I swore Vladimir had my family and I lost as he stuck out his hand to "Fish for a Lada" (looking for a ride from a Soviet-era beater car). And it was unfortunate that we all had too much vodka. Not the vodka you see at your local grocery store, but clear alcohol minimally labeled in strange looking bottles. For all we knew, Vladimir could have had us drugged at the unnamed underground bar we just left.
Before I go further, this is not a horror story, actually one of the best experiences we ever had due to Rick Steves and his recommendation of Timofey Kruglikov's "Tailored Tours of St. Petersburg". I did my research and made sure it was all legit before the trip. The same that you should always do and don’t listen to someone like me - well, you can, I promise not to steer you wrong but do your research anyway. This way of travelling might not be the way for some.
Back to our vodka infused mystery ride. Vladimir had promised an authentic Russian experience in vodka tasting unmarred by a typical overpriced tourist trap that doubles as a marketing amusement park. The so-called underground vodka bar was a tiny, dimly lit stone-lined basement that had no more than four bar tables and possibly less stools -- better to stand and drink your vodka. A hefty Russian woman in a white smock pointed out a display of vodkas to us but we trusted Vladimir to pick. Bruce, my father, immediately started into a one-sided conversation with the apparent neighborhood strong man. Due to the language barrier, they only mimed the conversation but through silent wordplay, Bruce was able to figure out that this local Russian deduced that Bruce was a cyclist due to Bruce wearing shorts, showing of his biking legs. Bruce mimed back that he indeed was a cyclist, then the local gentleman elected to show of his biceps and just to be nice, Bruce did as well. My mother, Vladimir and I were unsure if a brawl was imminent.
Vladimir intervened and brought us our vodkas with sides of pickled herring, bread, pickles and cheese to eat has we tasted our vodkas. Bruce and his new friend continued to show each others muscles but was soon interrupted by a Russian woman who was sitting in a dark corner. Was she there the whole time? None of us knew. She seemed to be offended by the conversation between Bruce and the local man. It appeared that because of this man's Russian accent, she asserted that he wasn’t a true local and was considered lower status. She was angered that Bruce was not being talked to by a true local, which I assumed she was. At least that was what I gathered with some English peppered into her speech and some of Vladimir’s translations.
If the brawl wasn’t going to happen with Bruce and the strong man, it might have happened between them and the woman covered in shadow. Vladimir suggested we finish our Vodkas and exit the bar. That was when Vladimir hailed or "fished" for a strange unmarked car, made a deal up front with the strange Russian driver for a certain amount of rubles so we could return to our cruise ship. Amazingly we made it back to the ship safe and sound awaiting for day two of our St. Petersburg adventure, which would bring us to a strange communal flat, homemade borscht, more vodka and a story about angels.