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Why I love neon signs

blog2Sometimes people complain about all the big city lights – neon signs and lit up billboards flashing. But, imagine for a moment that they all disappeared. Imagine the darkness.

I learned in a hurry what that would be like on my first trip to Moscow in the early 1990’s. The cold war had just ended and the Soviet Union had dissolved. I was on a mission to buy rough diamonds. Russia had been one of the world’s largest producers of rough diamonds for decades. And I wanted my chance to get in on the action before all the deals had been made.

Or at least I thought I did.

The strongest memory I have of that trip was the oppressive darkness of a Moscow night.

It was like being in an old black and white Bogart movie. I remember looking down a dark street, the stout brick and stone buildings silhouetted by a thin ray of light falling from the single lamp post a block away. One lamp for every second street. That night, I longed for the bright lights and billboards of a North American City.

I guess electricity was scarce in Moscow and the government didn’t want to encourage people to be out past dark.

My first inkling that something was amiss in Moscow was the moment I walked off the plane. Walking into the terminal there was no colours anywhere to be seen, no advertisements, no backlit signs, no rows of track lighting.  Some meager utilitarian light fixtures reflected off grey marble, granite and cement. Direction signs were all in Russian, no need for English … not yet.

My mother had warned me about going to Russia, she was sure that I wouldn’t be coming home. I remember thinking to myself,  ‘I should have listened to Mom’.

As the Russians looked me up and down, I realized I was one the first westerners they had seen. And boy did they see me. I’d worn my big puffy Tommy Hilfiger down jacket, bright yellow, red and green (remember the ‘90s?) I. looked like the Pillsbury dough-boy in a snow cone factory explosion. I was the only colour in the whole terminal. Every eye was on me. Every face frowning.

1990’s Moscow was a study of contradictions. Many of the people I met were amazing, warm-hearted, always ready to share a laugh and a vodka. But others were not quite so welcoming.

We stayed at Hotel Russia, the only hotel that Westerners were allowed to stay in, in a large part because every room was bugged. It was located just south of Red Square and the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral, a stones throw from the Kremlin wall. It has since been torn down and replaced with a bus terminal and public square. But, back then, there was a grand entrance on the south side that was only for Westerners and a smaller entrance for native Russians to use. I found this out when I was expecting my interpreter, Maya.

Maya was about five hours late and I was concerned, but couldn’t ask about her. You could count the Russian words I knew on one … well let’s face it … I didn’t know any words. I went for a short walk around the hotel thinking about how to solve the Maya mystery and then I saw the smaller entrance on the north side of the hotel. I went to have a look and there was Maya. Standing in the corner. She had been kept waiting for five hours because she was from St. Petersburg and her people were looked down on by Moscovites. Against her protests, I marched Maya around to the front door, took her past the doorman and to the reception desk. I told them that she was my interpreter and she was going to use the front door.

Maya became a real asset to me on that trip and all of my future trips to Russia … interpreting for me and navigating the maze that was Moscow.

Note: After eventually negotiating an amazing deal involving what would become the Archangelsk diamond properties, I ended up empty handed on that first trip. The company that I had partnered with from Canada was unable to arrange the funding in time, so the deal fell through. I chalked it up to experience. I am constantly grateful for the people, places and experiences that my career as a gemologist has afforded me. And every time, I come away with valuable knowledge that helps me help my customers.