Today at work, our boss announced there would be a company party to celebrate New Years Eve later that evening in our hotel, "at the boat".  That's right, "at the boat".  Amid the slot machines and crap tables that fill up our casino/hotel, guests enjoy the cuisine of a Mediterranean themed restaurant, Galileo complete with a life-size ship docked between the buffet and the bar.  Customers can choose to sit at the port or stern side of the deck, or those without their sea legs can opt to sit on solid ground and just admire the Galileo from a distance.

Despite the somewhat cheesy location, free food and drink would be provided at the party, which is definitely cause for celebration with this crowd.  On the ride home from work, Chris and I coordinate the rest of our day before the big bash.  We decide to check out Arbat Street, one of the oldest surviving streets in Moscow.  Before we head out, I dash to the grocery store to pick up a few items.  It's not the best timing, seeing as how we are both itching to see how the people of Moscow celebrate New Years before heading back to the hotel for the party, but I'm afraid if I don't get some essentials (i.e. chocolate and vodka) then I won't have a chance before leaving Russia.  

Instead of celebrating Christmas on December 25th, Russians place a greater emphasis is put on the celebration of the New Year and Three Kings Day on January 6th.  These holidays are spent in the company of family, and because of their great importance to the Russian culture, most businesses close their doors from early evening on New Years Eve to January tenth.  

As I peruse the bottles of vodka at the store, basing my choices mainly on the prettiness of the labels, I remember Chris's friend Maya telling us to be careful buying vodka.  According to her, some cheaper versions of the liquor can be laced with traces of kerosene!  Bet that burns as it goes down the hatch!

Figuring any labeled, sealed bottle sold at the grocery store is safe, and not wanting to waste much more time, I grab two bottles (one with St. Basil's Cathedral on the label and another with a picture of an old man resembling Merlin and a crescent moon on the label) and head for the line.  Of course not before stopping at the candy isle and stocking up on souvenir chocolates.  My favorite of these is a solid chocolate bar with a miserable-looking baby on the label wearing a plaid babushka.

I dash back to the hotel, running like a five year old in my snow gear, as the bottles of vodka clink against each other in my stuffed backpack.  A few men selling Christmas (or I guess New Years) trees on the corner give me a look of slight astonishment before nodding as I slide by them, kicking up snow in my wake.  I slow only to veer around a clump of little old ladies gossiping as they stand (in the middle of the street!) in their fur coats and matching hats.     

Once I'm back in the room, I drop off my wares and we head out to the metro.  Not knowing exactly where to go once we arrive at the station, we wander down the main drag until we find a "Novy Arbat" street sign, and figure we are in the right place.  However, this avenue hardly seems like the oldest street in Moscow, what with "Last Christmas" and other Christmasy pop tunes being blasted from outdoor speakers, the neon Christmas decorations, and the four lanes of traffic.  We duck into a bookstore to search for a book on Russian opera Chris has been wanting to buy for her father.  The store is packed with holiday shoppers, and the sweet hymns of Wham! are also playing on the store's speakers.  

After an employee directs us to the only section containing English (a bunch of Children's English language grammar books) we exit to the street where several children in colorful snowsuits are playing on a seven-foot high snow pile.  Thinking it's about time for a drink, we begin to search the street for a good pub or "bap" (what "bar" looks like in Cyrillic).  We pass a bunch of "Pectopah"s (what "restaurant" looks like in Cyrillic) but they all look a bit pricey.  Eventually, we succumb to our frozen toes, and decide to duck into TGI Fridays.  

Yes, I know this is incredibly touristy of us, but as Chris so wisely put it "at least we know they speak English".  Unfortunately, Sasha (they employee sporting the most flair, and clearly the highest on the totem pole) tells us they are setting up for a company party, and cannot serve us.  But he does inform us that we are walking down New Arbat Street, and probably want to check out Old Arbat Street.  After shuffling us into a nearby booth, he draws out a detailed map of how to get there, as a fellow employee (wearing gold Christmas garland wrapped around her head) rocks out to the restaurant's Muszak, which features what other song than Wham!'s "Last Christmas".         


Armed with a somewhat better sense of direction and slightly warmer bodies after our stint in Fridays, we return to the street and head back toward the metro station, following Sasha's map.  Somehow between figuring out how to cross underground and deciding which staircase to take back up to the street, we manage to get ourselves lost once again.  Desperately in need of a warm up, we stop into a little cafe for some coffee and hopefully, directions.  A young girl behind the counter (who is also togged up in garland headwear) explains, with incredible clarity, that we are a mere block from Old Arbat, and tells us exactly how to get there.  With kind eyes and a shy smile, she apologizes countlessly for her "terrible English" which we assure her is absolutely wonderful. 

Chris orders some coffee as I scan the pastry display case.  

"What's in this one," I ask pointing to a circular puff containing some kind of green vegetable.

"Ah, that is a pastry with know, grass," she replies.  

"Spinach?" I offer.

"No, not spinach.  Grass," she repeats.

I give it a whirl.  It's a delicious spinach pastry.  Perfect.  

We snack on our treats near the window as people dressed up for the holiday scurry to and fro with packages and shopping bags.  When we climb below the street to cross over to Old Arbat, we find the source of all those shopping bags.  Underneath the bustling street above, there is a full blown subterranean mall, with small booths selling delicate, black laquer boxes, fluffy fur hats and other treasures.  We look for a little while, but hope to find better deals once we get to Old Arbat. 


At the top of the staircase leading to street level, our feet meet a bricked street void of vehicles, but lively with foot traffic of holiday shoppers.  We've finally found it!  Old Arbat, with its glowing street lanterns, historical buildings and endless souvenir shopping.  We walk into a shop blatently labeled "Russian Souveniers" and are greeted at the door by a very animated and very drunk salesman.  Apparently celebrating the holiday on the job, the employees all have a slight swagger in their step, and even a few Chinese tourists are getting in the spirit by taking rounds of shots in the back.  The salesman's vodka-rich breath is enough to make me feel woozy as he points out several nesting dolls to Chris.  

"I will even include one free plastic bag.  No charge," he jokes.  

The next boutique we visit is owned by a well-traveled Russian woman who says she has lived all over the United States.  She shows us around her shop, apologizing for the lack of light on her amber jewelry.  

"It went out the other day.  It really looks so beautiful with the light.  Oh, where is my magic?" she laments.  Everything in the store is absolutely beautiful, but a bit pricey.  We chat with the owner about our jobs here in Moscow, and she wants to know what parts we play in the show.  

"I'm a performer," I reply with a little shrug.  

"Yes, I know, but which one?" she asks.  "I bet you are a dancer," she says pointing towards my feet.  "I can tell because of your legs."  

That's probably one of the best compliments you can be given as a dancer, and I thank her kindly.  I'd like to buy something from her shop, but even with the discount she offers, I can't afford the prices.  

"Enjoy your time in Russia," she calls as we leave the shop.  The sun is far gone now, and the wind has picked up a bit.  We set our compass on finding a nearby bar, and to our luck, just a few moments later we walk past an Irish pub.  

After checking our coats we head downstairs into the nearly deserted bar.  The only other customers are a couple sitting in a booth in the back corner.  The woman is wearing a full skirted wedding gown and veil, and the sight of her and her top hat and tails husband is quite surreal, as they down a pair shots together.  We situate ourselves at the bar, as Max, our mullet quaffed bartender pours us pints of Manchester Cream Stout.  Clearly a bit bored by the slow night, Max makes us a few napkin roses, like the kind I used to make at Pizza Hut when I was young.

About halfway through our pints, a group of young guys walk in, and ask us to join them for a drink.  They work in finance in New York and are here on holiday.  

"We get three vacations a year, and we like to get as far away as possible," says Chris, the outgoing one of the bunch.  "For my thirtieth birthday I wanted to climb the Great Wall, so we made a trip to Beijing," he says.

For the next hour or so we swap stories of our travels in China (the cabbies not taking you where you want to go, art scams, the nightlife, etc.).  Before we know it, Max is calling us all to the bar for a shot of vodka, followed by a shot of Jack Daniels.  Chris and I look at our watches and tell the guys we have to get back to our hotel for the party.  We invite them to come by later if they get a chance, although they're headed for Red Square at midnight, which is a kin to Times Square on New Years Eve.  The chances of getting anywhere before three in the morning are pretty scarce.  

We say our goodbyes and head back to the metro, slightly less coordinated but definitely warmer.  

Back at the hotel, we put on our pretties and head down to greet our crew.  Everyone is dressed to the nines, and we enjoy ourselves laughing, taking photos, and making toasts.  Fashionably late Dennis shows up right before midnight with a bag of grapes.  He insists we each need to eat one for each of the twelve seconds before the new year, making a wish with each grape, a Spanish tradition for the New Year.  

It's hard to think of something more to wish for, being surrounded by love and friendship and having a great time.  Happy 2010, everyone!