#12 Russian AdventuresPosted: February 29, 2012
In the summer of 1987, I waited for a visa to go to Russia (then USSR) to visit a sick friend. Really. We met when she was the translator for a group of Soviet children traveling all over America performing a peace play. In a cultural exchange, American children were doing the same thing all over the USSR. Nadia was eager for American friends and spoke perfect English. I had closed my company in Pennsylvania and had time to befriend this effusive person from another planet.
As she traveled that summer I let her use my phone card to stay in touch, thinking it was the least I could do in the cause of peace. I didn’t know she would be calling China.
Some months later as I was selling my house in York, PA, I received a note through a friend that Nadia had breast cancer and wasn’t doing at all well. I had said I’d try to visit some day, but to me that meant SOME DAY. Now she was pleading for me to visit before she died. My house sold and I postponed plans to return to work in New York while I applied for a visa to make the trip. I wasn’t eager to return just yet anyway.
I borrowed the weekend house of a friend on Long Island which he seldom used. I had never taken a salary from my business, there was none to take, which comprises a chunk of my “Stupid” list. But now I had gone four years without an income. And after a six month wait, still no visa. This was 1987, The Wall was still up and travel to the Soviet Union was rare.
Finally I joined a group tour in order to get a visa. It was a long trip over three weeks including Central Asia. All I wanted to do was get to Moscow to keep a promise. The tour was made of “Citizen Diplomats” out of Ohio. What had I gotten myself into?
Days before the trip, I received a call from a woman in California who would be assisting in running the tour. She was flying into New York the night before our departure and asked if she might stay with me. She sounded pleasant and I’d be traveling with them for nearly a month. Why not?
On a hot sticky afternoon I picked her up at Kennedy Airport. There was this short scrunch faced woman with at least six suitcases the size of a bed. I couldn’t possibly get them into my car so I had some checked at the airport. Then I drove the little red and mean faced woman, who wasn’t in the least bit pleasant, to my temporary home. She called a man she had met the night before in California while she lounged by the pool. They talked several times that day and late that night. They were vowing to communicate by ESP through the 11 times zones in which we’d be traveling. I swear. She was calling from my phone and I wanted to say why not try the ESP now? I didn’t.
When I was all packed, she asked if she could put a few things in my suitcase. She brought out a tape recorder, books, at least a dozen items. I had my own tape recorder and I had been instructed about how carefully items are inspected by customs. I told her NO.
I had gifts for Nadia and her family. She sent measurements for much needed jeans for her poet/artist husband and their son, assuring me that she had converted from metric. I found a store on Long Island that specialized in extra extra large jeans for rotund farmers.
I had plenty of gifts both for my friend and for people we would meet along the way. American flag pins, pens, gum. These things were recommended. Brilliant. I was going to encourage cavities in the teeth of Russian children. I also had peanut butter and dried fruit and most importantly, toilet paper for me.
I had ordered a limo to the airport for the following morning which I shared with my house guest. I’ll skip our long trip for now, or meeting my fellow travelers and go right to our landing in then Leningrad from Luxembourg. The customs man opened my luggage and inspected everything. He saw the shocked look on my face. During the night the mean little woman from California had sneaked her things into my bag.
Everyone else had cleared customs. I was kept over an hour with at least seven inspectors examining my belongings. As they held up the tape recorder and books I said, hoping they’d understand, “That’s not mine.” I had been warned about body cavity searches and was fully prepared to say, “Gotta go,” and fly right back to Luxembourg. I also had been told that it was common to offer “gifts” to Russian customs people. No way was I going to take that chance and land in what I envisioned to be a Gulag. I had a supply of pens and pencils for Nadia’s artist husband. Should I offer them? NO! When they held up the jeans for giants they lost interest. At last I was allowed to join the group of strangers waiting on the bus. I never spoke to that mean little woman again. I sure showed her.
The mean little woman from California’s luggage was lost almost the entire trip. She wore the same awful red jumpsuit for over three weeks and not one of the truly kind “citizen diplomats” loaned her a thing. She borrowed money from everyone, probably expecting cash for the “stuff” she was carrying. Karma?
About a year later we heard that she had been banned from Russia for a couple of years, probably for black market dealings, or put another way, working the parallel economy.
About the jeans, Nadia had not in fact converted the measurements. Her husband and son could both fit into one leg.
About Nadia’s health, she had had seriously butchered surgery, but was not dying. Her illness was not the real reason I was summoned.