Last week a friend persuaded me to go to a casino with him, insisting I must not be a spectator. I agreed to go and gamble as much as he did. Armed with 60,000 roubles in cash (nothing much, it proved, to serious Russian gamblers) I set off nervously.
It seems the game of “21”, taught to me by my granny years ago, is really called “Blackjack” and excites gamblers greatly. By the end of my cards session, I was “up” and others were gambling on my hands. This was disconcerting.
At the roulette table, my “strategy” consisted of betting on 17 (my age when I first met Mrs P and still the age I feel inside) and hedging that 35:1 rashness with an equal bet on the first, second or third dozen numbers. My friend scattered chips everywhere in bewildering patterns, but I stuck to my guns. The psychological insights began to emerge as I realised I was stuck with 17 for fear that, if I changed, it would come up.
My persistence drew attention. Other gamblers started to put large amounts on 17 too, as if I knew something. I assured myself I couldn’t be sued if they lost and relaxed. The free drinks flowed and, as we steadily plied the chips, the waitresses were gradually upgraded. Following Kenny Rogers’ advice, I was careful not to “count my money while sitting at the table.” So, when it was time to go, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself $115 “up.” Relieved, I put a $100 chip on 17 and three $5 chips on the middle dozen. The croupiere sternly told me that $15 was below the minimum, so I smilingly moved it to 17 and turned to leave. My friend stopped me. 17 had come up.
As we walked away, he advised me to do something special with the money. It should not, he said, be frittered away on food and bills. Mrs P has long been keen for me to take more care of my health. I felt guilty when she fell ill, because she has taken so much care of her health and I have taken mine for granted. It didn’t seem fair, but then life isn’t. It's hard not to gain weight in Russia, which combines a climate unsuited to exercise with a diet for manual labourers. I have fallen into lazy ways, being driven everywhere. I decided to blow the windfall on a luxury I have never valued; health. So I am currently in the process of reviewing the swishest health clubs in Moscow. On Saturday, I rejected the most expensive. Its robes and lockers are designed for wealthy pygmies, whereas I am more of a gone-to-seed Zulu. I also signed up for long-overdue medical and dental check-ups, which have led to other insights.
Where have all the male professionals gone? The only men in sight at these places are the security guards. You will find no more militant feminist (properly understood) than me, but I didn’t expect professional men to disappear entirely. And why do female professionals not make small talk to put clients at ease? I can assure them it is bloody unlikely I will see one as a “sex object” while I am awkwardly vulnerable in a dentist’s chair or a doctor's couch. So why the stern psychological distance and the clipped diction? My daughters tell me their friends are afraid of me; that I cut a somewhat imposing figure. I suppose I must accept I have acquired more gravitas than my "internal age" of 17 (13, in the presence of an internal combustion engine) leads me to expect. Maybe these young women are just reacting to that? Until I find a young healthcare professional of the male persuasion, I cannot be sure.
My final observation is specific to my unusual situation. Expatriates in places like Moscow use “international” medical centres because they would rather do medical stuff in their own language. One wouldn’t want a linguistic error to lead to a misdiagnosis, or even the wrong tooth being pulled. Such places charge accordingly and pay staff more for foreign language skills. So why do they insist on speaking to patients in Russian and looking exasperated if they speak back in English or French? They should be pleased to earn their premium pay. If we were at ease with medical Russian, we wouldn't need to pay extra. It’s not just the Russians, mind you. The Poles were the same when I lived in Warsaw. Am I really doing myself favours by paying more? After all, the staff’s failure to understand my English is as potentially dangerous as my failure to understand their Russian.
All of which might not be so annoying (to square today's circle of blogging triviality) if they smiled, made small talk and were not both young and aloof.