On Uncommon Ground: Part 1
It isn’t difficult to stand out in the crowd when you are tall — just by virtue of being in the room, people will notice you. I noticed him.
What’s worse, he had a beard. Whether he had a beard by virtue of being Russian, or if it was seasonal protection, it was there.
I can tolerate a beard sometimes, but I won’t kiss a man with a beard. But this wasn’t the intent of this trip — I wasn’t fancying my chances in Moscow, anyway.
This was an adventure for me, in what is the home of professionally beautiful women; whose bodies are their business, and with whom I couldn’t begin to compete with only a practical suitcase of equipment. But I was not here to be beautiful, I was here to be enriched.
The natives are rough, and unforgiving in Moscow: this is not a client centric environment, there is no welcome wagon, there is no real welcome at all. There is, however, disdain. Disdain when you looked like us, especially.
Tall isn’t only the only physical manifestation of presence. The short, concentrated version of a persona, truly larger than life, is far more compelling to me. A man who is quite literally bursting at the seams.
Such was our fearless leader. He’d have been intolerable any taller. He was due arrive the next day, and so we braved a night out on our own, with a kid we picked up at the hotel lobby who’d been trying it on in English for a free upgrade.
Falling foul of the “face check”
The tall bearded Russian who’d previously been lurking was now leaning over, staring right at me.
The natives are rough, and unforgiving in Moscow — this is not a client centric environment, there is no welcome wagon, there is no real welcome at all. There is, however, disdain. Disdain when you looked like us, especially. Muscovites love to show what they’ve got — if you’re not showing what you’ve got, it quite simply means you haven’t got it, and you can bugger off. Subtlety, much like courtesy, is lost on the Russians.
The Beard pointed to the glow of a red and white sign. Without another word between us, I was clearly advised of my status: Face Check. I appealed to my buddy: “Is he serious?”
“But you two guys are going in?”
“Looks like it.”
“So what am I supposed to do, then?!”
“Watch our stuff?”
I was not impressed, but what could you do.
This beautiful and brilliant couple
Our fearless leader, whose seams have longs since broken and filled themselves anew has a figurative circle in which he exerts his drawing force, in proportions uncommon to the common man.
In practice, he’d get us around a table sharing drinks and stories of the day, via camera display, phone display, iPad, tablet or simply hands and wild eyes at the most suspenseful parts of the story. This was the icebreaker. Our disparate group was meeting for the first time.
I came to the table, armed with my face-check-fail story, in case either of the lads thought to mention it, I wanted to head it off at the pass. I can imagine this part of the night featured much less prominently than the stories from what happened beyond the red and white flashing sign, but I’d nothing else to share.
It was a rather linguistically advanced group, although it’s not as shocking now to meet someone who speaks five languages. And he’s a doctor, too this second polyglot I’d met. She’s a zoologist, his better half. This beautiful and brilliant couple have several places they can call home. She was an Egyptian goddess of a woman, with hair that flowed like a mane and a name I couldn’t pronounce, we acquiesced to simply “Gigi” between us, because her tongue could form nothing closer than “Kitty”.
The first hit: The first high
She had no scars, Gigi. Not even one that could be cute because it was only a fragment of an imperfection.
No piercings, no tattoos — fascinating to see a blank canvas. Much like the settled snow in the morning across the lawns, where not even a bird’s wingtips dusted across the clear palette. There is no shame in being unmarked, in being a common person, a reasonable human being — the one from society who exercises average care, skill, and judgment in conduct and serves as a comparative standard for the other lot to follow.
Of course, such a one couldn’t possibly be equipped to lead us, but they are certainly qualified to come for the ride, with eyes and ears, lenses and notepads open, ready to document it all.
Our fearless leader’s got the t-shirt and the tattoo. He acquired the scar, the piercing, the skinning and some shaving nicks for good measure. And why not? Our fearless leader’s done it all, and his body is his CV.
The uninitiated follower has but one advantage over him, however — and it is that he has the joy and the anticipation of becoming the initiated. He’s not had his first hit yet: The first high.
“There’s much convergence and divergence in travel,” our scarred leader begins over the hum and din of the room’s gas lamps. “It can go one way or the other, and you just have to make that call…” parting his hands, first at the fingertips, and opening lastly at the wrist. He blows a puff of smoke.
Silence spoke a thousand words
“Do you see anyone holding a sign with your name on it?”
He can’t bear to look at me because I am right. And nothing is worse than when I am right.
“What do you think then?” I insisted.
Our third piped up: “Taxi?”
In Minsk no one was waiting for us. We were a group of three. Two of us were Canadian and met in Moscow. Two of us had known each other for nearly 20 years. Two of us had gone on to party and left one of us at the door with the bags, having only just met in Moscow.
On uncommon ground it was usual to align by nationality, which can be conflicting in itself because you don’t always like all representatives of your nationality.
But when you’ve had a falling out with your buddy and you’re on holiday together, you analyze everything, and it takes a second too long before the damage is done, and you’ve allied with a stranger on uncommon ground. You’ve no words whose meaning you can explain, or wish you could take back, but only silence you wish you’d filled with anything at all, and finally you nod, and say, resolutely: Taxi.
We were tired, and needed nothing more than to divest ourselves of our journey with a shower and a nap.
There is a double border check on the overnight train, one upon leaving Russia, the other upon entering Belarus. Incredibly, these points are three hours apart, and a poor sleep is to be had after restuffing your bag, putting your papers where you last remembered having them. Going to pee hoping no one else was waiting.
Suffice it to say my Russian was enough to point on a map, point to a name, all with a please and a thank you. It was not enough however to explain my incredulity when we showed up to our hotel under demolition. Our faces relayed that just fine. Silence spoke a thousand words.
The prominent logo that sat in a heap by the 12 foot gate was distinct enough to trigger the driver that there’’s another one around the corner and perhaps that is the one we should see about. We agreed with our silence.
The minute’s drive brought us to a pristine building, far from the soviet experience of a few moments ago — Minsk is terribly small and conveniently circular, so nothing is further than it need be.
Our relief was met with curiosity, the driver smiled and left with a £10 tip, or the equivalent of a months wage, such was our joy.
I knew the ending — he made it out alive
“So you do it, you make that call, and all we could do was put our hands up in the air, and hoped they’d put their guns down,” stubbing out his cigarette, he looked up from the ashtray and smiled. “They didn’t put their guns down, they loaded us up into the back of a jeep, and that was that.”
I didn’t want to listen to the end, I didn’t want to know. My harrowing experience of settling into a hotel had been enough. I knew the ending — he made it out alive. That’s all I needed to know. He was back for another adventure, and was I ever glad to be coming for the ride.
To be continued