Posted tagged ‘Russian tea’

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

April 27, 2013

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.