I looked out the window of the shuttle bus we were riding into downtown Moscow. Through the drizzle, I could see nineteenth-century office and apartment buildings crowded along the curving street. After those frontier cities we’d been through, like Irkutsk and Ulan Bator, Moscow looked dramatically European.
In a few minutes I was facing the walls of the Kremlin itself. Suddenly, looking down a street between two old buildings and across Red Square, I caught a glimpse of St. Basil’s Cathedral, silhouetted in the mist. The ancient onion-domed church, the very symbol of Russia, was momentarily revealed to me as a sudden, muted apparition.
This, I felt, was the advantage of not learning too much about a place before you travel there: the delicious surprise of discovering a famous, magnificent landmark by accident. Encountered this way, the landmark’s grandeur is not diminished by expectations. I’d had a similarly serendipitous occurrence on my New Yorker-guided Manhattan weekend: when I emerged from Penn Station, I decided that before obtaining a map and calling around for a hotel room, I’d just walk around directionlessly and absorb the intensity of rush hour New York. And what should I see a couple blocks down one street, but the Empire State Building? (I recognized it from the postcards.)
St. Basil’s disappeared from view behind another building, and very shortly after that the bus arrived at its destination, the National Hotel. This was where Colin and Sharon and some others in our group were staying.
I’d read that the National, built at the turn of the century, had been a showcase of pre-revolutionary Russia. Among the historical notables to have stayed there was Lenin. After we got off the bus and went inside, Tobey and I kicked ourselves for not getting reservations there. Broad stairways with ornate, intricately painted trim (albeit a little overdue for touch-up paint) led up to the corridors and rooms. The corridors were immense; about fifteen feet high. Each room had a recessed landing with a door at least three feet taller than anyone who would pass through it. Each door and landing was slightly different from room to room – different trim, different depth, or different color. We went to relax awhile in Colin and Sharon’s room. It was as big as a respectable American one-bedroom apartment.
Where Tobey and I had reservations, on the other hand, was the Mozhayski Motel, in the outlying suburbs of Moscow. When she’d arranged this trip from Japan, she’d reserved the cheapest hotels her brochure offered in Moscow and Leningrad – a mere $140 a night; the others were at least $180. Since then we’d found out that not only was this one a good fifteen miles from the center of town, it was also two miles from the nearest Metro station.
The idea of changing reservations occurred to both of us, and we knew what hotel to try first. As long as we were being taken for $140 a night to stay in a motel out in the sticks, it would be worth at least forty dollars more to be with our friends in this magnificent place smack in the center of the city; a stone’s throw from St. Basil’s. Tobey found a phone and called some numbers, and found that all the hotels in Moscow that took foreign tourists were completely full.
So we figured we’d better get started on the trek to our suburban Moscow home. Outside the hotel was a swarm of taxis, in contrast to Irkutsk. Expecting a language difficulty, we asked a National Hotel desk clerk to write the name of our destination in Cyrillic letters on a slip of paper.
Immediately after leaving the hotel, we got a barrage of ride offers from drivers of parked cabs, most of which weren’t marked as such. Taxi drivers in the Soviet Union, we soon learned, fell into two classes – legitimate and non-legitimate. The former worked for the state, showed up (usually late) when called by a hotel, took rubles in set amounts, and were expected to turn their earnings over to the state and accept only their wages as payment. The latter group parked outside a hotel, waited for tourists, haggled with them for foreign currency (which they, of course, kept), and were filthy rich. One we heard about earned much more than his wife, the doctor.
We selected a non-legit cabby, showed him our slip of paper, and pointed to our destination on the map. He spoke no English except numbers and the word “dollar,” but we all seemed to agree on where we were going, and we negotiated a price of three dollars for the ride.
It was rush hour. To my surprise – naively, I hadn’t imagined there would be a real rush hour in a non-capitalist city – traffic was noticeably congested. The cabby drove a Lada, a boxy little Soviet-made sedan that looks like a mid-70’s Datsun 510. Although this was not as hectic as rush hour in most major American cities, he had a challenge getting through. He used the technique, which I would later associate mainly with Parisian drivers, of creating his own lane between those marked on the pavement. At times he and most other drivers seemed to abandon the concept of lanes entirely. The boulevards were certainly wide enough for him to squeeze his tiny Lada between the left lane’s cars and the curb, in the last fifty feet before a left turn. Then, once he broke free, he would step it and careen along to the next traffic jam.
This was exciting – the wild ride, the Moscow buildings and Muscovite people rushing by the window, the bustle of this strange city with its strange lettering. It was my first introduction to European street signs, which were not metal strips on signposts but plaques on corners of buildings. I sounded out the street names aloud. The driver would repeat me and correct my pronunciation, pleased at my attempts at his language. This gave me a chance to confirm our route with the map and practice my Cyrillic alphabet phonics at the same time. Soon I was reading all interesting-looking words to the driver, like an excited first-grader. A police car drove by, and I sounded out the word on its door – MI-LI-TSI-YA. “Militsiya,” confirmed the driver. How curious, I thought, that the Russian for police has the same root as “military”. Maybe there’s no semantic distinction in Russian.
We figured we were approaching the Mozhayski when we started seeing familiar cookie-cutter apartment behemoths. The motel itself was a 12-story edifice, a touch more architecturally interesting than the apartments but plopped in the middle of semi-developed land the same way. As we arrived there, the driver opened the glove compartment and showed us the bottle of vodka inside. “Five dollar,” he said. It was a very good vodka for five dollars; we’d had that brand on the train. It seemed like everyone in Russia, like the waitress on the train, had some little illicit operation on the side. We told him no; we weren’t interested in black-market vodka. Then I realized – his profession itself was an illicit operation, which we had just partaken of. I was starting to get use to the ethical relativism of life in the Soviet Union.
Tobey had to run some errand just after we checked in to the Mozhayski, so I so I went alone up to our room. As I came out of the elevator, two Russian men approached me, obviously brothers. One started conversing with me. He spoke passable English, and asked me the usual polite questions travelers ask each other – where I’m from, if I’m traveling for business or pleasure, and so forth. I was happy to talk with him; however, since I hadn’t had a meal in several hours or a shower in three days, I was also anxious to get into our room. It was after dark by now. I unlocked the door and picked up my things, expecting to hear, “Well, it’s been nice talking with you.” Instead, he and his brother followed me in. I became suspicious.
His name was Yura, and his identical twin was Igor. They were civil engineering students at the University of Leningrad. Yura was the only one who knew English well enough to converse with me, and we continued our slightly stilted (on his part) and nervous (on my part) exchange. As we talked I began to think that maybe it’s just accepted manners in Russia to invite oneself into a new acquaintance’s hotel room before he’s even been in himself.
After we were inside, Yura presented to me a bottle of champagne. Aha, I thought – a black-market alcohol salesman, just like the cabby. I asked him how much he wanted for it. Embarrassed, Yura laughed off the question. He was offering to share it with me, he said, as a new guest of the hotel and new visitor to Moscow, and to toast Soviet-American friendship. Politely, I told him I’d better not, since I hadn’t eaten anything in hours. I figured that on an empty stomach, I’d quickly get drunk, scattered, a little sick, and vulnerable to whatever scam these guys were up to. And since it was champagne, I’d probably get a terrible headache as well. But Yura insisted, so I acquiesced – I’d have one glass.
Tobey came in as we were toasting. I immediately felt more secure; whatever they were planning, it was now two against two instead of two against one. Just as quickly as I’d become suspicious of the twins, she warmed up to them. Her mood – an immediate trust of these guys that seemed to mirror my immediate suspicion – suddenly changed the occasion into a little party.
We talked about our trip on the Trans-Siberian, especially the Ukrainian drunk guitarist. Wondering if the brothers would know the Ukrainian folk song he’d sung, I brought out my guitar, strummed the chords, and warbled the melody. They recognized the song and sang along briefly. But they didn’t know what it was called or who wrote it – it was just some old Slavic standard. I asked Yura why the Ukrainian would sniff a biscuit after chugging a third of a bottle of whiskey. They laughed with familiarity – but Yura wasn’t quite able to come up with an explanation. The custom just was, like the folk song.
As Yura explained, he and his brother were visiting some friends who were staying at the Mozhayski. They were curious how travel in Moscow was for visiting foreign tourists, compared to Russians.
“We’re probably paying a lot more for our room than your friends are,” Tobey said.
“Yes, yes –” Yura said, and translated for Igor. They chuckled among themselves – it was no news to them that the government gouged rich foreign tourists. “How much are you paying?” Yura asked.
“A hundred and forty dollars a night,” Tobey replied. Their jaws dropped. They looked at each other and chuckled again: not a knowing chuckle this time, but an unavoidable reaction to learning the absurd is real. I wondered how often they, as Soviet citizens, needed this catharsis.
Yura extended an invitation to us: when we got to Leningrad, we could visit them at their apartment, meet their friends, and drink. That sounded wonderful to me. Just to see a Soviet citizen’s own apartment was a precious opportunity. We agreed on a time and place to meet – a certain Leningrad subway station at 6:00 p.m. the day we arrived in the city. At least three times Yura confirmed the plans with us, wanting to make sure we truly intended to show up.
We sincerely did intend to – and I wish we had kept our appointment. Long after the trip, I still felt bad that we flaked out on them after Yura had made so sure to get our honest word. As it turned out, we didn’t start planning Leningrad activities until we were there, and our date with Yura and Igor got lost in the shuffle. We would have been guests of Russians in their own home! Or, maybe, we would have gotten soused and had our valuables stolen. I’ll never know.
After the brothers left, I was so physically disoriented from drinking on an empty stomach that I wasn’t hungry any more. However, I knew I had to eat something before going to bed if I expected to sleep, so Tobey and I went down to the lobby to look for restaurants. The Mozhayski, though only a “motel,” contained several. However, it was now after 11 P.M., and only one restaurant was still open: a dining and dancing room, brightly lit but socked in with cigarette smoke. On one side of the room, an overamplified and poorly mixed band – the singer could barely be heard over a grinding electric organ – played “Feelings”. Just my luck – the last restaurant available turned out to have the worst restaurant ambience in the world.
We talked to the hostess. The fixed price was ten dollars – payable in advance, as was customary in Russia. Tobey and I, accustomed to ruble amounts by now, thought this price outrageous. The hostess mentioned having something without something for $5.00. (right, Tobe?) “Couldn’t we get just a little snack for less?” Tobey asked, picking up a menu from one of the tables and pointed out several items listed for less than $5. No, the hostess reiterated, it’s a fixed price. Tobey left to have a few Ry-Krisps and go to bed. I needed a real meal, though, so I stuck around.
The hostess pointed to one of the tables. All the appetizers offered in the ten dollar meal were on the table: breads, cheeses, vegetables, cold cuts, caviar, and some sort of meat in aspic (that was my guess; I’d seen pictures of meat in aspic, but never been served it). I didn’t know how long these things had been sitting here on the table waiting for someone to sit down and start eating them, but the meats and cheeses were looking dry on the edges. This Russian custom of laying out the whole spread of appetizers on every table took some getting used to. And the aspic stuff looked more like a table decoration than food – like old meat suspended in ham-packing gelatin or Plexiglass. To wash all this down, there were bottles of wine and room-temperature Pepsi. It was a spread that was apparently intended to look elegant, lavish, and delicious, like some image of fine dining from the 1960’s. I would have been pleased if any one item in this cornucopia looked appetizing, but none of it did. I didn’t even want the wine or Pepsi, since I didn’t want to be either dehydrated or kept awake.
I felt dejected and irritable. The waiter, an oily-haired young man in a tux, came over and asked to be paid. I tried once more to ask about the $5 items on the menu. As he poured one of the little bottles of Pepsi into my glass, he gave me an explanation, in a rapid-fire mixture of Russian and English, that concluded with the same thing the hostess had told us: nothing was available for five dollars. I surrendered to his confusionary tactic and gave him a ten dollar bill, and he disappeared.
I was committed now, so I wanted to get fed and leave as soon as possible. I wasn’t sure if these were the prelude to a main dish or if the corned-beef-in-Plexiglas was the main dish, so I filled up on bread, cheeses and cold cuts. Mercifully, “Feelings” was the band’s last song of the evening. As my hunger was quelled I began to appreciate the irony that this dinner, probably the most unsatisfying of the trip, had a greater abundance of caviar than any meal I had eaten in my life. I’d had caviar once before, though, and I didn’t like its pungently briny taste or gelatinous texture any better this time, especially the black caviar. The red caviar seemed tolerable enough to gradually develop a taste for, if I’d been willing to spend enough to become accustomed to caviar once I’d returned to the States.
I hadn’t realized before this trip that the Kremlin was a tourist attraction; I had only known it as the center of the Soviet government. The Kremlin, I found out, was not just the political but the historical and cultural heart of Russia and the USSR. About half of the fortified triangular compound consisted of the imperial palaces that now housed the Soviet central government; these were very much off-limits to tourists. In the rest of the area were ancient cathedrals containing Russia’s most treasured religious relics and artworks. During the 1300’s, when Moscow became the acknowledged capital of Russia, these pieces were gathered from other ancient Russian cities and secured within the Kremlin walls. The Soviet government kept the cathedrals open as museums, in which tourists were free to wander.
The morning of our Kremlin visit, Tobey and I had breakfast – bread, cheese, and hard-boiled eggs – at another restaurant in the motel. Sitting with us were two foreign travelers, a Swede and an Algerian man. The Swede was a veteran Russia traveler who had ridden the Trans-Siberian fifteen years before. His trip hadn’t been nearly as much fun as ours, he said, since the shades were drawn half the time. Any time the train neared something of possible military or geographic significance, an official would come into the cabin and pull down the blinds.
The Algerian was studying at the University of Leningrad. “Why not France?” I asked, thinking that would be the first choice for an Algerian. Because the universities in Russia are much cheaper, he explained, and his government didn’t want to pay to send him to France. I was still, as an American, not used to the fact that many of the world’s nations didn’t consider themselves inviolably polarized to either the “east” or the “west.” Even a non-communist nation like Algeria didn’t see a problem with sending its students to study in the “evil empire,” if it was a better bargain.
After breakfast Tobey and I took a bus into downtown Moscow and met Colin, Sharon, Jeff, and Michele at the National Hotel, which by now had become our central meeting spot. The Kremlin was a short walk away, so we set out on foot.
Directly across the street we noticed a department store. This was slightly unusual. Of all the picturesque buildings we’d seen along central Moscow’s streets, most looked like they should have storefronts, but didn’t. This was one of the few establishments we’d seen at street level in downtown Moscow, that was open to the public.
We went inside, stepping through a long line of Muscovites waiting to pay for their merchandise. As I’d expected, there was a pretty meager stock of household necessities for sale here, but plenty of gifts intended for tourists – painted eggs within eggs, and tiny lacquered jewel boxes decorated with miniature Russian winter scenes. I saw a beautiful, intricately carved wooden troika: a sled being drawn by three horses, each one rendered with a distinct personality and rearing back in a different position. In the front of the sled stood a mighty roaring grizzly, holding the reins and driving the horses. An ancient, sagacious, bearded man in the back of the sled directed the bear with an upraised arm. The price for this piece was sixty dollars in rubles. I thought about getting it for my dad as a Christmas present; sixty dollars was less than I’d spent for presents that were a nowhere near this quality. But, if I got it I’d have to carry it around Europe, or send it home. Mailing it from a country with a reliable postal system, I figured, might cost upwards of sixty dollars in itself. Meanwhile, my companions were waiting on me, so I decided, with some sadness, to leave it here. On the way out of the store, I noticed that everyone in the checkout line was buying a single item – a sweater, the same identical one. There must have just been a shipment.
We left the store, and when we walked to the end of the block the Kremlin came into view. From where we were, we could see one of its stone walls, a tower at the end of the wall, and an ancient gate at the middle. Occasionally a black automobile would speed out the gate – a much sleeker and shinier car than the Ladas on the surrounding streets, driven much faster. That James Bond feeling, of being in the midst of a thrillingly evil totalitarian regime, came back momentarily.
We bought our Kremlin tickets – one per cathedral – at Aleksandrovsky Gardens, a grassy park just outside the walls. The abundance of tourists there meant there was also an abundance of black marketeers, with their mantras: “Soviet military watch? Rabbit hat? Russian vodka? Change money?” – usually one or two of those offers, in that order of frequency, sometimes all four in quick succession.
From there we headed through one of the arched entrances. I’d expected it to be a lot more difficult to get in – this was the Kremlin, after all. We weren’t even searched.
Once we were inside, a Russian man came up to us and offered to be our tour guide. He was a respectable-looking middle-aged man named Viktor, clearly not an official Intourist guide. It surprised me that he didn’t have a job he had to be at that Wednesday morning. Maybe he did, I thought, and it didn’t matter whether he was at work or here.
Viktor told us some historical background on the sights we were seeing, but as he did we were rushing around excitedly and taking in our own uneducated impressions. At one point he was talking only to me, since I was lagging a few steps behind the others. Whatever “real” job he had in Moscow, it was a frustrating enough job herding young American tourists around.
We decided to see the Armory at one point, and he tried to advise us that it isn’t a particularly interesting sight and had an extremely slow line to get into it. Heedless, we found the place and got in the line, which didn’t move at all for several minutes. Viktor waited those fifteen minutes with us, after which we decided to see some other sight. Shortly after politely saying he told us so, Viktor left us.
The cathedrals, we agreed, were next on our agenda. Tall and whitewashed, with geometrically patterned trim, topped by gold-leafed onion domes, they had such an Eastern look as to appear almost more like mosques than churches.
We entered the Cathedral of the Assumption. As solemnly dark inside as it was brilliantly white and gold outside, the cathedral had an abundance of sacred paintings mounted on its deep red walls. I had seen pictures of Russian Orthodox icons in an art history class in college, but this was different. Only by seeing the real icons, as they reflected the sparse light from the cathedral windows, could I feel their magnificence and power. These paintings of saints and members of the holy family – faces with big, deep eyes, encircled by halos of shining inlaid gold in high relief – made me realize how spiritual power could seem to emanate from an image itself, rather than what it represented. No wonder they were feared and forbidden in many Christian denominations.
It struck me as strange, too, that I’d entered this temple of icons by handing someone one of my three cathedral tickets at a turnstile, as if I were sampling rides in an amusement park.
After seeing two more cathedrals, we headed for Lenin’s tomb. It was in Red Square just outside the Kremlin, built almost up against the outer edge of fortress wall. When we got there we found a surprisingly short line; it took us only a few minutes to move up to the tomb entrance. We would later find out, when we caught a glimpse of the Moscow McDonald’s, that the current joke among Russians was true: the line to McDonald’s line really is longer than the line to Lenin’s tomb.
Comparing this with the other Communist revolution leader’s mausoleum I’d been to, I decided Lenin’s was done better than Mao’s. This one was a simple, low-built, reddish granite structure. Some had called it a garish intrusion on Red Square, but compared to the colonnaded, library-sized Mao memorial in the middle of Tiananmen Square, Lenin’s was, I thought, tastefully understated. We soon got to the front of the line and entered, past two sentries. Unlike the Mao memorial, this mausoleum had you descend a stairway once you entered the tomb, providing a more awe-inducing Hadean effect.
The glass case containing Lenin’s body was in a small room with very muted light. There he was. Again, I felt rather detached – “So this is Lenin – okay . . .” I thought he looked as well preserved as Mao, if not better, which was surprising considering it had been over sixty years since he had drawn a breath. However, I would find out later that by now, I was looking at more wax than flesh.
The six of us ascended to street level and emerged on Red Square. A line of visitors curved around to the back of Lenin’s tomb, to the graves of Soviet leaders and heroes entombed against the Kremlin wall. We followed them in line and, in a few minutes, gazed at the gravestones; each had a cast relief of the man buried. I murmured the names on each gravestone, sounding out the Cyrillic letters. Brezhnev: his image was recognizable enough. There was Chernenko. I sounded out the name Andropov just as I recognized his face and glasses. Where is Khrushchev?, I wondered out loud to Tobey. A Russian couple beside us said “Khrushchev – “ and gestured “not here”. I hadn’t been quite aware of the extent to which Khrushchev had been disgraced by the Soviet government, and still remained so.
A couple graves further I read the name – Stalin. I did a startled double-take. I had known before that this was where he was buried, and that at one time he been entombed in a mausoleum almost the size of Lenin’s. Still, I wasn’t prepared to happen upon him – Stalin, whose evil was mythic in scope, and seemed part of a mythic time – among the gravestones of modern Soviet leaders I’d seen on the news. I moved on.
On the way back to the National Hotel, we found two vendor booths in a public square. One was selling steak sandwiches, the other Turkish coffee, and amazingly, neither had a line of more than fifteen or twenty people. We felt lucky. We split into two groups to wait in either line. We bought a cup of coffee and two sandwiches per person, three for Colin and me. The coffee lived up to what I understood was the Russian preference in Turkish-style coffee – strong, thick in consistency and very sweet, settling to a grainy, black, sugary silt at the bottom. The sandwiches were good, although the steak in one had a completely different, tougher texture than the other, and took about five times as long to eat. Sharon, a vegetarian, took the meat out of her sandwiches and ate only the pieces of bread slathered with tomato sauce. I envied her easily satiable appetite.
A spectacle near the National Hotel caught our eye. Three women in miniskirts and stiletto heels, with teased, bleach-blonde hair and thick makeup, posed inside of an eight-foot cast iron Intourist logo. This scene raised some questions in my mind: Were they advertising models? If so, why were they made to look so trashy? Were they prostitutes? If so, why were they posing against something so mundane and ugly as a giant Intourist logo? And was Soviet society really so open that they’d be plying their trade in broad daylight in front of the tourist hotels? (Later, in retrospect, I answered the last question: probably.) I snapped a couple pictures, and we walked off – Jeff and Michele to their hotel; Colin, Sharon, Tobey and me to the National.
Tired, we settled into Colin and Sharon’s spacious room for a while, waiting for the laundry we’d sent to the maid to get done, and turned on the TV. One channel was showing Russian pop music videos. The first video was a nice Russian-flavored rock ballad by a handsome, stocky man with a beard. I imagined him to be Russia’s Gordon Lightfoot. We watched him and his girlfriend, in black and white, embracing in a kitchen and twirling romantically in each others arms. The video then showed the singer walking down the street and doing other everyday activities. He looked distracted and wistful – probably thinking about his girlfriend. Then, more footage of him and girlfriend twirling, maybe the same footage. This was quite dissimilar from the glitter-rock horror we saw in Irkutsk. I tried to sound out the name of the performer, as it appeared briefly, just like on MTV, at the end of the video: “Aleksandr” somebody.
The next video was also by Aleksandr: a slightly more uptempo ballad. Aleksandr had a girlfriend in this video too, the same woman. Perhaps he had an image to uphold of monogamy and wholesomeness. The music was another ballad, almost what would be classified as “easy listening” in the US, and the video showed no MTV models in their underwear – just Al and his steady doing semi-romantic but horribly mundane things. I decided that Aleksandr must be one of those Soviet state-sanctioned musicians I’d read about.
We switched channels to a news program. I would have expected, on a Russian newscast, a dour grey-suited man reading a headline story about meeting wheat harvest quotas, but I was pleasantly surprised. There was a youngish, handsome male anchor and a young, cute female anchor. Their set looked just like an American newsroom, except maybe on a lower budget. I couldn’t understand their Russian, but the film footage on some of their stories made that unnecessary. One clip covered former U.S. president Reagan’s visit to Moscow. He had already gone home, I was disappointed to find – it would have been a kick to bump into him at the Kremlin, or in the halls of this very hotel. Later, there was coverage of an airliner crash. They showed the wreckage in a forest – it looked like a passenger plane. And it had the Aeroflot logo on the side. The Moscow news was covering a crash of one of its own airplanes! Glasnost, indeed.
Tobey and I made one more bus trip that evening out to our motel, and one more trek back into town the next morning to meet our companions. These trips were getting old, but there was nothing we could do about it.
We went back to Red Square that morning, and visited St. Basil’s Cathedral. Even after seeing it innumerable times in pictures, depicted as the symbol of Russia, it was still one of the most enchanted-looking buildings I’d ever seen – among the government structures in central Moscow, at the end of Red Square, here was a real-life Disneyland castle. Even its origin, having been commissioned by Ivan the Terrible, and the legend of Ivan having the architects blinded so they could never create anything of equal beauty – seemed Disneyesque in its evilness. We went inside the 16th-century cathedral, and into one of the onion domes. Above me I could see the inside of the dome – a great white plain, plastered surface, in surprising contrast to the intricacy of the outside.
Nearby was another famous Moscow landmark we wanted to see: GUM, the largest department store in the world. It was on one end of Red Square, opposite the Kremlin wall. By now I was amazed at how all these celebrated Russian landmarks were right next to each other – the Soviet parliament buildings and the ancient cathedrals in the Kremlin, which was right beside Red Square, with Lenin’s Tomb between them, St. Basil’s at the end of the Square and GUM on one side. And the administration centers of the entire Soviet Empire, all packed in a tiny area that one could drive across in five minutes if it weren’t for the traffic. And all just down the street from the National Hotel.
We’d been warned about GUM: travel books had told us it would be a severe disappointment as a shopping adventure. But we wanted at least to see the place, and our expectations of shopping in Russia were not high at this point.
Built in the 1890’s, GUM was an ornate, charming structure of ironwork and glass. It was physically set up less as a department store than as a nineteenth-century precursor to today’s shopping mall, with three floors of aisles flanked by little shops. The light coming through the old, sooty, frosted green skylights, reflected by the pastel colors of the shops inside, gave the place a French Impressionist-period cast. Many of the shops were unoccupied or closed, and quite a few seemed like they might as well be, for their meager inventory. In that way it was very unlike today’s mall – except for one I’d been to in Anchorage, Alaska after the oil bust of the late 1980’s.
Shopping at GUM was interesting for its fruitlessness – so many stores, so little worth buying – but with one exception. We found a shop on the second floor that specialized in Communist iconic souvenirs. It had a bountiful, varied stock of Lenin pins, busts of Marx, and other decorative items that featured images of Communist founders – wonderful stuff, in my opinion. The less politically authoritative Lenin became in the USSR, the more aesthetically desirable his image was to me; heroic images of Lenin were quickly becoming a quaint, antique style of political art. I felt in a very fortunate position: the average Soviet citizen certainly wouldn’t be nearly as delighted as I was to find little or no household necessities for sale but plenty of Soviet iconography.
I decided to get some Lenin pins and a Lenin desk ornament. The latter consisted of silhouette of Lenin’s stern, purposeful face in brushed aluminum, mounted against a black plastic backing shaped in a space-age swoop. Paying for these items was a several step process, like the room card business. First, I selected the items from the showcase, which the people behind the counter would wrap. They then gave me not the merchandise, but an invoice to bring to the cash register at the other end of the shop. I showed the cashier the invoice and paid for the items. She then gave me a receipt to take back to the showcase and exchange it, finally, for the items, and finally exit the store, past the cashier. I wondered who would come up with such an absurdly redundant system of retail sales. Perhaps it was simply an outgrowth of Soviet bureaucratic inefficiency, which it seemed to symbolize. Or, maybe it was a deliberate governmental effort to discourage consumerism among the citizens.
By the time we left GUM, it was past lunchtime. For Colin and me it was, anyway – we of the hypersensitive appetites. The six of us went back to the National Hotel, joined Jim and Jocelyn, and went out in search of food. Finding a place to eat in downtown Moscow wouldn’t have been difficult if we hadn’t insisted on a ruble restaurant. As Colin and I got more hungry, we got more irritable, and more stubborn in our unwillingness to part with our dollars. The only ’s we saw on the streets were tourist-oriented, hard-currency places, at which we’d have to pay five or even ten dollars apiece. We checked out the restaurants at the Intourist Hotel, across the street from the National; they wouldn’t take rubles (at least not from us). Finally, we went back into the National Hotel, and talked to the hostess at one of the main dining rooms. This was a ruble restaurant which only served National Hotel guests – and their guests. Bingo!
It was mid-afternoon, and so we had time for a grand, leisurely, Russian-paced dinner before going out later that evening. Service was slow, but that was to be expected. I didn’t mind. We had plenty to talk about over dinner, such as the tourist shop down the street that was charging five dollars for a packet of postcards, while you could get them at a hotel for a fraction of a ruble apiece – some of these Russians have a thing or two to learn about being capitalists! And how Tobey and I, having finally run out of the $10.00 and $5.00 worth of rubles that we had changed six days earlier, spent twenty minutes trying to find one of those western-clad young moneychangers that had been pestering us everywhere before – where was a black marketeer when we needed one?
They gave us plenty of food to start off with. We were presented a spread of appetizers even bigger and more lavish than the Mozhayski’s – truly lavish this time, and truly appetizing; nothing in Plexiglass. We ordered a bottle of champagne, and the eight of us went through it fairly quickly, so we ordered another as soon as the waiter happened by. Finally, after three quarters of an hour of talking, drinking, and filling up on bread, cheeses, meats, vegetables, and all caviar we’d want, the waiter arrived to take our dinner orders. This caught us off guard; we had almost forgotten that what we were gorging on wasn’t the main meal. Only three of us ordered a main course. Mine was swordfish, which was delicious. I was the only one who finished a whole main course.
Eventually, the waiter presented us the bill. A chorus of voices offering to pay sprung up. This display of joking generosity from everyone had become a tradition on the train. The dinner tab came out to be the ruble equivalent, at the black-market exchange rate, of thirty cents per person.
We went up to Colin and Sharon’s room after that; this was definitely a meal that called for a rest afterwards. Eventually we felt rejuvenated. By then it was after dark, but we still had an evening ahead of us. Then someone suggested, on a whim, that we take a walk to Red Square. This seemed silly at first; what would we be able to see at Red Square after dark? And besides, it was raining, or at least drizzly the last time I’d checked. But, it was something to do, and only short walk from the hotel.
We put on our coats and left the hotel. The pavement was wet but it was neither raining or misty. As we walked the couple blocks to the Square, I was pleased that we’d become familiar enough with our little section of central Moscow to be able to saunter off to Red Square on a lark, without so much as a map.
When we came to the Square, we saw that all the historical buildings surrounding it – GUM, Lenin’s tomb, the towers of the Kremlin walls, St. Basil’s – were brilliantly illuminated by spotlights. The lights made the wet cobblestones shine too; we’d come upon a glittering Russian wonderland. This, we decided, was the best spur-of-the-moment idea we’d had since arriving in Moscow. St. Basil’s was especially luminous; in the lights, the ancient onion domes shone like giant mylar balloons. Not having thought to bring my camera tripod, I managed to get some timed exposures of these beautiful buildings by propping my camera up against anything I could find – barricades, cars, the surface of Red Square itself.
Tobey and I checked out of the Mozhayski Motel the next morning. We had another full day to spend in Moscow, but we had to catch an overnight train to Leningrad at 11:30 PM, so after taking the bus into town we stowed our things at the National.
We took our first bus tour in Moscow that day, to Moscow State University. At the beginning of the drive, the tour guide pointed out some sights in central Moscow that we hadn’t seen, one being the Council of Economic Planning building. It, too, was only a couple blocks from the Kremlin. I looked at this mundane-looking building and marveled – in the very heart of this mega-nation whose entire economy was centrally planned, this building was where they planned it.
“I’m sure they didn’t plan for the empty shops,” said the tour guide, “but that’s what happened.” I was glad to be touring Moscow in 1990, when Russian tour guides were allowed to have a sense of humor.
Arriving at Moscow State, we drove along the edge of the huge campus, than parked in front of the university’s main building. The top of this forty-story structure, the tallest in the USSR, was hidden in the mist. We weren’t taken inside, but we got to walk around the campus. The university was situated on a bluff, over which we could see the Moscow River, and the stadium of the 1980 Olympics just beyond it.
While at a stop on the return trip, almost back at the National Hotel, I had a near-calamity. The guide took us to one of the docks on the Moscow river which, like the Angara in Irkutsk, was concrete-lined. The dock was simply a concrete staircase cut into the quay, leading down to a series of loading platforms, which descended in steps into the river. We walked down to the lowest dry platform. I walked further, to the lowest wet but exposed platform, which had a layer of river slime.
I started to slide. Slowly, but unstoppably; the platform provided almost no friction and was on a slight decline. It was like a slow-motion dream: I knew I was sliding, I was fully aware I would eventually slide off the end and into the Moscow River, and there was nothing I could do about it. What a humiliation. Everything I wore was about to get drenched and filthy. My Eurailpass would get re-waterlogged. Finally, after two or three seconds, I stopped sliding, less than three feet from the edge. I walked carefully up the stairs, and back onto the bus.
Tobey and I realized that afternoon that we had yet to see any of the high culture of this capitol city of Moscow, and this was our last evening here. The hotel offered two easily-booked events, the Moscow Circus and the Bolshoi Ballet. We – the usual six of us – chose the ballet. It was around twenty dollars a person – more money than the total we’d spent in Russia, so far, excluding the hotels. But, realizing we were seeing what many regarded as the world’s greatest ballet company, it wasn’t excessive.
We had dinner at one of the National Hotel restaurants. It didn’t take as much time as the day before, but it left us running late for the ballet. There was no time to change before walking to the Bolshoi Theater – which was right there in central Moscow, like everything else – so we wore the same clothes to the Bolshoi Ballet that we had put on that morning. I was in a navy sweatshirt, dirty blue jeans and running shoes. Among the well-dressed Russian ballet patrons, I felt vaguely like I was abusing my privilege of being an American with loads of hard currency.
The Bolshoi Theater was magnificently lavish. Built before the Russian Revolution, it had a huge, beautiful box in the middle of the first balcony that had been reserved for the Czar and Czarina. The walls and ceiling were covered with ornate gilded trim, of which one thing struck me as strange. Recurring throughout the sculpted relief work, in prominent spots where the royal coat of arms would have been originally, and throughout the gold lace curtain pattern as well, was the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle symbol. Something about this setting made the symbol of the international workers’ revolution seem out of place.
On the bill that evening was Swan Lake. I was pleased to be seeing a classic here, and since this was the first ballet I’d been to in my adult life – maybe ever – I didn’t mind that it was a constantly performed classic. The dancing in this traditionally choreographed performance was enchanting and flawlessly graceful; the music, beautiful; and I felt that I’d just spoiled myself completely for ballet. What would make me want to go to the Oregon Ballet Theater when my first ballet was the Bolshoi?
Midway through the second act, Colin and Sharon had to leave to catch their train to Leningrad. This signaled Tobey and me that our time was coming too. (Even though all of us from the Trans-Siberian were on the same itinerary, Intourist had put us on different midnight trains to Leningrad.) Regretfully, we quietly rose from our seats after a few minutes, left the theater, walked to the National Hotel to pick up our bags, took a cab to the station, and boarded the train. Traveling, I thought to myself, is sure jarring sometimes.
It was a short night on the Leningrad train. I awoke around dawn, an hour or so before our scheduled arrival. Unrested and unprepared to get up, I lay awake waiting, any minute now, to hear an announcement that we’re approaching the station, and have to pack frantically.
We finally did arrive at the station, and we were taken from there to the Leningrad Hotel, where most of the English speakers – except Tobey and me, again – were staying. In contrast to the National, the Leningrad was a modern, elegantly simple building. Its long, spacious lobby had huge windows that overlooked two diverging channels of Neva river delta and the beautiful old buildings on the far banks.
Tobey and I once more decided to make an effort to change our hotel reservations. Just as in Moscow, we were signed up for the cheapest lodging offered in the remotest part of the city, the Olgina Hotel. Tobey let me do the calling this time.
Looking at the map, I found a hotel near the center of town that was moderately priced. It looked like the most attractive for the cost. When I called the number, the woman I talked to scolded me for even thinking of changing hotels at the last minute. “You cannot do that!” she said. “They’ve got the room prepared for you and everything! It’s impossible!”
I thought of the poor maid, tidying the place up just for me, all for nothing. But I had heard the word “impossible” before, and I knew it meant one of three things: one, it truly is impossible; two, it’s administratively too difficult; or three, the administrator whom I’m talking with doesn’t feel like doing it. So, if I don’t like this answer, I can talk to someone else and most likely get a different answer.
I called the Olgina next, and a man there told us we might be able to change to a different hotel. We’d have to come out to the Olgina to do the paperwork. And don’t get your hopes up, he said; it probably won’t work. But it’s worth a try.
There’s no reason I should have to go all the way out there and back to change hotels, I thought. And if it probably wouldn’t work, I’ve got nothing to lose by trying someone else. Why not try getting a room right here? I decided. The Leningrad didn’t have a lot of historical interest, but with its view it was an attractive place otherwise, and most of our friends were here.
I called up the registration desk. No problem, the man said. I could just pay the difference between the Olgina’s room rate and the Leningrad’s. The figure he calculated turned out to be a good deal less than the difference Tobey would have paid to reserve a room here, instead of the Olgina, in the first place.
I had a theory about the mixed-up, inaccurate, or incomplete information that Soviet civil servants were so often giving us. Perhaps it wasn’t that they were trying to mislead or withhold information from us; rather, it was that none of them knew enough about what was going on to accurately tell us. This incident taught me a good deal about dealing with the Soviet system – or, really, any bureaucratic organization.
To complete the process of changing reservations, we had to see someone at an office on the lobby mezzanine. There we waited for about half an hour, which seemed to make up for the easy time I had convincing them to change our reservations. While we waited, an American couple complained bitterly and persistently to the management. The wife harangued the woman at the desk loudly: our hotel reservations were fouled up, our train reservations were fouled up and we missed our train, this is the worst vacation we’ve ever been on, I can’t believe you can treat us like this, this would never, ever happen in the United States, don’t you Russians know anything about treating tourists right, et cetera, et cetera. The woman at the desk managed to keep calm and respond to the American woman as best she could. The more she harangued, the more I thought, why did you even come to the Soviet Union if you’re expecting that level of service?
We met up with Jim and Jocelyn in the lobby shortly after that. They asked if we wanted to go with them that afternoon on a bus tour to the Winter Palace. A bus tour, already? I thought. After the short night on the train, I was more in the mood to sleep the afternoon away. If I went, it would be a pretty groggy Winter Palace experience. Still, I figured, a groggy perspective is better than no perspective at all. So I said yes.
But first, Tobey and I had to see our room. We took the elevator to the seventh floor, stepped out, and got our room key from an elderly woman sitting at a desk in the hall. Since this hotel was a cut above the Mozhayski in size and class, there was an attendant on every floor, twenty-four hours a day, handling room cards and keys. Better security, I figured, and more employment opportunities as well.
We found our door, and I was pleased to find it was on the right side of the hall – the side facing the river. Tobey opened the door. Before us was a view, through a picture window that took up the entire wall, of the city for miles around, the converging rivers, and several of the graceful old arched bridges that spanned them. The highest points on the low skyline were not office skyscrapers but church spires. Turning our attentions to the room itself, we saw it was better kept than either of the ones in Irkutsk or Moscow, though it still had short, boxy beds. We agreed: this is definitely worth the extra money.
The group of us met downstairs and boarded the tour bus. Our short bus ride to the Winter Palace took us through the central areas of Leningrad. Almost all the buildings were pastel-colored eighteenth century structures. This seemed to be a city whose citizens cared more about preservation than development; where one noticed more Russian spirit than Soviet discipline. I did notice, however, a certain similarity of all the buildings – they seemed to be in the same architectural style. As the tour guide explained how Peter the Great built the city from the ground up during the early 1700’s, this became less surprising.
The bus dropped us off in the huge courtyard between the Winter Palace’s two buildings. I wasn’t aware at the time, but the palace was mostly destroyed in World War II, and rebuilt according to the original plans. The Palace contained the Hermitage, the first world-class art museum I’d ever visited. I’d never seen a Rembrandt or a Picasso “live,” only in prints. Here I developed a bit more of an appreciation for certain artists’ work, apart from their famousness.
Countless painters from the seventeenth century were represented here; I got a feeling for the prevalent styles and techniques of that period. And in that context I saw that there was something special in Rembrandt’s portraits, compared to those of his contemporaries. While their renderings seemed realistic, but antique and subtly mannered, Rembrandt’s portrait subjects had a humanity to them; they seemed as alive as the people viewing them. Especially if Rembrandt’s subject was himself.
Three hours or so had given us a good initial sampling of the Hermitage, so we left to catch a bus back. As we stepped back out into the courtyard, a swarm of black-marketeers descended on us. Most were selling the usual Soviet military watches, rabbit hats, vodka, and rubles. But among them also were children, begging and bargaining for their favorite shortage item, chewing gum. The whole group followed us, hovering around us all the way to the bus, in front of a two tolerant policemen. Finally, one of the policemen ran at the group, waving his nightstick above his head. The black-marketeers scattered. The cop didn’t make any arrests, but his action seemed to satisfy him nonetheless.
The bus took us past a few more sights before returning to the hotel. We passed a particularly elegant building near the waterfront, an eighteenth century hall which, from its proximity and stylistic similarity, almost seemed part of the Winter Palace. The driver explained that it’s merely an apartment building nowadays. And the rent there, by Soviet law and Communist doctrine, is the same per square meter as any other apartment in Leningrad. However, when a vacancy comes up in a place like this, listed at the same rent as a flat in a suburban apartment block, demand is overwhelming. As a result, a Soviet citizen has to pay an enormous “finder’s fee” to the black market to be informed of it before everyone else, and to be considered above all the other applicants. This made the real cost of living here proportionate to its value.
It began to make sense to me: for every price the Soviet government artificially fixes, there’s a mechanism by which the black market compensates and profits. The tour guide told us another example of this: If you were a Russian, you could buy a Lada sedan, legally, for 7000 rubles. (Saving up this amount, at Russian wages, would be like an average American saving up $7000 – in other words, this was a very affordable new car.) Then, you would wait several years to actually receive the vehicle. (When the cars are going that cheap, the demand is high, so there’s a bit of a backlog at the manufacturing end.) Or, you can go to your local black market agent, give him 45,000 rubles, and get one tomorrow. If you want quick service, you have to pay for it.
The last night I spent in Leningrad was our group’s last night together – the next day, we would be going our separate ways. It seemed appropriate that we mark this occasion with our customary drink and songs. So we decided to splurge and go for a round of beers, not at a ruble restaurant, but at the foreign currency bar in the Leningrad Hotel itself.
The bar was on the mezzanine. Since it was a tourists-only place, it was slicker looking than most of the dining or drinking establishments we’d been to in Russia. Piped-in Eurodisco music played in the background. Tobey and I, Colin and Sharon, Jim and Jocelyn, and David met there.
With the jarring increase in price caused by suddenly paying dollars, I planned to limit myself to one, maybe two beers – you could go broke paying a buck a glass for beer. But as we drank, reminisced, and celebrated, we soon decided that we wanted the party to go on longer. Jim, I think, paid for the third of several rounds.
Someone suggested I get my guitar and have one last session of songs. Great idea, I thought, except for the setting being completely wrong. We’re in an indoor public place, and how was I supposed to compete with the Eurodisco? But my companions insisted, so I brought the instrument down from our room and we started singing songs.
Some time later, an English woman walked over to our table and made a complaint so tactfully as to register a confused double-take from most of us. She started by saying that I’m a good guitar player and our songs are very nice. However, she said, considering this is a public establishment with many other patrons besides us who were trying to talk and enjoy themselves, it’s quite rude that we would inflict our loud music upon everyone else.
This was a shock and a surprise. The guitar and voices were no match in volume for the bar’s background music, and besides, it seemed to me that people were starting to notice and enjoy our music. David, as appropriate a spokesman as any in this situation, made these points to her just as tactfully and politely as she had made her point. She had nothing to say after that, and walked off. I started another song.
I started hearing female voices behind me, with Scandinavian accents, singing the words to the Beatles songs I was playing. When I looked back, I saw several beautiful women in their 20’s who were watching and listening to me. I played one of their requests, “All My Loving.” They sang along, and a couple of the boyishly handsome men in their group joined in. Their requests – almost all Beatles songs – were coming quicker than I could finish one abbreviated version of a song and start another. But almost every song I played was one which most of these Scandinavians knew the words to.
I particularly noticed one woman in this group of extraordinarily good-looking people. She had broad cheekbones, honey-blonde hair, radiant skin, and sleepy light-blue eyes – looking sophisticated and flawlessly young at the same time. And when I looked at her while we were singing, she would catch and hold my gaze as if we were singing the song’s sentiments to each other. Her English wasn’t very good though, so we had a hard time communicating except through Beatles lyrics.
One woman in the group who spoke fluent enough English to tell me more about this group was Tinja. She was one of the blondest people I’d ever met – her hair almost white, much lighter than her skin, which was luminously pale itself. She and her friends were medical students from the university of Turku in Finland; they were on a weekend bus trip to Leningrad. Although only at an undergraduate level, the pre-med program they were in was extremely demanding and stressful. This weekend was a rare and welcome chance to leave town, cut loose, and drink an extraordinary amount.
Several Beatles songs later I noticed a Soviet policeman looking over the divider that enclosed the bar area, at me. In his thirties, with a walrus mustache and goggle-eyes, he looked like a thinner, weirder-looking Lech Walesa. I became once again nervous about the fact that I was playing guitar and leading a sing-along in a public establishment. But the policeman did nothing other than stand and watch me. This must be okay, I decided. A little while later he came over to our table, and asked in broken English if he could play my guitar. I gave it to him, and he played a few Beatles songs that he knew. He wasn’t there to harass us, he was there to join us!
After another hour or so, at one A.M., the bar closed. We tried to squeeze in a few last songs before they kicked us out, but they eventually did. At that point the Soviet cop did something which we all appreciated: he got up, motioned us to follow him, and led us to a quiet end of the second floor lobby where we could continue our party.
We now had a spread-out area all our own, much more spacious than the bar. Several other people had joined our party who were in as festive a mood as we were. Colin and Sharon, within the bounds of mutual consideration, were each being flirty with other people. I alternated between singing songs and strumming chords while talking with people. Tinja smiled at me quite a bit as she told me more about life in Turku, occasionally brushing her fingers over my arm to emphasize her point. I was still absorbed, though, in the honey-blonde with the sleepy eyes. She was rapt in my music – closing her eyes and swaying gently while quietly singing along. Her exquisite beauty and expression of surrender both captivated me and made it impossible, in my increased shyness, for me to make any overtures toward her. Tinja must have been irritated. I felt in a predicament: although Tobey and I were just good friends then, I felt awkward about “putting the moves” on a woman in front of her.
Tobey, meanwhile, had the attentions of two men. One was a young Russian man; he was embracing her from behind at one point. The other was the Soviet cop – in his case, the attention wasn’t nearly as reciprocated.
As it got later and I got sleepier, I played mellower music. I chose more ballads and moody love songs to play – music that seemed to fit the overall mood as people got mellower, sleepier, and cozier with each other. I was providing the atmosphere in which everybody but me, the man in charge of the guitar, could pair off and get dreamy and amorous. This was not my last experience with this frustration; I became quite familiar with “stuck-behind-the-guitar syndrome” as the trip went on.
Consequently, when the policeman asked to play my guitar again, I was glad to let him take over the music detail. I was also quite interested in what he had to play. No Slavic folk songs were in his repertoire, unlike the Ukrainian. It was mainly American and British pop songs he played, and rather stiffly. At first he continued in the Beatles vein that I had established. And then – “Hotel California.” In A minor instead of the song’s original B minor key, just like the Ukrainian had played it. The cop knew some of the song’s lyrics, though. Judging from the bizarre inflections he gave to the words, and the fact that he had spoken almost no English before starting this song, I presumed that his memorization of the lyrics was entirely phonetic. But he was warmed up enough by this point, and well-oiled enough, to deliver the song with gusto in his rare role as rock star. During particularly dramatic parts of the song, his eyes would bug out unnervingly. When he got to parts where he didn’t know the words, he would warble English-sounding nonsense syllables. It was very strange hearing my own language caricatured like that by a speaker of another tongue. Especially when he’s a policeman.
Tobey and the Soviet policeman disappeared for five or ten minutes at one point. I got worried. It’s none of my business, but what was she doing with that slimy Russian cop? They couldn’t be . . . Later that morning when I told her of my concern, she explained that she asked him to show her the way to the rest room. He did try to make advances on her, but in regards to them actually doing anything, she was kind of shocked at my presumption that her taste in men was that awful.
After finishing his performance, and bowing to applauding Finns, he focused his attention back on Tobey. A little later they both disappeared for a couple minutes and then returned, Tobey wearing his policeman’s cap. Later she told me she was going back up to our room, and she’s keeping the cap. I didn’t think hiding a Soviet cop’s hat was very wise, but I figured she’d return it before too long.
A while later I watched him ambling around, nodding farewells to his new friends and keeping a cheerful expression, but every now and then glancing behind a couch or potted plant.
I got nervous. Far be it from me to tell my traveling partner what to do, but I didn’t want to be crossing the border the next night with a pilfered piece of Soviet militsiya gear. When I went up to the hotel room, Tobey was getting ready for bed.
“When are you going to give back the cop’s cap?” I demanded.
“I’m not planning to give it back.”
“You can’t keep it!?!”
“Why not?” She asked, not bowing to my uncharacteristic forcefulness.
“Because we could get in deeper shit than we’ve ever been in our life!” I said, parroting the travel books’ now hollow warnings about changing money on the black market.
“He gave it to me though! He said I could have it!”
That placated me, a little bit. But I was so angry and adamant that I didn’t fully believe her. I explained, once again, my worry about traveling across the border with this contraband cap. Tobey, although still believing I was wildly exaggerating the potential danger, acceded to my wish not to be a fellow traveler of a police uniform thief, and gave the cap to me to return. I took it downstairs and placed it, timidly and inconspicuously, somewhere on the periphery of the party area where the cop would be sure to find it.
(In retrospect, Tobey was absolutely right: it would have been far from the most dangerous thing we’d done on the trip. Getting it across the border would have been no problem, as the border check was the same as it had been going into Russia: a uniformed official came into the cabin, looked around, glanced at the overhead luggage compartment, lifted the seats to glance into the lower compartments, and left. Besides, given the chaotic, open state of the society then, I don’t think any Soviet official would have blinked an eye at a policeman’s cap. We would see these same caps sold on the streets of Leningrad and at the Berlin Wall. I don’t regret that I made that decision at that time, given the information I had to go on. But it would have made a damned nice souvenir.)
I went back downstairs to hang out a little while longer, and to cool off. It was 4:30 a.m. by now. The medical students were less active but showed no signs of fatigue. Two Finnish women had a man on the floor and his shirt pulled up, and were drawing pictures on his belly. I asked Tinja what time the next day they were getting on the bus back to Turku. Nine o’clock, she said. Most who were still up at this point, she explained, were planning to continue partying right up to nine. I guess they didn’t really need to reserve a hotel room then, I thought to myself – except to get the Soviet visa. Talking to Tinja, I got the impression that this is the usual routine for weekend getaways from school.
The sky was bright grey by the time I went to bed. I realized I had condemned myself to feeling like dirt the next day. And out of all the beautiful women I’d met at that party, I had utterly failed to win the affections of even one of them. (In my state of fatigue, drunkenness, and complete disruption of my body clock, I was in a volatile emotional state which the term “moody” didn’t even begin to describe.) My final point of morose bitterness was the embarrassment, and the residual anger, about the stupid argument over the stupid cap. I was too exhausted to deal with any of this. The only thing left to do was, of course, to go to sleep – though the brightening sky wasn’t making that any easier. I slept about three hours.
I found out the next morning that I’d left my sweatshirt at the bar. (I’d also left my one pair of Levis somewhere in Russia, I found out some time later. But I wasn’t upset at this; I figured that whoever found them has put them to good commercial use.) Tobey, however, had left at the bar a down coat with a fox collar that she’d bought in Beijing, as well as her address book and Eurailpass. She had a good traveler’s attitude about it. Losing the coat was the biggest disappointment; although losing the Eurailpass meant she wouldn’t be able to do any traveling in Europe with me.
David invited me that morning to take a walk with him around the city. I felt only slightly better than I had at five A.M., but figured I might as well do it while I’m here – another groggy Leningrad experience. It was overcast and drizzly, but that seemed to accentuate the wintry, maritime feeling of the city. Soon the wet coldness made me feel a bit more awake. As we walked, I felt absorbed in this city, much more so than if we’d been riding in a tour bus. Though I still felt lousy, it was a contented lousiness. We walked across a bridge and headed toward the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Near the entrance to the Fortress, there was a cluster of vendors, one of whom sold Gorbachev T-shirts. Gorbachev was shown in a heroic, upward gazing, three-quarter view; his birthmark mysteriously missing. The slogan PERESTROIKA, DEMOKRATAYA, GLASNOST was written beside Gorbi in slanted block Cyrillic letters. Here was more of my cherished Soviet iconography, this time with a modern leader, and on a T-shirt. The graphic was wonderful, but the shirt was made for someone much shorter and fatter than me.
There was also – joy! – a stand. We quickly queued up. Like the one in Irkutsk, they had a scale and charged by weight. Most customers were paying a little over a ruble per cone.
We ordered two cones. “You pay dollars?” the vendor asked in English.
Of course not. Duh. “No dollars, rubles,” David said.
The man then adjusted the dial on his scale, weighed the first ice cream cone, and the display read six rubles and change. I was furious. Only because we’re Westerners! I was ready to walk off, or toss their stupid ice cream on the ground.
“Don’t worry, I’ll cover it,” said David, reading my thoughts just before I started yelling. Of course, I realized – this isn’t worth getting upset about. Price adjustments like this had happened countless times before, although usually not as blatant as this one. I couldn’t really blame the vendor, considering the drastic difference between the worth of a ruble to me and to him. To me, we were talking about the difference between ten cents and fifty cents.
We entered the walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress. An eighteenth-century maximum security prison which was now a museum, the fortress contained a cathedral which was now a mausoleum for Peter the Great and his successors. Like many other Leningrad landmarks, this versatile compound was under restoration. Inside, we saw the labor of preserving the past, in progress: the scaffolding straddled the crypts of Russian czars.
We took a city bus from there to St. Isaac’s cathedral. I’d seen it before from a distance; it was the most prominent landmark on Leningrad’s skyline. Its dome was the fourth largest in the world. It got immenser the closer we got.
The bus arrived at the front of the cathedral. David and I went inside, and I was overwhelmed. Before me were spectacular stained glass windows, and intricate gilded beams and trim, among which was beautiful painting after beautiful painting. Hundreds of paintings at every level, seeming to occupy every square foot of wall space; a dizzying assortment of great artwork. It was awe-inspiring, but almost too much.
On the bus ride back to the hotel I thought about how a grand, gorgeous cathedral could contain so much beautiful artwork that it detracted from its own beauty. When Peter the Great built this city, Russia’s first ice-free European port, he commissioned the cathedral himself. St. Isaac’s was the religious center and showpiece of Russia’s gateway to Europe. Inside St. Isaac’s, I had envisioned Peter, architect and creator of the newest great European city, trying to outdo every other cathedral on the continent. Even a great monarch building a great cathedral can succumb to conspicuous consumption.
Our train out of Leningrad, and out of Russia, boarded that evening. A little while after we got on, a new cabinmate joined us: a young black African man in neat slacks and a brightly colored rugby shirt. He was carrying three huge duffel bags which he had to stow in the luggage bins. Tobey and I had to move some of our luggage to accommodate them. He had two friends to help him – also young, handsome, similarly dressed, and darker of complexion than any African Americans I’d seen. Although appeared to be citizens of one of the African nations, their immaculate rugby shirt/slacks combination seemed to be a kind of uniform that I’d seen on young Europeans: the international style of well-off scholar/athletes.
He spoke French, so he and Tobey chatted a while. Having just finished his term at the University of Leningrad, he was on his way home – Mali, a nation in west Africa. In Mali’s northern interior is the ancient trading city of Timbuktu.
A uniformed Russian customs agent came in and asked to see our passports. Tobey and I showed him ours, and our new friend presented his, the first Malian passport I’d ever seen. At that point he and the customs agent started talking in Russian, in serious tones.
After a few minutes of conversing with the official, the Malian lifted one of his duffels out from under the seat, and carried it off down the hall. His friends appeared again and helped him carry his other bags back out of the train compartment, while the customs agent looked on. He didn’t say anything more in French to Tobey. We didn’t see him or his friends again, or find out why he was ejected. At the time I imagined it to be a regular occurrence in the Soviet Union – then again, it could have happened in any country.
I wasn’t aware of it when we awoke the next morning, but we were in the Baltic republics. During the night we had crossed the border from Russia into Latvia, and that morning into Lithuania. The train was now going through wooded, rolling hills.
Shortly after I awakened, Tobey, who had been up a couple hours already, came into the cabin. She had just been talking a couple cabins down with Igor, a young Russian named traveling with his father.
What kind of fascinating traveling experience have I just missed? I thought. Here I am sleeping through this Trans-Siberian adventure, and when I’m not sleeping I’m only associating with the old cronies I’ve known for eight days. I don’t even know my Russian next door neighbors, even though they speak English well enough for to converse with me. Now’s the time, I decided, to start broadening my horizons again, and actually talk to the people who live in the countries I’m visiting. After all, the Trans-Siberian part of this is almost over.
I’d actually gotten rather insular, I realized, hanging out with my band of Anglophone friends. All of us – Americans, New Zealanders, Australians, Irish, Hong Kong Chinese – were from cultures historically shaped by British domination. Socializing exclusively with them, I was preventing myself from meeting fellow passengers from cultures that weren’t. Still, our group was a pretty diverse one. I recalled a friend telling me that of all the places she’d visited in Europe, England was the most foreign-seeming, simply because she could understand exactly what everyone were saying – which made her fully aware, constantly, of how profoundly different a culture other than hers could be.
Since I also had the disadvantage of not being as pretty or outgoing as Tobey, I felt spurred on demonstrate that I, the intrepid traveler, could meet foreign strangers just as easily as she.
So I got dressed, walked out of the cabin, and looked for people to meet. I found a tall, stocky, boyish man about my age, looking Slavic but dressed in Western-looking jogging sweats. “My name is . . . Andy,” he told me. No it isn’t, I thought to myself; it’s Andriej or something. I assumed he’d Americanized his name as a easing gesture to me; but I wanted to hear and savor his exotic, hard-to-pronounce true Slavic name. I appreciated his courtesy, though.
Andy was from Lithuania. I was intrigued – here’s someone from one of the breakaway Baltic republics I’d heard about on the news. He enthusiastically supported the secession movement and had full confidence that Lithuania will soon gain real independence. Do you think, I asked him, that Lithuania could stand on its own economically, without the Soviet Union? Of course, he said enthusiastically.
A little later we reached the station at Vilnius, Lithuania. We spent about thirty minutes there, still in the wooded, very green hills. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, and where we were looked much too pretty and arboreal to be the railway station of one of the major Eastern European cities. I walked out on the platform, savoring once again the experience of hopping off the train at a new city.
Andy stepped off the train with his young wife. I talked with him a bit more on the platform. His enthusiastic Lithuanian patriotism impressed me, even though it seemed that the Soviet government would probably deal harshly with any real secession activity. Andy seemed too nice a guy to be a dissident.
There were, I found, quite a few people to talk to on the very train car we were on; several of them close to my age. I met a tall, thin young Polish man in the aisle – a college student majoring in my field, computer science. This was interesting – although I had heard of several noted Eastern European computer theoreticians, I had never envisioned computer science programs in Eastern Europe. I still had a stereotype in my mind of the region being a hopeless technological backwater. Quickly, I racked my brain to try to remember anything about the profession I was on a long vacation from.
“Do you use Soviet-made computers?” I asked. He laughed and shook his head. IBM PC’s and PC compatibles were the main hardware systems he was learning on. As for Soviet computers – well, he’d worked with Soviet-made floppy disks, and he would have to go through several of those to find one that holds any data at all. No Soviet computers.
I complimented him on his excellent English, and, by growing force of habit, apologized for my typical American monolingualism.
“Yes, but it’s a lot easier for me to learn English than it is for Americans to learn Polish,” he replied. “For example, in Polish, you have to learn four separate sounds – sh, sh, sh, and sh.” All four shushes were subtly different, but he was right – if someone were speaking real Polish there’s no way I’d know which “sh” they were using.
Later that afternoon when Tobey was napping, I heard what sounded like a party about three cabins down, and went to check it out. Squished into the cabin was the Polish student, Igor, Igor’s dad, a snockered young man from Moscow, and two hippyish West German girls. The Pole invited me in; Igor and his dad, whom I had finally met earlier, heartily approved the invitation. They were carving off and eating slices of bread, cheese, and sausage, and passing around a bottle of vodka. No less than four languages were being used to converse here – Russian, Polish, German, and English. Each person at this little party had figured out what common language to use with each other person.
This was great; it was just like a spur-of-the-moment party at a youth hostel back home. But here in Eastern Europe, instead of Doritos and beer, it’s sausage and vodka, and four different languages. Igor and his dad toasted Soviet-American relations with me. They would talk with me in English about American and Soviet life, until they caught something interesting in another conversation, and would then start talking with someone else in a language I didn’t understand. Meanwhile, the Muscovite was making snide comments to me about Americans, in alchohol-impaired English. His sentences trailed off into Russian mixed with half-forgotten English phrases. I think he was trying to taunt me, but since I kept saying “what?” and patiently awaiting clarification, he gave up on me.
I stepped out to use the bathroom later. On the way I noticed a pamphlet in one of the glass slots next to the windows. Previously, I had seen uninteresting-looking maps, tour brochures or propaganda in these slots, but this one caught my eye: Revolutionary Perestroika and the Socialist Ideal, by Mikhail S. Gorbachev, published in Moscow and translated into English. This is a treasure, I thought – right from the source:
History has most emphatically posed the question as to whether the very idea of socialism is a viable one. . . . We have come to the realization that a radical overhaul of the entire social edifice, from its economic foundation to the superstructure, is essential. . . . I think we would have made a theoretical mistake if we had tried once again to impose ready-made formulas on society and attempted to make reality correspond to such formulas. This is the Stalinist way of doing things and the way which we have rejected. We are using the Leninist method, and this means that we must analyze how the future is derived from reality. . . . It is obvious that the founders of Marxism and their theory cannot be held responsible for the deformations of socialism that occurred during the personality cult and the stagnation period and the mistakes of various political leaders.
Gorbachev reminded me of a liberal Christian theologian, explaining that millennia-old scriptural teachings aren’t irrelevant to today’s world; they just need to be re-interpreted. Gorbi had some impressive, pragmatic ideas on the kind of large-scale, sweeping changes that needed to be made. But these ideas seemed more elegant as theory than practical for directing public policy – perhaps like Communism itself.
I showed Igor my acquisition. “It’s by Gorbachev himself,” I said excitedly. “It should be pretty interesting.”
“Interesting to you, maybe,” Igor said dryly.
“Just words to you?” I asked. Igor nodded. Not exactly Barbara’s “Thank God for Gorbachev.” As usual, the rest of the world was more impressed with Gorbachev than the Soviet citizens who were waiting for him to make their lives better.
The train stopped later that afternoon in the middle of a field. Officials came by our cabins to check our passports, and I deduced we must be at the Soviet-Polish border. Twenty minutes passed after that, and I began to wonder what on earth we were still doing here. It was a drab, drizzly afternoon, and we were in a railroad yard in the middle of overgrown farmlands, somewhere on the Central European plain. It reminded me of the classic, depressing American images of Eastern Europe under Communism. Or of the railroads to Auschwitz.
I noticed, looking out the window, that the ground seemed surprisingly far down. Then I remembered – since we were at the Polish border, they were lifting up the train cars to change the trucks, to fit the railroad tracks of the rest of the world. This time I was able to go outside and watch the process. I walked down a staircase on wheels and looked. The train cars were suspended on giant hydraulic lifts, with passengers still in them and everything, waiting for new wheels to be rolled in under them.
After a while a set of trucks rolled in, from somewhere down the track, underneath the cars. It looked like it would be a while before they would get around to positioning them, so I walked up and took a closer look. My internalized high school physics equations told me that if I applied force over a long enough period of time to make up for the enormous mass of an object, I could get it moving. So I got on the one end of a truck and took hold of it, leaned over in a runner’s starting block position, and put my weight against it. It worked! I had to push steadily for about ten seconds, but it eventually started to move.
Then I tried the old coin-crusher trick. I took a Soviet 10 kopeck coin and laid it on one of the tracks a few feet down from the nearest truck. I then pushed on the truck for another ten seconds and got it moving. When the first wheel rolled over the coin, it put a flat spot on one side of it. When the second wheel went over, it flicked the coin into the bushes, and I never found it. By then I figured it was time to stop before any official person of either nation wondered what I was doing, so I got back on the train.
As we rolled through eastern Poland I was starting to get hungry again, so I went to look for the restaurant car. Even though I’d gone to the dozens of times, I still didn’t know where it was at any one time. This was because at any major stop, the train could gain or lose cars, or a new engine could be attached to the other end of the train from where it was before. (Sometimes I would look out a window at night and notice the outside was going by in the opposite direction that I thought it should be going by.) So the dining car could move, or I could get so disoriented in only one dimension as to forget where it was.
I walked down to the very end of the train, then the very front, and found out the awful truth: they’d left the restaurant car behind at the Polish border, and hadn’t told us! What were we going to do now? Was I finally down to nothing but Ry-Krisp and peanut paste for dinner? I braced myself.
I met Tobey and told her the news. We went to Jim and Jocelyn’s cabin; they were there with David. The group of us, huddled together in our wretched state, started talking about what provisions we had to divvy up. David wanted to find Colin and Sharon and tell them we had just had the last dinner in the restaurant car before it was left off – where were they? But somebody (I think it was me) tipped them off just as they arrived.
A little while later the train arrived in Warsaw. Now was our chance; according to the schedule we had 25 minutes here. Therefore, if we could find food in no more than 10 or 15 minutes, at someplace from which we can get back to the train within five minutes, we’re safe. Out of the train, onto the platform, and down the stairs to the main lobby we ran. Quickly, we make plans to spread out and meet back here, a spot near the entrance, in a few minutes.
One of us found a cafeteria just down a hall from the lobby. We managed to gather everyone and hurry there. There was a glass case of items, mainly pastry dishes, that looked unfamiliar but not alien – we could tell what were the savory dishes and what were the desserts, mostly. Quick calculations were made of our requirements: two apiece of this one, enough of these meat-filled roll things for everyone but Sharon, and nearly all of us want a chocolate thingy. None of us knew Polish, so we ordered by pointing and holding up a number of fingers. I took care of adding up the tab. My travel guidebook, Let’s Go: Europe, I happened to recall, said it’s about nine thousand Polish whatevers to the dollar, and there’d probably been some amount of inflation since the book was written. Based on that, I quickly converted the number on the cash register to an approximate number of dollars, and added a few so as to err on the generous side, and presented that amount to the woman at the register. She accepted my total – noting, no doubt, how rushed we were – and we ran back up to the train, with about ten minutes to spare.
We ate our dinner in Jim and Jocelyn’s cabin and stayed there a while afterwards. This latest silly near-calamity had drawn our group yet closer. Well-fed, finally, and warm in our cabin, we started talking about what was going on back home – in Oregon, New Zealand, Sidney, and Singapore. What was comforting hometown chat for one or two of us was a glimpse of a foreign culture to the rest. The discussion started with the subject of interracial marriages – and Singapore’s policy toward them. With a mixture of viewpoints from America, Australia, and Singapore – each of those a “melting-pot” culture – the discussion got pretty interesting. From there the subject switched to our respective jobs, and the various businesses we were in. I got into a side discussion with David about the workings of the small computer software company I worked for. As I listened to myself describe my work, its challenges and frustrations, I had a curiously detached fascination. Reliving my workaday experience from half a world away, it sounded like a great place to work. I enjoyed vicariously experiencing my own job.
There were more goodbyes the next morning, as we arrived at the Berlin Zoologischer Garten station in West Berlin. Colin, Sharon, and David were transferring to another train right away; Jim, Jocelyn, Tobey, and I planned to stay a day in Berlin before going our separate ways. For the first time, I consulted Let’s Go: Europe, to find a place to stay. We decided on Charlottenburger Hof, in West Berlin.
We found when we got there that Charlottenburger Hof only had one double room left. But the room had four beds, so we took it. Although the hallways and stairs of the old building were cramped – and being noisily renovated just outside our room – the room itself was clean, spacious, and tastefully decorated in modernistic black and white. A little too tasteful, perhaps; it looked almost like a beauty salon. Here we were, back in the West. But comfortable. I was glad to be back in the West.
As we got settled in, Jim and Jocelyn discussed their plans for going on to Egypt. It would probably be best, they decided, to take the next train that afternoon. “But – you’ve already paid for the room for the night!” I reminded them.
“Life’s a bitch!” Jim replied cheerily.
After taking showers, Tobey and I went to take a walk around the Charlottenburg neighborhood. Close by, we happened upon a shopping boulevard, on which several of the stores had set up an outdoor shopping area. I was overwhelmed. For three weeks I had been in the part of the world that doesn’t have consumer goods. Not a real long time, but the lack of them was quite evident in China and Russia. Now – all this stuff. All these stores, several per block, each with a storefront meticulously kept clean, up-to-date, and attractive. Each with a brightly lit sign competing with the others for my attention. A young people’s sportswear store spelled out its name in red, white, and green, in great big, jagged, lighted letters: Wit Boy. In the brightly-lit stores, I saw objects I hadn’t seen in three weeks: compact disks, running shoes, posters, and sweaters that came in different varieties.
I wallowed in this paradise of material goods. I was back in the free world, where everything’s for sale, and I could buy any or all of it right now! Never before had such a scene caused me simply to marvel at the miracle of Western economic development. I didn’t yield to my temptation to buy something (which was fortunate, given how weak the U.S. dollar was), but looked around for forty-five minutes telling myself I could.
We met Jim and Jocelyn back at the hotel; they decided to stay in Berlin that night after all. We had an early dinner at a cafe next door to Charlottenburger Hof. It served excellent Italian and French food in a casual atmosphere, but it was startlingly expensive – here was the shock of going back to paying Western currency for a meal.
I was in the mood for another walk after dinner. And while there was still daylight – or at least twilight – I wanted to search for remnants of the Berlin Wall. On the train, we’d only seen swaths of recently cleared land when crossing from East to West Berlin. Tobey felt like staying in for the evening, so I went alone.
I asked a man at the desk downstairs where I can go to find remaining sections of the Wall. He said he didn’t know – they were tearing it down too fast for him to keep track of where it’s still up. By the tone of his voice it was obvious he had no sentimental attachments to the wall, no reason to have one last look. I imagined this must be typical of most Berliners, and for that reason, they were wasting no time tearing it down. Another reason, I later heard, was that a sixteen year old had recently been killed when the section of the wall he was chipping away at collapsed on him.
I decided to take the S-bahn train to Brandenburg Gate. If they’re preserving any part of the wall as a monument, I figured Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charley, not far away, would be the most likely places. I got off the train at the underground station at Unter den Linden.
When I got up to street level, I saw no signs of the wall – just a wide, empty swath of ground between the dense concentrations of buildings – just what I’d seen from the train entering West Berlin, but from closer up. The huge scar in the midst of the city made the area seem more deserted than it was. There were very few pedestrians here, but there were quite a few vendors, selling souvenirs of the Soviet empire from makeshift stands – East German and Russian army uniforms (especially caps) and sections of the Wall.
I thought, why would I come all the way to Berlin to buy a pre-chiseled wall fragment? At the time, I could buy one of those in Oregon. The Russian army caps didn’t appeal to me either, perhaps because of the way they were being pawned like so much Salvation Army clothing. I think I’d already sour-graped Russian military caps anyway, after the Leningrad hotel incident.
Brandenburg Gate stood a few yards behind the vendors, an incongruous Romanesque relic – the gateway to a path that had, until recently, led straight into the Berlin Wall. I could see the last glow of the sunset behind it. It looked like an apt subject for a photo, so I took a time exposure. I’m glad I thought to take it, as a contrast piece – a week and a half later, at Reunification, Brandenburg Gate would be more packed with people than any public space I’d ever been at.
I was at the site of the bunker where Hitler committed suicide. I walked down the empty swath – partly to see if there was wall around the next curve; partly just to walk and reflect. Grass was starting to grow. There were little cement chunks in the grass that I figured could have been a part of the great wall of tyranny – the very symbol of the central focus of my country’s foreign policy for decades – or could just be pieces of cement from construction nearby. It didn’t matter; it was all just concrete.
I walked back to the S-bahn station. On a side street off Unter den Linden, on the east side, there was an old concrete building. Otherwise indistinguishable from other faceless East Berlin buildings, it had a single storefront: a new Wit Boy in the corner.
We checked out the next morning, and boarded our train at the Zoologischer Garten station. The train was much newer and cleaner than the ones we’d been taking and, somewhat disappointingly, there was almost nothing to distinguish this from any American form of mass transit. Though it went through East Germany, this was the express train from West Berlin to Hannover, West Germany, and definitely a Western European train.
East Germany seemed to consist of not much more than flat fields. I remembered that there’s a lot written about the culture of northern Germany, but not about its scenery. After an uneventful border crossing into West Germany, we changed trains in Hannover.
I had an overpriced midmorning snack at the train’s snack bar. A husky German man engaged me in conversation, and told me I that for Reunification I should go to Munich, his hometown, not Berlin. I won’t enjoy it in Berlin, he said; Munich’s where the real party will be.
It was at that cafe I first encountered the problem of quenching one’s thirst in western Europe. They don’t give you a glass of water with your meal, I noted. Water is a menu item, and it refers to Vitesse, or a similar brand-named spring water, priced the same as a soft drink.
Soon the train crossed from Germany into Belgium. The Central European plain was starting give way to rolling hills. The train wound around bluffs with rocky outcroppings, and through valleys with small, tidy old villages tucked into them. This part of Europe, finally, had the fairytale charm the travel guides had promised I’d see. I saw an old castle on a knoll, which seemed to grow out of the very ground it was built upon. I thought of Frank Lloyd Wright’s dictum that a house should be “of the hill, not on the hill” – this castle obeyed that rule better than Wright’s buildings themselves. All the manmade structure here seemed more a part of the surrounding countryside than those in North America. It seemed as though the houses had had time to absorb the surrounding earth, and vice versa, in the centuries since the villages were built.
Occasionally I would see a small, curvy road winding out of a village; a road that looked like it was build precisely to accommodate the pace of a bicycle. I began making plans in my head for my next European trip: a bike tour through Belgium; through this exact country. I could make a major journey of it – bicycling all the way across Europe through areas like this. I could start, say, in Ireland, ferry across and pedal down through Britain, sail to the Continent, and then make my way southeastward to Yugoslavia. The only problem would be that I wouldn’t have my guitar; it wouldn’t fit on a bike. Well – maybe I could get one of those three-quarter-size guitars and strap it on the back. Something like that.
Hunger pangs, as usual, interrupted my musings. I went to the dining car which, now that we were in Belgium, had changed from a German overpriced snack bar to a French very overpriced restaurant car. Dinner wasn’t for another hour, and they served nothing but coffee until then.
After an hour had passed, Tobey wasn’t hungry enough to pay the hefty price they would undoubtedly charge, so I came back by myself. There were two waiters in suits: a robust balding man with a mustache, and a wiry guy who looked like the quintessential French waiter. I caught the attention of the robust one, who looked more likely to speak English than the quintessential one did, and asked him “Parlez-vous Anglais?” He said “non.” “Sprechen Sie deutsch?” I asked, figuring he’d have to be able to talk in German, this being the train from Germany and all. He shook his head. I looked at the him questioningly while pointing to the other waiter. He shook his head again. They’re French waiters, they’re on an international train, and they both speak only French. It figures.
I looked at the menu and converted some prices in my head. No full meals were under eighteen dollars. Some individual items were under five, though. But the menu was as monolingual as the waiters. I was hungry and indecisive, but I finally decided to commit two or three item names to memory, then go back to the passenger car and ask Tobey to translate. The something-”trois”-”poisson” – apparently, something prepared with three different kinds of fish – sounded good.
People were seated and already ordering by the time I got back to the restaurant car. Since all the tables were taken, I asked an American couple if I could sit next to them. They didn’t mind. I caught the quintessential waiter’s attention as he was serving them rolls, and ordered the “trois poisson” dish. He seemed a little confused, and confirmed with me, with gestures, that all I wanted was the “trois poisson.” I nodded.
My tablemates ate their biscuits and I waited. I was tempted to asked if I could have one, but I didn’t want to mooch. The appetizers for the meals they had ordered came next, and one of them caught my eye: a small block of gelled substance subdivided into three differently strips. Pureed, gelled fish, I figured out; it was the “trois poisson.” Sort of a Neapolitan ice cream made of fish. This is what I’d ordered for dinner: an appetizer. As the others at the table started feasting on their main courses, I finally got my own “trois poisson” order. It was tasty, but took a very short time to finish.
Service, as I had expected from these waiters, was ponderous. And, since dinner hour on the train was more formally scheduled than at a restaurant, the waiters apparently could not give me my check until everyone else in the dining car was ready for theirs. I had to sit through everyone else’s meal, while I waited to pay and leave, with nothing more to eat. This would have been painful for someone of normal appetite. I considered it a test of perseverance, something I would undoubtedly need for the rest of the trip.
I finally paid and went back to Tobey and told her my torturous story. After filling up on Ry Krisp to tide me over, I slumped in my seat and watched dusk fall.
About three hours later, we started to approach Paris, and Tobey grew excited. She pointed out to me Sacre Couer, her favorite cathedral. I, by contrast, was half asleep and only marginally impressed. I was barely able to invoke a sense of appreciation that I was now entering the famed City of Light. But I did have a tired feeling of well-being for finally arriving at our destination. The sight of the lights of the city, after having ridden through darkness for some time, perked me up too.
The train finally stopped at the station, Gare du Nord. While Tobey called Marguerite, our hostess, I wandered outside. The street was full of cafes and newsstands that were still open at ten at night, as well as vibrant but unobtrusive restaurant signs. I felt welcomed. This was a great little street to walk on. I would later find out that a lot of the legendary charm and romance of Paris is due to its being made up of great little streets to walk on.
At Gare du Nord we got on an RER train, Paris’s suburban commuter train system. A smiling teenager on a skateboard, with funky clothes and long, uncombed hair, helped us onto the train with our stuff. In fluent English, he jovially welcomed us to Paris. After the train started moving, he took a marijuana joint out of his pocket and lit it. “Is that legal?” Tobey asked.
“No. But it’s okay,” he said. He offered some to us; we declined. At the same stop that we were transferring at, he stepped out of the train, jumped the turnstile (to re-use his fare ticket), said goodbye, and was off.
After another twenty-minute ride into central Paris, and a half-hour ride to the western suburbs, we finally arrived at our destination: Champigny sur Marne. This was an ancient (by American standards) village which had grown into a sizable Parisian commuter’s bedroom community. It was silent this time of night, but looked it would be a friendly little town during the day. Tobey called Marguerite one more time to announce our arrival.
In a few minutes we saw a car arriving – the only moving car we’d seen since arriving in Champigny so late at night, thus obviously Marguerite. She got out of the car, embraced Tobey warmly, kissed her cheeks, and asked how she’d been. Marguerite gave me a hug too; she was delighted to finally meet me. Gracious, well-spoken in English, and able to give anyone a sense of welcome and belonging, Marguerite was someone I was glad to see at a time like this even though I’d never met her.
We loaded our packs in the trunk of the car and got in. It was a fairly new compact car, and the first car Tobey and I had been in since we’d ridden the Moscow taxis under very much less secure-feeling circumstances. I felt cozy – even though this all seemed exotic and new, I felt very much like we were driving home. And we were. It was a five-minute drive through the center of the town and up a hill, at the top of which was the house. Marguerite parked the car and went to open a wrought-iron gate, and then I was able to see which house was Marguerite’s – the biggest and grandest one on the block. On the other side of a stone wall we could see the top two stories – an ornate spire of a house built in 1905. I was glad to be here.
We went in – the house was a wonderful place, filled with the family’s accumulated treasures and knickknacks. Marguerite and Tobey stayed up a little while later to talk, while I listened, then Marguerite showed us to our rooms up on the second floor. I went to bed. I was home, in Paris. I slept like a baby.
All text and images ©2002-2004 by Dietrich Neuman.