Sunday, January 13, 2013

Up in the Air

Yeah -  you can sit here. It’s amazing how a certain squint paired with a particular hand motion delivers the message, even among people who speak different languages.
He sits quietly for a while listening to music through a pair of standard earphones.

“You tell when they call, yes?” He points to the headphones, “I can’t hear. And the accent…eck.” It’s like he’s waving away a bad smell.
I take a moment to dissect where each word ends and the next begins before I answer him, “Yes. Of course.” Pause. “Are you going home to Amsterdam?”
“Me? No. I’m Russian. You cannot tell?”

So that’s when I met my Russian friend. In the airport we spoke about the beautiful cities of the world, of families and work and bars, art, mythology. My favorite topic was the Soviet Union. Though he introduced himself as Russian, I learned about half way into the conversation that my new friend was in fact Ukrainian.
 “We are the same really,” he defended. “Imagine you live in New York and you move out San Francisco, and then poof! California is new country. You still are from New York or America really.”
He went on about how much better things were before the split, “Education – free! Work was easy to find. My father even received free flat from government after he finished at University of Moscow.”
Though I was skeptical of the government boons, I was so intrigued to hear this alternate perspective of the USSR: a blanket of prosperity rather than a dictatorship.

We sat together on the plane (not by chance, he organized for me to have my seat moved). By the time we reached our seats, the mild scent of gin on his breath had grown stale, but it wasn’t long before he ordered a whiskey from the flight attendant to freshen it up. He pointed at the glass after downing it in a gulp, “Born in Siberia – this is the first way I learned to keep warm.”

I listened as Vlad presented his argument about the USSR to our new seatmate, a Somali man in his late 30s.
“You are an ideas man!” Said our Somali friend to Vlad.  “You need to get this stuff out there, you know? Become a government figure, make changes!” He was optimistic and thoroughly excited by the potential of this man whom he had just met. I couldn’t help but notice how beautifully African his mentality was.

“Excuse me for asking, but how old?”
My first response to Vlad’s question was a grin and our Somali friend quickly interjected, “No, no, my friend. In America you never ask a woman her age.”
“I don’t mind,” I said, “I’m nineteen.”
But they didn’t hear me, which was entertaining.
“Yes, is same in my country – never ask. But I was just curious. I am 41. See? No problem, that’s how old.” He waited for a response, but I just nodded. Finally, as if it was of his own accord he said, “Forget it – I do not want to know.”

Hair comb…toothbrush…toothpaste! Having found what I needed, I looked up to find the cashier, and there was Vlad at the perfume section of duty free in the Amsterdam airport. “You changed mind? You come to Kiev?”
I laughed. “Are you coming to Tanzania?”
“No, not this time. I suppose we meet in other life. Maybe in Moscow.” He turned back to his perfume shelf for a moment and I started toward the cash register. “Aleesa!” He called. “Great talking. Thank you.”
I smiled, “I couldn’t agree more. Thank you.”

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