Bilingua Burns!

It is impossible to spend any length of time in Russia and not have something totally fucked up happen to you. The place is just too damn unpredictable. It lacks that well-ordered atmosphere that you immediately sense after stepping off a plane in Western Europe. No, Russia is wholly something else. If you’re not constantly jumping through the obstacle course of both official and unofficial bureaucratic hoops, you are constantly confronted by what you can only conclude as stupidity. And if that doesn’t get you, then the dilapidated state of buildings and the complete lack of safety will get you. I, and several friends, experienced the latter this Friday.

When there is a fire in Russia it is likely that people die. For example, on my first day in Riazan there was a fire down the street from where I was staying. An old woman and two children burned to death. While staying in my apartment near Profsoiuznaya metro in Moscow, I often wondered how the apartment buildings were evacuated if there was a fire. I was living on the first floor, which meant all my windows are barred with no means of opening them in an emergency. I couldn’t even climb out the windows. I was fucked if there was a fire in my apartment.

I was in a fire this Friday and I wasn’t fucked. Thankfully, everyone got out safely and no one was hurt. Given what I’ve stated above, luck was on our side.

This is what happened. . .

Since January, several of us foreign researchers have been meeting every Friday at a place called Kafe Bilingua for drinks. Bilingua is one of these interesting places in Moscow. It’s part bookstore/coffee shop, part bar, part restaurant, and part club. It’s a nice place to get something to eat and hang out and drink. Our group had a reserved table every week and our own waitress, Vika. Sometimes over 20 people showed up. Last week the bill was over 11,000 rubles ($350). They make a lot of money off of us and we make sure Vika is well taken care of.

So there we were, as usual, at Bilingua on Friday night. Everything was normal except that the crowd was less than usual. Around 11:30, Maya noticed smoke outside. At the same time, Vika went to open one of the windows behind our table. Of course at first we didn’t pay much mind to either the smoke or the opening the window. Next we heard fire extinguishers going off in the kitchen. Maya was surprised that they had fire extinguishers. I think most of us figured it was a grease fire. Even after the extinguishers, Maya smelled something burning. About two minutes later, the room where we sit filled with smoke. We grabbed out shit, scooped up the money, and got the fuck out.

The exit was quite calm. This was probably because we were never really told to leave. As Arch said after, “The funny thing about all this is that they never told us that there was a fire and that we should leave.” Instead, we were told to go into the dance part of the club. As we were leaving most of the people in the place were dancing. At the staircase Vika was waiting with the bill. I grabbed it and told her I would settle it outside. At that point, I didn’t know how bad the fire was and figured we’d be back next week. I didn’t want to screw over Bilingua, and I certainly didn’t want to screw over Vika. The bill was 6500 rubles and I wanted to make sure that at least Vika got her tip.

Maya and I counted all the money and figured out the tip. Collected a bit more from some people to cover the tip. The fire trucks arrived. Some people began clapping. I don’t understand this clapping phenomenon. I’ve also seen this on planes where the passengers clap when the plane lands. Isn’t safely landing a plane or, for firefighters, arriving to put out a fire their FUCKING JOB!? Clapping is like you’re surprised the plane didn’t crash or that the firefighters came at all. Maybe I’m the crazy one for taking such things for granted.

Everybody that was in Bilingua, including all of us–Maya, Matthias, Arch, Darin, Eric, Venera, Gayle, Jean-Francois, and me stood and watched the fire. Darin noted the appropriateness of “the roof, roof, the roof is on fire. We don’t need no water. Let the motherfucker burn. Burn motherfucker, burn” but attributed the song to the Bloodhound Gang. Their version was inspired by the Dynamic Three’s 80s dance hit. But in this postmodern world origins seem to only matter when intellectual property rights are concerned. I’m sure the Dynamic Three was adequately compensated. Wherever they are. But I digress . . .

It doesn’t take much to capture the attention of drunk people. We all stood there–Look at the pretty lights. Ooooh fire. Pretty fire.–watching the fire. I’m surprised I didn’t hear anyone make a Beavis impression. I began wondering the crowd looking for Vika to give her the money. At this point I didn’t care if she pocketed the 7500 rubles. She was now officially unemployed. At least for the foreseeable future. Jean-Francois joined me and as we wondered toward the back of the building, we noticed that the fire had spread. The roof of the stage area was ablaze.

We doubled back and noticed Vika standing down the street. I handed her the money. As you can imagine, she was worried about her job, but then sweetly said “Uvidimsia.” I hope so but I wouldn’t count on it.

Oh yeah, Arch never did get the veal he ordered. The theory is that the fire was all his fault.

I went by Bilingua yesterday to check out the damage. The whole staff was standing outside. It looked as if they had a meeting to figure out what would happen next. They were all no defacto unemployed. I saw Vika and began asking her how bad it was. The fire only damaged the roof and the kitchen. The place also has a lot of water damage. The owners planned to rebuild it. She said it would take around 2 months. Knowing how fast things go here, I say six. Luckily for her and her coworkers, another location was opening up in a month or so. So they won’t be unemployed for that long.

Like I said no one was hurt. The whole situation never even reached a panic. The big problem we have now is that we don’t have a place to meet. Everyone is shocked and bummed. An alternative will turn up. We already have some leads . . .

Matthias took a film of our “evactuation.” You can watch it here.

(Photo credit: Photo #1 J. Arch Getty)