My first positive act as a visitor to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was to get myself thrown out of the Dushara Ballroom of the Amman Sheraton, where I was staying. It was 1:30 AM, jet lag had me in its grip, and my room’s Wi-Fi log-in was refusing to recognize my password. I took the elevator to the lobby and heard “Staying Alive” blasting from a mezzanine up half a flight of marble steps. As a New Yorker born in the 1970s, I claim everything to do with Saturday Night Fever as a personal birthright, so I bounded up the steps and through the wooden double doors.
A pair of barefooted women in cocktail dresses were dancing together. Their bodies weren’t touching; their movements looked graceful and suggestive but not lewd. Guessing they were amateurs, not pros, I took my eyes from them and surveyed the room. It was nearly empty. Most of the guests were young men in loosened ties, their jackets draped across the backs of their chairs. Highballs and wine glasses rested by some of their places. It looked like the tail end of a wedding reception, but the staff had ushered me in with smiles and no questions. Conspicuously casual in a ribbed t-shirt and Yankees cap, I sat at a corner table and recalled my first night in Moscow almost 18 years ago.
Then, as now, I’d been jet-lagged. Also like now, I’d followed the sounds of music downstairs into the bar built into my hostel. Amused by the sight of a stray American, the owner and his cronies brought me to their table and thrust an outsized tumbler of vodka into my hands. I tried to get it down in a single gulp and ended up spewing most of it back up onto my shirt and theirs. Laughing, my hosts ordered me another, along with a Fanta chaser. By eight that morning, when the bells from the church across the street announced the opening of the Divine Liturgy, I had a glorious load on, and my neck bore the memory of a manly kiss from one of my new friends.
Now a man appeared over my shoulder. Thickset and middle-aged, he reminded me of the actor who had played Carla’s husband on Cheers. Without smiling, he asked, “What are you doing here?”I shrugged. “I can’t sleep.”
“You’re going to sleep in here?” He asked. I didn’t reply, so he said, “This is a private party.”
He was in the right, of course, but I didn’t care for his attitude, which was too macho by half. I decided he deserved to be wound up a little more. I debated telling him it didn’t look like much of a party but thought that would be going too far. Instead, I said, “I thought it was just a disco.”
“Well, it’s a private party,” he repeated, without so much as moving his face.
Recognizing I’d played my hand as far as etiquette would, I stood up and left. “Thanks,” I heard him say.
The man’s parting courtesy looked like the signature of a seasoned tough guy who knew how to measure out force in teaspoons. Consequently, it stung worse than his opening swagger had done. I took the elevator back to my room and did stomach crunches till dawn.
Being bounced from a private party, especially a tame and dying one, may seem like a small thing. Objectively, it is. But the opposite treatment – being welcomed, no questions asked, in all your foreign gaucherie — is a very big thing. It can cause a traveler to fall in love with his host country, and that love can acquire all the stubborn irrationality of a person’s love for his own home.
During the spring and summer I spent in Moscow, I drank every Friday and Saturday night with my barfly friends. I threw up many times – once on someone’s dress slacks – and was routinely made to sing “Love Me Tender” in the adjoining karaoke room, a kind of tribute to the Elvis-style quiff in which I styled my hair. Conversation was typically banal. Aside from one discussion of Pushkin’s death, it centered on women: Russian women, American women, which were better in and out of bed. Once in a while, national rivalry surfaced to poison the mood. After he got sloppy, one man liked to remind me that the Cold War was just the first quarter of a match where Russia would mop up the floor with America.
Putin may prove him right yet. If so, I will remember him – his face, that is, not his name, which I never really learned – with a curse on my lips. But thanks to all those wasted boozy evenings, all that shallow, ad hoc brotherhood of bored young men, I will always remember Russia as a friendly place. In history’s judgment, it may go down as a force for evil and chaos, but in mine, it can never be anything so mean as a private party.