Years ago I spent 5 months living and studying in Saint Petersburg, Russia. It was a pretty awesome study abroad experience. As one might expect from Russia, drinking is a strong part of the daily life there. I don’t want to cast aspersions, but I would regularly see men drinking gin and tonic or vodka sodas from cans at the bus stop in the morning. Kiosks in my neighborhood sold things like newspapers, Snickers, cigarettes, and mixed drinks. Why not, right? It’s pretty darned cold in Saint Petersburg!
My host family didn’t make me drink at all, which was nice. One of my host brothers was always drunk and would get ideas in his head when he had been drinking. “Help me found a pyramid scheme!” “I want to copy an American Real Estate Website!” “Can you find this girl I knew from Pittsburgh in 1991 on Facebook?”
With my friends, however, we liked to drink from time to time! There were some decent bars where you could get all the flavors of Baltika or grab yourself a nice Nevskoe. We once went to a nice sit-down place where I ordered a white wine and wound up with a carrot milkshake. With pulp.
Usually if we wanted to drink, though, the cheapest option was to buy drinks from a shop and share them in a park or at someone’s home or wherever. God, that sounds really sketchy, doesn’t it?
When we bought alcohol from the shops, we tended to go cheap. You’d probably guess that we bought crappy vodka or watery beers or something. Nope! The cheapest drink was the ever-delicious, bubbly, fun Soviet Champagne.
Whenever we were hanging out, we would stop at the store and drop 3 USD on a bottle of champagne….each.
Once, when we were in Novgorod, we spent the evening having an excellent dinner at a built-into-the-wall restaurant at the old fortress. We sampled a lot of Medovuxa (Honey wine) and wandered out looking for something else to do.
Now, Novgorod isn’t exactly known for its vibrant nightlife. And so, after being stalked through a supermarket by some skinheads, we found ourselves drinking champagne by the bottle with Lenin in the main square.
A few months later, when winter was “over,” we attended a huge festival on the ice at Peter and Paul Fortress. It’s called Maslonitsa and is a celebration of the beginning of spring. They burn Old Woman Winter in effigy, reenact medieval battles, walk on tightropes, and sell all kinds of goodies from snacks to crafts to honeywine and mead!
Unfortunately all of those things are a bit pricey. We treated ourselves to some mead, but soon found ourselves short on money and alcohol. There was only one thing to do.
We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking our own champagnes on the ice as people reveled all around us. Eventually we took a little rest on some benches in the fortress before finding our way to a hot chocolate place and finishing off the day right. Really, you can never go wrong with Soviet Champagne!
Soviet Champagne is actually the particular brand. The story goes that while most sparkling wines have to call themselves “sparkling wine,” the Soviet Union bought the rights to the name “Champagne” from France. This allowed the USSR’s state brand of sparkling wine to be named after the Champagne region of France. Despite the ubiquity of Soviet Champagne in Russia, I’ve never found it here in Georgia. That is, until a few months ago.
One fine evening in November I was walking through the underpass with Jenni. We were planning on joining Morgan at the apartment for a movie and some wine. We popped into a little shop to pick something up. To my amazement, surprise, and delight, instead of wine, we found two bottles of Soviet Champagne on the shelf!
“How much is one bottle?” I asked.
“Can I have both???”
And that’s how we came to drink two bottles of Soviet Champagne that Friday. I was thrilled. I hadn’t had Soviet Champagne in years.
Everyone who had some really seemed to like it. Jenni is a big fan of champagne and, if I recall correctly, she liked the Soviet Champagne!
Now, as some of you might know, Jenni and I took a fantastic road trip across Northern Europe for New Year’s. We traveled from Warsaw through Germany, Luxembourg, France, and Belgium to get to Amsterdam. It took about 10 days and we rented a car for 7 of those.
We spent a lovely New Year’s Eve in Dresden with Pauli and his girlfriend Vivien. They had strongly recommended it to us over Berlin because it has some nice buildings, they are from there, and we could have a chill, not-too-stressful NYE. Boy were they right!
Right around midnight we headed out to the a bridge with amazing views over New Old Dresden. And, seeing as it was New Year’s, of course we had champagne.
We drank it down, from the bottle, and then proceeded to wander onward where we encountered a dance party on the bridge and got deafened by the incredible fireworks all around us.
After a few more days of cavorting about Germany, we said farewell to Pauli and Vivien and drove West.
Now, when we originally conceived of this adventure, we weren’t planning on going to France. It’s a bit further south than we intended on driving. But that fateful night in Tbilisi, while drinking Soviet Champagne, we had a burst of inspiration. “What if we drive to Champagne and drink champagne!!!!?!!?!??!!”
So we did.
We stopped overnight in Verdun to see some WWI trenches and put ourselves in the mood for champagne. The next morning, we drove into Reims to fulfill our destiny!
I have to say, Reims was a bit of a disappointment. While driving from Lorraine into Champagne, the roadside signs showed an immediate change. Rather than advertising historic sites, beautiful city centers, and churches, they began showing illustrations of vineyards and wine glasses. We were in Champagne, alright!
We got into Reims and eventually found a place to (illegally?) park by the Cathedral. There was a wine shop across the street and lots of cafes nearby, so we knew we were in business.
After an unsuccessful bid to exchange money and have some lunch, we were getting hungry and more than a little fed up with Reims. We bought sandwiches from a convenience store and prepared to eat in our car. But one thing remained: Champagne.
The shopkeep helped us find a nice reasonably priced bottle and so, with our champagne de Champagne in hand, we hit the road for Belgium.
A few days later, we found ourselves nearly stranded in the Hague. All the hotels were damned expensive and we seriously contemplated sleeping in the car. Like, we started gaming it out and making plans to do so. It was looking dicey.
Instead, however, we managed to talk our way into a nice deal at a lovely apartment along the beach. The hostess recommended some restaurants to us and we bought ourselves a pizza to bring back to the hotel. We spent the rest of the evening drinking champagne from Champagne and watching TV with a pizza. Sure, it might not have been terribly Dutch, but who can top pizza, TV, and authentic champagne?
Beats the heck out of Russian pizza and, dare I say it, Soviet Champagne!