I had been advised by more than one caring friend that it was time to upgrade my dressing-gown (aka bathrobe), but there was no more compelling argument than the order I had just received - to cross a ten-lane street and scour the train station for my friend wearing just a dark blue acrylic dressing-gown my mother had bought me for boarding school when I was 13. While I may not have matured mentally since then, I have certainly grown physically, and the offending garment was pushing the levels of acceptable decency to new, low levels.
The day had started out so well. A splendidly sunny Petersburg Sunday greeted us through the curtain-less windows. My unattainable partner in crime rose from her bed and put the coffee on. We agreed that I would do a bit of admin on the computer and then go and check out an art exhibition in the afternoon. I was seriously behind and shifted my naked body under the blanket into a more upright position and started to work.
The phone rang in the corridor and I heard peals of laughter and promises of meeting in twenty minutes. As we hardly knew anyone, I was intrigued.
"That was Steve, a friend from Uni. He just arrived by train from Odessa and is waiting at the station. Let's go!" Feeling slightly irritated that I had a love rival who was probably handsome, I tried to distance myself from the intrusion but, as the only registered driver of the car, I was persuaded to pick him up. I had a mountain of work to do and couldn't be bothered to get dressed, so I slipped into my trusty dressing-gown, planning to head straight back to bed once Steve arrived and presumably dominated Fiona's attention.
We piled into our Yellow Banana, a 1979 Opel Kadett, one careful owner, which I had picked up in Munich, and proceeded to the station, me in grumpy mood. We were perhaps 200m away, or one left turn, when we came across roadworks and a sign intimating no left turn. Unfamiliar with the alternative, I soon came back to the same place, this time behind a taxi which decided to ignore the sign and turn left. I followed suit.
A fatal mistake.
The station came into view, some 200m away across a busy square. So did the traffic policeman who was lurking just around the corner. The taxi in front was allowed to continue, for there was far more interesting prey behind - a car on temporary foreign plates.
Approaching with that officious swagger that indicated that the driver would emerge from the imminent encounter somewhat poorer, he hid his surprise at my attire well. Fiona, no fan of bureaucracy, demonstrated her loyalty by pleading both innocence and a prior commitment and disappeared off to the station in search of Steve. I was asked for papers, which strangely, I had forgotten to pack; this was only supposed to be a five minute turnaround before going back to bed with my paperwork. I was told to get out of the car.
I have always been very fond of my dressing-gown, perhaps due to its homely reminder at boarding school in England. It was now approaching its tenth anniversary and I was as fond of it as ever, having resisted numerous attempts by mother to exchange it for something more to my size and something more... decent.
It was a decision I was already regretting as I followed the officer to the police station around the corner. I succeeded in stopping pedestrians in their tracks as they stared, pointed and laughed. At least it was a sunny day. There wasn't much I could do to change the situation and I didn't know anyone in the city apart from my disloyal friend, so I decided to embrace the situation and smile through my ordeal.
They must have seen some sights in their time at the local police station across the road from St. Petersburg train station, but I could tell from the raised eyebrows, open mouths and sudden silences that this was something special, even by their high standards.
I was escorted into a tiny room with a table and couple of chairs, paint peeling from the walls, smoke heavy in the air. The officer came in with some papers. What would Russian officials do if their form-filling tasks where taken away from them. Having filled out the necessary details and made the appropriate apologies, I thought I had got away with it, thought he was going to take pity on me - I had given him a great story to tell his mates after all.
"There is a fine of fifty roubles. You must pay before you can go."
My initial relief at such a low fine (in the region of $3) was soon overshadowed by the realisation that I didn't have a kopek on me. I theatrically searched my dressing-gown pockets and apologised, explaining that my wallet must be in my other dressing-gown. I was sure he was going to let me off. What else could he do? Keep me here for ever? Send me to the gulag? I was soon to find, and it was infinitely crueller than a spell in Siberia.
"Does your girlfriend have money?"
"I don't know but maybe."
"Then go and ask her for the money." The enormity of the suggestion was beginning to dawn.
"But she is at the station," I pleaded.
"And?" I guided him with imploring eyes over my dressing-gown, needing no words to explain that I was hardly addressed to roam one of Russia's busiest transport hubs.
"You should have thought about how you are dressed before you broke the law. The fine has to be paid. I will be waiting by the car. Go."
There was nothing for it but the stiff British upper lip and I descended in the sunshine focusing on my mission to find a blonde Scottish girl not renowned for splashing the cash at the best of times. As luck would have it, the traffic lights turned green as I was about to cross the enormous road, five lanes each way. The road itself provided plenty of stares from passing traffic, and I began to notice a distance between myself and my fellow pedestrians - I was clearly an unpredictable nutter.
The green man beckoned me forth and I strode with purpose, more than passively aware of the open-mouthed reactions in the front seats of the cars to my right. It was busy at the station and I focused my attention on finding the girl, trying as best I could to ignore the comments and actions of people reacting to my attire. She was nowhere to be found. With gathering desperation, I sought out the less likely places and checked out each platform.
There are twenty-platforms at the main train station in St. Peterburg.
I had failed. Fiona had obviously eloped into the sunset with handsome Steve, and I returned to the car to hand myself in, only to find three people next to the car. The first, Fiona, was doubled up in laughter, standing next to the policeman who was smiling. The third was a young male who I assumed to be Steve, whose eyebrows had never been higher. We were introduced.
"I have heard so much about you," he said, doubtfully, before retreating to a safe distance.
Dress code is rarely mentioned when discussing driving in Russia and my parting advice would be to be careful about taking illegal turns. And make sure you upgrade your dressing-gown first...