Monday, May 23, 2005

Don't know how lucky you are, boy. (Part 2)

It happened in Leningrad (remember that name?), the final stop in our tour. A beautiful city, in which we had probably become too comfortable and maybe a bit too confident in our skills at negotiating the traffic-clogged streets and the shady black market. By this time we had already picked up countless Russian military watches, pins, flags, metrioshkas, handcrafted tchotchkes, you name it, if it was to be found and purchased for a few bucks, chances are someone in our group had found it and done so.

Well, walking through this particular square in sunny Leningrad, something caught my eye: a beautifully crafted and (most likely) hand-painted balalaika. You know, one of those triangular three-stringed Russian “guitars” the sound of which my classmates and I had grown to know all too well thanks to repeated viewings of Dr. Zhivago and Nicholas and Alexandra. Nothing could have been more attractive to me, a lover of music and a new student to the guitar. I couldn’t pass it up.

So I approached the friendly, fluent-in-English (as everyone seemed to be), curly-haired seller of said balalaika and, with a minimum of discussion, secured the instrument for a mere ten American dollars. Hmm, maybe I was paying too much and could have gotten him down even further? Ah, but ten bucks seemed like nothing for a musical instrument! Triumphant, I reached under my shirt to retrieve the money (where we all kept our cash carefully hidden, as a result of an encounter with gypsies in Moscow in which one of my friends lost a watch and a significant amount of money), and pulled out a wad of American currency.

At that moment the curly-haired seller’s eyes widened, and he began motioning frantically for me to put my money away. And before I knew what was happening, he was walking briskly away from me in the opposite direction, leaving me holding the now complimentary balalaika in confusion just as a powerful hand closed gruffly around my wrist.

Looking up, I know that if there had been anything in my bladder I would have no doubt peed myself as I peered into the red face of a huge, uniformed KGB officer, who was angrily shaking my arm and yelling at me in Russian. Glancing behind him, I could see that three other officers now stood between me and my group of friends, who were obliviously walking away, completely unaware of the fact that I was no longer with them or that I was apparently in the process of being arrested by the KGB.

I thought about yelling out to them, but one glance into the face of my KGB captor convinced me to remain silent. And with that, he and his comrades began dragging me down the street, away from my friends, all the while speaking to me in Russian as I repeated over and over (in English) that I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

Images of fictional Russian prisons flashed through my mind as I was dragged farther and farther away from my friends, my level of panic rising exponentially. What in the hell was I going to do? I had no idea how to contact anyone in my group, and how would they find me once it was realized that I was missing? In my panic, there were no rational answers. Just one horrible question after another, each further convincing me that I’d be spending the rest of my life locked behind the iron curtain in some soviet prison somewhere. Probably Siberia. Surely this offense was on par with being caught with hash in Malaysia and subsequently disappearing from the face of the earth, never to be heard from again. Oh yeah, I’d heard those stories. I’d seen those movies. And I knew that’s what I was in for.

When all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, the curly-haired Black Marketeer with whom I’d been “conducting business” re-appeared, and with a sympathetic look towards me, began arguing with the KGB officers. Russian phrases were shouted angrily back and forth, and as far as I could tell this was only worsening my plight. Not helping, man. No need to get these guys any more riled up that they already are, ok? Thanks. And suddenly, the officer who had been roughly holding onto my wrist abruptly and angrily released it, pushing me away from him.

Confused, I looked at the man who had suddenly become my savior, and he told me, in English, to hurry up and go back to my friends. And then, seemingly as an apology, he pressed a Russian military pin into my hand. We offer you our deepest apologies for the inconvenience, Mr. P/O, and hope that you will indeed consider shopping with us again in the future. Sincerely, The Soviet Black Market.

And so I left him arguing with the officers, wondering vaguely if he had gotten himself into any kind of trouble, and proceeded to run down the street and re-join my friends. Red-faced and bewildered, out of breath and clasping a balalaika in one hand, I must have been a sight to behold. I’m sure I seemed pretty distressed, because I watched as looks of confusion and concern registered, one by one, on each of their faces as I approached.

“Thanks a lot, guys,” I muttered, and proceeded to relate, in somewhat melodramatic fashion of course, how the free musical instrument they were all admiring had almost cost me my freedom. As I spoke, their eyes continued to widen in varying degrees of shock and ultimately admiration, as I was the sole member of our little group to have a run-in with the KGB and live to tell the tale.

And as I spoke, drawing out every little detail of my ordeal, I could almost hear the balalaika music playing in the background.


Blogger Lostinspace said...

i wish i had one of those -the balalaika. great recount. i felt i was right there with you. those damn black marketeers, ha.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Bottle Rocket Fire Alarm said...

"Intense Pulse-Pounding Excitement! -USA Today"

That was great, thank you.

2:07 PM  

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