Thursday, June 29, 2006

Diplomacy - Liquid and Otherwise

There were lots of superb linguists in Kirk's unit, but all enlisted. So far as I know, Kirk was the only officer on base who spoke Russian fluently. So, even though you couldn't go lower on the officer food chain than where he was, he got tagged for anything that needed solid language skills and at least nominal rank. Mostly he just translated for the colonels and such who were meant to be doing the real talking, but he also got to go on all of the base and city tours, and help out for the most important bit at the end - when the Russian guys went to the BX to shop for their wives. He made one life-long friend by recommending Chanel no. 5 as a can't miss selection.

There was one misstep though. They took the Russians on a quick tour of Anchorage - out for dinner at the Crow's Nest, and then since they were right downtown, on to the 5th Avenue Mall. It's a pretty impressive looking mall really, particularly for a city the size of Anchorage, four stories tall and full of modern glass and mallesque nylon banners. Of course, when we first came they didn't have a Gap yet (when it arrived people were shaking with excitement. One woman came up to me on The Day and said 'I just bought a pair of socks! I don't even need socks, but I had to buy something from the Gap the day it opened.' Yeah, well, that's what happens to Alaskans during break up - gets a bit crazy), and the bottom floor was empty unless there was a ski sale, a Christmas mall, or a fishing event. The Russians got very quiet and grim there though. Took Kirk the best part of an hour to get them to tell him what was wrong. They were offended that the Americans thought they would be impressed by what was so clearly a government front building set up to wow foreigners. They wouldn't believe Kirk when he said it was, honestly and truly, just a mall. Things didn't thaw out until they all went to the Glacier Brew House and took the Russians three goes around the micro-brewery sampler selection.

Kirk was later asked to go translate when a Russian ship had to be rescued by the Coast Guard and was towed into harbor somewhere down south. He walked on board ship with two Coast Guard officers - the highest rank they could rustle up at short notice - and was met by the ship's captain and his two assistants.

'Welcome! We have tradition on Russian boat,' he said, and Kirk and the other two Americans were handed shot glasses, full to the absolute rim. Three more appeared for the Russians. 'When come on boat, we all must drink together.'

The six men drained the shot glasses together.

'Brave men! We have another tradition.' The captain pulled an enormous bottle of vodka out. 'Once bottle is open, we must finish.'

A few hours later the Russian captain and his men strolled happily down to the dock. Kirk and the other Americans wobbled slowly and carefully after.

I still have the shot glass - covered with a strange, pebbly pink transfer, and rimmed with gold. It seems a frivolous, feminine sort of thing for a Russian ship's captain to choose. But it took three large American officers down without a fight.

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