order a second one. I chug that two [sic]. While waiting for the third one, I notice a blond, English boy; he’s wearing the English rugby jersey with the red rose. He notices me two [sic]. I sip the third one. There’s music, I dance, the English team wins the Rugby World Cup, the boy is glad and dances with me.

At some point in the evening Fran leaves the pub in search of a cash machine and ends up befriending a cab driver who ferries her around town showing her the sights. I decide that I’m the biggest fan of English rugby this side of the Channel and I absolutely must have my dance partner’s jersey. He agrees. We both take off our tops and exchange them right there smack in the middle of the bar. My three quarter length sleeve cotton top is a snug fit on him.

We make out for what seems like hours. At the exact moment he asks me if I would like to leave the pub with him, I know I will vomit in his mouth if don’t stop locking lips with him and head for the doobluh-vey-say.

I am roaring drunk. In fact, I have never been this drunk in my life. The combination of vodka and Red Bull is making me want to pass out and dance all night. The vodka is winning.

Our hotel is but a mere 5 minute walk away but standing at the sidewalk trying to navigate the light and traffic, I realize that I could get run over. I cannot cross the street by myself.

So I flag down a cab and in my best French, which is not the best in my condition, I say to him, “Monsieur, aidez moi, s’il vous plait! S’il vous plait, monsieur! Aidez moi! Aidez moi! ”

He asks me where I want to go and I tell him my hotel. No, I actually tell him, “Mon hotel.” As if he should know which one that is. After a couple of exchanges I realize that I don’t remember the name of my hotel, but I do remember how to get there and so I start giving him directions.

My sister says that I’m one of those people with a horseshoe up my ass. I’ve never thought so myself, but in hindsight I think the very lack of tragedy in my reckless youth might be evidence of that horseshoe in absentia of shit.

I make it to my room. Seems the cabbies in Brussels are real friendly, decent people. Fran is still finding that out in her cabby adventure. I crawl into the shower thinking that the water might help wash the vodka away. It doesn’t work at all! I puke in the tub, which ends with me curled up into a fetal position under the water, wishing the boat wouldn’t rock and spin. I want the ride to stop.

By the time Fran gets back, bursting with energy and sobriety, I’m in my bed and the bed won’t stop rocking and spinning either.

“Well the hell were you?” she says laughing.

Fran has an enormous, booming voice. So now on top of the rocking and spinning, there’s thunder. I don’t remember what I say. I manage to fall asleep.

The next day, I nurse a hangover the likes of which I had never and have never experienced in my life. Fran’s flight is ahead of mine so I end up wandering the streets of Brussels wishing I could die for a few hours before getting on the plane.

I have and will never drink vodka and Red Bulls ever again. Ever.

Not surprisingly, Red Bull always makes me think of vodka and Fran and vomiting in that Brussels’ hotel room tub while lying in it.

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