Sunday, February 08, 2009

Un bateau ivre


The news that Obama-inspired People Power prevented a booze-weary Aeroflot pilot from taking to the clouds in his wingèd trolley-bus brought up queasy memories of my encounters with Soviet-era air travel.

Aeroflot was called "The Flying Gulag" by the unfortunates who were obliged to skid from runway to runway in its dusty crates. The in-flight staff were trained to punch you at the slightest comment and spent their time ferrying all the food and drink up to the cockpit for a slap-up mid-flight feast with the pilots.

I don't remember any of their air crew being drunk, but that might be because I, like the other 150 million inhabitants of the First Socialist State in the World, kept myself topped up at all times on various skull-numbing fluids.

My sole encounter with a drunken airman came at Moscow's endless Sheremetyevo Airport in 1986, courtesy of the Polish state airline Lot.

I was writing a fond postcard to my soon-abandoned Black Earth ladylove in the post office when a poorly-shaved bear in a blue suit a size too small slurred a request to borrow my pen.

This happened a great deal in the Glorious Soviet Union, as the Ust-Kamenogorsk Ballpoint Pen Factory and Nuclear Testing Ground concentrated on producing James-Bond jobs that poisoned Bulgarian journalists and turned into speed boats etc.

I reluctantly handed over my prized Bic, only to notice that my petitioner was wearing a Lot pilot's uniform. As a subtle protest against Soviet oppression I had spent the previous two months learning Polish instead of Russian, and couldn't resist the chance to show off my linguistic brio.

"Here is my pen!" I announced with a Cracowian bow.

"Prząbwość niech kładowięckiego żibrząb sztont śmigrzydzły!" declared the ursine Pole as he embraced his new-found if clearly simple compatriot.

All correspondence forgotten, he opened his pilot's jacket to reveal a half-bottle of finest Dagestani brandy. My shoulders still pinned within his mighty paw, we lurched off to the underground car park to celebrate what I gather was our "szkrątnowalkówięnrzność".

I felt uneasy about this prospect for a number of reasons:

  • The Soviet Union was enjoying a predictably disastrous period of Prohibition, and swigging firewater in one of their sensitive border facilities was likely to earn you a hands-on tour of the local drunk tank followed by two years in a uranium mine.


  • Poles were regarded as the weak link in the great Chain of Socialism, and any association with these backsliders might lead to an evening attached to a KGB car battery.


  • For reasons I shall go into, I was wearing a 1950s Red Army cavalry officer's uniform under my fisherman's sweater and loon pants.

My companion - for the sake of simplicity let us call him Kapitan Mieczysław Wrzaszczyk-Ćwierczakiewicz - found us a bulky concrete pillar to hide behind while we exchanged swigs of Makhachkala three-star cornea-rot. Soldiers skulked at the nearby Central Committee limousine pool.

All Slavonic languages merge into one when you've taken on half a pint of spirits, so I was able to tune into Mieczysław's musings in the middle of an impressively clinical account of the internal workings of Iranian women.

He flew the Warsaw-Tehran route, the destination of which afforded him more opportunities for alcohol and spousal abuse - other men's spouses, I gathered - than the BBC news might suggest.

"Pięknię kobietą, ale chopi-chop - skrzy pierst części mórze!" he explained, with cheery gestures that suggested a unicorn had recently tried to saw through his glans.

But the return stopover in Moscow, with its familiar aromas of cheap petrol, damp hair, fried gristle and bark-enriched cigarettes, brought on a wave of nostalgia for Poland and his shrewish wife Małgorzata.

Hence the recourse to Caucasian monkey-juice and the tearful letter of confession that she would never receive - not least because the Soviet postal system had diverted all Poland-bound material to a large fire near Zhlobin as a matter of policy since 1921.

This was all very interesting, but we both had flights to catch, so I offered to escort "Mike" - I could no longer manage more than one Polish syllable at a time - up to the departures lounge.

"At least you get to sleep it all off on this leg of the flight, eh?" I remarked as we staggered up the motionless, herring-scented escalator.

"You must be joking!" he wailed. "Kazimierz has been drinking brake-fluid since Tabriz, so I'm in the driving seat!"

At this point I fell over. As Mike helped me up he saw the Soviet Army collar stick out of my sweater. With a cry of "Skafander przeciwprzeciążeniowy!" he lurched off towards the crew entrance, where a few other uniformed Poles were propping one another up and trying to fit their arms into one sleeve of a jacket.

I never saw him or his plane again.

While writing this I've received a number of urgent demands for clarification as to my unusual attire at the time. In short, I had bought the cavalry uniform from a retired Soviet Army officer in Voronezh with the ruse that we had a military museum at Swansea University (formerly Sketty Catering College) that needed ideological balance.

"It's all Wehrmacht and Free Wales Army by there, Igor," I had explained.

The true reason, as usual, was to ease my assignations with the female wing of progressive studentry, most representatives of which were called Hillary.

In 1986 the Hillaries loved a man in righteous Red Army uniform, perhaps because it was good practice for when the Warsaw Pact rumbled up Bexhill High Street and billeted its hunky officers in Mummy's house (Daddy moved away to France with That Slut back in 1978).

This was all to change. By 1988 Gorbachev was friends with that awful President Reagan and you could buy Perestroika! t-shirts in Top Shop.

Meanwhile The Guardian had noticed that General Rabin was busy breaking bones on the West Bank, so you suddenly needed the Full Yasser (keffiyeh, Bundeswehr surplus jacket, shades and stubble - the lips of a corpulent voluptuary were optional) to part a sociology 2nd-year from her black leggings.

Worse was to come. Within months the Berlin Wall was gone and you could pick up Soviet Army uniforms, Kalashnikovs and atom-bomb kits on the Ku'damm. My outfit was well-tailored in bilious cotton, rather than the boxy khaki polyester of the 1980s infantryman, but once you have to explain the difference it's time to move on.

I dug the ensemble out one more time, at the request of the college Catholic chaplain "Desperate" Dom Leo Bonsall. I was giving him my full high-kicking staircase descent when his housekeeper's husband wandered in.

This refugee from eastern Poland had last seen a Soviet cavalry officer riding his Aunt Jadwiga to market in Brześć nad Bugiem in 1940, and the bastard had never come back with the change he'd promised either.

"Skafander przeciwprzeciążeniowy!" he yelled and lurched for the kitchen, where a few other Poles were eating goose fat and trying to fit all the countries of Central Europe into one map of inter-war Poland.

I never saw him or his wife's gołąbki again.

74 comments:

Gyppo Byard said...

I would laugh at your comic invetion if I didn't fear this was true. I never went behind the iron curtain before it rusted away; but I had a post-perestroika experience on a Caucasian 'Babyflot' airline which renders your description of the Bigdaddyflot entirely believable.

I was also told by a reliable authority that Aeroflot pilots used to toast each other pre-flight with their fingers wrapped around the vodak glass to avoid the tell-tale clink of glasses , using the words "Let us drink to not being overheard drinking!"

No Good Boyo said...

All true, although not necessarily in the correct order.

I had a happy experience on an Uzbekistan Airlines internal flight to Bukhara. My companion noticed that various passengers were chatting on their mobile phones as we came in to land, and demanded to know why this was allowed.

The stewardess had the pilot come over once we'd landed. He said "We'd not normally allow mobiles on the descent, but the radar doesn't work at Bukhara airport so there's nothing for phones to interfere with".

"How do you land?"
I asked.

"We follow the River Zerafshan until we see the airport. There are no other planes around. It's simple, really," he smiled.

The flight back was fun, too.

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

I love a bit of smalec, me. Heart attack in a jar, but lovely stuff.

LOT stands for Lands On Trees, since one of their flights crashed into the forest in the 1980s. Your mastery of the language is impressive Boyo, it looks like Polish but doesn't mean anything. It must be your Krakowiak accent. Very amusing post all the same.

When I was there I knew a guy called Wawrzyniec Kostrzewski. If you could say his name you were judged sober enough to drive home.

Andrew said...

Sheremetyevo is the only airport where I have seen an airside beggar.

Hurge said...

Yo, NoGoBo, Yo Baby Yo. Is yo familiar with the Swedish Fish?

Gadjo Dilo said...

Aeroflot! - The Movie Start writing, Boyo, start writing.

"Poles... trying to fit all the countries of Central Europe into one map of inter-war Poland" They could've had Transylvania too if they'd taken a a right at L'viv.

Speaking of utopias, the Land of Cockaigne was the model for the "First Workers' State in the World", but unfortunately it morphed into EastEndenders.

scarlet-blue said...

My friendly google translator is also at a loss, Daphne, but suggested: Czy dużo seksu i stron.
Maybe I should have spent less time with my leggings round my ankles and more time learning things.
Sx

No Good Boyo said...

Daphne, I'm impressed by the Polish breathalyser. In Wales we do the same with the placename Rhosllanerchrugog.

Gadjo - don't encourage them. I once put a Pole and a Georgian together and they found a common border somewhere in the Kuban region. Not that it would be worse than the Muscovite loons that run the place now.

Andrew, that beggar was once a Finnish businessman who never found the transit lounge. He dances for coins.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

It's nice to hear the story of a drunken pilot who didn't crash. Typically, the sensationalist media always focus on the ones that do. Plus, flying sober's not all it's cracked up to be - if the 9/11 hijackers had been properly beered up, they might have missed the World Trade Center altogether.

No Good Boyo said...

Herr Pop, I gather some of the 9/11ers were beered up the night before. Probably on some insipid, corporate brew. If their first encounter had been with the product of a righteous microbrewery it might not have been their last, and the world would be a happier place with a few more people in it.

Congratulations on the return of the Juncoes, by the way. I order all readers of this web blog to abandon their halfwitted YouTube postings and fill their ears with the Sound of Pop.

Simon Dyda said...

As Hen Daid Dyda would say: Moja wódka jest żółta ale nie mam jajek. Kurwa!

inkspot said...

Top post, Boyo. It teaches socio-aerodynamics, Polish and seduction.

No Good Boyo said...

Thanks Inky, I take a lot from the world and so am conscious of my obligation to give a little back.

Simon, your taid had everything he needed, just there.

sackcloth and ashes said...

'He flew the Warsaw-Tehran route, the destination of which afforded him more opportunities for alcohol and spousal abuse - other men's spouses, I gathered - than the BBC news might suggest.'

I knew from the record of 302 and 303 Squadrons in 1940-1945 that Polish pilots were brave, but this is surely above and beyond ...

'LOT stands for Lands On Trees, since one of their flights crashed into the forest in the 1980s.'

In contrast, the Hungarian state airlines (Malev) was just known as 'Malevolent' by anyone unfortunate enough to use its services.

sackcloth and ashes said...

'"Poles... trying to fit all the countries of Central Europe into one map of inter-war Poland" They could've had Transylvania too if they'd taken a a right at L'viv.'

Miedzymorze ... Pilsudski's contribution to geopolitics. I have a feeling that idea is still alive and well in Warsaw.

No Good Boyo said...

Sackcloth, good to hear from you.

A state encompassing Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and the hillier parts of Ukraine would have been a model of supra-national cooperation and mutual respect. As long as it wasn't run by the Poles.

sackcloth and ashes said...

'A state encompassing Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and the hillier parts of Ukraine would have been a model of supra-national cooperation and mutual respect. As long as it wasn't run by the Poles.'

Indeed. The unfortunate thing about the Poles is that they've had so much experience of being subjected to alien imperialist exploitation, that when the valentki were on the other foot they tended to go a bit overboard.

sackcloth and ashes said...

'other feet'.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

A fairly recent one: on an Aeroflot flight a passenger complaining about his drink being not cooled sufficiently got from the stewardess: "Look at this person, folks: we don't know how we've succeeded to take off and don't have a slightest idea whether (and how) we'll land, and he is complaining about his drink?"

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Unknown said...

Aeroflot imprisoned me in a detention centre ("Hotel" was the code name) for two days. I must say the vegetarian food was excellent compared to the rest, by which I mean excellent in an existentially challenged sense.

Have you told everyone the one about the clash of cultures when travelling by train between Belarus and Ukraine? Not sure how to transcribe the cockney accents the Ukranians used, but it's a good one.

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