Sunday, July 15, 2007

Potemkin-izing: Preparations for a President

We have no rooms available on the 29th and 30th. The hotel administrator dropped the bomb without blinking an eye.

Excuse me?

We were in a conversation with Hotel Azov about our upcoming singing school and double-, triple-checking our hotel arrangements for the next weekend and the week to follow. Five instructors for the annual Christian Singing School would arrive from the States on Friday, the 29th and then students from across Russia and the Ukraine would arrive on Sunday, the 1st. We had made hotel reservations months ago and now they’re saying that we don’t have rooms?

Sorry. You have no reservations.

I was positively baffled. Later however, pieces of this puzzle began coming together during conversations with other hotels. It’s not that reservations were never made. It’s simply that they were cancelled. Think of it as getting bumped by VIPs, in this case, 7,500 of them, all police officers in town to shore up security for President Putin's summit with 80-some regional governors. Well, on to Plan B our guests' weekend.

But there were other security measure in place for the weekend: Streets that were part of the president’s itinerary were blocked. Kiosks and open air markets were closed from Thursday until Monday. It’s not that we had to do without fresh produce, bread and flowers, we just needed to find them elsewhere.

On the plus side, the president’s visit launched a whirlwind of urban beautification. Every street he would travel – from the Rostov International Airport to city center, from there to the governmental dacha and on to the race track – was adorned with bright pansies and flags.

* * * * *

You may have heard about the efforts to impress a long-ago monarch, Catherine the Great, empress of Russia during the late 1700’s. Legend has it that one Prince Gregory Potemkin was so keen on impressing the empress with the prosperity of his jurisdiction, in this case the Dnieper River region of southern Ukraine, that he built a fake city. The buildings that appeared to line their route were merely facades. He imported peasants, animals and all, who played their roles as the empress passed through town.

Although at least one historian disputes the legend, the term Potemkin Village has come to be synonymous with a sham.

* * * * *

Here in Rostov, most of the beautification efforts were the real thing. For months painters had been hanging from scaffolding at all sorts of precarious angles and repainting fronts of buildings along Balshaya Sadovaya. Street corners that long had been piles of tiles and sand have been transformed into attractive walkways.

But on Kir-OV-ski Prospect, I did happen upon a building which brought to mind Potemkin’s alleged techniques. The building has been undergoing extensive remodeling and is still rather unsightly, sorry to say. Unsightliness will never do, of course, certainly not for the eyes of dignitaries. Happily, the dilemma was easily solved with a mural, a very large mural -- a two-story high mural hung from roof to sidewalk, the painting of a building stretched along the street side of the building, thus masking the work in progress.

Coming up with Plan B for our overseas guests ever so easy. Lucky for me, I got to host dear sisters Pat and Judy, both from Kentucky. They were such good sports about camping out in my living room, one on the sofa, the other on a folding bed. It just now occurred to me that Pat and Judy might have been a little put-off by the unsightly wall tiles in my bathroom. Oy! For next time, I might want to camouflage that bathroom wall. Perhaps a wall-sized mural of. . .of a bathroom wall?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Short Night of the Longest Day

I had just arrived back at Sheremetevo-2 (Sheree-MYET-ye-vo), Moscow’s international airport, after an exhilarating tour of Biblical sites in Greece and Turkey. It was June 22, 2004 – the longest day of the year. And that’s part of the reason my travel plans went awry.

Our flight left Athens at 1:40 that afternoon and when we arrived in Moscow, my watch said 5:15. I was tired and looking forward to getting back in Rostov that evening.

By the time I made it through passport control, baggage pickup and transferred to Sheremetevo-1, the adjoining regional airport, it was around 6:30 p.m.according to my watch. Figured I had a couple of hours before queuing up at 8:30 for the last flight to Rostov at 9:50 that evening. How to fill those hours? For one thing, all seats in the vast waiting area were taken so my options were limited.

What better pastime at an airport than people-watching? Shortly I noticed a 50-something man file in and resign himself to standing with the rest of us around the perimeter of the waiting area.

From his appearance – a starched button-down shirt, khakis, recent haircut, hint of anxiety on his face – I determined that he was an American and come to Russia either for ministry or business. Deciding that it was my mission to brighten his day, I went over to say hello.

Do you speak English?

He was American!

I decided to clarify my intentions right away.

I serve as a missionary, I said. So believe me, I have only the purest of motives here. But, say, I’m about to get myself some bottled water. Could I get one for you?

Well – sure! And I know this is not a come on. No woman has come on to me for 35 years.

Okay, good. With that settled, we could have a nice conversation.

And we did. We talked and talked. He’s a petroleum engineer in Siberia. He works for two months and then has two months off. Something like that. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, kids in college, horses and enjoys the pleasantries of a country life. On the other hand, small town Siberia isn’t exactly his cup of tea. He misses his family and internet access to them wasn’t easy. He speaks little Russian. His apartment needs repairs, plumbing and such, that isn’t easily solved. But still the pay isn’t bad.

I envy you, he said. I’d give anything to be able to do what you are doing.

What? I wasn’t believing my ears.

My life is so complicated, he continued. With the kids in school and our lifestyle as it is, there’s no way I can walk away from all that. But I’d give anything to be able to chuck it all and be a missionary.

We talked on and on. He had time to fill as well. He was waiting for a Russian colleague and together they would head east that evening. Eventually Colleague showed up, spotted him and headed in our direction. He stopped short when he saw me and tried to make sense of the situation, Okalahoma Engineer speaking English with some woman, obviously an American. I could see his mental wheels spinning.

Oh, I live in Rostov and we’re just visiting while I wait for my 9:50 flight

You’d better hurry. You’re already late.

My heart leaped. I glanced at my watch. It said 8:30.

No, I’m fine. It’s only 8:30. I have plenty of time.

What was his problem? The sun was high in the sky – it wouldn’t set for two more hours. All was fine with my world.

Excuse me, he said. But it’s 9:30.

Somebody’s watch was wrong. We squinted at the airport clock across the way. It was indeed 9:30.

What on earth? This made no sense at all. It was 15 minutes until departure. But first I had to get through passport check-in, through security screening across to baggage check-in and then up to the gate and hop on a shuttle out to the plane waiting far across the tarmac.

Oh. . ..dear. . .God! I wasn’t swearing – I was praying. I grabbed my luggage and dashed across the waiting area. Folks near passport check and security made a path for me and I rushed through to baggage check-in.

We have finished boarding,
said the agent.

I’ve made the dumbest mistake ever. Could you please help me catch that flight?

Gate Agent picked up the phone and talked with a co-worker out at the plane. It looked as if I might have a chance.

Do you have any luggage to check?

Yes, one suitcase.

Oops - wrong answer. They had already finished loading baggage and locked the hatch.

Sorry but unfortunately you can’t make that flight.

Oh how stupid, I thought. I’ve been at the airport for hours! How could this have happened?

How was I was an hour off? Oy!Oy! Oy! My watch was still on Athens time. I hadn’t managed to change it when we landed in Moscow.

Oh for pity’s sake. . .What to do?

Well it was obvious that I wouldn’t be spending the night in Rostov. On to Plan B . I needed to back in the morning for the 9:30 flight. But where to spend the night? There aren’t any hotels near Sheremetevo-1. I could go back to Sheremetevo-2 and stay at the Otel’ there, but taxi to and fro plus room would be $200. Plus I had to buy another plane ticket.

I decided to be bono fide Russian and spend the night sitting in the airport. People do that here and besides the whole ridiculous situation required that penance be paid.

And so I spent the night – the shortest night of the year – there in the Sheremetevo-1 airport waiting area with 150-some other travelers who were dozing off and keeping an eye on their luggage. And I ended up rather enjoying myself.

I had been itching to start editing my photos of Corinth, Meteora and Patmos and I had hundreds. All I needed was a good table and power. Toward the end of the waiting hall was a café with high round tables. That wouldn't work, but farther still, past a velvet rope and two steps up was a semi-exclusive restaurant. Perfect! I decided to go for it.

The manager readily agreed, a surprise here in the land of nyet, and allowed me to work at a table even after they closed around midnight. Soon it was just me and the cleaning lady. Every hour or so, I’d step away to refresh my Diet Coke or visit the ladies’ room and she would watch my things. The night flew by and around 4:00 a.m., through the vast wall of windows I could see the sky begin to lighten. I figured that Oklahoma Engineer and colleague had probably arrived at their Siberian oil field. And in just a few hours, I would be back in Rostov and in my own bed.

Fast forward 18 months, to January 2007. Once again I found myself at Sheremetevo-2, Moscow’s international airport after a flight from the States.I’d made it through passport control and was claiming my baggage when who should come striding into the baggage area but Oklahoma Engineer, himself. I spotted him first and decided, once again, to brighten his day.

He remembered me too, eventually. Our encounter was late morning on one of the shortest days of the year. Rest assured that I had already reset my watch to local time. After all, it was only 2:00 a.m. in Dallas. But I rather like to think that I had learned my lesson well. In short, be in whatsoever time zone you find yourself. Be there one hundred percent, watch and all.

Napping at the Airport

Catching some zzz's between connections at Sheremetevo-1, one of Moscow's regional airports, April 2007.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Central Casting after Midnight

What a photo op, I thought, and here I am without my camera.

I was at the Central City Hospital of Rostov in what we’ll call the Department of Cast Creation. Minutes earlier, I had been in X-ray, then down the hall for a consultation with the physician on duty then back down the hall for a cast. The directress of casting had just put a form on my leg and we were waiting for it to dry.

She stepped out of the room and Gideons strode over to her work table covered with white powder started pushing it around.

Finally I get to see this with my own eyes, he exclaimed. We read all about this in our textbooks but this is the first time I’ve seen this!

He picked up a handful of the cast-making powder and let it filter through his fingers, grinning widely like a kid in a sandbox.

Glad I could contribute something to your on-going education!
I thought to myself.

The weekend before, Gideons had received his M.D. from Rostov State University, College of Medicine. The ink was barely dry on his diploma. I was one of Gideons’ guests at the ceremony honoring international medical students.

We honored 82 new physicians from 17 foreign countries. Students were grouped by their homeland and we stood for each national anthem and the awarding of diplomas from each country in turn, from Albania and Bangladesh to Zimbabwe and eventually to Sri Lanka, as per the Cyrillic alphabet.

Anyway, I had no idea how emotional the ceremony would be. But when I thought of how strong, how brave, how determined were those young people, so far from home, most of them in their twenties, when I thought of them studying Russian for a year and then studying medicine in the language and here, finally having reached such a goal, I found myself positively weepy.

I got to sit next to Gideons’ father, Dr. Gideon Nwaanze, former mayor of his city – and better yet, a minister of the gospel – who had made the trip all the way from Nigeria to celebrate the day with his namesake. The next day at church, we honored our beloved brother Gideons and after the service enjoyed ice cream with piles of fresh raspberries.

* * * * *

And so calling Gideons late Sunday evening was certainly not on my To-Do list. Nor was a midnight excursion to the hospital but there we were.

I had twisted my ankle by falling out of my bathroom. It’s a bit of a trick, admittedly, but it can be done. I had gotten up and down a stepstool without mishap to fiddle with a recalcitrant bathroom light. Back on the floor, I took one life-altering step backward and managed to fall out of the bathroom into the hallway, where the floor is two inches lower. (Welcome to Russia!) But it can result in a tumble, and tumble I did.

I tried to stand and had pain shooting from my right ankle on up.

I bet this is how a break feels, I thought. But I had to congratulate myself because no one in my immediate family has ever broken a bone or had an accident requiring a cast. Oh, I love to be a trailblazer.

But this trailblazer wanna-be needed medical help. So I called Gideons. No answer. I called other friends from church. No luck. Back to Gideons. Still no answer. Then Galina, the neighbor lady downstairs answered and came right up. I crawled to the door. She proceeded to call “Skoraya Pomish” – the local “doctor at your door service.” In minutes Gideons called and then came over. Soon my apartment was a beehive of neighbors, Gideons and medical personnel. It was almost a party. And it was all about me. But alas, all that attention was only temporary.

Still, I got my first ever ambulance ride – no siren or flashing lights though – and in 3 minutes we were at the hospital. Gideons and the Galina’s husband, Yuri, helped me hop to out to the ambulance and then into the hospital. Finally they realized it would be faster to just carry me, lightweight that I am (not hardly).

Well, it was all over by 3:00 a.m. I was back home, having had enough drama for one day. Since then, the excitement has faded, reality has set in and I’m learning how to get around on crutches. I’m learning how the value of upper body strength, or more precisely, how valuable it would be to have some. I’m learning the value of plastic baggies for toting things from one room to the next and I have plenty of those. I’m learning the value of mobility.

And there are so many tender mercies. Gideons has checked in with me regularly before he left yesterday for Moscow. The neighbors downstairs, a family, have been here day-in-and-day-out. They now have the extra keys to my apartment and 14-year-old Andrey comes up twice a day to give me a hand: water my plants, feed the birds, pick up some groceries, empty the trash.

So, what a memorable Independence Day this has been! The way I look at it, if there’s no July 4th fireworks and excitement in the city where you live, make your own! For me, I’ll always remember this holiday – my Fourth of July with an unexpected twist.

Congratulations Brother Gideons!

Top: Our brother Gideons Nwaaze, a brand-new M.D. with his father, Gideon Nwaaze, Ph.D. Bottom: Gideons receiving his diploma after 7 years of dedicated work. Eight days after this ceremony, I was on the receiving end of Gideons' medical skills. Please see the story above, Central Casting after Midnight.