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Siberian Cappuccino

Part 1

By Salmon Friscia


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                Pandemonium! The police swooped down on Red Square from all

directions, grabbing anyone who   was buying or selling contraband.

Everybody scattered.


                I wouldn’t be in such a mess If they had only come five minutes

later. They hit just as I was  handing over six brand new digital

cameras for a stack of rubles.


                We took off in all directions, but didn’t stand a chance, there

were too many of them. Still clutching the cameras I ran smack into a

policeman who looked like a dancing bear. Yelling and struggling to get

free got me no where. He encircled me with his arms, lifted me off the

ground, and carried me like a sack of groats to where the others had

been rounded up. The cameras  disappeared as if by magic.


I understood a little of what the jubilant policeman was saying when

reporting the raid on a cell phone. They had nabbed an American, a  bit

of  unexpected  luck. While a few people stood by eight of us were

herded like animals and shoved into a van. The metal doors slammed shut,

someone grunted to the driver, we rumbled off.


No one said anything in the tenebrous interior. The other contrabandists

stared and smiled at me, as if to say we were all in this together. I

wanted no part of it.


It didn’t take long to reach our destination, a drab, dirt-streaked

concrete building. As we entered I was separated from the others by a

guard, then taken to a room where another guard waited. I emptied my

pockets and placed everything on a table. They patted me down.


My passport was the second thing to disappear. The rest of my stuff,

billfold, some change,  handkerchief, notebook, pen, the contents of

every pocket, were scooped up by the guard into a paper bag after which

he made a phone call, then motioned me to follow.


Leading me down an ill lit corridor lined with doors  set with opaque

glass squares like blind eyes from which no light shone he stopped

before the only one with a feeble light and knocked. A muffled voice

answered. Once inside, I was shoved towards a chair. Tired, anxious, I

sat down heavily. In the shadows, behind a heavy wooden desk, sat two

men. The room  smelled of vodka. A light directed at the chair was

turned on. The glare blinded me; my head was spinning.


One of the men began speaking in a deep bass voice, which, despite my

predicament, I could not help but admire, It was so musical, so

distinctly Russian. His English was another story. Larded with a heavy

accent it took all my concentration to follow him. I kept making slow

down motions  with my hand.


Didn’t I realize I had broken Russian laws, he said, that my actions

encouraged lawlessness, that I was ruining their economy, etc. etc.? It

could easily have been a   sermon for misbehaving party members, not

someone in my situation.


Caught red-handed doesn’t leave much room to maneuver, but I decided to

try anyway.


Shouting in a voice loud enough to be heard at the Kremlin, I told them

not to forget I was an American citizen, with rights, they could not

hold me against my will, this is against international law, I demanded

they let me call my Embassy, and ended up  pointing out that a Russian

would not be treated this way in my country. Absolutely no reaction,

complete silence. I had bombed.


My interlocutor came from behind the fierce light. Standing in front of

me, shaking his head in disbelief,  he regarded me as if I were out of

my mind. A strange, condescending smile replaced the dull expression

already there.


He spoke slowly so I wouldn’t miss a word.


You are in Russia, my friend, not in your own country. You have 

committed crimes. Your Embassy cannot help. Be sensible, my friend, and

stop this foolishness about rights.


We want only to ask you a few questions, he continued. It would be so

much better if you would answer, cooperate with us, his smile

broadening.  I understood every word this time and got the feeling he

wasn’t kidding, especially the bit about it being better. I nodded my

head, OK. I’d listen, answer carefully. What else could I do?


He began interrogating in a slow, plodding way. His colleague kept

murmuring questions he should ask me. I knew enough get by Russian but

not enough to follow what they were saying.


He asked: How had I gotten the cameras past customs? Where had I hidden

them? Did I have any accomplices? Any Russian contacts? Why did I pick

Red Square in which to sell them? I remained silent while he droned on.

After enduring some minutes of this, without answering, I decided I’d

offer something in my defense and  end the harangue.


Taking a deep breath, I began. The cameras were in my luggage when I

arrived, I said. No one asked for a declaration. Customs waved me

through without bothering to search my bag. I’ve never done anything

like this before in my life.  I am a law-abiding citizen, gentlemen,  an

ordinary tourist. Unfortunately, on this trip I was short of money,

that’s why I had the cameras. Don’t you realize, rising from the chair,

I love Russia. This is my third visit. Accomplices? That’s ridiculous,

out of the question. Ending up in Red Square was an accident, it just

happened. Everything I’ve said is the truth.


My delivery was faultless, there was a breathless theatrical  quality

about it. Quite a performance by any standards.


But I was mistaken, hopelessly wrong, if I thought an explanation would

satisfy them. The questioning didn’t stop, it only changed direction.

They shifted, and went down a different road. They wanted personal

information, my education, profession, where had I last worked?


Where was this going? And what had this to do with the cameras? Why did

they persist with these resumé questions? It was getting late, I was

exhausted. About a half hour into the questioning I made a statement I

would  regret.


I shall pause here for a moment to make a confession.


An early and towering American statesman described it better than I

could ever hope to. He said of himself... “vanity, I am sensible, is my

cardinal vice and cardinal folly.” If it held true in the 1700’s it fit

me perfectly now. Vain, given to boasting, elevating myself continually,

I was driven, just couldn’t keep my mouth shut and  it got me into

trouble all the time.


My answers to the Russians so far were vague. I was holding back

information, that was clear. They wanted to know over and over, what was

my profession?


I could  hold off no longer. Until a  year ago, I began, swelling my

chest like a Pouter pigeon, I was the owner of a very successful

expresso bar in New York City, one of the best, I might add. My

pastries, my cappuccino and especially my expresso could vie with

anything in Little Italy, and.....bang, that’s where it stopped. Those

few words had an immediate effect on my tormentor. His reaction was so

swift he stumbled and almost fell as he pushed himself out of his chair.

He ordered the other person to watch me and ran out of the room.


What’s going on? I asked myself. Why that crazy reaction?  The answer

walked in the door a few minutes later. He returned with another man,

older, with a cunning, porcine face and a body to match. He looked every

bit a well fed porker stuffed into an expensive Western suit ready for

market. Nevertheless, he carried himself with dignity and great



Pulling up an empty chair and smoothly easing himself into it, he

greeted me affably by name, beaming all the while. (After all they did

have my passport) His English was impeccable, like the suit. I am Vanya

he said with pride, and without ceremony began to probe.


The interest in the cameras was a thing of the past. All attention was

focused on the expresso bar. He lost no time sounding me out with a kind

of ruthlessness in the way he framed his questions.


When did I owned the bar? For how long? Was it a success? How many

people worked for me? Why did I give it up?  Questions came tumbling out

of his snout one after the other covering every conceivable aspect of

the business. He must have had a sweet tooth because he seemed

especially eager to learn more about the pastries. About these Italian

pastries, he mused, did you bake them yourself?  Do you know how to make

different kinds? Are they as good as the ones in Italy? As beautiful?

And so on.


Here arose one of those bifurcations in life where one’s destiny is

forever determined by which fork in the road  one choses. I had  two

choices. Undo what I had said, claiming  my knowledge of expresso bars

was inflated, false, and moreover I was a rotten businessman, or go the

other way, arrogantly heaping praise on myself and my abilities.  

Naturally, I chose the wrong fork.


Settling back in my chair and assuming, for the first time, a relaxed

attitude I began unwinding. The bar, I said with pride, was sold because

I received an attractive offer which I could not turn down. My place,

was, well, famous. It was packed all the time.    And yes, I know all

there is to know about running this kind of a business and then some. My

pastries were, if not famous, memorable. The only thing missing in my

panegyric, was a snappy musical score.


I could have gone on but I was keeping an eye on Vanya who was listening

intently and slowly  metamorphosing into a smiling pig with glints of

gold emanating from his dental work. I stopped and began to feel uneasy.

What was I doing? Why had I made it sound so rosy, pumping myself up

like some kind of Expresso Superman?


Placing the tips of his fingers together so they formed a kind of globe

held at arm’s length, and into which he raptly gazed, he gave every

appearance he was looking into a make  believe crystal ball. What arcane

knowledge was he seeking? What  profound question was being plumbed?

Whatever it was, he found it. Snapping suddenly from his reverie he

looked up at me and in the most friendly way began his indictment. There

was no need to do this, I already knew how much trouble I was in.


His voice, less melodious than his predecessor, had a certain quality, a

richness, which was soothing despite the danger I was in. His opening

salvo was about the sale of contraband. Then came the shocking

accusation that drugs had been found in my possession. I wasn’t  going

to let him get away with that. It’s a lie, a frame-up, and you know it,

I roared, rising from the chair. He brushed my objection aside with a

careless,  dismissive wave of a plump hand  and motioned for me to sit

down. What else could I do? He was in control, absolute control.


Are you not aware, he asked, these are serious crimes, punishable

offenses, and your Embassy, my friend, is powerless to help? After a

long pause he dreamily went on. You are a lucky fellow he unctuously

affirmed. Here, sitting in front of you, is someone who wants to help,

who wants to do everything  he can to keep you out of prison.


The falsity vanished, replaced by a friendly smile. Russian prisons are

notorious he lamented, shaking his head in halfhearted condemnation.

Everyone knows how  bad they are. Believe me, this  experience should be

avoided at all costs. He uttered those last words with so much emotion I

expected to hear him sob. From pathos he rapidly switched and became as

hard and cold as a Russian winter. If only I would cooperate with him a

little he would do everything in his power to save and protect me.

Soothingly he assured me everything can be arranged, you have only to



I could remain silent no longer. Fearing the worst  I croaked, what can

be arranged, what’s this cooperation all about?


He straightened up and earnestly began what seemed like a rehearsed



Russia’s Siberia has a bad image throughout the West, isn’t that so? No

one understands the real nature of this vast, unique  land. Its size

staggers the human mind. Imagine, six time zones. True, this ignorance

is partly our fault. We have not done enough to educate people. Still,

it remains a mystery why it is so. Mention Siberia and Westerners think

only of the Gulag, bleakness, temperatures below zero. They never

envision all the different peoples living there, in harmony and

voluntarily, I might add. All the myriad cultures existing side by side.

I’ll not mention the wild life, which you Americans love so much.

However, for Westerners, none of this exists. Siberia doesn’t have a

human face. Instead of conjuring up grand images in your minds, or

curiosity, or a desire to know more,  its only contribution has  been to

add a new word to your vocabulary...permafrost.


Coming to the end of his peroration, he leaned his body as far as his

stomach permitted, and fixing his gaze at me thundered, it is my job to

change that! Right then and there I figured he was nuts.


He slowly slid back into his chair completely composed once more.  Ahhh.

How fortunate I am, he sighed. In my Russian soul I am certain that

seated in this room is the person who can help bring about that change. 

I swung my head wildly from side to side vainly hoping to see someone

else. No, no, comrade, he laughed, leaning back in his chair. It is you,

comrade, you are my salvation. Suddenly, I felt   sick.


He was all business again. Would you believe it? he asked. I doubt  in

all of Russia there is a person  with your experience. We have great

scientists, true, but lack anyone who can set up and operate a first

class expresso bar with American know how. Ahh, you Americans, he said

with a mixture of envy and disdain, you are so clever in business.

Forget the Italians.


Imagine for a moment there is a Russian who has these abilities. Do you

think he would go to Siberia? Out of the question, he shouted. Didn’t he

realize what he had just said? Could this be the same adorable Siberia

he had just described?


He settled down. Think of it, he purred, an expresso bar in Siberia. Not

in one of our cities. There is already too much of the good life there.

It has to be in a semi-remote area, where there is little social

activity for the workers and townspeople. Many of us in the Russian

Government still believe the workers come first. I was going to ask him

how much his suit cost but figured that would be looking for trouble.

Think of it, he repeated, an expresso bar in Siberia. Revolutionary, eh?


Comrade, he crooned, accept what I offer you. You have only to go to the

location, start and operate the bar until it can be taken over and we

will forget the smuggling and even the drug charges. You can’t refuse a

deal like that, can you? He opened his arms wide to embrace the new

party member.


Seeing the expression on my face and sensing a  big nyet coming his way,

he adopted a different tone, one stripped of all mercy, irrevocably

deadly. You have a choice, he said. drawing out the last word. Make up

your mind, I have no time to waste. What’s it going to be

comrade....prison or cappuccino? I could hardly hold back the tears,

cappuccino.....I moaned.