Saturday, August 06, 2005
by Steve Johnston
The main characters are:
Steve & Luba Johnston of Spokane (Steve's 4th trip in 11 years to the city of Luba's birth)
Nastya -- Luba's elder daughter (married) and Daniel, her son, age 8 (both of London)
In Magnitogorsk (900 miles SE of Moscow in the Ural Mtns. region):
Sonya -- Luba's younger daughter and Vanya, her son, age 7 (both of Magnitogorsk)
Larissa and Mark -- Luba's half-sister and her husband
Anna -- Larissa's daughter (for whom an American husband is a "possible"): her son Vladic, 9
Aunt Nina -- the sister of Luba's late mother
Our dear Russian friends: Slava, Yuri & Olga,
Valentina -- Luba's best friend since college (of Chelyabinsk)
Sonya's friends -- Sasha,
Alla Nikilovna and Eugen -- good friends and dear (passed away since our 2001 trip)
Vladimir Putin -- the present dictator of Russia, in Steve's opinion
Evonne, our mutual friend of good heart; Wes, Steve's benefactor and irreplaceable friend
When Luba and I arrived, we observed ____ was lacking:
(Sonya’s family unit) PERSONAL OR FAMILY
screens on windows
drying rack for dishes
shower curtain for bathtub
Murphy bed (max. floor space)
hot water (temp: pipes for apt complex being replaced)
friendly &/or involved neighbors
phone directory for the city's residents
parking within an apartment complex (little available)
deposits on glass bottles to help encourage recycling
safety net, e.g. nursing homes
animal control (little or no)
…Although there was/were...
(Sonya’s family unit) PERSONAL OR FAMILY
living room tripled as dining room and 2nd bedroom
one male kitten -- Oscar
full-size curtains for too few windows
kitchen basin for washing dishes
plenty of moths and some crane flies at night (no screens)
one double bed
two TVs & one VCR
widows (fellow residents) who wanted to charge Sonya extra for water her guests consumed
people scrounging for glass bottles to recycle for cash
220-volt electric current
three upholstered chairs (could be made into cots for sleeping)
cars going 20 mph; cars going 45 in spurts
a high density of shoppers in some stores
fashion: pointy shoes with straps
unexpectedly high cost of food
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
I had my doubts Luba and I would have the Breeze packed by the departure time, which I had optimally estimated as 8:30 a.m. We took five bags (3 for check-in at the airports, 2 carry-ons). [Dang, I actually did leave my lithium in Spokane. I'm writing this in Magnitogorsk -- I have only enough lithium for 1.5 days... if I don't find the prescription bottle.] One errand: drop off the audio book by Robert Parker. Then, head westward on I-90.
Yesterday/Tuesday, I had vacuumed the Breeze, replenished the antifreeze with (pet-friendly) Sierra brand (!) plus windshield wiper fluid and cleaned the windows.
It rained lightly as we hit the road, recorded as 8:40 a.m., with good road conditions all the way. Used about 3/4 of a tank of gas, so we didn’t leave the freeway for gas. Lacking a Tacoma street map, I still managed to drive straight to Evonne Agnello's house located on a golf course fairway. She was a fine hostess and served dinner to our dear octogenarian friend, Wes Tollber and us. The hot dish was vegetarian, and I found it quite tasty.
When I spoke with Hildegard Stone by phone from Tacoma, she said on the day we met in May 1989, she noticed I had nice legs. I hadn't known that before. It's nice that I do now.
Thursday, June 30, 2005
Departure to Moscow
We awoke at Evonne's house. She was wonderful to host us for one night -- sort of a friend's B&B. After a nice breakfast, she drove us past the renovated Narrows Bridge, and then off to the bus terminal, located downtown. I saw several changes in the area. We said our goodbyes, and almost immediately, we were able to board an airport shuttle. After a couple stops along the freeway, we were dropped off almost on top of the Aeroflot counter. That made it very convenient for us to check in our three bags. One concern was now out-of-the-way. Such was my anxiety over the anticipated homeland security rigmarole I took a Xanax. (Note: I had been boycotting all airlines since 9/11 -- United shares the blame for the hijackings -- they proved to be the weak link.) However, taking off my shoes was about the worst of it.
We waited 2 more hours to board the Aeroflot flight to Moscow -- the Boeing 767 was almost packed. Smoking is now prohibited and there were even smoke alarms in the toilets -- a welcome change from 2001! I'm sure I'd never flown 590 mph before this trip. Something I'll remember: a real-time map showed us progress toward destination, airspeed, outside temperature and time to arrival. The two of us had three seats to ourselves -- much appreciated. Landing was smooth. (Later, passengers on the flight to Magnitogorsk broke out in applause when the plane landed safely. Quite a contrast between the international and the domestic sides of the Russian travel industry.)
Once at Shermetyevo Airport, we expected to go through Customs and make a declaration (mine) regarding cash and goods into the country, but no one asked for it. There was the check-in with our passports, and that was perfunctory. Oh, and now it's Friday, July 1. Thursday, for us, was very short.
Friday, July 1, 2005
We took off on the Boeing 767 Thursday at nearly 5 p.m., but we're heading east and north over the Pole. Curiously, it never got dark. We reached Moscow at 2 p.m., and that created a time difference of almost 22 hours.
Change Planes in Moscow
After landing in Moscow, we needed a change of airport in order to board the departing/connecting flight to Magnitogorsk. We cabbed it to the nearest domestic airport (cost, $50), and then Luba found that was not a solution for us. Not to repeat the mistake of skipping a critical phone call, Luba got the needed information. Based on that, Luba had purchased tickets after we reached the first domestic airport. This guaranteed our seating. With Luba's blood pressure undoubtedly going up, we cabbed it to a second airport in the course of just three hours (another $50 expense). During all this uncertainty, we were under time pressure. Checking in our three bags one more time, we didn't have long to wait. [Consequence Avoided #1: Had we missed every flight to Magnitogorsk that Friday we would have had to stay overnight in Moscow, and we had made no such arrangements. Stopping off at a hotel simply wouldn't have fit in our budget already stretched.]
Beginning at 11:30 p.m., a smaller jet took us to Magnitogorsk in 2.5 hours. But with time zone changes, we actually landed at 4 a.m., Saturday, July 2.
Saturday, July 2, 2005 (now 30 hours since our departure from SeaTac)
Happily, I now know Moscow is a closer than I thought: 5300 miles from SeaTac over the Pole. Magnitogorsk is another 900 air miles. More surprisingly, the trip was entirely in daylight -- a quirk of being so far north, I believe. A Boeing 767 is quite speedy also. Early the next morning (4 a.m. local; 5 p.m. Spokane time) we arrived in Magnitogorsk to a warm welcome by Luba's daughter Sonya and grandson Vanya, age 7.
Magnitorgorsk has few provisions/attractions for tourists. It now boasts three hotels, two co-located restaurants plus a third restaurant/retail bakery (where the English Club met).
Sonia is a beauty, much as her mother was at Sonya’s age. She's now a dyed blond with brown eyes, about 5'8" and 27 years old. Vanya is nearly 8, a soon-to-be second-grader, energetic, dark hair and has a front baby tooth missing.
Without having set foot in a church, we have seen seven wedding parties over two Saturdays. Lots of outdoor picture posing.
We had very little sleep since Tacoma (Thursday morning). We were frazzled! Oh, those taxi drivers! Felt like the Russian autobahn? I'll say. Weaving in and out at times -- open road speed as high as 140 kph / 84 mph. No airbag in front of me in the front passenger seat and the driver not even bothering with his shoulder harness. His zipping into breaks in traffic: scary! Culture shock. This Lada is a lightweight 4-door, an old and unattractive Fiat model. The ride cost $50 for two people with luggage, one airport to another. The exchange rate is roughly 27 rubles to the dollar these days and stable.
Upon our arrival at Sonya's apartment, we meet the last of its residents: Oscar, a mostly white cat with some black. Vanya is obviously excited to have the kittenish Oscar as part of their household. Oscar is very wound up for a lap cat. -- We are going to be sleeping on a type of chair that converts into a cot. Later, Oscar finds us in bed, crouches and….
In the afternoon, we went walking to nearby shops and passed numerous kiosks. It's the biggest day of the week for weddings, apparently. Slava Antonov's daughter was one of the brides. We didn't catch sight of her. I remember well the Memorial to the Great War: depicted there are two giant figures, one soldier holding aloft a huge broadsword and the other a defense worker helping to support it. Luba and I agreed the figures were cast in bronze. It doesn't matter that Russia is no longer the USSR, for they have enlarged the Memorial since our visit in 2001 to include several thousand names of young and not-so-young men who perished. They've added plaques commemorating Heroes of the Soviet Union. My cynical thought is that this is the state's way of trying to impress the citizenry that so much sacrifice was needed and justified. The truth being, untold numbers of Soviet soldiers were used as cannon fodder by their generals. Twenty million dead, and still some Russians praise Stalin.
Sunday, July 3, 2005
A large concern: my lithium carbonate was left in Spokane and I've run out by day's end.
No church for us. It was mentioned, though.
In addition, the sight of a minaret is new. The Muslim population has shot up from my 1994 visit. Many men with darker faces, Asian features, black hair. Some women wore headscarves. The sight of so many seniors sitting on stools outdoors in the marketplace distresses me. Examples of their wares for sale: a liter of strawberries or a sack of potatoes, or black sunflower seeds -- all to supplement their pitifully small pensions. For the most part, they don't converse with one another and rarely with passersby. Aching boredom! They could sit there for hours without making a sale. It's no place to read a book; this is not the generation to be listening to music via headphones. This strikes me as a terrible waste and an indictment of the Russian leadership and the oligarchy that tolerates such high poverty.
Luba went to the indoor food market and bought an item for 18R, 10 kopecks. However, she lacked the 10 kopecks, a tiny coin. She was told, "OK, please bring it tomorrow." Now one ruble is worth < four cents, making 10 kopeks worth 1/10 of four cents. Go figure. -- She bought sunglasses for me at a kiosk for another 18R (roughly, 70 cents). They appear to be polarized.
The city reaps tax revenue from cigarettes and alcohol. Hardly a surprise, then, for one to see a kiosk open 24/6. Small but visible portions of (younger) women smoke. Unlike men (who don't realize how pathetic they look), women do not carry open bottles of beer in public and drink from them.
I've brought gifts for the English Club members, as requested: about 20 paperback mysteries in English, half donated by Senior Writers classmates of mine. It was a very good thing for me, too. Sonia has no cable TV, ergo no US network news. Hence, I average reading a novel every day. So far...
Pastime -- a Spencer novel by Robert Parker
The Vendetta Defense by Lisa Scottoline
Blackout -- an aviation thriller illustrating a deadly laser by John Nance
The Brethren by John Grisham about 3 judges in prison
... and others
Sonya's neighborhood at night is a bit frightening to me: “nice” people aren’t out walking when it’s time for them to be at home. In daylight, crossing these broad streets in the face of oncoming traffic feels like making a dash across a NASCAR track during a race. Some cars sprint at over 40 mph with pedestrians present. Parents grip their children's hands. In the middle of many of the major streets are the tram tracks, so pedestrians have to watch out for trams on the move as well.
Monday, July 4, 2005
This is the first Fourth I've ever spent outside the USA and I feel strange. Significantly, it's Aunt Nina's 83rd birthday today. (The party was a family affair, and I did not attend.) She's in frail health, and it could be her last. At any rate, Luba will never be present at another of her birthday parties.
Two critical matters to tend to today: obtaining some lithium for me (may be impossible), and accomplishing my "registration" at OVIR, an action with a deadline -- one Luba takes most seriously. She's responsible to assist the "foreigner".
My "registration" at OVIR (rather like the INS) has become an ordeal, especially for Luba. The authorities made it compulsory for Sonya, as the owner of the apartment where I'm staying, to take her propiska to them for inspection. Unluckily, there's no closure for Sonya on Monday, and OVIR's directive to Sonya: Return on Tuesday, 2-3 p.m. only! What is lacking is a stamp from the apartment complex president, a volunteer official. She manages to locate this senior citizen that same (Monday) evening, but it could have gone badly for her if the babushkas hadn't browbeaten the fellow into immediate accommodation.
Late in the day, hot water flowed once more from the taps in Sonia's apartment. Yea! Replacing the hot-water pipes somewhere in the system took the workers two weeks, and there was no hot water for any of the affected apartments during that time. (Picture a complex of apartments.)
Luba took me to an Internet cafe. (90 minutes, about $1.50.) I used the Pentium machine to check my email and find out what's happening in the outside world. For example, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is retiring. A huge struggle over her replacement is bound to ensue. John Bolton won't get approved in the U.S. Senate, but George Bush may make an interim appointment to the UN post.
The disruptions from the bureaucratic regulations: Luba is driven almost to distraction by the bureaucratic rigmarole.
An unexpected resolution to my prescription problem: While I was parked at the apartment (the better to read a novel), Luba approached a prescribing pharmacist, female, and explained my difficulty. She quite understood and sold Luba a 60-day supply of 300mg tablets. I am relieved to have it now as I avoid even a day of doing without. In a worst-case scenario, Luba would have begged some doctor's receptionist for an appointment. However, as a foreigner I wouldn't rate and emergency appointment. We’d be long gone by the time of a scheduled appointment.
Tuesday, July 5, 2005
Sunday, when Sonia, Luba, Vanya and I were out walking, this foolish 63-year-old challenged him to a 50-meter sprint. Well, I tried too hard and pulled a groin muscle, in my right leg like last time, swimming. Today, all I did was try to kick a fish head (!) off the sidewalk soccer-style, and I strained it some more. It's quite painful as well as limiting my activity.
The very nice-looking automatic Seiko wristwatch I bought for Luba on eBay last year was apparently flawed and never kept good time. She stopped wearing it. Today, she bought another Japanese brand of watch (battery-powered) for 300R, about $12. She had the wristband resized. The same woman made my Fossil wristband smaller as well -- no more slipping underneath my wrist.
Sonia's smallish freezer needed defrosting, which Luba managed. (I suggested a hot iron.)
Found out the US space probe hit its target, a comet some hundreds of millions of miles away, on the Fourth, causing a crater, as intended. The Hubble telescope had focused on it at this time of the collision. -- Lack of US news is unpleasant for me. I'm too shut off. No US newspaper to be found in all of Magnitogorsk! I would gladly settle for an issue of Moscow Times, the business daily in English.
Wednesday, July 6, 2005
During several successive nights I’m awake at 2 a. m., then read a novel or write in my journal for two hours or more. Back to sleep on the cot, then, for three more hours.
At the Internet cafe, I e-mailed Evonne in Tacoma. Only one or two of my in-coming emails made for interesting reading. On the Spokesman Review newspaper's Web site: Mayor Jim West scandal is still hot news.
Vladimir, Vanya's biological father, has agreed to confer with Luba regarding his son's expected immigration to the US in 2006. I'd like to see Vanya go to St. George's School. That's where both Lynne and Cathie graduated in the 1980s. By all accounts, Vladimir’s very manipulative.
It was a week ago we left for Tacoma. We are far, far away from home. I miss our life in Spokane and our two cats.
Luba and I have been walking considerable distances, shopping and visiting. Of course, I'm not in shape, but as a diabetic, I need this exercise. I dashed a distance of 20 feet to avoid a driver bearing down on me, and came up limping slightly. Damn groin injury! Moreover, that area of my leg shows significant bruising.
[Seriously] Luba: this drink is too sweet. Grapefruit juice; maybe you'll like it, Steve. Me (sipping): it certainly is sweet. However, it's pineapple juice. -- I feel I have to question her when the word chosen doesn't fit, and that bogs down the conversation.
I priced a Pentium II at a computer shop that does custom assembly. It was about $320 or 8300 rubles. There was no operating system, such as Windows XP, which it could run, though minimally.
I'm done with the fifth novel -- Lawrence Block's The Canceled Czech (Evan Tanner, 1960s CIA-type guy). I'm now immersed in his When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.
There's no car to provide us with a tour of the city. A taxi ride reveals little (in the cabbie never talks to me). The traffic is nerve-racking and the roads are potholed or cracked.
Thursday, July 7, 2005
The big item on today's schedule is the English Club meeting later at 5:30 p.m.
I picked up the Lawrence Block novel Even the Wicked immediately after finishing his novel When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes. (A thought by Lawrence Block: Desire and adultery -- one is written on water, the other is carved in stone.) -- I believe that makes seven novels I've read on the trip.
My groin muscle has... tightened. I intend to do very little walking today.
Luba went with her sister Larissa and husband Mark to visit the graves of the sisters' mother and brother (Elena & Alexander). She seemed to be helped through her grieving by the visit. They had to weed the gravesite -- it was badly overgrown.
There was rain today, making sleeping more comfortable.
I'm still struck by the homeless boy (as Luba had to explain to me) who concealed himself in the shrubbery. She took it as a fact of life. I, of course, wanted to see the boy cared for.
Alexandr, a friend of Sonya's, brought over his DVD player and his collection of DVD movies in English. Valentina brought her niece Natalie and her granddaughter Anna to the apartment, and the four of us, then, sat down and watched "Hitch" with Will Smith and in English. All seemed to like it. Alexandr's DVD collection included for Nicolas Cage thrillers on a single DVD. The pirates managed that feat by eliminating all language-versions other than Russian.
Friday, July 8, 2005
Some highlights of this day: the first mosque and minaret Luba and I have ever seen is nearly completed. Such is the number of Muslims who have moved here. That would boost the local population beyond the last census figure of 415,000. However, poverty, worsening life expectancy, and low birth rate forced the trend downward instead. – The gold onion domes of the recently enlarged Russian Orthodox Church are magnificent. Inside, our attention is on the several dozen icons that dominate the walls. No seating for services! -- "Star Wars" (dubbed in Russian) is showing at the local cinema.
Saturday, July 9, 2005
On my first visit to this industrial city in 1994, I was pleasantly surprised that pollution was remarkably lower than National Geographic had earlier reported. Cause: 90% of the heavy industry (referring to metals production) had been abruptly shut down in 1993. Several tens of thousands were laid off as well. Today, unemployment/poverty/low birthrate/lack of a safety net are quite evident. Newshound that I am, I was a day late in learning of the bombing in London, the progress of Hurricane Dennis or details of the Karl Rove controversy; such is the almost total absence of news reported in English.
It's disconcerting to see I may have no novels left to read on the plane going back. -- I'm looking at the idea of "just four more breakfasts," then we start the trip for home -- a happy prospect.
There are arrangements made by phone to go to Bannoye Lake. I’m told we will leave after lunch. It has an upscale lakeside resort where the Sonya's friends have a rented room in the year-round hotel. There is also a ski resort, made noteworthy because Putin uses its facilities for his vacation. They include a conference center. Sergei, a thirtysomething and Sonya's friend, picks up the four of us at the apartment. We leave almost immediately, at two, I forgot to take sunglasses or swallow a Xanax for the car trip (no centerline, no airbag; autos with powerful engines passing us going over 80 mph/135kph; and another driver indifferent to the commonsense use of his shoulder harness), so I'm left feeling anxious. Sasha/Alexandr (he loaned the DVD player to us), his pregnant wife and Sonya's former live-in lover meet us. Another 10 miles or so, and we're at the resort. Our first treat is an enclosed gondola ride to the top of the ski lift. Sergei's considerate and rides up with us, giving us a photographer for Luba and me posing together. Gazing out upon the plains, we could see up to seven lakes in the vicinity. Luba claims there's an underground river connects to a more lakes.
Our group of 7 adults and kids went up to the hotel room 206 for conversation and a snack. Too few chairs, so I went into the corridor and read the novel I'd brought. I'm finishing Excavation by James Rollins and will be starting This Far No Further by John Wessel next. After an hour, Luba had me rejoin the group for a sightseeing walk along the edge of the lake. We saw expensive condos (which would be 30 miles from one's job in Magnitogorsk), a conference center, boat ramp, a forest of birch trees (Luba's favorites) and paved paths; there were inflatable piers. An enclosed swimming area looked inviting, though the water's on the chilly side. By the time, Sergei was to drive us back, I had more respect for his driving skills after getting to know him somewhat better.
A Visa card is useless this far from Moscow. So, I voice concern when Luba tells me she/we are down to $400 US – 4 Ben Franklins. (Luba discovered that the bank found one of the $100 bank notes to be unacceptable, saying there was a 1/8" tear on one edge.) These funds must last us until we board the flight to SeaTac. Our return tickets crossing the Atlantic are purchased. All we must do now is keep track of them. We'll have a one-night layover in Moscow Luba has arranged through her elder daughter Anastassia.
Sunday, July 10, 2005
Sleeping and reading in the morning, for me
There followed a progressive dinner at the apartment of Larissa and Mark; dessert at the apartment of Anna, Luba's niece. Also present: Anna's son Vladic, who demonstrated his growing skill at the piano at age 9.
Monday, July 11, 2005
After all the walking recently, I am content to sit and read today. Luba had gotten postcards and envelopes for me to mail, so I composed the draft of what I might write.
Another day for Sonya at her job while Luba and I babysat Vanya
Internet Cafe one last time
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Vanya is seven. Luba and I came to the realization today that Vanya's paternal grandparents (Communist Party members still, in 2005) are poisoning his mind against choosing to ever join his mother Sonya in America. We know little of what he has been told. We have no plan for how to fight back. On this, we do agree: the paternal grandparents’ behavior is insidious. The two examples we've heard (albeit secondhand): Sonya is a bad mother, a bad person; America is riddled with crime, so much so it is too dangerous for Vanya to live there. (It is asserted that Russia is crime-free by comparison.) Soon we will again be 6000 miles away from Vanya whereas the other grandparents see and talk to him frequently.
This stirs up memories in me about how my own daughter's mind was poisoned against me by the tag-team of her mother and her same-age male partner. I hardly know if Lynne and I were ever close. It was in 1970 that I moved the family to Boulder from Ann Arbor. Then, though possibly earlier, we drew apart. We've known protracted estrangement that can be traced back to early1992. (My grandson Patrick was not quite one year old. I haven’t seen Patrick since.)
Tuesday, July 12, 2005 -- [to be expanded]
Slava's generosity and Luba's emotional look at the past – Allanikolavna and Eugen's gravesite
My goodbye to Slava; his appreciation for my gift of mystery novels to the English Club; one final gift
One last currency exchange
My insecurity when Luba must make use of the 50R notes I've been carrying for some feeling of security when I'm out in public
Luba's anxious search for an important (perhaps critical) misplaced document - the confirmation of our flight to SeaTac with details of departure time.
Luba's Herculean task of repacking; and eliminating one piece of luggage in the process
Final gift shopping, picture taking and picture processing
Wednesday, July 13, 2005
Goodbyes at the Magnitogorsk airport
The flight to Moscow on UTair's jet
Thursday, July 14, 2005 -- Disaster Averted
Catching our flight home should have been straightforward and very doable. We already had paid reservations on Aeroflot to SeaTac on Thursday afternoon’s flight. Admission: Luba was somewhat lax in that she knew there was a discrepancy in the listed departure time -- her travel confirmation versus the tickets. Her plan for us was to arrive at Shermetyevo three hours in advance of our 4:35 p.m. departure time. As it was, the cabbie dropped us off at 2 p.m. nearest the Aeroflot ticket counter. There was no crowd at the Aeroflot departure desk since everyone else had been cleared for boarding and most had already done that. As we discovered, we were so late we weren't allowed to check two pieces of luggage, but had to drag the cumbersome wheeled baggage after us even as far as the departure gate.
Luba struggled to gain approval for us to board citing her best argument -- that "this American" had had food poisoning and our late arrival was entirely due to that. (She wasn't about to admit she mistakenly thought we were on schedule.) A supervisor who was told of our dilemma reportedly commented, "That's their problem."
It must have been right about here that I flashed on the predicament of Tom Hanks character in “The Terminal.” (It’s about a foreigner who comes to the US on a personal mission only to be stopped by Customs at a NYC airport and detained there –in limbo – for 9 months.)
The Aeroflot representative's counterargument was that the flight was full: they had already sold our seats and filled them. We were misdirected to a queue at departure point #21. Fortunately, another official directed us down the hall/corridor to #13, where we needed to be.
I was proud of Luba in that she was willing to push to the front of the line and argue our urgent need to be boarding. With the reserved seating we had counted on now gone, we remained most anxious. Luba heard over the public address system that our flight’s departure was delayed 30 minutes, possibly more.
Consequence Avoided #2: One supervisor’s Plan B was for us to take a later flight. Later would not have meant Thursday or Friday: they had no direct flights to SeaTac those days. Ignore the inconvenience of it all; forget about the extra expense! My visa expired that very day, July 14! Either I got out of the country promptly or I was in violation of the law.
[It must have been right about here that I flashed on the predicament of Tom Hanks character in “The Terminal”; my daughter gifted us a copy on DVD, and I found myself empathizing with Hans’ character, never realizing …. (It’s about a foreigner who comes to the US on a personal mission only to be stopped by Customs at a NYC airport and detained there –in limbo – for 9 months.) One scenario I imagined was Luba saying to me, “Dearest, it pains me terribly to abandon you in Moscow like this, but my plane leaves soon and I must use my ticket now or else pay full-price for a one-way ticket for the next flight departing for SeaTac. Here’s your passport: guard it! Save the $300 I’m leaving with you and don’t spend it all on one night at the Metropol Hotel. Here is a map of Moscow. I’ve marked the location of the International Park, the summer home to foreigners who are broke, homeless and can’t manage an exit visa. I’m sure you’ll find company there. With good luck you’ll find someone who speaks English. You might even be able to barter those last 2 suspense novels for some other escapist fiction to continue your reading and keep your mind off your troubles. Don’t bother going to the US Embassy until you look really scruffy. Those people are so-o-o heartless. They would sooner be tempted to make an exit visa possible because you’re a walking embarrassment to them than because you’ve come to them with a sad tale to tell. Here’s a kiss. Goodbye….” – I must have an overactive imagination; it can be such a curse!]
Plan B was forgotten when a woman in charge did some further checking with a member of the flight crew. Based on what she learned, she was able to offer Luba two seats, but with the proviso that they wouldn't be adjacent. It soothed us somewhat
The person welcoming us aboard told Luba she was assigned to Seat 2B; and I was directed to Seat 3G. What passenger in coach doesn’t envy the pampered passengers in First Class? The passengers hadn’t yet buckled their seatbelts before Luba and I encountered still more good fortune: when the very nice American business traveler having the window seat next to mine became aware we had been separated, he volunteered to switch seats with Luba. That was accomplished so quickly that we were seated together in oh-so-plush seats with generous legroom moments before the Boeing 767 took off. (I ask the reader to keep in mind that, due to feeling ill and with no interest in solid food, I would be intent on sleeping much of the 10-hour trip. The additional legroom made that far more pleasant. Had we checked in two hours earlier, we would surely have ended up our reserved seats in coach. Had we remained separated, in Business Class, I would have not had Luba’s TLC.)
We were airborne. After settling down and finding that the orange juice being served agreed with my stomach, I managed to sleep. I appreciated the electronic entertainment box and earphones offered to everyone in Business Class were a huge improvement over the in-flight movie in coach. The small screen could be placed on one's lap, and the viewer could see and hear his or her choice of recent American-made movies in English. Alternatively, Luba was able to watch Russian movies in Russian.
Our worst moment at the Moscow airport had involved the official with the "that's their problem" anti--consumer attitude. By contrast, how it worked out was much a matter of “When given a lemon, make lemonade.”
Friday, July 15, 2005 – Returning to America
As our pilot made his approach to SeaTac from the south, Luba and I were able to glimpse a spectacular sight, one this Midwesterner never dreamt of seeing: two volcanoes simultaneously, Mt. Tahoma and Mt. St. Helens.
What did it feel like to be back on the ground safely and in the US once more? I was relieved that our trip abroad had ended. In 2001, Russia was touted as being a budding democracy. Bush and Putin were friends. Moreover, that trip was made prior to 9/11. This time, I went there convinced that Russia had become a dictatorship, and I expected to see a different Russia. My worst fears weren’t remotely realized. With wealth concentrated in a few families (the Russian oligarchs), there are the tens of millions who toil in Russia and still lack the quality of life that our middle-class enjoys. Communism in the last century provided a safety net; 21st-century Russia plainly does not. While in Russia, I saw ample evidence for the idea ordinary Russians demand too little – too little of government, of society, and of themselves. In many ways, I preferred the Russia I witnessed in 2001.