“Sorry, can’t do it,” said my friend in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. “I don’t take pictures.”
“Are you serious?” I said in disbelief.
“I’m Asian, and the stereotype is that we take pictures of everything,” he said. “I don’t want to be a stereotype.”
Earlier that day, I suggested several acclaimed restaurants for dinner, and my same friend said he would only eat at McDonald’s unless cute single ladies were involved. A good friend and a good travel partner are not always the same thing, and our second argument of the day prompted us to go our separate ways in Moscow. I had to start playing charades to get stern-faced Russians to take my picture, but the string of embarrassing requests produced a twist I did not expect.
“You want me to take your picture?” asked a perplexed twenty-something woman.
“You speak English? That is amazing,” I stammered. “Yes, please.”
“Okay, stand there,” she said. “No, not there, a meter to your right. Turn slightly, and smile… but don’t smile that much. You’re showing too much teeth.”
Did I just ask the Russian Annie Leibovitz to take my picture?_
“There you go,” she said, returning my camera. “My name is Julia.”
Julia was a Moscow native who learned English in the university and camera angles as a model.
“Julia, nice to meet you, my name is David,” I said flexing every charm muscle I had. “I have a dinner reservation at Gallerie tonight. Would you like to join me?”
She did not smile. She did not flirt. After a cold once over, she replied in a robotic tone, “I will join you.” She sounded like a female Ivan Drago.
The night before, I met an acquaintance of a friend at a Swedish restaurant/bar called Night Flight. Instead of providing local recommendations, the designer suit-wearing fifty-something American bragged about preying on young actresses in Los Angeles and said he only moved to Moscow after learning a guy with a little money could score with young Russian women. He sought to take advantage of the instability that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse.
“See the girls at the bar,” he said over a bowl of Swedish meatballs he made me buy. “They’re all professionals. I have taken a lot of girls out of here, but I’ve been with the same girl now for about six years. She’s about to finish graduate school.”
I would have made a Lolita joke if I thought this asshole had ever read a book, but instead I spent the next hour overwhelmed by the idea that he basically had us meet up at a whorehouse. Still, he eventually did say something of note. He explained that, as of 2006 when this trip happened, a Moscow girl was more likely to con an American than actually hook up with him. His comment about cons stuck with me as Julia and I started to hang out.
During my 10 days in the Russian capital, I split my time between two iconic hotels: The National, where Vladimir Lenin stayed during repairs to the Kremlin, and Metropol, where scenes from Dr. Zhivago were filmed. Julia met me at The National, and we walked to Gallerie, a trendy restaurant/bar in the city center that guidebooks now call Cafe Gallery. After a few drinks and appetizers, Julia dropped the first culture bomb on me.
“Why do you drink vodka?” she asked.
“I love vodka,” I said, “and Russia has amazing vodkas we don’t have in the United States.”
Back home, I loved to pair Grey Goose or Jean-Marc XO with sparkling VOSS, but I knew to drink vodka neat in Russia. Plus, I was ordering Kauffman, a luxury vodka with vintage bottles, so I was surprised by her disapproval.
“You shouldn’t,” she said sternly. “Vodka is the cheapest alcohol in Russia, and drinking it is a sign of lower social status. Classy people don’t drink vodka.”
“What would be a classy drink?” I asked.
“Jack Daniel’s,” she said without a hint of irony.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I laughed. “I’m going to stick with vodka.”
“Do you want to know the new cocktail everyone’s drinking?” she countered. “Absinthe and Red Bull.”
“That was all you had to say,” I countered. “Please order me one of those.”
When I was an adolescent, President Reagan made me fear the Evil Empire, and the 1983 film The Day After scared the crap out of me with scenes of a post-nuclear war America. Facing my Cold War anxieties made Moscow a desirable adventure as an adult, and Julia helped me do just that as we spent the week visiting churches, landmarks and restaurants. By the second day, she started to smile and laugh freely, so I had to ask why Russians often seem so cold.
“Why do Russians always seem so serious?” I asked after sitting down at the iconic Cafe Pushkin. “For example, why are you smiling now but not before?”
“I smile because I know you,” she said. “Why would I smile before?”
“To be friendly.”
“That is the thing about you Americans,” she responded. “You smile for no reason at all. We see you walking down the street, and we think you are a crazy person. The only people who smile at everyone are the insane and the Americans.”
She then added that people did not smile in public as a way to avoid unwanted attention from law enforcement, especially in Soviet times. Their serious public demeanors eventually became the social norm after many decades of such behavior.
Several more days passed, and we continued to explore the city. Instead of catching taxis, Julia merely raised her hand on the street, and regular cars stopped to negotiate a price to take us where we wanted to go. It was as if Russia created the Uber prototype. During this time, I kept a watchful eye on my wallet, cash and passport, but by now I knew Julia wasn’t running a con. Still, I wanted to learn more about what I had feared.
“I had dinner with an American living in Moscow on our first night, and he told me that girls run cons on American tourists,” I said over lunch at a sushi restaurant called Pyramid. “How does this work?”
Without missing a beat, Julia explained, “Americans show up thinking young women will fuck them just because they have money. Men always offer to buy a drink or take you to whatever restaurant, and many girls have deals set up where they take a percentage of whatever the man spends. The bars always overcharge the man since he is not going to argue about the bill in front of the girl, especially if he thinks he has a chance to have sex with her later.”
“That is brilliant,” I said.
“The girl will try to get the man to spend a lot of money, and then all he gets is a kiss on the cheek at the end of the night,” Julia continued. “Sometimes they can string together several nights and make good money.”
“How do you know if a girl is running a con?”
“She smiles at you,” Julia explained. “We already talked about this. If you don’t know the girl and she’s smiling at you, it is not good. You need to be careful.”
I suddenly felt better about her cold demeanor on the day we first met.
On my final day in Moscow, Julia and I said goodbye, and I reconnected with my American friend who seemed down in the dumps. I asked what happened, and I couldn’t believe his answer.
“I spent $500 on lunch with this girl, and she didn’t even give me a kiss,” he said bitterly.
“A Russian girl? How did you meet her?” I asked.
“I met her in a bar,” he said. “She was smiling at me.”
After that, I couldn’t help but smile, too.
Image: Din Muhammad Sumon, CC-BY
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.