Street Life: Moscow - Cafe culture takes off in baking city

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The Independent Online
IT IS fiercely hot in Moscow, and time to turn to the services of Mohammed, a young man with a gentlemanly manner and a burning ambition, who works just down the street.

He is a new arrival in the neighbourhood, having set up shop in what was a scrubby little thoroughfare, through which people hurried, heads- down, before plunging into the mouth of the airless Metro system.

On this stony soil, Mohammed and his bosses have built a cafe. You can sit outdoors next to a fountain, under a Pepsi sunshade, consuming kebabs, ice-cream and cold beer, and pretending that Moscow is no different from any other European capital.

It seems mundane. But it matters. It matters to Mohammed because, at 24, his cafe manager's job, though modestly paid, represents his route out of the big city - once the centre of the empire which ruled his nation, Azerbaijan - and back home to the family business. He has been preparing for his new life by swotting up on foreign languages, including a six- month stint studying English in Oxford. "If you're going to learn English, you must learn it in England," he says.

And it matters to his clients - or, at any rate, to me - as the idea of sitting outside in our shabby corner of Moscow, minding one's own business over a quiet drink while watching Russia stream by, is relatively new.

Apartment blocks here often have balconies, but Russians very rarely use them, even in a heatwave. This is partly because - I'm told by a friend - the balconies are likely to collapse, partly because they are indispensable storage areas, and partly because sitting on your own, high up in the smoggy city air, is a touch boring.

Until a year or two ago, outdoor drinking was a prohibitively nasty experience. Just around the corner from Mohammed's new cafe, were a couple of "iron box" kiosks, inhabited by bad-tempered, sweating young women who communicated with clients through a hole not much larger than a letter box.

The letter box was only chest-high, and to buy anything, you had to bow down and peer into the gloom. Customers then had to gather furtively around the kiosk or sit on the concrete wall around the Metro's entrance along with the genuine vagrants.

The whole affair had a squalid feel, like snatching a swig from a paper bag round the back of King's Cross station in London. It was the last resort of the down-and-out, the desperate and the lonely. Most of us gave it a wide berth, averting our gazes as we hurried home, fending off derelict, half-drunk old men wanting to drink na troikh (an offer which means pitching in some roubles and splitting a bottle of vodka three ways).

Now, happily, we have people such as Mohammed (anxious about his bosses, he declines to give his full name). Letneye (summer) cafes have sprung up across Moscow in record numbers this year. At least half a dozen have opened within a few minutes' walk of my home. Business is brisk. "We do OK," says Mohammed, cautiously.

It matters for another reason. Mohammed's cafe does not serve vodka or wine. Time was when Westerners would rather have swigged the contents of a washing-up bowl than Russian beer. But the domestic brewing industry has taken off, producing several drinkable varieties.

And the Russians are taking to it. Mohammed concedes that his clients sometimes complain about the lack of the hard stuff. But he never budges. Vodka, he says, is ruining the country and, with it, his clients. Why should he help?