The squat old lady standing in the entrance to the café in Saint Petersburg was blowing cigarette smoke out of her nose. She had thick glasses and gave off an air of running the place. In fact, she gave off an air of having run it since the Brezhnev era. I had missed lunch and was starving. I asked her if the restaurant was open. She said, “Da.” I asked her if she had solyanka—a Russian soup that I like to order because . . . em . . . well, because it’s about the only thing I know how to order in Russian. When she said, “Da” again, I had to go in; I would have been jerking her around otherwise.
She shouted two words at the young man behind the bar. One was solyanka. The other must have been the Russian word for lamebrain. He disappeared into the kitchen. She, meanwhile, put a bottle of water on the table where she’d just seated me and stepped behind a door. I heard her mounting a staircase, and I didn’t see her again.
Suddenly I was all alone in this overheated, silent café at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, listening to the tap drip. It was an experience I have had dozens of times, but not in many years—that of dashing into a place for a quick bite and realizing that your soup is going to be ready in 45 minutes, not 5. Saint Petersburg has been incompletely globalized. The city is full of matryoshka-doll and lacquer-box shops that serve to separate foreigners from their money, but it doesn’t otherwise exist to accommodate their whims.
Thirty years ago, to a degree no contemporary traveler could appreciate, every place in the world was like this. Preoccupation with making things “convenient” for travelers used to be an American peculiarity. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there used to be (outside of the United States) no such thing as a quick one. In almost any country in Europe or Latin America, you could get food that was as cheap as American food. You could most certainly get food that was as bad as American food. What you could not get was food that was as fast as American food. Many an afternoon that American tourists had expected to spend looking at the ruins of Paestum was spent instead waiting two hours for a bad bowl of French onion soup at a promising-looking place a block from the railway station. Europeans savor their food. We often forget that this includes their bad food.
Finding convenience where no one saw fit to provide it used to be two-thirds of the trick of traveling. As such, it was a marketable skill. I spent the first couple of years of my career as a travel writer. I traveled to foreign cities, drew up lists of the things a person ought to see there, and recommended a handful of hotels and restaurants that wouldn’t waste your time or steal your money.
The job-description “travel writer” makes the work sound more glamorous than it actually was. Prose-writing was involved, but it was of a formulaic kind that I hope has left no trace on my later style. Travel writers of my sort never used the word “have” when they could say boast or sport. There was nothing so awful that it couldn’t be boasted or so unpleasant that it couldn’t be sported. Palermo could “boast” a high crime rate, and Leipzig could “sport” some of Eastern Europe’s ugliest architecture. Generally all these observations would be bundled together in the “land of contrasts” format. It could be applied to any country or geographical location, no matter how uniform:
From the [name a natural landmark near the northern border] to the [natural landmark farther south], from the pulsing nightlife of [name a good place to get mugged] to the tranquil pace of [name some backwater], [insert country here] is a land of contrasts.
The “land of contrasts” format bears a certain resemblance to President Obama’s “everyone in the world” format, as I was reminded when listening to his energy speech the other night. Never say “High gas prices are bad” when you can say:
High gas prices are bad, folks—they’re bad for folks like our sisters and our mothers, our fathers and our brothers, for folks like our children. They’re bad for folks like our children’s children and our children’s children’s folks, our caregivers and our first responders, our doctors and nurses and folks who farm and firemen and policemen and all those folks who have answered the call to . . .
My solyanka came in about half an hour. It was not bad. It boasted stewed pork and sported boiled cabbage, and from the bite of pepper to the smoothness of butter, from the delicacy of carrots to the robustness of onions, it was a soup of contrasts. Highly recommended.