“Jesus’s Mickey”

This is a true story that happened to me in Moscow a few months back. I don’t know why I haven’t written about it until now. All that I’ve changed is the names of the participants, apart from myself. For the record, despite the awkward situation I am about to describe, the evening as a whole was a lot of fun. Also, the reason for the title won’t become apparent until the end of the story

Earlier this year, an Irish exporter found a potential buyer at an annual event in Moscow. It was looking promising, so the importer invited the exporter, Damian, to go to dinner. Then Damian asked if I would like to go as well. I wasn’t comfortable at first, as I didn’t want to impose on discussions they might have, especially as the importer had not specifically invited me. I voiced my thoughts to Damian, who said it would be fine.

We went to the company office to meet with the importers, they gave us a tour of the place and then we went to the restaurant nearby.

At the restaurant, the CEO, Aziz, ordered the first of several large bottles of vodka, poured for everyone and things began to relax. Aziz was a fiery, emotional individual who gesticulated, and was clearly from the South (the Caucasus, most likely), given his name and the fact that he had much darker skin than regular Russians.

He dominated the conversation throughout the evening, telling lots of interesting stories about the company and about his work in the United States running health clinics before taking over as CEO at his current company. Whenever a bottle of vodka was emptied, he would simply order another and kept refilling our glasses.

All of a sudden, he veered off topic onto more political themes, such as gay marriage and the Russian interference in the US election. His rant about homosexuality went on far longer than I was comfortable with. Not because I don’t find societal or political topics interesting to discuss, or because his views were the absolute opposite of mine, but because of the way he was talking.

As he spoke, he grew more and more animated, to the point that he had stood up with his hands on the table, staring at me continually and at nobody else.

He was what one might describe as emphatically homophobic.

I generally don’t get offended easily, and was not offended then, but was more acutely aware of the fact that this was not the time for me to voice my true opinion on the matter; nor was it the time to get The Giggles, which was precisely what I could feel rising up.

It was a sensation reminiscent of my school days, when I would get The Giggles, even while the most terrifying teacher was yelling at me. The more they would shout, the more I would laugh. Church was even worse for that. You were not allowed to laugh and everyone around was wearing sombre expressions; therefore ANYTHING would make you laugh.

I bit my tongue very, very hard, but could still feel the corners of my mouth twitching.

‘I do not understand this whole gay thing and gays being allowed to marry in the West. It’s so completely weird! You understand that men and women were made by God to be together, not a man and a man or a woman and a woman. It’s written in all the holy books!’

I nodded. So did Damian, who kept his eyes averted.

‘It’s the same with magnets.’

At this, I feigned a coughing fit and sipped some water. I wanted to excuse myself to make a beeline for the bathroom, but I felt it’d be rude to interrupt.

‘A negative charge is not attracted to another negative charge and a positive charge is not attracted to a positive. Do you have a wife, John? Do you believe in God?’

‘Not a wife, a girlfriend.’ I said.

‘And where is she from?’

‘She’s from here.’

‘She’s Russian? Very good! And what about you, Damian?’ said Aziz, turning away from me, after what felt like an eternity.

‘My wife is German,’ said Damian.

‘Nobody’s perfect, I suppose,’ said Aziz.

I used this comment as an opportunity to finally release some of the laughter pent up and the atmosphere relaxed again. We drank more and he continued on the same topic, albeit more calmly, but he then asked me if I agreed with his views on the matter.

‘Do you agree with what I’ve said?’ he said, staring straight at me.

‘Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion,’ I replied.

The dinner was very good, and the conversation finally moved on to other topics, where Aziz would stand up again, gesticulating, but this time his attention was directed to Damian.

‘Damian, my friend! We are going to make a loooot of money!’ he said, arm around Damian’s shoulder, the other patting his chest. ‘I think we need to drink to this!’

So that was that. We all tipped out merrily into the freezing night, but even under the warming influence of about 8 or so vodkas, I was still very much aware of how close I had come to getting uncontrollable Giggles at the wrong time and place.

It reminded me of all those painful times in church as a kid/teen, such as the time in primary school, when my class was standing in a part of the church where the sun was shining down through the high windows, reflecting off my wristwatch.

‘Here,’ whispered my classmate, Woodsy, ‘shine it on Jesus’s mickey.’ He indicated the model of Jesus on the cross, which was overlooking the altar.

For non-Irish readers, “Mickey” is Irish slang for penis.

I duly reflected the light upon Jesus’s mickey and then the priest said:

‘And Jesus said, take this, this is my body.’

*Muffled snorts of laughter*

Iran – Part 2 (Moscow-Baku-Tehran)

‘The day John went to Iran,’ said my flatmate, Gweith (I call her that as an affectionate means of irritation), letting a characteristic chuckle and sipping some white wine.

‘Ha… ha… ha…’ I said.

It was the evening of the day of my failed attempt to leave Russia. I was in a slightly morose mood about missing the flight.

‘Well, at least you didn’t get stuck here for 7 months, like I did,’ said Gweith. That episode will never be forgotten. When compared to that, mine was a minor incident.

The next day, I was flying with Air Azerbaijan to Baku, where I would get a connecting flight to Tehran. The flight was uneventful, but I did see the Caspian Sea for the first time ever as we came in to land.

Baku international airport showed all the signs of wealth:

Bakuweb2_lightbox_photo_photo

With a couple of hours before my next flight, I strolled around for a little while, but as everything was ridiculously expensive I went and found a sofa to nap on. Woken sometime later, by my stomach groaning loudly, I gave in to the idea of buying an overpriced sandwich from the cafe.

It was when I was about to pay that I realised my wallet was missing. “Oh, you bloody plonker,” I thought.

*Dice Clattering* ‘Whooo! I told you I’d get him to lose his wallet!’

I looked sheepishly at the man behind the till and said ‘I’m sorry, but I seem to have lost my wallet.’

‘Your wallet?’ he asked. ‘Come with me, we’ll get it back.’

He called over a security guard and explained, speaking in rapid Azerbaijani. The guard turned to me.

‘Where did you last see it?’ he asked.

‘I think I must have left it on the plane, because I haven’t used it since then,’ I said. I was horribly aware of the fact that even if I did get it back, if the cash was gone I’d be stuck. Visa and MasterCard are useless in Iran because of sanctions.

‘Okay,’ he said, and radioed his colleagues. ‘Empty out your bags just to make sure you don’t have it.’

I already knew that it wasn’t there, but did his bidding. ‘What the fuck am I going to do?’ I thought.

At this point a bearded man in a business suit approached and spoke in Russian with an accent no less foreign than my own.

‘What’s the problem, gentlemen?’ The question was directed at the security guards.

‘A missing wallet,’ said the head security guard.

‘Oho, is that so?’ He turned and looked at me curiously. ‘Where are you heading to?’ he asked.

‘Tehran,’ I said.

‘I’m on that flight as well. What are you doing over there?’

‘Tourism, but I won’t be doing much if I don’t get my wallet back,’ I said.

‘Don’t worry about your wallet,’ he said. ‘If they don’t find it I can give you three hundred and fifty dollars to tide you over. How long are you going for?’

I was momentarily speechless. ‘Ten days,’ I said. ‘Thank you so much for the offer, but..’

‘Hmmmm…,’ he said, as though he had not heard. ‘Three hundred and fifty dollars should be enough if you’re just travelling around to see the sights. Intercity buses and accommodation are cheap. Iran is a beautiful country, you’re going to love it.’

‘That’s very kind of you,’ I said, putting my passport on the table alongside my other belongings, as I continued the search. ‘At least I didn’t lose my passport.’

‘Money is just paper, documents are the real gold, my friend,’ he said. ‘Where are you from?’

‘Ireland,’ I said. ‘And you?’

‘I’m from here. That’s why I couldn’t pin your accent,’ he said.

‘Yes, we have different accent, you could say. So what are you doing in Iran?’ I asked.

‘I’m there for a tourism trade show. That’s the sector I work in, but I’m also a dentist. Why don’t you pack your things away and we can get a coffee? We’ve still another forty five minutes until the flight.’

‘Well, if you don’t mind,’ I said, involuntarily adopting the typically Irish over-politeness.

‘If I minded I wouldn’t have offered,’ he said.

As we were having coffee, the security men approached us and handed me my wallet.

‘Count the money,’ said the head security guard.

I checked and everything seemed fine (the following day I would see that in fact one hundred euro had been taken, but I was so relieved to have gotten it back that I did not notice, nor would I have cared at that moment). I thanked the security guards and told my new, unexpected friend that if he was ever in Moscow, he’d be welcome to come for dinner or I could at least buy him a drink.

‘Oh, I do go to Moscow from time to time. My friends run a business in the Sokol district.’

‘That’s where I live,’ I said, ‘small world.’

‘Really? You should visit them, they run a large gym,’ he said.

As we went to board the flight, he handed me a business card and said ‘stay in touch.’ According to the card, his name was Hamed.

The flight from Baku was only an hour. I caught glimpses of Iranian towns illuminated below and could hardly believe where I was headed.

I made another new friend on the flight over. An Iranian business owner who told me he owned a factory that made foam, like the sort of stuff you see in sports halls, and that he was supplying a guy in Moscow.

‘I have lovely girlfriend in Moscow. Her name Svetlana,’ he said in broken English, showing me a picture of him with a tall redhead. ‘She very beautiful,’ he said unnecessarily.

Tehran_IKIA_at_NightImam Khomeini International Airport (Above)

Overall, it was a pleasant flight. There were a few curious glances thrown my way, as I was pretty much the only pasty, white tourist on the flight. When we landed (it was 23.30 local time), I said my goodbyes to my Baku friend, and made my way to the visa section. The visa took about half an hour to get and cost €60. The next task was to change hard currency into Iranian Rials. I went through the passport control without any problems, the border guard smiling, and saying’Welcome to Iran’ as he stamped my passport. This was such a stark contrast to the passport control experience of the previous day in Moscow.

It was when I entered the main area of the airport, glanced around for a currency exchange, that I heard a voice call my name. I turned and saw my bearded friend from Baku airport standing with a tall, slightly Asian looking man.

‘Neither of you speak the language, it’s late, so I thought we could all share a taxi into town. This is Marat, he’s also new here,’ he said, indicating his tall acquaintance.

We shook hands. Marat was from Kazan, in the Tatar region of Russia, and was visiting Tehran on a work trip. When I answered his question “Where are you from?” he said ‘I stayed up late to watch that Conor McGregor match, and all he gave me was thirteen seconds. He’s some fighter!’ It turned out that Marat had trained at karate for over ten years.

I exchanged some money and received a thick wad of large banknotes with Ayatollah Khomeini’s angry face on them.

iran3

Outside the main exit, we were immediately met by a group of taxi drivers and Hamed spoke Farsi with one, haggling over the price, or so I guessed.

The journey into Tehran took nearly an hour. I quickly learned that Iranians are crazy drivers, something that would become tattooed to the inside of my head during the trip.

Hamed was telling us about his work, and about the first time he went to Russia in the 90s with a couple of hundred dollars in his back pocket with the intention of doing business. I was taking in the surroundings, the Iranian flags, the billboards of the ayatollahs, as well as various landmarks. I was also carefully observing the traffic, its movements making me very aware of the fact that I had no seat belt.

‘I’m going to get out first,’ said Hamed, ‘then the driver will take Marat to his hotel, and then he’ll bring you to your friend’s place. He has the address.’ During the drive, he had obligingly rung my couch surfing host and got him to explain to the taxi driver where the apartment was.

We pulled in outside a hotel and Marat and I simultaneously reached for our wallets.

‘Don’t worry, lads, I’m taking care of the fare. Just stay in touch, alright?’

We got out, shook hands and thanked him profusely.

Marat got out next and we exchanged contact details and agreed to stay in touch.

Finally, we got to the apartment building of my couch surfing host. As I got out of the car, I heard a voice.

‘John! John!’ It was Alex (that’s what he wanted us to call him), my couch surfing host. ‘Hello!’

Iran – Departure, Part 1

Finally, after years of wanting to go to Iran, the time had come. The last time I had tried to go was 7 years ago, but I got called for jury service for the date I was supposed to leave. I also found out that the visa took too long to acquire in time before my flight.

Things have since changed. Irish citizens can now get an Iranian visa upon arrival in the airport for €60. For Russians it’s just as easy and will become easier as both governments are aiming for visa-free travel between the two.

Our planned itinerary was as follows: Tehran to Isfahan, Isfahan to Shiraz, Shiraz to Yazd, and Yazd to Tehran. Roughly 2000 kilometers in total.

Packing was a tight affair. Aside from my passport, I placed the camera and batteries as the most important articles, followed by underwear and socks. I double checked my passport and cash. They do not take Visa or Mastercard due to economic sanctions, so it’s cash only for tourists.

The big day came, I awoke all excited, danced merrily to KC and the Sunshine Band (Shake, Shake, Shake), and even decided to post boastfully on Facebook where I was going. Tell the world, like (loike, as they say in Dublin).

I met my travel companion, Denis, and we went to Domodedovo airport to the far south of Moscow. We had a leisurely lunch, I even had a last beer, and then we went to the passport control.

Domodedovo-585

The first sign that all was not well was when dark, ominous wrinkles of confusion spread across the burly border guard’s forehead, like a storm growing larger and larger over the horizon.

‘Is everything alright?’ I asked, in a would-be friendly, yet anxious voice. Mr Burly (I’ll call him that) shook his head curtly and continued staring at the multi-entry visa in my passport, which I’d proudly handed him.

‘Ey, Seryozh, come here a second!’ he called to his colleague.

A surly border guard (Mr Surly) came over.

‘What?’ he asked.

‘Look at this,’ said Mr Burly.

The ominous wrinkles of confusion and then comprehension migrated to the vast plateau of Mr Surly’s forehead.

‘What’s the problem, gentlemen?’ I asked.

No answer. Denis watched anxiously from the other side of the barrier as they began to scan the pages of my passport, one after the other.

‘Do you realize that your visa doesn’t come into effect until February 25th?’ asked Mr Surly.

It was February 15th. Three weeks before, I’d handed over my single entry visa and had been issued a multi-entry. The date of issue said 25-01-2016, but the date of authorisation had been set at 25-02-2016 (It should have been 25-01-2016). This was a simple clerical error and very difficult to notice. However this error meant that I had been in Russia, technically without a visa, for three weeks. Mr Surly didn’t hesitate to point this out.

‘Do you realize you’ve been here without a visa for three weeks?’ he asked.

‘Fuuuuuuuck,’ was my first thought.

At this point, Denis intervened.

‘Guys, what’s the problem? You know, our flight is boarding now, we need to hurry.’

‘Well, your friend isn’t going to make it. Come with me,’ said Mr Surly.

Not fully understanding what was happening, I had visions of being stuck in Russia without a visa because of a bureaucratic hiccup. This happened to my flatmate, who was stuck here for 7 months.

Fortunately, the problem was simple enough to rectify, but there was no way I would make the flight on time.

Denis had to run to the gate, so I tried to hand him the various things I thought one might need on a trip: batteries, chocolates for couch surfing hosts, anti-diarrhoea tablets…

‘Just give me the hand sanitizer,’ he said. We said a hasty goodbye and he ran for it. I sat outside an office weighing up my options as I waited for them to come back with my passport.

The last attempt to go to Iran was haunting me again. The gods, as Terry Pratchett has so often mentioned in his Discworld series, like to play dice with the lives of mortals. At that moment, I imagined a rolling of dice.

‘Damn, clerical error. I was rolling for deportation,’ said one god.

‘Triple six? That’s a long shot,’ said his opponent. *Clattering of dice*

‘Double sixes. That discounts your roll, but you get a re-roll in the next round.’

‘Bugger. Well, it’s not over. With a re-roll I might try and get him to do something silly, like lose his wallet.’

The consul returned with my passport.

‘I am very sorry that you missed your flight, but I honestly couldn’t do the visa any faster than 20 minutes.’

He was very genuine. Nothing could be done about it, and I was led back through security to the main part of the airport.

‘Good luck, and once again I’m sorry you missed your flight,’ said the consul.

‘Be sure to check your papers properly, next time,’ said Mr Surly, ‘you just never know with these things.’

‘I will,’ I said.

So, I was still in Moscow and Denis was flying to Tehran. I’d already taken leave from work, so there was no point in wasting it. I went straight to the Internet café in the airport and found *clattering of dice – ‘Yesssss!’* a return ticket for the following day to Tehran via Baku, Azerbaijan.

 

Russian Vodka – an infusion of fruit and madness

Sometimes – actually, quite often – I find myself lying in bed in the middle of the night wondering when I’ll go to sleep. It’s not insomnia. It’s this thing called ‘pottering about’. This is a very broad title, as ‘pottering about’ can include a multiple of things: from washing the dishes, reading, hanging up clothes, to cooking; or bottling up plum-infused black market medicinal alcohol that you’ve just tasted a spoon of but are afraid to drink any more for fear of losing your eyesight.

It’s at that point that that thought stays with you and you must google the effects of methanol on humans.

The result is a panicked rummaging through the food cabinet to find that little box of baking soda which apparently helps to counter the effects of methanol on the system. Anyway, I am not blind, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. I am also now digressing.

You might ask ‘How did you get your hands on black market medicinal alcohol, JJ?’

In one of my previous posts some months ago, I recounted a conversation I had with a friend while walking the forest outside Moscow:

“‘So what are we going to do with the plums, put them in vodka?’

‘We can get pure alcohol for that. It’s way cheaper and better than vodka. Give them two months or so and they’ll make a really nice drink.’

‘How much is a bottle of pure alcohol?’

‘It starts at 800 Rubles for 5 litres.’

‘So why don’t homeless people drink it?’

‘I guess that’s still kind of pricey for them.’

‘Are you sure we won’t go blind from it?’

‘No, trust me, it’s not that kind of alcohol. This is cleaner than the vodka you get in the shops. Also, we add water to it, obviously.'” (voodoohamster.com/2015/11/28/russia-a-walk-in-the-woods/)

The plums we’d picked on our walk were not fit for eating. However, they were perfectly good for infusing pure alcohol diluted with water and we put them into the freezer until we had that very necessary ingredient.

One evening, a week or two after that conversation and following my friend’s directions, I found myself in a distant Moscow suburb on the east side of the city about 12 kilometres from the centre, close to the main ring road (MKAD). It being a district I’d never visited, I typed the address into google maps on my phone and duly followed it for about 15 minutes. The building in which the seller apparently lived was one of many identical high rises, so as I stood in the courtyard I dialled the number and waited. A woman answered.

‘Hello?’

‘Er, are you the person selling the alcohol?’

‘Yeah, which one do you want? I have…’ and she rapidly listed off a bunch of names I don’t remember.

‘I’m looking for the Luks 5 litre. It’s 1100 Rubles, right?’

‘Aha,’ she said. ‘Just one?’

‘Yes, just one.’

‘Where are you standing?’ she asked.

‘Near entry two to building 6,’ I said.

‘What are you wearing?’

‘A black coat with a hood,’ I said.

‘Everyone wears those,’ she replied. ‘What else are you wearing?’

‘I have a big empty shopping bag in my hand,’ I said, helpfully.

‘I asked you what else you’re wearing, not what you’re holding,’ she replied.

‘Jeans. Everyone wears those, too.’

‘Okay, someone will be down shortly,’ she said, and hung up.

So I waited, staring expectantly at the two entrances nearest to me.

After several minutes tall thin man in jeans, a hat and a leather jacket appeared from round the corner of the building, carrying a large plastic bag in his hand. He walked with slightly hunched shoulders.

‘Luks?’ he said.

‘Yep, that’s me,’ I replied.

‘Eleven hundred,’ he said.

I took the bag, he counted the money, and we both parted.

So now, two months later, that very same alcohol has been infused with wild plums but I probably won’t drink it. It’ll just sit on the shelf looking pretty with its dark purple colour.

I texted pictures of the bottles to my friends in our whatsapp group. One of the replies was as follows:

‘Bathed rats are grumpy rats. (he has three pet rats)

*picture of wet rats*

They even sulk when you try to dry them. But give them cold pasta… and they’ll be your friend in no time. No rats were harmed in the creation of this sideshow.

Also Jonjo, you are getting far too used to Russian culture. One of the key differences we have noticed is that you are not stopping to ask “is what I am doing retarded?” any more.’

 

infused vodka

You know you want to