|Late November 2011. My plane touches down at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport and I fast-track through Russian border security using my frequent entry passport. I rush past a crowd of tourists, my mind anticipating a million things that need to happen on this trip.
My local Russian business partner picks me up in Arrivals and during the taxi ride to Moscow city center I have a heated conversation with him over the sales results which are not what I like them to be: “What do you mean our biggest deal is slipping to the next quarter? You know I have committed this order, we cannot back out now!”. I hear myself raising my voice with all the pent-up stress accumulated on the flight over here. I know I should not be angry at him. The Russian government has stopped funding this particular project and there is absolutely nothing anybody can do about it. But I clearly need to vent and I take it out on him. When I’m done yelling, I feel anxious and uncomfortable. This job has been getting to me lately. The travel has me in a constant state of jet lag. My blood pressure is high and I have been drinking way too much.
I try to make amends: “Andrei, let’s have dinner tomorrow night at that great place on Tverskaya just off Red Square. Bring your wife. I am buying.” He nods and drops me off at my hotel on Prospect Mira. I can tell that he is boiling inside but he knows better than to retaliate. I stand for a moment in the freezing cold, watching Moscow traffic, glad to be out of the car. I try to take a deep breath but I smell gasoline so I quickly step inside.
I am queueing to check into Russia’s largest hotel, the two thousand-room Cosmos. I treasure fond memories of this Soviet-era establishment where I spent a memorable week with my Graduate Class ‘88 just before the USSR fell apart.
The look and feel of the place have not changed much over the last 20 years. It is 8 pm and the lobby is Grand Central Station, with a confusing mix of Russian business men and Chinese tourists. Heineken neon signs flash over the many hotel bars where stunning Ukrainian girls are still offering their enticing brand of seduction at democratic prices.
The check-in clerk is surly and curt, with a face like a boxer’s, affirming my stereotypical memory bias. While waiting in line, melancholy overwhelms me and I lose myself in bittersweet retrospection.
July 1988. Along with two hundred of my fellow International Economics Majors, I land at Moscow’s old Sheremetyevo airport. The mood of the group is elated. With four years of University under our belts, we are masters in the dynamics of the capitalist free market and we are intrigued to meet with its exact opposite, the infamous Soviet plan economy. Especially the renowned Moscow black market fascinates us and I personally plan to test it to its limits. Guts and glory.
I am wearing a ‘Maverick’ flight bomber jacket just like the one Tom Cruise is sporting in Top Gun, this year’s hit movie. I have been advised by trustworthy sources that I can sell this trending gear for a great many Soviet Rubles on the streets of Moscow. And so it happens. That first evening out, I don’t need to look far for a buyer. People approach me nervously and whisper in subdued voices: “I give you Rubles” while tugging at the sleeves of the jacket. After a hurried negotiation, I settle on an incredible amount of currency, leveraging the scarcity of Top Gun bomber jackets in a city starved for Western symbols. A sellers’ market if there ever was one.
With a thick wad of 100-Ruble bills, I proceed to rent the hotel Ball Room for the night and throw a legendary party for my fellow graduates, sparkled with plenty of Sovetskoye Shampanskoye, the Soviet brand of sparkling wine. A night not easily forgotten, with friendships sealed for life.
At the end of our stay, the Cosmos presents me with a bill for the damaged hotel property. It seemed a great idea at the night of the party to fire Champagne corks straight up and through the ceiling panels of the Ball Room. I paid that bill with the remainder of my Rubles, money well spent on a new ceiling, I guess. As they say: “Don’t trust a brilliant idea unless it survives the hangover.”
Thinking back about that trip behind the Iron Curtain, I can still taste the adrenaline rush of us roaming around like savages through an economic wasteland where the normal rules do not apply. The memory stings though because I am now in the exact same place but no longer have that sense of excitement and endless possibility. Ironic because you could call me successful on all counts that mattered to me as a student and yet I feel only pressure. Guts and glory without the glory.
My consciousness returns to the here and now when it is finally my turn at the check-in counter. Without a smile, the clerk says: “Dobro pozhalovat' v Kosmose.” Welcome to Cosmos. This strikes me as very funny as if I just landed on another planet. The receptionist clearly does not see the humor in this and proceeds inspecting and stamping my passport for the next fifteen minutes as if to say: “The USSR came and went but this is still Russia.”
The wear and tear of the journey have me wondering whether it is all worth it as I wait for the elevator to take me to the twentieth floor which houses the Russian version of Executive Suites. While the elevator is going up, a heavy weight presses me down. As if everything relies on me while at the same time I have very little control.
In my room, I take a Baltika beer from the minibar and lay down on the bed with the cold bottle unopened and my eyes closed. I hesitate. I am aware I am using alcohol to calm my nerves and this has become a steady pattern. I‘ve read it’s an addiction when you want to stop and you cannot. If you do not want to stop, it is not an addiction then? Well, I am torn and powerless when it comes to alcohol. Nowadays, it is more and more difficult to hold out even until noon for my first drink. I realize this is bad and panic grips me.
I open the bottle.
Several beers later, I drift into an uneasy sleep. As if my subconscious cannot wait to tell me something, I am propelled into a dream:
I am fast approaching a tipping point. The tipping point of what exactly is not clear. What I know for sure is that as I come nearer, nothing can be done, and once past it, nothing can be done about it either. At the same time, I have the strangest sensation that I am not just heading toward the future, but the future is coming towards me with increasing speed. I accelerate down a tunnel until everything suddenly stops and I am in Slow Time. I have never heard of Slow Time but somehow I know this is the time that existed before my birth and the time that will continue after my death. I feel very calm as if this is part of a rite of passage I have been preparing for all my life. A sense of well-being covers me like a warm blanket.
I wake up suddenly with a tremendous sense of relief. The hairs on my forearms and neck are standing out and my heart is beating fast. I have a cathartic sensation of reawakening:
I am alive and this is my time.
I feel an urgency to capture this essence before it evaporates. Thoughts come in rapid succession:
It’s in my genes to constantly scenario-plan and to think contingency. What I expect from the future affects my actions in the present and, therefore, impacts the future. I am in a closed loop. I should let go of this illusion of control. Just let things be. Accept loose threads. Embrace imperfection and insecurity.
I breathe slowly and deliberately to calm myself down. I rearrange my thoughts like books on a shelf.
I see a picture in my minds’ eye of a mountain top with a sign stuck in the snow that says: 2 pm on Everest. I realize this is something I read about on the plane over. Top mountaineer Ed Viesturs said: “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory”. He instituted a life-saving rule: “Regardless whether you have reached the top or not, by 2 pm you turn around to make sure there is enough daylight left on the way down to reach a lower level camp before the evening cold kills you.”
It occurs to me that in every situation, I seem to build in a turnaround point to avoid a point of no return that may or not be there. It has become a way of life and it makes me anxious because full control is impossible. The meaning of my dream slaps me in the face. No need for a 2pm turnaround every single day of my life. Why don’t I just live a little on the days that I am not climbing Everest.
I look out my window, high over Moscow city. The sun is reflected in the golden onion-shaped domes on the many churches I see. Smoke is circling up in the sky and is touching the clouds. It looks like it will snow tonight, as if nature has decided to mercifully cover up the man-made mess down below.
I am tired and lay down on the bed again. I fall into a deep sleep with no dreaming at all, at peace with myself and the cosmos.