That odd thumping noise is city wanting to get out

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

December 09, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

VORONEZH, Russia -- Time after time you could walk into the lobby of the Brno Hotel and hear the muffled thumping and pounding.

It was hard to pinpoint. It seemed to be coming from deep inside the building. Yes, it definitely was.

The problem was, people kept foolishly boarding one of the hotel elevators and expecting it to work. It would start off, but you know how these things are.

Two-and-half, maybe three-and-a-half floors, and that would be it.

Passengers would wait a while, shout a little, then start thumping and pounding. That was what you heard.

At this point the man in the lobby whose job it is to watch the elevator would close his book, place it neatly on one corner of his otherwise empty desk and go see what he could do.

Really! These people! Such a racket! Do they think they'll be stuck inside forever? Are they such idiots that they imagine no one is going to help them? Why didn't they think twice before getting on such an elevator in the first place?

If they had bothered to ask him he would have warned them not to.

The man in the lobby would climb the stairs to the eighth floor, open a door leading to the elevator machinery and lower the car to the nearest floor.

Time after time. Honestly, it was too much.

The Brno Hotel is named for a smallish city in the former fraternally socialist republic of Czechoslovakia. Today, of course, Czechoslovakia is no longer socialist, or even one republic, but it's as fraternal in spirit with Russia as it ever was, lingeringly post-communist and yet somewhere short of capitalist. Voronezh and Brno -- twin cities, stuck between floors, just like the dim and cranky elevator.

From the lobby of the hotel a glass door leads to its two restaurants. For the sake of convenience, the door is kept permanently locked. Hungry patrons can make their way to a meal by going out on the street and walking around the block to another entrance.

Downstairs they find an inviting restaurant with attractive lighting, tasteful tablecloths and cozy booths. Definitely post-Soviet. Incredible attention to comfort. The helpful woman in charge points out that there may not be any available tables, as she surveys the nearly empty room, and that anyway prices here are very high, and it's doubtful the kitchen will come up with anything.

It's a quiet meal you want? Oh, well, in that case, the band will be starting up any time now, and they play very loudly. Better to go upstairs, where, yes, of course, a band is already playing, but it's not so loud.

The woman in charge is so relieved. She returns happily to her book.

Upstairs is a cavernous, dark restaurant, where a five-piece band backs a vocalist who seems to be singing out of her sinuses, in a range so high it may have previously been unknown to the world of music.

The waitresses sit clumped, like burrs, at one table. The customers hunch at theirs, alternating swigs of Pepsi and Ukrainian champagne. No one is eating anything.

All signs point to a total Soviet experience. But wait! A waitress bestirs herself and approaches, with the news that tonight is the first night for their new menu, which everyone is terribly excited about. The cook has taken some lessons, and now proudly offers, yes, Chinese food.

Do you want the chicken? Good, it's hot.

Sometime later it arrives, swimming in oil but not so bad, actually. Innocuous enough.

But, it's not quite chickenish. To make matters worse, the waitress's interest has clearly been piqued by this first customer in Voronezh, a city founded in 1586, ever to order Chinese food.

She stops by, not once but three times, trying to suppress a smile and asking how the food is. She giggles every time she walks away, the colored spotlights on the bandstand glinting on her gold teeth.

A sinking feeling sets in. Of course, maybe she's giggling out of small-town nervousness. Then again, maybe she's giggling at the enormous practical joke that has just been played on this ridiculous American.

Well, nothing to do but eat up. No use thumping and pounding about it.

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