Last Wednesday, my first night in Kaliningrad, I went the “London” pub. Brazil had just beaten Serbia 2-0 and I was in the middle of English, Australian, Brazilian and Russian people talking about football.
I was travel worn.
England’s previous game was in Nizhny Novgorod on the Sunday. I got the train back from there to Moscow and, around midnight, caught the sleeper to Vitebsk in Belarus. Opening the door to the compartment I found a man sitting on his bed in his underpants and two others already asleep. Not much scope for conversation.
In Vitebsk I had a good time with a friend who I’d there met on a previous visit.
I’d told him I’m planning a reconstruction of the battle of the Ula river (1564), in which the Lithuanians defeated Ivan the Terrible’s Muscovites. It looks close to Vitebsk on google maps but is actually 90 km away. We drove out through the flat, cultivated Belarussian countryside. Two ladies from the local city government took us to the battle site and showed us, on the land, how it happened. We talked about how in Britain, we denote the end of the first world war, with red poppies. In Belarus they denote the end of the second, with green and red, the national colours representing apples. In Russia, the same with orange and black.
Back in Vitebsk, we ate herring and sprats and drank beer and vodka on the sunny/rainy terrace of a bar looking over the river Dvina. Inside, people watched the hitherto triumphant Russian team losing 3-0 to Uruguay.
I learned that school summer holidays in Belarus last three months, from June to August. The next day I noticed several groups of young people out painting and drawing, including these on the banks of the river Dvina.
On Tuesday afternoon I caught the train from Vitebsk to Orsha, a couple of hours away.
When I was young there was a television programme about which I remember nothing but the name: The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club.
In this picture, taken as we left Vitebsk, the wagon is moving slowly, under gravity, from left to right. I wonder if the man in the high visibility jacket, with a tool, is a shunter.
And in this picture, taken in Orsha, the man with a tool was certainly tapping the wheels of the train on which we had just arrived.
At Orsha I walked away from the magnificent station down what seemed to be the main street looking for a café or restaurant. I found only a karaoke bar; a covered terrace in which sat people selling fresh vegetables; and a pair of golden lions that announced not the Chinese restaurant I imagined but a door shop.
So I came back to the café next to the station, where a pair of middle aged short haired blonde women offered 20 or 30 types of beer, a warm welcome and blini which unfortunately – as I don’t eat meat – came stuffed with sausage.
On the toilet door it said out of order but when I said do you have a toilet, they opened it for me.
Still with time before the train, I went to a coffee counter in the station. I found a dozen people watching Argentina-Nigeria. All except me supported Argentina, who won and went through. At one point a big, chiselled man went out, handing his newspaper to a much smaller man in camos. I thought he’d gone; but in 10 minutes he came back, presumably after a cigarette, and reclaimed his property from his newspaper-bearer.
Finally I went further into the dark station. At the waiting room I asked for a beer. Small or large? Oh, large I think. Do you really want a two-litre bottle, then, not the small one-litre kind?
At half midnight I picked up the train from Moscow to Kaliningrad. In the compartment a kindly Russian couple – who told me in the morning that they were off for a week’s holiday at the beach near Kaliningrad – helped me sort myself out.
Kaliningrad is an enclave of Russian territory that you can come to on land only through Poland or Lithuania. Our train reached the Belarus/Lithuania border at five. We had to sit on our beds holding our documents and looking awake, yet submissive, until six. The fourth person in the compartment, a largish man, appeared only for this episode.
Kaliningrad is a big, spread out city. The train pulls in to the south station. Hotel Smile turned out to be kilometres away to the north.
First I watched the afternoon football in the Old Pirate pub on Lenin Street. When South Korea beat Germany there was a little round of clapping.
I didn’t want to walk. I didn’t want to get a taxi. But there wasn’t a tram, and I find buses in post-Soviet cities hard going. They have minibuses – marshrutkas – which I think originated as shared taxis like those you find in places like Freetown. It is true that here they seem to have been incorporated in the formal bus system – the bus stop has two maps, one for large buses and one for small. Still, I was proud of myself when I jumped on board the no. 63 marshrutka to Prospekt Mira. Less proud, as we drew away, when I realised I had failed in my responsibility, as the last boarding passenger, to close the door.
Here in the London pub, watching Serbia-Brazil, I supported Serbia as if it was natural. I thought the men next to me along the bar were just supporting Brazil to be annoying. It turned out that half of them were Brazilian, giving them a reasonable excuse. At half time Ronaldinho’s goal against England at the World Cup in 2002 was recalled.
My question (based on this scientific sample of three games): is the neutrals’ favourite always Brazil; Argentina; and anyone-but-Germany? If so, why?