“It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia.”

Today is another get out of the house and enjoy the weather day. It is a bit chilly but the sun is too wonderful to waste. Luckily, I have a few errands so I’ll venture out a bit later. For once Gracie is still outside enjoying the day. Usually she’s napping about now.

I mentioned that I had been to Russia in the 1970’s, and Birgit was curious about my trip given how long ago it was and how closed the country was especially to foreigners. She asked if I had ever told the story and I hadn’t. Today I will.

It was the summer of 1972. I flew from Boston to New York and boarded a flight which stopped in Denmark, Sweden and Finland, my stop. I was a bit unnerved when what had been a full plane came down to about 10 people for Finland. My friend and I had chosen Finland because we planned to book our Russian trip from there as it seemed easier and quicker than doing it from here. We stayed at a hostel in Helsinki which had been residences for the Olympic athletes in the 1952 summer Olympics. It was kind of neat to stay there. As soon as we could, we went to a travel agent and booked a trip by train to Leningrad where we would meet the tour then we’d go to Moscow and Tbilisi. It would take nearly a week for the visas so we left our passports and decided to travel north by train. As it was an overnight train we booked couchettes which really just meant 3 bunks on each wall of the compartment. Our train-mate was Finnish and spoke no English. Swedish is the second language in Finland. I never what I was eating: I just pointed. On the train she and I carried on a conversation by passing my Finnish-English dictionary back and forth. It was kind of fun and she laughed a lot. In the morning we arrived at Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. From there we took a bus to Lake Inari, north of the Arctic Circle, and we stayed at a hotel on the banks of the lake. I had reindeer for dinner. People always ask me how it tasted, and I answer delicious, but I tell them I found the blinking red nose a distraction. On the TV in the hotel was Eagleton stepping down from running with McGovern. I had a blue pin with white letters on my backpack: it said McGovern and Eagleton. I left it there the whole trip. I still have it. Reindeer were herded down the street, fir trees were all along the lakeside and it was midnight sun time. We stood outside where the sun hung down near the horizon and took pictures of ourselves late at night. It was absolutely beautiful.

When we returned to Helsinki, we toured the city. That just meant taking a certain streetcar with a loud-speaker system which pointed out the historic places and other places of interest for tourists. One of my favorite stops was the outdoor market. There were tables filled with vegetables and one had the largest strawberries I’d ever seen. I bought some and munched as I walked. Boats were moored and from them people sold fish. I remember the colors of the market. The umbrellas were mostly red, clothes were a variety of bright colors and the fruits and vegetables popped with color. In the late afternoon I walked where the market had been, and there wasn’t a single piece of paper or a slice of errant fruit. It was immaculate. We shopped at the Marimekko store, and I bought a red bag. It’s the same bag I still use when I travel; it’s a bit worse for wear, but I wouldn’t travel without it.

We picked up our passports and the next day we boarded our car to Leningrad. It was a single car connected to the Finnish train. When we got to the border, the car was disconnected then reconnected to a Russian train. There were three passengers: my friend with whom I was traveling and an African studying in Russia. The border guards came on the train, checked our passports and went through our bags. They seized a tomato from me and rifled through all my books. They obviously didn’t speak English as I was reading East of Eden at the time. The only crew member on that train was a woman, a train stewardess, who would come to us periodically and say,”Tea?” I drank glasses and glasses of strong Russian tea. I don’t remember how long the train ride was. I remember we arrived at the station in Leningrad, said good-bye to our car mate and went looking for a taxi to take us to our hotel. There were two lines, one short and one hugely long. We got in the short line and got screamed at in Russian by just about everyone. Someone was nice enough to tell us in English that we were in the line for women with children. We grabbed our backpacks and sheepishly walked to the end of the hugely long line, now longer by two people.

That’s it for today. I don’t ever remember writing as much, and the story has barely begun. I’ll continue the saga tomorrow.

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18 Comments on ““It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia.””

  1. Caryn Says:

    Hi Kat,
    So far your trip sounds very exciting and exotic. Why take the tomato? I suspect it was just because they could. 🙂 I’m looking forward to the rest of the story.
    A couple of friends of mine went to Russia several years ago. They saw all the tourist things. The Kremlin. St Petersburg. The Winter Palace. The museums. They did a river tour up the Volga and the ship was their floating hotel. While they had quite a bit to say about all that they had seen and done, they also commented that they could tell there wasn’t an overabundance of lawyers in Russia. It had something to do with the absence of railings on the very uneven and slippery marble stairs in every building they went into. 🙂
    I had plans to do stuff today but have not, so far, managed to budge off the couch. I am dressed so that’s a plus, I guess. I started knitting something just to see how it went and it turned out to be one of those addictive patterns that refuses to be put down. 🙂
    Enjoy the day!

    • Kat Says:

      Hi Caryn,
      The tomato, some cheese, meat and bread had been my lunch, bought and brought from Helsinki. I knew they’d be no food on the train. All that was left was the tomato. I suspect they didn’t want any foreign produce.

      I did all the tourist stuff and more. It was in the days you couldn’t travel without a guide. I don’t want to keep going here as I want to sve the best parts for the next few days.

      I didn’t notice the lack of railings and stuff while I was there.

      I am still on the couch as well and haven’t even gotten dressed yet. I do have to go out as I need a prescription I had filled. I need incentive!

      Have a great afternoon.

  2. Birgit Says:

    Thank you!!! As always it’s fun to follow your story with internet facts and photos and I’m looking forward to hear more of your exciting trip.
    Btw, do you know Sami singer Mari Boine? In the early 90’s I heard this song on the radio and had to buy the CD immediately though I did not have a CD player at that time. Later I saw her live twice. Great voice.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9r2dkdfblII

    • Kat Says:

      Birgit,
      It was fun to remember this trip as it happened so long ago, and I don’t often get to talk about it.

      I have never heard of this singer. The pictures are spectacular.
      Thank you!!

  3. Bob Says:

    You are very lucky to have traveled to the USSR. In those days capitalism was the underground black market. Today capitalism in Russia is like the wild west with few laws, lots of lawyers and a shoot from the business and legal culture. I think Al Capone would have fit right into their society.

    There are Youtube videos of staged car accidents in Russia. People cause these accidents to collect cash from the wealthy oligarchs who have nice cars. Ordinary people mount dash cameras on their cars to record these accidents as proof of their illegitimacy. I don’t know who they would report them to since the commissars and the police have all become capitalists.

    In 1995 or so I had a client who flew a Cessna Citation V in Alaska for a cell phone company. When the USSR fell apart they flew across the Bering Straits into Siberia to sell cell phone equipment. On their first visit to the airport in Russia everyone was very helpful, friendly and jet fuel was about 25 cents a gallon. When they returned a couple of weeks later everyone had their hand out for money and jet fuel was three dollars a gallon. Capitalism works quickly.

    I would love to see Russia and can’t wait to hear about your Soviet adventure.

    • Kat Says:

      Bob,
      We weren’t suppose to wander though we did all the time. The black market has a piece of my story I’ll tell you about at the end as it all unfolded at the airport.

      I have seen youtubes of those accidents though many seem to involve a single car which makes no sense.

      In a country where you have very little, the chance for more is quickly adopted. The stores in Russia when I was there had very little to buy and there were huge lines for toilet paper and other products. The joke was if you see a line, jump into it. You never know what you’ll get. I can understand why they were eager for capitalism and competition for goods.

      I’ll be taking you with me for the next few days.

  4. Bill Says:

    My wife and I were driving through France when we heard about Eagleton. It was a sad event, given the inevitable fact that it would seriously harm McGovern’s chances. The statement from McGovern that has stuck with me to this day was “I’m behind him one-thousand percent.” It always comes to mind whenever I think about an expression of support for someone that, likely, will soon be reversed.

    • Kat Says:

      Bill,
      I’m thinking McGovern was really short on chances anyway.

      I was really disappointed when McGovern folded. That’s probably why I treasure that pin.

  5. olof1 Says:

    Very interesting!
    Finns really can’t speak English even if they are better now days. They aren’t especially good in Swedish either, many of them consider Swedish as the language from hell only spoken by devils 🙂
    There’s an anti Sweden movement going on there now and they even have a party called True Finns that detest anything not Finnish and especially anything Swedish. They see themselves as better than the rest of the world and would isolate Finland if they got the chance.

    The laws on bringing food from one country to another is really tough here in Europe, especially tomatoes and potatoes are something few countries allows any traveler to bring across borders. Even within the EU the rules are strict. For instance if I would move to France I wouldn’t be allowed to bring any kind of citrus trees with me, the risk of bringing any kind of disease is too big.

    I’m looking forward to reading more 🙂
    Have a great day!
    Christer.

    • olof1 Says:

      By the way, I love eating reindeer 🙂 Can be bought in any supermarket but only frozen.

      • Kat Says:

        Christer,
        I also had reindeer in Iceland, and that wasn’t ll that long ago. My diner was Icelandic game and quite tasty.

    • Kat Says:

      Christer,
      I laughed at your vision of Finns and Swedish. I thought Finnish was so difficulty even to attempt as you pronounce all those vowels.

      That is so different than i found Finland, but that was a long time ago. There were not many tourists when i was there. I think it was just so far away and far less popular than Sweden or Denmark.

      I was glad to be rid of the tomato as i was afraid it would squash and get all over everything. The US is just as strict with food carried into the country.

      Have a wonderful evening!!

      • olof1 Says:

        Finnish is an awfully difficult language to learn and I think that’s why the Finns are so bad in almost all other languages, even when they say something kind to You it still sounds as if they want to kill You 🙂 🙂 🙂

        The True Finns are an extreme right wing party and they have been around for a long time but it’s just lately they have grown big. When times are bad people like that always become more powerful, they promise that if only all immigrants were gone (all three of them 🙂 🙂 :-), They rarely accept refugees from any other country in Finland so there are very few non Finns in Finland). and if they would be allowed to erase anything Swedish, (like forbid the Swedish language from Finland) the world would be a wonderful place and Finland would be a great country admired all over the world 🙂 🙂 🙂
        Christer.

      • Kat Says:

        Christer,
        Luckily the Finns were quite nice to us, but maybe they weren’t as I had no idea what they were saying. I found the country really beautiful. In those days the street signs were i Finnish and Swedish. I imagine that’s gone now.

  6. Coleen Burnett Says:

    You ate reindeer? I’m impressed….

    I am smiling at Caryn’s post…guess I won’t be going there anytime soon.as there are apparently no railings and the steps are slippery….

    Haven’t they ever heard of the Americans With Disabil…oh wait. Wrong country. Ooops.

    Waving from a lovely day in Jersey… 🙂

    • Kat Says:

      Coleen,
      Well, thank you! If missed it above, I also had it in Iceland. I am always willing to try new stuff when I travel.

      I guess you’d just give up the bottom couchette!

      Even now travel in Europe would be difficult if you are disabled. I can’t imagine getting around the ruins in many countries.

      Waving back from a lovely day here as well!

  7. splendid Says:

    I love your stories Kat! Thank you so much for sharing them. The reindeer one really made me laugh. I am l@@king forward to the next one. I heard a silly joke last evening and I was the only one who laughed so I am searching for others with my sense of humor… ‘What has 4 legs and says ‘eww’? A cow with no lips. Ba dum dump!

    • Kat Says:

      splendid,
      I have quite a few stories and I do enjoy telling them. You were the only one who commented about the reindeer joke; hence, the cow joke!!!


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