“Zis your first time in Russia?” asked the woman behind border control at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. She seemed grimly official and looked like she had not smiled since 1989. I nodded and passed my passport through the narrow gap. The thin-lipped security officer took it without comment, scrutinising my visa and immigration card as if expecting to find microfilm. Eventually she looked up and studied my face again. I kept it as neutral as possible. Looking cheerful was not the correct thing at passport control in Russia - it was a sign of something to hide.
“I vill ask again. Is zis first time in Russia?”
Under the woman's steely gaze I cracked. My mouth formed into a nervous smile. “Yes… and it's hot.”
I was referring to the heat wave. It was thirty-nine degrees Celsius in the shade, and reports of drunken vagabonds throwing themselves into the city’s fountains to cool off were beginning to hit the British press because some had drowned.
The customs official seemed not to understand. Her eyes narrowed a fraction. “Hot? What you mean...hot…?”
Around me, my fellow passengers averted their gaze. Swallowing hard, I gripped the metal bar in front to
“The weather is hot...” I stammered. “Moscow is hot.”
Time seemed to stand still. The woman stared without blinking.
Finally she spoke. “Yes, I think I see...Moscow is hot.” She stamped my passport and ushered me through. I had infiltrated Russia but it had been a close shave.
1. The Quest Begins in Snowy Latvia
Interesting fact: The national airline of Latvia, Air Baltic, does not serve curry
“Why do you want to go to Russia in February?” said Phil as he put his pint down. “All you’ll see are turnips and tractors. And it’ll be freezing.”
Phil and I had been friends since university. In the decade and a half since leaving those days behind, we’d both become teachers and got married. Not to each other. But we still found time to meet for a few pints on a Thursday night. I shook my head in resignation. “For a start, Latvia is not Russia. And anyway, it’s meant to be nice.”
“Latvia! That’s even worse.” Phil barked. “Who goes to Latvia for their holidays? What’s wrong with Barcelona or Paris? Latvia will be grey and full of concrete. Arms dealers will mug you and sex traffickers will hound you. You’ll queue ten hours to get a loaf of bread.”
I took a sip of my lager and smiled. “Phil, you’re describing Eastern Europe from thirty years ago. Latvia is modern. It’s been an independent country for about twenty years. It’s part of the EU for God’s sake. Why wouldn’t I want to go there?”
“Err what about the language?” said Phil bluntly. “Can you speak Russian or Latvian or whatever the hell they speak over there? And what about hotels? They’ll all be bugged. You’ll get arrested by the KGB!” Phil laughed at his own mirth. “What about Angela? What does she think about going to Russia in the middle of winter?”
My shoulders slumped. Phil had hit upon the only real obstacle in my plan, namely my wife. Not that Angela would have anything against Latvia, but I knew it would be a tall order to convince her to go in the depths of a February winter.
“She doesn’t know, does she?” said Phil grinning an evil grin. “She has no idea of your mad plan to go turnip-spotting in Russia? You’re an idiot! I can’t wait to find out what she says!”