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I was very much the enabler of it all...

You’ll recall from Part One (which is HERE if you wish to get up to speed), I was about to tell you about one of the many Russian wedding receptions I’d bartended back in the wild old Seventies. You might also recall I was doing this at the Russian Club in Strathfield – a venue so unlike any Australian equivalent it might as well have come from another planet.


But all the ethnic clubs I used to go to in my youth were so unlike anything Australians attended. Of course, when Australians did attend these clubs, many of them would be caught up in the…well, vibe of the place. And once caught in that vibe, it’s simply not possible to make any kind of dignified exit. No-one is able to make good life choices when a bottle of Russian vodka is being filtered by one’s appalled kidneys.


In terms of weddings, Russians have big ones. All Slavs do. Some of these weddings, the very traditional ones, last for three days. Not the actual ceremony, you understand. That’s run and done in about an hour or so. It’s what follows that takes up the time.


Traditional Slav weddings are wont to be huge extravaganzas. Yes, I know that Aussie weddings have come along in leaps and bounds in the last decade or so, and seem more like a Hollywood production to my eyes, than a day celebrating a couple’s commitment before God, their families, and their friends.


There are rehearsal dinners, dress fittings, the hiring of wedding planners, the hiring of choreographers so the bride and groom and bridal party can all do some appalling dance-performance for the guests, rehearsals for that, and all manner of utterly vapid nonsense which has nothing to do with getting married, and everything to do with showcasing the bride as some kind of special princess celebrating her special princessness by bankrupting her parents, his parents, and her friends for one night of “Look at me!”


Slavs don’t do that, at least not back then. The only wedding planners Slavs have are their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. There was no music choice. There was only the resident band at the club – and you’d be hard-pressed to find better musicians – who are at their most magnificent after everyone’s 20-bottles of vodka into the evening – which is usually about six pm.


There is no food choice to select from. You’re gonna get zakuski (see Part One), and then pelyemeni (meat-filled dumplings), and probably some chicken. That is what the Russian Club kitchen made. Your only choice was the amount of food you could pre-order.


And at every Slav wedding, there must also be a church component. If God is not involved in the union, there is no union. And yes, the priest comes to the wedding reception and sits at the parents’ table as an honoured guest. He will even make a speech and bless the whole affair again.


There is lots of dancing. And because wogs, a lot of this dancing is traditional. And very, very…um, energetic. The Russians, in my humble opinion, own the most energetic of these traditional dances. The Georgians vie with them for this – and I know this because I have been to a few Georgian weddings as well.


So when the lively old songs are played, a circle forms on the dance floor, and in that circle people start to demonstrate how well they can hold their piss while performing acrobatics.


What do you see in your mind’s eye when I say “Cossack dancing?” Yes, it’s that. And it is some of the most physically challenging dancing on this earth. The blokes do the real hard stuff, or attempt to, and the girls also join in, but their level of difficulty doesn’t approach that of the men’s. They spin a lot, in high-heels, and their challenge is not to get dizzy and crash to the ground. The men take turns in doing the most difficult dance steps – often next to the spinning girl. This stuff goes back centuries and is meant to demonstrate male strength and physical prowess to the girl.


So try this. Squat on your haunches. Now kick one leg out in front of you and bring it back under your arse as you kick the other leg out. Now do it over and over and over while moving forward and backward, with your arms folded across your chest.


Next, squat down again, but hold one of your legs out straight to the side. But do not just hold it there. As you extend it, lean forward, place your hands on the ground, and then spin that extended leg around yourself while “jumping” over it with your hands and other leg.


If you wish to involve a girl, it’s best to grab a light one under the arms, then you both spin on the spot as she actually leaves the earth’s gravity and holds her arms out to the side. This is especially hilarious if she’s wearing a strappy cocktail outfit. This can be made even more spectacular with the addition of another couple – and this quartet will then spin two girls off the floor. As with all such things, take-off is not as hard as the landing. How these girls managed to stay on their feet while wearing heels can only put down to the power of vodka.


This would go on for ages. And the band would play accordingly. If the particular song needed to go for eight minutes because the dancing demanded it, then so be it. The music was designed so that could be done.


As you can imagine, this would make people giddy with joy, and there’d be more toasts, more dancing, and even singing, and when the band wanted to call it quits at one am, people would throw money on the stage and threaten to beat them to death if they didn’t keep playing.


Anyone who has been to a Greek, Serbian, Macedonian, or Russian wedding back in those days can attest to this. Music is crucial, and I have seen musicians threatened with firearms if they didn’t keep playing. The gypsy musicians at a Serb wedding I was at when this happened (and it was the bride’s father) were not overly upset by that, but imagine doing that at an Aussie wedding.


And as the bartender/waiter at these events, I was to make sure dirty glasses were picked up, more bottles of vodka were promptly dispensed, chairs and tables straightened (sometimes furniture would get knocked over), and any broken glass immediately swept up.


I would also have to toast the bride and groom, various relatives, assorted generals, the odd glorious battle, the downfall of Napoleon, or whatever happened to need toasting if I was at a table at the time the toast was taking place. It’s just how it was, and I very quickly learned not to be at certain tables because my job was hard enough when I was sober.


The absolute worst of all the tables, or maybe the best if you look at it another way, was the bridal table. Slav weddings invariably have at least six bridesmaids and groomsmen, then there’s the Best Man and the Matron of Honour.


And their collective one-eyed mission is to make sure everyone has a good time. And they take this seriously. And it’s not a hard thing to do, quite frankly. All that needs to happen is endless toasts, and demands for more vodka, which I would rush to comply with.


Done properly, with a dedicated bridal table, every single guest is lightheaded with alcohol just as the Bridal Waltz commences. By the time the band has finished its second set, everyone is pissed. Everyone. The only ones in that room not pissed are the kids, and they are so full of soft-drink sugar they might as well be on fire.


And then there was the whole “Goryka!” thing, that only happens at Russian weddings.


“Goryka” means “bitter” in Russian, and it is the most yelled thing at Russian weddings. Everyone and anyone yells it all night long, and each time it is yelled, the yell is taken up by the other guests. And they keep yelling it until the bride and groom stand up and kiss…um, quite passionately. I’m not talking about a quick peck, I’m talking about a full-on lip-locked tongue-fight. I have even seen brides suplexed onto the bridal table by the grooms so that the kiss can be properly executed. The longer the kiss, the sweeter their married lives will be, according to tradition.


Most times, when the “Goryka!” yelling starts, people are standing and holding their glasses up. The bride and groom take a shot of vodka, then kiss, and then everyone takes their shot of vodka and cheers loudly.


Whenever this happened, I very quickly learned to have both hands full of bottles or glasses, and could thereby shrug apologetically at people who were passing me glasses of vodka to toast with.


What was interesting, by comparison to today’s weddings, were the staffing levels. Say we had a wedding with 150 people, so 25 tables of six. There would be two bartenders/waiters – one would stay at the bar and serve drinks to people, the other would cruise around taking drink orders, then returning to the bar and fulfilling those orders himself. There would be two or three ladies or girls carrying hot food out of the kitchen and replenishing the “zakuski” throughout the evening. That was it.


Sounds like a lot of work, huh? Well, it was, but it was not what you might think. A good 90 per cent of your drinks orders were for more bottles of vodka, soft drink for the kids and the unwell, and the odd screwdriver or scotch’n’çoke for the non-Russian guests – who’d spend most of the night in some kind of dazed disbelief, clearly of the view they were part of some crazed bacchanal conducted in a language they didn’t understand, and fuelled by very loud men who kept giving them vodka to neck.


It was easy for me to pick the Aussies at the event. They would invariably try to join in the drinking, dancing, and singing. How could they not? Russians, or indeed any wogs, celebrating something is very infectious. You simply can’t NOT join in on some level.


And I  would always see them joining in. Most times, a little to enthusiastically. And almost always without eating the aforementioned zakuski. Australians, I have found, tend not to eat when they hit the piss. It’s just not a thing in Australia.


But when you’re entire culture is based around and fueled by high-grade grain alcohol, loving referred to as “Little Water” (which is what the word vodka means, coming as it does from the Russian word for water, which is “voda”), you mitigate, somewhat, the issues arising by eating frequently as you drink.


This is the only reason a seasoned Russian can swallow half a bottle of Stoli in an hour and still dance like a Cossack hetman. An Australian, with half a bottle of cold vodka in his empty belly cannot do that.


But it does not stop him trying, does it? And that is simply magnificent to watch, let me tell you.


What my job did not entail was denying someone alcohol. If a scarred and grizzled veteran Cossack of the Great Patriotic War demanded more vodka from me, then I would rush to supply it. He may not be able to talk, or even stand properly, but that bastard had no issue pointing and slamming money onto the bar. Or sometimes just his wallet, and allowing me to take the money out myself. It did not cross my mind to refuse him service.


It was also not my job to call the cops – and I really never did see any at the club, so obviously no-one ever called them for anything. And this was because violence was staggeringly rare. Of all the countless wog weddings and dances and functions I worked at or was a guest at, I can count on one hand the fights I saw. It just wasn’t a thing. There seemed to be no palpable tension among the guests, no matter how much piss they consumed. If people knocked someone’s drink over, or bumped into someone (this happened heaps on the dance floor), an apology was immediately offered, and everything was just laughed off, and sometimes toasted to with more vodka.


Like I said, there were no bouncers. The key staff were the bartenders. Without us, there was simply no happiness, singing, or dancing. And we were paid OK, but we were also tipped very, very well. I often made more in tips than I did in wages. Drunken Cossacks spending money make drunken sailors look like misers.


I worked at the Russian Club, off and on, most weekends, for about two years, from memory. I bought lots of stuff for my bike. I learned many things. I saw many other things. I may tell you about them from time to time as they come to mind.


Why did I leave? I got a better offer. Well, I thought so at the time. I changed my mind not long into that better offer, but I kept doing it for a while. After all, what young bloke could knock back bouncing at the Taxi Club and the Windsor Hotel on weekends? I don’t think I’ve ever had a less boring gig than that one…


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Boris Mihailovic

Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.

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