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Focus on Safety




Time seems to slow down. Slowly, ever so slowly, our car edges its way past the tractor. The man driving it gives us a grim look. A cigarette hanging from his lips threatens to catch his bristly beard afire. He's not about to give us an inch.

Directly ahead of us, very much in the same lane, the truck continues to lumber toward us. The driver does not consider slowing down.

This could be a frightful collision. Even Ivan, well into his six-pack, seems to tense.

Slowly, slowly, we make our way past the tractor, whose driver scowls. He doesn't want to lose this race, and besides, we represent a great future story at the dinner table that evening.

At the very last second, we swerve back into the right hand lane, clearing the tractor by scant inches. At the same moment, the truck rushes by in a blur of mass and malevolence. Our driver shrugs his shoulders laconically. No problem...

Ivan takes another drink as we settle into the continuing ennui of this drive. Trees go by. People walking along the road hold out their arm and wave it up and down stiffly in the eastern-European manner of asking for a ride (we pass them all by).

We pass yet another war memorial, this time commemorating a woman whose five sons were killed in the war. Four of them march away, while the youngest looks tenderly back at his mother.

And then we are there. We rattle our way down a dirt road toward the factory, dodging giant potholes with some measure of success. As we pull into the parking lot I notice an old woman clearing the snow off the giant lot with a shovel. She wears rubber boots, a flower print skirt and smock, and a greyish scarf over her head. She has no gloves and lifts the heavy snow with difficulty.

We get out of the jeep and step toward the main entrance like a rock and roll star's entourage. Seeing the director approach, the old woman jumps to open the front door for him. He does not acknowledge her and brushes by.

I try to avoid the largest of the dirty snow puddles dirtying the entrance hall, which has a security booth much like the ones at the airport. And old woman mans the booth, but we sail right pass her.

Groups of men leap to the side to allow the director to pass. The director is obviously a very powerful man.
We make our way down an unlit hallway, up beautiful marble stairs, down another unlit hallway and into the director's office.

It is the largest office I have ever seen, easily 100 feet long. A series of twelve very tall windows run along one side of the wall. The other has a continuous collection of wooden cabinets, all gorgeously inlaid with wood.

A conference table (sixteen chairs!) dominates one end of the office, while, tucked away at the far end, a small desk was turned obliquely to the director's desk. That is where Youri and I would conduct our business.

We sit down and begin our discussions. After a few minutes, the director's secretary enters the room. She is a tall, stately woman with the requisite beehive hairdo.

"What will you drink?" Ivan asks me. "Beer, vodka?"

He sees me hesitate. "Perhaps Coca-Cola?" he suggests. I accept eagerly and everyone smiles.

The secretary leaves and returns shortly with a bottle of Pepsi dramatically positioned on a platter. The glass is incredibly thick. The printing on the bottle is faded and antiquated in design.

I am presented the bottle to examine, as if it were fine wine. I smile and hand it back. Vintage (1930?) accepted.

Everyone is very pleased that I approve. The secretary pops the cap off the bottle and pours my glass half full. A dark fluid, more syrup than liquid, flows out. Two or three tiny bubbles languidly float to the surface. There isn't the slightest hope of a fizz.

I take a sip. Everyone watches eagerly. It is horrible. Condemning myself to eternity in purgatory, I say it is wonderful. They all beam.

We begin our discussions, which go very well. Ivan is a wonderful man to deal with; fair, honest, conscientious. Unlike many other negotiations where one side constantly tries to gain the upper hand, our discussions center on a theme of cooperation. I feel very comfortable with him.

As we speak, the phone suddenly rings. The director frowns and picks it up. He says something in a harsh tone. Then he begins to shout, to scream. His face is flushed with anger. He shouts loudly into the phone, gesticulating wildly in the air, finally slamming the phone down with a final oath.

He turns, lights a cigarette, and smiles sweetly at us. "So where were we?" he ask as if nothing had happened.

After an hour or two of fruitful talks, the director pushes his chair back and suggests that I have lunch. I accept the offer quite eagerly as I am very hungry, not having eaten anything all day except for a small snack on the plane.

Youri and I walk across the snowy and muddy street to the factory cafeteria, slipping and sliding like drunken penguins. During the factory's heyday the cafeteria fed a thousand people a day. Now, however, it is shut up and only serves infrequent visitors like myself.

Inside, all is dark. I follow Youri as he winds his way up crumbling concrete stairs to the second level and through a great deserted hall, finally into a smaller room where a small table has been set in the center of the room.

"May I take your coat?" Youri asks, and places it in a nearby wardrobe. As soon as the coat leaves my body I realize the heat is off, and that it is absolutely freezing in the room. What a mistake!

An older woman with a thin paper version of a chef's hat enters the room and brings our first course: cabbage salad. It is good.

As is the second course, a serving of fried potatoes (albeit in too much grease). But then it all fell apart.

It was so bitterly cold that I was shivering and found it difficult to speak. My back muscles were taut and painful with the strain of trying not to let my shivering be noticed. And then the woman placed what looked like meat floating in a sea of grease in front of us.

It was totally inedible. I cut off a small portion and chewed it. The grease oozed out. It was awful. Like death.
I gazed over at Youri, who was eating with great gusto. Catching my gaze, he told me what we were eating was a Belorussian speciality.

What to do? Heaven help me, but I ate it. Grease and all. Gallons and gallons of it. How I did it, I do not know. But it was revolting.

I stagger out of the cafeteria and into the next round of meetings. Ivan meets me exuberantly and gives me a hug. It is obvious that he's been drinking his lunch.

"And what will you drink?" he ass as soon as we seat ourselves around our respective desks. "Coca Cola?"

I decline gently, feeling very ill. Drinking something sweet and syrupy does not seem like a good idea at the moment.

"Do you happen to have any mineral water?" I croak. Ivan's eyes light up. He quickly picks up his telephone and shouts an order into it. Minutes later, his secretary enters with the tray, on which stands a green bottle of mineral water. It looks great.

The director takes it from her and removes the cap. "This mineral water," he says proudly as he pours me a large glassful " Comes from a source located immediately below the factory. We discovered it last year while doing some drilling."

I am horrified, having seen the large puddles of toxic chemicals standing freely throughout the factory's grounds during prior visits. I'd seen the rusty barrels leaking heaven-only-knows-what into the ground. And now, I am going to drink it all down.

Three pairs of expectant eyes take me and the glass, which fizzes malevolently, in. There is nothing to do but be a man and take a drink. I do so.

It is amazingly salty. And fizzy. And warm. After I swallow I notice that a thick, filmy coating remains on my teeth. It takes all my powers of concentration to keep it and lunch down.

From that point on, I nurse my glass as much as possible, trying not to drink anymore than I absolutely have to. Hours pass until, once again the director leans back in his chair and says, "Why don't you enjoy another tour of the factory?"

Must be time for a smoke.