I went to Saint Petersburg to work a conference of financial directors. The first few days were full of tasks like putting together gift bags and checking last minute details. The administrative staff was camped out in the conference room with nametags, maps, computers, fax machines and dedicated phone lines.
On the first day, I was still in awe of the hotel, and trying to take in the surroundings and figure out how to address people I ran across. It's still kind of odd for me to speak English when I'm abroad, so in the elevator on my way back up to the fifth floor conference room, I would simply nod my head and smile if anyone got on.
Perhaps for this reason, when a man got on at the second floor, he asked if I worked at the hotel. Maybe I looked like an employee, or had some determined expression on my face as if I had somewhere important to be.
"Oh, I thought you were Russian," he said when I answered in American English that I did not, in fact, work at the hotel.
It turned out he was from Texas but had been living in Saint Petersburg for six years.
"It must be fascinating. Is it?" I asked.
"It's a hard life," he said, "It's difficult here. But it makes it better when you're in an elevator with a beautiful woman."
I smiled. The elevator reached my floor, much to my relief.
"Well, I hope you won't need to call me - because of what I do - but if you ever need anything while you're here, don't hesitate to contact me," he said, handing me a business card. I turned it over to the English side. He worked for an emergency clinic.
"Oh, goodness," I said laughing, "I hope I don't need your help."
"We were rated the best private clinic in the country by the American Embassy," he said proudly, as the elevator started to make sounds of protest at him holding open the door.
"I'll keep that in mind," I said.
Later at dinner, one of the financial directors came up to me to say he might need to leave early, showing me a spider bite he had gotten a week earlier that had swelled up. He now also had a rash on his arm.
"I might have just what you need," I said, pulling out the card and showing it to him. "They were rated the best private clinic in Russia by the American Embassy." I offered to call them and set up an appointment.
He thanked me, and made a joke about assistants and their resourcefulness. I decided not to tell him it had more to do with being picked up in a hotel elevator than being a good assistant.
"Frank?" I said loudly into the phone from the ladies room. It was the first place I could find that was quiet. "I'm sorry to call you this late, but it seems I do need your services after all."
I explained the situation, and he told me what information they would need to set up an appointment.
"I'll check with the person in question to see if he would prefer to come in the morning or during the lunch break, and I'll call you tomorrow morning to let you know." My American voice bounced off the polished marble walls, and I wondered who could hear me.
The next morning, I made an appointment to come at noon. I reserved a car with the hotel, a sleek black luxury car with tinted windows, and I felt ridiculously like a drug lord gliding through the streets. Frank had told me to call him when we were on our way, so he could meet us personally. He offered to give me a private tour of the facility while the financial director saw the doctor. This made me a bit uneasy, but I didn't know how to politely get out of it, considering what a favor he was doing me.
The building was non-descript from the outside, but once inside, it was apparent why it was so well thought of by the American Embassy. The waiting room was a sleek, bright and luxurious atrium, with a coffee stand, uniformed hostesses and overstuffed leather couches. A very elegant middle aged woman walked in wearing a sable colored wool cape edged in identical colored fur. She sat down on one of the couches, crossed her long sleek legs, and opened a fashion magazine. I could tell it was not her first visit.
The paperwork was filled in, and the director went off to see the doctor.
Frank turned to me and put his hand on my arm, "It's good to see you again, even in the circumstances," he purred.
"Thank you for your help," I said, smiling tersely and taking a step away from him.
"Let me show you around," he said, moving his arm behind me as if to grab me by the waist and pointing ahead to show me the way. I moved quickly to the doors leading inside the clinic.
He showed me the dentistry wing, the dermatology wing, and the sports therapy wing, complete with mud bath and whirlpool facilities, all the while reciting facts and figures as if reading from a pamphlet. In the stairwell on the way to see an example of a patient room, he turned to me and tried to compose his face into a look of genuine interest.
"How much do you think it costs to have hip replacement surgery in the US, Penelope?"
"I really have no idea, Frank," I said, a little annoyed and wondering whether he had been a member of Toastmasters back in Texas.
"Well, in the US, it can cost up to $60,000, and here we do everything for $13,000. We're a state of the art facility, but our prices are very reasonable. We have a lot of tourist business."
I raised an eyebrow. "Tourist business?"
"You know, elderly tourists who fall and break something, they all come here. We have a good relationship with the hotels."
"Ah," I said. Thank you, Frank, for making me now actually think about where I would go if I needed emergency health care abroad. These are not things I think about.
As he was showing me the MRI equipment, apparently one of two or three in the whole country, I remembered the woman in the lobby and the frankly beautiful patient rooms.
"So tell me, Frank, I'll bet you do a lot of plastic surgery here, don't you?"
He didn't seem to expect the question. "Well, a lot of the Russian stars and the well- to-do come here for that, but they also come for the medical facilities. I would say plastic surgery makes up only about 30% of our revenue."
"Hmm," I replied.
Bored with talk of the clinic, I asked him about living in Saint Petersburg.
"It's very hard. It's really violent. I've been assaulted six times. Electricity goes off periodically with no warning, sometimes in the middle of winter. Real estate is a nightmare. Even this clinic - we rent the space, and totally renovated it, but despite an official lease, the owner could simply raise the rent astronomically or take back the building whenever he wanted. People urinate and defecate in the hallways of apartment buildings. 80% of pharmaceuticals in public pharmacies are placebos. It's a jungle. All the Americans I have ever met who got transferred over here only made it six months."
I had a newfound respect for good old Frank from Texas. I wouldn't be able to handle those conditions, either.
It was time to collect the director. I found him in the lobby calling his doctor in France on his cell phone.
"What did they say?" I asked. It really was the scariest looking angry red welt on his arm, the size of a big walnut.
"They wanted to cut it open and drain it and give me some more antibiotics. My doctor prefers I fly back tonight to Paris."
We had a brief discussion with Frank about price and antibiotics, until the director finally thanked him and assured him it had nothing to do with doubting the quality of the facility, but that he preferred to follow his doctor's advice.
I got on my cell phone and changed his ticket, called the hotel to have the car pick us up, and said my goodbyes to Frank.
"Thank you very much for everything you did for us. It was very kind to take so much of your time for us," I said, sticking out my hand for him to shake.
"If you should have some free time, I would love to take you dinner," he said in reply.
"I'm afraid that won't be possible," I said, "but thank you again for everything." I was grateful he made me look like a highly competent assistant, but not that grateful.
The black luxury car was waiting for us on the street outside, humming and beckoning us with its warmth. It was beginning to get cold.
As I watched the buildings file past as we drove back to hotel, I wondered who lived there and if they had heat.