My Russian odyssey gets off to a surreal start even before I’ve made it to the tube at Stockwell, as I’m stopped outside the station by a middle-aged white-haired lady with a pinched face and a bleeding Polish man.
“Excuse me, do you understand him?” says the lady, who looks quite well-to-do. The man, who has blood encrusted on his eyebrow and smeared over the left side of his face, starts talking to me in Polish. He looks glazed.
“No,” I say.
“Where are you from?” asks the woman.
“England,” I respond.
This is not enough to deter her; she begins firing a series of questions at me. “You wouldn’t have that amount of blood from just falling over, would you?” I say that you probably wouldn’t, no. Then: “I’d call the police, but if you’re Polish in a black area, there’d probably be repercussions, wouldn’t there?” Hmmm. She keeps on: “Or do you think he’s homeless? He’s probably not getting enough benefits.” I am trying to nod and shake my head in the right places, but I’m wearing a heavy rucksack and it’s 5.15am. Meanwhile, the Polish man has given up on both of us and is scrabbling around on the floor for a cigarette.
“If only I could find a Polish person,” she says, looking around with hope and sadness. “They’re everywhere when you don’t want them and never there when you do.” I don’t know how this all started, but the situation is strange and dreamlike, and it doesn’t seem fanciful to imagine this odd couple tied together for the rest of eternity.
“I have to go,” I say, deciding to end my part in the nightmare. I resist adding: “To Russia!”
One tube journey, two flights, one train ride and one Metro trip later, I’m at Tadich’s flat in Moscow. Everything has gone remarkably smoothly, except for the fact that the Heathrow Wetherspoons told me that they’d run out of fried eggs and only had scrambled. This thought troubles me for much of the journey: how can you run out of a type of egg?
One pizza slice and two beers later, me, Jamie and Darren have been stopped by the police just outside Red Square. Darren’s papers are not in order - he’s forgotten to carry his migration card. The police are threatening to arrest him and make him pay 2500 Roubles (100 pounds). Tadich – who speaks passable Russian – is in St Petersberg. We are powerless and they won’t let us go, so we phone him. After several missed calls, he eventually answers and we hand the phone to one of the policemen. Tadich attempts to sweet-talk him into releasing us. Unfortunately, Tadich is incredibly drunk. Luckily, Tadich is with a Russian colleague, who has both the lingo and bucketloads of charm. After around ten minutes of negotiation, Darren bribes the police with 500 Roubles (20 pounds) and we are allowed to go. A beer is in order. We go to a bar called, appropriately, Help.
As we head back to the flat – it’s now around 1.15am – there’s one last unusual moment in store for us, as we hear slow clip-clopping and look up to see a sad-looking girl, riding a horse slowly down the street. Day 1 is over, but this wasn’t the last we were to see of her…