Chapter 2: Why Was I Chasing a Train?

My all-time favorite Warner Brothers cartoon character never reached the dizzying heights of the ‘Wascally Wabbit”, but his poignant final scene provided me with endless entertainment and solace in Siberia.

Having chased all manner of predators, including a train, with predictably dismal results, he sat on a hill, silhouetted against the sunset and reviewed his Sisyphean nightmare of a day. Unnerved by a series of violent events, culminating with a thorough flattening by a locomotive, he sat there and pondered: “Why was I chasing a train?”

Russian Train
Russian Train

Indeed. It had all started so innocuously.

In April of 1990, I finally completed my two year ‘residency’ with a public accounting firm and earned my license as a CPA. I bolted from that office with such alacrity, piles of documents on either side fluttered when I passed. Despite the significant investment in education and time, I had long since decided that I simply was not cut out to spend the rest of my professional career in that industry. In theory, accounting is a remarkably elegant construct. In practice, it’s arid, mind numbing drudgery.

Worse still, obtaining a license requires that candidates work for CPA firms — at slave wages. So we were reduced to cannon fodder – fungible pawns working 60 hour weeks were routinely fired – only to be replaced by another earnest staff accountant who would eventually meet the same fate. It was seriously undermining my sense of humor.

I was woefully trailing my contemporaries in the professional world. As the wife of an Air Force fighter pilot for almost a decade (transferring every two years) I was unable to pursue any serious career goals. For the next 6 years after the dissolution of our marriage, I attended graduate school, passed the CPA exam, and completed the aforementioned required two years.

Racing toward the end of the rainbow, I did not find a pot of gold, but a pile of something that would have steamed were it not so desiccated. It pained me greatly to concede that there was no future in public accounting for me.

At the ripe old age of 36, I found myself restlessly casting about for direction. Freelancing as a business management consultant for a couple of years paid the bills but the prosaic nature of these projects left me uninspired … I felt that the time to accomplish anything meaningful in my life was inexorably slipping away. A divorcée with no dependents, the future held endless possibilities. So many, in fact, that I was overwhelmed. Reading self-help books, researching industries and career choices, I became a fixture at the local library (this was before the advent of Google – or even AOL).

One afternoon in June of 1992, I spied an ad in the Wall Street Journal which would change my life completely. President Bush had directed the Peace Corps to select 100 business professionals to send to the Former Soviet Union (FSU), less than a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was the first time in the organization’s history that only ‘specialists in capitalism’ would be recruited and it goes without saying that volunteers had never stepped foot in the FSU before. The prospect of living and consulting in Russia was so intriguing that I immediately phoned Washington D.C and requested an application. Sometime later it was reported that over 1,000 aspirants called that first day, as well.

For about a month, I was subjected to excruciatingly inane exchanges from inquisitors who wore socks with their sandals. Questions such as “Do you need a college degree to be a CPA?” stunned me. It became increasingly apparent that the “old guard” regarded us as soulless usurpers who would stain the impeccably virtuous reputation of ‘their’ organization. At long last, the torture ended and I was accepted as a member of the first contingent to the FSU. We were to arrive in Russia on November 21 of that year. . . .