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Pole to Pole

Day 31: Novgorod

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleSo begins the Night of a Thousand Toasts. Edward has assembled a party of family and good friends, none of whom speaks much English. There is Valery, quiet and uncomfortable, but a great crane operator; Igor the cook, jolly and companionable, with a son in the army; Edward's son Michael, whose names, in the Russian way of using a patronym, come out the same as mine - Michael Edvardovitch; and Sasha, a journalist from Moscow radio. Edward's illegal vodka is served with slivers of garlic in it from a litre Coca-Cola bottle. To get the best effect he adds another refinement - two fresh-picked cherries to be placed in the mouth before each glass.

The toasts start early and follow rapidly. Almost anything will do . . . 'To the guests!', 'To Michael!', 'To the crayfish' . . .

After each toast the glass must be drained. Pretty soon I can hardly stand up and am laughing insanely at everything, including a toast to the Romanov dynasty, rightful rulers of Russia, which is not a joke at all but taken very seriously by Edward. By the end of the meal I have put away at least a bottle of vodka, and sung 'The Lumberjack Song' from Monty Python to a rapturous reception. Mindful of the fact that I have to do my stuff as an ambassador for Watford in the morning, and that my hosts are beginning to sing long, maudlin Russian songs, I make my farewells. Never was there such a kissing and a hugging and an embracing. It was as if the world had ceased to exist outside the Correspondents Club. All the warmth and the sadness and the madness of the Russians poured out in a waterfall of emotion as we clung to each other.

I just about remember ending the evening sitting on a seat outside the Party Committee Hotel, impervious to the clouds of mosquitoes, enjoying the hot, humid night, and waiting for the Deputy Prime Minister of the Soviet Union to arrive. The hotel staff were still in a high state of excitement and at one point the receptionist rushed out into the night holding a cardboard box at arm's length.

'What is this?' she cried. 'I think it is a bomb!'

Everyone recoiled except those of us who knew exactly what it was - Basil's box of exotic sauces for improving local cuisine. To be known from now on as 'The Bomb'.
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 31
  • Country/sea: USSR
  • Place: Novgorod
  • Book page no: 68

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