Saturday, September 24, 2011

Remembering the Metropol

I’ve always loved anything retro. That’s why I was delighted to find the old Hotel Metropol alive and well and living near Red Square. Unlike the completely rebuilt Hotel Moskva, the Metropol is still the real McCoy inside and out. Management claims there are no two rooms exactly alike. This may be a bit of hype, but there are certainly enough elegant appointments, enough antiques and art, to satisfy the fussiest classicist. Tolstoy and Rachmaninov once frequented the hotel in its prime. Today its renovated presence attracts celebrity guests like Pierre Cardin and Francis Ford Coppola.

But in the late Soviet sixties, when it was in precarious decline, my parents stayed there and fondly remember its shabby elegance (my mother dubbed it “haute bordello”). Along with chipped marble balustrades and frayed silk drapes, the hotel once flaunted a cavernous restaurant rife with gilded cupids and a Baroque mirrored wall reflecting more than a few party bosses tossing back shots of chilled vodka with their blinis and caviar.

My parents dined here one winter’s night, fascinated by a red-faced commissar at the next table, in the company of a pretty female comrade, both dressed to the nines in the latest European fashion, proof positive that there really was a floor in GUM just for the Communist elite. The same consumer privilege extended to expensive imported cars for the bosses while the common people – if they drove anything at all – tooled around in cheap Soviet-made Zaporozhets, nicknamed gorbatyi or “hunchback” because of their bug-like shape.

With his stubbly jowls and coarse manners, the commissar reminded my father of Sharik, the homeless mutt turned loutish human proletarian (via a surgical experiment) in Bulgakov’s black comedy, The Heart of a Dog, banned in 60's USSR. Before his ill-fated metamorphosis, Sharik wryly comments that there are forty thousand dogs in Moscow and bets there isn’t one of them so stupid he can’t spell the word “sausage.”

On the streets, the scruffy Sharik has survived by his wits and is a self-taught reader able to identify butcher and grocery shops by their letters and the particular colors of their storefronts. This makes me think of what I just read about Moscow’s so-called wild dogs. The strays (curiously, about the same number as in Bulgakov’s time) have evolved into distinct genres, one of which is beggar dogs, a canine intelligentsia whose Darwinian evolution is based on smarts, not strength.

Living on the outskirts of Moscow, these beggar dogs have learned to ride the metro, commuting downtown to where pickings are better and customers plentiful. They wait politely on the platforms, then board the trains, finding the quieter spots in the front and last cars, doing a little panhandling -- a paw on a child’s knee, a plaintive look to a young woman that says “Feed me” – while they count the city stops.

Then it’s off to the streets where they expertly choose their marks among crowds of Muscovites. They’ve learned to cross busy roads by watching pedestrians and differentiating signal colors. At the end of a hard day’s work, they hop on the metro and go home to their suburban refuges, sans briefcases and caffeine headaches.

Remind me to pack a couple of sausages in my pockets just in case a few beggar dogs corral me (clearly I spell "tourist") as I exit the Metropol on my way to visit the Bolshoi Theater. Or in case I’m riding the metro and a Sharik look-alike sits down next to me and starts to tell me his sad story.