Youthful exuberance - Dancing with a communist Russian at the height of the cold war? At your own peril!
Since I was often hanging around the organization desk, another physicist came to introduce himself to me. Boris was a Russian from communist Soviet Union, from Novosirbirsk (New Siberia). The Soviets, in a drive to develop Siberia, built many research institutes and sent many scientists there, voluntarily or otherwise. It is difficult to describe Boris - lean, definitely not good looking, with a round peasant's face and wearing a pair of glasses which made him look as if he suffered from a squint. It turned out that Boris had a perfectly legitimate reason to seek me out as we were working on very similar projects. He gave me a copy of his reprint on the measurement of neutron energy by the time the neutron takes to travel a certain distance. But at that point my work had not reached the stage that I could give him anything on paper. Next day, Boris came to see me again, this time he asked me to help him change his airplane reservations, since it was his first time abroad and he was quite bewildered by the options available.
Next day was the last day of the conference, which also happened to be July 14th, the day the French commemorate the storming of the Bastille which marked the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Usually there are beautiful fireworks in the sky, and the whole of Paris comes alive with large high spirited crowds dancing in the streets, drinking beer or what have you. So many years I have lived in Paris and not once had I gone dancing. This time I was determined to enjoy myself, for it may very well be my last chance. I thought I could show off the fun of Western life to Boris and to make up a foursome I invited my dear Serbian friend, Dusha, who worked at the Yugoslav consulate and a physicist colleague of Goran's from Zagreb. Now, I thought I had made a wonderful combination - a Russian, a Serb, a Croat and a Chinese. I could not be more wrong! I would have to blame my youthful naivete and total ignorance of the history of the Slav people. I invited them first to dinner at my home and after that we proceeded to Place de St Germain des Pres, which is just at the beginning of Boulevard of the same name, off Avenue d'Odeon, the center of the students' latin quarter. This area reverberates with existentialist philosophy, many cafes, like the Café Deux Maggots, were frequented by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvois, the two renowned proponents of the philosophy of existentialism, where they even held discourse to their disciples.
I enjoyed the dancing and Boris did too. Not so the Serb and the Croat, but you have to remember that this was 33 years before the Balkan war. Should I have known? It was impossible to dance without large amounts of beer, so every now and then I would take Boris, pushing hard through the crowd into the Café Deux Maggots to replenish ourselves, all the time I told Boris to put his hands on my shoulders so that he would not get lost. Some time later we drifted, while dancing, into a beautiful square - Place de Furstembourg, just off the main Boulevard St Germain des Pres. Most of the crowd had not discovered this tranquil place. There was so much to be seen here - the house where Delacriox, a famous painter of the French Revolution era lived and the house where the last scene of the film of Martin Scosese: 'The age of innocence', adapted from a novel by Edith Wharton, was filmed. Around midnight we were exhausted and we called it a night. Boris gave me a kiss on the cheek and whispered in my ear:
"Gioietta, this has been the happiest day of my life, thank you!"
On the face of it, I cannot complain about what he said. Other men have said such extravagant things to me before. However, I shall never forget this particular whisper.
Next day, my aunt asked me, quite out of the blue:
"Why don't you marry this Russian friend of yours?"
"But I have not the slightest intention of marrying him. Tell me why you said that. "
I was really astonished.
"Well, he is from a big country, whereas Yugoslavia is so small and insignificant."
It revealed an attitude about the Chinese that I had not noticed before. It seems that size and consequently power are all that matters to them. May be I should count the number of the country's nuclear bombs and Anti Ballistic Missiles before marrying someone from that country!
Six years later, when I had already moved back to England and was working on my research in plasma physics at a government laboratory, my peace was disturbed by the visit of 2 MI6 (UK government's Foreign Counter Intelligence Service) agents from London. They told me that Boris, when he returned from Paris, told the KGB (Soviet Intelligence Service) that he met a very friendly Chinese girl whom they might recruit as spy. At this stage, I poured out to the MI6 agents the entire story of my encounter with Boris including his whisper of the happiest day of his life. It would seem that my story coincided completely with the story they had received from their 'mole' within KGB - that is a British agent they had planted within KGB. This gave MI6 great satisfaction and from the point of view of a British citizen, I think we can rest assured that our intelligence service was doing a good job protecting our country during the cold war.
It is rather rum that 6 months after KGB had considered recruiting me, I went to Tito's Yugoslavia and married a Yugoslav there. Not a very good recruit by any standards. Thankfully, the whole affair was cut short there.
Young and innocent that I was, I had never imagined that being friendly to a foreigner, whatever his nationality, would be so dangerous!