This is the third installment of this story. The first installments are below.
“Boris!” followed by a string of Russian words woke me up. Andre was here and it was time for dinner. Tonight we would eat in the hotel restaurant rather than at anyone’s house. We walked across the immense lobby to the entrance of the restaurant.
Once more, I stopped in astonishment. The restaurant was immense and it was empty, no customers, no waiters, not even a bus boy. There were at least fifty tables and each would easily seat six people.
After a short wait a man came out to greet us and I nearly started laughing. He was the perfect Hollywood stereotype of a waiter in a fancy restaurant even down to the little towel over his arm. The entire room was empty but he led us to the furthest table in the room. During the long walk, I noticed that all the tables had white tablecloths but there were no glasses, utensils or napkins anywhere to be seen
Once he seated us, he left without asking about drinks or offering a menu or even a word of welcome. A few moments later the same guy returned with the same little towel on his arm and spoke to us in Russian. Andre discussed something with him and then he left again and still we had no drinks or menu or silverware or napkins. Shortly after that a different man came carrying a large tray. He set the table with all of the usual equipment and left. Still no menu or drinks.
I think Andre noticed my puzzled look and explained to me. “Sorry, I forgot to explain things to you. We will have lamb tonight; I hope you like lamb.”
“Well, I do like lamb but I was surprised that there were no menus and we still have no drinks. And I am surprised that the restaurant is so empty.”
“I guess that would all be strange to you. We have no menus because they only have lamb tonight; they don’t need menus. We will have a bottle of vodka in a moment for our drinks. You may prefer wine but the wine here is not what you think. No, I am certain you do not want the wine. And the restaurant is empty because the hotel is nearly empty. Since the USSR stopped running everything, the party members can’t come here and spend money. Tourism was never important here and now it has ended completely. So now the hotel just has a few businessmen like you and some lower level government people.”
I had no idea how to respond to that but another waiter arrived just then with a bottle of vodka which he set on the table and walked away. Andre opened the bottle and poured a generous amount into each of our glasses. He offered a toast to our success in business and drained his glass while I sipped a bit from mine.
The food arrived before any more toasts could be offered. The waiter set a plate in front of me that had a small piece of meat, something that looked like sauerkraut and something that looked like shredded beets. A bowl of bread was also placed on the table for us to share.
I had little appetite after all of the travel and the lack of sleep so the meal was plenty for me. As we ate, Andre offered more toasts and downed his glass of vodka. Boris and I took a sip with each toast. By the end of the meal the bottle was empty. Boris and I had each finished one glass.
Now I had to try to sleep in a toy bed. After all of the travel and a meal and a glass of vodka, I was able to sleep in spite of the discomfort.
After a good night’s sleep in spite of the toy bed, I was ready for the first day of business in Byelorussia. We had breakfast in the hotel where they served a typical European breakfast buffet except there was much less choice than I had seen in European hotels. They had some cheese and bread, a few pastries, no fruit or meat, plenty of tea and some very bad coffee.
We quickly downed enough nourishment to keep us going until lunch and then waited in the lobby for Andre. The two women mopping the immense floor were back again, probably with the same bucket of water. Apparently, mopping the lobby was a permanent, full time job for two people.
After a few minute’s wait, Andre pulled up in front of the hotel and we walked out to meet him. This time he had his personal car rather than the official car he used to get us from the airport. Andre was a high level government official, reporting directly to the president of Byelorussia but his car was a surprise. The old buggy looked like something from the fifties. It was a very faded green color but it was so dull it could have been a green primer with the paint completely worn off. Inside, the front and rear seats were covered with well worn blankets. I opened the back door to get in and saw a hole through the floor giving me a good view of the pavement and gritty snow beneath the car.
“Sit up here Mr. Foley.” he told me. “Boris, you can sit in the back.”
“Sure,” Boris said with a laugh. “I’ve been in the soviet cars many times.”
They both laughed at that comment while I wondered what was humorous. Then Boris explained.
“This is one of the nicer cars here but cars are always in deficit. Everything is in deficit here. Because of his position, Andre got this one rather than one of the ridiculous Trabants from East Germany. But he can’t get another one until his name comes up again on the list to get one. So this one is old and worn but it is still better than most. We always laughed at how every year Moscow told us how good we would have it next year.”
We had a short ride through Minsk and arrived at Andre’s office. The building was different from all of the standard soviet designed buildings that filled the city. It stood in the middle of an area that looked like it was supposed to be landscaped and was surrounded by a high fence. One of the gates hung askew from a single hinge, obviously no longer operational. The other gate was embedded in the snow and looked like it had not been moved in months. We pulled up to a parking spot that had a sign in front that probably reserved it for Andre.
As we walked into the building I noticed an unpleasant, musty smell. The hall was not lit except from the unwashed windows and it was almost as cold as the outside air. Strangely, the building seemed to be empty. There was no receptionist and we encountered no one walking in the halls. Andre led us through the hall, upstairs and into his office.
His office was huge. It was no less than thirty feet wide and fifty feet long. A large desk sat at the far end in front of the only windows. Between the windows, directly behind the desk was a large portrait of Lenin. Some display cases with papers, trophies and souvenirs lined the walls and a table with six chairs stood near the door where we had entered. The center of the room was empty and could have served as a ballroom for a substantial party.
Andre invited us to sit at the table and have a cup of tea from the large samovar that filled a small table next to the meeting table.
Boris explained, “The small pot there is tea that was brewed very strong. You take a cup and put some in then fill it with hot water from the samovar. Put in a little water if you like strong tea or a lot if you like it weaker.”
After looking through a few papers on his desk, Andre joined us at the meeting table and we got down to business.
After a few hours of going over how the business would be structured, Boris said, “Let’s go do some Russian shopping.”
Boris had worked enough for today and he really wanted to show me around his Minsk.
Even though it was a sad example of how badly the Soviet system worked, it was his home and he was proud of it. Andre was able take the rest of the day off so we decided to continue tomorrow.
But, before leaving the building I wanted to use the bathroom and Andre told me where it was located. I walked down the hall and, as I approached the door, I realized I didn’t need directions; I could have found it by following the smell. Inside there were two urinals
on the left and a sink on the right. Straight ahead was another door. There was nothing here to create the foul odor that wafted through the halls. There wasn’t even a wastebasket that might have held someone’s lunch from a week ago.
I took care of my needs but then curiosity got the best of me and I opened the door at the end of the room and looked inside. Instantly my eyes burned and a gasp brought a
small amount of the incredibly noxious air into my lungs.
That was nearly fatal. Nothing on earth could smell so bad, not rotting flesh, not sewage tanks, nothing. It smelled so bad, I WANTED to die. I slammed the door shut and ran for the hallway, unable to breathe. When I was twenty feet down the hall I was able to start breathing again. It took nearly an hour before my eyes stopped watering.
The little room at the end held just a single toilet, but it was a very unusual toilet. There was no tank on the back and there was no seat, just the porcelain commode attached to the floor. A standard concrete building block was positioned on the floor on each side, providing the user of this diabolical odiferous monster a place to position his feet. Then, I assume they would squat down a bit and do their business.
However, it was apparent that they didn’t squat very much and the room had not been cleaned since the building was built. A uniform brown material covered the floor and up the walls around the stool to a height of at least two feet. I’m sure it was my imagination but I remember a hazy film hanging in the air that shot toward the opened door and completely enveloped my head.
For the rest of my stay in Minsk, I made it a point to take care of things before I left the hotel and just hold on all day until I got back to the hotel.
After exiting the building, I was able to breathe a bit and recover from the bathroom experience. Now we could go shopping.