cue, Elena and two other servers do some karaoke. They sing several songs in Korean, and
several in Russian, all while dancing and gesturing in unison.
A Russian couple—actually, the only other diners left in the place—make the bar area
their dance floor as the women keep up their singing. The guy, I come to learn, is Mikhail,
a plump gentleman, perhaps in his fifties, wearing a white sweater and brown scarf. His
wife, Sveta, is becoming increasingly annoyed with Mikhail, who is drunk and becoming
increasingly interested in the North Korean women singing. He is dancing around them
with one hand in the air, and they are doing their best politely not to notice.
“Beeeauuutiful , right beeeauuutiful !!!” Mikhail yells to me in English, knowing I'm
American and also hoping I might join in his appreciation for our entertainers. I quietly nod
The manager of the restaurant—who, I imagine, is in charge of limiting her staff's
movements during their temporary employment outside North Korea, not to mention limit-
ing their contact with drunk Russian men like Mikhail—is moving herself closer and closer
to the scene.
Mikhail orders a bottle of champagne and a bottle of whiskey from the bar. He opens
the bottle of whiskey and pours shots for me and for himself. Then he opens the bottle of
champagne and pours glasses for the manager as well as the three servers.
“Korea, America, Russia !” he cries out, noting the diplomatic success we seem to have
achieved by sharing a dance floor. “So interesting. Cheese!” (I believe he meant “Cheers,”
but he's trying English, so I've got to give him a pass.)
We all clink—the North Korean servers raise their glasses to their lips but seem to have
gotten a “don't drink it” look from the manager.
This does wrap up one of the more unusual nights of the trip. Then again, I think back.
During this journey I chased a meteorite and touched a piece of it, baked in a banya with a
drunk veterinarian, watched fat seals do math, and financially supported a regime that's a
sworn enemy of my country.
My friend Chandler once asked me if I love Russia, or if it fascinates me? “I think I'm
fascinated,” I told him. “I may love it. I do like the chaos. Anything can happen. But I can't
imagine what all that means for people who live here—especially people who don't have
I do believe all that. This is a wild, entertaining place full of culture, creativity, and
craziness. I understand why Russians go to the United States and find it boring and too
controlled. Here, it's the Wild West, for better or worse. Worse, surely, if you have to live
here with little means. For those with wealth the place must feel like an electrifying vaca-
tion where any amount of adventure or luxury is possible. For people without money, the
chaos must be a cruel existence, because life can feel so uncertain. Little is possible, and