Friday, March 25, 2011

One Day in the Life of Isaac Danilovich

Nothing rounds off an afternoon stroll along Odessa's coastal path than early supper at Dacha.

This restaurant is set in a country house generously bequeathed to whoever was passing at the time by its owner, the cautious Mr Peretz, who decided not to give Soviet power the benefit of the doubt and fled to France in a flurry of fur coats and floozies in 1919.

Dacha offers a zesty selection of soups, savouries, sweets and, of course, sinus-snapping spirits. I can recommend the okroshka, salo, kambala, Chernihiv unfiltered beer and horse-radish horilka.

The last of these prompts a fecund stirring of the loins and a variety of unusual admissions at Accident & Emergency unless congress is achieved within two hours of consumption - not usually a problem in Slack-Drawered Odessa.

Madame Boyo and I were relaxing at a garden table, after an arduous afternoon on the Otrada beach, when a neo-Chekhovian tableau commenced nearby.

An Odessite businessman in his mid-50s - let us call him Isaac Danilovich - trailed into the garden behind his overstuffed wife and 20-something daughter. Isaac is typical of a certain type of entrepreneur in the eastern Slavosphere:

  • Not venal, but has plenty of venal people on his speed-dial;
  • Uxurious, even though he could have traded in his wife for a waxed blonde shop-hopper long ago; and
  • Drinks with his partners and rivals, but didn't make his millions by being mashed on monkey juice half the day.

So an afternoon en famille at Dacha would have been a pleasant break from wheeling deals, but Isaac looked troubled. Jowls and the corners of various features all drooped towards his tasselled loafers. Then I saw why.

One of the many horrors that Soviet Communism spared its ranks of soldiers, peasants and grade three meat-processing-plant operatives was interior designers.

Dizainer, by contrast, was a familiar Jewish surname in Odessa. A perestroika joke goes that a new-breed interior designer hired to wreck some poor sap's flat turned up at the wrong address.

"Hello, I'm a designer," said the prominently Hebrew young professional.

"Well, I can see you're not an Ivanov!" grunted the vest-clad tenant as he slammed the door.

Back at Dacha, Madame Boyo and I beheld the bane of Danilovich. Blonde hair tugged into a brisk ponytail, yoghurt-nourished curves crammed into a grey two-piece and kitten heels, Masha the Interior Designer bore down on Issac's table, brandishing her laptop like a shield before her businesslike bosom.

After a few perky greetings she perched on a chair to the left and ordered still mineral water without ice. Daughter and Mrs Danilovich were arrayed to the right, with Mr D arraigned between them.

Masha unfurled the laptop, fanned out some brochures and began bobbing her ponytail in time with mother and daughter as they pored over her plans. Danilich, to use the familiar contraction, briefly caught my eye. "Help me!" blinked his haggard orbs.

For a moment I considered a discreet flick of forefinger to throat, the wordless Soviet invitiation to share a half-litre of red-eye behind a missile silo. He would have muttered an excuse and caught up with me among the silver birches to swig and forget in the silent brotherhood of the bottle.

Instead I raised my litre of Chernihiv Unfiltered and nodded with a wink towards Mrs Boyo, a woman whose idea of interior décor goes no further than the steel bookshelves and noticeboards of the drill hall where she was born. Uncle, you're on your own.

The next half hour saw Danilich lurch through the Four Stages of Life.

Of all the great religions, Hinduism has most acutely pondered the pointlessness of human endeavour. Buddhism usually earns that accolade, but rather embraces failure with Schopenhauerian smugness.

Hindus, on the other seven hands, regard our futile footling with Himalayan dispassion, and seek diversion in acrobatic erotica and a pantheon that could pass an East Enders audition. And, like true country types, they've worked out that cows are best left alone.

Your Hindu divides our trudge to the municipal boneyard into four allotments of increasing disappointment, and poor Isaac Danilovich slouched sulphurous through the whole tetralogy before our blinking eyes.

1. Brahmacharya: The stage when a young man learns from his elders under conditions of celibacy.

Isaac Danilovich had turned up to lunch with the intention of taking this vow, with fingers subtly crossed, having calculated that feigned interest in plaster niches and pre-aged parquet might earn him a reprieve from whatever other improving ideas his womenfolk had in mind - banning handguns from the banya, for example.

So he bowed gravely before the queasy neon of the laptop, wherein his hunting lodge was shrouded in the chandeliers and drapes of a Syrian soap-opera drawing room decorated by the last remaining Situationist.

This lasted about five minutes. A getter-up and goer, Danilich couldn't fake enthusiasm for dadoes, corniches and pergolas any more than the average husband. Before long he leaned back and pretended to read important text messages on his mobile. His wife and daughter drew closer as he moved out into the lower orbit of irrelevance.

2. Griastha: The mature stage of life in which you settle down and devote yourself to family matters.

Danilich needed to wrest control of his precarious patrimony before Masha turned his smoking terrace into a magnolia "break-out area". He began to make helpful suggestions like some domestic Schindler, desperately seeking to save a few mammoth trophies and billiard tables from the encroaching cream emulsion.

Too late. The daughter, who hadn't studied Social Technology at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy for nothing, gently batted them aside while Mother patted his hand. Masha smiled indulgently, then continued her breathless exposition.

One aspect of Griastha is Kama, or sensual gratification. Isaac Danilovich now had recourse to this by idly assessing Masha's public assets. "If I make her my mistress and buy her a flat on Richelieu Street, perhaps she'll leave my house alone," he mused.

3. Vanaprastha: The gradual abdication of wordly desire, often accompanied by a retreat from town to country.

Danilich understood that an affair with Masha, while entirely possible and, in many Ukrainian situations, almost unavoidable, would only burden his soul while not necessarily sparing his estate. The daughter would find another designer, and he'd have to spend late afternooons staring at Masha's stretched ceiling with a mouthful of Spanish fly and the sound of snapping garters in his ears.

He moved his chair back to "take a call" and the hitherto emollient Mrs Danilovich slid her seat sideways into the space, all the better to peer over her fleshy Tartar cheekbones at some new albumen abomination in glass brickwork.

Slowly, steadily, Isaac Danilovich was being eased beyond the familial Van Allen Belt into the harsh solar winds of woe.

4. Sannyasa: The final withdrawal from a world full of weeping into the contemplation of the Eternal.

The Sannyasin, legally dead, must have provided for his family before being allowed to renounce them, and this Danilich had clearly done. But some Hindu sages insist that Sannyasa is permitted only to those who have sired a son, and this clearly troubled Isaac.

A son - Boris! - would have ridden to his rescue in a pimped convertible; open-shirted, Aviator-shaded and slightly bandy from polo and penicillin. The finest waitresses would have fed them cognac and caviar canapés from their cleavages while the chef coshed and grilled all passing livestock at their table.

Masha, whom Boris would have mounted at some point before dessert, would eagerly agree that a 15ft HD wall-mounted television with extendable cocktail cabinet/barbecue is what every modern bedroom needs.

This phantom progeny seemed to urge Isaac on to an uprising against the carmine-lipped camarilla. He grabbed the laptop and jabbed at various offending features, muttering urgent pleas for domestic give-and-take. The Daughter eased the monitor from his clammy grasp.

Mother replaced his chair a good yard away and poured his first tumbler of vodka. Isaac Danilovich lit a Cohiba of consolation. It was all over. He'd take the yacht down to Varna for the summer, in sure and blissful hopelessness about the state of Villa Danilich on his return. Perhaps they'd leave him his shed.

Shanty, shanty, shanty.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Gumboot Diplomacy

The English language revels in its irregular verbs:

  • I'm a traveller, you're a tourist, he's EasyJet ballast;
  • I appreciate erotica, you watch porn, she's a former Home Secretary;

That sort of thing. One verb to savour is "I work abroad, you've gone native, he's an expat".

The British abroad are a queasy seesaw of expat and diplomat. Expats, whether metro journalist or furrowed accountant, all decompose into a septic tank of drunken suburban prejudice and low-wattage adultery.

British diplomats, whether baronets or bursary boys, rise into a Zen stratosphere of airless detachment from the life of others.

The recent turmoil in Libya has provided virtuoso displays of both. Take the expat who complained to the BBC that African migrant workers were slicking Tripoli airport with their tears when they didn't even have passports and his kitchen still needed mopping. He was grateful to Col Gaddafi's toughs for clearing his path to duty-free. Classy.

As for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, it never lets us Schadenfreunde down. Making expats show a bit of leg to every passing troop-carrier was a true crowd-pleaser. But nothing prepared even the most jaded observer for their decision to drop Terry-Thomas and The Professionals, unannounced, by helicopter into territory where the noble, trigger-happy rebels were preparing to repulse Gaddafi's air attacks.

If you ever wonder why a country like Britain maintains such an extensive diplomatic corps, there is your answer. It takes teams of tombstone-toothed tools in dandruffed suits to come up with ideas that even SOE would have rejected during the invasion of Crete, and all to maintain Britain's international reputation for endearing if sometimes deadly eccentricity.

There were many joys to life as a foreign student in the Glorious Soviet Union, but chief among them was the realisation that the entire country was run on an operational basis by drunks.

I have written about this in detail, but one aspect I failed to mention was the pleasure derived from encounters between truculent Russian drunks (Russ: пьяный мужик) and middle-class Englishmen with a misplaced sense of entitlement (Lat: vagina correcta).

In those days the British Embassy in Moscow was a Tangiers of pinstriped stupidity, where stammering consuls rubbed bulbous Adam's apples with Magdalene M.Phil.s, all in pursuit of a tennis court. An hour sat in the lobby was the best recruiting sergeant the Communist Party (Hairy-Arsed Pickaxe Faction) could have imagined.

I heard some choice tales of buffoonery over those months. A Thatcher-era cabinet minister arrived at midnight in a midwinter city somewhere beyond the Urals to attend an international beetroot symposium. He was denied access to his hotel by the usual gnarled war veteran who'd leafed through the Wehrmacht etiquette book before bayoneting its owner with a frozen wolf.

"I'm a government minister, from Britain!" the hireling of capital had wailed. "Britain? Never heard of it!" snapped ex-Gunner Yebalkin before slamming the door and returning to his bucket of vodka.

From that day on, an embassy flunkey had to fly ahead and occupy the hotel room until the visiting duffer du jour had arrived.

My own experience of a winoes vs whiners bout was less epic in scale but all the more satisfying for the small part I played on the side of the workers, peasants and revolutionary soldiery.

I had arrived back in Moscow after a pleasant fortnight delousing in London. The flight, bound for Tokyo, stopped off at Sheremetyevo Airport in the early hours, catching the aerial portal to the Soviet Union at its sepulchral best.

Sheremetyevo by day was a Führerbunker that the Reich had never got round to burying, full of cardboard uniforms, fizzing electrical circuits and huddles of leprous men in leather caps and piss-stained brown trousers.

But by night it became Czarina Anna's ice palace. Corridors of gleaming marble glided into distant darkness. The chill silence was disturbed only by the drip-drip of thawing sentries. Every surface glowed in gentle lemon neon.

Into this vacuum-cleaner's Valhalla stepped myself, half-a-dozen other slackers, and a middle-aged couple flanked by invisible barriers of disdain. He was well-tailored, lightly tanned and severely side-parted. She was brittle, like thin ice rather than cut crystal. They looked around in mild distraction.

"Passport control's over there," I offered with the random amiability that steady ingestion of advocaat can bring.

"Not for us, actually," she snapped.

They made off for the Diplomatic Channel, which differed from the workers, peasants etc line only in being unstaffed.

  • There they stood as we brave few shuffled past the KGB blonde.
  • Still they stood as we picked up our bags.
  • Stood they yet as, having explained the use and abuse of garter belts to a bumpkin customs officer, we strode out into Socialist Paradise and followed the aroma of meths and exploding cigarettes to the taxi rank.

I loitered a little, being something of a théâtromane, to see what happened to the Rattigan Couple. The customs officer wandered over to them and gesticulated towards the KGB gorgon.

"We're British diplomats, actually," hissed the wife in an accent that spoke of shabby boarding schools, secretarial courses and matrimonial miscalculation. Her husband looked as if he'd just had his colon sandpapered.

"Go there!" barked the Shield of the Revolution. A drunk bloke had meanwhile appeared from behind a rubber flap and started hauling their bags away in a most undiplomatic manner.

"No!" squeaked Mrs Actually, clattering across the hall and straight into the rough embrace of Corporal Mordaboyko, who pointed her back to passport control.

As she trudged the ten yards of defeat, I quietly whistled the Laurel & Hardy tune. I repeated the performance after they had both submitted their passports to the blonde. Her arch comment "But these are diplomatic passports!" broke the language barrier effortlessly before she waved them through with a flick of her Kalashnikov-stripping wrist.

While my betters waited to have their passports bent out of shape, I'd busied myself with finding a taxi. There was only one driver left, and I managed to haggle him down with the inducement of the British Airways in-flight magazine, which happened to feature an underdressed actress on the cover. "English gentleman's journal, most depraved," I urged.

The Actuallies limped out onto the freezing concourse just as the driver dropped my duffel bag in the boot. "Taxi!" ventured the Second Secretary, whose official car must have displayed an impeccable sense of British justice by not turning up.

"Yes, I know," I waved cheerily as I settled into the passenger seat of the sole mobile vehicle in a 2km radius. They were still standing there as we vanished between the silver birches, bound for the bright lights and dark pleasures of Boris Galushkin Street.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Dark Side of the Rainbow

Once in a while lakes in Africa turn themselves over, releasing noxious vapours that kill all life on the shore and turn the countryside into something out of Poe.

Once in a while employers in Britain turn their staff over by getting them to reapply for their jobs, releasing noxious employees into the environment and turning the local Labour Exchange into a Cliff Richard film scripted by Kafka.

I was near alone one evening with such a colleague as he wove his way through the re-application form.

"It's just like the script for an interview, but without the interviewer," he muttered.

"So, in order to get the psychological advantage, does that mean you have to imagine yourself naked while filling it in?" I asked.

"I always imagine myself naked," he added.

Beyond the frosted window something stirred in a distant lake.