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New Europe

Day Ninety-five: Kaliningrad

National Day in Kaliningrad 
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National Day in Kaliningrad. Ladies dance to a brass band outside the cathedral.
Michael Palin - New EuropeAt eleven o'clock sharp the thudding, hyper-amplified disco music switches to something in the Star Wars style. There is activity at a bland government building from which flutter the flags of Kaliningrad - a blue sailing ship on a white background and the horizontal white, blue and red bands of the Russian Federation. The doors swing open and a delegation of the great and powerful emerges. At the same time the cheerleaders strut out from behind the monument and, having flung their batons about a bit, fall back to allow the hosts of the ceremony to make their appearance. And what an appearance it is too. A man dressed from head to foot in white and a woman in a long taffeta ball-gown. In their attempts to expurgate all military overtones, they've turned National Day into the Eurovision Song Contest.

Pom-poms are shaken, songs sung, red, white and blue balloons are sent billowing skywards. Speeches are made by visiting dignitaries from Moscow, by the governor of the Kaliningrad oblast, the mayor of the city and a general in a peaked cap wide enough to land a helicopter on, but there are few people to listen to them and the words blow away in the wind, chased off by more thunderous music from the PA system.

An hour or so later the Married Couple of the Year competition upstages the opening in two crucial areas. It has a crowd and they're enthusiastic. Meanwhile the Brides Bus cruises the street. All decked out in pink and full of adolescent girls, it rumbles past like a mobile bordello, contributing to an infectious, and quite unexpected, atmosphere of cheerful anarchy.

On my way from the park, after watching men dressed as medieval knights knocking each other about, it's impossible to miss the bright yellow tank of kvass, parked up by the side of the road and presided over by a huge woman in a yellow cap.

I ask Olga what it consists of.

'Kvass? It's a summer drink, made from fermenting rye bread, sugar, leaves... ' Fearing she's not yet made it sound irresistible, she adds, 'It's a traditional Russian drink. A good remedy when you have a headache after taking vodka.'

I try some, ahead of the hangover for once. A curious taste which I can only describe as a mix of Pepsi-Cola and gravy.
National Day in Kaliningrad 
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National Day in Kaliningrad. Cheerleaders strut their stuff in the main square
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-five: Kaliningrad
  • Country/sea: Russia
  • Place: Kaliningrad
  • Book page no: 224

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