the Final Days of the Cold War
© Copyright 2005 by Dina Bern
The decade of the 80's was dominated by the Reagan administration, and the Regan administration was dominated by the desire to crumble the evil empire, aka The Soviet Union, a desire that became a reality.
In spite of the strained relations between the Americans and the Soviets prior to the collapse of the evil empire, traveling to the Soviet Union was never prohibited. I was living in New York then, working as a bilingual education teacher. The salary was not great but the long summer vacations made the job worthwhile. It gave me time to travel.
The ballyhoos about the Soviet Union had awakened my curiosity. I wanted to see the the evil empire and its citizens at close range.
I am sure that the month was August, but not sure if the year was 1985 or 1986. Anyway, I joined an American Express group of about 20 tourists that flew first to St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, and later to Moscow. It was in Moscow that the strange events of this trip started.
In the group there were only two people traveling alone, Angela, an African-American young woman from Washington D.C., and myself, an American of Guatemalan background who was also young at the time. We decided to pair up and go around in the town when the tour leaders gave us free time, which happened only one afternoon in St. Petersburg and one afternoon in Moscow.
During our free afternoon in Moscow we visited some famous sights: the Poklonnaja mountain monument, a small part of the Kremlin museum, St. Basil's Cathedral and Red Square. Then we became hungry. We started looking for a place to eat and came across a restaurant at the International Hotel. The big windows of the establishment, which faced the street, showed luxurious beautiful decorations. The faces of the people at the tables showed delight. We went in and were greeted by a fortyish short chubby blond in a black skirt suit, with a pony tail hanging over the left ear. Her ice-blue eyes were as cold as her voice.
Are you guests in this the hotel? she inquired,
No. I replied,
Then you cannot eat here.
But we're going to pay. Insisted Angela.
It doesn't matter. Even if you can afford our prices I must insist that only our guests can eat here.
Let's get out of here! I said turning around and heading towards the door. We did not reach it. Two apparitions worthy of the Miss World Beauty Contest blocked our way to the door. A long-haired redhead and a long-haired platinum blond nearly 6' tall, dressed in elegant light colored pant suits, the kind that make their way to the pages of Vogue. The redhead smiled at me and asked in American-accented English,
Do you want to eat here?
We wanted to, but the nasty hostess said... I had no time to finish. The nasty hostess was now next to the tall beauties, facing us, smiling at us apologetically.
I am very very sorry for my mistake! Please forgive me! Of course you're welcome to dine here. It'll be a pleasure to serve you. Please choose a table, any table. Would you like to sit by the window? Angela and I looked at each other. What was happening?
Would you like a table by the window? inquired the redhead too.
Yes, of course! replied Angela.
Would you mind if we join you? Asked the platinum beauty.
Of course not! replied Angela and I in unison. Please do join us. Thanks to you we'll placate our hunger! I added.
We exchanged lots of general and particular information during dinner. In spite of their remarkable American accent the young women informed us that they were Russian. One studied architecture and the other engineering at one of Moscow's universities. They were at the hotel to study the building they said.
Something called my attention, though. When we first sat at the table and Angela and I introduced ourselves, the Russians did not give us their names, although they continued an animated and entertaining conversation. On my second attempt to get their names, the blond responded,
It might seem strange, but we both have the same name.
Is that so?
Well, and what's the name you two share?
Yes! interrupted the redhead, You can call her Helena 1 and me Helena 2. Ha, ha!
Angela and I looked at each other. O.K. I said somewhat incredulous.
When it was time to pay for the lavish dinner, I asked Helena 2 to get the check for us.
Don't worry, she said, Everything has been taken care of.
What do you mean?
Your dinner has been paid for.
Who paid for our dinner?
It doesn't matter, don't worry. Everything has been taken care of.
Surprised, Angela and I thanked the Helenas for the wonderful dinner.
Outside the restaurant the Russians suggested a stroll around nearby Red Square to help our digestion. We agreed.
We walked and talked. American singers, Russian history, American history. They had learned English in Russia and had never visited the States or any other English-speaking country. They inquired about our experiences in their country. We were glad to give them a good report.
And time just flew by. Angela and I suddenly realized it was time to go back to our hotel. We asked the Russians to help us get a taxi. They did. The taxi they hailed, a black four door station wagon, approached us with two passengers sitting next to the driver. The three young men could have been imports from the bohemian East Village of New York.
We're not gonna get in with those guys there! I yelled.
Dina take it easy! Here in Moscow we share cabs, as long as we're going in the same direction. The blond said trying to appease me. But I refused to be appeased.
And how do you know where these guys are going?
I don't. But you're going to the Hotel Kosmosol, aren't you?
We're on our way to that same area Yelled the taxi driver in English before I could answer the blond.
What do we do? I asked Angela.
We're Americans and this country is trying to make peace with us. The way things are now, I doubt that they would want to harm us. I think they're just trying to be nice.
With that, we hurriedly thanked the beautiful Helenas for the lavish dinner, for the stroll and for helping us hail the cab there, waiting for us to board it, and got into the vehicle.
The way to our hotel was full of talk about capitalism, communism, war, peace and rock-and-roll.
How much is it? I asked the driver when we finally reached our destination.
It's been taken care of.
What do you mean? Who paid for the taxi?
Don't worry. It's been taken care of. He repeated.
I did not know what to do. In a gesture of gratitude I gave the driver my pink kepi and told him, Stop taking care of American tourists. Or is it a lie that your economy is in shambles?
The young man laughed and thanked me. Then added,
It's a pity that my head is so big! I'll give it to my sister, she'll be thrilled to know that it comes from America.
However my head is not small. I rather think that the young man objected to the color of the kepi. Pink is supposed to be a feminine color, even for the Russians.
The next morning during breakfast at our hotel, Angela asked me when was it that I told the Helenas that we were staying at the Kosmosol, because we were always together and she did not remember hearing me give such information.
I never did, I replied. As a matter of fact I was about to ask you the same thing.
Dina, I believe those girls were KGB.
Angela, I believe the hip taxi driver and the hip passengers were KGB.
The five of them could have been KGB working together! Definitely! They were all KGB.
It wouldn't surprise me. At the same time that they watched where we went and what we did, they treated us to dinner and a taxi ride to instill good will in us. Quite smart!
At that moment, Carmen and Armando Fontanedo, an elegant older couple from Puerto Rico, joined us.
Carmen had incredibly big dark green eyes, black thick eyelashes and thick but well-defined black eyebrows. Her tanned face, framed by well groomed white hair, radiated health. During our conversation at the breakfast table she said she was 62. I would have guessed her to be at least 10 years younger, in spite of the color of her hair. Armando said he was 68. Taller than his wife, he shared the color of her hair, although not the length. His hair was longer, almost shoulder-length. Mr. Fontanedo informed us that he was a famous photographer of the stars. He traveled often to Hollywood to photograph the likes of Cher and Elizabeth Taylor. Or the likes of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro traveled to San Juan to be photographed by him. He took out an album from the briefcase he was carrying and showed us photos of the stars he had mentioned to prove his words. Needless to say, Angela and I were tremendously impressed.
After breakfast the group would be visiting some famous sights and monuments. It was then, just when we were about to board the bus, that Armando dropped the news that delighted the whole group:
Dear travel companions, my wife and I enjoyed breakfast in the company of Dina and Angela this morning. We informed these charming young ladies that I am well-known in Hollywood's circles because I'm a photographer...
Armando repeated the information he had just given us, and passed around the album containing Cher, Liz Taylor, Pacino and De Niro's photos.
As a memento of this wonderful trip, which my wife and I had the privilege of sharing with you, I would love to take, first, a picture of each and everyone of you, and then a picture of the whole group, all of you together. If our driver and our guide can spare us some time, of course.
He turned to the short, heavy bus driver whose round face was half-hidden behind oversized sunglasses, and bowed. The little fat man smiled and bowed back, then explained that it was really the guide who had the last word.
Armando turned to the guide, a fortyish short, slim brunette with shoulder-length curly hair and deep-red lips in a yellow skirt-and-jacket uniform, and repeated the gesture.
You can take all the time you need, kind sir, she said bowing back.
Thank you, ma'm! Well dear friends, here in my briefcase I have a notebook which, as you can see, I am now giving to Carmen. Please come to my wife and give her your names and addresses, or write them yourselves, so that I can send you your pictures as soon as they are ready.
We knew that Armando, photographer of the stars, was going to make us look as stars in his pictures. Wasn't he?
The tour ended and we returned to our homes in different parts of the good old USA. Angela and I kept in touch. I also kept in touch with Mr. And Mrs. Conroy from Denver, with mother and daughter Sara and Deborah Fohr from Santa Monica, and with George Dourdonas from Boston. Three months after returning Sara Fohr called me and asked if I had received any pictures.
No, I replied. I called Angela in D. C. and she never got any pictures either.
Sara told me that she kept in touch with other members of the group, and not a single one of them had gotten their photos. I called George with the same inquiry. He never got his photos, neither did the others he had contacted. The Conroys called me to tell me that they never got their pictures and to ask if I had gotten mine. The case was the same for the others they kept in touch with, Martha Conroy said. No pictures and no explanation from Armando for not sending them. It was then that it hit me. I called Angela immediately after my conversation with Martha Conroy.
Guess what, Angela
The Fontanedos were CIA.
What are you saying?
Maybe they weren't even married. Maybe they were just a team working together. How else would you explain that Armando took our pictures and Carmen wrote our addresses, and three months after returning they have not send any of us a single picture or an explanation for the delay?
You might be right!
I know I am. And you were right when you said the Russians we met in Moscow were KGB.
Oh Dina, how disappointing!
What? I think it's exciting! Those powerful forces that supposedly protect their respective countries, their respective systems, thought that we, little we, were worth their while. Angela, I think it's exciting.
Well, yes, in a way. But the KGB treated
us to dinner and to a cab ride, while the CIA doesn't even send us a
copy of our own pictures!
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