Vladivostok - A Strange Encounter
David and I went down to the tip of Egershelde Peninsula on Saturday, to try to find the lighthouse keepers. More about them later -- first I have to describe a truly strange encounter we had with a man named Alexei.
We first saw him as he was walking along the "cat's tail" -- the narrow strip of land that stretches through Tokarevsky Cape to the lighthouse. He was wearing a tiny blue bathing suit, and as he drew closer he looked at me and smiled. "Excuse me, but you are obviously not Russian," he said.
"Why do you say that?" I asked, mildly surprised that he'd started up a conversation with a stranger -- a rarity here, in my experience.
"It's obvious," he said. "Russian people have this tired, beaten-down look about them, and you don't look that way. You look happy." He went on in this vein for a few minutes, talking about how Russians have suffered so much in the last century, through purges, wars and hunger. He talked about how he feared for the Russian spirit, because people can only suffer so much.
Then he stopped and peered closely at me. "You look just like an English girl I met many years ago," he said. "I met her here, in Vladivostok. She was with a man, and she asked me how to get down to the lighthouse, as she wanted to meet the people there."
Well, this was odd. What were the chances that this guy would have met a woman who looked like me, who had come to Vladivostok hoping to meet the lighthouse caretakers many years ago?
"I remember, I was riding my bicycle," he went on, "and she stopped and asked me, and then the man gave me a can of beer. He just took a can of beer out right of his bag and handed it to me."
He stared even more intently at me. "How can you tell the difference between an American woman and an English woman?" he asked. I told him there was probably no way, unless you could tell from the accent. He kept looking at me, and I realized what he was thinking.
"How long ago did you meet this woman?" I asked. "Because I was here 10 years ago, with an American man, looking for the lighthouse family."
At this, he burst into tears. "It's you! It's you! You are the woman I met! I can't believe it -- when I saw you walking along just now, I knew you looked familiar. I can't believe it!"
I couldn't believe it either -- and in fact, I wasn't sure I did. Here I was, doing this whole 10-years-later project, and the first person I run into, at a lighthouse in the middle of nowhere, is someone I happened to have met back in 1995? In a city of nearly 700,000 people? Could I really have met this man before?
If I wasn't quite convinced, he certainly was. He stood there crying, wiping his eyes and saying, "Excuse me, I'm a very sentimental person. This means so much to me, that you're here and we've met again!" He looked at me, his eyes shining, as I racked my brain trying to conjure up a memory of him from 10 years ago. The longer I thought about it, the more I thought we might have met. Sure, we must have asked someone how to get down to the lighthouse -- why not him? Why would he make something like this up? And what were the chances that he would remember such a specific detail -- the can of beer that Gary had supposedly given him?
We spoke for a while longer, and David came over and took some photos of him. He told me that we hadn't met down here near the lighthouse all those years ago, but at the Maritime Institute in town. This was even stranger -- it was easier to believe we'd met near the lighthouse than randomly in town. But he was insistent, looking at me and shaking his head in disbelief. Soon the tears began to flow again, and after another five minutes or so, he turned to make his way to the shore. "Goodbye!" he said. "I'm so glad to see you again!" I could still hear him sniffling as he walked away.
Later that evening, I emailed Gary to ask him if he remembered the man. I found myself really hoping that he did -- that this seemingly miraculous encounter would prove to be true. Gary emailed back that he had no recollection of the guy, though that didn't necessarily mean that we hadn't met him. I suppose I'll never know for sure. But if I come back 10 years from now for The Russian Chronicles - 20 Years Later and run into him again, I've now got his photo to confirm our meeting.
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