Published at the beginning of this year in the U.S., The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Riding the Iron Curtain, by the British writer Tim Moore, tells the story of his bicycle trip from the top of Europe, 400 kilometers above the Arctic Circle in Kirkines, Norway, all the way down to the Black Sea, in Varna, Bulgaria. En route he passes through a slice of Russia, skirting the Baltic Sea between the Finnish and Estonian borders, and finds himself outside St. Petersburg, ordering dinner in the town of Гостилицы, aka Gostilitsy.
I hope Mr. Moore won’t mind my excerpting this episode at some length. This passage by itself is worth the price of the book:
“The ordering process was memorably conducted by Tatiana, who dictated the Russian menu into a translation app on her phone. With the halting, toneless authority of a digitised train announcer, this device then offered me suggestions it was very difficult to listen to politely.
‘Meat Beach Gardens.’
‘Tea Pork with JW Boils.’
‘The Sultan Episode.’
Tatiana’s enthusiasm for this technology did not ease the ordeal; battling my features into respectability, I looked up at her open, expectant face and falteringly ordered support beef with titles of mushroom. She smiled and scribbled, then spoke once more into her phone.
‘What is not a drink?’ it mused in response.
‘Pivo,’ I said.
With a flustered look she shook her head and a free hand, then held the phone to my mouth promptingly.
‘Pivo,’I told it.
The device said something in Russian that seemed to disappoint her. She pressed the screen a number of times then showed me its suggestions, translated back into English:
‘You knew. Pencil case. Peugeot.’
We tried again.
‘Beer,’ I said.
‘Bill,’ offered the phone. Then: ‘Pace of the warp.’
‘Heineken!’ I blurted, launching into a strident roll-call of ales that began with Champions League-grade ubiquities and very very sharply downwards, ‘Amstel, Budweiser … Skol … Carling Black La-’
Reminds me of an experience in Tibet, recounted in Common Sense and Whiskey. At the end of another bone-jarring day-long ride we pulled up at the town of Lhaze, at a no-name hotel that wouldn’t have power until 8:00 that night.
“Not much use being there unable to see, so we found a restaurant across the street where there was power, and talked with some men from Guangdong on their way to China’s Everest base camp for holiday.
We asked for cold beer and one of the guys tried to translate. The waitress looked puzzled, was gone too long, then came back smiling triumphantly, buckling under a big metal tub of raw meat. Thought we asked for ‘cold beef.'”