It is a curious thing to me how airline personnel are the same the world over. Without even looking up at me, the Aeroflot representative at the Belgrade Hotel in Moscow informed me that our group must be at the domestic terminal at least two hours prior to our departure at 6:50 a.m. "Otherwise, not sufficient time to check in and clear security."
I tried to explain to her that I was not checking in the Bolshoi Ballet and the scenery and props from "Swan Lake." "There will only be four of us and we are traveling light." She was neither amused nor interested in my problem. "Do as please, but you will miss only flight to Yerevan, Armenia, tomorrow!" I had a suspicion that this was the advice she gave to others, but would not follow herself. I decided, therefore, on my own to schedule our group's arrival at the airport no sooner than 5:30 a.m. I was to learn later that this was a wise decision.It was already five minutes to midnight. I decided my next stop should be with the hotel operator, situated near the front desk. I needed to leave wake-up calls for the other members of our group, plus place a long-distance phone call to Frankfurt, West Germany.
The operator was a comely young woman with blond hair and a delicate face. She had the lightest of blue eyes and spoke in a determined, but shy manner. Doing her job well was obviously very important to her. Considering the lateness of the hour, I found it a rather spirited exchange:
Kimball: "I need to place a long-distance call to Frankfurt in West Germany."
Operator: "Will not have call to you until 2 a.m."
Kimball: "OK, please just ring me in my room, number 1211."
Operator: "How do you wish to pay?"
Kimball: "Put it on my room bill, please."
Operator: "Cannot - against rules!"
Kimball: "I'll pay you in U.S. dollars, then."
Operator: "Also against rules."
Kimball: "Then put it on my credit card."
Operator: "Rules not permit, also."
Kimball: "Then what do I do?"
Operator: "Pay in rubles only."
Kimball: "OK, then I'll pay in rubles. When do I pay?"
Operator: "When you check out!"
Kimball: "But, I am leaving the hotel at 5 a.m."
At this point of the exchange, she rolled her big, blue eyes heavenward and said, "Then you wake me up at 5 a.m. and pay bill."
Kimball: "That hardly seems fair."
Operator: "It's OK, I don't mind."
I looked at her for a moment and then asked, "How, by the way, do you look at 5 a.m. in the morning?"
Operator: "Just awfully!"
She pushed her metal glasses back up her long, aquiline nose and smiled slightly.
I made one last stop at the reservation counter to pick up my room key. A group of six Australians was involved in a lively exchange of its own with a stocky female reservations clerk.
As I listened, I thought that the Soviet Union, like that other great Socialist power China, may soon be buried under deep drifts of middle-management bureaucratic policies and procedures. Mikhail Gorbachev might do worse than to look into the way reservations and available rooms at the Belgrade Hotel are processed.
Australians: "We know we do not have reservations. We could not FAX, telex or phone you from Odessa. Nothing like this was available to us."
Clerk: "You have no reservations, therefore, I cannot give you a room."
Australians: "But, you do have rooms that are unoccupied? Is this correct?"
Clerk: "Yes, I do have unoccupied rooms, but I am unauthorized to issue you such rooms."
Australians: "Who, then, has this authority?"
Clerk: "Only night manager can do such a thing, but he is not here."
Australians: "When will he be here?"
Clerk: "I do not know. You may wait if you wish, but the longer you wait, the fewer available rooms there will be. Not here, I mean, but at other hotels in Moscow, where you also have no reservations."
(To be continued.)