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Travelogues

Focus on Safety

It never changes: another year, another new director for the Music Maker factory. It's getting hard to keep them straight. The nasty director I disliked so much, Mr. Lotenkov, had been arrested a half year earlier by the Belorurussian KGB for fraud. His replacement (I don't even remember his name!) was arrested, reinstated, re-arrested, re-reinstated, then ultimately fired for stealing furniture from the factory. Clearly a man with some connections because he was given the full allotment of three strikes.

I reflected on this as I waited at the factory's security gate, looking up when I heard Youri bounding noisily down the stairs to greet us. He seemed to be in a good mood, completely unlike the serious and distrustful Youri I had seen during Mr. Lotenkov's tenure. Perhaps this was a good sign. Then again, I had seen a side of Youri that I didn't know existed. He's a born survivor, that's for sure. A factory chameleon.

Youri chattered away as he led us upstairs to the factory offices. The new director was using his secretary's phone as we entered. He motioned with a friendly wave that we should make our way into his office . I was relieved to see that he wasn't going to play the power games which muddied my relationship with Mr. Lotenkov (may his soul and body rot in some danky Belorussian prison).

The new director, radiating sincere warmth, joined us a few minutes later. Mr. Maximov, as I learned when I shook his hand, is a handsome, professionally dressed man of my age, fit and trim, with alert, dark eyes. I liked him right away.

As he does with all directors of state owned factories, the president of Belarus, Mr. Lukashenko, had personally appointed Mr. Maximov to his post. I learned that the new director's prior position was overseeing the lock system for Belarus' canal system in the south of the country. I couldn't quite understand how this qualified him to run a music factory, but then I have long since given up trying to make sense of things Belorussian.

Prior to our meeting, Vladimir told me via e-mail, the director had cornered Vladimir and asked him what I was like. He wanted to know because he was more than a bit nervous about meeting an "American" businessman.

Vladimir told him the usual things about me: the nature of our business, my being born in Belgium, my love of Belarus, and bike racing.

The director liked what he heard. "Good, good!" he said. "We will drink lots of vodka and get to know each other. Then we will be the best of friends!"

"Uh, there's something about him you should know," Vladimir cautioned. "He doesn't drink."
The director's mouth dropped open in complete shock. "He doesn't drink? How is that possible?"

Vladimir smiled weakly and shrugged his shoulders.

The director fell into a state of panic. "What are we going to do? How are we going to talk?" Then, almost in a wail, he shouted out: "What could we possibly have to say to each other?!"
To understand his concern, you should know that most business meetings begin with a Niagara of vodka and end with drunken singing, loudly shouted expressions of eternal fealty and slobbery kisses. It's not a pretty sight.

It was with this concern hanging in the air that we sat down to do business. Surprisingly, all went smoothly. Youri translated, as he always does, and we agreed as often as not, got along fabulously, and were soon ushered into the "secret" room for refreshments.

The "secret" room is something straight out of an 'Adams Family' episode. Its entry has been cut out of the wood paneling which lines the director's office wall. There is no doorknob, nothing to indicate its existence. If I remember correctly, it is opened by leaning against its hidden door.
I surveyed the table as I took my seat. Petit fours of cucumber and meat, sugar cookies, coffee cups, mineral water, and several bottles of vodka and cognac lay on the table.

"Let's forget about business for a while and enjoy each other's company," the director suggested, unscrewing the cap of a vodka bottle. Luckily, he did not force any upon me. Vladimir had done his job well.

We chatted about politics, the difficulties of doing business in our respective countries and taxes. But then he slyly led the conversation to what interested him most.

"So, you really don't drink?" the director wondered.

I told him I'd partied far too much in college, and one day, upon seeing the shameful amount of empties in my car's back seat, had decided to stop then and there.

The director smiled at this ludicrous thought. "And, uh," he gestured toward his cigarette, which was fouling the air. "You don't smoke either?"

"No," I replied. "I experimented a bit when I was young, but never liked it very much."

The director nodded, then leaned close toward me so as not to miss my next answer.

"What about women?"

I bit my tongue and resisted my first impulse, which was to suggest that women didn't interest me very much. But, perhaps for the first time in my life, I exercised a bit of common sense. I raised my glass in the form of a toast and said, "Women: The greatest thing that God, in his infinite wisdom, ever created."

Everyone laughed. The director liked this very much and slapped my knee. Perhaps it confirmed my humanity to him (of which he had clearly been in doubt). He held up his index finger, stressing that I should not miss what he was about to say next.

"Have you ever had a Belorussian sauna?" he asked.

It seemed like an odd question. I told him I had not.

This answer pleased the director immensely. He launched into a long, loud soliloquy, punctuated by arm wavings and broad smiles. Usually Vladimir does much of the translaion, but this time Youri jumped in.

"The director says he has very much enjoyed getting to know you, and that the next time you come to Belarus you must enjoy a sauna. He will arrange for everything, and will not take a 'no' for an answer." As I glanced at Vladimir, I thought I saw a shimmer of amusement dance behind his eyes.

"Please tell the director that I would enjoy that very much, and I will look forward to it with great anticipation," I answered with sincerity.

Our meeting concluded with this warm moment. We shook hands with evident friendship. This was a man very much to my own heart. Moments later I was outside, walking to the car with a grinning Vladimir at my side.

"What's up?" I asked as we stepped into his Audi.

"Well, let's just say that Youri didn't exactly translate what the director said in a word for word fashion," Vladimir said, barely able to contain his laughter. He had trouble getting the words out.

"And..." I prompted.

"Since you said you liked women, the director promised that on your next visit he would arrange to have two beautiful Belorussian young girls available for you to enjoy your sauna with!"

With this last, Vladimir collapsed into peals of laughter. He could barely drive.

I sat there, stunned. All I could think of, as we wobbled down the road, was my response to the director's invitation:

"Please tell the director that I would enjoy that very much, and I will look forward to it with great anticipation."