Covid Counter Culture
Last year, nearly to the date, someone jokingly asked me if I thought that flapper dresses and other 1920's iconic things would make a comeback in the 2020s. Being someone who is obsessed with different parts of history, I found the idea enticing. However, I truly never thought that I would find myself drinking in a legitimate speakeasy.
I had made plans to meet with a friend of mine, who I hadn't seen in a while. I had been secluding myself in my apartment for the last several days, so I was happy to get out into the world.
It was a cold December day, the day before New Year's Eve, and I called a taxi to avoid the frigid air. Initially, we planned to meet up in the nearby park and grab a beer, but my friend, Nikita, decided we should try another place.
I got out of the taxi in the district of Sololaki. It's an area in the city that I happen to like a lot for its traditional architecture. I shot Nikita a quick text saying I was in the area but quickly discovered that I had gotten the time wrong and was an hour early (Damn my Americanness for always confusing military time). It wasn't an issue. Recently, the government had taken the initiative to rehab this part of Tbilisi and I wanted to walk around and check it out. Construction had slowed down a lot since the pandemic but I hadn't been out this way in a while, so I decided to take a walk around. There was a glow of Christmas everywhere, as this is an orthodox country; the holiday hadn't even officially started yet.
It was a bitter-sweet feeling looking at the buildings with holiday decorations above mostly closed shops and bars. The cold wind started to sting my face, and I was very glad when I got a text from Nikita, saying he had just arrived.
I walked back towards our meeting place where I found him smoking a cigarette outside of a small door.
"Are you ready for an illegal beer?" he asked.
"I think so," I said as he rang the doorbell to what looked like a street-level entrance to someone's apartment.
We stood there for a minute, and then, like a scene out of a movie, a rectangular peephole slid open to the side; a pair of eyes looked at us and then beyond us. The rectangular hole slammed shut, and the door was opened just wide enough for us to squeeze in one at a time. Lo and behold, it was a fully operational bar inside with a lovely familiar feeling about it. It was oddly quiet at first. However, the second the door closed behind us, the music turned back up, and the sound of chatter reentered the room.
We took our seats at the bar. The bartender recognized both of us and came over.
"Haven't seen either of you since the fish bbq," he exclaimed in a thick Russian accent.
We reminisced about times before the lockdown and then asked what we were drinking.
"Just two beers," I said.
"Anything to eat?" We have some herring.
"Soviet-style?" I asked.
"You know it, but without the mayo. More traditional Russian."
"I'll have that then."
"Cool, comes with potatoes and onions and... you will want a vodka with that."
I looked around the room. It appeared to be comprised mostly of the Russian community as the melodic language dominated most of the airspace around me. Also, everyone in the room was smoking heavily. I guess there isn't much concern for smoking bans when your business is entirely outside the law.
I have no idea what the fine would be like if this operation were to be discovered by the police, but I would imagine it would be rather hefty. However, the risk, in general, is part of what makes it exciting.
I got up to go to the bathroom. The strong smell of weed caught my nostrils as I walked in. The man walking out looked at me, looked around him, and then reached into his jacket pocket and produced a pipe carved out of a smooth stone.
"Want a puff?" he asked.
"Why not," I said, knowing fully that that covid is a perfectly good reason as to why not, but for me, these simple acts of sharing small gifts like this with strangers is so good for the soul that I couldn't refuse.
"Thanks so much, man," I said as I handed him back the pipe.
I returned to my stool at the counter to enjoy my fish and potatoes and numerous shots of vodka. We nerded out about new cameras and one in particular that Nikita recently acquired. There was a bit of mirth shared at my expense over the last time I tried to impress Russians with my "drinking abilities."
"I won't be attempting that again tonight," I said. "I still haven't seen Sveta since then because I was too embarrassed."
"I wouldn't worry about it," he said with a smile. "You just became Russian for a minute."
"What are your plans for New Year's?" I asked.
"I will be taking the new camera the streets of Tbilisi around to capture the night.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang. A hush, like the one Niki and I were greeted to, fell over the bar. Nikita, in jest, dove under the bar top and hid behind his stool. As soon as the music was cut, the doorman walked over to check on the new arrival. There was a small pang of worry in me, but my fears were erased, as I saw that I knew the guys who were joining the scene.
As more people continued to join, I began to start wondering if I should stay. I had already pushed my luck sharing a pipe in the bathroom, and it was starting to get more and more crowded.
It annoyed me that the pandemic controls us in this way, but it's two sides of self-preservation at work on a night like this. The need to stay physically safe versus the need for human interaction. I was grateful that I could spend a night like this with good people and grateful that I am well. I wished everyone around me a very happy new year.
"Are you coming back tomorrow for a party?" The bartender asked me.
"I'll think about it," I said.
Knowing fully what that meant, he responded,
"Than I guess I'll see you next year," With an exaggerated wink.
Photo Credit to Nikita @alf_from_alps *