Larisa and Ella, our roommates for the cruise to Odessa, turned out not to be Russian secret agents. Larisa, a pretty, young cardiologist at the Cancer Institute in Moscow, spoke broken English through her heavily painted lips. Ella edited a newsletter called Li fe and Food and was the wife of the Cancer Institute’s director. Alexandros had put us in the hands of two excellent chaperones.
We were on the last leg of a ten-day luxury cruise from Odessa to Athens and Istanbul. There were 700 passengers, most of whom were members of the Russian elite from Moscow. Larisa was quick to point out she had used “good” money to purchase the $300 ticket, but most of the other passengers were “scoundrels who got their ‘ bad’ money by smuggling goods into Russia and selling them for a profit.”
A quick tour of the ship discovered two restaurants, two bars, a theater, a gift shop, and a swimming pool crowded with almost-naked posers. We arrived at dinner at the wrong time but were still served a typical Russian meal – vodka, wine, salad, French fries, and a fried fish complete with head and eyes. I tried to eat the appetizer even though Linda warned me against it. After two bites into the cold Spam–like mystery meat, I joined Linda in the vegetarian ranks.
The first entertainment consisted of a Russian voiced–over version of “Sleeping with the Enemy” (filmed in S.C., by the way). Given our roommates and the propaganda we had grown up with, it was an ironic albeit appropriate description of our night.
Later, we joined a packed house in the large ballroom for a musical show. I bought two orange sodas ($ 2, no rubles accepted) at the bar, and we sat way in the back curious to see what would happen. The Russians acted like any normal American audience. Patriotic songs evoked waves and salutes. Popular songs became sing-alongs.
The master of ceremonies was dressed in a silver lamé dinner jacket and reminded me of Tony Bennett. He flirted with women who ooed and aahed when he moved toward them.
The headliner, much to our surprise, turned out to be Captain Alexandros, our patron, in full-dress whites. He crooned, and the audience swooned.
Eventually, the cigarette smoke drove us to our berth where we found our roommates sound asleep and a half empty bottle of cognac beside the open porthole.
Continued next week