When Anna came down for breakfast on Tuesday 12th May, she found the room more crowded than was usual for half past eight. She showed her card marked ‘Buffet’ to the woman on duty, helped herself to fruit juice and looked for an empty table. She had to go right over by the wall to find one, and as she walked to it she overheard an old chap say, in tones used to carrying over a golf course, ‘So there are about fifty whatnots to the pound, are there?’ ‘Ah,’ she thought, ‘It’s a party of Brits. That’s why the room’s so full.’
Anna had been staying at the Okhtinskaya Hotel on the north bank of St Petersburg’s Neva river since the beginning of the month, using it as her base while she collected research material – or at least went visiting museums and palaces – in connection with a book she had been commissioned to write on Catherine the Great. She had chosen the Okhtinskaya because it was reasonably priced, boasted wonderful views of the Smolny Cathedral on the other side of the river and, unlike most of the other hotels in St Petersburg (apart from the really expensive ones), it had been possible to book it over the internet at the time when she had started fixing the trip. It wasn’t a bad place; Anna’s room was comfortable though rather chilly when the weather turned cold as it had during that second week in May (the first week, up to and including Victory Day on the 9th had been blissfully hot) and there was indeed a splendid view of the Smolny – unfortunately it was currently encased in scaffolding. Anna could see the river from her own window, with the occasional tourist boat, lit up at night, moving slowly along it, and beyond the river the television tower, also illuminated at night, though the lights came on later and later as the days grew rapidly longer and the white nights approached. The setting sun shone directly into her room; last night this had been at about ten o’clock.
And on the whole it was a quiet hotel – or it had been, until the groups started to arrive. One morning the previous week Anna had been suddenly woken at seven o’clock by shrieking and banging from a little way down the corridor. At first she thought the noise was coming from the chambermaids’ room – they had their own bolt-hole a few doors down from Anna’s where they kept various supplies and had their tea and coffee breaks – and she imagined that perhaps they had found a mouse or even bedbugs, as all readers of Russian literature had been led to expect. But the yelling and shrieking, combined with running up and down, seemed to go on for ages and it wasn’t only girls’ voices. Anna kept waiting for someone in authority to intervene, but no one seemed to. She could hear phones ringing, which made her think perhaps somebody was trying to control them, but it made no difference. And then they started banging on doors – and not with discreet taps, but thunderously. Anna now began to wonder whether there was an emergency in the hotel – fire, flood or the escape of a wild animal perhaps – or whether this was a gang of marauding criminals, the sort you were warned about on overnight trains. When someone hammered on her own door, she leapt out of bed and put her dressing gown on, but didn’t open the door. Instead, as the noise still showed no sign of abating – and it had now been going on continuously for half an hour – she tried to work out which number to call in the hotel’s telephone directory. There was nothing as obvious as ‘Reception’ listed. ‘Administration’ had a number to call from outside the hotel, but no internal number and ‘Hotel Police’ sounded a bit drastic. She decided to dial 800, the number given for ‘Porter’ and ‘Taxi’ and asked the person who answered: ‘What is going on on the sixth floor?’ After being asked to repeat the question and adding some details about there being a lot of noise, she got the laconic reply: ‘Oh, it’s a group of children. I’m sorry – I’ll tell them.’ The ‘group of children’ who all looked about twelve or thirteen stayed on the sixth floor – in virtually every room apart from her own – for the next 48 hours. Apart from the noise which broke out whenever they were present – making it impossible for Anna to hear the television in her own room – and their tendency to run along the balcony connecting most of the rooms on the floor, they had a disconcerting penchant for communal dressing, which they carried out in the corridor. In her more charitable moments, Anna wondered if they were children from disadvantaged backgrounds on a special outing and unused to staying in hotels, never having been taught the correct behaviour. The rest of the time she thought what little brats they were and how little hope they held out for the future of Russia. Their teacher, if such she was, made only occasional appearances which were mostly ineffectual. And when she tried to make a child hurry up, she shouted as loudly as the rest of them. Once when someone hammered yet again on her own door – they seemed to bang on them all indiscriminately – she heard another child say ‘There’s no one in that one.’ ‘Oh yes, there sodding well is,’ she thought.
These were the noisiest, but any group brought its quota of noise. After the Russian children, there was a group of Swedes and then, on Victory Day of all days, a small but vocal group of Germans arrived. They were much given to card-playing in the bar and then to saying goodnight loudly to one another in the corridor, but could not be said to be really disturbing. There had been one small group of English people Anna had noticed at breakfast – and a group of American students on a long stay – but this large group of upper-crust English was something new.
At the table alongside her sat an elderly woman facing a slightly younger one. As her ears tuned in to the conversation, she heard ‘He was never much of a one for breakfast.’ ‘Ah,’ she thought, ‘the archetypal widow.’ Sure enough, when she next caught a few words they were ‘They like to keep in touch with me, because…’ – the children and the grandchildren, no doubt, the grandmother’s pride in them and determination to make excuses – ‘They’re so busy’, ‘He’s very well thought of in the office’, ‘She did very well in her exams’ – for the fact that they don’t keep in touch with her as much as she would like.
Anna watched as various members of the English party negotiated their way around the buffet. A Russian buffet breakfast did undoubtedly take some getting used to. On entry you had to show your breakfast entitlement card – your room key wouldn’t do – to the woman on door duty, who would circle your room number on a large computer print-out. Then you helped yourself to fruit juice, and selected somewhere to sit, before returning to the tables spread with food to choose what you wanted. And here the problems began, for one was presented with many things no British person would normally choose for breakfast. There were plates of cheese slices – some over-processed – and cold meats and sausage, which were more or less to be expected, though there were some rather strange varieties of sausage, one of which Anna had dubbed ‘pea cake’ and hadn’t tried twice. There was generally cereal on offer – though not always recognisable as such – and kasha, which sometimes looked like porridge but more often like semolina – and in the centre of the table was an array of dishes containing unexpected food, such as grilled vegetables, potato salad, cole slaw, sweetcorn, cucumber, beans and gherkins. There were piles of boiled eggs – semi-soft and semi-warm, and hot dishes containing lukewarm frankfurters, surprisingly edible fried eggs, pancakes filled sometimes with curd cheese, other times with meat, and meatballs. Sometimes there was another substance – it looked like solid wedges of scrambled egg containing sultanas – which Anna thought of as ‘fried cake’. She found that rather unpalatable, though rather liked the pancakes and accompanying fried egg. On a side table were bread rolls of various sorts – many of them unexpectedly sweet – and an array of usually rather stale croissants and pastries. Then, most surprisingly to the non-Russians in the hotel, were the cakes – very sweet-looking, sticky concoctions that would be more in place at a children’s birthday party than on a breakfast table.
Then there was the toaster, always a focal point for the British, this latest group proving no exception. There was one toaster, capable of producing two sets of two slices each, for the whole of the breakfast room, and a pile of sliced bread in front of it. About half of the British party used it on their first morning, all following the same ritual of putting in their bread, pushing down the handle then peering suspiciously at the toaster to see if it was working, placing their hands over the top to find out if it was getting hot, and finally bending down to peer into the interior workings, in danger of getting their noses singed. Finally, once assured toast was indeed being produced, they stood guard anxiously by the toaster, fearful lest someone else – probably someone foreign – should make off with ‘their’ pieces of toast. All this was accompanied by little sighs and self-deprecating laughs, presumably intended to convey both the rather amusing strangeness of Russian breakfast customs and an acknowledgment of their own unsureness when faced with a foreign toaster in a room full of foreigners.
One woman, however, had avoided all the perils of the toaster and of the sugary bread rolls by coming equipped with her own packet of Ryvita. She was rather plump – not, Anna thought, a particularly good advert for whatever diet she was supposed to be on. She seemed to be the daughter of the man who had referred to ‘fifty whatnots’; another woman looked like she was her mother. Anna privately dubbed them ‘Mrs Whatnot’ and ‘Ms Ryvita’. Arriving slightly later than the rest and without a husband in tow was a woman who, Anna thought, looked as though she had just swallowed a gooseberry or a sour plum, her lips pursed and turned down at the ends. She looked to be in her mid-fifties, with dark hair in the regulation perm, but slim and well-preserved and, unlike all the other women in the group, wearing a skirt. She was attempting to pick up everything she wanted – coffee, a variety of breads, jam and an orange (there was a small bowl of rather shrivelled fruit on offer) – before sitting down, which she finally did at a table already occupied by a couple from the group. Anna noticed how, on encountering anyone she knew, this woman’s sour expression was banished to be replaced by a social smile – the sort that made one think of cucumber sandwiches and garden open-days – and that this smile remained fixed while she talked. Snatches of her conversation drifted across the room – ‘Did you go to hear Michael Chance? I thought he was so interesting.’ The couple to whom she was addressing her remarks nodded in a rather bemused way. They had come to breakfast armed with their anoraks, ready for the coach. ‘Nine-thirty we’re leaving, are we?’ asked old Mr Whatnot of his wife. ‘Oh, nine-twenty, oh yes – we’d better get a move on then. I’ll see you up there, dear.’ He shambled off while the anorak-man, escaping for a moment from Prune Face, went to restock his plate. ‘That’s a jolly good buffet, you know,’ he said happily as he returned to the table, tossing his apple into the air.