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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Owen's Holiday Hunting and Hijinks

My trip to Istanbul to see Lisa clearly wasn't meant to be: Russia conspired against me to thwart the course of true love. A bucket-shop travel agency sold the charter ticket I'd booked, and a snafu on the Aeroflot booking system prevented me from getting on another flight. Perhaps it was for the best; in desperation, I fled to London instead, paying cash at the Aeroflot counter at Sheremetyevo 20 minutes before takeoff and running for the plane without baggage. It felt more spontaneous and romantic that way.

Lisa and I spent most of our brief five days wandering around the north of England on a grand sponging tour of my friends. There is something deeply reassuring and cozy about the rhythms of the English countryside. We had a week of comfortingly inane discussions about the dogs' health and how the new hedgerows are coming on, snoozing in front of log fires, shooting fat pheasants and having long lie-ins under giant eiderdowns in cold bedrooms. Mallsgate Hall, a rambling 17th-century house where we spent most of the trip, was almost too Dickensian for words.

Permanently nestled under leaden, Wuthering Heights skies, with polo ponies wintering in the paddock and portraits of disapproving, bewigged ancestors lining the drawing-room, Mallsgate was absolutely everything Russia isn't -- solid, unchanging, charmingly understated, and unselfconscious.

By way of contrast, I also spent a not-so-pastoral Russian Christmas at a friend's dacha near Moscow. The dacha was welcoming enough; warm and cozy, well stocked with whisky, cigars and other treats. The company was relaxed and friendly, but something was missing -- and I don't just mean Lisa. For a start, there was nowhere to buy food. The local shop -- bear in mind that this was meant to be one of Moscow's most prestigious dacha areas -- was almost empty, except for some disgusting salami and ancient cans of sardines. The local forest had been colonized by New Russians, who have built mini palaces of such spectacular tastelessness that they wouldn't have looked out of place in Bel Air. And everywhere -- on the paths, by the roadside, piled against the new dachas' high red-brick walls -- were piles of junk and litter, which didn't seem to bother the wealthy residents.

Back in Moscow, missing Lisa and desperate for some distraction, I took the plunge and returned to that one-time expat Babylon, the Hungry Duck. Though the Duck remains far and away the wildest bar in Moscow, things seem to have gone downhill since the glory days of last year. True, girls were dancing on the bar, the music was loud and boppy, and the place still has its exuberant zoo-like atmosphere. But the clientele has changed, and with it the atmosphere has shifted just a shade too far downmarket.

There are more byki, or "bulls" -- fat-necked, mean-looking men -- than before, hovering drunkenly at the edges of the dance floor. The women, too, look rougher and less attractive, and more on their guard. The few pretty ones were being attacked from all sides like steak tartare in a piranha pool, and stuck together defensively in little groups near the relatively safe territory of the dance floor. The crowd is much more Russian now -- I suppose many foreigners now find the place too sweaty and frat-party-like -- and the doormen have become more obnoxious.

That's not to say that the Duck is dead -- far from it. In the absence of anything of the same genre remotely as good, Doug Steel's extraordinary creation parties on. The trouble is, he's the only Moscow bar owner with any imagination, and the desperate dearth of good places to party in this city continues unabated. It's almost enough to make you want to escape to the country.