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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Trials of Hearing-Impaired




Two years ago, when I interviewed the top Federal Security Service official in Vladivostok, the conversation got off to an uneasy start.


Despite his secretive profession, Viktor Kondratov was usually a remarkably friendly and open source. This time, however, I hurt things by announcing that I wanted to write a profile of him and demanding details about his professional background and family f the kind of information no spook wants to reveal.


But I had the funny feeling, as his gaze kept flickering toward my left ear, that he was wondering about the electronic gadget in my head: a hearing aid. I was sitting in the central spy command center for the Far East, in possession of a sophisticated listening device, possibly receiving orders from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.


LANGLEY: Ask him his kid's name.


RUSSELL: What's your son's name?


KONDRATOV: Ruslan.


LANGLEY: I didn't catch that.


RUSSELL (speaking into the carnation on his lapel): He said Ruslan.


At least that's the kind of scenario some people imagine when they see the object that looks like a gob of flesh-colored putty in my ear. Because my hearing aid is smaller than Russian equivalents, which wrap around behind the ear, it can puzzle people. My former boss asked me if it was a device to translate Russian into English. (No, it only works with German and French, I said.)


I first suffered a hearing loss while I was working in a mill one summer. One day while driving home to my parents' place, I became dizzy and nauseated, and within hours everything was whirling, and I couldn't stand up. My mom moved my mattress to the floor after I kept tumbling off the bed.


It took weeks before I could stumble two blocks through the gyring autumn streets to the park, supported by my mother. It turned out to be nothing serious, the doctor said: just M?ni?re's syndrome, "a disease of the inner ear marked by dizziness, ringing in the ears, and a progressive loss of hearing." Oh, good.


Over time, the vertigo diminished, and the hearing loss is not too serious, although my ears will forever ring with what sounds like a multitude of tiny people who are screaming at the top of their lungs. And I had to buy a hearing aid.


There is something essentially ridiculous about a hearing aid, a sophisticated electronic device that costs as much as a laptop but is stored in a bodily orifice. It whistles like a gerbil when you cup it in your hand. Wedged up against one's brain, a hearing aid is uncomfortable, so I used to take it out sometimes and stick it in the coin pocket of my pants. Twice this caused the destruction of a hearing aid after I accidentally washed it with my pants, something that seldom happens to computers or televisions.


Hearing aids do not taste good. I can say this with certainty because once I popped mine in my mouth while sitting in a dark room writing on my computer (I had set my hearing aid on the desk near a pile of peanuts I was munching). The flavor was like that of an ear canal, a dish served in no country that I know of, not even places where they eat pigs' feet.


Even when you are more careful, as I am nowadays, hearing aids occasionally break down. The last time this happened here in Russia, my girlfriend, Nonna, contacted the only authorized Siemens representative in the region, who said he would charge $30 to look at the contraption, maybe more to repair it. She dropped it off, then phoned back the next day. The total bill, the repairman said, would be $500.


That sounded like stick-it-to-the-foreigner economics to me. "It cost $1,300 brand new," I said. "Tell him to forget it."


Nonna passed on the word. But when she went in to pick up the hearing aid, the repairman had already fixed it. "How much does he owe you?" she asked.


"As we agreed: $30," he said.


Let's just pretend that she heard him wrong the first time. In any event, I had a functioning hearing aid. Whenever I am tempted to pop it in my mouth, I think of the repair bill I might face. It's as if I am getting a $500 bonus every time I don't eat my hearing aid. And they say you can't make money honestly in Russia.