15 - Aladdin's Lunch

Wedding party in Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 15-1] Odessa's climate: entirely different from Kyiv. People outside, who actually want to be there.

The address the good sea captain provided, was that of the Port Authority's administration building. "Maybe, they rent space to Alexi's shipping concern?" I wondered out loud. You just can't be too choosy when it comes to serendipity.

Inquiries invoked blank stares and rude dismissals. Although it took a while to shoot down my high hopes, I finally did by whinging, "Think of the name he gave us, Lenna." By way of a hint, I hummed the theme from I Dream of Genie.

All I got from her was a weird look.

"Think about it. He says his name is A. Laddin."

"Aye lad-din. So what, Meg?"

Water taxi Vancouver at dock in Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 15-2] The water-taxi Vancouver -- spelled in Russian, at dock in Odessa, Ukraine.

"Oh, come on. Aladdin. As in: Tales of the Arabian Knights. This has to be Andre and that old goat cooking up a way to rip us off, and--"

"Meg, look. It's Alexi!"

Sure enough, striding toward us, cape flying, he called out, "So sorry. Very important business meeting. Very important!" He straightened up and made sure we saw him looking about at the junior executives lined up at various eateries. "Ah, luncheon is called for. Let us dine while we discuss business."

"OK. Sure." I hadn't thought about it. "How about the mall?"

Apparently, Tater Tots and moulded plastic seating was suddenly beneath him. He led the way to a dark, wood-panelled restaurant where the maître d' looked at us disdainfully. In no time whatsoever, he ordered the most expensive German beer I've ever seen in my life. Then he snapped his fingers and bellowed for a bottle of Georgian wine. For the table; but, of course.

"It is of utmost importance that we are completely honest with each other. I am a businessman. I do business only with people who are serious about doing business." A couple of conspiratorial glances later, he went on. "If you're not serious about doing business, you must tell me now. If that is to be the case, way we may part honourably."

"I'm not interested in business. I am interested in getting us out of Ukraine."

"Business is business. You have money? You can pay for my services?" He bent closer. "I will not waste my valuable time with your business if you have no intention of providing payment for my services."

"Aye-yi-yi, I get it. How much?"

"That all depends on what you need."

I didn't think it could get any clearer. I gestured at Elena. "Her passport was nicked. We need to get out of Ukraine. If you have a ship and can provide safe and discrete passage; then, I have money."

The captain whined, "A ship? Why a ship?"

"Crikey on a stick. Do you have a ship in port? Here? Now!?" I waited through several thoughtful swigs and swallows but got no response.

The waiter came and went. Food showed up. Alexi evaded or ignored my questions.

Elena took over in Russian. "Alexi, are you truly a sea-captain?"

Odessa Opera House photo elenameg.com

[Image 15-3] The Odessa Opera house.

He handed her a worn document while regaling me with tales of his maritime business prowess.

Elena studied it, narrowed her eyes. "Captain, where is Bremerhaven?"

Alexi stopped, glared at her. "How should I know? It is rude to interrupt whilst we discuss important business." He turned back to me.

Elena put the delicate sheet of paper down between us. It was a photocopy of a seaman's certificate. She pointed at salient features -- like its city of issue being Bremerhaven. Dates and numbers were smudged beyond legibility.

He saw us and snatched up the document. "Satisfied? My time is valuable, you know."

"Wait!" I threw my hands up. "What's with all this business bollocks? We just need passage out of Ukraine. I thought you had a ship we could buy our way aboard."

Silence. Elena and I looked at each other.

"Do you have a ship?" She asked.

"A ship? No. Not exactly."

"A boat?"

He sucked down the last of the Georgian wine in one, long, thoughtful inhalation.

"Blimey!" I said. "Why are we even speaking?"

"Because you need my business expertise." Alexi waved the empty wine bottle at a waiter who made eye contact with me. I shook my head: Noooooo. Alexi saw, shrugged his shoulders, put down the bottle and prattled on. "You need the port captain's permission to buy a boat here. It is a good thing that I know him, and that he holds me in such high esteem."

"Buy a boat?!" Maybe I'd mentioned it in some desperate, cracked-pot scraping away for something, anything to get us the fuck out of Ukraine. Like Chinese snakeheads, or a midnight run for the Polish border.

"Yes, buying a boat. You will need--" Alexi ran through an endless list of reasons we needed him.

I tuned him out to think it through. I had done some day-sailing with friends on protected waters. And, what-the-hell, the Black Sea isn't much more than a largish, salty lake. He finally stopped blathering, and I asked, "Are you a yacht broker, or a marine lawyer, by chance?"

"No, I don't deal with the stock market, and lawyers come to me for advice."

"But you can get us a boat, or onto one that will get us out of Ukraine?"

Elena enraptured with abandoned puppy photo elenameg.com

[Image 15-4] While cogitating wild-schemed ways of getting on the ship, (background) Elena is overcome by child-like joy and completely distracted by the abandoned puppy at her feet.

"Of that, there is simply no doubt. My services are many. People pay me handsomely." Alexi poked at the remains of his cow-carcass and sea-bug lunch. "You do realise, of course, that you need to go a lot further than out of Ukraine or even the Black Sea." He drew circles in the air with crustacean gore impaled on a tiny fork. "Stopping with your Russian lady anywhere from here to the United States will not be possible."

"Canada." I corrected.

"As I said, and this advice I offer freely and without charge, you have told me she has no passport. She will be arrested at any country she goes to. You will be arrested for taking her there. If I was your captain, I would be arrested." He pulled the napkin from his collar and wiped his greasy hands on his shirt.

"If you can't get us out of Ukraine, what do we need you for?"

"To buy a boat that will get you to America, I suppose."

"Canada." I took a deep breath.

He was right. Play by the rules, and Elena was lost. The way she looked at me, how she avoided the topic, she knew it too. Break the law and maybe we would make it out alive and together. Far more likely, was Elena's arrest and return to Russia; as she put it, "To never again see the light of day." In any scenario, she would fare the worst of the two of us. Mainly, there wasn't a snowball's-chance-in-hell we'd be together, which was, after all, our entire raison d'etre for running.

The waiter showed up with dessert menus. I looked at our lonely salad plates, then over at Alexi's mountainous midden: plates, bottles, soiled napkins, bits of bone and exoskeleton, and shooed the waiter off with a request for our bills.

The captain looked crestfallen. "Ah yes, I must mind the time. Very important meeting back at my office."

"Absolute bollocks! You have no office!"

"But, you are mistaken."

"And I don't give a rat's arse. We do, however, need to get out of Ukraine. I assume you know people?"

"What people?" Alexi whined: a total character shift. "I am an honest businessman, a consultant."

"Well consultant, now is your chance to do a wee bit of consulting. I'd like to consult you on how you can get us out of here without her passport."

Alexi looked thoughtful. "I can get you a boat, maybe even a passport."

"Ah hah!" Passport got my attention.

He leapt from the table. "We shall meet tomorrow in Sobornaya Square." Of course, he screwed us for the bill.

"I am surprised, Meg. You are still to be dealing with him. To me, for sure, an idiot, a swindler, a crook he is." Elena encrypted her words by speaking English. There's no telling who was in earshot.

I slapped down the plastic. "As it stands, we're a couple of snowballs, and that bampot is the only chance-in-hell we've got."

Meg photographs Odessa's waterfront from Primorsky Blvd photo elenameg.com

[Image 15-5] From Primorsky Boulevard, Meg snaps a shot of Odessa's waterfront.

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We wandered through Sobornaya Square. Sunlight filtered through ancient trees. It dappled the pathways, flower beds, fountains and stonework of the classical garden. Renoir would have loved it.

I stared at my watch. "He set the time and place. How could he possibly cock it up?"

"I can't believe you are still dealing with him."

Alexi blustered onto the square, muttering like a Gilbert and Sullivan character. "Time is money, and money is time. Very important meeting, yes indeed, so very important. You must forgive my late arrival."

Chess players in Sobornaya Square Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 15-6] Outdoor chess in Odessa's picturesque Sobornaya Square.

I cringed.

Elena rolled her eyes.

"I have a solution to all your troubles!" Alexi was boorishly loud. Chess players glared. "I shall negotiate your purchase of a boat with my esteemed associate. This is a serious matter." He paused. "You have money?"

"A boat? Wouldn't a passport be easier?" My shoulders slumped as though my clavicles had suddenly dissolved.

"This was your idea, genius." Elena just had to remind me.

Alexi took up the lead, cape trailing in his wake. We chased him to a marine outfitter's shop. He ordered a pimply-faced clerk to show his clients, "The boats for sale in Odesa."

The youngish man looked at us sceptically. He swung the monitor around, opened a browser and navigated to a website called Yacht World. Then he asked Alexi a run-on series of single-word questions: "sail-power-length-range?"

In turn, Alexi asked, "Do you want a boat with a sail, or a boat with a motor? How much money do you have?"

Woman sells maps and souvenirs in Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 15-7] Business is business in old Odessa. More than tourist info, maps, souvenirs can be had from such sidewalk concerns.

"What I really want is a way out of Ukraine; preferably on someone else's boat. You said, you could help us do that, Captain Aladdin."

"Captain?" The clerk snickered.

Alexi was undeterred. He insisted the clerk show us some frighteningly neglected boats on offer.

I saw the prices. "Whoa, enough! I can't come up with that kind of dough. I don't want one of those boats, and this is a complete waste of time." I looked at the clerk. Flashed him as much body-language contrition as humanly possible. "Sorry about this."

"Whatever." He shrugged, turned away. Cursed us in Ukrainian -- I think.

Maybe Alexi was actually insane. In the simplest terms I could muster, I told him I was not going to buy a boat, and unless he came up with some other way of getting us out of Ukraine, our association was finished. We left him silently cogitating and beat a hasty retreat to the hotel.

The Londonskaya Hotel Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 15-8] The Londonskaya Hotel from Primorsky promenade.

[[ updated Apr 06, 22:06 ]]