Thursday, November 28, 2013

Moscow Re Deux -Part 1


The last time I was in Moscow was 30 years ago when Russia was part of the Soviet Union and Communism was in all its glorious failure in its ability to provide consumer goods to its populace.  The change I experienced was astounding and almost on a par with changes in Beijing during the same 30 years.  Thirty years ago Brezhnev was still in power although as an ailing dictator.  There were very few cars outside of the government cars, the Zil and Chika whose drivers drove in special lanes in the streets at top speed blasting their horns at the rare driver who trespassed into the privilege zones.  Government run hotels still had door men to check for your hotel pass and floor ladies who job was to hand you your room key in exchange for your pass.  They of course also reported you for anything unusual such as not sleeping in your room and showing up in the early morning hours to change your clothes and take a cold shower (due to lack of hot water).
If you were so luck to actually find something you wanted to buy in a department store, the process required standing in line 3 times. The first part was to nudge and slide your way pass other comrades to get to the counter where solemn faced women seemed to compete for the most put upon person in the world. You pointed to an item you wanted to buy.  They would reluctantly write the name of the item and price on a thin piece of paper and hand it to you.  Then you had to find the cashier and stand in line to pay and obtain a red stamp on our paper.  Then you when back to the dour-faced automatons repeating the nudging and sliding process to arrive with your stamped receipt to pick up your prize.
And the black marble mausoleum home of Lenin’s Tomb was once the darling of Red Square where long queues were routine even during bitter cold days.  The tomb of the Unknown Soldier was alongside and on the hour, Soviet soldiers goose stepped in dramatic fashion to perform the changing of the guard.
Arrival at Sheremetyevo Airport in the 80’s consisted of dark, mostly empty corridors that funneled you in front two serious minded officers in full uniform who like to play waiting games before reluctantly stamping your passport.  Then on to the baggage pick up which typically lasted an hour before the accordion doors rose and your luggage tumbled out.  Next, was the custom inspection where I once had every single bit of my possessions examined at length, including having a box of raisin bran opened, to assure nothing contrary to the national interests of the Soviet Union might be smuggled in.
Thirty years later Judith and I land at Domodedovo Airport, one of three airports serving Moscow.  It is like any other modern European airport, complete with high end and extensive duty free shops.  Our luggage arrived within a reasonable time, we found an ATM to get new rubles and then learned getting a taxi was a hassle due to the need to negotiate a price.  The best price we could find was equal to $80 U.S. and the first indication that our money was not going to provide the amount of value we were used to.  Taxis are very expensive in Moscow, but everything was expensive by Chicago standards.
Due to a lightning storm caused delay at O’Hare we missed our flight out of Frankfurt to Moscow.  We were rebooked on a flight 4 hours later which caused us to arrive in Moscow after midnight, reaching the Metropol Hotel about 1:15 AM.   It was a very long day.
Knowing the hotel breakfast would be a grand feast and very expensive, we ventured out and found a local restaurant near the completely restored GUM department store that lines one side of Red Square.  A quick glance into Red Square revealed that a stage was set up facing St. Basil’s church with the fencing taking up about one half of the square denying access to Lenin’s tomb.  Then we found out that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier had been moved around the corner just outside the Kremlin Walls.  
 
So the glorious leaders of the Revolution and intelligentsias of Communism and the Soviet Union appear to have lost their semi-deification.  Gone were the numerous statues and posters of the glorious leaders.  In contrast, in China, statues abound of Mao who is still revered in spite of his leadership as one of the cruelest despots the world has known.  His face is still on all Chinese currency.  But I digress.  
Our main objective to Moscow is to see glimpses of the Tajikistan male community who have migrated to Moscow to eke out a living.  My wife, Judith helped to sponsor a Tajikistani doctor’s initial study related to drug and alcohol use and the spread of HIV within their lives in Moscow and how the spread occurs when the men go back to the homes to the women in Tajikistan.  The doctor, whose name is shorted to Mabot who I came to greatly admire, arrived at our hotel with a Tajiki friend with a car and we drove for an hour in heavy traffic to a huge bizarre where the Tajikistani’s main job was to keep the variety of shops supplied with goods.  Almost all the goods sold came from China and the prices were bargains compared to the rest of Moscow.  The photo below is just the start of many long columns of shops selling any article of clothing possible.  The yellow sign says “shapke”, if I remember my Cyrillic alphabet correctly. 
The man who runs this bizarre is a very wealthy person as he takes a cut of every transaction.  The Tajiks make enough money to live, buy drugs and alcohol and pay for sex and still have money to send home to their family.  Some develop relationships with Russian woman while in Moscow and a few single men have permanent places to live.  As do men everywhere, the use of condoms is not embraced and many Tajiks are mostly ignorant about how HIV is transmitted.  They have no insurance and no little access to HIV testing facilities. The stigma of being found HIV positive is also a deterrent to want to be tested.  Little of no help is given to them by the Russian of Moscow government.
The Russian people as a whole are xenophobic and mistreat minorities who are mostly former members of the Soviet Empire.  Being Muslims also is a negative. Sometimes the police beat them, take them to jail, and take their money.  These men’s lives are difficult.   What would be interesting to know is what life is like back home in Tajikistan for the women who live with few men around.
After meeting with a couple to Russian officials on Sunday, we were free to pursue some basic tourist sites.  We started with the on-off bus which was probably a mistake given the traffic congestion during a rainy day consuming so much time and the bus not really going to specific places of interest. 


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Worst Period of my Live


At age 50 I was out of a job and managed after 8 months, to find a job in Skokie, Illinois for a small company. I knew I had no future there and sure enough after 5 years I was again unemployed.  My prospects looked dim because the industries I had worked in were dying. 

I had moved my possessions into a corner of the basement of my girlfriend’s house.  From there I conducted my search which lasted 18 months.  I had a B.S. degree in Ceramic Engineering and a MBA in Management.  I had skills, I was smart, and I never ever had a bad performance review.  I knew how to write a good resume and developed several introduction letters that applied to whatever the ad’s job description had in mind.

In those days, jobs were not found on the internet because the internet was in its infancy; there was no email and no web sites specializing in jobs.  I religiously went through the Sunday want ads circling those I could respond to and Monday I spent preparing envelopes filled with a resume and introduction letter, which I mailed before the day was over.  Sometimes I sent out 20 letters.  I also had some headhunters working to earn themselves a commission by finding an employer that would hire me. 

I was drawing unemployment and I started to work at Jewel grocery store stocking shelves making sure I didn’t make too much money to keep my unemployment check coming.  Usually, I stocked the cookies and crackers or worked in the cooler filling the trays with milk and other dairy products.  I also had the joy of getting to clean up spills in the aisles caused by a glass jar smashing onto the floor.  The other main job I had was to break down all the cardboard boxes and put them into a press and make a bale of that were held together with baling wire. The result looked like a bale of straw except it was brown instead of yellow.  

I thought a lot about what jobs I might secure that had nothing to do with my engineering degree.  I like to drive.  Maybe I could be a limo driver.  Maybe I could get a job on a cruise ship dancing with lonely rich widows who might whisper their room number in my ear. I had enough labor intensive jobs before I graduated from college to know that wasn’t for me.

I answered ads for quality control, project engineering, process engineering, to no avail.  Finally I realized I had to reinvent myself and I honed my resume to respond to environmental positions.  At my previous job, I took care of all waste management issues and I was always successful in finding cost savings in any job I had. 

At the time, environmental concerns were a hot topic in the country so this is where I concentrated my efforts. 

By this time, I had had a few interviews so my interviewing skills were really pretty good.  I put together a folder showing my career accomplishments and copies of my past performance reviews.  This helped me take an active role in the interview process rather than sit back and try to respond to questions which set the stage for me to ask more questions.  And most of all I tried to exude confidence and maturity.

I finally got an offer from UOP and company based in Des Plaines, IL, with a factory in McCook, IL.  UOP mostly made products for oil refineries using a variety of chemicals.  I found my college chemistry book and boned up on gas laws dealing with temperature, pressure, and volume.  I was required to wear safety shoes and a hard hat whenever I was out of the office.  I established relationships and avoided anything controversial.  After 3 months my boss left to take another job leaving me in charge of all things related to the environment.  He left behind all the computer files related to annual reports that needed to be submitted to various governmental agencies.  Most of these were Excel files and I had a modicum of Excel knowledge.  I taught myself and soon was very proficient.  Figuring out where all the numbers in the files came from was an effort in reverse engineering.  I soon developed Excel files where all I had to do was to plug in the amount of product made each year ending up with the amount of emissions produced.  My experience at UOP was all positive except my salary which was $12000 less than my previous job.

However, at the time I was so grateful to be given a new career and to go to work every weekday.  My 18 months without a job took every bit inter fortitude to keep my spirits up.  To save money during this time I never went anywhere.  I paid off all my debts from my savings to eliminate interest payments, I had no health insurance, I cut food coupons and only went to movies (my only outside entertainment outlet) before 6 to get the early bird discount and had to give up my occasional toke of marijuana for fear I would not be able to pass a drug test, should a job offer emerge.  Even my relationship with my girlfriend was strained.  Thankfully, she never asked me to leave.  At times I felt alone, living in a basement, my future uncertain; all the elements for a strong dose of depression. 

But somehow, I lived through this terrible time and made it back into the middle class.  I felt I had a future again.  After 4 years I changed jobs to up my salary significantly, allowing me to save enough for retirement.

How different my life is now.  I am retired, happily married, and travel the world and my future is as bright as old age will allow.  I have no trouble telling myself, “I deserve it”.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Mid-forties


Life Just Before and Just After WWII Ended

In the middle 40’s, movies were the main source of entertainment in the world at the time if you eliminate home entertainment sources.  Home entertainment consisted of listening to the radio, reading books and magazines, playing games like Monopoly or Canasta and various hobbies like stamp or coin collecting and my favorite, constructing model airplanes.  Sports were a lot more male dominated then and women had their social clubs like quilting or sewing clubs. 
Phones were wired to the wall in a central location in the house and our phone number consisted of four digits, 4553 to be exact.  To call Omaha, across the river, one dialed “0” and gave the operator the number to call.  The number included a prefix such as AT2 where AT was the abbreviation for Atlantic.  No one had even heard of television then.  Cars all had manual transmissions and gas was 20 cents a gallon.
There were no shopping malls. Women dressed up a bit to shop “downtown” with hose if they could afford it, which were anchored by garter straps dangling from a girdle. They were covered by a full length slip and skirt or dress.  All clothes were made out of cotton or wool and shoes out of leather.  Groceries usually were purchased in the neighborhood at a mom and pop store.  My mother would phone the store early Saturday morning and the store clerk wrote out the order totaled up the price and added it to our running credit bill.  A delivery boy would bring the groceries by in the afternoon and empty them out of cardboard food boxes onto the kitchen table and then leave, no tip expected. 
Once in a while, my mother would give me a dime to replenish the bread supply.  I had the choice whether to walk one short block or 2 blocks to a grocery store.  The further store was the one we preferred to trade with.  This moral dilemma was met by me, by trading off one store then the other.  Wonder Bread was always the bread of choice, because, not only was it freshly baked, but it also had a one cent coupon printed on the wrapper, called a “penny saver.  One day dime in hand, bread on the counter to be paid for, the grocer said the price was now 11 cents.  Rather than walk back home to secure another penny, I tore the penny saver off the wrapper and walked out making sure the hole was upright.
Just before and just after WWII, the main source of visual images were magazines such as Life, Look, Colliers, Post, igniting the fame of Norman Rockwell who drew tug-of-the heart depictions of life we wanted it to be.  Reader’s Digest was popular then as it still is. The magazine's format for many decades consisted of 30 articles per issue (one per day), along with a vocabulary page, a page of "Amazing Anecdotes" and "Personal Glimpses", two features of funny stories entitled "Humor in Uniform" and "Life in these United States", and a lengthier article at the end, usually condensed from a published book.

The Movies                                                                                                                                      
Council Bluffs, Iowa is not exactly the entertainment capital of the world, or the nation, or even the state of Iowa.  But it was located across the river from Omaha, Nebraska and therefore the greater urban area made it the largest of any other city in Iowa.  Still, the main form of entertainment was the movies.  In pre–TV days, movies were quite a bit more popular than today, even though the seats didn’t have drink holders or rocker seat backs or always a clear view of the silver screen due to a big haired woman sitting in front of you.

 Most of the time there was a double feature with a Loony Tunes cartoon and a newsreel shown in between films.  The newsreels shown at the movies were a week old but were one of the main ways Americans kept abreast of world events.  During the war, newsreels provided glorified episodes of America winning the war.  They would show a Nazi or Rising Sun flag to start and of course everyone booed loudly.  Newsreels covered all the English Royal family doings, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, and the annual Soap Box Derby held in Akron, Ohio.  It was in a newsreel that I saw General Douglas McArthur walk ashore on a beach in the Philippines, saying “I have returned”.  (Shortly after college, I worked with a man who told me he knew someone that was there when McArthur waded ashore and Mac walked ashore several times to until the photographer was satisfied that it would impact the folks at home to elicit the maximum effect.  This was the first time I realized that sometimes the news was staged.)

 
In Council Bluffs there were three movie theaters named The Strand, Liberty, and Broadway. The Strand could be classified as a movie palace because the interior had the aura of the Arabian Nights with minarets silhouetted with dark blue back lighting. The Liberty theater showed mostly "B” movies, had cheaper prices, and didn’t always smell good, and the clientele reflected these aspects.  Seldom did our family attend there. 
 
All theaters had balconies and later, when I was in 7th and 8th grade, boys and girls in my class would meet in the balcony, pair up and kiss each other when there was a lull in the action. Boys would put their arm around the shoulders of girls with arm bent at the elbow hoping to accidently brush against a pubescent breast. It was there I learned that my arm would eventually become completely numb from lack of blood flow.  I was always reluctant to move my again functioning arm because I lacked the polish to casually put it back.   
I remember four large movie theaters in Omaha, and the Paramount was the more the palace having a Roman theme with classic marble statues placed here and there.  The ceiling also looked like the night sky with twinkling stars.
 
The box office was always outside under the marquee offering protection from the elements.  There were two prices, one for children 12 or under and adults.  The price was 10 cents for children and 45 cents for adults.  The tickets were in two parts similar to tickets handled out for an auction.  The ticket taker was positioned just before the lobby and tore half the ticket off depositing the theater’s half into a glass walled cylinder that stood about 5 feet tall.  The stub retained allowed re-entry should it be necessary and also was kept for Friday nights which was called Bank Night.  In between films the employees would wheel out a giant circular bin and tickets were drawn for cash prizes.
When ready to enter the theater, an usher greeted patrons, asked if they had a seating preference, then, led them down the aisle with a flash light, then, shined the light to empty seats which also signaled seated patrons that people would be entering the row.  Back then people would enter a film at almost any time except the final stages.  I remember several times walking in when the film was already underway, then stayed for the reshowing until the place I walked in.  I suppose this was reason for ushers. I was then able to put the entire story together then. 
Saturday morning was matinee for children mostly, and cartoons and serials were shown.  Serials lasted about 30 minutes and ended with the heroes or heroines in dire straits making it a necessity to return next Saturday to learn how they escaped.   At times, the older children got noisy and rowdy and the ushers would seek out the culprits and shine the flashlight at their faces.  Sometimes, the ushers seemed like firemen putting out small fires here and there as they moved to each hot spot.
One of the things a remember most was the entertainment at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha.
 
After watching the featured film, the curtains would close and the sounds of band music were heard as the curtain slowly reopened and the band stage moved forward near the front of the stage.  The popular bands at the time came to the Orpheum and performed a concert although I was not called that.  I remember watching both the Dorseys bands, (Jimmy and Tommy, the sentimental gentleman of swing), Les Brown and his band of renown, Woody Herman and the Third Herd, Ralph Marterie’s Caravan, Artie Shaw, Kay Kyser with Ish Kabibble, Glenn Miller, and my favorite, Spike Jones and His City Slickers.  Spike’s instruments included a banjo, a washboard played with a thimble, kazoos and a tuba which had to be emptied of water during the show. I sat in the first row and Spike was introducing the next tune and I thought he was doing to play my favorite and I was so anxious I loudly spoke it out.  “Right in Der Fuehrer’s Face” I shouted.  Spike turned and looked right at me, saw I was a youngster, and laughed.
Those were the golden days all right.
 
 
 

 
 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Natasha-Part II


During this time Natasha and I were together every evening and night.   I was officially a resident at the Rossiya Hotel and had to be picked up there in the morning with the rest of the crew. So each morning I would depart from Natasha’s building by taking the elevator down.  To keep other residents from seeing me wait at the elevator and start to wonder who this man was, Natasha told me to either walk up a couple of flights or down a couple of flights before getting on the elevator.  Then I would walk across the street and catch a bus to the metro station.  It would still be dark and footsteps in the snow made a resounding crunch. Some days it was so cold that the bus door would not close all the way.  Everyone was supposed to drop a kopek or two into a box in the middle of the bus, but sometimes it was so crowded that the effort needed and the disruption caused was just now worth it. 

Upon arriving at the Metro station, 10 kopeks allowed me to descend a fast moving escalator, down about 70 meters and wait for the subway that allowed me to come within 2 blocks of the Rossiya Hotel.  I then had to show my room card to the semi-frozen door man to enter the hotel, take the elevator up to my floor, hand my card to the floor lady, who then gave me the key to my room.   I would shower in tepid or cold water, change clothes and meet everyone for breakfast.  The breakfast room was Spartan and dreary but had windows so we could see the sun hang low in the south.  By the end of January, the sun was visible for almost 8 hours. 

It was during this time that Natasha and I became close.  We were hampered by our language barrier, me with no Russian at all except one to three word essentials and Natasha’s limited English.  We bought English­-Russian, Russian-English dictionaries which helped some, but when it came to expressing complex thoughts or feelings, it became very difficult. Still we learned about our families.  She was divorced with a daughter who lived with her ex-husband.  Natasha saw her daughter often and she seemed to be a good terms with him.

To keep my foreign status less obvious we went to the Beriozka where I bought a red fox hat that suited my fantasy and with the long winter coat I had purchased in Austria, I looked like a “handsome Russian man,” according to Natasha.  We went to a variety of great restaurants she knew about and I learned how she cleverly bribed the doorman if we were denied entrance always with a smile as she looked straight at the person and shook hands as five Rubles was passed.

In Moscow, things really were not expensive.  It was the lack of goods and services that made life difficult.  I learned that in Russia, it was necessary to have a network of friends who could get things for you.  Hard currency could get you many things unavailable otherwise and within the black market one could get 3 or 4 Rubles for a dollar which was much better than the official exchange rate of which took $1.40 to get one Ruble. This was one of the things Natasha was able to do for me. I would give her $1 00 and she would give me at least 300 Rubles sometimes more. Suddenly I became a big spender when it came to dining out.  Having champagne and caviar at dinner was routine.

I never asked her what happened to the dollars as I didn’t want to know.  Once when I returned to the states, she asked me to buy her a boom box which I did and brought back to her. She paid me for it and it disappeared. During this time ABBA, the Swedish rockers were popular and they were heard often here and there.  But my favorite, Pink Floyd was an entirely new sound and I gave her some of my tapes of them along with a few others.

Once we were having lunch in the Rossiya Hotel and the waiter asked Natasha something and she translated.  “He asked if you would like to buy ½ a kilo of caviar for $25 U.S. dollars.”  I said yes of course and after paying for lunch, we met in the hall outside the restaurant and received a pound of caviar wrapped in a newspaper. I ate caviar every day until I could not eat anymore.

One thing hard currency couldn’t buy was a ticket to the Bolshoi. But Natasha got tickets through her friends.  The ticket price was very modest, but getting access to one took some maneuvering. 

I will never forget going to the Bolshoi with Natasha.  It was awesome enough just to be able to go inside and see the crimson, gold trimmed seats and the special second story balcony layout front and center that was built for the tsars.  But to watch Swan Lake performed in the Bolshoi with this beautiful Russian woman at my side, definitely will always be one of the highlights of my life.  At the end of the performance every single person rose to their feet in applause yelling “bravo” and those close to the stage throwing flowers.  Several curtain calls later, I was left speechless.  Did I mention that I will never, ever forget this night?  Chills run up my spine while I am writing this.  We also attended a performance of the Nutcracker Suite and that pretty special also.
 
The Russians were on to the fact that I had a girlfriend.  The time I returned with the boom box, the driver asked me, “how is Natasha?”  I am sure the floor lady in the Rossiya Hotel reported the fact that I never slept in my room, but to know specifically who I spent my time with, I can only chalk up to being spied upon.  I didn’t suspect Natasha as being involved even though I knew I could not be totally, 100% sure at that point. Anyway I knew they knew so I didn’t need to be coy about it.
She told me she had a plan before she met me on how to get out of Russia.  A Japanese man wanted to marry her and her plan was to marry him, go to Japan, divorce him and go to Paris to live.  She liked to talk about what she knew about Russia before the revolution and grandeur of life around the Tsar.  She considered the communists a bunch of thugs.  In that regard she certainly had a point.
She took the train down to Voronezh twice to visit me, which was all right, but staying with me we knew would be a problem.  So I would do in and stand in front of the lady at the desk blocking her view, while Natasha crept in behind and got in the elevator.  She then never went out of the building while I was at work. We got caught once though coming out of the elevator which I am sure got reported.
In Russia, being able to buy a round trip train ticket was not possible, so I went with her to the train station while she tried to buy a first class train ticket.  She was told there were no more spaces, which to her meant to bribe the ticket seller.  When that didn’t work, she came to me and said “fucking communists”.  Apparently the bribe was turned down based on ideology. 
I began to have thoughts of marriage even though it would be extremely difficult to accomplish, although not impossible.  One American I knew married one of our interpreters,  
In the end, I was asked to leave Russia due to Natasha.  Apparently we were star crossed lovers without realizing it.   She met me at Sheremetyevo Airport before my flight home and when I saw her I had to choke back tears.  She was all smiles and gave me three tins of caviar.  I was able to control my emotions then and smiled back.  I told her I loved her and she replied back with, “I love you, Davie”.
She called me a month later when I was home in Lancaster, urging me to come to Moscow, but I had to tell her it would be impossible for me.  I don’t know how she managed to accomplish this and before we were finished, we were cut off.  That was the last time I heard from her.  I often wonder if she married the Japanese man and somehow made it to Paris.
Natasha, I hope you are safe and happy and thank you for being in my life.
 
 
 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Natasha 1981-82-Part I


It all began when I stepped out of the Chaika limousine in front of the National Hotel, just steps away from Red Square.  It was November, 1981 about 6 PM, dark and cold. Two attractive women were walking by and on the spur of the moment, I tipped my western cowboy hat to them, and one of the women smiled in amusement, flashing flirtatious eyes, I was quick to note.

Once again I was with three other RCA men.

After getting settled in our hotel and having dinner together, the other three men retired to their rooms seeking jet lag relief.  I wanted to stay awake as long as possible until it was local bedtime. This was my second trip to Moscow and we stayed the first time at the Intourist Hotel just around the corner from the National Hotel.  I knew there was a ballroom there where a live combo played making dancing available to vodka and champagne drinking patrons.

So I took the short walk around the corner leaving my winter coat behind. I climbed the stairs to the second floor and entered the ballroom.  Scanning the room, to my delight, I spied the woman who rewarded my hat tip with a smile and she was sitting at a table with a couple empty seats. I approach her table with a reasonable amount of confidence and asked her to dance.  Fortunately she spoke a bit of English.  After the dance I escorted her back to the table and sat down.  She spoke to me mostly with her eyes and I could tell she was interested.  I informed her that my visit to Moscow was short but I was due to come back to Moscow soon.  She gave me her phone number and I promised I would call her upon my return. Her name was Natasha or Natalie, or Natalya all of which are appropriate to use depending on the context. 

I am sure we talked more but we did dance at least a couple of more times before I begged off and I needed to find my bed and get some sleep ready for tomorrow’s meeting.

As it turned out, plans were made for me to arrive before the end of the year due to some tax advantages that were available should I be a resident for an entire year. I left for my permanent assignment on December 29th from Lancaster, PA, arrived in Frankfort, at 7:30 AM on the 30th, and caught my plane to Moscow, arriving at 6:15 PM.  After waiting 45 minutes for my luggage to arrive, I cleared customs and was met by a driver who took me to the largest hotel in the world at the time, the Rossiya Hotel, just off Red Square where my greeting party helped check me into one of the 3200 rooms.
 
 
The next morning I called Natasha and we arranged to meet in at 3 PM in front of the Intourist Hotel.  She walked up wearing a beautiful fur hat and a coat whose trim matched her hat and mid-calf boots, a picture of elegance. After we met we tried to find a restaurant to sit and chat but they were all closed because it was New Year’s Eve day.  We trekked around the streets adjoining Red Square, for about 40 minutes before finally finding a small buffet.  We were getting along just fine and we wanted to be together that evening.  Natasha cancelled her plans, called a friend and he or she arranged to cram a small table at the edge of the ballroom at the Intourist where we celebrated the New Year.  By the time midnight came around, most people were loosened up with champagne and vodka and the place was rocking and true to form, the music turned to Russian gypsy music and good feelings were expressed for all comrades celebrating.
 
We caught a cab to Natasha’s building, took the elevator up and entered her flat. Her place consisted of one room with a small Pullman kitchen and bathroom.  Off in one corner was her single sized bed and we soon were sharing the intimacy of our bodies.  We woke about 11 AM and we took a short bus ride to a park next to the Metro station.  The beautiful park was called the Exhibition of Economic Achievement with a large futuristic obelisk as its center piece.  We had lunch there and later we went to a “camping hotel” where I met her musician cousin who was part of a rock band. 
 
I was to leave Moscow on the night of the 4th taking an overnight train ride to Voronezh.   During the interval Natasha and I were together most the time enjoying each other in every way possible.  The night of the 2nd she took me by way of the Metro, to the newest hotel and hot spot in Moscow, called the Mezdurodskaya.  It was quite modern, designed and built by a Swedish architect, with escalators, a high ceiling atrium, and indoor glass elevators. Even by today’s standards it would be an excellent place to stay.   We were entertained with a gypsy floor show and according to my notes, but I have no memory of it, probably because my mind was filled with what was happening to me.  And on the 3rd, the evening was spent at the Suyez with another dramatic floor show followed with dancing.
On Monday January 4th, Natasha got off work to meet me at 2 for lunch at the Baku restaurant on Gorky Street.  We went back to her flat and decided we would try to be together whenever possible.  We were two lovers, well matched intellectually and physically and full of adventure. Natasha was intoxicating, beautiful and oh so classy. The fact that the government would frown with our budding relationship, only made it more exciting.
I left for Voronezh that evening. 
During long overnight train ride, my mind was filled with whirlwind of feelings and thoughts about my experiences during the last few days. Was Natasha a KGB agent who job was to compromise foreigners?  Was her only intent to trap a foreign man into marrying her and providing a path to the West?  How much could I trust her?  And do I really want to pursue this exciting creature?  I had time to be wary.  Trust had to be earned.
How I feel when I am someone’s presence has always been a guideline to me.  But now I was separated from her and faced with new challenges in Voronezh and I needed to deal with them first and foremost.      
I was able to phone her and talk briefly wondering who might be listening in on our conversations. As it turned out the plant in Voronezh was mostly an assembly plant and some of the critical parts were to be made in Vilnius, Lithuania and in Moscow.  So toward the end of January I returned to Moscow to shepherd a technical team from RCA men to get the manufacturing process underway.  I was there for two weeks.
 

 

 
 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Soviet Union1981-82 -Part II


Alcohol

There are only two alcoholic drinks worth drinking in Russia, champagne and vodka.  By the way did you know that vodka translates as “little water”?  Champagne was available with 5 different sugar contents.  I liked the one in the middle and missed having it available when I came back to the states where Brut is the most popular.  Russians delight in popping champagne corks and if you look at any low hanging ceilings in restaurants to can see the damage corks have affected over the years.  Champagne is usually the drink of choice for the women leaving vodka to men to test their manhood.
A liter of vodka cost between 7 and 10 Rubles making it affordable but not cheap.  A liter bottle had no screw top or cork, just an aluminum tab, so when a bottle was opened, it pretty much had to be completely consumed.  There was no way to cap it again without danger of spillage.  A number of drunks could always be found on the ground, passed out even in the dead of winter or see men weaving and reeling down the street needing to prop themselves up every few yards.  I was not used to seeing drunks so completely out of it.
I had read that Russians men don’t really trust another man, unless they can drink vodka with them shot for shot.  Indeed, I had more than one chance to prove they could trust me and I discovered a previous unknown talent I had; being able to outdrink most Russians.  It was considered good manners to always propose a toast and while my toasts were never inspiring or particularly eloquent, I learned how to flatter my drinking company or relate my yearning that we all be comrades in search of truth and understanding.
At work I was always presented with papers to sign which were mostly designed to protect the Russians rear ends.  I suppose in a system where good work goes unrewarded and mistakes are punished, this was to be expected.  The people I dealt with on a daily basis were good communists in the sense that they were able to talk the ideology and were promoted because of it, but they were not the brightest bulb.  Once in a while, a technical person would be brought into a meeting and I found them to be very competent.
The average Russians knowledge about what was going on in the outside world was very limited which I expected but they were also ignorant about their own government actions and their not too distant history including anything about Stalin.  Government officials lived in style while the average citizen had to scurry and scrounge or just learn to live without.
I found I sympathized with them and identified with their desire for a better life.  Basically, I saw Soviet citizens as good people except for their willingness to spy on their fellow citizen.  When I went to a club where there was a large dance floor, as soon as the music started to play they were up and dancing, none of the hanging back at first.  And invariably towards midnight the music became more gypsy in feel, the Russian men would get out on the floor and dance by themselves, I would join in also letting my body respond to the music.

Toilet Paper

One of the things I wish had known about before my first arrival was the quality of toilet paper available or lack thereof.  The surface of some was similar to wax paper, others were very rough and sometimes full of wood chips.  I actually started a collection.  I am not exactly why it did so; perhaps it was to astound folks back home.  I am sure I showed it once or twice, but it’s not really a topic that comes up frequently in polite company.
One can never be assured that a toilet has any toilet paper at all, so everyone travels around with their pockets or purses stuffed with some sort of tissue just in case.  A supply of which surely qualifies as emergency rations.
As I have travelled to more places in the world by now, I have come to an epiphany that I want to share with the world. Here it is, “the degree of civilization of a country is directly proportional to the quality of its toilet paper.  You can call Herd’s law if you wish.

The Good Things

Ice cream tasted just like back home. I liked their black bread especially when butter and caviar were added.  In Moscow, the subway system is a thing of marvel, clean, cheap and efficient.  One day I spent the entire day riding the Metro, getting off each station and enjoying each station’s unique style and beauty.
And speaking of art, the museums, ballet theaters, and novels are things deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche.  Artists can be seen on the street selling their wares and much of it quite good.  The sweep and scope of Moscow, especially all of Red Square took my breathe away.  Lenin’s tomb, St Basil’s church, the Kremlin walls, and the spot-lighted hammer and cycle Red Flag waving within a Kremlin spire were all there.  The Gum department store rests to the side with the Rossiya Hotel looming in the near background. The flag is constantly waving with support of a small fan.  This is something America should consider for the Capitol Building and White House.  Who wants to see a limp flag?
The streets are very wide so traffic moves well and underground tunnels are provided for pedestrians to cross the street.  The streets and tunnels were always kept clean by a bevy of old women with their stiff bristled brooms and the tunnels were free of graffiti.
I owe this to a sort of a collective thought process by the citizens. They feel it is their duty to come up to you and tell you that it is cold enough to be wearing a hat should you be hatless.  Throwing something on the sidewalk or street might result in you being chastised and applying graffiti would surely get you arrested, something to really, really avoid as you might disappear forever.
I always felt safe on the streets late at night.  Once I rode in an unofficial taxi driven by a man who had 3 sons.  He was an Engineer, but was out offering rides to supplement his income.  We compared our lives and our daily living, possible because he spoke good English if somewhat limited. When I reminiscence, about Russia I always remember this moment and it is strangely one of my warmest moments.
On the outside of the wide street a lane is reserved for government cars the Chaika and the Zil.  We were always driven around in a Chaika and the Zil was for persons high up in the government.  Should an ordinary citizen wander is this lane of privilege and slow down one of these cars, they would be blasted with a loud horn and cursed at.  Okay, I know this is not really a good thing, except if you are riding in a Chaika on the way to Sheremetyevo.
All in all, I could not help but to like almost all the Russians I met, some of whom I shared some personal moments.  My experiences there colored by the times which have changed.  I fear not all the changes have been for the better. The culture of corruption has grown and the street may not be as safe but I am sure the spirit of the Russian people remains strong.

 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Soviet Union 1981-82 Part I


The first time I went to Moscow it was July 1981 when the sun shown until after midnight and total darkness finally fell about 1:30 AM and after a brief scurry around the top of the world, it re-emerged, producing its first ray of light again at 4:30.  This fact was one of many that signaled I was in for a view of the world quite a stretch from my small town upbringing in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

My very first impression was at Sheremetyevo International airport during my first trip to Moscow in 1981.  Four of us from RCA arrived via Swiss Air through Zurich. My boss and two others managers were there to meet with our Soviet counterparts to exchange pleasantries and discuss the implementation of the contract RCA signed to allow NBC (part of RCA back then) to televise the 1980 Olympics. If you recall, President Carter was incensed that the Soviets went into Afghanistan to set up a secular puppet government and the United States boycotting the whole affair.  The Soviets wanted RCA to supply them with machinery and technology to produce color picture tubes and our job was to iron out the details of how all the pieces should fall into place. For the past year, we had been shipping equipment to the three separate sites that were to produce the components and tubes.

After stepping out of the plane, we got on a bus that dumped us off at the almost disserted terminal and walked about half a mile to passport control with our footsteps producing echoes bouncing off the high ceiling.  The youngish officer proceeded to look at my passport, then me, then the passport, and then me several times, long enough for me to be able to pick up his rhythm.  After about 5 minutes he finally reluctantly stamped my passport, then looked away with distain when he returned it to me.  “Okay, I get it”, I thought, “out countries are still cold war enemies”.

Our luggage took about an hour after that to arrive.  I don’t know it the passport guys called the baggage department and warned them to that Americans had arrived so let them sweat. But I dismissed this thought as being too paranoid. Even so I was to learn that being paranoid in the Soviet Union served a purpose.  I was to go through this procedure 4 more times in the future and the only variation I experienced was a record setting 45 minute wait.

Finally a sliding door rose and our luggage slid down.  Custom Control was in the same room so our bags were in view every second as we passed them through a Phillips X-ray machine, then onto long tables. Every single item in our luggage was looked at and I was happy that all my underwear was still clean and that I had left my latest copy of Playboy home.  Still, I made the mistake of picking up a copy of Time Magazine at the Swiss Airline club room in Zurich and it was confiscated due to the fact it was an issue about the Soviet Union and its problems.

Another time when I flew in, I was in the process of reading the murder mystery “Gorky Park” and although there was nothing derogatory said about Moscow except to describe it, well okay maybe that was enough, they took it gave me a receipt and said I could have it when I left.  When I left I showed my receipt and the man went off and after 30 minutes he came back told me it was no longer there.  So I pulled out a business card I had gotten from the U.S. Embassy and showed it to him and he told me to wait and off he went again.  Two minutes later he handled me my book.

Then there was the time I came in with some food including a box of raison bran flakes and the attractive lady customs officer dressed smartly in full uniform opened the box, lifted the cellophane package out and felt the cereal.  I wanted to ask her if she thought I had a full cup of raisons included as Kellogg promised in their advertising, but I decided it was not the time to make smart ass remarks for I feared some of my body cavities would be probed. She proceeded to question the contents of my tooth paste also.   But I was not about to show any signs that I was put out by her ongoing. When I finally was allowed to zip things up and repack I gave her my best smile and thanked her.  I made a comment to the driver who always picked me up what was going on as he was able to witness the whole thing.  He replied that I choose a woman and she wanted to know everything she could about a foreign man.  I had chosen a woman because I thought she would be more lenient, but the driver was right.  A man would not be comfortable being that invasive with another man.

My first breakfast in Moscow was at the Intourist Hotel.  Four of us found the breakfast area and paid the cashier 1.5 rubles and she gave us a thin paper receipt.  Sitting six feet away was another woman who job was to collect the receipts.  I almost laughed out loud, as in “you can’t be serious”, but the countenance of the woman was so severe, I decided to withhold any reason to be seen as an ugly American.  The breakfast options were typically European; cold cuts, cheeses, and anything that could be canned like pickles and fish.  No juice or hot food was available with the exception of hot water held in a large Samovar for tea.  I had never seen a Samovar before so I approached it cautiously giving it much respect. It was an old Samovar probably pre-revolutionary, and I wonder what history it could tell me.  I wish I had been smart enough to try to buy one similar to it because it was quite elegant.

It didn’t take me long to learn what a failed system Soviet Communism was. Gross inefficiencies, indifference to any customer, paranoia to foreign ideas, and spying on citizens were all immediately evident.

Beriozkas

Rubles were Soviet currency and could be secured in the Soviet Union and spent there.  However, there was a vast black market at work where hard currency such as US dollars, British pounds, French francs, could be used to buy many items not available in any stores. By any international standards, the Soviet Union was a poor country and the government did all they could to obtain hard currency so they could use it to trade internationally.  The Beriozkas were special hard currency stores where foreigners could buy all kinds of things not available to the ordinary Russian citizen.  I bought two red fox fur hats for about $90 each which I still have.  I remember striking up a conversation with a dark skinned man once in a Beriozka while we were scanning selections of some red meats.  He asked me where I was from and I said “America” whereupon he announced he was from Libya and that our two countries were enemies. My impression was that he had to inform me because I might now there was a country called Libya let alone that we were not getting along.  I remember saying, “that is true for now but maybe the future will be different”.  I left thinking I had out maneuvered him by appearing wise beyond my years.

Russia citizens were not allowed in the Beriozkas so I received a few offers from Russians to buy something for them once inside the forbidden enterprise. I never did for a stranger though for fear I might get in trouble.

 I also had other young men come up to me at a restaurant or club and offer to buy the jeans I was wearing off me or my watch.  This also I avoided, not only because I would be embarrassed walking out of the toilet without pants, but because they were strangers and one of the things my girlfriend Natasha had pounded into my head was never to trust strangers. More about Natasha later.

Other goods

Purchasing goods in a retail store was always a hassle and another study of inefficiency.  First you have to wait in line, tell the clerk what you wanted (I usually had to point), then she gave you a piece of paper with the item and price written on it, then you went to the cashier line and paid and in return got your receipt stamped, then you went back to stand in line again to pick up your item.  These were not single file lines that Americans were familiar with, but more of a mob pushing and shoving within undefined social limits, where one kept ones elbows out and moved into a space as it developed, sometimes turning sideways to occupy it.  Body contact was expected.  It reminded me a basketball game where a rebound is up for grabs.

This of course was mild compared to riding the metro in the morning.  If the door opened and there appeared to be no room at all to step aboard, some comrade two people behind me would push until he was safely in.  The fact that I was somehow inside with all my limbs intact, I took as serendipity.

The clerks that worked in a store were anything but salespeople.  They put on their most dour and bored faces to make sure you understood that they didn’t want to acknowledge you if at all possible and they hated being there.

Once I made a bet that I could make one of them smile and the bet was accepted. I went up to this attractive enough young woman and grinned a broadly as I could.  Her eyes were downcast but once she sensed I had invaded her space she looked up and saw a tall handsome man with a maniacal grin on his face, and she smiled for at least a second but then immediately realizing she had slipped out of character returned to her role and refused to look at me again.  I admit I felt pretty cocky then because, dear readers, this was truly an accomplishment.

Corruption and inefficiency were ways of life from the black market to every day survival.  If word got out that a load of oranges were brought in from Georgia, people would sneak away from work and stand in long lines to get some.  Fresh fruit or vegetables other than root vegetables were difficult to acquire and one had to be aware that constipation was a real threat.  Russians complained that their shoes lasted only six months or less.  There were no replacement wind shield wipers available so car owners would remove theirs when they left their car so they would not be stolen, then reattach them.  Women were constantly on the prowl for hair dyes, make up, panty hose, and anything the least bit stylish.  To this day the red dye some women used to become a redhead stands out as the most dreadful color I have ever on top of a woman’s head.  If you saw this hair color in American you would find it on some young teen age girl or boy who dyed their hair choosing between blue, red, or green.. 

It is impossible to find a good cup of coffee anywhere as tea is the morning stimulant of choice.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Our Latest Trip to Indonesia


Our latest trip to Indonesia began with the required overnight stay in Singapore.  To try something new, we booked a night at the Marina Bay Sands hotel which has one of the world’s most distinctive profiles.  It looks like joined towers that support a big boat on top.  I think it looks gauche and architecturally a disaster. 

However, it has an infinity pool at the top and this was the reason we wanted to stay there.  We check in at 1 AM and are given an upgrade to a huge two room suite with awesome views of the city’s buildings, lights, and water surrounding this city nation.  We had 3 flat-screen TV’s, one for the bath room near the bath tub, a pool table and several over-stuffed chairs and couches and a wall of glass for the view.

 In general, I think Singapore is a bit sterile and this hotel seems to match this soul less aspect.  Because the hotel consists of three towers, the main lobby extends lengthwise to the third tower with the ceiling extending upwards, a good 10 floors with various works of arts hanging down.  Two breakfast areas are also there and we picked one after checking both out.  A wide variety of breakfast food was available and we mixed both western and Asian choices.
 



After breakfast we went to the boat on top and took some photos of the infinity pool and city views showing a bit of early morning sea mist that had yet to be burned away.  It was impressive.
  We left at noon for the Changi airport and caught an afternoon flight to Jakarta and then transferred to a flight to Denpasar, Bali arriving at the domestic terminal and avoiding the need to visit passport control that was accomplished in Jakarta. 
Again, seeking something new, we splurged and booked at the St. Regis.  I say we, but this is really Judith’s doing and of course I am happy to go along.  We are met at the airport by a driver who shepherds us to a van travelling to the Nusa Dua area and 30 minutes later we are checking in.
The St. Regis is 5 stars all the way and for the next 4 days we enjoy our room, the beach, the Mai Tais, and the food.









We travel twice to our favorite massage place where we are picked up and returned to the hotel.  And no trip to Nusa Dua is complete for us with going to Jimbaran where the sunset beach there is filled with sea food restaurants.  We had a wonderful seafood meal there and watched the sun disappear amid all the people activity.  This is always a treat for us. The beach is close to the airport and as the darkness descends, the airplanes are landing every 5 minutes.

 

Bali seems to be gaining more and more tourists although few Americans. Many more Japanese, Chinese, Russians, and Aussies can be seen and restaurants are printing menus with these languages added.
Upon checking out we are driven by the hotel to the airport and a hotel employee meets us, takes our bags and guides us to Garuda Airline check in.  As I say, the St. Regis is 5 stars all the way. Of interest is to see the airport at Denpasar is greatly expanding with construction of a new terminal, parking garage, and new roads in and out which are greatly needed.  
After a two hour flight back to Jakarta, we go immediately after landing to the Silver Bird taxi place to avoid the long wait in line.  The Blue Bird taxis are never a bad option as they are metered and both the Silver and Blue Birds are owned by the same company. But the Silver Bird usually provides a van with much more leg room  The typical time to our hotel,  the Grand Hyatt, is about 45 minutes but as with most large Asian cities, the traffic can be beyond belief at times. 
Motorcycles take up about one half of the vehicles and they dart in and out of traffic lanes.  The first few times I was subjected to this kind of traffic, I was constantly watching the traffic as if I was driving and knew that constant vigilance is required and I was tired after an hour or so.  But now, I just relax and rely on the driver to safely bring us to our destination. 
The Grand Hyatt is a hotel we stay at most of the time in Jakarta.  It is right in the heart of the city overlooking the Selamat Datang (which means welcome) traffic circle and fountain.  The hotel is connected with a huge shopping mall and across the street is another even larger mall that one can easily get lost in. 

But the main feature we like is the spa and open air swimming pool area.  Complete with palm trees and small waterfalls and a serpentine swimming area, one may think this area could easily be moved to a beach but its vista is a circle of high buildings including the hotel itself.  When Judith is off working somewhere, this is where I hang out, soaking up the sun, cooling off with a dip or two and at noon time sundering over to the restaurant of a light lunch and a drink.  I usually book a massage every other day coupled with some time spent in the exercise room.  
The massages are not all that expensive and I have always enjoyed this form of being pampered.
Another feature is the club room which we always book to have access to.  Due to the time difference, we watched the third U.S. presidential debate where having breakfast.  The cocktail hour starts about 5 o’clock and there are free drinks, wine, and snacks to enjoy.  A copy of the Jakarta Post and the Herald Tribune are available and provide up to date news in the this area of the world, which always different than reading the Chicago Tribune or catching the news on TV.  This alone provides me with a more balanced view of the world.
In a country that is heavily Muslim, I have been surprised that very few of the women wear the head scarf, especially the younger women. This is less true outside of Jakarta where women in burkas can be seen on occasion.  It is rarely seen in Bali of course because Bali is Hindu.  Urban living always seems to provide more diversity and acceptance of new things.  I am glad to see this because I like texture.  It is hard to think of a place that has more texture than Chicago and somehow I feel more alive in an atmosphere that provides it. My first trip to Jakarta did not leave me with a good impression, but I have come to enjoy it very much.  Great food and friendly people always have that effect on me.