Thursday 21 March 2013

Chapter 46: Romancing in Moscow (Part 2)

Olga proved a worthy tour guide and educator.

First on her agenda was teaching me to recognise the characters in the Russian alphabet. This became the precursor to me being able to read and recognise signs. The literature filling the street-scapes began to transform into something familiar. A new world was opening up to me as I saw that much of the advertising had similar undertones to my homeland. Olga insisted that I practice what I was learning by reading Russian street signs.

She also showed me a simple trick which transformed the way by which I used the Metro. There was a small sign which I hadn’t noticed before showing the symbol for a stairway. This simple sign, she explained to me, indicated the way to a connecting station. Suddenly I was able to navigate my way through the complexity of the Metro with considerably more ease.

And thirdly she explained to me an extremely practical Russian custom of catching a taxi. Any person who is driving by and would like to earn some money will stop, Olga explained. “Then you negotiate a fare and get in.” I was uncomfortable with this idea of getting into the car of a complete stranger but she assured me it was a perfectly normal way for people to get around Moscow. With a certain degree of scepticism I tested the concept and it wasn’t long before I was completely at ease and thoroughly enjoying this convenient, not to mention extremely cheap, mode of transport. It delighted me meeting new and interesting people and listening to their taste in music for the duration of the journey. It reminded me of my university days when part of my daily routine was hitchhiking to campus.

Armed with these new skills I was able to travel throughout Moscow with confidence and ease, meeting Olga, upon her request, in new and interesting sections of the city each evening, at the conclusion of her work. We would walk the streets with her eagerly sharing every interesting tit-bit of information that related to the area. She even showed me the site of the first McDonalds in Moscow, and where the end of the queue reached several blocks away on opening day.

Over the weekend we drove beyond the outer ring-road (the unofficial border between Moscow and the rest of Russian) to small towns crammed with whitewashed, walled churches topped with golden, onion domes glistening in the weak autumn sun and surrounded by babushkas, sitting at trestled tables, selling matryoshka dolls.

During one of our strolls through Moscow Olga invited me to join her to see Swan Lake performed by the Bolshoi Ballet Company at the Bolshoi Theatre. I eagerly accepted this invitation, so she negotiated the purchase of tickets from a street vendor. I overheard the lively exchange and when she returned to me she laughed saying the man had told her she was a “fox”. I presumed the meaning of “fox” was the same as in my vocabulary and with a smile upon my face I mentally had to agree with the vender.  

The evening at the Bolshoi Theatre was memorable for two reasons. Firstly the ballet was breathtaking and on a level of aesthetic brilliance which I could never have imagined. Accolades of “Bravo” filled the air at the conclusion of the performance and flowers and bouquets rained down on the stage around the performers. It was a truly remarkable spectacle which I felt privileged to have witnessed.

The evening was also memorable for what happened on the way back to Olga’s car. Up to that point our courting had been limited to holding hands, brushing against each other, walking arm-in-arm and sitting closely together at every opportunity, each one hesitant to make a more intimate move. Walking home that night Olga surprised me by pulling me into an alley way and kissing me. A wonderfully long, warm and passionate kiss which transformed our relationship completely. We moved past an imaginary line into a new dimension, a new phase. We became free and uninhibited from that moment on and we sensed a bond developing between us. We became a couple in love.

As if to reinforce our new status, the following evening we met at an authentic Russian restaurant called Samovar (the same name given to a device used by Russians for heating water to make tea). We were greeted by an elderly man playing a grand piano accompanied by a woman vocalist, who throughout our entire meal, performed romantic Russian songs. With the restaurant practically deserted the entire time, we were easily able to imagine that the songs were for our benefit alone.    

By now the date of our departure to St Petersburg was nearing so I made attempts to purchase plane tickets. There was a travel agent in the hotel’s lobby so I put the question to the young girl sitting behind the counter. Her terse reply was simply, “Do you want cheap tickets or do you want to get there.” Aghast, I assumed something had gone astray in the translation so I shrugged off any careful analysis of her reply and expressed my desire that I did indeed wish to “get there”. Without expression the girl arranged the tickets and I left her desk with the uneasy feeling that I had briefly encountered the edge of a Russia which was deep, complex and best left to the imagination.   

Since we had met, Olga and I had made no attempts to visit the other’s place of accommodation. I suspected Russia could be a dangerous place so intentionally I erred on the side of caution and always met Olga in public places. However on the afternoon of our departure to St Petersburg I did not have a choice. Olga collected me and my belongings from the Hotel Ukraina after checkout and we drove across Moscow to her apartment directly opposite the Metro station of Botanichesky Sad. Apprehensively, I rode the elevator to her floor and moments later we were in her tiny, one-bedroomed apartment. My brief feeling of paranoia was completely unfounded. The apartment was sunny, clean, modern and besides ourselves, empty. Olga gathered her things and after locking up we were finally on our way to Sheremetyevo.   

By the time we were seated at the gate it was dark and snow had begun to fall. I sensed Olga’s anxiousness. When I queried her she divulged to me a fear of flying. Looking out through the terminal windows at our Russian made Tupolev Tu-154 sitting on the tarmac under a blanket of snow I could empathise with her fear. I felt it best to contain my terror from her. I suggested alcohol as a suitable tool to get us through the experience, so we purchased a small bottle of vodka and had its contents consumed just in time for boarding.

Once aboard the narrow body airliner we cuddled together in a mild state of numbness completely oblivious to the other passengers boarding the aircraft. We were in our own zone, our own space. It seemed like we had known each other forever. I watched men through the window working in the falling snow, which had by now turned to blizzard like conditions, spraying antifreeze chemicals onto the wings. Surly the Russians, out of all the nationalities, on the planet would know how to fly in these sorts of conditions. Surely they, of all people, would have the experience flying in this sort of weather. Surely they knew what they were doing. I tried to reassure myself as best I could, but still if we were to die we would at least die together, I thought. I hugged Olga closer to me.

The noise of the engines escalated to fever pitch and we were thrust down the runway in a flurry of snow. Slowly the wings dug into the freezing air and lifted the plane from the white earth. I squeezed Olga’s hand and I felt her tension. We both looked out into the darkness frozen with fear. The plane bounced and shuddered. The engines screamed as the plane clawed its way higher into the sky. Then as suddenly as it had begun it was over. The clouds disappeared and a glorious moon reflected off the shining, metal wings. We had made it. The sounds of the engines subsided and even the plane seemed to relax now that it had the blanket of stars above it for company. I relaxed my vice-like grip on Olga’s hand and she turned to me and smiled with nervous relief. We were on our way to St Petersburg.   
COMING UP on Phobia-Iraq-Love Trilogy Tale:

- Chapter 47: Courting in St Petersburg
- Chapter 48: Preparing for War
- Chapter 49: Evacuation
- Chapter 50: Return to Moscow

Friday 15 March 2013

Chapter 45: Romancing in Moscow (Part 1)

I awoke to the warm, fuzzy feeling that something special and wonderful had happened to me. Then I remembered. It had…I had met Olga.

I also felt hungry, the kind of hunger you get when you have accomplished something big. I had…I had met Olga.

I checked my watch; breakfast was in progress down below in the restaurant, so I headed for the shower.

As the tiny, hot water droplets massaged my body, my mind scanned over the memories of the previous evening. I wanted to remember everything; every last wonderful detail, every word spoken, every delightful feeling. We had talked on the phone, for at least an hour I thought, when I had returned to my room at the Hotel Ukraina. She had scolded me for walking through the park which lay between the metro station and the hotel. She emphasised how dangerous the area becomes after dark. I was delighted that she cared. The rest of the conversation was about nothing in particular, just chatting for the sake of chatting, to remain in contact, not wanting the connection between us to break. I remembered that we agreed to meet again that evening. She would come to my hotel after she finished work. The warm fuzzy feeling returned.

I finished drying myself, dressed and bounded out of my room and along the hall to the lifts with abundant jubilation.

I entered the restaurant to confront an unexpected surprise. The dining area was filled to the brim with extremely large, obese men and the breakfast buffet was almost completely devoid of food. It was all quite surreal. I observed the men more closely. Their plates were piled high with mountains of food and many had several more plates in waiting. Then I noticed their T-shirts emblazoned with the news that a Sumo wrestling championship was occurring in Moscow that week. I was stunned at the coincidence. The kitchen, obviously, was barely able to produce enough food to keep up with demand of these giant beasts. It meant my breakfast experience would be severely depleted. It was a disappointing thought. I took a plate and foraged for what scraps of food remained on the servery and made a mental note to arrive for breakfast precisely at opening time for the rest of the week.

After breakfast I returned to my room to give Sergei a call at the agency. He had requested that I provide feedback on Olga’s character for his future reference. I decided to use the opportunity to inform him that I was not interested any more in meeting any of the ladies on the list which I had given him.

He was appreciative of my comments regarding Olga and was pleased our meeting had gone well but was apprehensive towards my decision to cancel the other meetings. He asked if I had proposed to her and if I had received a “yes” in reply. Slightly taken aback to this line of questioning I assured him that I hadn’t. He then urged me to reconsider until I had at least obtained some form of verbal commitment to marriage. “It is a very competitive world” he said.

I politely declined his offer and asked him to pass on my gratitude to his wife for her involvement in my introduction to Olga for which I was extremely thankful. I made it clear to Sergei that I was more than prepared to let the courting ritual with Olga run its course and that I would take my chances at the prospect of it ending in a marriage. As I replaced the handset, the irony of a Russian telling me it was a competitive world didn’t escape my thought.

That evening, just before darkness fell, I met Olga in the hotel lobby looking as happy and radiant as I remembered. It seemed no change of thought had occurred during the day and we were simply moving on from where we left off the night before.

She drove me back towards the centre of Moscow and we strolled along the Ulitsa Arbat, a pedestrian mall lined with restaurants, bars and coffee houses, as the night descended upon us. She asked me what I would like to eat and I insisted that we go somewhere “special”, so she quickly led me towards a Korean restaurant with heightened exuberance.

The restaurant was spectacularly decorated with Korean décor and frequented with a number Korean expats in traditional Korean dress. The atmosphere was particularly formal. A young, buxom Russian waitress seated us and provided us with measured amounts of attentive charm.

As we feasted upon delicious Korean delicacies our conversation turned to my intentions in Russia. I admitted that I had planned to spend a week in Moscow and then the remaining week of my leave break in St Petersburg. I withheld my plans of visiting the Angelika office there as well. To my complete amazement and surprise she offered to come with me. I almost choked on my dessert. How could she possibly be serious? She must have picked up on my surprise from my facial expressions and iterated the suggestion. I didn’t know quite how to respond but without being able to think of any clear reason why she shouldn’t, I agreed. In any case, Russia had so far been full of surprises so why not some more.

With that decided we concluded our meal discussing the trip with bountiful amounts of excitement. We would leave the following Thursday evening and Olga would take the Friday off work giving us three full days in the canal city. At that point in time I had not considered my transport options to St Petersburg but with Olga accompanying me the choice was obvious. I was to purchase plane tickets as well as reserving accommodation.

All too soon we were back out on Ulitsa Arbat, which was bathed in the soft glow of streetlights and crowded with young couples, arm-in-arm and leaning into wards each other keeping warm. We searched for an inviting coffee house to sample Russian cake and drink hot chocolate.

As we walked, my mind was giddy with emotion. It was incredulous that this spirited individual beside me, brimming with enthusiasm and with mesmerizingly sparkling eyes, had been thrust into my life in such a dramatic manner. The next ten days of my life were now suddenly interwoven with hers and as I gave the thought more consideration, the more the idea appealed to my being.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Chapter 44: Five Days to Love - Day Five (Part 2)

10:10:2002 The day my life changed forever.

It was during my early teens when I watched a terrible B grade movie with a plot line of absolutely no consequence, but it involved a conflict along a remote part of the Russian-Chinese border. What I remember most about this movie was the leader of the Soviet army who was, in the interests of my viewing pleasure, a long-legged blonde looking incredibly hot in Russian army fatigues and an army issue cap. Apart from her striking beauty, what struck me most about this woman was her confidence, courage and strength. Commanding an army of battle hardened men in this remote and inhospitable part of the globe with tanks and everything military took a strength of character which took my breath away.

The image of this woman has remained somewhere in my subconscious because I have always felt a gravitational pull originating somewhere deep within the Russian Federation.

In the very first moment of meeting Olga I felt all the boxes were being ticked. She was obviously an outgoing girl with plenty of spirit and charisma, and behind her radiant smile which shone like the sun and her mesmerising sparkling eyes; I sensed a confidence and energy that linked all the way back to the leggy commandant. I was eager to experience more.

I suggested coffee and was immediately offered the name of a café on a higher floor in return. We entered the nearby lift and feeling compelled to engage in small talk I explained pointlessly to Olga that I was from Australia not Austria. Having totally underestimated her intelligence she reassured me that she was already aware of that and I was thankful the lift had arrived at the desired level so that walking the short distance to the café would alleviate the potential for further verbal blunders.

Once seated and our order given we embarked on the most joyous and exhilarating journey of learning about each other. The conversation flowed freely, punctuated by much laughter and banter.

Coffee was over all too soon, so we both agreed on dinner to extend the conversation. Olga explained to me how she had ended up on the website only registering at the weekend which explained why I had only seen her in Helsinki. She told me about her conversation with Lena earlier in the day and her initial reservation over my age. Her upper limit, she omitted, was 40 but Lena had consoled her by mentioning that I didn’t look my age. I laughed, knowing that I also had reservations concerning her age being less than 30.

As dinner progressed I became totally captivated by Olga’s presence. Her entrancing eyes held me spellbound and her mannerisms and gesture were pure theatre.

After dinner Olga invited me to join her for a walk along the Mokhovaya Ulitsa to see the Bolshoi Theatre. We emerged from the warmth of the underground shopping complex into the cold night air. My light jacket proved totally inadequate and I shivered violently with an envious eye on Olga’s fur. Once we were walking I warmed sufficiently to enjoy our activity and found considerable mirth in a joke she described to me regarding a Lada reaching the top of a mountain. “A miracle” was the punch line and I was drawn even closer to her with this delightful display of unabashed behaviour.

After witnessing the iconic neoclassical facade of the Theatre, softly aglow with lights, we returned to the Kremlin and strolled across the vast cobblestone expanse of Red Square making our way towards the splendidly coloured “onion” domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral looking remarkably like something out of a children’s picture book.

Then we headed down towards the Moscow River and stood upon the Bol’shoy Moskvoretskiy Most, looking down at the black surface flowing sluggishly beneath us. A cold breeze came up the river which provided the excuse to stand near to each other in the darkness, punctuated only by faint streetlights straddling the bridge and the reddish glow from the vast expanse of Kremlin walls.

Suddenly Olga’s cell phone rang and she held a brief conversation with someone in Russian. She returned the phone to her pocket and laughed. It was Lena, from the agency, calling to check how the evening had expired. Lena it seemed was quite shocked to learn that we were still together that late in the evening.

The phone call served as a catalyst to bring the evening to a close and Olga offered to escort me back to a metro station. Particularly upon hearing of my underground adventures throughout the day she selected the station carefully taking me into Ploshchad’ Revolyutsii which was on my line and would lead me back to my hotel without incident.

Standing on the platform she suggested I call her apartment once I was in my room to confirm that I had returned safely. I accepted her offer of goodwill and noted her number carefully. We bid our farewells and I boarded the train. As I moved away I looked back at Olga standing alone on the platform. She leant back against a wall and I could tell by the expression on her face that the day would be one that would change my life forever.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Chapter 43: Five Days to Love - Day Five (Part 1)

10:10:2002 - The day my life changed forever.

I awoke to the feeling of great excitement. This was a day that could be filled with wonderful surprises and I was eager to embrace whatever lay before me.

Shortly after breakfast I collected my things and made my way under the expansive and busy Kutuzovsky Prospect and then on towards the Kievskya metro station.

I found the ticketing system to be non-complex and I soon had a single fare ticket costing 7 roubles in my hand so I boarded the escalator for the ride down to the platform.

By this stage in my life I had ridden on many of the world’s rapid transport systems without incident and I was eagerly anticipating my experience on this particular one. I had heard many stories of grandiose stations with museum like qualities, immaculately clean platforms and a system that prided itself on engineering excellence and marked efficiency. But as I descended gracefully down the escalator there were a still a few simple facts that I was blissfully unaware.

First was that the Moscow Metro is one of the busiest and most extensive in the world. It carries 7million passengers per day (although I have seen the figure 9.5 million quoted on occasion). Two thousand identical trains, each with six carriages, scream through the tunnels at breakneck speed delivering this extraordinary number of passengers to their respective destinations - at intervals as low as 50 seconds (peak periods). It is certainly not a place for the faint hearted and I have spoken since with expats who have taken up to two weeks to obtain the courage to ride this system.

The other critical fact which had never come my way was that not a word of English could be found anywhere on the entire system, and I, of course, had not the slightest knowledge of any of the characters in the Russian alphabet.

It was therefore of no surprise that within minutes of boarding my first train I was completely confused and overwhelmed. The sheer number of people boarding and exiting the train at each stop left me reeling and I quickly realised the English translation of each station name on my map made no comparison to the station names on the wall of each station. Trying to control the rising panic I attempted to station count but with the passenger number swelling exponentially with each stop I quickly failed at that idea. The train screamed on through the tunnel and I resigned myself to the fact that I was completely lost.

Suddenly I noticed the passenger numbers beginning to ebb so I presumed the train had passed under the central district of Moscow and was heading back out into the suburbs on the other side. This observation gave me some comfort as it was in this area of Moscow where I needed to go. The train finally broke the surface and emerged into the weak autumn sunshine. I decided to use this opportunity to disembark and regain my orientation. Once off the train I began to relax and discovered to my immense surprise that underneath the English translation on my metro map was the Russian equivalent in small text. I compared the characters for each station on the line I was riding with the characters on the wall beside where I was standing. With tremendous excitement and relief I found a name that matched and I finally knew my location. I had overshot my stop by just two stations so I quickly moved to the opposite platform and promptly caught the next returning train.

Surfacing at my stop I encountered yet another obstacle. The station had several exits which straddled a busy road and the sidewalks were heavily trafficked with pedestrians. I had not even a hint as to Sergei’s appearance. Without a mobile phone I had no way of communicating with him. Fortunately a cultural quirk came to my aid as Sergei, recognising me instantly from quite a distance as a “foreigner”, appeared from across the road to collect me.

After a vigorous handshake and a brief exchange of pleasantries he assured me his office was nearby and we quickly made off in direction which he had been pointing.

As we walked along the paths between rows of apartment blocks I was able to study my companion in more detail. He responded dutifully to my questioning and seemed eager to get down to business. I considered Sergei to be slightly younger than myself, a tall, lean man dressed entirely in black. On his feet were pointed leather shoes and he wore denim jeans and a thin woollen polo-necked jumper covered by shiny leather jacket. He walked with loping strides with his head down and slightly hunched shoulders. Between the rows of dilapidated apartment blocks, all victims of Soviet architecture, were large deciduous trees; naked and prepared for the harsh Russian winter to come.

Suddenly we turned a corner and Sergei pushed through a heavy metal door revealing a dirty and unpleasant smelling concrete stairwell which we used to ascend one level. Then I was led down a hallway a short distance before Sergei opened a door and ushered me through.

His office was long and narrow. Against one wall was a young girl sitting at a desk opening mail which I presumed was the result of the opportunities being offered by the website. Behind her was a geeky looking boy engrossed in a computer screen and at the far end, facing the exterior wall, were two work stations placed either side of a window which looked out onto the next apartment building. A woman sat with her back to us at one of the workstations.

Sergei spoke to the woman in Russian and she turned and smiled politely. She was introduced to me as Lena (name changed to protect identity), his wife, and as I shook her hand I sensed a reassuring warmness and kindness. I was offered a chair and Sergei and Lena continued their conversation in Russian. Suddenly Lena reached for a catalogue, which was sitting on her desk, and placed it on my knees. Once opened I instantly recognised the list of profiles as being those on the website. My confidence soared with the success of this small piece of detective work and I rejoiced in the knowledge that this agency was genuine contender at helping me find a companion for my stay in Moscow and I readied myself to list the ladies I was interested in meeting.

Then Lena produced some loose photos which she placed on the catalogue for me to see. I could tell from her facial expression and the few words which she uttered that she considered this girl to be the one for me. To my surprise they were photos of the girl Olga who I had first seen on their website in Helsinki. I was quite taken aback but I shook my head and explained to Sergei that she was not quite the type of woman I was looking for. I could tell Lena was disappointed by my decision and she turned away.

I kept speaking with Sergei and gave him the list I carried in my pocket. He suggested I use his computer to write a brief bio and my reason for visiting Moscow, to be used when speaking with the ladies on my list. This task I completed successfully and as I prepared to leave the office, Lena turned back to Sergei and they had a brief exchange in Russian. Sergei then translated the conversation for me and explained that his wife had just been speaking with Olga over the phone and had arranged a meeting with her that evening. I was moved by Lena’s commitment to the cause so without wanting to offend and with nothing to do that evening anyway I agreed to the meeting.

Lena could barely contain her joy and I glimpsed a large smile as she returned to her desk. Sergei, meanwhile, began explaining to me the time and location of the meeting. He also explained that due to Olga’s excellent English a translator should not be necessary, but it was usual practice for him to attend to perform introductory duties, however, due to a prior commitment that would not be possible. This, I told him, would not be an issue as I was more than comfortable meeting Olga alone. After bidding Lena and Sergei goodbye I left the small office to catch the train back to my hotel.

The meeting at 7pm was to take place beside a fountain situated on the bottom level of an underground shopping complex adjacent to the Kremlin in Moscow’s central district. As I rode the train back to my hotel I decided to stop off and visit the location to gain some familiarity of the area in preparation for that evening.

Reaching the station which Sergei recommended I use, I alighted and endeavoured to navigate the interconnecting walkways to reach the shopping centre. Immediately I became lost in the maze of walkways, interconnected metro stations, Russian writing and levels all congested with impossible numbers of people. Quickly reaching a state of self-preservation I simply gave up on finding the shopping centre and opted for the simpler challenge of reaching the surface. This on its own was still not an easy task and I was grateful to feel again the sun on my face although having solved one problem I quickly encountered another. I had absolutely no idea where I was. The streets which I had entered upon were small and lined with four or five story buildings with no distinguishing features, not too dissimilar to being in a canyon with no idea of the way out. I scanned what little I could see of the sky for landmarks but there were none. My map proved to be inadequate in such an area so all I could do was walk and hopefully come upon something which I could recognise. The thought of missing my meeting with Olga due to being lost in Moscow crossed my mind.

Just as following the flow of a small stream will eventually bring you to a river, walking through the small streets finally brought me to a busier street inhabited with the occasional taxi. With the day drawing to a close time was becoming critical so I stopped a taxi and was relieved to hand the burden of navigation over to the driver.

The tall silhouette of the Hotel Ukraina was a welcome sight in the far distance as we drove along Kutuzovsky Prospect and I was delighted to be returned back into familiar surroundings.

Once back safely in my room my thoughts turned towards my meeting with Olga. I washed, shaved, dressed and decided without doubt to utilise one of the taxis parked in front of the hotel to return to the meeting point.

This decision proved entirely fruitful as my driver deposited me within metres of the entrance of the underground shopping centre and with time to spare it became a simple matter of finding my way to the lowest floor and locate the fountain.

Once there I stepped back out of the way of the continuous flow of pedestrians and checked my watch. There was still a little over ten minutes till 7pm so I settled into a spot of people all the while keeping a nervous eye on the fountain. As I waited it suddenly occurred to me that I was aware of Olga’s appearance but she would have no idea of mine. I straightened and became more alert, scanning the area with a greater sense of urgency. The flow of people was unrelenting and the air was awash with loud conversation. With everyone’s identity partially concealed under jackets, coats and other warm articles of clothing I began to wonder if I would ever find her amongst the passing throngs.

Suddenly, in a gap between the people, I saw a face which was familiar beside the fountain. She returned my gaze, smiled softly and turned away momentarily before turning back to face me. Her face lit up with recognition and we moved towards each other. She wore a brown fur coat which came up warmly around her neck, her blonde hair was from her profile pictures and her eyes sparkled with her smile. Her hand reached out and as I accepted the handshake she spoke excitably in a voice laced with a delightfully, exotic accent, “Hello, my name is Olga!”

Friday 1 March 2013

Chapter 42: Five Days to Love - Day Four


The approach into Sheremetyevo International Airport held for me no surprises. Looking through the window of the Finnair jetliner at the approaching landscape below, being subjected to a cold mid-autumn day, revealed a bleakness and a drabness which in some ways was what I was expecting. The birch trees were bare and remnants of a light early snowfall lay on dark muddied ground. Maybe I had watched too many black and white Soviet-era documentaries or old newsreels.

The terminal buildings looked decidedly dated and the realisation that I was now in post-communist Russia suddenly struck me. The immensity of the country’s geography and its turbulent and tortured history caused me to hesitate momentarily before emerging from the plane.

It wasn’t long though before my mind was preoccupied negotiating the familiar customs’ queues and I was soon busying myself collecting luggage and ingesting my new surroundings.

I noticed there was no rail link to the city and my options it seemed were limited to the gaggle of competing tax drivers jostling expectantly around the customs’ exit doors.

Shrugging off the exorbitant offers for a ride into Moscow I pushed through the shuffling mob in search of the prospect of securing accommodation. I settled on a week at the Hotel Ukraina; a tall, neoclassical, Stalinist building (one of the “seven sisters”) which, from the pictures presented to me, appeared quite intriguing with a distinctly gothic bent, while still offering reasonably priced lodgings not too distant from the Kremlin.

After spending some more time in the terminal building gathering information I slowly came to the realisation that the only realistic prospect for transportation to my hotel was committing to the fares being offered by the taxi drivers so I was soon bustled into the back of a dirty cream-coloured Volga automobile and whisked along expansive but congested motorways to be deposited politely outside my designated hotel on Kuluzovsky Prospect.

Towering 198m (650ft) gloomily above me the Hotel Ukraina was more imposing and intimidating than the pictures at the airport could have ever portrayed, and the entrance doors, so huge that one felt more like an ant entering an oversized anthill. I wondered if this could have been a deliberate belittling tactic used by Stalin.

The interior of the hotel, however, could not have been more of a contrast, with a large and spacious lobby; brightly lit with magnificently high ceilings and an ensemble of small shops, restaurants and bars.

I found my room to be on the sixth level with expansive views across a sullen Moscow River towards the Russian White House standing imposingly on the Krasnopresnenskaya embankment where, the then, President Boris Yeltsan famously stood on a tank to defy the August coup of 1991. In keeping with the rest of the hotel my room was large and comfortable with elegant furnishings and a wonderfully stained timber floor.

After a few moments to relax and compose myself I rummaged through my documents and found the piece of paper upon which I had written the phone number for Angelika’s Moscow office. I picked up the phone and dialled taking a deep breath as I listened to the ring tone, quite unsure as to what the outcome of the phone conversation would be.

A man identifying himself as Sergei (named changed to protect identity) answered the phone and upon learning of my location was as surprised as I was apprehensive. The whole purpose of the website was to eliminate the need for unsolicited visitors. He was clearly not accustomed to such an antic of someone “just showing up”, but he graciously welcomed me to Russia in excellent English and, without hesitation, accepted my proposal that I come to his office the following day to observe their catalogue and place some invitation requests. He offered to meet me outside his local subway station which I was able to locate on my English translation metro map and cheerfully pointed out that, as I was located near the Kievskaya station I was on the same metro line (blue line) as him, so I shouldn’t have any problems.

Replacing the handset I relaxed back in the chair and released a pent up lungful of air. It all seemed too easy. Soon, it seemed, I would be graced by the presence of the glamorous ladies I had observed and noted on my computer screen in far off Iraq. The prospect began to thrill me enormously and buoyed by my perceived success and warmed by Sergei’s unexpected display of hospitality I found there to be nothing more to do but explore the immense lobby below.

Monday 28 May 2012

Chapter 41: Five Days to Love - Day Three


At precisely 9am I stood in front of the leafy, secured grounds of the Russian Embassy located on Tehtaankatu. A large wrought iron gate was opened by a sullen looking official and I was soon inside a drab, sparsely furnished room with teller booths at one end. The atmosphere was sombre and the small group of people who accompanied me through the gates were soon absorbed with their respective business. I found a bunch of bilingual (Russian/English) visa application forms on a small table and I soon busied myself responding to the form’s requests. Then I quickly joined the small queue quietly shuffling towards a bored looking young girl behind the glass partition.

With all my documents present and correct I was soon back out on the street after being dutifully notified that my passport would be available for collection just before lunch.

After lunch found me with an impressive, full page, gold coloured Russian visa added to the interior of my passport. Feeling somewhat elated at this accomplishment I decided to treat myself with an afternoon in Estonia. Catching one of the numerous ferries plying the Gulf of Finland I was soon wandering the exquisite and enchanted streets of “old town” Tallinn.

It was cold and dark by the time returned to my Helsinki hotel, late in the evening. The excitement of the morning passage through to Moscow was beginning to rise within me; the apprehension - the invigorating unknown. I was drawn to the computer in the hotel’s foyer to revisit to re-familiarise myself with the ladies who I hoped to meet in the coming days. I searched through the pages of photos and checked off the half dozen or so girls which I had on my list. They all remained present on the site. They all remained inviting. Already, I felt that I was forging some sort of bond with these meticulously presented faces peering out at me from the computer screen. The girls appeared connected to me on an intangible level which seemed intimate and personal as though they were waiting for me - and for me only. The virtual illusion was, without doubt, encompassing me and empowering me and I resisted little.

It was then I noticed another face; a new face which I had not seen previously. Her name was Olga and her pretty, smiling face with gloriously sparkling eyes stole my attention. Having explored this web site in Iraq to the point of unquestionable familiarity I was able to ascertain with a high degree of confidence that she was a recent addition. She somehow appeared distinct from all the other girls and her energy reached out to me. Her photos were adventurous, exotic and charming. I opened her profile page and read further.

By this stage I had in my mind a clear indication of what I was seeking. Even though I was expecting my liaisons to be short and transient I still sought particular qualities and attributes. They were derived from the necessity of protecting my own wellbeing and to enhance the quality of the engagement.

It was important that any lady I met spoke English fluently without the need for a translator. I wanted a free and uninhibited exchange of dialogue throughout any interaction. I could not understand how a relationship on any level could develop without this. I also considered this attribute important to assist me identify any potential “danger” directed to my person considering I had absolutely no knowledge of the Russian language whatsoever.

I sought a university graduate employed by a western company. This I figured would reduce the cultural divide and contribute to a more meaningful exchange of thoughts and ideas. Also I wanted to meet a woman without children to align with my own self-centred lifestyle. Although at the time I was not considering a long term relationship I was sure my subconscious was paving the way towards the future regardless of my immediate intention.

Olga’s profile checked all these boxes. I continued with renewed interest. I read about Olga’s social life - an extraverted, intense and entertaining life full of friends a fun. Something in my mind sensed an anomaly. I wondered how a union with my own almost introverted lifestyle would work.

There was also the question of age. To keep any form of liaison “real” and more secure my lower limit on age was set at 30, Olga was 28. Conversely she was looking for someone up to 40. I was 43.

I exited her profile page and studied her profile photo locked in thought. Olga looked stunning - she had presence; she had style; she had charisma. My hand held the pen poised over the next empty line at the bottom of my list. Finally, I put the pen down on the table. I decided to exclude Olga from my list and with a little less certainty I returned my attention back to the other ladies.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Chapter 40: Five Days to Love - Day Two


The KLM flight to Amsterdam boarded just on sun rise. Bleary eyed I sank back into the airline seat cherishing memories of the warm bed from which I had recently removed myself back at the hotel. The taxi out to the runway took us past the two dilapidated Iraqi Airways’ jets reminding me that there was at some point in time a more convenient and comfortable means of reaching Baghdad.

The routine fight landed at Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport 4 hours later and after a short stopover I was on my way to Finland.

Enough distance and time had elapsed between me and the Middle East at that stage for the excitement of this new adventure to begin rising and I eagerly watched the glorious golden forests and sparkling lakes pass underneath the plane as we made our approach into Helsinki.

Shortly after we were touching down at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport and after a short taxi ride into the Finnish capital I was checked into a small but comfortable hotel near the heart of the city.

With sleep beckoning and a strong desire to reacquaint myself with a soft bed I was soon drifting off into a surreal slumber to the thoughts of what lay beyond the border which was now as little as 150kms to the east.