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Unfiled March 3, 2003
A High-Altitude Cure for Slavophilia
By John Dolan Browse author Email

When we first heard about the great package deals to Sharm-el-Sheikh, they seemed too good to be true. People said you could get a week in a five-star hotel, with roundtrip airfare from Moscow, for around $300. That was hard to believe: a week in the Egyptian sun, a break from the coldest winter since the Great Patriotic War, for $300? What was the catch?

Those amazing package deals are real. The only catch we encountered was the company we had to keep on the charter flight to Egypt. It turns out, y'see, that $300 per person wasn't nearly enough to keep the riffraff out. In fact, the riffraff, the riffest of the raffest, the sort of riffraff who would be snubbed at a drunken medieval thieves' tavern, were sharing our rickety old Tupolev all the way from Vnukovo to Sharm.

They had a way of making their presence felt, these six or so sullen guys. Even in the waiting room at the airport they'd been just that little bit louder than necessary. That sort of extra decibels from any group of young men still makes my blood freeze, as if I was back in high school. But for the first hour of the flight, all was well. The charter was almost empty. They had claimed the back; we were near the front. Plenty of room for everybody.

Then I had to push past them to get to the toilets at the back of the plane. Territory is always a problem on planes -- I've wanted to commit murder based on land-grabs by the guy in the seat next to me, unauthorized West-Bank settlements of an extra half-inch of armrest. When I tried to get past to the toilets, they moved aside for me, but only after a little pause that was meant to remind me that they were permitting me to pass.

Then, after a half-hour of peaceful reading-trance, suddenly the drunks' ringleader was in front of me clutching a nearly-empty bottle of Southern Comfort. He shoved his snout into my book and said in carefully-rehearsed English, "What-is-your-name?"

He was wearing a dirty black t-shirt with a skull on it, which seemed somehow redundant: he was pretty much a skull already, with a long nose and hollow eyes.

Anybody but me would've seen instantly that he was dead drunk. But though I understand drugs, I never understand booze. So I didn't see him as a pushy drunk; I just felt guilty for flinching. His charm offensive continued with a second rehearsed sentence: "Do you-want...-to-drink-with-us?"

Jesus God no, I would not like to drink with you. I would prefer, actually, to jump out of this plane.

But all I actually did was shriek, "Oh, uh, actually no, no thanks! Heh-heh-heh! No, nyet, sorry, no thanks," shaking my head quickly, rearing back in the seat so hard that my shoulders hurt next day.

But he had a firm answer to my quavery "no": "Yes!" he yelled, nodding, and repeating, "Yes! Yes!" To emphasize the point, he aimed the bottle at my mouth. (It was almost empty, but I didn't realize the importance of that fact at the time.)

I just tried again to say no in all possible variations, like those anti-nuke sun stickers from the 80s: "Non merci! No gracias! Nein danke!"

There was a long and rather awkward silence. The drunk looked down his long nose at me as little wheels turned inside his head, trying to figure out what to do next. And then hope, in the form of our flight attendant, came strolling toward us. He'd do something. But the fop was smarter than me; he took in the scene, sniffed prissily, and vanished behind the First-Class curtain. They didn't pay him enough to play Sky Marshal-not on charters anyway.

Skull-shirt kept aiming his breath and bottle at me; I kept refusing, with what I knew to be a stupid-looking American grin on my face. At last, with a look of drunken contempt, he gave up and decided to try his luck with Mark and Nastya, who were sitting on our left.

Mark was asleep, with headphones on. He'd been doing a bit of pre-departure celebration, and was still nodding. When shouting failed, the drunk grabbed Mark's leg and shook it. Nastya attempted to point out that Mark was sleeping, but the drunk didn't even hear her. A woman was making sounds, that was all.

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