Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!

I grew up during the Cold War.

I was a child during the Vietnam War. I spent most of grade school with the ups and downs of detente running in the background. My high school years took place in the depths of the early Reagan years, when the Cold War became both frostier and hotter – a neat thermodynamic trick, when you think about it.

So my earliest perceptions of Russians were as the Communist Menace – dour, plodding leaders and their grim followers, people opposed to all that was Good, True and Happy and who would just as soon nuke me as look at me.

And then I met some of them.

Turns out they’re a lot of fun.

I have always worn a lot of hats down at Home Campus, and about a dozen years ago one of them was as Assistant to the Dean. For the most part this meant filing papers, answering the phone, and generally doing light secretarial work while I focused most of my energies on graduate school. It had some odd moments – I was responsible for scheduling the interviews for the person who eventually took the teaching job I was hoping to get, for example, and I still feel bad even now for spacing out and giving her bum directions to the campus. But for the most part it was fairly straightforward.

My main task, however, was a bit out of the ordinary.

This particular Dean had joined the Rotary as a way to get the campus a bit more integrated into the local business community – the people who hire our students and support our Foundation with donations. And the Rotary had a project they were working on – they had teamed up with an outfit in San Francisco that ran programs designed to bring Russian business executives to the United States so they could see how their businesses worked in a country that hadn’t considered private property to be theft for most of the previous century.

The Dean volunteered the campus to set the curriculum of this visit, and somehow this got delegated all the way down to me.

So I spent the better part of the summer and early fall making phone calls.

A lot of that was calling local businesses to get them to donate a morning or an afternoon to explaining their practices to a group of Russian executives and their translators. Most businesses I contacted were surprisingly willing to do that – some even went far beyond anything I asked. We ended up with a very nice program that started with a bank and a local government, so the delegates (the executives were always called “delegates,” don’t ask me why) could get some context, moved through about a dozen local businesses in their field, and ended with a couple of places designed to get them thinking about what happened to their products after they left the factories in this country. I was particularly happy when the recycling center signed on.

I stumbled into two extra translators when Kim and I went out to eat one day and heard two girls chatting in Russian behind us. They were exchange students, both 19 and in their own separate ways gorgeous (one was a waif of a thing, while the other likely had not seen her feet in years – just sayin’). They were, shall we say, fan favorites when the delegates arrived. Their host family just shrugged. “Well,” the mother said, “they’re of age.”

I managed to find housing in the community for them all, which put me in touch with a segment of the community I seldom met – for example, one of the hosts offered, on about a month’s notice, to take them all to a Green Bay Packers game. I cannot conceive of the amount of money and power that it would take to make that offer a reality – the Packers have a season-ticket waiting list that is literally measured in millennia. I didn’t take him up on that, but instead planned other activities – a hockey game with the nearest minor-league team (hockey I figured they’d understand – American football takes a mountain of explanation if you haven’t grown up with it), any number of parties and gatherings, and so on. I had a lot of help in this – people were very happy to come up with ideas and donate their time, energy and houses – and it all worked out pretty well.

I was also the van driver, which meant that for seventeen days these guys saw an awful lot of me.

There were maybe fifteen of them, a surprising number of whom were named Vladimir or Mikhail. They varied considerably in personality, as you would expect, though none even remotely matched the Cold War stereotype I had grown up with. I ended up getting closest to one each of the Vladimirs and Mikhails – the Vladimir was a reserved man, the kind of guy you know would tell you something and sooner die than go back on his word, while the Mikhail was, for lack of a better word, sweet. The only woman in the crew was the translator they brought from Russia, a friendly soul named Irina. The most outgoing was Alex, who was probably in his late 50s, balding, and the sort of guy who could – and often did – take over a party.

Great guys, the lot of them.

It’s been a long time since then, but there are still a few things that stand out.

They were utterly amazed by the six-foot hoagie that we had brought in for lunch one day. Apparently this craze had not hit Russia by the late 1990s, although with the number of photographs they took of it there were ample models to work from when they got back home if they wanted to start.

They never did understand the American preference for coffee over tea. Frankly, neither do I.

We went out for barbecue one night, and the restaurant convinced one of their waitresses to get into the giant pig costume that was their mascot. It was one of the Vladimir’s birthday that evening (different Vladimir), and he decided that he wanted to see who was under the costume. It was some time before we could translate the idea that the poor woman had a chinstrap holding the head of her costume in place and that he should let her take it off instead.

It was an election year, so I took them to vote with me. They were interested in seeing how this process worked here - elections being fairly new at the time in Russia - and the elementary students whose school had been taken over as a polling place were fascinated by them. “Where are you from?” they asked. “From RUSSIA!” Alex exclaimed, to general acclaim.

I had to buy them American flags as souvenirs, but they wanted them to be made in the USA. Do you have any idea how hard those were to find?

Probably my favorite night of the whole visit, though, was Halloween. Kim and I were in the habit of having a Chili Festival every Halloween in those days, so we decided to do that and have everyone come in costume.

The delegates, naturally, did not have costumes with them, so I went up to the Home Campus theater department and said, “Mark,” (for that was his name), “can I borrow some costumes?” So the delegates spent a happy afternoon pawing through the costume racks in the theater. They came up with some great stuff. Vitaly in particular – a stout man with an unfortunate resemblance to his fellow Georgian, Stalin – made a surprisingly effective Pancho Villa.

We invited all of the delegates, all of their host families and interpreters, all three of the local Rotary clubs, everyone on Home Campus, all of our friends, and all of the businesses we visited before the party happened.

And as near as we could tell, they all came.

At one point we figured there were somewhere around 75 people in our house. To get from the kitchen to the living room it was actually easier to go out the back door and come back in the front. Fortunately it was a warm night, unusual in this part of the world where it snows on Halloween one year in five.

With the possible exception of a similarly excessive party from my college days, this was without a doubt the best party I’ve ever hosted.

What I remember of it.

You see, I was The Man – if they remembered one person from this trip, it was probably going to be me since I was with them nearly 15 hours a day for the entire time they were in Wisconsin. And naturally they wanted to drink with me.

The one stereotype about Russians that these guys proved absolutely true is that they have an astonishing – almost frightening – capacity to absorb alcohol. Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick but these guys could drink. We blew through everything Kim and I had left over from our wedding reception, everything we bought for the party, and everything they and the rest of the guests brought with them, and when that was finished they went out bar-hopping. I must have cleared off a hundred empty liquor bottles the next morning.

The way it worked was that they’d gather in a circle, and everyone would get a tumbler with about two fingers’ of vodka. Someone would have a giant dill pickle. There would be a toast, everyone would down their vodka, and the pickle would get passed around for everyone to take a giant bite.

At one point I remember thinking, “Well, I don’t have to drive home. Hell, I don’t even have to go upstairs. All I have to do is fall down.”

But they were fine.

Eventually the party moved into our garage, where the delegates staged an impromptu play (“The History of Russian Aviation in Four Drunken Acts” – seriously, go see it if it ever comes to a theater near you – it was hilarious). After the show there was dancing until the wee hours.

You grow up with that dour Cold War stereotype, and then they conga down your driveway.

I sometimes wonder what happened to those guys after they got back. Mikhail and I traded a few letters, but those faded out in the way of things. Evgeni’s daughter came back to his host family for a year of school abroad, and by all accounts that went well. But most of them just went back to their homes, their families and their lives.

I do miss them.

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