CHAPTER 1: Toto, We’re Not In Kansas Anymore…
November 23, 1988 — The bow of the steamer rose up, hesitated, and then crashed into the wave, splitting the water and sending the spray flying. It was the M.S. George Ots, of the Estonian Shipping Company, and a bright red hammer and sickle insignia was painted on the smokestack. This Soviet-registered ship plies the waters of the Gulf of Finland, making the trip from Helsinki to Tallinn and back again every twenty-four hours. Soon, though, the harbors would be frozen and the George Ots would be moved into service farther down the Baltic, perhaps calling on Riga or Konigsberg, or maybe Gdansk in Poland. But for now the ship was engaged in delivering cargo and passengers to Tallinn, capital of Estonia, or rather capital of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the fifteen republics of the U.S.S.R.
In an ancient tongue ‘Tallinn’ means Danish castle, and the castle is still there, a part of the town’s thirteenth century walls and towers. But the Danes and Swedes have gone, driven away by Peter the Great nearly three hundred years ago, when the area was known as Livonia.
An agreement reached after World War I gave the country and her neighboring states of Latvia and Lithuania independence from Russia, but this taste of freedom did not last long. In 1938 another agreement, this one between Stalin and Hitler, allowed Russia to swallow up the Baltic republics, and they have been firmly a part of the Soviet Union ever since.
Until now. One week ago Estonia’s parliament declared independence. The resolution was modified in that it allowed for deferment to the Soviets in matters of foreign policy and military security. But in other areas, domestic economic policy in particular, Estonia declared itself sovereign, and any law handed down from the Kremlin to be of no effect unless ratified by the local parliament.
So as the George Ots neared this historic coastline great matters were being debated on land. How would the Kremlin react? Would they send in troops, as they had in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968? According to American news stories, the Estonian people were demonstrating in the streets–carrying placards, shouting slogans, and waving Estonian flags.
What would I find when I arrived? A country in turmoil, or a forgotten media event? If possible, I wanted to find some Estonians who spoke English, maybe ask them a question or two about their feelings. But I’d never been to the Soviet Union. This trip had been planned before all the controversy. And I was a little scared. The very words Soviet Union have an ominous quality. They conjure images of secret police, innocent people hauled away without trial, electronic bugs in hotel rooms, cameras ripped away from tourists, and harsh, guttural admonishments from stern faced women with red armbands.
I suspected that travel in the Soviet Union would be different from other kinds of travel. Would people talk to me? Should I talk to them? Should anything more controversial than the weather even be discussed? I would know soon enough. Coming up over the horizon was a low dark line, my first glimpse of Estonia. I walked out to the icy foredeck to get a good view. As the ship approached the land I could begin to make out what must be Tallinn, the capital city. It reminded me a little of Mt. St. Michel in France, for it had been built on a hill, and emanating from this hill were spires and fortress towers, glimmering in the afternoon sun. Yes, there was also a Russian onion-style church dome all aglow. I would have been disappointed otherwise.
All of the guidebooks state that it is illegal to take photographs of transportation facilities in the Soviet Union, such as train stations, bridges, and harbors. But I was alone on the foredeck and if anyone ripped the film out of my camera, well, it was a new roll. I began discreetly taking pictures.
As we entered the harbor it was obvious that there was more to Tallinn than ancient stone walls. Several high-rise apartment buildings stood near the water, and no less than a dozen freighters, all bearing the hammer and sickle markings, were tied at the docks. Most seemed to be loading coal. The George Ots took its place amongst them and after the baggage had been unloaded, we were allowed to walk off the ship and down the gangplank. I was one of the first off, having positioned myself near the exit port, and I marched down the walkway with great expectation. I was about to set foot in the Soviet Union!
I knew something of what to expect, thanks to my guidebooks. I had been most impressed by the fact that in Russia there is a government bureau called “Intourist” which functions as the official caretaker for foreign tourists. Intourist is not a travel agency, in that it does not issue tickets per se. But all travel in the Soviet Union must be arranged by Intourist-authorized travel agencies in the originating countries, and all such travel must be approved by Intourist itself before an application for a visa can even be made.
The nearest Intourist-approved agency to Colorado, my home, is located in Los Angeles under the name Airomar Travel, and so they had arranged my ferry, train, and hotel reservations. My plans were a little unusual, in that I would be on what is known as “independent travel,” travelling by myself, not as part of a tour. But there was nothing illegal about that. My route was somewhat unusual as well, though it seemed sensible to me. I was taking a ship from Finland to Estonia–not exactly on the tourist track–where I would spend only a few hours before boarding a train to Leningrad. I would stay in Leningrad several days and then board another train back to Helsinki, completing a circumnavigation of the Gulf of Finland. Intourist had approved the travel plans, changing them–as was their right–only in the choice of train out of Tallinn. I had asked for the one leaving at 4:30 in the afternoon. They had substituted the train leaving at 11:30 that night and arriving in Leningrad at 6:30 the following morning: the night train. I could not imagine why they had done this, nor why I should object. It seemed an insignificant change. I discovered later that it was a very significant change, but by that time my official itinerary had been discarded and I had managed to avoid both trains altogether.
Travel in the Soviet Union is done with a series of “vouchers,” which look like airline tickets. I had a voucher for the ship from Helsinki. I had a voucher for the “transfer” between the docks at Tallinn and the downtown train station, which meant a private car and driver would be assigned to me. Another voucher covered my train ticket to Leningrad. And so on. As long as I didn’t lose my vouchers, the trip might be easy.
Intourist itself maintains desks at all major train terminals, hotel lobbies, and points of entry into the country, such as the customs and passport control area at the dock in Tallinn. I was assured that these desks would be staffed by English-speaking Intourist guides who had no goal in life other than to solve problems for tourists, and generally be helpful. That sounded encouraging.
I had been instructed, immediately upon clearing customs and passport control at the docks, to proceed to the Intourist desk, and show them my voucher for the transfer to the train station. This seemed simple enough. The bigger question was whether I would have a chance to see or talk to any real Estonians. I had heard that Intourist’s efficiency and helpfulness had a secondary purpose, which was to tightly control the movements and activities of foreign visitors. They were happy to arrange a private car and driver to deliver me to the train station, because that was their best guarantee that I would arrive at the train station, and once there another voucher, and another Intourist desk, would take over. It seemed possible that I would be hustled out of Estonia without meeting anyone other than an Intourist agent. On the other hand my train didn’t leave for Leningrad until 11:30 that night, and it was now only 4:00 in the afternoon. Unless I was chained to a wall, I could just walk out of the train station and look around a little. Maybe I could even talk to someone.
These thoughts were going through my head as I came to the end of the gangplank and stepped onto the snow-covered asphalt. The docks were constructed in such a way as to funnel disembarking passengers directly to the passport control desks, which would be my first contact with the Soviet government. I heard a loud crash behind me and turned. My Nikon camera with its magnificent 35-200 mm zoom lens, had fallen out of my belt-pack and crashed to the frozen earth, springing open and exposing the film inside.
Overlying my great frustration at this was the realization that the Soviets were much more sophisticated than anyone in the West had suspected. Apparently they’d noticed me taking pictures of the harbor facilities, and some secret new weapon had been called into play which had destroyed my camera–seemingly by accident–as soon as I’d stepped onto Soviet soil. What chance did Star Wars have against such technology?
I picked up the camera hurriedly and closed the back. This wasn’t the first time it had fallen to the ground and I knew it was strong enough to survive such treatment. I proceeded to passport control.
The stern young man in the cubicle took my passport and visa solemnly, and studied them intently. Then he looked up at me directly, staring into my eyes for what seemed an eternity. Obviously he was checking if my face matched my passport picture, which unfortunately it did not. My passport picture has never shown the rugged, chiseled features I know I possess. Eyeing me suspiciously, the man reached for a telephone and spoke some words into it, all the while looking at my passport with skepticism. I could just imagine what he was saying. “Ivan, the American with the camera has arrived. Which cell would you like us to hold him in?”
Instead, he handed back the visa and passport, and motioned me to another desk–customs. Here they took my customs declaration form, already filled out while on the ship, in which I listed the amounts and types of foreign currency I was bringing in, the numbers and types of live animals travelling with me, the dates on which I’d last visited a farm containing livestock, and a comprehensive accounting of the firearms and ammunition in my suitcase. “Anything to declare?” the man asked, in broken English. “Any jewelry, gold jewelry?” Perhaps they found it unusual that I had not declared any jewelry to be in my possession.
“No jewelry,” I said. “Except my wedding ring!” I remembered this at the last moment and showed it to him proudly.
“Write here!” he said, handing me a pen and telling me to write ‘Gold Ring’ on the declaration form. I did so, but there was something sad in having my wedding band reduced to the simple phrase ‘Gold Ring.’
While much ado was made over my Gold Ring, my small canvas backpack/suitcase was not even opened. Probably it would be when I left the country, I reasoned. A voice came over the loudspeaker in English. “Jacques Voorhees, please report to the Intourist desk. Jacques Voorhees, please report to the Intourist desk.”
Ah! No doubt it had been the Intourist desk that the passport official had alerted with the phone call. It began to look like I was going to be very well shepherded while in the Soviet Union. I didn’t mind. In this strange land I was comforted that someone cared about me, knew I existed. I saw the desk on the opposite side of the room, and walked quickly over. “I’m Jacques Voorhees,” I said.
“Yes, Mr. Voorhees,” said the blonde girl with glasses. She did look very Russian, but also very friendly. “Welcome to the Soviet Union. May I see your vouchers please.” I handed them over, proud I had not yet lost them.
She ripped out the voucher pertaining to the first transfer, the one from the dock to the train station. “Very well,” she said. “The transfer to the train station is from the Hotel Viru, which is downtown. Your car is waiting outside which you will take to the hotel. Just go out the doors there and you will see some cars. The license plate number of your car is on this slip of paper.” She handed me a slip of paper with a four digit number written on it.
“Oh, I drive the car then, to the hotel?” This seemed odd.
She looked up, horrified. “Oh no! You don’t drive it. It has a driver.”
“That makes more sense. I don’t know my way around very well,” I smiled.
She smiled too, glad the joke about my driving the car was behind us.
“When you arrive at the hotel, go in through the front doors. On your right will be a place where you can check your luggage. On the left will be the Intourist desk. You will be able to change your currency there, if you wish. Go to the Intourist desk at the hotel, and they will make sure you are transferred to the train station tonight.”
“Must I stay at the hotel for the rest of the day?” I asked, beginning to worry.
“No, once you have checked in at the Intourist desk, you will be free to walk around town. Just make sure you are back at the hotel in time for the transfer.”
“OK,” I said. “Thank you very much.”
“Have a good trip, Mr. Voorhees.”
These people were organized! I walked through the doors and out to the street. Here were a couple of dozen cars, taxis apparently, with their engines running, exhaust pouring out in the cold air. All of them were pointed directly at the front door in an almost menacing fashion, making it easy for me to compare the numbers on my small piece of paper to their license plates. There it was. I walked over and showed the driver my piece of paper. He nodded and helped me into the cab.
I deliberately sat in front, suspecting this might be one of my few chances to talk to a real person in the Soviet Union. The first thing I noticed, as the cab pulled away from the docks, was a Dallas Cowboys sticker on the dashboard.
“Do you speak English?” I asked.
“A little bit…” he admitted, hesitantly.
“Do you live in Tallinn?”
“All your life?”
I needed something to liven up the conversation. “Do you like the Dallas Cowboys?” I asked, pointing to the sticker.
That made him open up a little. He mentioned a movie about the Dallas Cowboys. His English was so limited I didn’t understand if he’d seen a movie about the Dallas Cowboys, or whether some of the Cowboys team-members had come to Tallinn to film a movie (unlikely though that seemed), or whether I’d misunderstood the word ‘movie’ altogether. But at least we had something to talk about. The man was obviously interested in American football.
“The Cowboys aren’t doing very well this season,” I said. “I think they’re at the bottom of their division.”
No response. “And the NFC East is a weak division,” I continued.
Still no response. I tried a new tack.
“So,” I began, “How about that Estonian parliament declaring sovereignty! Are they a bunch of crazy guys or what!”
“Sorry,” he said. “Don’t speak English so good.”
After a short ride the driver pulled up to the Hotel Viru, the most imposing structure in Estonia. I found this everywhere in the Soviet Union. The tourist hotels are the most lavish buildings. This one was a double high-rise, the two towers linked together by something that I suspected was a restaurant, suspended thirty feet in the air. The hotel was completely out of place in its surroundings and I tried to imagine the initial meeting between the architects and the bureaucrats.
“We want a hotel! We want it modern! We want it tall! We want it impressive! And we want it right here!” The designers’ lust for the modern had even been translated into an all black-Formica interior. I’d never seen such blackness! The light from the dozens of over-hanging fluorescents was being sucked up by the walls and floors, as if at the center of a black hole. The whole place made me think of death.
But there was a coat and luggage check to the right, and an Intourist desk to the left, as I’d been told. I went to Intourist first.
“Your vouchers please,” the woman said, and I handed them over. This was becoming a familiar scene. Travelling effectively in the Soviet Union seemed to be a matter of producing vouchers when requested.
“So, you’re going to Leningrad tonight?”
“Very well. Please be back here at this desk at 10:20 pm. We will see that you are taken to the train station for the train, which leaves at 11:20.”
“Where can I change my currency?” I asked. I didn’t want to venture out on the streets without local currency, or so it seemed at the time.
“The exchange desk is right through those doors,” she said.
I followed her directions and came to something that looked like a miniature bank, here in the hotel lobby, with a teller behind the counter. Posted on the wall was a signboard showing the current exchange rates. I handed over a 500 finnmark note, worth a little over $100. I would be here for five days, so $100 seemed a good minimum to exchange into rubles.
But the teller disagreed. “This is too large,” she said. “You should change a smaller amount, I think.” One hundred dollars in finnmarks was too large? Well, she would know best. I handed her a 100 finnmark piece, the equivalent of about $25. “Much better,” she said, and quickly changed it into rubles. I examined these pieces of Soviet currency. They were the same shape as a dollar, but about half the size. I tucked them neatly into my billfold, and then went over to check the signboard. It appeared that the ruble equaled about two dollars. Ten dollars produced six rubles. So if I doubled the price in rubles, I’d have a rough equivalent in dollars. That seemed easy enough.
I went to the luggage check, handed over my suitcase/pack, and received a marker in return. With that last bit of business completed, I headed out the door and into the streets of Tallinn, capital of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, finally on my own. I had no idea what to expect, and if I had, I would not have believed it.
CHAPTER 2 Wine, Women, and a Russian-English Dictionary
Once on the streets of Tallinn I turned my attention first to my camera, and received a bitter blow. The Nikon FE2, veteran of many falls to the ground, had not survived this one. The entire film advance and light meter assembly had come apart. It would be impossible to set the exposure correctly, and it seemed very likely that this new hole in the camera was admitting light directly onto the film. I doubted I would be able to find a repair shop that could handle Japanese cameras here in the Soviet Union, or that it could be repaired in time even if I did. What rotten luck!
Fortunately the Nikon’s shutter speed could still be set manually. If I could guess the aperture setting correctly I might still obtain a few shots with the broken camera, although the chances were against it. I resigned myself to a trip with no photographs.
After absorbing this blow I glanced at my watch. It was 5:00 p.m., and rush hour had begun. Bright red electric trolleys sped past, crammed with people. There weren’t very many cars in the streets. That was different from America, and the cars had a drab sameness about them, as if they’d been designed by someone who didn’t enjoy his job. Most noticeable were the people. There were great throngs of people hastening about, in the kind of frenzy characteristic of cities everywhere. But Tallinn didn’t seem like a city, not a big city. Once outside the artificially modern hotel, Tallinn took on the appearance of a medieval village. The buildings everywhere were no more than three stories high, and obviously from a different era, perhaps the eighteenth century. But interwoven throughout Tallinn was evidence of a much earlier civilization, dating back to at least the thirteenth century according to my guidebook. Here were stone walls, medieval turrets, walkways built for archers, and cobblestone streets. I had come to the “old town” as it is known in Tallinn. It was the geographical center of the city, but not the commercial center. Once through a large gate I found myself on streets officially barred to automobiles. Only pedestrians could go here, and there were many of these. It was my first view of Soviet citizens in a natural environment, and they looked very, very different from their Western counterparts. The most noticeable difference from what might be a similar street scene in New York was the complete absence of color. It was a cold afternoon, and everyone wore thick overcoats, but these overcoats were either brown or gray. There were no fashionable women here in bright yellows or purples as one would have seen on Fifth Avenue. And everyone wore thick Russian-style fur hats. I felt much out of place with my Colorado ski cap. Some of the people eyed me curiously, but none stared as they would have in any Mediterranean country. Here in Estonia an occasional man or woman would make brief eye contact, but then look away quickly.
Perhaps because it was meant only for pedestrians no one had seen fit to shovel these streets. Several inches of snow covered the cobblestones, and it had taken on the stressed, granular look of much abused, heavily trampled snow that nonetheless refuses to melt. I walked through it with my new leather sneakers, wishing I’d had the foresight to put on my rubber overshoes that were back in my pack at the hotel.
I have a good directional sense, and was not worried about losing my way. But the winding, serpentine streets did their best to confuse me. Every other block I would come to another stone wall with a requisite gothic arch where the street passed through. The fact that Tallinn had been built on a small hill was very obvious now, for I found myself going higher the farther I went into the center of the old town.
The sidewalks were narrow and when on them I was able to glance into the windows of the ancient buildings. Some were too dark to afford a view of anything, but others gave access to what appeared to be retail establishments. I looked in one and realized it was a shoe store. But what a shoe store! It looked as drab and slovenly as a second hand store in America. On one wall a carpenter had built rough plywood shelves, and divided them into small compartments. Each compartment held a jumble of shoes, all black. The rest of the room consisted of a full-length counter, behind which the salesmen stood, and on the other side of this was an overbearing rush of people, anxious for an opportunity to buy these uninspired, poorly displayed shoes. Then I saw something that, perhaps more than anything else, made me realize just how far away I was from home. Each salesperson stood not in front of a cash register, but in front of a worn abacus. An abacus! And, most troubling of all, they were using them deftly. They were accustomed to using abacuses! I had not thought anyone had used an abacus since around the time of Christ. Babylonians used abacuses, not modern Europeans.
At another store, I could not determine what they sold; the weight of people was so great that a queue had formed stretching out the door and well into the street. It must be important merchandise, I reasoned, to justify standing in a long cold line as these people were doing.
Several other shops appeared to be small groceries, or perhaps cafes. It was surprising that I could not tell which they were. One becomes used to such things in ones own society. A cafe would have only tables, and no food in evidence except that which was set on the tables. A small grocery would have only food visible, and certainly no tables. But in this culture such clues were not available. These small shops bore signs of serving both functions, and a long line extended from each, out into the sidewalk.
I realized I was very hungry, having eaten nothing since the early smorgasbord lunch on the ship, but I could do little about it. I was unwilling to wait in any of the queues, especially as I was unsure what would be available for sale at the end of them. And I was completely certain that I would not be able to communicate with any of the sales people were I to find myself in either a food store or cafe. It seemed easier to ignore my hunger. No doubt there would be food available on the train, or even back at the tourist hotel.
I had climbed nearly to the top of the hill by this time, and the crowds had thinned. Here was the onion-domed church I’d seen from the ship. A few old women shuffled by in front of it, looking very foreign, very medieval. The sky had become only a dull gray and it would soon be dark. How long could I wander these cold, snow-packed streets, or peer into the inhospitable windows? In fact, in the space of just a few hours, I had managed to become completely and utterly lonely. This was unusual. I could not remember ever having experienced real loneliness before, even though I’d frequently traveled by myself. I didn’t know which was worse, the thought of spending five whole days in the Soviet Union, or the contemplation of five more hours here in Tallinn.
In any case with the growing darkness my sightseeing would soon be at an end. Much as I hated to admit it, I could see no alternative but simply walking back to the tourist hotel, finding a bench in the lobby, and reading my book for the next several hours. I took a few final shots with my camera, and then set about trying to find my way back. There was probably a faster less roundabout way than that by which I had come. Taking my bearings, I set off in a new direction, passing under an arched portcullis in one of the walls, and descending a mysterious staircase leading down between ancient stonework. The farther I went, the more intrigued I became. Perhaps here was something I could explore without being overwhelmed. The crowd of pedestrians had thinned away to nothing deep inside the old Tallinn fortress. But I was disappointed. After only a few steps the passageway came to a dead end and I was forced to retrace my direction.
Well, it was too cold for this wandering. I was ready to get back to the hotel. A tunnel in a wall across a little courtyard became visible, and even though the path led up, I guessed that it might join with another leading down, and this would be my quickest way out of the labyrinth. I passed through it, and found I had come not to an exit, but to another little courtyard, slightly higher up among the battlements. It was bordered on one side by the cobblestone street, on two others by high stone walls. The fourth side, bordered by a stone railing, opened up onto what might be a good view of the city, being as it was high above the rest of the town. I was tempted to detour over and have a look. As I was considering this, I noticed that a group of street artists had set up their water-color paintings along both sides of the courtyard. If I entered they would probably besiege me, hoping for a sale. But I did want to see the view, and a watercolor of Tallinn might be nice to own, if it came to that. So I stepped up into the courtyard.
When I look back on my trip to the Soviet Union, it will always be as two trips, not one. And the dividing line was that set of steps into the courtyard. Before crossing it I remember only a cold and depressing country. Afterwards I can remember only warm and hospitable friends. It is still difficult to believe it was the same place.
I stepped into the courtyard and, as predicted, the street artists fell on me in a pack. I smiled at them politely and kept going to the far side of the square, wanting to see the view. But the view was not satisfying. I found myself looking out onto the newer, more modern Tallinn. The Hotel Viru reigned supreme, and her courtiers, in the form of the trolley cars and automobiles, swirled about her. It would be a better view, I realized, to be high up in the hotel looking towards where I was now standing. In the other direction there simply was nothing worth seeing.
As if reading my thoughts, one of the street artists, a young woman, came up to me and spoke several languages before discovering that I was American. She spoke English a little, at least better than the cab driver.
“We have better views of Tallinn,” she said. “Come see my paintings.” I let myself be led over to where she had set up about a dozen water colors in cheap frames, leaning against the rock wall. A few were quite nice. The other two vendors looked on with envy, hoping I would come see their selections before buying.
“I must see the others, too,” I finally said, disengaging myself and walking solemnly over to where a man and another young woman were displaying nearly fifty works of art, also set in frames. I took considerable time with these, nodding at them appreciatively. Actually, these were much better, much more professional.
Finally I turned to the third and final display, where a third young woman, quiet so far, waited patiently for me to come look at what she had to offer. Unfortunately, hers were by far the worst, scarcely better than what my four year old son could have produced.
I wasn’t sure what to do after I had completed my tour of the three exhibits. I was willing to buy one of the paintings. After all my camera had failed me and it would be nice to have some record of Tallinn. That’s what the subject matter of the paintings were: street scenes of Tallinn. But if I bought just one I would disappoint the other vendors. So I allowed myself a second tour of the exhibits, continuing my circle, postponing a decision.
One problem was that I had no idea of the prices. I went up to the first girl and pointed to a couple of the better ones. “How much are those?” I asked.
“You’re from America?”
“So you pay in dollars.” She threw this out, as if it was just part of her calculation, not really a question. But I wasn’t going to be pulled into any black market trading. The guidebooks had been unanimous in their admonishments not to buy or sell currency on the black market in Russia, or make any purchases in foreign currency, which amounted to the same thing. Obviously this girl was trying to entice me into doing just that. Saving a few dollars wasn’t worth going to jail for. Not in the Soviet Union.
“No,” I said. “I don’t have any dollars. I traded them all for rubles.” This wasn’t true, but it provided an excuse.
“No dollars at all? I don’t believe it!”
“Sorry. How much is the picture in rubles?”
“In rubles? I’m not sure I want to sell it for rubles. Who needs rubles? I have lots of rubles already.”
That was interesting. I had no idea they disdained their own currency so completely.
“This is the Soviet Union,” I said. “I want to pay in rubles. How much in rubles?”
She considered this. “Fifty rubles,” she finally decided.
I was outraged. If I doubled the number, which I’d already decided was a rough estimate, that meant she was asking $100 for the picture. It was worth twenty five or thirty at the most.
“Too bad you don’t have any dollars,” she said. “I’d sell it for eight dollars.”
“You’d what!” I must not have heard her correctly.
“Eight dollars, or fifty rubles. I’d prefer the dollars. Too bad you don’t have any dollars.”
My mind had suddenly gone very active. The official exchange rate was almost two dollars to the ruble. This girl was proposing a transaction that would value the dollar at nearly five rubles. That was a ten fold difference! Could it be possible that the official rate was that far off the market rate? I’d assumed the difference was maybe forty or fifty percent, at most.
It was true that I wasn’t willing to go to jail to save a few dollars. But now we weren’t talking about just a few dollars.
I carried this knowledge with me as I completed another round of my circle, this time over to the prolific couple. “How much for this one?” I asked, pointing to one of the better pen and ink sketches.
“Dollars or rubles?” he asked.
“Well, let’s try rubles.”
“And in dollars? I don’t have any, but I’m curious.”
“Ten dollars,” he said, unabashedly. This was incredible. I went to the third girl, and found a similar rate of exchange.
Everyone knew I would buy something soon, and the competition heated up. The girls began having fun with it, each in turn taking me by the arm and pulling me over to their side. I allowed myself to be pulled back and forth in this manner, feigning a complete inability to make a decision, and soon everyone was laughing. In fact, I’d already decided I would buy a small picture from each of them, they deserved it. But it was obvious I could not pay in rubles. It might be illegal to do otherwise, but the ruble prices were just too expensive.
“I don’t have any dollars,” I said to girl #1. “But I have finnmarks.” Finnmarks, apparently, were just as good. In fact the girls were slightly better at thinking in terms of finnmarks, Finland being only sixty kilometers away. What followed was a round of intense bargaining and clandestine transactions. I was still unfamiliar enough with the Finnish currency to need to look closely at the bills. It had become quite dark by now, but a solitary street bulb hung from an overhanging branch, and gave off a few slivers of light. If I stood directly under it, I could see what was in my billfold, and count out the notes in proper denominations.
On two occasions others came into the courtyard, and each time the girls motioned me urgently to hide my money. They did not want to be seen taking hard currency, anymore than I wanted to be seen handing it out. Eventually the transactions were completed, and I was the proud owner of three attractive water-color paintings. Well–two attractive water color paintings. I’d paid less than $20 in finnmarks for all three.
It was six o’clock, still four and a half hours before I needed to be back at the hotel, and now I really did not want to go sit in the lobby and read my book. I was just beginning to have a good time in Tallinn. The girls were shivering, and stamping their feet to stay warm.
“I think I’m your last customer,” I said.
“Yes,” said girl #1. “You probably are.”
“Then you’re ready to pack up and go home?” I asked.
“I’m ready,” said another, arms clasped around her, obviously chilled to the bone.
“Let’s go someplace and get some food!” I said. “You can be my guests.”
They all looked at each other with surprise. No tourist had ever invited them anywhere. But the idea was accepted immediately. It remained only to take down the pictures and set them inside a nearby doorway. Then we headed off down the cobblestone street.
As we walked along, five abreast, I had a chance to study who I was with. The man looked the most like a street artist. He was probably in his early thirties, tall and slender, with long scraggly black hair, a mustache, and better at English than any of the others.
The three girls were so bundled up it was hard to make anything of them, and they all looked quite similar: perhaps in their twenties, with attractive, intelligent faces, and dark brown hair. They were dressed just a little more fashionably than any I’d seen on the streets during rush hour. Their coats were in various shades of brown or black, but they had a modern, Western cut to them.
We introduced ourselves as we went along, walking swiftly because of the cold. The man was named Arnie. The girls were Svetlana (girl #1), Tatiana (girl #2) and Jane (girl #3). Jane was pronounced “Jahn–ee.” Svetlana, Jane, and Arnie could speak passable English. Tatiana could speak none at all. Suddenly I realized where we were going: the little passageway I’d tried to follow previously, but had come to a dead-end.
“Don’t go this way,” I said, “it doesn’t go anywhere.”
“Yes it does!” said Jane. As we neared the end of the walkway she produced a door in the wall, hidden to anyone who wasn’t looking for it. She pushed in on the heavy latch, it opened, and we walked in. I looked around suspiciously. We appeared to be in a medieval castle. Heavy wrought iron candle holders were bolted into the walls, and the light of a hundred candles flickered and bounced off the stone. Massive oak beams held up the ceiling, and a dense but pleasant smoke permeated the air. I followed the others in removing my coat and leaving it at a coat check desk on our left. Then we followed Arnie to a room with heavy wooden tables, about which a myriad of people sat or stood. A bar was open, serving drinks along one side of this room, and a massive fireplace, about the right size for roasting wild boar, occupied another side and gave off considerable heat. But Arnie continued to an ornately carved wooden door, complete with its own Gothic arch, on the far side. This opened onto a time-worn spiral stone staircase, along which a heavy rope had been hung to serve as a banister. We marched single file, down into yet another room, smaller than the one above, with no windows and a low ceiling. Perhaps this had been the dungeon. Several wooden tables and benches had been set here, and there was room enough at one of them for all five of us. We took our places eagerly, glad to sit down.
There was a smaller version of the bar down here in this lower room, and Arnie now went up to it, placing an order for the entire group. He waved away my offer to help pay, and I didn’t press it, not wishing to offend any local custom in this thirteenth century environment.
In a moment he returned with a small tray, carrying five steaming mugs of something, and three large bowls of something else. No one was held back by etiquette. Whatever it was we wanted it, and all of us reached quickly for our respective mugs, content for the moment to sip the hot liquid in silence. It was some kind of spiced wine, I guessed. Arnie later told me it was called “giltvein,” pronounced “guilt-veen,” a word which seemed to confirm its wine ancestry.
The substance in the bowls, which we all shared randomly, was a kind of minced salad–the taste being a mixture of crab and coleslaw, though I doubt either of those ingredients were represented. It nicely complemented the hot wine, and to those of us who had not eaten for seven hours, it tasted delicious.
I ordered and paid for the next round, and Arnie did not object, honor having been satisfied. I was beginning to have so much fun that I nearly forgot my purpose for being here, which was to find out what local Estonians thought of the action of their parliament.
“When you speak to each other,” I asked, “what language are you speaking? Russian or Estonian?”
Svetlana almost choked on her drink with that question. “Estonian, of course,” said Arnie. “Why would we speak Russian?”
“But you know Russian, you can speak Russian?”
“A little bit. Everyone in Estonia has to speak Russian sometimes,” said Arnie.
“Maybe you don’t anymore,” I ventured. “Now that you’re an independent country.”
“What do you mean?” asked Arnie.
“Well, you know. Last week Estonia’s parliament declared Estonia an independent country.”
“It did?” asked Arnie. He translated quickly for the others. “Where did you hear that?”
“In America it is very important news. It’s in all the papers. Isn’t it in the papers here?”
“We never read the papers,” said Arnie.
“I think I heard something about it,” said Jane. “But I wasn’t paying any attention. It won’t make any difference.”
“Oh, those things never make any difference. Who cares?”
“So you don’t think Estonia should be an independent country?”
“Well of course it should be independent,” said Jane.
“Then you do care?”
“Russia will never allow it,” she said. “So why waste time thinking about it.”
“But your parliament has declared sovereignty. That’s a pretty big step.”
“No it isn’t. It doesn’t make any difference what our parliament does.”
“Do you think the Russians will send in their army?”
“No. They’ll just ignore us. They don’t care what our parliament does.”
Jane was the only one in the group with any political awareness. The others were conversing among themselves, not paying any attention to this talk of Estonian independence. If everyone in the country were this apathetic the Kremlin had little to worry about.
The conversation drifted away from politics. Occasionally one of them would not know the proper word in English, and finally Arnie remembered he had a tiny English/Russian dictionary in his pocket. We kept leafing through it, searching for the words by candlelight.
I had asked them if they were competitors, or if they were friends. I’d had to look up “competitors” and point to the Russian version. They discussed this among themselves rapidly, in their own language.
“We’ve never thought about it before,” said Svetlana. “I think we are friends and competitors, both.”
“Friendly competitors.” I said.
“Yes,” said Jane. “Friendly competitors.”
Tatiana, who was sitting beside me, was unable to contribute much to the conversation, except by asking Arnie to translate. But she was becoming more and more friendly, as the wine took effect. Frequently she would lean over and whisper in my ear, even though I obviously could not understand the words. By the time we’d gone through our fourth glass of giltvein, Tatiana was becoming a little too friendly, especially with her hands. She whispered something new, and this time asked Jane to translate. The girls immediately broke into giggles.
“What is it?” I asked, curious.
“She said she’s in love with you!” said Jane.
That took me aback. “Tell her it’s the giltvein talking,” I said.
“The giltvein is talking?” Jane asked, confused.
“That’s just an expression,” I said. “I think maybe Tatiana’s had too much giltvein.”
“Yes, I think you’re right,” agreed Jane.
“But tell her I like her too.” I didn’t want to be rude, after all.
Jane translated and Tatiana tried to smile, but instead collapsed on my shoulder.
“Are you an American?” a man’s voice behind me asked, suddenly. The words were spoken with an American accent. I could not believe there was another American down in this medieval dungeon, but it was possible.
I turned around abruptly, nearly causing Tatiana to fall to the floor. The source of the question was a young man, reasonably tall, with a friendly smile and dark features. He reminded me of a college-age Michael Dukakis.
“Yes, I’m an American,” I said. “Are you?”
He laughed softly. “No,” he said. “I’m from Tallinn.”
“You speak awfully good English,” I said, meaning it.
“Thank you. I work as a guide for Intourist.”
An Intourist guide! No wonder he spoke English.
“I’d like to talk to you about something before you leave, if you have a few moments,” he said.
“Sure,” I replied.
“OK, come see me before you leave.” He walked up to the counter to get his drinks.
He didn’t really speak English that well, I realized. It had just seemed that way by comparison with the street artists. It had become unusual to hear sentences put together without reference to an English/Russian dictionary.
After another round of giltvein and crab salad, I decided it was time to leave. Tatiana was not becoming any less amorous, and the other three were running out of easy topics for conversation. The Intourist guide was coming by again, and I stopped him.
“We’re going to be leaving shortly,” I said. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
“Oh, I’m just wondering, I have a friend who is a newspaper editor in Tallinn. He’s looking for an American to interview.”
“About what?” I asked, curious.
“Just reactions to Estonia. What you think about it. That kind of thing.”
“I’d love to, but I’m leaving tonight for Leningrad.”
“Tonight! That’s too bad.”
“Are Americans hard to find?”
“You may be the only one in the country right now, except for some newspaper reporters. You’re really leaving tonight?”
“I’m supposed to,” I said, an idea growing in my mind. “But I wouldn’t mind staying over another day in Tallinn if it could be arranged. You’re an Intourist guide, you could probably arrange it!”
“Possibly,” he admitted. “You’d be willing to stay in Tallinn tonight, and take another train tomorrow?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’d love to talk to the newspaper.”
“Where are you going when you leave here?” he asked.
“I’m supposed to be at the Intourist desk at the hotel by 10:20 tonight. They’ll transfer me to the train station for the 11:20 train.”
“I have to be at the train station about that time too,” he said. “It would be difficult to change your reservation, but I’ll see what I can do. Maybe I’ll see you at the station.”
This didn’t sound too promising, and I dismissed the possibility after the young man had left. Now it was time for us to leave. We reclaimed our coats, helping Tatiana up the steps, and were soon back outside. It was a cold night, but there was no wind, and the snow crunched under our feet as we walked along.
“We’ll take you back to the hotel,” said Svetlana. “It’s not out of our way.” After a few minutes we passed under the last stone arch and left the old town behind. Now we were on more modern streets, with sidewalks, cars, and an occasional trolley ambling along. At one corner Arnie waved good-bye. We were apparently near his home. I was sorry to see him go, as he spoke English much better than the others. Now I was alone with the three girls, and we walked along in silence. Jane was helping me support Tatiana, who was stumbling frequently.
Here was something interesting. In front of a building, we came across a group of actual protestors, the kind that carry signs and walk back and forth. No doubt these people cared about Estonia’s independence! But as I came closer I had my doubts. One of the signs was in English and read “Freedom to Aarnee Heide.” Obviously it was a different Arnie, as the one I knew had just left us. There was a small black and white picture on the poster. Aarnee Heide looked like George Harrison of the Beatles.
My broken camera was equipped with a flash, and I went to the effort of taking a picture of the protestors. Maybe it would come out. But this wasn’t really the news story I’d hoped to cover.
“Who’s Aarnee Heide?” I asked Jane.
“Who knows?” she said. “I’ve never heard of him.”
This was frustrating. Even among protestors the ‘Independent Estonia’ issue was taking a back seat to someone called Aarnee Heide. And Aarnee wasn’t even a celebrity.
We reached the hotel, and it was time to say good-bye. Svetlana kissed me lightly on each cheek, and then Jane did likewise. Tatiana mumbled something incoherent.
“She doesn’t want to say good-bye,” said Jane. “She wants to stay with you.”
“I’m leaving for the train,” I said. “Please tell her good-bye for me, when she wakes up. And tell her I liked her a lot. It was a wonderful evening.”
“Yes, for us too,” said Jane. “Thank you.”
“Do you think you can get her home?” I asked, concerned.
“Don’t worry,” said Jane, “we’ll get her home.” The three of them walked off through the snow and disappeared into the night.
I walked up the steps of the Hotel Viru, ready and willing to spend the next hour sitting on a bench and reading my book before the transfer to the train station. It had been a delightful, but in many ways exhausting, evening.
I had no idea that the evening was just beginning, and that I would never make the night train to Leningrad.
CHAPTER 3 Ménage a Russians
I was number three in line at the Intourist desk at the Hotel Viru. It was only nine-thirty p.m., still nearly an hour before they had asked me to report back, and nearly two hours before the train left for Leningrad. But I decided I might as well announce myself before retiring to a chair in the lobby and reading my book.
“Hello!” said a voice behind me.
I turned around. Here was Robert, the Intourist guide from the giltvein bar. “I’m a little surprised to see you here,” he said. “I thought you’d be with Tatiana!”
“The other girls took her home,” I explained. “She’d had too much to drink. Any chance of me staying over an extra day?”
“You’re still interested?”
“Well, let’s see if they have any room at the hotel here.” I had now progressed to the front of the line, and Robert took over, asking the desk personnel if any vacancy could be arranged at the Hotel Viru. After a few moments, he motioned me aside.
“There is no vacancy here,” he said, “but there’s another Intourist hotel only a few blocks away. Let’s walk over and see if they’ve got room.” He waved and a young woman who had been standing by the wall came over and joined us. She was remarkably pretty, and was the first woman I’d seen in Estonia that looked as if she’d been whisked off a Manhattan street corner. She had long, light brown hair, an engaging smile, and wore a very fashionable ankle length purple coat. There was no brown or black on her anywhere.
“This is my girlfriend,” said Robert. “Anu-Livii. Ana for short.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes, a little bit,” she laughed gaily.
“Let’s go,” said Robert. We walked out of the doors of the hotel, and back down the steps to the snow-covered sidewalks.
“If there is no vacancy at this next hotel,” I asked, “is it our only choice, or are there others?”
“There are other hotels in Tallinn, of course,” he said. “But these two are the only ones that foreign tourists can stay in.”
The second hotel was indistinguishable from the first. Here was the same overly-modern architecture out of place with its surroundings, and the same black Formica interior. Robert inquired at the desk, and then turned back to me. “No room,” he said.
“That’s too bad,” I said. “Is there nothing else we can try?”
“Do you really want to stay over?” asked Robert.
“Sure,” I said. I was at least making friends in Tallinn. Once in Leningrad I’d be confined to the museum circuit in company only with other tourists. I saw no reason to leave if I didn’t have to.
“If you want,” said Robert, “you could stay overnight with me, at my apartment, and catch a train tomorrow.”
That was quite an offer. I was little more than a stranger to Robert, and he was inviting me to stay at his home.
“Would it be any trouble?” I asked, wanting to accept, but not wanting to be an inconvenience.
“Not at all, if you don’t mind where you sleep.”
“I’d be happy to sleep on the floor,” I replied.
“I think we can do better than that.”
Then I had another concern. “What about my train reservations tonight? I have a voucher for the transfer and also for the train. And the hotel in Leningrad is expecting me to check in very early tomorrow morning.”
“If you stay over,” said Robert, “you’ll probably have to buy another train ticket to get to Leningrad, about forty rubles. (Only ten dollars at the rate the girls had given me). And don’t worry about the transfer, I can get you to the station.”
“Will the hotel in Leningrad worry if I don’t arrive in the morning?”
“Yes. I think I’d better call them from here and tell them you’ll be delayed.”
“Would you mind?” He seemed to be going to a lot of trouble on my behalf, but I did appreciate it. There was no way I could have handled any of this on my own.
“No, it’s no problem. Let’s walk back to the Viru and call from there.” Ana accompanied us, quite content to follow along and enjoy the minor adventure of trying to find a place for the American to stay.
Robert located the equivalent of a pay phone in the lobby of the Viru, and asked me for my Leningrad hotel voucher. The phone number of the Europeskaya Hotel was printed on it, as well as the spelling of my name. He spoke at length to whomever was at the other end.
“That’s settled,” he said as he hung up and came back to where Ana and I were waiting. “I told them that the American named Jacques Voorhees who was supposed to arrive tomorrow morning would be arriving early the following morning instead. “
“And they had no problem with that?”
“They had a big problem with that. The woman asked me who I was, and why the schedule was being changed.”
“What did you say?”
“I told her that she did not need to know who I was.”
“What did she say to that?” I could not imagine such impoliteness being well received.
“She said it was essential for her to know who was making the travel changes. So I told her that I was a very important person, I was calling from Tallinn, and to quit asking questions. She thought about that a moment and then said ‘OK’.”
“You told her you were a very important person, and she accepted that?”
“Yes. She had no choice but to accept it. For all she knew, I was an important person, and this whole matter was something she shouldn’t be inquiring about.”
“I can’t believe that worked! Why didn’t you tell her you were an Intourist guide.”
“Because then she could have made some phone calls to Intourist here in Tallinn and found that there had been no Intourist guide assigned to Mr. Voorhees, nor any approved change made in Mr. Voorhees’ schedule, hence the call must have been faked. Simply telling her I was an important person was the best way to deal with it. Now she has no way of disproving it.”
I had to trust him for he was, after all, an Intourist guide. That made him almost a minor official. Compared to a mere hotel clerk he probably was an important person.
“OK,” I said. “This is kind of fun. What do we do now?” It was nearing ten-thirty p.m.
“Have you had dinner?” he asked.
“Not really. Just those salad things at the bar.”
“Ana and I are hungry. We haven’t eaten, and I’m supposed to be at the train station at 11:00 to help some tourists get on that night train.”
“Are there any restaurants around here?”
“The best restaurant is right in this hotel, upstairs,” he said. “That’s where we were heading. But it’s so late now they may have quit seating.”
They had quit seating, we discovered when we got to the door. But another problem was the fact that we were not dressed properly to eat in this restaurant. All of us were wearing jeans. As he argued with the maître d’, Robert kept pointing to me. Finally Ana leaned over and whispered “Tell them you’re an American, and you want to eat here.”
I put on my best Texas accent, and swaggered up to where Robert and the maître d’ were locked in a heated discussion.
“Wot seems to be the problem heah? Ma friends and I ah awful hungry, and we just want to eat some food. Do y’all have a problem with that?”
An assistant to the maître d’, a middle-aged woman, heard this speech and came up to me. “You’re an American tourist?” she asked.
“A hungry American tourist, ma’am!” I answered, friendly yet determined.
She exchanged a few words with the maître ‘d and soon we were ushered over to a very elegant table by the window. Robert seated Ana and insisted I sit with her. He took a chair on the opposite side. Menus were brought over, with English translations. There was a surliness in the waiters’ manner. At the time I supposed they were merely annoyed at having to seat a party this late in the evening. Later I discovered that all waiters in the Soviet Union are surly. The brief contact they do allow is with the clear understanding that they are doing you a favor. As much as I’ve always hated the custom of tipping, after leaving Russia where no tipping is allowed I decided there was something to be said for it.
We studied the menus intently. The Chicken Kiev looked good to all of us, and when the waiter came over, Robert handled the ordering. But after a moment of dialogue, he turned back to me. “They have no Chicken Kiev tonight,” he said. We re-opened the menus, while the waiter stood impatiently. We tried steak, it looked good also.
“No steak tonight either,” explained Robert. Our next choice was the seafood, but apparently there’d been a run on seafood as well.
“What do they have?” I asked.
“They have veal,” Robert translated.
“Veal would be fine,” I said.
“Three veals,” said Robert. “What shall we have to drink?”
“Champagne,” suggested Anu-Livii. Then she turned to me. “Champagne will be best after giltvein.”
“How did you know I’ve been drinking giltvein?”
“I was at the bar with Robert,” said Ana. “I saw you with your friends. Didn’t you see me there?”
“No, I didn’t,” I admitted.
“It looked like you were having a pretty good time,” Ana teased.
The champagne arrived and Robert poured for the three of us.
“I’m not going to be able to stay very long, after the food arrives,” he said. “I have to get to the station at least fifteen minutes before the train leaves.”
“Why exactly are you going there?” I asked.
“I’ve been the guide for a group of Poles for the last three days. The final thing I have to do is make sure they get on the right car on the train. I’m meeting them at the station.”
“Do you speak Polish?”
“They speak Russian.”
It seemed a shame that Robert would have to hurry through his meal, especially as I’d been the cause of the delay. “I’m just curious, can’t the Poles find their own car on the train?”
“Well, they might not, then they’d be in the wrong car. That would not be good.” He seemed overly concerned.
“Why does it matter what car they’re in?”
“Because there is one car set aside on the train just for the Poles.”
“Are they troublemakers or something? Do they have to be isolated?”
“No, the whole train is that way. There are cars just for Soviet citizens, cars for citizens of foreign countries that are members of the Communist bloc, and cars for citizens of Western European countries.”
“That’s amazing! Are all trains like that in the Soviet Union?”
“No, just the special tourist trains.”
“And the train for Leningrad tonight is a tourist train.”
I thought about this a moment. “That’s why they changed my travel reservations!” I said, finally realizing. “I’d asked for the train leaving at 4:30, and they’d switched me to the train leaving at 11:30.”
“That’s right,” said Robert. “They want the tourists on the tourist train, so they can make sure they’re in the right cars.”
“That keeps the tourists away from the Soviet citizens.”
“Yes, that is what it does.”
The dinner arrived: three plates, with a platter of breaded veal in the middle, family style. We each helped ourselves. I re-filled the champagne glasses while Robert wolfed down his food. He had only about one minute to eat.
“I’m sorry to leave you like this,” apologized Robert between mouthfuls. “Could you and Ana stay here until I return? It shouldn’t be more than an hour.”
“Of course,” I said. Robert took one last bite and rushed out the door.
So instead of being on that train myself, I was sitting here enjoying an elegant champagne dinner with the prettiest girl in Tallinn.
I turned to her, hoping it would not be difficult to make conversation for an hour, hoping she wouldn’t mind being abandoned by her boyfriend to a complete stranger.
“So, Ana, what do you do for a living in Estonia?”
“I’m a dancer,” she said. She was not a ballet dancer, I discovered, although that was what she aspired to. “It’s very difficult to get into the ballet schools,” explained Ana. “Especially if you’re not Russian.”
Instead she had joined a local dance troupe. They performed folk dances and modern dances in nightclubs, at minor exhibitions, wherever they could find work. Once they had even performed on the M.S. George Ots. I remembered seeing the night club on the ship. With her western appearance Ana would have fit right in. I was curious how she had met Robert.
“He wants to be a dancer too,” she explained. “He came to one of my dance classes.”
“Robert wants to be a dancer? You’re kidding!”
“I’m trying to talk him out of it. I don’t think being a dancer is a very good thing for a man to be. Most of the dancers I know who are men are gay.”
“So you think he should stay an Intourist guide?”
“Oh, he only does that part time, to earn some extra money. That’s not his real job.”
“It isn’t? What is his real job?”
“He’s a fisherman. He graduated from the marine academy and he’s an officer on fishing ships. They go out sometimes for weeks.”
“I would think you’d get lonely.”
“I keep busy dancing, and of course I’m still in school.” She was only eighteen years old, I discovered later.
“How long have you known Robert?”
“Not very long. I met him only a couple of months ago, just a few months after my boyfriend died.”
That stopped the conversation. I poured us more champagne.
“How did your boyfriend die?”
“He killed himself. But if he hadn’t, the Mafia would have.”
This time I was completely taken aback. How does one respond to such a statement?
“I think we should order another bottle of champagne,” I finally said.
“Yes, I think we should,” agreed Ana. We waited until it arrived, both of us content merely to watch the elegant couples moving rhythmically around the dance floor in the center of the room. The surly waiter filled our glasses.
“Do you mind talking about it?” I asked finally.
“No, I don’t mind,” she replied matter of factly.
I thought I’d approach the subject from the least personal angle. “There is a Mafia in the Soviet Union?” I asked.
“Oh yes! There certainly is. It’s very powerful.”
I was skeptical of this, assuming a police state like the U.S.S.R. would have very little problem with the Mafia. There is typically an inverse relationship between a country’s civil rights and its organized crime, or at least I’d assumed there was.
“Ana, when you say ‘Mafia,’ what do you mean exactly, who are these people?”
“Criminals!” she said. “The ones who control all the gambling, the drugs, prostitution, that kind of thing.”
“But are these criminals really ‘Mafia’? I mean do they have Italian last names like ‘Corleone?’ Are they from Sicily and places like that?”
“Oh no! They’re not foreigners. They’re Soviet citizens.”
“So you mean organized crime in general. I didn’t think there was any of that in the Soviet Union.”
“There is a lot of it. It’s a very big problem. In Estonia I think maybe the Mafia is more powerful than the government.”
“How was your boyfriend involved, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I don’t know exactly. He didn’t talk about it very much. But I think he’d become more and more involved with them somehow. I think maybe he was trying to back out finally. He was very scared. He knew they were going to kill him. I think that’s why he took his life, he was just too much involved with them and didn’t know how to get out.”
“That’s pretty horrible,” I said.
“Yes. I hate the Mafia. I hate this country too. Well, I don’t hate the country. I just want to get out, live somewhere else.”
“Why do you want to live somewhere else?” I could imagine a hundred reasons, but I felt it polite to ask.
“There are no opportunities here,” she said, frustrated. “You can’t do anything. It’s very hard to get a job. Even if you have money there is nothing to buy. I can’t even buy cosmetics, like make-up, which I need for dancing.”
“You mentioned that it’s hard to get into the ballet academies if you’re not a Russian. You mean because you’re Estonian you don’t have as many opportunities?”
“That’s right. The Russians are treated better, they go to better schools.”
“But Robert went to the marine academy. How did he get that opportunity?”
“Robert is half Russian. His father was a Russian.”
“His parents are divorced. He lives with his mother.”
“But you’re pure Estonian?”
“Your name is very unusual. Is that a traditional Estonian name, Anu-Livii?”
She smiled. “Yes, do you like it? I chose it myself. It’s my — how do you say it? — my professional name.”
“Your stage name.”
She didn’t volunteer her given name and I didn’t ask.
“There were some other names I was considering,” she continued, pronouncing them rapidly.
“I don’t recognize any of those,” I confessed. “Did you ever consider anything a little more normal, like — Tatiana?”
Ana frowned. “That’s a Russian name!” she said bitterly. “I hate Russian names. I won’t even say them! I hate everything Russian!”
“Why do you hate Russians?”
“I just do, and I hate the government.”
“What do you think about what your parliament did? They declared Estonia an independent country. Was that a good idea?”
“It would be wonderful if we could be a separate country. But it won’t happen. What the parliament did won’t have any effect. Moscow will just ignore it.”
Ana was not a-political, like the street artists, but her opinion of the situation was identical to Jane’s.
“Nothing ever works right around here,” she continued, warming to her subject. “It’s the government’s fault.”
I wasn’t sure, when she said ‘government’ if she meant her local Estonian government, or the larger Soviet bureaucracy.
“Give me an example,” I said innocently.
Ana looked at me curiously. “I’ll give you an example,” she said.
“The night my boyfriend killed himself, did I tell you how he did it?”
“No, you didn’t.”
“He slit his wrists.”
I could only wait for her to continue.
“The night it happened he had been very depressed. He asked me to come over to his apartment, but I wasn’t able to because I had to study. He said ‘OK,’ but he sounded upset. Later that night I called because I was worried about him, and the phone didn’t answer. So I went over there. I found him on the floor. There was blood all over everything. I called an ambulance, and then I tried to hold him in my lap. I tried to keep him alive.
“It was two hours before the ambulance came! Two hours! By then he was dead, it was too late. Can you imagine what it was like? Holding someone you love in your arms, blood all over you, knowing he is going to die, and then having to wait two hours for the ambulance!” Ana was gripping my arm. “Can you imagine what that was like!”
“No,” I said finally. “I can’t imagine what that was like. It’s terrible you had to go through such a thing.”
“You see why I hate the government.”
“Yes, I see why you hate the government.”
Ana sipped her champagne, and watched the dancers. The band was now playing a disco beat. I’ve always been an awful dancer, but our conversation was becoming a little intense and I thought we could use a break.
“Would you like to dance?” I asked. “I’m not very good.” As a professional dancer she should at least be warned.
“I’d love to,” Ana said, delighted, and we walked over to the dance floor.
Just as we arrived, the band began playing slow dances instead of disco. This was a little awkward. I hadn’t come up here to slow dance with Ana. I’m even worse at that, but I noticed the other couples weren’t doing anything fancy like fox trots or waltzes–just slow back and forth swaying. So I took Ana in my arms and we began swaying, like at a high school sock hop. “You’re not a bad dancer,” she said.
“I can do this at least,” I replied.
But after only a few moments, I heard my wife’s voice in my conscience. She wouldn’t have minded me dancing with a strange woman, considering the circumstances. But she would have been disappointed to see me just swaying back and forth. Derry had once been the senior instructor at Arthur Murray’s flagship dance studio on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
My wife’s voice was saying “Come on! You can dance better than this. Don’t just sway back and forth!”
So I tried some easy under-arm turns with Ana, and she seemed to enjoy that. Soon we were moving around the dance floor, doing turns, revolving, looking pretty good. Everyone else was still just swaying. But my conscience wasn’t satisfied. In my mind Derry was now saying “I’m not impressed. There’s nothing hard about a simple underarm turn. What about all the things I’ve taught you? Try a double spin!”
So I did. I raised up my left arm and maneuvered Ana into a double spin. She completed the first one perfectly, but half way through the second poor Ana, beautiful Estonian night club dancer and would-be ballerina, went crashing to the floor.
I had just a moment to wonder if maybe my wife’s voice in my conscience had had this in mind all along, but I reached down and pulled Ana to her feet. We continued as before, but didn’t try anything difficult. “I’m so embarrassed!” she said. “I’m supposed to be a dancer. You must think I’m an idiot!”
“It was my fault,” I said, assuming it probably was.
“No, it was mine. I think I’ve had too much champagne.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “I’m having a good time.”
“So am I,” she said, and seemed to mean it.
The hour passed quickly, and Robert had not yet returned. The lights in the restaurant blinked out, and then came back on again. This was repeated several times. I remembered reading that all restaurants in the Soviet Union are required by law to close at midnight. We retrieved our coats and walked to the door, a little uncertain what to do in Robert’s absence. But here was Robert, just outside the door!
“Am I glad to see you!” I said honestly.
“I’ve been here for twenty minutes,” he explained. “They wouldn’t let me back in. “
“You didn’t have an Angry American with you this time.”
“That’s right,” he laughed. “You can never find an Angry American when you need one.” Robert didn’t seem upset. In fact, I was never to see him get upset about anything.
Outside the hotel there was a line of jitney cabs, a kind of cross between a taxi and a bus. Several passengers share the vehicle and are dropped off at their respective destinations along the way. The fare is divided on some formula I never quite understood.
Ana, Robert, and I now piled into one of these, along with six others. The driver headed east, out of Tallinn. Being wedged in between several Estonians I could see little of the scenery, but one by one the others were let out, until at last there was only the three of us. We had driven nearly twenty minutes and had come to the far outskirts of the city. High-rise apartment buildings loomed in the darkness.
Robert paid the driver and we began walking between the buildings, one of them presumably was our destination and after a few minutes we arrived. These buildings, all of which were identical, appeared to be of modern, yet seedy construction. It was as if the contractor had been told half way through the job that the project had to be done in half the allotted time and for half the budget. The elevator was modern and efficient, for example, but only a plywood door on cheap hinges afforded access to it. We rode to the fifteenth floor.
It was nearing one a.m. as we came to the door, but Robert’s mother awoke to let us in. She was what you might expect of a Soviet working woman–short, stocky, of indeterminate age, and with the look of a hard life about her. She smiled gamely, in spite of this bewildering development of having to play host to an American and her son’s girlfriend in the early hours of the morning.
We removed our coats while standing in an entryway. The apartment had hardwood floors covered with a scattering of rugs. The walls were white plasterboard, and the lighting and fixtures were reasonably modern, although very plain. It was a functional, clean, no-frills apartment. Several doors opened off of the entryway hall, but I didn’t ask for a tour. I followed Ana through a door to the left which appeared to be a small living room. An old fashioned sofa and two matching arm chairs just fit in here. There was a color television that looked about 1960’s vintage in one corner. A large bright-red tapestry of a bear and some hunters hung along one wall.
On another wall were bookshelves, and on these had been set a very modern, powerful component-stereo system. I assumed this had been made in Japan, but when I looked closely I noticed the markings were in the Cyrillic alphabet, and I could not read them. It had either been manufactured in, or manufactured for sale in, the Soviet Union. Either one seemed remarkable. If the Soviet economy was so bad, why waste resources on luxury consumer products?
Robert’s mother came in with a tray of apples, and bottles of mineral water. Ana and Robert had been talking in the car about a song they wanted to play for me. It was a takeoff on a Michael Jackson recording called “I’m Bad.” The song was redone with the title “I’m Fat,” and had some funny lyrics, all in English.
The sound system was good, but Robert’s speaker placement was awful. Speaker placement had been a mild passion of mine in college and I still maintained strong opinions. So one of the first things I did, in my first visit to a Soviet household, was to rearrange the stereo speakers. Robert cooperated, and was impressed with the result.
After a few more songs we tried out the television. Ana skipped quickly over the Soviet channels, which tended to show things like an agricultural seminar in Moscow. A few turns of the dial brought us to an American western starring Linda Evans. It was in English, but with sub-titles.
“Those sub-titles look Finnish,” I said.
“It is Finnish,” said Robert. “This is being broadcast from Helsinki.”
“I don’t suppose you speak Finnish?”
“Finnish and Estonian are almost identical,” said Robert. “I can understand Finnish completely when I hear it, and if I speak Estonian a Finn can understand me.” Finns and Estonians must share a common heritage, I reasoned. But how did Russians fit into that mix? Where had Russians come from? Not from the Baltic, obviously.
Robert’s mother came in and began making up the sleeping arrangements. I wanted to express my appreciation to the woman, but she spoke no English. “Robert,” I asked, “would you please tell your mother I appreciate being able to stay here, and thank her for her hospitality.” He did so and the woman smiled and nodded her head, in an expression that needed no translation.
Apparently Ana would be staying over, which didn’t surprise me. This late at night, it would be foolish for her to go home by herself. The mother unfolded half the couch and it turned into a single bed. Then she unfolded the other half and I realized it was a double bed, not a single. I’d noticed in the den, immediately off the entrance way, that she’d put sheets on a couch in there too. Obviously I would sleep in one place, Ana would sleep in the other, and no doubt Robert and his mother each had their own bedrooms.
But then the mother went to an armchair and began unfolding that into a single bed. The mathematics of who was sleeping where were beginning to make no sense.
“I’m just curious,” I said to Robert. “Where am I sleeping?”
“Right here,” he said, pointing to the double bed. But the way he pointed made me think he was referring not just to the bed, but to a particular side of it. This was reconfirmed by his next statement. “I’ll sleep with you, on the other side.”
Now I was really puzzled. “But who will sleep on this single bed then?” I asked. “That’s where Ana will sleep,” he replied. Now I understood. This was only a two room apartment! I hadn’t been shown around because I’d already seen everything. The mother must sleep on the couch in the den. That wasn’t just a den, it was also her bedroom. And this living room doubled as Robert’s bedroom.
I don’t like sharing a bed with another man if I don’t have to. And with Ana here the arrangement made no sense.
“Look,” I said to Robert quietly, and out of earshot of the others. “We have one double bed and one single bed. We have two men and one woman. Now the worst possible combination is for the two men to sleep together. Surely you can see that! Now I don’t care where I sleep, but wouldn’t you rather sleep with Ana than with me?”
“Well, yes, but my mother is sort of old fashioned about these things. She doesn’t think we should sleep together.” I pondered this. The mother had retired to the kitchen. Ana was in the bathroom getting ready for bed.
“OK, here’s the plan,” I said. “I’ll get into this double bed with you. When Ana comes in, she’ll get into the single. Then, when your mother goes to sleep, Ana and I will switch.”
“Good plan!” he said enthusiastically.
Robert and I got in bed together and turned off the light. The light in the hallway was already off, and so it was now very dark. The bathroom door opened and here came Ana, into the bedroom.
She took in the sleeping arrangements at a glance and immediately substituted her own plan. Climbing onto the double bed she snuggled in between Robert and me, and deftly pulled the covers over all three of us.
“This is fun!” she said mischievously.
I was beginning to suspect that Ana had few, if any, clothes on. This was only a small double bed after all, not even a queen-size. My first day in the Soviet Union, which had started out cold and lonely, was ending up with a “ménage a Russians,” or rather Estonians.
“Ana,” I asked cautiously, “do you think Robert’s mother has gone to sleep yet?” This was an absurd question for we could all hear her banging around in the kitchen. But by agreement with Robert I was not free to leave the bed until the mother was asleep.
“No,” she said. “I don’t think she’s gone to sleep yet. Does it matter?”
“Yes, it matters a lot. In fact, I think she has gone to sleep.” With that declaration, I got swiftly out of the bed and headed towards the single. I remembered I hadn’t used the bathroom yet myself, so I went there first. Then, through the closed bathroom door, I heard sharp voices coming from the bedroom. Robert’s mother had apparently gone in and had discovered Robert and Ana in bed together. I waited until the turmoil died down and then I went back in. The mother was gone, and the sleeping arrangements were the same, so I climbed into the single, and we were soon all asleep–at least I was.
I awoke the following morning to more sounds coming from the kitchen. It was still dark out, and I glanced at my watch, which said 6:00 a.m. Apparently Robert’s mother was getting ready to leave to go to work. I dozed off, and when I woke again it was light. The mother must have left, for after a moment of listening I could detect no noises. Now my watch said 9:30. I got up and dressed quickly, taking advantage of the fact the others were still sleeping. I left the room and closed the door behind me.
As I toured the small apartment I discovered that Robert’s mother had prepared a breakfast for us, and left it on the tiny table in the kitchen. I heated some water using a pot on the electric stove and poured myself a cup of tea. Robert and Ana were up shortly and joined me at the table. The breakfast was a little strange: cold cuts of salami and bologna, some slices of bread, a bottle of milk, and two small cartons of something mysterious. I asked Robert what they were, but he didn’t know the word in English. I decided to open one and find out.
Inside was a white substance. I took a taste with my spoon, and found it similar to yogurt. It was closer to yogurt than Soviet mineral water was to American mineral water at least.
“We call this yogurt,” I explained to Robert.
“No, it’s not yogurt,” he said.
I tried a few more cautious spoonfuls. “Are you supposed to eat it like this with a spoon?” I asked.
“Well,” said Ana, “you certainly may eat it with a spoon if you wish.” She seemed amused.
I decided I didn’t really like it, but now that I’d opened the carton, I felt duty-bound to finish it. Half way through I had a horrible thought. “This tastes a little like sour cream…” I said.
“That’s it!” said Robert. “That’s the word I couldn’t remember. It’s sour cream.”
I felt sick. “Do I have to finish it?” I asked.
“I think you’d be crazy to finish it,” said Robert. “But I thought maybe Americans ate sour cream like that.”
By ten-thirty we had showered, and were back on the street. The jitney buses were all full so we splurged and grabbed a taxi. It was an overcast day, and a warm front had come through, turning yesterday’s snowfall into dirty slush which made large pools of water by the roadside. A very light rain was falling, hardly more than a mist.
The cab let us out at a street corner downtown and we walked half a block to a rather impressive building, perhaps a post office. “This is the marine academy I attended,” explained Robert. “I need to do an errand here, and then we’ll be on our way.” A large revolving door brought us into the lobby, where a uniformed man stopped us and asked for ID. Robert showed his, and explained that Ana and I were with him. Somewhat reluctantly, the guard let us through, and we waited in the lobby until Robert returned.
The plan for the day involved a quick stroll around Tallinn’s old town, the same area I had wandered the night before but definitely worth repeating, then lunch somewhere, to be followed by my meeting with the newspaper man. As we walked away from the marine academy, Robert exchanged a few words with Ana and then turned to me.
“I think I’m going to go to Leningrad with you, on the train,” said Robert.
“You’re going to Leningrad?”
“The train can be dangerous. I don’t think you should go alone.”
“What can be dangerous about a train?”
“Bad things can happen on a train. People get robbed sometimes on trains. I don’t think you should be by yourself.”
I was tempted to protest, but I was beginning to suspect Robert wanted to go to Leningrad, and was using the dangerous nature of the train as an excuse.
“How long will you stay?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll probably stay one day, and come back that same night.”
“You’re welcome to share my room at the hotel, if they’ll let us,” I said, suspecting they wouldn’t.
“We’ll see,” said Robert.
This was an interesting development. Robert would be coming to Leningrad with me, at least for one day. In effect I would arrive in the city with my own Intourist guide.
The rain had stopped and we walked around the old town for an hour. Everything seemed completely different, in company with Ana and Robert. The buildings and people were the same, but the main thing I’d remembered from yesterday afternoon, the loneliness, had disappeared. No wonder everything seemed different.
We found a little fondue cafe for lunch, and as the waiter was bringing over the little pot of boiling oil, Robert announced to me that he had to leave again. Apparently another errand had to be taken care of, and also he had to find a phone and call the newspaper man, to arrange our meeting. “He’s going to be very surprised when I tell him I found an American so quickly,” said Robert proudly. “He won’t know how I did it!”
So for the second time in less than twenty-four hours I was left alone to enjoy a leisurely meal with Ana. But by now we were friends and I knew conversation would not be difficult. Robert returned within the hour and was able to enjoy a little of the fondue himself.
“Bad news,” he said as soon as he was seated. “The newspaper man can’t see us this afternoon. It’s too short notice, and he’s not going to be at his office. But he wants you to write the article for him, if you’d be willing.”
“An article about what?”
“About Estonia, about coming here, what you saw, what you think of the country.”
“I’ll write the article on one condition,” I said. “After it’s printed, I want you to send me a copy of the paper that it’s in. I want to see an article I’ve written actually printed in a Soviet newspaper.”
“I’ll be happy to,” said Robert. “But the article will have been translated into Estonian so you won’t be able to read it.”
“Seeing it in Estonian will be the best part,” I said.
We had one more errand to do before catching the 4:30 p.m. train. I needed to send a telegram home to my wife, explaining that I’d arrived safely in the Soviet Union. I hadn’t promised to do this, not knowing the difficulty, but I had said I would try.
Robert needed to run back to the marine academy to pick up some things to take with him. Apparently he had a small travel pack stored there and if he could retrieve that he wouldn’t need to go back to his apartment. So Ana escorted me to the post office, and helped me send the telegram.
“ARRIVED TALLINN. STAYED OVERNIGHT WITH NEW FRIENDS. NOW ON TO LENINGRAD.”
That would shake up my family, I thought. They knew how rigid my travel plans were in the Soviet Union, and would go crazy wondering how I’d managed to meet people in Tallinn and stay overnight with them.
Robert rendezvoused with us back on the street, and we jumped a trolley bound for the train station. The conductor didn’t bother to collect the 5 kopeck fare. “Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t,” said Ana. When we arrived at the terminal we had only ten minutes before departure. Robert determined which train of the several on the platform we wanted, and told Ana and me to start walking towards the front of it, as that would likely be the location of our seats. By the time we reached the last car the train was due to leave in about four minutes, and Robert had not returned with the tickets.
“This isn’t a good plan,” I said to Ana. “If Robert runs out at the last second, he can jump on the end of the train. But if we’re way up here we won’t know he’s on board and so I won’t be able to get on. We should go back to the other end of the train.”
Ana saw the sense of this immediately and we started walking down the platform. Here came Robert, breathless. “I got the tickets,” he said. “We need to find car #4.” That wasn’t difficult, it was right beside us. We started to board, showing our tickets to one of the conductors, but something was wrong. The conductor was shaking his head, and pointing.
“This is the wrong train!” said Robert. “This one’s going to Moscow. Ours is on the other side.”
Now we were really late. It was already 4:30. We took off at a run, my pack bouncing along on my back. I was glad I was accustomed to living at 9,000 feet elevation, as otherwise I could not have kept up with them. They weren’t having to carry suitcases! We came back to the terminal, crossed over to the proper platform, and began running towards our train. The platforms were equal in height to the doorways on the trains, so when we reached the first open doorway Robert and I walked on, with Ana staying just outside on the platform. We knew could find out own car later.
A conductor appeared and began looking at our tickets skeptically, taking Robert away from the doorway and into the car itself. Ana and I were left alone for a moment. Realizing the train was about to leave she gave me a big hug and then backed away. It was a little sad, having to say good-bye. The chance of ever seeing her again was close to zero. She must have been thinking the same thing. Rushing up to me again, she threw her arms around my neck and kissed me warmly on the cheek. “Good-bye,” she said. “I’ll miss you.” And then the whistle blew and the train pulled out of the station, with Ana waving in the distance.
At that moment I remembered it was Thanksgiving day in America. For some reason I had completely forgotten about it.
CHAPTER 4 Night Train to Leningrad
I found Robert in the aisle, looking for our compartment. We were both perspiring heavily from running with our heavy winter coats and our luggage, modest though it was.
We walked through car after car, seeking the right one. Seating on Russian trains is generally divided into “hard class” and “soft class” and I didn’t know which type of tickets Robert had purchased. I later discovered that this was only a hard class train. But the cars we went through were all very different from each other. Some had normal seats, reasonably cushioned and facing forwards. Others had benches set up facing each other. One car was very hard class–rock hard. The benches were made of Formica. And the backs consisted of straight up and down Formica walls, with no cushioning whatsoever. I was glad when Robert continued past this car.
At last we came to one that was less crowded, and had conventional European compartments with vinyl padding on the seats. Robert checked our tickets against the compartment numbers and finally identified the one to which we’d been assigned. He opened the door, and at that moment I discovered why Russian trains could be so dangerous. The only other occupants were two uniformed Soviet policemen. Robert and I nodded to them politely, and took our seats, quite out of breath. The policemen stared at us malevolently. The train gathered speed and soon even the outskirts of Tallinn were left behind.
Only a little daylight would be left for taking pictures of the Estonian countryside, but with my broken camera I wasn’t sure it mattered. Probably nothing would come out anyway. I stood in the aisle and clicked the shutter as we passed snow-covered fields and woodlands, glad for an excuse to distance myself from the policemen. I felt so at ease being under Robert’s protection that I’d forgotten the warnings in the travel literature to never take pictures around train stations, or from train windows. With the law enforcement authorities just a few feet away it was probably a foolish thing to do.
Robert joined me in the aisle. “That’s a real break for us,” he said, gesturing toward the policemen. “We won’t have to worry about anything on this train. No one’s going to rob us with two policemen sharing our compartment.”
“People really get robbed on trains?” I asked skeptically.
“Oh yes, very often. These trains can be dangerous. But not this time, not with two policemen. That’s an amazing stroke of luck.” He seemed very relieved.
“They don’t look too friendly to me,” I said.
“That’s because they found out you’re an American.”
“They don’t like Americans?”
“No, that’s not it. It’s because this isn’t a tourist train. This train is forbidden to foreigners, remember?”
“How did you get me on it then?”
“Simple. I just bought two tickets. I didn’t tell anyone who you were.”
“And the policemen?”
“They heard us speaking English and asked me what was going on. That’s how they found out. They’re not very pleased. I showed them my Intourist ID and said this was a special situation. What can they do? The train has already left Tallinn.”
As darkness fell over the countryside Robert and I discovered the dining car just one removed from our own. It had stand-up tables and a little window through which a woman could hand out sandwiches and drinks. Of the various kinds of food shown on the menu, none was available. Finally Robert asked what they had. We were each given a plate with a large chunk of cheese and a large chunk of bread. I’ve always hated cheese on sandwiches, and a sandwich consisting entirely of cheese was torture. On the other hand I had been smuggled onto a forbidden train, and two policemen were eyeing us suspiciously. The cheese sandwich was the least of my worries.
Finishing our meal we wandered back to the window to see if there might be something else worth eating. The old woman was curious about me, and was asking questions of Robert. “She’s never met an American,” he told me. “She wants to know if you like the Soviet Union.”
“Tell her I love it, it’s great. Good sandwiches too,” I lied. The woman beamed.
“She wants to know what business you’re in in America,” Robert translated.
“Tell her I’m in the computer business,” I said. I’d already explained my company briefly to Robert, but saying I was ‘in the computer business’ was simple and reasonably accurate. On her counter she had a giant abacus, identical to that on every counter everywhere in the Soviet Union.
“My computer!” she said, pointing to it proudly.
“Looks pretty user-friendly to me,” I said. She let me play with it, flinging the little markers back and forth. I asked if I could take her picture with the abacus but she absolutely refused. Of course the camera was broken anyway.
There were many hours to go before we’d reach Leningrad around midnight. “Do you play chess?” I asked Robert.
“Yes!” He said. “Do you have a chess set with you?”
“A tiny one, if you don’t mind playing on a tiny chess set.”
“Let’s play,” he said, and then added cautiously, “I’m not very good.”
“Neither am I,” I said honestly. We returned to the compartment. The policemen were now sitting by the door, not the window, which was convenient as Robert and I needed the little table by the window to set up the magnetic chess board. The policemen watched this development with curiosity. Robert took a black and white piece in each hand and held them behind his back. I chose one. Black. So Robert would be white and would start the game. He moved king’s pawn to king’s four.
I countered. The game took on its familiar rhythm as we established our opening positions. After twenty minutes no piece had yet been captured. The ‘early game’, as it is called, was becoming very drawn out. We were playing cautiously, building strong defensive positions with our men, not venturing out to attack. Maybe we both felt a little nervous in this international chess game.
At this point another man who happened to be passing the compartment noticed our playing and spoke something to Robert, who nodded, and the man walked quickly off down the aisle. In a few moments he returned with a full-size Russian chess set. As Robert and I continued our play, the man sat beside me and carefully set up the pieces on the large board to match those on the magnetic set. When he had them all in position, making final last minute adjustments as positions changed, he looked questioningly at Robert and me. We nodded, and with a deft motion he took away the small board and put the large one in its place.
Now we could see what we were doing, and so could others. Within a few minutes several spectators had joined us, and the compartment was becoming crowded. Word was spreading of the big chess match in progress. Soon there was no more room and new arrivals had to peer in curiously from the aisle. Even the policemen had become fascinated watching the game, their sullenness set aside for the moment.
Yet still no piece had been captured. I’d never been this far into a game with no pieces removed from the board. How much longer could it continue before first blood was drawn?
Then I saw an opening. Robert had become slightly too aggressive with his queen. Two moves later I captured it. His queen! The most important piece on the board. A collective sigh rose from the audience. One of them pointed to me and grinned. “Bobby Fisher!” he said, and they all laughed. The policemen didn’t laugh.
“I don’t believe it!” said Robert. “I think I’d better resign.” Chess players will often resign even early in a game if the opponent obtains an overwhelming advantage, as had happened in this case. Assuming no further mistakes were made, the game was over, even though the agony might continue for hours. It would have been proper etiquette for me to say “OK, let’s play another one,” and so claim victory. I was very tempted to do so.
But I didn’t. I was reluctant to see the game end, and knew capturing the queen had largely been a matter of luck. “Don’t resign,” I said to Robert. “I tend to make a lot of mistakes in the course of a game myself. Let’s keep going.”
“OK,” he said doubtfully.
So the moves continued as the train rushed over the frozen night-time landscape. The ancient fortress town of Narva came and went, where Peter the Great’s army had been routed by the Swedes at the beginning of the Great Northern War in the year 1700, a defeat which had made the Russian army the laughingstock of Europe, and which would not be avenged for another 12 years, at the decisive battle of Poltava in the southern Ukraine. It was Peter’s victory in the Great Northern War that had resulted in all these lands being ceded to Russia in the first place. But at Narva, even though outnumbered four to one by the Russian troops who held the fortress, Charles II of Sweden launched such a ruthless attack that the Russian soldiers fleeing in panic across the river had caused the bridge to collapse. Charles had commented in light humor the next day “It is no fun fighting these Russians, they run away too fast. If the bridge had not collapsed we could at least have had a battle!”
Now our train was crossing this same river, presumably on a better bridge. The chess match continued, and I was so consumed by it that I actually forgot for a moment that with the crossing of the Narva River the train had left Estonia and had entered the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. Now I was actually in Russia itself, not just the Soviet Union.
By meticulous play Robert had steadily worn down my advantage, and the opposing forces were roughly even. The audience was utterly silent, all concentrating on the game. Such a closely-fought match between an American and a Soviet citizen had taken on the luster of a patriotic contest. There was no doubt whom the on-lookers were rooting for. And it was becoming obvious that Robert was a better chess player. I had made no obvious blunders, I was simply being steadily outmaneuvered.
At last the board had been swept nearly clean, and the two sides were precisely even. We each had remaining only a king and a pawn. At this stage of a chess game there is no longer anything complicated. No piece can suddenly jump out of hiding and fly across the board to make an unexpected capture. Simple geometry and skill would determine which of us could capture the other’s pawn first. But here again, Robert was better. I prefer the elusive, the element of surprise. That’s how I’d captured his queen. But there was no such opportunity now. Robert knew just what to do, and although it took him nearly ten moves, my pawn was finally lost.
There was still an element of hope. I might yet head off his own pawn and capture it, forcing a stalemate, but after a few more moves we both realized the geometry was against me. His pawn would reach the other side of the board before I could stop it. Once there it would metamorphose into a new queen, and the game would be over. We both realized this at the same instant, and I saw no reason not to acknowledge it. “I resign,” I stated formally. Robert nodded, and everyone in the room heaved a sigh of relief. After three hours of play the Russian had beaten the American. But it had been close. Damn, it had been close.
Chatting amongst themselves, the onlookers dispersed back to their compartments. Robert and I stepped into the hall to stretch our legs and catch a breath of air. But there wasn’t much air in the hall. “It’s awfully hot in this car, isn’t it?” I said.
Robert grinned. “Yes. The conductor found out there was an American on board, and he told me he was afraid the American would get cold, so he turned up the heat.”
“No, he was quite worried. It would not be good for him if the American complained to the authorities.”
“Why would I do that? I’m not even supposed to be on this train.”
“That’s not the point. You are on it, and you’re an American tourist, and if you aren’t made comfortable, he could lose his job, or get a stern lecture from his boss.”
“If that’s the case,” I said, “I think you should tell the conductor that the American is too hot.”
“Yes, I think I should.” We walked down the aisle, looking for the conductor. He wasn’t obviously about, but Robert knew his compartment number. Finding it, we opened the door, and here was the conductor sprawled out unconscious on the seats, an empty vodka bottle rolling from side to side on the floor.
“I think,” said Robert, “he was so nervous having an American on board that he got drunk and passed out.”
“I guess the pressure was just too much,” I said.
“I think I know where the furnace is,” said Robert. “Maybe we can figure out how to turn it down.” We went out on the platform, between two of the cars. It was cold here, with traces of snow having made their way in through the cracks in the doorways. We found the furnace easily enough. It was a big coal furnace. I could see the hot coals burning through the gaps in a little metal cover. Nearby hung a shovel over a pile of black coal, and large asbestos gloves were set on top of the coal pile.
It was obvious how to turn up the heat — simply shovel in more coal. But how could we turn it down? I’d never operated a coal furnace before. We opened the door of the train. Icy wind rushed in, mixed with a flurry of snow, and the black night roared past, clickety clack, clickety clack. The train was going fast. I put on the asbestos gloves and cautiously opened the furnace door. If putting more coal in would make it hotter, taking some out should cool it down. I carefully flung a shovelful of burning coal out the door of the train and into the night. I had no idea where it would land, but the snow would extinguish the flames. We closed up the furnace, and shut the door.
It was exhilarating being out here on the platform. Neither of us wished to return to the compartment. Quite naturally, we began discussing politics. I was interested in how the Soviet people felt about communism.
“It’s very frustrating,” Robert said. “Many tourists ask me how the Soviet people feel. How do I know? I’m just one person. We don’t all think alike.”
“Yes, but when they ask that question they don’t really mean everybody, they mean just you. Do you think Estonia should be independent, for example?”
“Well, it’s hard for me. My mother is Estonian, my father is Russian. That’s why in Tallinn I was sent to the secondary school for Russians, and learned to speak Russian without an accent. Normally Estonians would go to a different school, not as good a school.”
“So do you think of yourself as Russian, or Estonian?”
“Estonian,” he said without hesitation.
“And do you think Estonia should be independent?”
“No,” he finally said, “not completely independent. I think we should be able to have our own laws, and run our own economy. But I think we should stay part of the Soviet system in foreign policy and defense.”
“Well, that’s pretty much what the Estonian parliament said.”
“Yes, I think it’s a good move.”
“What do you think the Kremlin will do about it?”
“Who knows? Probably they won’t allow it. But eventually they’ll have to.”
“In America,” I said, “we have the federal government of course, but each individual state is free to make its own laws. That way the states can try out different laws, and when one state tries something new, the others watch to see if it works, whether it’s a good law or not. If it’s a good law they can adopt it themselves. If not, then no one else will copy it, and the state itself may get rid of it. That kind of experimenting is easy to do with lots of different small governments. But if you just have one strong central government, it’s hard to experiment, and when you do make a mistake its hard to change back. I think the Soviet Union should start using its republics as we do the states, letting them make their own laws, and then seeing what kind of result those laws produce.”
“Yes,” said Robert, “I think that would work well here. Look what Gorbachev’s having to do, change an entire country all at once. That’s difficult.”
“How about communism? Do people still believe in it? Do you still believe in it?”
“Well–” Robert hesitated. “It depends what you mean by communism. Obviously you have to have some form of free enterprise or you won’t have any productivity. But if we went to a pure capitalist system, there’d be a lot of problems with that also. I think you need some mix between the two.”
“Are you a member of the Communist party?”
“Yes. I joined the party several years ago. But that was purely to help my career. Back then you really couldn’t get anywhere unless you were a party member. That’s not true anymore. These days it makes no difference.”
“Do you think Gorbachev is making progress then?”
“He’s made tremendous progress. It used to be that the newspapers never reported the truth about anything. Now they do, even things that are embarrassing to the government. That’s a big change.”
Shortly we begin seeing the outskirts of Leningrad: scattered high-rises, factories, lights, highways. Leningrad was obviously a large city, for the train continued its high speed run across the countryside, and showed no sign of slowing down. Other tracks joined with ours, and there were box cars and flat cars waiting at the sidings. We passed several complete trains, on opposite tracks. Apparently we were approaching a major rail terminal.
Ten minutes to midnight the train began slowing down, and finally came to a complete stop. We had reached Leningrad’s Varshavski Terminal.
Out on the platform was a scene from Dr. Zhivago. Countless masses (some huddled, some not) milled about, looking for trains, looking for particular cars, saying good-bye or greeting one another. I was surprised there could be so much activity at midnight. Inside the station, the bedlam was even greater. I’d suggested to Robert that we check in at the Intourist desk first. With my voucher they owed me a free ride to the hotel. But the Intourist desk was closed. Tourists weren’t supposed to be arriving on this train.
Our plan was to get to my hotel, and try to talk them into letting Robert stay overnight in my room. We left the terminal building and went out onto the street. A long queue of people was standing here. “They’re waiting for taxis,” said Robert.
“Do you think it will be a long wait?” I asked, seeing no taxis anywhere.
“Yes, I think it will be a very long wait. Let’s take the metro.”
The metro is Leningrad’s masterpiece subway, supposedly one of the marvels of the world. After asking directions, we began walking towards the nearest station. After we had walked about ten minutes I said to Robert “Why wouldn’t they put a metro stop right at the train terminal? That seems like the first place you’d put one.”
“Yes, but there are six other terminals in Leningrad,” said Robert. “Here’s another one.” Sure enough, we had come to a second large ornate building, with more people milling about on the street. “There’s the metro station,” said Robert.
We entered down a stairway. At the first level were change machines. It required a five-kopek piece to go through the gate, a kopek being one one-hundredth of a ruble, like a penny to a dollar. There were machines for changing 20 kopek pieces, and 10 kopek pieces. Robert and I each changed a 20-kopek piece. Now we had to go through a row of things that resembled turnstiles, but there was nothing in them to stop free passage. A man in front put his 5-kopek piece in one of the slots and started to step through. Immediately two vicious bars of steel shot out from the side, bruising him in the leg, and eliciting a cry of pain. He stepped back, kicked at the machine which now blocked his way with the steel bars, and tried another, with a different 5 kopek piece. This time he made it through without harm.
“Interesting system,” I said to Robert.
“Yes,” he said. “There’s an electric eye that senses when someone is coming through. If they don’t put a 5 kopek piece in, it bars the way. But they don’t work very well. Sometimes they don’t realize you’ve already put in the money. That’s what just happened. Be careful,” he added.
I needed no encouragement. I slipped in my 5 kopek piece, saw a little light turn green, and then rushed through, wondering if my legs were about to be severed. But the steel bars stayed put. Robert made it through next, also without harm.
Now we came to a row of escalators that descended deep into the ground, through long, round tunnels. This was much like the London ‘tube’. Those standing stayed to the right, those walking passed on the left. Robert at first stood to the right, resting, but I’ve always loved walking on escalators, and this was perhaps the longest escalator in the world. “Come on!” I shouted, and took off at a run down the infinity of steps, rushing by the stationery figures with my full pack bouncing on my back. Robert got into the spirit of it too, and now it was almost a race, as we flew down the steps far beneath the night-time streets of Leningrad.
At last we came to a platform and I had a moment to take in the look of the station. Its reputation is deserved. This did not look like any subway I’d ever seen. It was a palace. The walls were painted white, set amidst colonnades, which reached overhead in beautiful Grecian latticework, connecting with those on the other side, all of it accented with what looked like real gold carved in ornate figurines. Even the most heartless New York punk would think twice before defiling these walls with graffiti. So far none had done so. I felt a familiar rush of wind against my face, coming from one of the dark tunnels, and I knew the train was approaching.
“Made in Finland,” said Robert, as the cars screeched to a halt. “All the subway cars are made in Finland.” The doors opened and we got in. The train was about half-full, even this late at night. There were many seats available, but we’d been sitting for hours and standing felt better.
After several stops Robert motioned me out the door. Here was something interesting. Every station was completely different. This one looked nothing like the other. Here was shiny red brick, with a kind of lacquer on it giving it a sheen. “No two stations in Leningrad look alike,” said Robert, guessing my thoughts.
We emerged from the metro back onto a very wide, snow-covered street. I suspected this was Nevsky Prospect, the main artery of downtown Leningrad. We found the Europeskaya Hotel at the corner of Nevsky and Brodsky. The Europeskaya is one of a dozen hotels Intourist uses to house foreign visitors in Leningrad.
In the Soviet Union, you don’t request a particular hotel, you request a particular city. Then Intourist makes an arbitrary selection of which hotel to put you in. I was lucky to get the Europeskaya. It was built right downtown, in the time of the tsars. Most of the other hotels are modern high rises on the distant fringes of the city.
Despite it’s heritage, the entrance to the Europeskaya is certainly not grand. A single revolving door gives access to the lobby, and immediately behind this door are security guards who prevent all but registered hotel guests from entering. I had to hold up my voucher for inspection, and Robert simply attached himself to me as we went through the doors.
It was two in the morning, but the reception desk was open on the far side of another set of revolving doors. We went through, and I showed my voucher. The woman’s English was not quite adequate to the situation, for she was very upset that I was checking in late at night, actually the morning following the day I was supposed to have arrived. Robert began translating but then realized that he could handle the situation better by speaking to her directly in Russian. The two of them argued for five minutes, while I looked on bewildered.
Suddenly the woman turned to me and spoke sharply in Russian. I could only stare back, helpless. She repeated the words, whatever they were. I turned to Robert for help, I didn’t understand why he wasn’t translating. “She’s asking if you speak Russian,” he finally said, and that really made the woman mad.
“I’m asking him, not you!” she snapped in English, and repeated the original question to me in Russian.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak any Russian,” I said. The woman looked as if she doubted this, but there was little she could do. I had no idea what was going on.
Finally she sighed, handed me a room card, and directed me to proceed to the third floor. Obviously we were being dismissed.
Back in the lobby I turned to Robert. “What was that all about?”
“We’ll talk about it later,” he said. “But there is no doubt they won’t let me stay here in your room.”
“What will you do?”
“I know a girl who lives in the city. I’ll call her up and stay with her.”
“You think that will work?”
“Don’t worry about me. I think you should go quickly to your room, before they change their minds.” He seemed serious.
“When do we meet?” I asked, needing to make plans for the following morning.
“I’ll come back here about ten, and knock on your door.”
“OK,” I said. “See you then.” And I went up to the third floor.
My travel guides had explained that in the Soviet Union you are never issued a key to your hotel room, you are issued instead a “room card,” with your room number on it. Arriving on your floor, you give this to the “key clerk” and she will give you your room key. On leaving, you reverse the process.
Sure enough, here was the key clerk, sitting at a little desk at two in the morning. I gave her my card and she gave me a key. It was a big brass key, the kind you’d use in fairy tales for locking princesses in high towers. This was really an old hotel.
I found my room and turned the key in the lock. It felt as if I was opening a bank vault. I went in and looked around. My travel agent had explained that in the Soviet Union a “first class” hotel, which the Europeskaya purports to be, should not be confused with what an American would call a first class hotel.
The room I was in looked like a New York slum. After my eyes adjusted to the dim light, however, I decided it was just old and shabby. The furniture was no better than what a second-hand store would reject, and the bathtub had big water stains on it. The ceiling was nearly two stories high, and a single bulb hung from it in isolation. But it was a private room with a bath, and that’s all I needed.
As I turned off the light and began drifting rapidly to sleep, I had just a moment to wonder how I would survive in this strange country if Robert didn’t show up in the morning.
CHAPTER 5: Spies Like Us
I had taken a shower, or the closest thing to a shower that could be managed in a bathtub which pre-dated the tsars, and was nearly dressed when there was a knock on the door. It was Robert.
“I’m exhausted,” he said.
“What happened last night?” I asked.
“I called my friend, Ritta. She wasn’t very happy to hear from me at 2:00 in the morning.”
“We should have thought of that.”
“I heard children crying in the background. She said my phone call woke them up, and I don’t think she was very happy about that either.”
“She has children?” I asked.
“They’re not hers. She shares an apartment with some other people.”
“Did she let you stay there?”
“No, she said that wouldn’t be a good idea. So she gave me the name of a hotel and I took a cab. But when I got there they had no room, so I sat down in the chair in the lobby and told them I was going to sit there until morning.”
“I bet they loved that idea.”
“They were quite nice about it, actually. They said I could lie down on the couch.”
“So you spent the whole night on a couch?”
“It wasn’t a very long night.”
“That’s true.” I was beginning to feel guilty that I’d enjoyed a comfortable bed for six hours, while Robert had been running around Leningrad sleeping on couches.
“At seven this morning they made me get off the couch, but they were able to make some phone calls and find me a hotel, so now I have a place to stay. I took a cab here.”
“How did you get into the lobby?” I asked, remembering the guards from the night before.
“I showed them my Intourist ID and said I was your guide.”
“That Intourist ID comes in handy doesn’t it?”
“Yes, but I hope no one looks at it closely. It’s only valid in Estonia.”
Robert asked to use my bathtub, then my razor, and finally my toothbrush, but it seemed the least I could do. We both headed down to the hotel’s cafe for breakfast, but when we arrived we found breakfast had ended and they were now serving lunch. The procedure at this cafe was to pay a set price in rubles at the door, walk in, and help yourself to whatever food had been prepared, set out cafeteria style.
For lunch they had borscht, a beet soup. Tea was available at no extra charge, but anyone wanting coffee had to pay extra. It was easy to see why. In this cafe it required an exceptional effort to make coffee. An ancient woman was stationed beside the coffee maker which was nearly twelve feet high, and wider than a refrigerator. It had gages, relief valves, and other sophisticated instruments the purpose of which I could not determine. I have seen industrial-size coffee makers in America, but this device was capable of producing only one cup of coffee at a time. I asked for one and she began her ritual, filling up a canister with coffee grounds, injecting these somehow into the machine, manipulating the controls back and forth, and finally receiving the completed coffee into a small cup, from out of a spigot. The whole operation took nearly five minutes. The machine did produce good coffee but the drink held small pleasure for me, knowing the effort it required of the old woman.
As we sat down to our meal, Robert opened the conversation. “You used an expression last night,” he said, “and I didn’t know what it meant. I never got a chance to ask about it.”
“When you saw the long queue waiting for the taxis, you said ‘Give me a break.’ What does that mean, ‘Give me a break’?”
Thus began Robert’s lesson in American idioms, which continued over the next several days. I tried to remember all the good ones: “Give me a break,” “I don’t have time for this s—t,” “Murphy’s law,” and “Earth to–whomever,” when ‘whomever’ is being spacy. I said he could use that last one when American tourists started doing dumb things. Before I left he made me write them all down so he wouldn’t forget, and over the next several days he would try to interject them appropriately into the conversation.
After filling up with borscht Robert and I were ready to face Leningrad. I had a long list of tourist attractions I wanted to see, but none of them would have any meaning until I had purchased a camera. My guidebooks had made it clear that shopping in the Soviet Union is best done at ‘beriozka’ shops. Beriozka shops are stores that sell a variety of merchandise, but only in return for hard currency. Hence while all prices at the shops are in rubles, payment must be made in dollars, francs, finnmarks, or other Western money. And of course the conversion is made at the official rate, guaranteeing a ten fold profit to the government.
So while Soviet citizens might have to line up for hours to buy a roll of toilet paper, tourists with hard currency need merely stroll to the nearest beriozka shop to find most anything.
There was a miniature beriozka in the Europeskaya hotel, but it sold very little merchandise, certainly not cameras. The Intourist desk in the lobby directed us to the city’s largest beriozka, located opposite the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel, on the outskirts of the city. After asking directions, Robert thought he could get us there by metro.
Leaving the hotel we walked the half block down Brodsky Street to Nevsky Prospect where we turned left. Nevsky Prospect is the “Champs Elysees” of Leningrad. This ten-lane wide boulevard, with sidewalks broad enough for the heavy and continuous flow of pedestrians, was my first real view of a major Soviet city, a Russian city. Tallinn, after all, was only a provincial capital. The first thing I noticed, as in Estonia, was the fact that everyone: men, women, children, and babies, all wore large fur hats. If there had been nothing else, that would have given away the fact that I was in the Soviet Union. Another thing that was very different from New York was the absence of cars. There were many pedestrians, and the street did have some cars, as well as some buses, but they were so few that traffic was able to maintain a reasonable speed.
And here was something else. We had come to a long queue which had formed in front of one of the doorways facing the street, causing an obstruction for pedestrians. The queue stretched perhaps two city blocks and contained about 150 people. “Robert,” I said, “I’m curious what they’re waiting for. Can you ask them?”
Robert exchanged a few words with one of the men standing in the line, and then turned back to me. “They’re waiting for cakes,” he said.
“Apparently a special kind of cake has come in, a very good cake, and everyone wants one.”
“Robert I yield to no man in my admiration of a good cake. But there is no cake on earth worth waiting in a line two blocks long for!”
“I agree,” he said. We strolled along for a few more moments and then he added “unless you’ve never had a cake.”
Leningrad is a beautiful city. At least along Nevsky Prospect every building looks as if it had been designed as a minor palace. And it is a clean city. I remembered buildings in Paris, London, and New York that might once have looked this attractive, but decades of pollution had turned them black. Leningrad’s buildings are white and often accented with gold paint.
We found the metro station and went back down the long tubes into the ground. After boarding five different trains, each taking us in a seemingly opposite direction from the one prior, Robert announced that we had arrived. Back at street level he asked a nearby policeman to point us in the direction of the Beriozka shop.
“He says we’re on the exact opposite side of the city from where we want to be,” admitted Robert. At least he’d been honest about the fact that he did not know his way around Leningrad.
“Let’s take a cab,” I suggested. The day was waning fast.
“Good idea,” said Robert.
“Are there any cabs?” I didn’t see any. In New York almost a third of all the cars are yellow taxis.
“Oh we’ll never find a real taxi,” Robert admitted. “But we can just stop any car and ask them to take us to the Pribaltiyskaya.”
I remembered my guidebook had mentioned that in the Soviet Union any private car is potentially a taxi. They aren’t strictly legal, or at least they are officially frowned upon by the Soviet government because it’s a most unregulated form of private enterprise. But there are so few cabs, and so many car owners happy to earn a few extra rubles, that the official policy is unenforceable and ignorable. Nevertheless Robert took the precaution of walking around the corner so the policeman wouldn’t be forced to see us flaunt the law.
He waved desultorily at a few cars as they sped by, and obtained no reaction from them. I began to realize that my experience in New York made me more adept than Robert at dealing with certain aspects of Leningrad. He clearly had no idea how to hail a gypsy cab, as we called them in Manhattan.
I studied the next flow of cars, looking for one with no passengers. Here came a good candidate, driving slower than the surrounding traffic, and with a driver that seemed preoccupied with the scenery, not with any destination. I left the sidewalk and stepped directly in front of this car, my arms waving wildly. The driver pulled over, and we got in. “That’s how it’s done in New York,” I said.
The drive to the Pribaltiyskaya took nearly thirty minutes, which confirmed how far astray we’d come on the subway. The driver spoke no English but was fascinated to discover he was carrying an American and an Estonian. Robert soon had his hands full translating for me.
“My heart is with you Estonians,” said the driver. “I think what you are trying to do is very good. Be independent. I hope you succeed.”
This was interesting: a Russian citizen supporting Estonia’s drive for independence. I jumped into the conversation.
“You think it’s a good idea, having Estonia become a sovereign nation?” I asked.
“Yes, my heart is with them.”
“What if the other fourteen republics decided to become sovereign? Would that be a good idea?”
“Well, it would certainly make life interesting wouldn’t it? Heh, heh!”
Quite a liberal, this driver. “What have the newspapers been saying about Estonia, here in Russia?” I asked.
“Ha! I gave up reading the newspapers years ago. Each day it’s the same news: ‘Everything Is Fine In The Soviet Union.’ The next day: ‘Everything Is Fine In The Soviet Union’. The next day: ‘Everything Is Fine In The Soviet Union.’ Why read the paper?”
“That’s not true anymore,” Robert interjected in an aside to me. “Not under Gorbachev.”
Now we were passing some important looking buildings, and the driver was eager to point them out. There was the Academy of This and the Theater of That. The Palace of This and the Monument of That. My mind clouds over when surfeited with colonnaded buildings.
But here was one worth attention. It occupied three city blocks. It’s high classic architecture, white pillars, light green color, and gold paint created a stunning effect. “That’s the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen!” I said with complete honesty.
“The Winter Palace,” said the driver. “Built for the tsars.”
The Winter Palace. It was dazzling. And here on the other side must be the Neva River. It was nearly frozen over, but a few small channels of open water still cut through. We crossed a bridge leading out of the city. The driver pointed to a low brown structure on the other side. “That’s the Peter and Paul Fortress,” he said. Robert chipped in “That was the first building built in St. Petersburg. It was built…” he hesitated.
“It was built in 1703,” I filled in. “At the time there was nothing here, just mud flats. Peter had just conquered the Swedish fortress town of Noteburg, renaming it Schlusselburg, meaning ‘key’, because he considered it the key to guarding a city on the Baltic. So he moved quickly, building the Peter and Paul fortress down-river here at the mouth of the Neva, to protect his conquered territory from further Swedish attack. The fortress was successful, providing security for the city as it grew. Eventually its military usefulness faded as the Russian Navy established a base at Kronstadt, and so the fortress became used as a political prison, much like the Tower of London. Now it’s just a museum.”
“This American’s been reading a book about Peter the Great,” explained Robert to the driver. “He’s really into all this stuff.”
“You know why they called him “Peter the Great?” asked the driver.
“Because his penis was over one meter long, that’s the only reason! Ha, Ha!”
“That’s an old joke,” said Robert.
We passed a building being torn down by a wrecking crane.
“Perestroika!” said the driver. “That’s what I call real perestroika. Good idea, tear the whole place down.”
“Why do I get the feeling you don’t like Russians very much?” I asked.
“I don’t! I don’t like Russia. I don’t like Russians. I hate this country! I’ve been trying to get out with my wife and three children for years. I’d be happy to live anywhere in the West, but they won’t let me leave. I’m Jewish.”
That stopped the conversation. The man was apparently what they call a ‘refusenik,’ someone who had applied to leave and had been refused. “I’m sorry,” I finally said. A weak response, but I could think of no other.
The driver pulled up in front of a tall, modern building. Directly across the street was an even taller, gigantic edifice. It looked similar to the Hotel Viru in Tallinn. “That’s the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel,” said Robert. “The beriozka shop is right here.”
“How much should I pay the driver?” I asked.
“Oh, three rubles, maybe five,” he said.
I gave him ten.
“Ha! You pay like a Russian, he pays like an American!” the refusenik said jokingly to Robert. But he smiled warmly and nodded his thanks. I reached out and shook his hand.
“Good luck,” I said, and we darted into the doorway.
I wasn’t sure what I expected. The beriozka shop seemed to be an amalgam of small boutiques. Signs pointed to the different types of merchandise available: jewelry and furs, women’s clothing, electronics and cameras. That was it, cameras. We followed the signs down a wide hall, each boutique being a small room off this hallway. We came to our destination and found the cameras. The largest beriozka shop in Leningrad sold two types of cameras, both made by Zenit, the only Russian camera manufacturer. One camera was a simple 35mm ‘point and shoot’ plastic model. The other was similar but only half the size, perhaps designed for spy work. The full size model came in two colors: red and black. The spy camera came only in black. That was the selection. Before arriving I had entertained hope of finding cameras made in the West, perhaps even a Nikon body that could use my Nikon lens. My lens hadn’t broken, after all. But they didn’t sell interchangeable-lens cameras, nor cameras made outside the Soviet Union.
That was understandable since the sole purpose of the beriozka shops was to extract hard currencies from tourists, in exchange for Russian goods. What was puzzling was that while this store sold only cheap plastic cameras, they also sold very sophisticated interchangeable lenses, or rather one of them. It was a 1000 mm super telephoto, which you need only if you’re a professional photographer. So it was a very strange collection of merchandise: two types of cheap plastic cameras, and a sophisticated telephoto lens that would attach to neither one. Perhaps this is what happens when you depart from a market-based economy.
The standard-sized camera would be sufficient. It was priced at 30 rubles. On the black market that would be about four dollars–a reasonable price. But at the beriozka shops you must pay in hard currency at official rates. That meant $50. I bought the red one.
“Where do we go now?” I asked Robert as we left the store.
“Over there,” he replied, pointing to the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel. “We need to find a phone. I told Ana I’d call her before three today.” It was almost three. The Pribaltiyskaya is an Intourist Hotel, which means it is one of those huge structures that are modern and obviously built to impress tourists. Part of the problem was the location. This was not the beautiful part of Leningrad. This area, far on the outskirts of town, looked like a government housing project in Baltimore and the Pribaltiyskaya seemed out of place.
Being an Intourist hotel it was more my turf than Robert’s. We entered through the opulent revolving doors, and found the Intourist counter. The desks were dark Formica. I explained that I wanted to find a phone to call Tallinn.
“Call Tallinn? You must call from the phone in your room.” they said.
“No, I’m not staying at the Pribaltiyskaya. I’m at the Europeskaya. I need to find a phone here.”
“You want to call the Europeskaya Hotel?”
“No, I’m staying at the Europeskaya. I want to call Tallinn, but from here.”
“Sorry, you can’t use these phones. You must use the phone in your room to call the Europeskaya hotel.”
“Isn’t there just a pay phone in the lobby somewhere, that’s all we need?” I persisted.
“No, you pay as part of your hotel bill. When you check out of the hotel, they will add the cost of your call to your bill.”
“C’mon,” said Robert, “This isn’t working. Let’s go look for a phone.”
We found one just past the Intourist counter. Robert put some rubles in the slot, and called Ana. After a few moments he beckoned me over.
“She wants to talk to you!” he said, and grinned. I took the receiver.
“Yes, how are you?”
“I’m fine.” (giggle)
“I’m sorry you’re not with us. We’re having a great time in Leningrad, but we miss you.”
“Yes, I miss you too.”
“Are you dancing tonight?”
“Don’t fall down.”
“Oh, I was hoping you wouldn’t remember that! I’m so embarrassed.”
“Don’t be. We had a good time.”
“Me too. A very good time.”
I didn’t know what else to say. “Well, I’ll put Robert back on.”
“Good-bye,” I said, and handed the receiver to Robert, who talked for a few more minutes.
“She really likes you,” Robert said as he hung up.
“She’s a very nice girl,” I replied. “I think you’re very lucky.”
“You think so? I’m not sure. She’s awfully wild sometimes.”
“Well she’s only eighteen years old. Of course she’s wild sometimes.”
“One more phone call,” said Robert. “I promised Ritta I would call her this afternoon. If she’s free, maybe she can guide us around the city. I have no idea where to go.” He dialed a number. “No answer,” he said after a few moments.
“I guess we’re out of luck.”
“Wait, I know another girl.” He called a different number. “No answer there either.”
“Maybe we’ll have to get around on our own.”
“Well, there’s one more possibility. I met a girl named Maria in Tallinn awhile ago. She lives here. I think she’s a ballerina or something.”
“Robert, how many girls do you know in this city? Wait, don’t answer that. Just call the ballerina.” A Russian ballerina sounded like a good tour guide.
“I don’t have her phone number. Only her address. Let’s go there.”
“Just show up on her doorstep?”
“Sure. She said to look her up if I ever came to Leningrad.”
“And how long ago was that?”
“Oh, about a year ago. Maybe two.”
“Do you think she’ll remember you?”
“Let’s find out,” he said. We had to walk nearly two blocks before we found a gypsy cab. As soon as we got in a man and woman came running up, asking to get in also. Apparently this was not unusual. Robert slid over towards my side. The man got in the back with us and the woman climbed in the front. The newcomers gave the driver an address and he headed downtown. They began speaking to each other in English.
“Where are you from?” I asked curiously. Neither spoke with an American accent.
“I’m from Germany,” said the man. “I’m escorting a group of Americans from Germany on a tour of Russia. This is our Intourist guide.” He nodded towards the middle aged woman in the front seat.
“Why is a German escorting a group of Americans?” I asked.
“They’re military, stationed in West Germany. I organize tours so I’m leading the group.”
“If you’re leading the tour, why do you need an Intourist guide?”
“I’m just the group leader, the organizer. I can’t be a tour guide in the Soviet Union. You have to have an Intourist guide for that.”
“Where have you been?” I asked.
“Oh, the usual. Moscow, Kiev, now Leningrad. We head back day after tomorrow. But where I’d really like to go is Tallinn.”
“I have a girlfriend in Tallinn,” he said, somewhat proudly.
“Join the club,” I said.
“What do you mean? You have girlfriends in Tallinn too?”
“One of us does.”
“Both of us,” said Robert. “Don’t forget Tatiana!”
“I don’t understand. How do you both have girlfriends in Tallinn?”
“I live there,” said Robert.
“You live in Estonia!” the man asked, fascinated.
“Yes, we were just there yesterday. We got in early this morning.”
“You were in Tallinn yesterday?” he asked. “Actually in Tallinn?” The man spoke the words reverently. “How about you?” he asked me. “You’re an American.”
“Americans can have girlfriends in Tallinn,” I said, indignant.
“But how were you able to go there? It takes a special visa to go to Estonia. I’ve never been able to get one. Now they say it’s impossible, with all the turmoil going on.”
“I took the boat across from Finland. No problem.”
“But where’d you stay? How did you make reservations?”
“I stayed with Robert.”
“You stayed with a private citizen in Estonia? You can’t do that without special permission from the government!”
The Intourist agent in the front seat was beginning to look at Robert and me suspiciously.
“Why tell the government?” asked Robert. “He just stayed with me, in my bed.”
I didn’t like the way that sounded. “There was a woman between us,” I pointed out.
“Yes,” agreed Robert, wanting the record clear also. “A naked woman.”
“She really was naked?” I asked, fascinated. “You know, I suspected that, but I wasn’t sure.”
“You were in bed with a woman and you didn’t know if she was naked or not?” The German asked, incredulous.
“It was a dark room, and we were under the covers,” I pointed out defensively.
“That hardly answers the question!” said the German. The Intourist agent had turned completely around in the front seat and was staring at me, her mouth open in disbelief.
“You must be on independent travel,” she said. “That kind of thing would never happen on a tour.”
“But he’s still not supposed to stay overnight with private citizens, is he?” asked the German.
“Not without permission from the government,” the Intourist agent agreed. “That could violate your visa.”
“Is that right Robert? Was it illegal for me to stay overnight at your apartment? You never told me it was illegal.”
“Well, it wasn’t any more illegal than taking the Russian train to Leningrad. You weren’t supposed to do that, either.”
“You mean he didn’t take the train with the tourist cars?” asked the Intourist agent, shocked all over again.
“I bet that’s why they gave me such a hard time when I checked into the Europeskaya,” I said, remembering the incident. “I was supposed to have been on the different train, and they knew it.”
“Of course,” admitted Robert. “Look at it from their point of view. You were supposed to show up at the Intourist desk at the Hotel Viru and be officially escorted to the tourist train. You were supposed to take the tourist train to Leningrad where you would have been officially met and escorted to your hotel. Instead, you drop out of sight in Tallinn, don’t make your rendezvous, and then you turn up almost a day late in Leningrad in company with an Estonian. That’s why the woman tried to determine if you really spoke Russian. She was trying to figure out what the heck was going on, who you really were. You weren’t behaving like a tourist. Maybe she figured you were a spy. Now the KGB is probably watching you like a hawk.”
“I would hope so!” said the Intourist agent.
“That’s pretty funny Robert. You are joking of course.”
“All that turmoil in Estonia,” continued Robert, “then a strange American arrives from Finland, ignores his approved travel arrangements, makes contact with a local newspaper reporter through an intermediary, spends considerable time in the company of Estonian partisans, and then promptly drops out of sight. What would you think if you were the KGB?”
“Estonian partisans! Are you calling Ana an Estonian partisan?”
“You know how she feels about Russia. She won’t even speak Russian names! And then there were the street artists. They weren’t exactly members of the Communist Party. Pretty suspicious, you making contact with street artists, spending several hours with them, immediately after arriving in Tallinn. Your visa application probably said this was your first visit to the Soviet Union.”
“It is my first visit.”
“Give me a break!” said Robert. “You think the KGB is going to believe that, the way you’ve been behaving? You haven’t been to a single tourist site yet. And what did you do today? You spent the whole morning trying to shake off a tail in the metro, then you were picked up by a private car driven by a Jewish dissident and taken out to the suburbs where you bought a camera. It’s a good thing you didn’t buy the spy camera, we’d probably be in jail by now. And then you got on the phone and talked to one of your contacts back in Tallinn. They probably think you’re running some kind of network.”
“Robert, this is just the kind of thing my wife was afraid was going to happen. How am I going to explain it to my wife if the KGB is after me?”
“Forget the KGB,” said the German. “How are you going to explain to your wife about the naked lady?”
“The naked lady wasn’t my fault!” I protested.
“Yeah, I tried that excuse once,” he said. “It didn’t work.”
“She wasn’t completely naked,” admitted Robert.
“I don’t think that will get you off the hook,” said the German.
“Robert, you were joking about the KGB weren’t you?” I knew he was, I just wanted to make sure.
“If you’ve never been to Tallinn,” said Robert to the German, ignoring my question, “how’d you meet your girlfriend?”
“I didn’t meet her in Tallinn, I met her in Berlin. We were attending a conference. Now I’ve been trying to get to Tallinn ever since.”
“Robert can get you there,” I suggested. “Just go back with him on the train.”
“What about my American tour?” he protested.
“Hand the Americans over to me,” I said, trying to be helpful. “I’ll be their tour guide.”
“What do you know of Leningrad?” asked the Intourist lady skeptically. But she wasn’t suspicious anymore. She figured Robert had made everything up, about what I’d been doing in Russia.
“Over there,” I said pointing across the river, “that’s the Winter Palace. And this,” I said pointing to the river, “is the river.”
“But which river?” she asked, smiling.
“The Neva!” I said proudly.
“He’s read a book about Peter the Great” said Robert. “Whatever you do, don’t ask him about Schlusselburg. We’ll be here all day.”
The car pulled up to a hotel in downtown Leningrad, and the Intourist agent handed some rubles to the driver.
The German leaned over to me, before getting out of the cab. “Were you really in Tallinn yesterday, doing all those things he said?” he asked quietly.
“Well, yes, but–”
“I don’t want to know! If you guys can figure out a way to get me into Tallinn, call me at this hotel, OK?” He jotted his name on a piece of paper and thrust it into my hand, then disappeared into the doorway.
“He thinks we’re spies,” I said to Robert as our taxi pulled away from the curb and headed in a new direction. “And it’s your fault.”
CHAPTER 6: Disco Pirouettes
The car dropped us in a very old section of Leningrad, near one of the canals that make a latticework of the city and have earned it the nickname “Venice of the North.” There are a lot of Northern Venices, actually. Stockholm is called the Venice of the North. Amsterdam is called the Venice of the North. One of these days they’ll call Venice the Southern Venice of the North.
There was a gap in the wall, a high Romanesque arch led to an interior courtyard, and we went through it. Robert was comparing addresses on the sides of the buildings to the one written down in his black book. “These addresses don’t make any sense,” he said. “Look, the numbers are almost random.” He was right. This building included 674, 499, 122 and 982. We were looking for 645.
Wandering around the courtyard we came at last to another arch, this one leading to a small alley. Dirty snow and iced-over puddles carpeted the grounds, and I was glad I had my boots on over my sneakers. We rounded a corner and were faced with an army of about twenty very small children, perhaps first graders, walking two abreast, being led by a middle-aged woman. The children were all speaking Russian in excited voices and wore big fur hats.
Two elderly women were chatting outside a doorway nearby, and Robert asked directions from them. “We’re in luck!” he said. “This is it.” We opened the massive wooden doors and entered. I looked around. The hallway we were in reeked of faded grandeur. To our right was a circular stone stairway. The banister looked as if it had been crafted with care, and one could imagine how the building might have appeared in earlier days. Now it was filthy, the victim of obvious neglect. There were piles of dirt on the landings of the stairwell and grime had accumulated in the corners.
“According to those women,” said Robert as we climbed, “this whole building complex with the arches used to be one of the most beautiful in the city. It belonged to a lady who lived in Paris. Then when the revolution came it was claimed by the government, and the whole thing has been allowed to decay. There is no one to watch over it now and keep it nice.”
Four floors up Robert found the 645 number on a wooden doorway, and knocked. “There won’t be anyone here,” I said. “Murphy’s law.” Even if there were someone here, I doubted it would be anyone who would know or remember Robert.
For a long while there was silence, confirming my fears, then we began hearing some shuffling behind the doorway and finally a voice came through, questioning, a little concerned. Robert carried on a brief conversation with this voice before the door was finally opened a crack and a middle-aged woman peered out. She knew Robert and smiled immediately when she saw his face. The door opened completely and we walked in. The apartment reflected the shabbiness of the building at large. The little entryway we had come to was cluttered with items that looked like they might be valuable to an antique collector: old chairs, wooden carvings, an ancient metal bird cage, all in a jumble.
The woman was speaking to Robert animatedly, smiling and nodding her head. Occasionally she nodded to me as well, not wishing to be rude. Her conversation with Robert finally ended and she turned to me, speaking in passable English. “Robert tells me you’re an American.”
“Robert’s correct. This is my first visit to Russia.”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes. This is a beautiful city.”
She spoke a few more words to Robert and me and then ushered us back out the door, waving good-bye.
“She says,” began Robert, “that Maria is insane.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“No, I said it wrong. She said Maria will go insane.”
I looked at him, puzzled.
“How do you say it?” he asked.
“What are you trying to say?”
“Maria will be very upset to have missed us.”
“Oh.” That was a relief. “Well, you could say ‘Maria will go insane when she finds out she missed us’, but that’s a little strong. You said it better. ‘Maria will be very upset to have missed us.’
“Her mother said she’d be insane.”
“Let’s hope her mother’s wrong. She seemed to know you.”
“Yes, I met her when she and Maria came to Tallinn. Her mother works part-time as an Intourist guide, like me. That’s why they were in Tallinn, she was escorting a group, and Maria had come along for fun.”
“But we missed Maria?”
“We’re supposed to call back here at 7:15 tonight, when Maria returns. Then maybe we’ll go do something with her.”
It was 4:00 p.m. and starting to get dark outside. “So we have three hours to kill?”
“Yes,” said Robert. “Maria’s mother said there’s a new art exhibit at the museum near your hotel. The Russian Museum. She suggests we go see it while we wait for Maria.”
“What do you think the chances are of finding the hotel?” I knew I was completely lost, and assumed Robert was even more so.
“It’s just around the corner, a few blocks away.”
“You’re kidding. We’re near the Europeskaya?”
“Yeah, she gave me directions.”
On the way to the museum we passed a statue of Catherine the Great. “For about one hundred years,” said Robert, “Russia only had women running the country.”
“Well, that’s not quite true,” I said. “There were at least a couple of men.”
“Only for very short periods.”
“Yeah, they were murdered almost immediately. Like Catherine’s husband. He was murdered by supporters of Catherine who wanted her to be Empress. So they just killed her husband and that pretty much did the trick.”
“You sure have read a lot of Russian history,” said Robert.
“It was a good book,” I said.
“So, who was Catherine’s husband?”
That stumped both of us for a while. Finally I remembered. “Peter III?” I ventured.
“Right,” agreed Robert. “Peter III.”
We came to the museum, about two blocks from the hotel across Alexander Pushkin park. It looked a little like Buckingham Palace in London: high wrought iron gates protecting an interior courtyard, leading in turn to a majestic colonnaded building of considerable dimension. A sign on the gate was in English as well as Russian and read: Museum open until 5:00 p.m. Last admittance: 4:00 p.m. I looked at my watch. It was 4:30. A small crowd was jostling at the entrance, hoping to get in despite the hour, but with little success. Robert went up to the guards and played the part of the Intourist guide with an easily-annoyed American in tow.
“They say come back tomorrow morning,” explained Robert.
“Ah can’t do that!” I said angrily. “Ma airplane takes off fer the U S of A tomorra moning!”
Robert pressed my case, but while they were hesitant to offend an American, they weren’t that hesitant. Finally Robert motioned me away, down the sidewalk. They say there’s another entrance, around the side. It opens only on to a wing of the museum where they have the new exhibit Maria’s mother told us about. It’s revolutionary-era art. We can still get in that door.
Indeed we could, but if it hadn’t been for our need to kill some time, I would have preferred to miss the exhibit altogether. The art that was being produced in Russia around the time of the revolution simply wasn’t very good. Some of the water colors looked about grade school quality. But the subject matter was interesting. Here was an impressionistic painting of tsarist troops bayoneting some peasants. On an opposite wall was a wood carving of Lenin’s overly-stern face. In one room there was an oil painting of simply a red house–all red, like a fire engine.
Robert explained it to me. “It’s called beautiful house,” he said. “That’s kind of a play on words.” Apparently in Russian, or perhaps in an earlier dialect–I wasn’t clear on this point–the words beautiful and red are the same. So when the artist painted the house red, and then called it ‘beautiful house,’ it was a play on words.
“Red and beautiful are the same word in Russian?” I asked, finding this significant.
“Yes, like Red Square in Moscow. It means beautiful square in Russian, not red, the color.”
“I don’t think anyone in America knows that,” I said, astonished. “Russians seem to have red everywhere, especially on their flag. We sometimes even call Russians ‘reds’. I’ve always assumed that the square was Red Square because red was the patriotic color.”
“No,” said Robert, “it means “beautiful square.”
“What about the flag? Is the flag red to symbolize beauty?”
“That’s different. The Soviet flag is red to symbolize the blood that was spilled.”
“In the revolution?”
“No, all the blood spilled by Russians throughout history. They’ve had a very bloody history, and the flag commemorates all the blood and the hardship.”
“Doesn’t that seem a little gory?”
Robert smiled. “That’s the whole point, I think.”
An hour was enough for this museum. How many bayonetted peasants can one look at after all? We returned to the hotel to have some food as we’d had none since our late breakfast. The Europeskaya Hotel has several restaurants. The one that we were directed to for dinner was on the top floor, in a setting of considerable magnificence. Here again was tsarist Russia’s attempt to emulate the splendor of western Europe. This dining room, perhaps four thousand square feet of space, was also a full three stories tall, and the roof was an ancient glass latticework held together by intersecting fingers of steel in typical 19th century Victorian elegance. High Erica palms had been placed around the room, and the tables were decorated with cut-glass crystal and gold place settings.
None of this, however, could offset the surliness and indifference of the waiters who were if anything less polite than those in Tallinn.
There were several interesting items on the menu, but when Robert and I tried to order them, we found none available, just as in the Hotel Viru and on the train. Why bother with menus, I wondered. So again we asked what they did have, and after consideration we chose caviar hors d’oevres and a seafood soup. Caviar, I was to find, appears almost automatically at every meal in the Soviet Union. In America they bring water. In Russia they bring caviar.
We returned to the room after dinner, and as we had another half hour before we were due to make the call to Maria, Robert asked if he could lie down on my bed and sleep for awhile. He hadn’t had much sleep the night before.
I spent the time going through my guidebooks, making decisions on which famous things we needed to see the next day, and which we could skip. The half hour went quickly, but I decided to give Robert five more minutes.
Suddenly the phone rang! Robert sat up immediately. It must be Maria calling us. Robert must have left the name of my hotel with Maria’s mother. I did not want to answer the phone, as I was certain to be buried under a deluge of Russian. I looked pleadingly at Robert, but he wasn’t even supposed to be in the hotel. He certainly didn’t want to answer the phone.
I finally picked up the receiver. “Hello?” I said.
“This is Derry.”
“Derry!” It seemed impossible that the voice of my wife could be coming through a 100 year old telephone receiver in a 19th century hotel room, 7,000 miles away from home.
“Yes, we’ve been worried about you.”
“Why, is everything OK at home?” No one makes the effort to call the Soviet Union unless it’s urgent.
“Everything’s fine, but we didn’t know what happened to you. The hotel said you weren’t registered there and I got worried.”
“I’m fine. Didn’t you get my telegram?”
“No, no telegram.”
The telegram arrived a day later, as it turned out. I reassured Derry that I was well, and that I was indeed checked into the hotel. She had to reassure me several times that there were no emergencies at home.
“I met some Estonians,” I said. “One of them came with me to Leningrad. He wants to say something to you.”
“Robert! Quick! Come say something in Estonian to my wife!” He did, and then translated for her in English, handing the phone back to me afterwards.
“Pretty neat, huh!” I said.
“I’m impressed!” said Derry. “So you’re being well taken care of?”
“Completely! Tonight we’re going out with a Russian ballerina!”
“You’re what ?” said Derry.
“Well, we think we are. She’s a friend of Robert. I’m just tagging along.”
“OK. Well, I’m glad you’re alright.”
We said good-bye shortly thereafter, both conscious of the cost of a trans-Atlantic phone call. It had been very disorienting, hearing my wife’s voice, but somehow very comforting.
“I’d better call Maria,” said Robert. “It’s almost 7:30.” I handed him the phone.
After a short conversation, Robert hung up quickly. “Let’s go!” He said, grabbing for his coat. I followed him out the doorway and down the hall. “We’re picking up Maria on the street in front of where she works. Then we’re going to a nightclub for dinner where a friend of hers is working as a dancer.”
“We’d better pretend we haven’t eaten yet,” I said.
True to her word, Maria was waiting for us at the street corner as we pulled up in our gypsy cab. Robert ushered her quickly into the back seat with me, and politely took the front. Maria was an attractive young girl, about college age perhaps, with long brown hair. She had a long slender neck, like a professional dancer, but the haughty expression she tried to affect kept dissolving into smiles and laughter. She was utterly charming. On the way over I’d asked Robert if Maria spoke English, and was concerned to find out she did not.
“It may be a difficult evening,” I suggested.
“Oh, I don’t think so. Neither you nor I will need to talk much. Maria is one of these people who just talks constantly, like her mother. It makes it very easy to take her on a date because you don’t have to worry about what to say. She’ll do all the talking.”
But only one of us could do the listening, I feared.
As predicted, after giving directions to the driver, Maria began talking animatedly and steadily to Robert.
This was very frustrating, not being able to speak directly to Maria. Then I had a thought, and turned to her.
“Parlez-vous Francais?” I asked.
“Oui!” she said, surprised and delighted.
From then on I spoke to Maria in French, Robert in English, and the two of them spoke to each other in Russian. No matter who was speaking, one person understood and the other did not. It was a form of vengeance to be able to carry on a conversation and watch Robert sit bewildered on the sidelines, reduced to saying only “What did you say? What did she say?”
Sometimes I even condescended to translate. But with Robert safely out of the way in the front seat I decided I could really get to know Maria and I began speaking to her in earnest. As she explained it, she spoke French because it was part of her training in the arts. She was nineteen years old, as was her friend Isabella whom we would be meeting. They were both ballet students, nearing graduation from what sounded like the equivalent of a high-level secondary school for the performing arts, similar perhaps to the High School for the Performing Arts in New York which served as the basis for the movie Fame. Hopefully, upon graduation they would be enrolled in the Kirov Ballet Academy, and become members of the Kirov Ballet Theater, Leningrad’s equivalent of the Bolshoi in Moscow and, according to Maria, more prestigious.
Both of them worked in the evening as dancers: folk dancers, modern dancers, whatever jobs they could get. Maria apologized for her make-up, saying she had just been performing an Egyptian dance and was made up like Cleopatra with eye shadow and mascara.
I looked at her face more closely. She did look a little like Cleopatra. Maybe Maria’s expression wasn’t really haughty, it had just been her eye shadow.
“What are you talking about?” Robert demanded from the front seat.
“Oh, lot’s of things,” I replied mischievously.
“Give me a break!” said Robert, and began speaking to Maria in Russian. After a few minutes he turned to me. “She and the other girl are ballet students,” he explained. “Next year they may be able to join the Kirov.”
“I already know that.”
“Oh.” He seemed a little sad to be robbed of his role as interpreter.
The cab arrived at its destination. We got out and I looked around. We were a long way from the center of the city, somewhere on the banks of the Neva river, which I could see immediately across the street. A nondescript building towered above us, with a large iron gate and steps leading up to it. A strange scene greeted us at the top. The iron gate had been locked with a chain and padlock. The padlock was the largest I’d ever seen, almost eight inches wide.
“What do they have behind that gate?” I asked Robert. “Nuclear missiles?”
“I think this is the nightclub,” he explained.
There were two men behind the gate, perhaps in charge of it. Loitering outside were three very scruffy looking young men, probably no more than teenagers. They wore black leather jackets, their hair was long and unkempt, and they looked ready to pick a fight with someone. They were arguing with the men behind the gate, obviously wanting to be let in.
Maria, still looking like Cleopatra, stepped deftly up to the guards and began stating our case earnestly in Russian. I could not imagine why they would lock the doors to a nightclub, unless it was to keep out the teenage thugs. Maybe they were a problem at nightclubs in the Soviet Union. Whatever the reason, I imagined Maria would have no problem convincing them to let us in.
But after a few minutes Maria’s voice started rising and the guards began shaking their heads. Whatever argument she’d used was not working.
“What’s the problem?” I asked Robert curiously.
“The show has already started,” he explained. “They won’t allow anyone to be seated once the show has started.”
“Should I pull my Angry American stunt?”
“No!” said Robert, immediately concerned. “Don’t let them know you’re an American. That would just make matters worse.”
I didn’t understand why, but deferred to his judgment. “So how do we get in?”
“I think Maria can handle it. Let’s just wait.”
I wasn’t so sure. Maria and the thugs appeared to be on the losing side of the battle. The only contribution in the conversation from those on the opposite side of the fence was a continuous shaking of their heads.
Suddenly there was a break in the negotiations, the thugs took off in a run apparently to the other side of the building, and Maria motioned for us urgently to follow. Running after them, we found a dark alley on one side that connected to a back street, and soon we had come to another gate. This one was also of heavy wrought iron, also held in place by a thick padlock, and also guarded by two men. I could not see that our situation had much improved.
Maria and the thugs renewed their plea with this new set of guards. At first there was the familiar shaking of the heads but then Maria must have scored a point for one of the guards unlocked the gate. Maria pulled Robert and me near so we would be able to slip through when she did. Obviously they weren’t going to let in the thugs and Maria didn’t want us confused with them.
The big padlock came off and the chain was unwrapped. The guard held the door open just a crack, but before the three of us could squeeze through, the thugs slipped in! I expected to see the guard pull back his coat, reveal an AK-47 automatic rifle, and fire off several shots. But I’d not read the situation correctly. As soon as the thugs were through, the guard held up his hand to stop Maria, and then closed and locked the gate. “Nyet!” he said angrily. Even I knew that word. It wasn’t Maria they’d meant to let in, it was the juvenile delinquents!
The two guards walked away from the gate, leaving Maria, Robert, and me standing in the dark street alone.
“Murphy’s Law,” said Robert.
Maria kept her hands on the iron bars, and continued calling through the gate. The poor girl just wasn’t accepting the situation. But then one of the guards returned, put his finger to his lips in the universal “be quiet” symbol, and unlocked the gate. The three of us squeezed through.
Now we were in some kind of outdoor courtyard. Turning left Maria found a door that led inside, and we entered. We were in a hallway, and it was obvious Maria was unsure which way to go. She went right, and we followed her down a series of steps, turning several corners. The smell of urine and stale garbage was becoming noticeable, but of course this was the back entrance so allowances must be made. After two more turns we came to a dead-end at a restroom. Maria headed off in a new direction. The guard from the back gate was here, the one who’d taken pity on us, and he gestured urgently. He navigated us back up several flights of stairs and then pointed out the right direction. We walked down a long hallway, through another door, across a small room that appeared to be for storage, through another door, and–suddenly–we were in the dressing room of the nightclub performers! Several men and women were sitting or standing, their costumes in various stages of undress. They all looked up when we arrived, somewhat astonished, but when they saw Maria they were reassured. She motioned for Robert and me to take off our coats and leave them here.
I’d read in the guidebooks, and noticed already in Russia, that coat checking is imperative in the Soviet Union. No one enters a restaurant and takes their coat with them to the table, for example. But having entered clandestinely, we would not come near the coat check desk in this restaurant. I rolled up my down parka and wedged it under one of the wooden benches.
We now went through another door on the other side of the dressing room and music came to my ears. Maria put her fingers to her lips. “Shhh!” We followed her swiftly and quietly, coming to another hallway and then all three of us stopped abruptly. We had come to a banister on the mezzanine level. Directly below us was the dance floor, and we were looking down on the performers.
Maria guided us down an elegant winding staircase. The headwaiter came over to intercept. Another frenzied discussion ensued, but Maria showed to better effect this time. One group of dancers was leaving the stage and there was a pause in the music. We were ushered to an empty table for four, one row back from ringside. Robert maneuvered me into the chair next to Maria, and he took the seat on the opposite side. We had just sat down when the music started again, and the lights dimmed. Maria began talking rapidly to the waiter, in hushed tones. He nodded and left the table.
Now spotlights came on and illuminated the stage with circles of color weaving in and out around the floor. From a side door six lithe dancers issued forth, scantily clad in leopard skin outfits. Gyrating in time with the music, the spotlights flowing over and between them, they moved onto the dance floor and began writhing in sensual gyrations, flinging themselves about with abandon. It was some form of modern dance, I judged, but the cheap choreography made it look like an African fertility rite.
One of the female dancers caught my attention. She was a pretty blonde, and taller than the others. Her long hair was braided and hung nearly to her waist, and her movements were just a little more graceful, more practiced, than her co-dancers.
“That’s Ella,” whispered Maria. “The blonde.”
“Isabella Gorodetskaya. We call her Ella.”
At that moment the waiter returned to our table with champagne and caviar. Apparently Maria had ordered it as we’d taken our seats. I continued watching the floor show. Ella was certainly the best dancer.
At nine o’clock the show ended, and almost simultaneously a full meal was brought to each of the four place settings at our table, even the empty one. Maria must have ordered this too. Robert and I exchanged glances. After our earlier dinner, followed by the caviar, neither of us was hungry, but we could at least pretend to be. I picked up my fork.
And here came Ella. She’d changed out of her leopard skin into a simple dress, and had unbraided her hair so that it fell loosely about her shoulders. Maria made the introductions quickly and Robert ushered her into the empty place at our table, where her food was still warm. She smiled to all of us apologetically and began eating. Nightclub dancing was hard work.
With the end of the stage show the floor had been turned over to disco dancing, and a live band was playing. That limited our conversation. Another limiting factor was the discovery that Ella spoke no English, and almost no French. She was also extremely shy, the exact opposite of Maria. For most of the time at the table Ella was content merely to sit quietly and smile with embarrassment when spoken to. Robert finally resigned himself to following her lead, sitting quietly and smiling a lot.
A new song started, and Maria looked up expectantly. “On va danser!” she said to me, taking my hand and leading me to the dance floor. Apparently this was a special song, one that meant something to her. Once on stage I realized I was in trouble. This was not disco, this was some kind of Russian folk thing. Everyone took their places in a loose circle, and the music began a very rhythmic beat. Maria did her best to lead me through the steps, although I’m notoriously bad at picking up new dances quickly. I tried hard, and perhaps that’s what counted. Maria was beaming when the song ended, and I hoped I’d not embarrassed her too greatly. I’d had just enough champagne not to have embarrassed myself at all.
When we returned to the table, Maria explained the significance. “That’s one of our national songs,” she said. “Every republic in the Soviet Union has it’s own national song. That one is my favorite. It’s the national song of Uzbekistan. That’s a republic near…” she paused, unsure.
“South of Kazakhstan,” I filled in. “The capital is..” This was going out on a limb, “…Tashkent?”
She turned to Robert and asked him in French “Is that correct?” Then, remembering he couldn’t understand her in French, she repeated the question in Russian. Robert nodded.
“You’re very smart!” she said to me. “How did you know that?”
“I’m not a very good dancer,” I replied. “But I love maps.”
“Oh, you’re a good dancer!” she lied politely. I let the matter drop. Maria hadn’t seen me throw Anu-Livii to the dance floor back in Tallinn.
An important looking man in a tuxedo appeared and spoke at length to Maria. She turned to me.
“He wants to know if you’re having a good time.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’m having a great time!”
“You see,” continued Maria, “he’s very nervous because you’re Americans.”
“You mean because one of us is an American?”
“No, both of you. Robert’s pretending to be an American too, so we’ll get better service.”
This was news to me. It must have been a little conspiracy between Robert and Maria.
“It’s nice he cares,” I said. “But why is he nervous about Americans?”
“Because this isn’t a restaurant for tourists. It’s not on any of the tours.”
“Is that a problem? Is it illegal?” I was remembering the train.
“Oh no! It’s just that there have never been any Americans here before, and he’s afraid that you won’t like it. It would be very bad for him if you complained about the restaurant.”
“Maria, why would I complain? This is a fine restaurant. At least it’s a fine restaurant once you’re able to get inside. Ask him why he thinks I wouldn’t like it.”
She turned and spoke more words with the man.
“He says he’s afraid you won’t like it because they don’t play any American songs here, only Russian songs. He says will you still have a good time if they only play Russian songs?”
This question was so ridiculous it took me by surprise. But I could see the man was not joking. In fact he looked very concerned.
“Tell him I’m having a wonderful time, and I can tolerate having no American songs for just this one evening, but it may require another bottle of champagne.” Maria translated and the man smiled and nodded appreciatively. I stood up and shook his hand, just to show him how generous Americans could be. Then I told Robert to do the same, since he was an American as well.
A command was barked and another bottle of champagne appeared at our table. I suspected it would not be added to the bill. I turned to Robert. “If we get such great service in here by being Americans,” I said. “Why didn’t you want them to know I was an American back at the gate, when we couldn’t get in?”
“Now that we’re here, we get great service,” explained Robert. “But if the gate keepers had known we were Americans there is no way they’d have let us in, especially through the back door. The risk of us not having a good time would be too great.”
The band was playing disco again and Ella looked like she wanted to dance. I thought Robert should ask her, but after two more songs with no indication he was about to do so, I asked her myself, and we walked swiftly to the dance floor. This time there was no chance of another folk song. This was simple disco. Too simple. It was what my wife calls “just wriggling around.” Derry despises “just wriggling around” and if she’d been here she’d have insisted we dance a swing, or at least a Latin hustle, probably with lots of spins and underarm turns. But I was gun-shy after my experience with Anu-Livii in Tallinn, so I just wriggled with Ella for awhile. She seemed to be enjoying it, although I could again hear Derry’s voice in my conscience saying “Give me a break! Do something interesting.”
So I took Ella’s hands, much to her surprise, and maneuvered her into a loose form of swing hustle. She picked up the steps instantly, and soon we were moving rapidly around the dance floor, colliding with wriggling Russians only occasionally, and trying a few simple underarm turns. The situation was much as it had been with Ana back in Tallinn. Now it was the voice of my father in my conscience. “When you fall off the horse, get right back on,” he was saying.
So, almost scared to look, I tried a double under-arm turn, spinning Ella in the same maneuver that had sent Ana crashing to the floor. But Ella performed it effortlessly, and smiled teasingly as if to say “You think that was difficult?”
She seemed so sure of herself that I become braver, and sent her into a triple spin. A triple! That’s not an easy maneuver on a crowded dance floor, but Ella had no trouble with it. OK, I thought, if you’re so good, let’s try this. The hardest maneuver I’d ever practiced with my wife was a triple under-arm spin, followed by an immediate reverse into a double spin in the opposite direction.
I gripped Ella’s hands just a little tighter, signaling her to get ready as Derry had taught me a good lead should always do. I waited for just the right beat in the music and then — knowing it would probably end in disaster but now too committed to back out — I raised one arm high and spun her three times to the left, caught her by the waist, raised my other arm and spun her twice to the right. But part way through this maneuver Ella simply took the lead away from me. The Russian ballerina, in training for the Kirov Ballet Theater of Leningrad, flew through the turns, her dress swirling out and her hands and fingers delicately flowing with the movements, emphasizing them, completing them. It was no longer a spin. She was performing a pirouette. “Almost as good as Derry,” I thought to myself.
By this time Ella was starting to have fun. After all, everyone else on the floor was still just wriggling. Here came Robert and Maria to join us. We switched partners continuously as the band kept playing disco, and once with Maria I tried the triple/double spin again, this time without the benefit of working up to it. But it was effortless for her as well. These Russian ballerinas knew how to dance.
Back at the table we were eventually brought the bill: 63 rubles, including tip. Robert, Ella, and Maria began discussing how we should divide it up. But I did my own mental arithmetic. If I could buy rubles at six to the dollar as Robert had indicated, the entire bill: caviar, dinner, champagne, plus the entertainment came to a grand total of ten dollars and fifty cents for the four of us. I handed the waiter a 100-rouble note and he went off to get change. Then I turned to Robert, needing what I was going to say to be accurately translated.
“Robert, I insist on paying for the entire dinner. It comes to only ten dollars at the six to one exchange rate. Ten dollars is what a good unskilled laborer makes in America in less than an hour.” Robert translated this for the girls and they were incredulous.
“Ella says,” explained Robert, “that 63 rubles is what an unskilled laborer makes in the Soviet Union in about a month.”
At the official exchange rate of almost two dollars to the ruble, the bill came to about $120. But if this had been New York City, a dinner such as we had just had, with nightclub entertainment, would come to nearly twice that: well over $200–what a laborer in America would make in about a week. I explained all this to the girls with Robert’s help. It appeared that a laborer in America was paid about four times better than one in the Soviet Union, in terms of purchasing power. But the real lesson was that if you can exchange dollars for rubles at the market rate, rather than the official rate, you can live like a king in Russia.
It was approaching midnight and as required by law the nightclub was preparing to close. We had to return to the dressing room to retrieve our coats, but soon we were outside again, having left by the same back entrance through which we’d secretly entered. Maria, competent as always, led us to a bus stop just as a bus was approaching. I fished in my pocket for change but no one on the bus bothered to collect it.
We got off only a few blocks from Maria’s apartment, and walked together over the frozen puddles and dirty snow. As we said good-bye at the door, Maria reached out her hand and I took it and squeezed it lightly. Then Robert took Maria’s hand and in a most continental manner, lowered his lips and kissed it graciously. I felt like a clod.
Ella lived only a short distance away and we walked it with her. Robert repeated his performance with the hand as we said good-by to Ella but this time I wasn’t going to be outdone. I kissed her lightly on each cheek, having learned the maneuver from Jane and Svetlana back in Tallinn. “That’s how we do it in Estonia,” I said to Ella in French, knowing neither she nor Robert would understand the words, but hoping they added an elegant flourish to the maneuver. Robert, at least, was impressed.
CHAPTER 7: The Estonians Get Ripped Off
Ella had decided to meet Robert and me at the hotel for breakfast, and accompany us for our day of sightseeing. She was always eager to go sightseeing in Leningrad, she said, despite having been born and raised here. Maria had to go to school that day, and was unable to join us.
Because Ella would not be able to enter the hotel, being neither a guest nor an Intourist guide, we had agreed to meet on the sidewalk out front at nine o’clock.
It was a crisp winter day, and the sun was just beginning to give off some significant light as I walked through the revolving doors. This far north it had been pitch dark only an hour ago. A dozen large tour buses clustered around the hotel entrance, as if hoping to share in the warmth from within. Many had their big diesels turning over, spewing exhaust into the street, preparing for another day of escorting tourists around the city.
I looked around and did not see Robert or Ella, so I strolled towards Nevsky Prospect, enjoying the feel of this vibrant Soviet city on a cold morning. I had walked only a few steps when a voice called from behind. “Jacques?”
I turned and there was Ella, looking very chic in her white fur hat and colorful parka. But where was Robert? This was an awkward situation. The possibility of Ella arriving on time and Robert being late had not occurred to me. What could I do with Ella at nine in the morning when it was almost impossible for us to communicate? She spoke no English, and her level of understanding French was only sufficient for words like “good morning” and “it’s a nice day.” Even these had to be spoken slowly.
“Good morning!” I said in French. Ella smiled shyly.
“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” Ella smiled again, and nodded.
Where the hell was Robert? If he didn’t show up in a few moments I was in serious trouble.
“Robert isn’t here yet?” I tried that sentence slowly and I think she understood. It was obvious Robert wasn’t here, I’d asked only because I’d run out of other things to say. She looked up and down the street, shook her head, and shrugged.
“Let’s walk around a little,” I suggested, and made her understand with hand signals. It was the sensible thing to do. It was too cold to just stand in place. Ella nodded and we started walking towards Alexander Pushkin Park half a block away. Crossing the street into the park Ella slipped on the ice, and I gave her my arm for support.
This probably looks romantic, I thought ironically: the young couple out for an early morning stroll in the park, walking arm in arm, not needing to talk. No one could have guessed that we weren’t talking because we weren’t able to talk. And I wasn’t feeling romantic at all, I was feeling scared. The park wasn’t that big. What could we do for an encore?
While silently observing Alexander Pushkin’s bronze statue for a few moments, I had an idea for how to kill some time. I was running out of rubles. Back in Tallinn, Svetlana had changed all my remaining finnmarks and dollars into rubles at a four rubles to the dollar exchange rate, but these were now running out. All of my remaining money was in American traveller’s cheques, which could easily be cashed at a bank or foreign currency exchange desk. Probably it could be done back at the hotel. But such a transaction would occur at the official rate, almost two dollars to the ruble, rather than five or six rubles to the dollar. If I’d had actual dollars I could easily have exchanged them on the black market, but you can’t cash a traveller’s cheque on a dark street corner or in a back alley.
I saw no way out of the dilemma. I did need rubles, and cashing a traveller’s cheque would at least kill some more time. I guided Ella back to the hotel, directly to the Intourist desk. She had no idea what was going on but probably didn’t care, understanding as well as I did the awkwardness of our situation.
“I need to cash a traveller’s cheque,” I explained to the Intourist agent. “Where can I do that?”
“There is an official exchange desk right across the street,” the woman replied. “They open at 9:30.”
It was 9:30 now. So we left the hotel and walked across the street. But after considerable searching I saw nothing that resembled an exchange office. I tried to explain what I was looking for to Ella. It took several minutes before she understood. Hailing a passerby she asked directions, then led me around the corner to our destination.
It was a pitiful sight, the few rubles I received in return for my fifty dollar traveller’s cheque, but I had no choice, there was no way to cash the cheque other than —
The beriozka shop! I’d been a fool! At a beriozka shop you pay in hard currency, and only hard currency is accepted. So how do they make change? Obviously in hard currency! And there was a small beriozka shop on the second floor of the Europeskaya. I need merely make a small purchase, use another fifty dollar traveller’s cheque to pay for it, and they’d give me dollars in exchange! Then I could convert those dollars into rubles on the black market.
As my thinking progressed, I realized I could even undo the damage I’d just inflicted upon myself at the exchange office. When leaving the Soviet Union any unused rubles can be converted back into dollars providing one has the receipts showing they were officially exchanged in the first place. So if I just kept the receipts from my recent transaction, I’d be able to reverse it at the border.
We walked back across the street and up to the beriozka shop in the hotel. I looked around and saw absolutely nothing I wanted to buy so I tried to explain to Ella that I wanted her to buy something for herself. She shook her head, declining politely. I knew I’d never be able to explain to her that what she bought was incidental, that I needed merely to make a purchase so as to obtain dollars in return. Especially not with the sales lady standing right there in the small room, observing us. I decided to enlist the sales lady’s help and guessed that to have gotten a job in this hotel she must speak English.
“Can you help me, please?”
“Yes of course,” she replied.
“Would you please explain to my friend that I want to buy something for her, a small present. Some cosmetics, perhaps.” I remembered Ana complaining about the difficulty of buying cosmetics in the Soviet Union.
The woman translated for Ella.
“Tell her I insist,” I added, to make sure Ella’s politeness wouldn’t get in the way.
Yielding to the situation, Ella finally chose a small bottle of perfume. It was only two and a half rubles, or about four dollars at the official rate. I gave the woman a fifty dollar traveller’s cheque.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t have enough dollars to change this.”
I’d have to buy something else. I took down another bottle of perfume.
“Will this help?” I asked.
“It will help but I still don’t have enough change,” she replied.
I didn’t want to buy the whole store. Wait a minute. She’d said she didn’t have enough dollars to make change.
“Could you give me change in finnmarks?” I asked.
“Yes, finnmarks and dollars together, I have just enough change.” The transaction was completed, and Ella and I walked out of the store, both richer than when we’d entered.
Back on the street there was still no sign of Robert. A person can be ten or fifteen minutes late to a meeting, but almost an hour late means something has gone wrong. Would I have to spend the whole day alone with Ella?
“Let’s have breakfast,” I said, and then repeated it until she understood. She liked that idea. There was no one guarding the door at the entrance to the cafe, so we went in and just helped ourselves to the food. This was not so awkward, having breakfast without talking. Who talks during breakfast? But halfway through I thought I should check the sidewalk again.
“Je vais chercher Robert,” I explained to Ella, and she nodded. I left the cafe and went back on the street. Here he was!
“Where the hell have you been!” I demanded.
“You wouldn’t believe…”
“Save it! Ella’s inside having breakfast. Let’s join her.”
Robert got in for free as well, and soon all of us were sitting there drinking coffee, with Robert speaking in two languages.
“The elevator broke at the hotel,” he explained. “The door to the stairway was locked, so no one could get down. We had to wait over an hour for them to fix the elevator. I’m sorry I’m late.”
“That’s an acceptable excuse,” I said. “But if you’d been any later, I’d have been in serious trouble. I can’t talk to Ella!”
“I’m sure you did fine,” he said, grinning. I wanted to hit him. Instead I asked him to explain to Ella why we’d needed to buy the perfume. Robert spoke to her for a moment and then turned back to me. “She says that was very smart, getting the dollars that way. And she thanks you for the perfume.”
As we finished our breakfast we began planning our day of sightseeing. “The only three things I have to see,” I explained, “are the Winter Palace, the Naval Museum, and the ballet.”
The Naval Museum was of interest to me because it contains a small sailing boat with a curious history. Before the reign of Peter the Great, Russia had no navy at all. As a teenager, in the year 1686, on one of his sojourns in the countryside, Peter stumbled upon an old boat, rotting in back of a barn. The companion travelling with him, a foreigner, recognized it as a sailboat, able to tack against the wind, and obviously built somewhere outside Russia, probably England or Holland. Peter had been fascinated with a boat able to tack against the wind, and had had the boat completely restored. He began sailing it on a nearby lake and had quickly developed a love not only of sailing, but also of boats and ships. When he became Tsar, Peter translated this love into a program of building a navy. Having no seacoasts other than the Arctic Ocean, Peter turned his foreign policy towards expansionism, eventually driving the Swedes from the Gulf of Finland, and founding St. Petersburg, Russia’s first real naval base. And it had all started with that rotting sailboat in a farmhouse near Moscow.
The sailboat, being recognized as the “Grandfather of the Russian Navy,” is now proudly displayed at the Naval Museum in Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg), and I wanted to see it.
The Winter Palace was on my list because it has been converted into one of the greatest art museums in the world: the Hermitage. Among the many exhibits is a full size wax figure of Peter the Great, and a mask actually made from a wax impression of his face. I was curious to see what the man really looked like.
Finally, I was hoping to see a ballet at the Kirov Theater, not because I like ballet but because it seemed the thing to do. If you go to Venice you ride in a gondola. If you go to Russia you see a ballet.
Ella, able to talk now, informed us that if we wished to see the ballet we should get tickets here at the hotel from the Intourist desk, and as early as possible. Ella would not be able to accompany us, as she was dancing at the nightclub again. But Maria was getting off work at seven and would join us for whatever we decided to do.
At the Intourist desk the lady explained the situation with respect to ballet performances in Leningrad.
“When you say ‘ballet’ I assume you mean the Kirov Ballet,” she said, “at the Kirov Theater.”
“I think so. Are there others?”
“Well, there are other ballet companies,” she explained, “but you must see the Kirov Theater. It’s one of the greatest in the world.”
“How much are the tickets?”
“Twenty rubles each.”
There would be three of us, so that would be sixty rubles, and at six to the dollar that meant ten dollars.
“But you pay in hard currency,” she added.
“At the official exchange rate?”
So it would cost over one hundred dollars for us to go see the Kirov Ballet, not ten.
“That seems a little expensive,” I said.
“You shouldn’t miss the Kirov.”
“Are they performing tonight?”
“Tonight at the Kirov is opera, not ballet.”
I turned to Robert. “I don’t think we should spend $100 to go see an opera,” I said, and he agreed. The magnificent Kirov Theater was simply out of our price range. Maybe we would just take Maria to dinner and call it a night.
Having given up on the Kirov we left the hotel and walked down Nevsky Prospect to the Winter Palace. On the way we passed the same queue I’d seen yesterday. Robert checked with one of the people in line, and sure enough they were still waiting for cakes. “I don’t think cakes are worth waiting in line for,” I said to Ella.
She laughed. “Everything in Russia is worth waiting in line for,” she said, “because that’s the only way to get it!”
Ella was a much better guide than Robert because she didn’t get lost. She took us directly to the main entrance of the palace, up the steps, and over to the coat-check desk. There was a long queue here also. Across the hall was another coat-check desk, without a queue. “That one’s for foreign tourists, on group tours,” explained Ella. “If you can prove to them you’re an American, we can probably use it.”
“Ah say!” I said in a loud resonant voice to the room at large, “D’ya’ll think thar’s anyplace around this har pal-ass to leave muh gear?”
The Russian attendant heard me, as did everyone else in the hall, and quickly motioned us over. He took all three of our coats, and we entered the museum. Actually it is two museums. There is the collection of art itself, of course, which is magnificent. According to Ella, if a person were to spend five minutes in front of each piece, and assuming normal hours for eating and sleeping, it would take eight years to see everything in the Hermitage. Here are Van Goghs, and Rembrandts, works by El Greco and Picasso, and those of hundreds of other painters that can be seen only in Leningrad.
But the other museum, and the greater in my opinion, is the Winter Palace itself. It is nothing less than a colossal work of art. Marble staircases sweep upward through labyrinths of gold. High Romanesque arches delicately shelter windows made of a hundred individual panes. Each wall looks as if an army of craftsmen spent a generation to produce the intricate moldings and decorations. I decided I could spend my eight years in the Winter Palace even were it not to contain a single painting, so impressed was I with the building itself.
The two ‘museums’ together are quite overwhelming. Imagine Versailles, Louis XIV’s architectural masterpiece outside of Paris, used as a display case for housing the entire works of the Louvre. If you can visualize such a thing, you will have some idea of Leningrad’s Winter Palace. Leningrad is the city that withstood the 900 day siege and bombardment by the German Nazis in World War II — the longest siege in the history of warfare. Thankfully the Winter Palace and all its treasures survived.
Ella guided us directly to the exhibits I wanted to see: the wax statue of Peter the Great, the rooms pertaining to the Patriotic War of 1812 (Napoleon’s invasion), and the early Russian-culture exhibits.
When we’d covered everything on my list I told Ella we should now see some things of her choice, but she declined. “I come here almost every week,” she said. “But this is your only chance. We can stay here at the Hermitage, or we can go visit other sights, as you prefer.”
I didn’t want to monopolize the day but she had a point. I was leaving tomorrow. “Let’s go see the Naval Museum,” I said. It was only a short walk away, across the Neva. When we got there we found a queue had formed which Ella, with her practiced eye, estimated at about an hour long.
“Will it get shorter if we come back later?” I asked.
“I think,” she said, “that this queue is made up of people who came to the museum early to avoid the queue. If we wait awhile it will probably be gone completely.”
“Let’s get some food!” said Robert. Touring the Winter Palace had worked up an appetite. We proceeded along the river bank in the direction of the Peter and Paul Fortress and came to an old river boat, permanently moored and serving as a floating restaurant. The restaurant was closed, probably because it was lunch time, but a small bar was annexed to it, and this was open. We drank tea and made a lunch of caviar hors d’oevres–my third caviar meal in less than 24 hours.
We were the only patrons in the small bar, but then the door opened and several young men came in, sitting down at a table by the opposite wall.
“They’re Estonians!” declared Robert.
“How can you tell?” I asked. They looked normal to me.
“Because they’re speaking Estonian,” he answered.
“Robert,” I said, “I think those Estonians might like to buy some hard currency. What do you think?” The finnmarks and dollars I’d received as change at the beriozka shop needed to be converted into rubles at a market rate if they were to do me any good.
“Hmmm. Yes, I think you may be right.”
I handed some bills to Robert under the table. He walked over to the Estonians and was immediately welcomed. After a few minutes one of them got up and followed Robert out the door. I didn’t want this thing to look too obvious, so I paid the bill and escorted Ella back out to the sidewalk, where we began walking towards the Peter and Paul fortress. Pretty soon here came Robert, running to catch up with us.
“I took care of it,” he said. “Would you like me to give you the money?”
“Not now. Let’s wait awhile.” The important thing was that my ruble supply had been replenished.
We were nearing the Peter and Paul fortress, walking along beneath the low stone walls on our left and the frozen Neva river to our right. It was a clear, sunny day but the sun was now just a few hours from setting, and the temperature was well below freezing. Here came a man who didn’t seem to understand that.
He was about fifty, a little on the heavy side, and with white, thinning hair. That made him typical of many Russians I’d seen on the streets. He was different in that he wore only a small bathing suit, and carried a pick axe.
Robert and I were fascinated. “You won’t believe what he’s going to do next,” Ella said. Apparently she’d seen this before.
What he did was to walk several yards out onto the frozen Neva river and chop a hole in the ice with his axe. The poor man was doing this while standing barefoot, a cold wind whipping across the river. The three of us pulled our coats in more tightly. When the hole was of acceptable dimension, the man jumped in, disappearing under the water for a few moments and then reemerging. As Robert and I stared speechless, a young woman in a bathing suit walked up and jumped in too.
“Have they been in a sauna?” I asked Robert. I’ve been known to jump in icy water after a hot sauna. But it appeared these two had not, for there was no steam coming off their bodies.
“No sauna,” said Robert.
“These people belong to a society that does this,” Ella explained. “They start training for it as young children, and their bodies become used to getting into cold water. They don’t feel the cold the way we would.”
“But what’s the point?” I asked.
“They believe it keeps them healthy,” she said. “They believe they will never get sick as long as they are able to do this.”
“Does it work?”
“It must,” she said. “I can’t imagine them doing it otherwise!”
I took a few pictures of these Russian masochists and then asked Robert to translate what I was going to say.
“Tell him,” I said, “that as an American I will officially report back to my government that Russians are obviously too hearty and strong-willed and we should never fight a war against them.”
The man laughed, and nodded aggressively.
We continued walking along the fortress walls until we came to an entrance. Inside the Peter and Paul Fortress is the Peter and Paul Cathedral where the remains of Russia’s tsars lie buried, including those of Peter the Great. Predictably, a long line of people was waiting to get into the cathedral to see the coffins of the dead tsars.
“I don’t need to see any dead tsars,” I said to Robert. “Let’s try the Naval Museum again.”
We walked back in the opposite direction, passing the hole in the ice. The two crazy Russians had either left, or drowned.
“The funny thing is,” said Ella, “that those people who get into the freezing water and don’t feel any cold, do feel cold when they’re dressed back up and waiting at a bus stop. They get cold then just the way we do. Scientists have tried to figure out why but they can’t.”
“Maybe they go into a trance before getting in the water,” I suggested.
“Yeah,” said Robert. “But you’d think the shock of the cold water would break the trance!”
The sun was setting over the Winter Palace, and the air was diffused with a cold, reddish light. In mid-stream a small icebreaker-tug was carving a channel through the river. It rose up as it hit the ice, and then it’s weight would cause the ice to break as it fell back into the water. We watched this silently for awhile, and then continued strolling along the Neva.
“What rate of exchange did you get for the rubles?” I asked Robert.
“I don’t know,” he said, “I didn’t count them.” He pulled the bills from his pocket and leafed through them.
“This isn’t good,” he said.
“Did we get ripped off?”
“No, we ripped them off. They gave us ten rubles to the dollar.”
“Ten to the dollar! Isn’t the normal rate about five or six?”
“Yes, six to the dollar is what I expected. They must not have known. If it was anyone else I’d say ‘great’, but I don’t want to take advantage of fellow Estonians.”
That was understandable. We were now opposite the riverboat and Robert decided to run back in to see if they were still there. If so, he’d refund some of their money. Ella and I continued walking, and in a few moments he joined us.
“They’re gone,” he said.
But I didn’t feel too bad about it. The street artists in Tallinn had only given me a rate of four rubles to the dollar, when they’d known full well the proper rate was six. That was part of the risk of black market trading.
When we arrived back at the Naval Museum we found the queue had disappeared just as Ella had predicted. The three of us went inside but only Robert and I checked our coats. Ella had to leave for her job at the nightclub.
“I’m through at ten,” she said. “Maybe we could meet somewhere.” Since our plans with Maria were vague this sounded reasonable. Robert and Ella agreed on a rendezvous spot, the street corner by the metro near my hotel. She could be there by ten-thirty. We said good-by to Ella and walked into the main hall of the museum.
The first thing we saw was Peter’s boat. It was about twenty-two feet long, and its wood was almost black from centuries of oil and tar. It had a gaff rig and a tiny bowsprit, making it look more like a miniature ship than a large boat. A little bench had been set in front of the display, and no one else in the crowded museum seemed much interested in it. Robert and I sat down and examined the vessel carefully.
“I used to build sailboats,” I explained to Robert. “That’s why I’m so interested in the design.”
“I’m interested too,” said Robert. “Remember I’m a graduate of the Marine Academy. I know something about boats!”
It had a very long, shallow keel, and a broad beam. “That beam will make it stable,” said Robert.
“Yes,” I agreed. “And the extremely long keel will make it track well, and point high in light airs. But it’s too shallow. It won’t do well in heavy weather. “
“You’re right,” said Robert. “It’s obviously built for inshore work, among the shoals.”
“So I bet it was built in Holland, not England,” I said, remembering that the boat was suspected of having been built in one of those two countries. “Holland has lots of shallow bays and inlets, while around England the sea is much deeper and rougher.”
We were both so fascinated with the boat that we sat on the bench and discussed it for nearly half an hour. It was probably good that Ella had left.
I had come to the Naval Museum to see Peter’s sailboat but there was much else of interest here. Occupying most of the floor space in the main hall were over a dozen very large models of eighteenth and nineteenth century sailing ships, each nearly ten feet long. We also discovered a series of paintings depicting the ‘Aurora,’ the Russian naval cruiser whose guns, firing across the river towards the Winter Palace, had set off the Revolution. Robert explained that in the Soviet Union, the ‘Aurora’ was an important patriotic symbol, similar to the Liberty Bell for Americans.
There were also paintings here depicting scenes leading up to the revolution, such as a group of sailors mutinying, and then murdering their tsarist officer. It seemed strange that the Soviet Union’s Naval Museum was willing to portray a mutiny as something worthy of honor and heroism. Isn’t a navy based on the principal that everyone must obey orders from superior officers, regardless of personal feelings and politics? But as I walked among the exhibits I realized that the Soviet Navy’s view must be that tsarist officers and other officials of the imperial regime did not constitute a legitimate authority over the Russian people. And was this really any different from America’s attitude that British officials didn’t need to be obeyed in the months leading up to our own revolution?
There was also the plethora of paintings, statues, and memorabilia pertaining to Lenin, apparently ‘de rigeur’ for every Soviet museum. As Robert translated the explanations of the exhibits, I detected a certain pride Robert himself had in Lenin. In a world where communist theory was increasingly being questioned, long lines were formed to buy cake, and at least one of the Soviet Republics was trying to declare sovereignty, did the common people still revere Lenin?
“Yes,” said Robert unequivocally when I voiced this question. “Peter the Great and Lenin are the two fathers of our country, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln for Americans. It makes no difference what anyone thinks about communism, or for that matter what they think about tsars. Those two men are our heroes and it will always be so.”
“Even if communism is discredited?”
“That’s irrelevant. Lenin did what was necessary at the time. Peter did what was necessary at the time. The fact that today things might be different does not detract from their greatness.”
He had a good point. If George Washington were running for President today he probably wouldn’t make it through the primaries, but he’s still our greatest national hero.
By five o’clock we’d seen most of what the museum had to offer, and went to reclaim our coats. Here was a major blow for Robert. His gloves had disappeared. Probably he’d set them on a bench while taking off his coat, but in Leningrad in late November losing ones gloves is serious.
“Robert,” I said, “you did such a great job with the rubles, let me buy you a new pair!”
“I may take you up on that,” he said, “if we can find a store that sells them.”
It was night-time as we left the Naval Museum and began the walk back across the Neva to our hotel. Robert kept his hands in his pockets.
“Near the Europeskaya,” said Robert, “is the largest department store in Leningrad.”
“Well I’m sure we’ll find gloves there,” I said.
Robert looked at me with a strange expression. “This is the Soviet Union. You can’t be sure you’ll find gloves anywhere.”
Robert was right. We arrived at Leningrad’s largest department store shortly before six o’clock. It was teeming with people, and I was at some risk of becoming separated from Robert. This department store can not be compared with anything in America. It consists of tiny boutiques, each connected to the others by wide hallways, and each boutique specializes in a type of product. One boutique is for men’s slacks, another is for produce, a third is for stationery. It is an amazing hodgepodge of product lines. And what Americans could teach them about merchandising! I remembered the shoe store back in Tallinn with the rough plywood shelves. These boutiques were only slightly better furnished, and there was certainly no attempt to make the products look attractive. Each boutique had a small queue by it, but nothing like the one for the cakes.
We found the section containing men’s gloves. They had one style available, what I would call a cotton liner, but it was better than nothing.
“Let’s buy them,” I suggested.
“No,” said Robert. “They’re not very good. I wouldn’t want to waste your money.”
I could see the price tag: two and a half rubles. “Robert, at ten rubles to the dollar, those gloves only cost twenty-five cents! Let me waste my money! They’ll do until we can find something better.”
But he didn’t want them, and we left the department store without buying anything. We’d had nothing to eat since our caviar snacks and even though we would probably be having dinner with Maria, we needed some food. Robert suggested we go back to the hotel which was only two blocks away.
The Europeskaya contains three restaurants, and one bar. So far I’d been to the ‘cafe’ twice for breakfast, a very drab place with harsh lighting. And the night before Robert and I had eaten in the magnificent skylight restaurant on the top floor.
But the most impressive restaurant was actually on the second floor. It had been decorated in rich reds and golds, and the table cloths and place settings looked as if they had been snatched from the Winter Palace. We walked up to the door but were immediately intercepted.
“This restaurant is closed,” said the surly waiter. “You must go to the one on the sixth floor.” It didn’t look that closed to us. Other waiters were scurrying around adding the finishing touches to the table settings. One party of six was already seated, enjoying their hors d’oevres. It was six-thirty on a Saturday night. If we couldn’t eat here now, when could we eat here? But the waiter was adamant.
As we walked up to the sixth floor we passed the cafe and noticed it was closed also, so that option was out. And when we arrived at the other restaurant, the one we’d eaten in the night before, we discovered it was closed too. This sixth-floor restaurant, according to the leaflet in my hotel, was supposed to be open from noon until midnight. But a matronly woman standing guard informed us sternly that the restaurant was “on break” from six to seven. That made sense. By all means schedule your break during prime dinner hour. It was reflective of the entire Soviet approach towards service in a restaurant.
Striking out everywhere, I decided to head to the Intourist desk and explain my problem.
“I think I’m going to die of starvation!” I said to the friendly lady at the desk. “All the restaurants are closed.”
“Well,” she said, “you could go to the bar and get some food, but it’s a hard currency bar.”
We both knew what that meant. Hard currency bars are the food-service equivalent of the beriozka shop–another means of extracting huge quantities of money from the tourist. A glass of beer at a hard currency bar would cost more than a full dinner at a nice restaurant.
“I don’t want to go there,” I said, and the woman nodded in understanding. “What about the restaurant on the sixth floor?” she asked.
“They’re on break, from six to seven.”
“Oh, that’s right. Well, have you tried the restaurant right upstairs, on the second floor?”
“We went there first,” I explained. “It looks to me like they’re open. There are some people in there eating, but the waiters won’t let us in.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said the woman. “You are a guest of the hotel, and they must let you eat. Go up there and ask again!”
We tried that, it didn’t work, and we returned to the Intourist desk.
“It didn’t work,” I said.
“Look,” she said. “It’s very hard for us to do anything from down here. But you go up there and ask for Alfred, he’s the manager. You tell Alfred that you refuse to leave until you’ve been given some food.”
We walked out of the Intourist office and back up the stairs. “I think,” I said to Robert, “that it’s time to kick some Russian butt.”
“What’s that?” asked Robert. “Is that another idiom? What is ‘butt’?”
I explained what butt is. “Just watch,” I said. “Then you’ll understand the idiom.”
At the door to the restaurant a new man had arrived, and was sitting in a chair, flanked by some of the surly waiters. I didn’t ask if he spoke English since Angry Americans are inclined to assume it.
“Look mister,” I said. “I want to see Alfred. I want to see him here. I want to see him now! You go get him!”
“I’m Alfred,” he said. “How may I help you?”
Oh. This took me aback for a moment. I’d succeeded in making myself look silly instead of officious but I tried to recover. Since Alfred was an Important Person, I condescended to speak to him almost as an equal. Holding out my hand, I introduced myself.
“I’m Jacques Voorhees, and this is Robert. We’re Americans. We’re staying at this hotel.” I flashed my room card. “We’re hungry. We want to eat. Every restaurant in this hotel is closed. But I say this one is open, and we’re not leaving until we’re fed.”
That was a pretty speech and Robert looked on admiringly.
Alfred was also impressed. He spoke to a couple of the surly waiters and they shrugged indifferently. “Very well,” he said. “These men will show you to a table.” We sat down and ordered a light meal.
While we were waiting for the food, Robert motioned me close and spoke softly.
“Now I understand why this restaurant is closed,” he said.
“Those people over there,” he pointed to the party of six, “are government officials.”
“How do you know?”
“I can overhear what they’re saying. They’re talking about some important issues.”
“Apparently there’s been a hijacking in Azerbaijan. They’re discussing how the government should respond.”
“And they closed the whole restaurant just so those guys could have dinner and talk politics?”
“Doesn’t that happen in America?” Robert asked.
“No way! If government officials came into a restaurant to talk about important issues, the whole place would be swarming with the press, and everyone else would be at their table asking for autographs.”
Robert simply looked at me.
“OK,” I said. “I see your point. Maybe this is a better system.”
“Better or not, we’re lucky you kicked some Russian butt or they’d never have let us in.”
We ate quickly, knowing Maria was waiting for our call. I knew this was my last night in the Soviet Union. I had no idea it would also be my most memorable.
CHAPTER 8: Backstage At The Kirov Theater
We had returned to my room after dinner so as to call Maria at 7:30 p.m. and make plans for the evening. But Robert had a girl problem.
“I promised Ritta I would call her sometime today,” he confessed. Ritta was the first woman he’d tried to reach the night we arrived in Leningrad. “Maybe whatever we do tonight, Ritta could come with us.”
Robert had a wonderful little black book filled with women, and he had a beautiful girlfriend back in Estonia, but he didn’t seem to have much common sense.
“That’s not such a good idea,” I said. “If we’re meeting Ella later tonight, and Ritta is with us, then we’ll have three women and two men.”
“What’s wrong with that?” asked Robert.
“It’s just not a good group,” I explained. “Especially because one of the women is a stranger to the others. If they were all friends it might be OK. What if Ella or Maria really likes you? They’re being very friendly, showing us around the city and everything. You’re going to repay them by bringing another girl along tonight? They won’t like that.”
“But I promised I’d call,” he protested.
Suddenly the phone rang. Could this be my wife again? If so, the second call in 24 hours would surely mean some emergency at home. I hurriedly picked up the receiver.
“Hello? Derry?” I asked apprehensively.
But this time I got the torrent of Russian I had feared earlier. “Speak English?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” said the female voice. “Is this Jacques?”
“Yes.” I didn’t recognize the voice. It wasn’t Ana, and I couldn’t remember any other woman in the Soviet Union who spoke English. I was afraid it might be Ritta.
“This is Maria’s mother,” said the voice. Of course! The talkative woman back in the apartment. “Could I please speak to Robert, if he is there?”
I handed the phone to Robert and they spoke briefly.
“Well, that changes things,” he said, hanging up the receiver. “Maria’s mother says we’re to pick Maria up at 7:30 at her school. And she’s bringing along another girl for tonight.”
“Another one! Robert we absolutely cannot go out with four women.”
“I think maybe I won’t call Ritta. I’ll phone her later from Tallinn and say I had to go back early.”
It was 7:30 already so we rushed out of the hotel, found another gypsy cab, and hurried to Maria’s school. She was waiting for us just inside the lobby.
“I need to change first,” she said. “Can you take me back to my apartment for just a minute?”
On the way Maria turned to me and began discussing our options. “I understand you want to see a ballet at the Kirov,” she said.
“Well, the Kirov’s too expensive, and anyway tonight is opera.”
“We can go to a ballet somewhere else,” she said. “Or we can go to the Kirov and see the opera. We can buy tickets at the door for less money.”
“Robert and I aren’t really dressed for the Kirov Theater,” I said. “We should probably go see a ballet somewhere else.”
“That’s a bad choice,” said Maria, forthright as ever. “You can see a ballet anywhere. But there is only one Kirov Theater.”
“Do you like opera better than ballet?” I asked. “You’re a ballerina!”
“I don’t like opera at all,” she said. “But the Kirov is the most magnificent theater in Europe. It doesn’t matter what’s playing there.”
“Then let’s go,” I said.
Maria changed quickly while Robert and I waited in the gypsy cab. When we arrived at the theater my concern about how we were dressed increased. A continuous stream of black limousines was disgorging elegant men and women in tuxedoes and evening gowns. Robert and I wore jeans and baggy sweaters.
The theater building itself was awash in floodlights, but I could not see much of its architecture from my vantage point outside the front door. It was simply another big impressive building, the kind Leningrad seemed to have so many of. A few yards away from the entrance was a tightly-packed group of about thirty people haggling with outstretched hands over the remaining tickets, and the dwindling number of buyers. I handed my billfold to Robert and he and Maria plunged into the center of the pit. They vanished momentarily among the waving arms and hands, but they emerged in a few minutes with two tickets, held aloft proudly.
“Only five rubles for both of them,” Robert announced.
At ten to the dollar, that was fifty cents. They’d wanted thirty dollars apiece back at the hotel.
“Don’t we need three?” I asked.
“I can get in without a ticket,” said Maria.
Somehow that didn’t surprise me. She steered us towards the entrance and then disappeared, explaining she would come in by a different way and meet us in the lobby. Robert and I were jostled and pushed through the front door, and with effort we made our way over to one of a dozen coat check tables. Here we were given the option of obtaining opera glasses for 50 kopecks (about five cents), so we got two pairs.
Maria arrived. “Follow me,” she said, and guided us through a door where our tickets were checked, then down to the main floor.
“We don’t have assigned seats,” Robert explained. “These tickets just allow us to sit anywhere we can find space.” That didn’t sound encouraging. The theater was filling up fast.
We were now standing in the section that would probably be described as orchestra seating. There were quite a few seats still available here, and it was already 8:30, the time the performance was due to begin. Maria recommended we just stand where we were in the aisle until the lights dimmed, then we could grab the vacant seats. But if there is one place you don’t want to stand while you’re trying to look inconspicuous it is where we now were–the center aisle on the ground floor of the Kirov Theater in Leningrad, just moments before curtain time on a Saturday night.
I looked around and above me, and two thousand pairs of eyes looked disapprovingly back. The Kirov is not only magnificent, it is huge. There are at least four tiers of balconies suspended over the main floor, in addition to the box seating rising vertically on either side of the stage. Crystal and gold are the twin themes of the interior design, and so much has been used it is as if the builder of the Winter Palace had decided to recreate all the grandeur of that building in this one theater.
I could now understand Maria’s comment that it was unimportant what was playing, ballet or opera. You don’t come to the Kirov to see the performance, you come to see the theater. And here were Robert and I directly in the middle of the ground floor, surrounded by tuxedos, formal gowns and sable, wearing our jeans and sneakers and having gained entrance for twenty-five cents apiece.
The lights dimmed, and we just had time to jump into two seats on the center aisle. Maria found one a few rows farther down, also on the aisle. We were about ten rows back from the orchestra itself.
Now the lights darkened further and a hush fell over the audience. The conductor raised his baton, the music began, and the gigantic gold threaded curtain rose. The opera had begun. As the scenes progressed–all in Russian–Robert kept leaning over, trying to explain the plot, but I didn’t really care. I was enjoying the mere act of being here, soaking it all in. The Kirov Theater, Imperial Opera House of the Tsars, made Carnegie Hall in New York look like a high school auditorium.
After thirty minutes we came to our first intermission. Maria was up in a flash, beckoning us to follow, and racing out the rear door. What could she be up to? But we had grown used to following Maria. It had become the natural state for the three of us. Maria led, Robert and I followed. This time she took us on a wild flight up marbled staircases, through colonnaded drawing rooms, under overhanging arches, until at last we came to a low-ceilinged room around which small tables had been set.
We arrived just in time to grab the last of these, which explained her hurry. On each table had been set a large hors d’oevres plate. One simply helped oneself to the snacks and then paid for what had been eaten, Robert explained. Maria and I ate five dollars worth of caviar while Robert went to a nearby serving table and obtained tea for the three of us. Having eaten a very light dinner in anticipation of a larger one with Maria, these caviar snacks had to go a long way.
“Maria,” I asked, “what happened to the other girl you were going to bring with you?”
“She couldn’t come,” said Maria.
That solved one problem.
“Are you aware that we’re supposed to meet Ella at 10:30 tonight?” I’d discovered the opera was not over until 11:00.
“Yes, but I already talked to her. She knows you came to the Kirov tonight, so she’s not meeting you.”
That solved another problem. Somewhere in a nearby room a bell started ringing softly.
“We have to get back!” Maria said. We rushed through the labyrinth again, but this time when we got back to the main floor, we found our seats had been taken. Either we’d waited too long or perhaps their rightful owners had arrived. The lights were dimming just as we spotted three other seats, together at the back of the room. We hurriedly claimed these.
At the next intermission Maria was off once more, with Robert and me again in tow. It was through a different set of rooms and passageways that she guided us this time, and when we arrived at our destination I found they were serving not caviar snacks, but simple ice cream sundaes. We sat down and began enjoying these unexpected treats. Robert went off to get some tea, but when he came back he was flanked by two uniformed officers.
Oh, oh, I thought. The black market ruble game is up.
“These are naval cadets,” explained Robert, ushering them to our table and offering them some ice cream. “They learned I was with an American. They’ve never met an American and they want to practice their English.”
Naval cadets? Well, they looked young enough. These must not be KGB uniforms then.
“I’m you’re first American?” I asked.
“Please, you talk very slowly. Our English not so good.”
I thought I was talking slowly, but I cut the rate in half. “My father,” I said, “was an officer in the American Navy during World War II.” That got their interest. An American naval officer!
“Was he engineering or commander?” one of them asked. That distinction made no sense to me. Perhaps the Soviet Navy has a very different organization.
“He was a lieutenant commander,” I answered. They talked amongst themselves, trying to determine what a lieutenant commander was. “You have ‘admiral’, up here,” I motioned with my hands. They knew the word ‘admiral’. “Then below that you have ‘captain’.” They knew that word too. Below captain is ‘commander’, and below commander is lieutenant commander.”
Ah! Now they understood, and nodded eagerly. “Someday we will be captains,” one of them said proudly.
“In submarines,” said the other. “Captains in submarines.”
I blessed the fact that I was current on my reading of Tom Clancy novels. “Alpha class?” I asked, naming the Soviet Navy’s most sophisticated nuclear sub.
“No, no! Not Alphas! Not nuclear submarines. Diesel electric submarines.”
“Yes,” said the other. “Diesel electric submarines. Not nuclear. We don’t want our hair to fall out!”
“That’s right,” agreed the first. “We want to keep the hair on our heads!” He patted his head, as if to show that so far he had succeeded.
I turned to Robert. “What do they mean? Do they think the radiation on a nuclear submarine would make their hair fall out?”
“I guess so!” said Robert. “Or maybe it’s an inside joke.”
“What kind of ship your father on in war?” asked one of the cadets.
“Destroyers,” I said. Both frowned when they heard that. Submarines are a destroyer’s natural prey, and any submariner learns to hate destroyers as a matter of course. “He’s retired now,” I added, and that helped clear the air.
At that moment we realized that everyone else had left the ice cream room. “We must get back,” Maria said to me in French. “We’re late.”
“Very nice talking you,” said the cadet.
“Nice talking to you too,” I said. I shook hands with each solemnly.
Maria raced us back to the theater, but the doors on the ground floor were closed. The next act had already begun! “Follow me!” she said.
Whenever I think back on my time with Maria, my memory will always be of an energetic young woman continuously saying ‘follow me’, or rather ‘suive moi!’, and racing off in a new direction. We followed her this time up a new set of marbled staircases and glittering rooms, until at last she came to a closed door and stopped. “Shhh,” she said, putting her fingers to her lips. “C’est le loge des artistes!”
She opened the door and I almost jumped back in surprise. We had emerged into one of the boxes (‘loge’ in French), but this one was so close to the stage it was actually overhanging the orchestra. The actors were directly at eye level with us, and no more than thirty feet away! “C’est le loge des artistes!” Maria whispered again. There were about eight seats. Maria motioned Robert and me into the only two remaining empty and positioned herself standing up near the back, leaning against the door. The others in the box eyed us curiously, but unconcernedly. Maria nodded to one of them and he smiled.
This was thrilling, being right on top of the stage. There was no need for the binoculars here. They wouldn’t even focus this close! Maria whispered to me again and pointed backwards, away from the stage towards a colossal “loge” directly in the center of the mezzanine. It was so overgrown with gold that it occupied three floors. “C’est le loge de l’empereur,” she explained. Apparently that was where the tsars used to sit, when St. Petersburg was the imperial capital of all the Russias.
“This one’s better,” I whispered.
“Yes,” she agreed. “It’s the best one in the house I think. It’s reserved for the artists themselves.”
At the next intermission Maria spirited us away yet a third time. But now the passageways she was following were not so glamorous. They were more utilitarian, more functional. Apparently this was the ‘dark side’ of the Kirov. Where could she be taking us?
She opened another door and we found ourselves in a little cafeteria. Only a dozen other people were here, a couple of them in line for coffee. I told Maria and Robert to let me buy the coffee, and then I took my place in line. Suddenly I noticed the man in front of me. He was the lead singer in the opera! I looked again at the other occupants of the cafe. About half of them were in costume! The lead singer bought a cup of tea and sat at a nearby table, sipping it alone. I purchased three coffees and carried them over to where Maria and Robert were sitting.
“C’est le cafe pour les artistes,” said Maria.
“Are you considered one of the ‘artistes’?” I asked. “Is that how you got in for free?”
“Yes,” she said.
“But how can you be one of the ‘artistes’ at the Kirov? I thought you were merely in training for the Kirov, hoping to get in.”
“That’s true,” she said. “But I perform here sometimes. Last year I danced in Swan Lake, at the Kirov. I was one of the swans!” She opened her purse and took out a black and white picture. Sure enough, here was Maria in her ballet attire, dancing a part in Swan Lake with a dozen other ballerinas.
We made it back to the theater just seconds before the lights dimmed, and the vacant seats we found this time were precisely front row, center, just behind the conductor’s stand. In fact if the man had let his baton fly back just a little farther, he would have knocked Robert on the head. This was really the best way to see a performance, I decided. Moving around to different positions in the theater provides entirely different perspectives not only on the stage, but on the theater itself.
After about twenty minutes the curtain came down and Maria motioned us quickly to our feet. We followed her rapid walk back down the aisle but it appeared that this time she’d made a mistake. This wasn’t an intermission. No one else was leaving their seats. With the curtain down, the lights on, and no one moving except us, my jeans and sneakers had become the focal point for the entire Kirov Theater. It was all I could do to keep walking and not melt into the floor from embarrassment.
Finally out the door I asked Maria what was going on.
“Do you have your camera?” she asked, not seeing fit to explain further.
“It’s in my coat pocket, back at the coat check desk,” I said, puzzled that she would ask since it is against regulations to take pictures inside the theater. She considered this for a moment, weighing the difficulty of reclaiming the camera, and then reached a decision.
“Go get the camera!” she said. Robert and I had long ago learned not to question Maria and we hurried off to find the coat check desk. We rejoined her in a few minutes.
“Follow me!” she said. We were soon back in the functional dark side of the Kirov again. The stairs we went up and down were made of simple hardwood, not marble, and there were no crystal chandeliers to light our way. Finally she came to a solitary door that looked as if it might open onto a broom closet.
Maria stopped here, turned to me, and spoke in a very serious voice. “Be very, very quiet. And be careful!”
Careful? She said the same thing to Robert in Russian. Then she opened the tiny door and led us through. Inside there was only blackness. Maybe it really was a broom closet. She steered us to the right, pushed aside some curtains, made another turn, and we were overwhelmed with a blinding light — the light of the stage. We were backstage at the Kirov Theater!
This was incredible. I’d felt close to the actors sitting in the box above the orchestra, but now I was actually among them. Stage hands moved swiftly on urgent errands. Some of the performers stood beside us awaiting their cues. Two feet in front of me was a control console where a man sat intently studying a closed-circuit TV picture of the performance, adjusting controls, speaking soft commands into his microphone.
Massive black curtains hung all around, parallel with the stage itself. I was seeing it now directly from the side. Because of the curtains, however, I could see only the stage itself and not the audience. Just barely visible was the forward edge of the “loge des artistes,” actually hanging slightly over the stage, as it had seemed when I was in it. I couldn’t quite see the people sitting there though. Not unless I were to move forward about twelve inches. But then I remembered an admonishment I’d overheard years ago, to anyone backstage: If you can see the audience, they can see you. I flattened myself against the wall, realizing just in time how close I was to actually being on stage myself.
Just then a door beside me opened and the leading lady walked right past, into the lights. At this point in the opera’s plot she was dressed as a bride and her long satin train slid gracefully over my dirty sneakers. If I hadn’t stepped back just then she would have crashed into me.
I remembered my camera. It would be sacrilege to take a flash picture from here. It would illuminate the entire stage. But did I need a flash? The performing actors were bathed in flood lights. I took out my camera stealthily, wondering if at any moment it would be seen and dashed from my hands. I not only turned off the flash, I carefully placed one hand over it, as an extra precaution. Click! I dropped the camera to my side, and guiltily looked around. But no one had seen me, or maybe no one cared. I took several more, not knowing if any would come out.
Then I heard the roar of applause and saw in the TV monitor that the curtain was dropping. “This will be the final scene,” Maria whispered. Robert and I stayed flat against the wall as the stage hands burst into activity. The next and final scene was in the dining hall of a monastery and the long table was quickly brought out and positioned. The costumed monks began taking their places around it. This was to be only a brief change of scene, not an intermission apparently. A dozen actors dressed like guards in a castle began lining up right in front of us, preparing to march on stage at a specific moment. Each guard carried a halberd, one of those tall spear-like things medieval guards hold upright. Each guard now began to claim his halberd from where they were set against the wall. I saw one guard without a halberd and there was a spare halberd behind me, so I handed it to him. He nodded in appreciation. The actors probably assumed that, being dressed in jeans and sneakers, Robert and I were stage hands.
And then the curtain rose, the audience became still, and the monks broke out in song. The final act was going to be short, I suspected, for a woman arrived carrying a bouquet of roses, and stood waiting beside us. She apparently knew Maria for they were soon deep in conversation, and all of a sudden Maria began curtseying to her. The woman curtseyed back several times. Then she handed the roses to Maria and they continued their curtseying. I finally realized that Maria was showing the woman the proper way to curtsey and offer flowers at the same time.
Finally, the theater exploded once more in applause. I saw from the monitor that the curtain was again falling. Maria watched the monitor closely, and as the curtain started to rise again she signaled to the woman with the roses, who now stepped forward, smiled a final time at Maria, and walked quickly onto the stage.
After several curtain calls the opera was over, and here came the leading lady, carrying the roses that had been successfully delivered. Her long bridal train flowed out behind and this time I made sure it wouldn’t run over me. But instead of walking right past, the woman stopped abruptly when she saw Maria and they began chatting. Then Maria beckoned Robert and me to follow and Maria and the opera star walked through a door and into a larger hallway.
“Take our picture!” Maria said. So I positioned Maria, Robert, and the opera star closely together and snapped a photo.
“Now with you!” Maria said. So I handed the camera to Robert and took his place among the women. The leading lady was quite friendly, snuggling in close and putting her arm around my waist. After Robert took the picture she turned to me smiling and said “You are American?”
“Yes,” I said. “I loved your performance.”
“Thank you. It is pleasure to meet you. I must go now. Bye bye!” And with that she went quickly off down the hall, smiling at us and waving over her shoulder.
By the time Maria had exchanged greetings with several more of the actors, and we’d worked our way back to the lobby, most of the crowd had dispersed. We walked out on the street and watched the elegant men and women hail taxis or board waiting limousines.
“Let’s get one more picture of the three of us in front of the theater,” said Maria. Robert turned to a nearby pedestrian and asked him to help. But as Robert was explaining the operation of the camera the man interrupted and started laughing. He spoke a few words to Robert who translated.
“He says he works in the factory where they make these cameras. He makes 100 of them a day. He says he doesn’t need me to tell him how to operate it!”
“He makes them? Ask him if its a good camera.”
Robert spoke a few words, and then turned back to me. “He says ‘no, it’s not really a very good camera’.” He agreed to take our picture anyway, but just before he snapped the shutter the brilliant floodlights illuminating the outside of the Kirov Theater–our backdrop–went off.
“Murphy’s law,” said Robert. The man shrugged his shoulders and took the picture anyway. He handed the camera back to me, placed his hand firmly on my shoulder and spoke several words in Russian before walking away.
“He says ‘get yourself a good camera’,” explained Robert.
I turned to Maria. “That was incredible!” I said, “Going backstage in the theater and actually meeting the actors!”
“Yes,” she said, smiling. “I give a good tour of Leningrad, no?”
“I think you’re great! You know, you ought to come visit America. You’d have a wonderful time in New York.”
“Someday,” she said, “I will come to America on tour with the Kirov Ballet.”
“Yes,” I said. “I think you will. I really think you will.”
CHAPTER 9: The Girl From Peking
The morning I was to leave Russia began with a farewell breakfast in my hotel. Robert was late again, but that was not so serious because Maria and Ella arrived together. As we sat in the cafe, I noticed a group of Americans sitting at a nearby table. One of them had a Canon 8mm video camera, and he was taping scenes of the room and the people in it. I leaned over and asked Maria how to say “good morning” in Russian. She told me, and as the camera came to point at us, I smiled broadly, waved, and said the words as best I could. The American smiled at me politely. I could imagine the situation when he returned home. He would show this tape to his friends and point out the uniquely Russian-looking people he encountered on his trip. I was proud to be one of them.
My entire time in the Soviet Union I had been aware of a different strata of society of which I was not a part. It was the world of the guided tours. I would see the large tour buses, notice the groups in the museums with their Intourist guide, see them standing in front of this or that monument taking photographs, or observe them congregating in places like the Europeskaya Hotel. I knew they must be getting a very different view of the country. It was as if a foreigner came to America and was ceremoniously taken by tour bus to see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Smithsonian, and the Washington Monument. Such a person would take a lot of pictures and would go home telling his friends he had seen America, but it would be a completely different America from the one inhabited by U.S. citizens. To a small degree, I hoped, I had been lucky enough to see something of the real Soviet Union.
My vouchers entitled me to free car-transportation to the train station, and Robert, Ella, and Maria decided to come along. As in Tallinn, the Intourist agent gave me a slip of paper with the license number of a taxi waiting out front. I finally realized why there are never any legitimate taxis available in the Soviet Union. Intourist has simply commandeered them all, and they sit waiting in front of hotels, train stations, and airports until tourists walk out with the proper numbers on little pieces of paper.
The driver was supposed to take us straight to the station, but Maria argued with him and finally he nodded in resignation.
“We’ve convinced him to take a detour,” said Robert. “We’re going to stop on the way and see the cruiser ‘Aurora’.”
The Aurora, I remembered, is the Soviet equivalent of the Liberty Bell–the symbol of the Russian Revolution. It had recently been restored as a museum, and was now open to the public.
“The government,” said Robert, “has promised it will stay in Leningrad as a museum for the next 600 years.” That seemed a strange number, 600. Was it a mystical Soviet quantity?
The car pulled up alongside the gray warship, towering over us, and we rushed quickly up the gangplank. There was no admission fee to this museum, as seemed to be true of other museums I’d visited in Russia. Maria and Ella led us on a whirlwind tour of the vessel, apparently they’d been here before, and all I remember of it is racing up and down ladders, through hatches, across decks, and finally up to the bridge, where Robert called another man into service to take a picture of the four of us.
The ship was tied up on the bank of the Neva River, directly in front of the Soviet Naval Academy. “That’s where your friends from last night go to school,” explained Maria. “They come over here to the ship and use it for gunnery practice.”
Gunnery practice? I remembered that the Russian Revolution had started with the Aurora firing at the Winter Palace. I could see the building across the river, and guessed it was well within range. “That probably discourages any would-be tsars from trying to set up shop again in the Winter Palace,” I said.
We hurried back to the waiting car and were driven quickly to Leningrad’s Finlandski Terminal. Once on the platform it was easy enough to find the train. It’s shiny blue cars had “Leningrad-Helsinki” written on the sides, and it was also easy to find the car I was assigned to, car number one, right up front. The female conductor with the hammer and sickle on her cap checked my ticket and motioned me on board, but she held up her hand sternly when the others tried to follow. Maria argued with her and the woman relented. I could have warned her that she had no chance against Maria.
This was obviously a tourist train, as it was much more luxurious than the Russian one from Estonia. I had been assigned a compartment all to myself. The little couch made into two single berths, and a miniature wooden cupboard held a pitcher of water and four glasses. I ushered Robert and the two girls in and we had a farewell toast with the little water glasses.
“Let’s take another picture,” said Ella. I looked around for someone who could take it. Just coming out of the compartment next door was a young Chinese girl, looking very Western in her ankle length pastel blue overcoat. She probably spoke English.
“Speak English?” I asked. She did, and was happy to take our picture. Now it was time for good-byes. Maria gave me a big hug, Ella kissed me on each cheek, and Robert shook my hand earnestly, in friendship. There was much we could have said to each other, Robert and me, but mere words would not have covered it. We had shared a great deal in such a short time, and soon it would all be memories. “Good-bye,” I said.
“Good-bye,” said Robert.
The train whistle blew and all three raced out of the compartment. The train gave a lurch and began moving out of the station. I had a final glimpse of them standing on the platform, waving good-bye. As with Ana, I knew I would probably never see any of them again, and that thought almost brought a tear to my eye. It definitely brought a lump to my throat.
And then the loneliness which had enveloped me on the cold streets of Tallinn five days earlier reappeared. Of what purpose was the rest of my trip, when I had to leave such good friends behind? The whole thing seemed pointless. I stepped out into the aisle, leaned against the bannister and watched the outskirts of Leningrad roll by. I was seeing nothing, remembering so much…
“So, who were your friends?” a voice beside me asked. It was the pretty Chinese girl, also leaning against the window watching the scenery.
“My friends? Oh, some Russians I met. I’ve spent the last five days with them. They were wonderful.”
“You spent five days with actual Russians?” she asked. “I envy you. I’ve been shuttled to and from museums by Intourist guides and haven’t met any private citizens at all. That must have been quite an experience.”
“It was. I don’t think I’ve had more than five hours of sleep per night since I arrived in the Soviet Union.”
“Really? What were you doing? I ended up going to bed at eight pm every night, everything was closed, there was nothing to do. I’ve had too much sleep.”
Here came a large man in a business suit. “Baah!” he said to us, hearing us speaking English. “I went to the restaurant car. It’s full of drunken Finns!” He pronounced it ‘drunkenfinns’.
“You’re Swedish?” I asked, recognizing the accent.
“Ja! Swedish. I’ve been in Leningrad on a tour with my business colleagues. Newspapermen.”
“You’re a reporter?”
“I’m an editor.”
“So what’s this about the drunkenfinns?”
“Oh it’s always the same. The drunkenfinns get to the car first, and they start drinking vodka, and they get loud and obnoxious. It’s awful! Damn drunkenfinns…”
“You know,” I said, “you say ‘drunkenfinns’ as if they were a natural phenomenon, sort of a permanent underclass.”
“It’s true! The drunkenfinns are always drunk. Most of the Finnish people, very good people! But the drunkenfinns are disgusting.”
“Is the car open for food?” It had been several hours since breakfast, and soon I’d be hungry.
“It will open for food after we cross into Finland. They always wait until the border.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Why do you think? So they can make you pay in hard currency. They can’t very well not accept rubles on a Russian train in Russia, but they want hard currency so they just keep the restaurant car closed until we cross the border. Then they make us pay in real money.”
“Well, if they opened it now and charged rubles, they could just make the price high enough in rubles to achieve the same thing.”
“They’d be too embarrassed. They’d have to charge so much it would be obvious the official exchange rate is a joke! Say, how many rubles did you get for the dollar on the black market?”
“What makes you think I traded on the black market?”
“Ha, ha!” he laughed, slapping me on the back. “You don’t look so stupid! How’d you do?”
“I only got two rubles to the dollar,” said the Chinese girl. “I know it wasn’t a good rate.”
“Two rubles to the dollar! That’s a rip-off!” he said, using the American idiom. “You should get five or six to the dollar.” He turned to me again. “Come on, how’d you do?”
I thought about my purchase of 100 rubles yesterday for only ten dollars.
“If it’s all the same to you,” I said, “I’d rather not talk about it until we’re across the border.”
“Ha! Ha! You think I’m KGB?”
“Not you, of course,” I said quickly. “But how about the girl?”
We all three laughed. I was feeling less lonely.
“I leave now,” he said. “Have to join my friends in the other car.”
I turned to the Chinese girl. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Jamie,” she said.
“How did you happen to be in Leningrad?”
“I took the train from Peking.”
“From Peking! You mean you took the Trans-Siberian Express all the way across Asia?” I was fascinated. Among train buffs, the Trans Siberian is the Holy Grail of train trips. Six days, 5,000 kilometers. It connects Peking and Moscow and goes through some of the most exotic lands on the planet, including Mongolia. I’d always prided myself on being a veteran of the Orient Express in Europe, but that three day trip from Istanbul was insignificant compared to the Trans-Siberian.
“That’s right,” she said. “Of course I stopped along the way.”
“Where!” I demanded. It was like someone who had completed a journey through time casually mentioning that they’d stopped along the way. One would want to know where they’d stopped.
“Well, my favorite place was Irkutsk, it’s fascinating.”
Irkutsk. This strained my geographical knowledge even more than Maria’s mention of Uzbekistan. I knew it was in the middle of Asia somewhere, possibly on Lake Baikal, although that was just a guess. Lake Baikal was in the middle of Asia too, so they might be near each other.
“Irkutsk,” I said reflectively. “Let’s see now, that’s on Lake Baikal isn’t it?” Maybe I’d get lucky.
“Yes of course,” she said. To a girl from Peking there was nothing impressive about knowing the location of Irkutsk.
“Where else did you stop?”
“Oh, there were some very interesting places in Outer Mongolia. Outer Mongolia is really strange.”
I could guess that it would be.
“How about Inner Mongolia?” I asked. The only thing I knew of Mongolia was that there was an Outer and an Inner.
“Oh that,” she said. “That’s just another province of China. I’ve been there many times.”
Of course. Silly of me to think of Inner Mongolia as exotic.
“Are you travelling alone?” I asked, impressed with anyone who’d been on the Trans-Siberian Express, but prepared to be doubly so for anyone who’d travelled it alone.
“Yes, but not by choice,” she answered. “I have some girl friends in Peking I tried to talk into coming with me. But they always had reasons why they couldn’t go. They hadn’t saved enough money, or they were too busy right now and wanted to wait, or whatever. Finally I just said to heck with it and decided to go myself.”
“First time in Russia?”
“And where are you going now?” Obviously the train we were on was going to Finland, but Finland’s a big place, and there are other places beyond it, although not many. Only two.
“I’m going to Helsinki,” she said. “I have four days to kill. Then I’m going to try to catch a flight back to Peking. If I can’t get a good fare, though, I’ll have to take the train back.”
“You don’t sound too thrilled about that possibility. Was once enough?”
“Yes. Six days is a long time, and that’s if you don’t make any stops.”
Here came the Swedish newspaper man, back from visiting his friends. “Damned drunkenfinns,” he said. “They’re still in there. I don’t know where the rest of my party is.”
He quickly became involved in our conversation, and was horrified to discover Jamie was planning to spend four days in Helsinki.
“Don’t do it!” he pleaded. “Helsinki is not worth four days. One day at most, and that’s stretching it.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I kind of liked Helsinki.”
“How long were you there?” he asked suspiciously.
“One day,” I admitted.
“If you’d been there two days you’d have gone crazy,” he said. “One day is just right. You’re a smart traveller.” He turned to Jamie. “Come to Stockholm. Now that’s a city!”
Jamie turned to me. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“I’m going to Lapland,” I said proudly. All my life I’d wanted to go to Lapland. I simply liked the sound of the place. I especially liked the sound of the phrase ‘I’m going to Lapland’. I figured Jamie would be very impressed.
“What’s ‘Lapland?’” she asked, puzzled.
“You’re going to Lapland? This time of year!” the Swede asked, incredulous.
“What’s Lapland?” Jamie asked again.
“It’s a God-forsaken frozen arctic wasteland this time of year,” said the Swede. “The sun doesn’t even come up. You’re not as smart as I thought you were. How many rubles did you say you got for the dollar in Leningrad?”
“We’re waiting to cross the border before I discuss it,” I reminded him.
“Oh, right. Well, why are you going to Lapland?”
“Who’s going to Lapland?” a new voice asked, peeking out from Jamie’s compartment. It was a tall woman, perhaps in her thirties, speaking English with a heavy accent. She couldn’t help overhearing as we were talking right outside her door.
“I am,” I said, my pride somewhat diminished. “Am I crazy?”
“Not necessarily,” she said. “What are you hoping to do there?”
My compartment was only the next one over, and I’d been studying my Lapland brochure so it was handy. I grabbed it and showed it to her. Here were pictures of playful reindeer, colorful Lapps in native costume, artistic photos of cross-country skiers under a full moon, northern lights, cozy saunas, and plates piled high with ethnic delicacies. “I want to do all these things,” I said. “Reindeer and so forth.”
She and the Swede eyed the brochure skeptically. “Well…,” she said. “These pictures are a little contrived…”
Now I was getting defensive. “Of course they’re contrived!” I said. “But you can’t convince me there aren’t any reindeer in Lapland. All I need to see are one or two. Maybe three. Where are you from, and what’s you’re name?” I demanded suspiciously.
“Oh me? I live in Helsinki. My name is Ayya,” she said.
“OK,” said the Swede. “You tell the girl. Helsinki isn’t worth spending more than one day in, right?”
“Well, there are museums, there are cathedrals, you can do a lot of shopping…”
“Come on! Be honest. This poor girl has just come across Asia on the Trans-Siberian Express. And now she has four days to kill. I say she should not spend them in Helsinki. She should go to Stockholm. Am I wrong?”
“Well, you probably don’t need to spend four days in Helsinki, that’s true,” she admitted.
“I say she should come to Stockholm!”
“Stockholm’s a nice city,” agreed Ayya.
“Helsinki! Stockholm! They’re all cities!” I said, frustrated. “I lived in New York for seven years. I don’t need to see any cities. I’m going to Lapland. I’m going to see reindeer.”
“Lapland is going to be awfully lonely, this time of year,” said Ayya.
“And dark,” added the Swede.
“There’ll be enough light to see reindeer,” I said stubbornly.
Jamie, almost un-noticed, had begun studying the brochure on Lapland.
The Swede looked out the window. “I think we’re approaching Vyborg,” he said. “Russian customs. I’d better get back to my own car pretty soon.”
“Vyborg sounds like a Swedish name,” I said.
“It is. This whole area used to be owned by Sweden.”
“That Peter the Great was terrible wasn’t he?” I said.
“Yeah, he sure was. Hey,” he said, “talk to me after we cross the border. I want to know how many rubles you got on the black market.”
I nodded good-bye to Ayya and Jamie and ducked back into my own compartment. No matter how many times I’d gone over it, I still wanted to check my figures. My whole strategy for getting my money back from the crazy official exchange rates was to convert my remaining rubles into finnmarks at that same official rate. Everything depended on my papers. There was the customs declaration form I’d filled out in Tallinn, specifically naming the amount of dollars and finnmarks I was bringing into the country. The total dollars and finnmarks I was taking out had to be less than those tallies no matter what else was true.
Second, there were the two receipts: the one from changing a few finnmarks into rubles at the exchange desk in the Hotel Viru in Tallinn; the other from foolishly cashing a $50 travellers check at the state bank in Leningrad, and getting rubles in return.
Every other transaction had been made on the black market, but those two currency receipts would save me. The trick was to have slightly fewer rubles to change back than the currency receipts showed I had obtained. Russians don’t like you to change your foreign currency into rubles and then not spend any of them in their country.
Finally, there was the question of where all my other dollars and finnmarks had gone. I knew they’d gone into the black market, but if asked, I’d say I spent them at the beriozka shops and the hard currency bars. And who keeps receipts from bar bills?
The train came to a halt at Vyborg and the Russian passport officials began coming through the train. This was very formal. Everyone had returned to their own compartment, and I was in mine, alone. Soon here he came, the passport official. In the compartment next to mine, the one containing Jamie and Ayya, Ayya passed with flying colors, having a simple Finnish passport. But Jamie’s case was a little more complicated. Jamie was a resident of Peking, but she was a Hong Kong national. That made her passport British. And now she was going to Finland, but had no visa to go to Finland. It was uncertain whether she needed one with a British passport, but in any case the official decided to take her documents and hand them over to higher authority in the Vyborg station. Jamie was very upset, but I had no time to think about her. My own run of the gauntlet had arrived.
The official took my passport and Soviet visa, studied them intently, and then studied me versus my photograph.
“Very good!” He said, keeping the visa, but handing me back my passport. And then he was gone.
Well, I hadn’t thought I’d have any problem with passport control, but I heaved a sigh of relief nonetheless.
Now the Russian conductor came through with the announcement that anyone wishing to exchange currency should get off the train immediately and go into the station.
I was off in a flash. This was going to be the hard part. A long line had formed at the exchange desk in the Vyborg station. I’d taken everything important with me just in case: my passport, money, airline tickets, everything. If the train left without me, I’d only be out a suitcase and some clothes. Finally it was my turn at the desk. I handed over my rubles, and my currency receipts. The woman asked for my passport, and I gave that to her as well. She studied both intently. The truth was, I was illegally converting rubles obtained at the rate of ten to the dollar back into hard currency at the official rate of sixty cents to the ruble, and was doing so using exchange receipts based on entirely unrelated transactions. But there was no way on earth the woman could know that. At least I hoped so.
She reached the same conclusion. “Finnmarks?” she asked. Theoretically I could have demanded dollars for at least some of the rubles, but she preferred to give me finnmarks.
“Finnmarks will be just fine,” I said, relieved. She handed them over. I’d paid about five dollars for the rubles that she was converting into sixty dollars worth of finnmarks. A fleeting thought crossed my mind that it was Ella’s perfume back at the beriozka shop that had made this transaction possible. Buying Ella five dollars worth of perfume had earned me $50 of profit. What a strange country!
I was the last in line, and the train was now blowing its whistle. I raced back and jumped onto the nearest car. I could work my way back to my own compartment later. The train pulled out of Vyborg and I collapsed in my seat. I had been more nervous than I’d realized.
Ayya poked her head in my compartment. “Here come the customs officials,” she said, with a warning expression.
“You mean Finnish customs?”
“No, Soviet customs. We’re not out of the Soviet Union yet.” And with that she disappeared.
It was true. I’d forgotten about customs, confusing them with passport control. The customs officials don’t care who you are or where you’re going, they just want to make sure you don’t take anything illegal out of the country, like Russian icons, antiquities, or rubles.
“Anything to declare?” the man asked as he came to my compartment. Every country is different in terms of what needs to be declared, and I wasn’t current on Soviet customs law, but I couldn’t think of anything suspicious I was carrying, other than the one ruble note I had hidden away as a souvenir.
“No,” I said.
“OK,” he said. “Good-bye.” I was just beginning to relax when several minutes later another customs official came by, this time checking the hiding places. He came into my compartment and pulled the bed apart, looking for someone hiding under the mattress. But no one was there so he continued down the aisle.
And that was all there was to getting out of the Soviet Union.
The train crossed a major river and I guessed that meant we were now in Finland. Ayya came out and joined me at the window. “What do you think, Ayya, are we in Finland?”
“Hard to know,” she admitted.
I looked out at the scenery. There were pine trees, and farms, and frozen lakes. “You have to admit,” I said, “that it looks like Finland.”
“Yes, it does look like Finland. No!” she said suddenly. “We’re still in Russia. Did you see that?”
“That barn. That wasn’t a Finnish barn, that was a Russian barn.”
“How can you tell the difference?”
“The architecture. No one in Finland would build a barn like that.”
“Ayya what were you doing in Leningrad, by the way?”
“I’m an anthropologist. I was there doing research.”
“You know I’ve never thought of Russia as a primitive society, but now that you mention it, I guess it is in a way.”
“No, not Russia! My field is Indonesia, primitive tribes in Indonesia. I was doing research at the Leningrad library.”
A few moments later the entire passport gauntlet was run again, but this time it was the Finnish border guards. My passport was in order, I had nothing to declare, and no games needed to be played with finnmarks. The train stopped at Vainikalla to let the various officials on and off, and then continued. We crossed another river and this time Ayya agreed we were at last out of the Soviet Union, and in Finland.
Ayya had taken advantage of the stop in Vyborg to grab a sandwich in the station cafe, and the opinionated Swede had disappeared. But Jamie and I were becoming very hungry and the dining car was now open. I invited her to join me.
There was only one table of drunkenfinns remaining when we got there, and no one else seemed aware the restaurant was open. We had the place to ourselves. “What food do you have?” I asked the waiter as we sat down, having learned in the Soviet Union that studying the menu is mere wishful thinking. This was after all still a Russian train.
“No food,” he said, reminding me of the indifference of Soviet waiters. “Only juice, and Pepsi.”
Wow! Quite a selection for a restaurant car that had waited three hours before opening.
Jamie had had her heart set on soup. “No soup?” she asked forlornly.
“Yes, we have soup,” he admitted. “Fish soup.”
I’d had my heart set on trying, at least once while in Russia, the classic combination of vodka and caviar. It is supposed to be one of the world’s great delights, and I’d not yet had an opportunity to experience it.
“Do you have caviar?” I asked timidly. Jamie had done so well with her soup request that I was feeling brave.
“Yes, we have caviar,” he admitted.
“Do you have vodka?”
“Yes, we have vodka.”
“OK,” I said. “We’ll have two of your fish soups, and I’d like an order of caviar and vodka.” He went to fetch the items.
“You know,” I said to Jamie, “when they say they have only juice and Pepsi, you can’t quite take that at face value.”
Jamie wanted to talk about Lapland.
“If you want to go to Lapland,” I said, “you should come up to Sodankayla, where I’m staying at a lodge. You could share my cabin and we could avoid the single supplement.”
Jamie had fought with the single supplement problem all across Asia. Lone travellers usually pay single supplements because prices are normally based on double occupancy. If you’re travelling alone, you have to pay a ‘single supplement’ that’s often half again as much as the basic price. Jamie thought the idea made a lot of sense. Everyone seemed to agree that four days in Helsinki was too long, and the Lapland brochure looked enticing, contrived or not.
This train trip was proving valuable for Jamie. I’d invited her to come to Lapland, and she’d been invited to stay at Ayya’s house her first night in Helsinki. So we agreed she would go to Ayya’s house tonight and then on the following day try to arrange a ticket to Peking for her departure. If that went smoothly, then she might give me a call at the lodge in Lapland and arrange to come up on the night train.
With that settled I spent the last two hours of the Leningrad-Helsinki trip taking a nap. I still had a great deal of travelling ahead of me before I would reach my bed in Lapland that night.
The train pulled into the Helsinki station. I said good-by to Ayya and Jamie, and walked into the terminal. I had been here six days earlier so it was familiar to me and I walked directly out to where the Finnair bus was waiting to shuttle passengers to the airport. The price was forty finnmarks (ten dollars). My sixty rubles had converted into so many finnmarks at the official rate back in Vyborg that I was awash in finnmarks. In fact, I had to change no other currency the whole time I remained in Finland thanks to that Vyborg transaction. I arrived at the airport, checked in, and boarded my flight to Rovaneimi.
The Finnair DC-9 jet gathered speed and lifted off easily into the crisp dry air of Helsinki. Banking to the left, it headed due north for the one hour flight to Kemi and beyond that to Rovaneimi, gateway to Lapland, and the Arctic. A pretty blonde was in the seat beside me and now that we were airborne, politeness dictated that I say something to her.
“Do you speak English?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
I would come to learn that very few people in Lapland speak English. I turned to look out the window. Below I could see only a vast country of frozen lakes, and moonlight sparkling off the snow.
Maybe Ayya and the Swede were right. Maybe Lapland was going to be a very dark and lonely place.
CHAPTER 10: Rudolph the Earless Reindeer
The Finnair DC-9 landed at Rovaneimi, two miles south of the Arctic Circle, and taxied over to the terminal. A boarding ramp was brought into place and we walked down it onto the snow-covered asphalt. So far, Lapland looked as everyone had predicted: cold and dark. But at 11:30 p.m. in late November it could hardly look otherwise.
Rovaneimi is something of a tourist center for much of the year, being billed as the “Gateway to Lapland.” As part of this orientation much is made of Santa Claus, and there is no doubt that a large part of the Santa Claus legend did originate here. Within the small airport terminal itself I found the Santa Claus Car Rental, the Santa Claus Coffee Shop, and even the sign over the airport said “Santa Claus Airport.” Throughout Lapland I was to find the Santa Claus preoccupation intense, and I was told that the entire area goes nearly berserk during the Christmas season. Actually, this close to the North Pole I would have been disappointed had it been otherwise.
My four night stay at the Kantakieveri Lodge, located 100 miles north of Rovaneimi, included shuttle service from the airport, and I had been told someone would meet me here.
“How will we recognize each other?” I had asked.
“Oh, it’s a small airport. Don’t worry.”
But Rovaneimi isn’t that small. The DC-9 jet had just deposited fifty or sixty people and all of us were milling about, seeking ground transportation. Thirty minutes later everyone had left but me and one other man, who looked almost too young to have a driver’s license.
“Are you Mr. Voorhees?” he asked, with a heavy accent.
“I am. Are you driving me to Sodankayla?”
“Yes. Sorry I couldn’t find you.”
“No need to apologize. You didn’t know how to recognize me.”
“That’s true. Someone should have thought of that.”
“Maybe they figured when everyone else left, we’d find each other.”
“And we did!” he announced jubilantly. I followed him out the door to the waiting shuttle, a Mercedes 300SE taxi with its engine running and big plumes of exhaust billowing up into the cold night air.
There was one other passenger with me in the backseat, a man perhaps in his mid-thirties, who spoke no English. The Mercedes pulled away from the airport and found a highway leading due North.
“Can you tell me when we cross the Arctic Circle?” I asked the driver, whose name was Juoni, pronounced “Joan-ee.”
“Here it comes,” he said. “Ri—ght Now!” and he brought his hand down in a chopping motion. A small village of tourist shops had grown up around the Arctic Circle marker. “Santa’s Trading Post,” said the sign.
The Arctic Circle is one of those imaginary lines on the globe. It marks the point north of which there will occur each year at least one full 24-hour day in which the sun never rises at all during the winter, and another day in which it never sets during the summer. The farther north you go beyond the line, the more days of no sun, or only sun, you will have. The lodge at Sodankayla would have almost three weeks of no sun each year, but those three weeks would not start for another ten days or so. Until then, there would be a little crescent of sun just peeking up above the horizon for a few hours each day.
We were now driving through a frozen wonderland of snow and forests. The snow hung thickly on the branches of the trees, the way it does in Colorado after a big snowfall. But I was to learn that in Lapland there is a kind of permanent frost which coats the trunks of the trees almost as white as the branches. As a result, the forests of Lapland–or what you can see of them in the dark–are breathtakingly beautiful.
The other man in the back seat was talking to Juoni in Finnish. After a few moments Juoni turned to me.
“This man’s been in the Canary Islands for two weeks. He says the water is eighty degrees and the air is even warmer. He didn’t see a cloud the whole time he was there.”
“Ask him why he came back,” I said.
“No vacation can last forever,” he translated. The man spoke some more words to Juoni.
“He says at the airport in Tenerife someone had spilled a big mountain of fish on the floor and people were just walking right through it, not even caring.”
“Tell him,” I said, “that I saw a similar thing once in Tangiers. There was a mountain of fish on the floor, people were just walking through it, but the difference was that in Tangiers when the person was in the middle of the pile of fish he would stop and buy a dozen of them and take them home and eat them!”
Everyone laughed. But soon the other man was asleep, leaving me to talk to Juoni and find out what I could about this strange dark country.
“Are you a Lapp?” I asked him. Juoni was tall and blond and looked very Scandinavian, but I knew that Lapps are not really Scandinavian.
“No,” he answered. “I’m Finnish. But my grandfather is a Lapp.”
“How long have you lived up here?”
“All my life. I was born here.”
“Do you like living in Lapland?”
“I love it. I’m never going to leave.”
“What do you like about it? People tell me it’s cold and dark.”
“It is, in the winter. But there is no stress here. No one is in a hurry. And I love the seasons.”
“Which is your favorite?”
“I love all of them. It’s just a wonderful country.”
“What do you do in the winter, during your time off?”
“Downhill or cross country?”
“Neither. I’m a speed skier.” I was only vaguely familiar with speed skiing. Unlike downhill competition where you follow a set course down the mountain, speed skiing is more like jumping out of an airplane. You start at the top of the steepest hill you can find and then just go straight down. There are no gates, or turns, or anything to slow you down.
“Do you compete?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s what I do. Last year I was fifth place in Finland National Speed Skiing Championships.”
“Are you married?”
“Not yet. I live with my fiancée at her parents’ house.” That seemed like a cozy arrangement.
“How long have you been doing that?” I asked.
“Four years now.” Juoni was 23. I explained to him that in America it was acceptable for unmarried men and women to live together, and also acceptable for married men and women to live together with their in-laws, but it would be unthinkable for unmarried men and women to live together with their in-laws, especially for four years.
“When are you going to get married?” I asked.
“Oh, maybe next summer,” he said. “Maybe the summer after that, who knows?”
“How does your fiancée feel about it?”
“She wants to get married right away.”
“And her parents?”
“They want us to get married right away too.”
Yeah, I thought, I bet they do.
“The ball is–how you say–in my hand.”
“Court,” I said. “The ball is in your court.”
“Yes. It’s my ball.”
“Why are you waiting so long to get married?” I asked.
“What’s the hurry?” he said. I could see his point. His father-in-law had even financed the taxi for him. Things couldn’t get much better. I decided to change the subject.
“Am I going to see reindeer in Lapland?”
“Oh yes, lots of reindeer. I saw some reindeer on the way down to pick you up.”
“Just wandering by the side of the road?”
“So the reindeer run loose all over the country, like deer or elk in America?”
“Yes,” he said, “they just run loose.”
“Can you shoot them?” I asked, not wanting to, but curious. “In America certain times of the year you can shoot deer and elk.”
“Oh no!” He was horrified. “You can’t shoot the reindeer. They belong to people!”
“But I thought they were wild, just running loose.”
“They run loose but they still belong to somebody. They’re not wild.” It was like the open range in the old west.
“So the owner has a way of keeping track of who owns which reindeer?”
“Yes, but not as you do it in America with cows. They don’t brand them with a hot iron. We think that’s cruel.”
“I agree. So how do you mark them?”
“We cut off part of their ear.”
“You cut off their ear!” I was appalled.
“Part of the ear.”
“Different part. That’s how we know who owns which reindeer. Each owner has a different way he cuts the ear, that’s how we know.”
“Does it work?”
“Oh very well. But sometimes, when a reindeer changes–how you say–changes owners, then it has to get a different part of its ear cut off. Some reindeer have changed owners a lot, and they’ve had almost all their ear cut off.”
This was ghastly. “But once they’ve had their ear cut, then the owners just let them wander?”
“Yes, like cows in America.”
“It’s not like that in America anymore,” I explained. “They used to have what we call ‘open range’, but now there are fences everywhere. Everyone’s cows stay within the fences.”
“No fences in Lapland,” he said. “Well, two fences, at the borders.”
“Borders of what?”
“Borders of the country.”
“You mean in all of Lapland, you have one fence at the border with the Soviet Union and another fence at the border with Sweden, and no other fences anywhere?”
“That’s right,” he said. “Only two fences in whole country.”
“And the reindeer just wander around.”
“Yes, they just wander.”
I digested this. Then I had another concern. “Do you have wolves in Lapland?” I asked.
“Oh, of course we have wolves. Big wolves.”
“Don’t they ever eat the reindeer?”
“Yes of course they eat the reindeer. It’s a big problem. Last week on my grandfather’s farm there were six reindeer eaten by wolves. We had to go find the wolves and kill them.”
“How about bears? Do you have bears?”
“Of course we have bears!”
“Do they eat the reindeer?”
“Yes, they eat the reindeer too. Big problem, bears.”
We drove for awhile in silence. “How about you?” I asked. “Do you eat the reindeer?”
“Yes I eat the reindeer. I eat lots of reindeer.”
“Kind of a hard life for reindeer up here isn’t it?”
“Yes, reindeer have very hard life.”
We passed through a forest glade where the road dipped into a little valley.
“Here, right here,” he said. “This is where I saw the reindeer on the way down to Rovaneimi.”
“You should have told them to stay, then I could have seen them,” I joked.
“Yes, if I’d known you wanted to see the reindeer, I would have said ‘Stay here reindeer!’ And they would have stayed right here waiting for you!”
“Unless they had no ears and couldn’t hear you,” I reminded him.
“Yes,” he admitted. “Unless they had no ears.”
“So what’s it going to be like for me, staying at the lodge? Will it be very dark? I brought a flashlight,” I added jokingly.
“You’ll need it!” he said, apparently not joking.
“I brought extra batteries,” I continued, still hoping for a smile.
“You’ll need them too,” he said, just as seriously.
This didn’t sound good. “Doesn’t it ever get light?” I asked, beginning to worry.
“Oh yes. It will begin to get a little light around nine o’clock in the morning. From ten a.m. to two p.m. there will be quite a bit of light, but you won’t see much of the sun, maybe just a little piece. And then at three it will get dark again.”
“So anything I want to do outdoors during the day, I’d better schedule between ten and two.”
“That’s right,” he said.
“What is there to do up here?”
“Not too much,” he admitted.
“How about skiing?”
“Do you like to ski?” I acknowledged that I did.
“There is a downhill course with two lifts right by the lodge. It’s open between ten and two. And they have very good cross country trails, some of them have lights so you can ski even when its dark.”
“How late do they serve breakfast at the lodge?” I asked, wondering how long I could sleep in the morning. It was already two a.m.
“Until nine o’clock. Or maybe ten o’clock, I’m not sure.”
I knew I’d have to assume nine, and so get up at eight. Also, if there were only a few hours of daylight it would be foolish to sleep through any part of it. There would be ample time to sleep when it was dark.
“I met a friend on the train this morning,” I said. “A girl from Peking. She may want to come up to the lodge also, but if so she’ll take the train from Helsinki to Rovaneimi. Is there a bus she can take from there?”
“Yes, tell her to get on the bus that goes to Sodankayla, and to get off at the Torvinen stop. Then let me know and we can meet her there.” We were now quite close to the Torvinen stop and he pointed it out to me. It was a wide shoulder on the highway, surrounded by arctic forests.
“I’m hoping,” I explained, “that we can share a cabin at the lodge and avoid the single supplement. In fact, maybe she can stay with me for no extra charge at all. Do you think that will work?”
“I don’t think the lodge even needs to know about your girlfriend,” he said.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I corrected him. “I’m married. She’s just someone I met on the train who may want to come to Lapland. It’s only a slim chance she’ll come up here at all.”
“I understand,” he said with a leer. “I hope you get lucky and she comes to see you.”
He didn’t understand but it was becoming awkward to explain. After all, this was the man who had contrived to live with his fiancée at her parents’ house for four years. He’d never believe Jamie wasn’t my girlfriend. But there was one point that needed clarifying.
“How big are these little cabins?” I asked. “They have more than one bed in them don’t they?”
“There are lots of beds,” he said. “The cabins sleep eight people.” He seemed puzzled by the question.
We came to a turn in the road and Juoni said “There they are!”
“There what are?”
I looked and could see nothing, but soon we had come to the spot Juoni had indicated, and he slowed to a stop. A dozen yards from the road were three large reindeer, standing just at the edge of the forest. Two had antlers, and looked strong enough to pull any sleigh filled with toys. They looked at us with only mild interest until I took a picture and the flash sent them running into the forest.
“They don’t like the flash,” said Juoni.
“They should,” I replied. “It’s one of the few things around here that doesn’t eat them.”
The Kantakieveri Lodge consists of an actual lodge: dining hall, bar, hotel rooms, etc. But it is surrounded by about fifty tiny log cabins, each cabin is complete with a miniature kitchen, four large double bunk beds, a fireplace, bathroom, entry hall and even a little sauna. When I had made my reservation I had not realized it was an actual log cabin I would be staying in, assuming the words were simply a description of the lodge architecture itself.
But now Juoni drove directly to the one assigned to me, unlocked the door, and gave me a quick tour. People speak much about Finnish design, referring mostly to cut-glass crystal and modern furniture, but I realized that here I was seeing another example of Finnish design. The little cabin had somehow achieved a quaint, cozy, old-fashioned look, while being equipped with the most modern kitchen appliances, furniture, and bathroom fixtures. The double beds were set on two oak platforms, one above the other, and attached directly to the walls. Each platform held two ‘beds,’ set foot to foot, and containing a comfortable foam mattress. The lower platform extended out past the mattresses about twelve inches, providing a little bench, and essentially converting the lower beds into one very long and wide couch. On the opposite wall was a kitchenette, equipped with necessary pots and pans, a stove, and small refrigerator. In the adjacent corner was a beautiful stone fireplace, made distinctive by large wrought iron doors which, when brought together, formed a miniature gothic arch. On the other side of the fireplace wall was the entry hallway with large storage closets, and a bench for putting on boots. On the other side of the kitchenette wall was the bathroom, all in stainless steel and white Formica. Beyond the bathroom was a little sauna.
The walls were simply the unfinished and very attractive logs of the cabin itself. Somehow these had been made to achieve a natural weathered gray color and were entirely stripped of bark. They did much to augment the primitive yet modern design of the cabin.
After bidding Juoni good-bye, I knew my first task would be to take a sauna. The electric stove heated the small enclosed space quickly. I put on my bathing suit, brought just for this purpose, and gratefully sat back in the 200 degree temperature, feeling every muscle in my body relax. When I could endure no more, I ran out the door of the cabin, and jumped into the crisp arctic snow.
Afterwards I built a small fire in the fireplace so I could go to sleep while it burned comfortingly. The modern foam mattress and clean sheets were like heaven after sleeping on their harsher Soviet equivalents. In fact it was very difficult to believe that I’d begun the day by having breakfast with two Russian ballerinas at a hotel in Leningrad. How could I have distanced myself so completely from that world in such a short time?
With the lights off and the shadows cast by the fire dancing on the walls, I glanced out the window. A thousand stars hung overhead, their light glistening off the snow, and all about was a deep, deep silence.
I had come to a very different world indeed.
CHAPTER 11: Adventures In The Dark
The lodge was approximately a quarter mile from my cabin, and when I walked this short distance at 8:45 in the morning, there was just enough light not to lose my way. But it was cold. With my Patagonia long underwear, synchilla sweater, Gerry down parka, ski hat, gloves, two layers of wool socks, and overshoes over my sneakers, I was just barely a match for the temperature. Even so I had to walk quickly to stay warm.
The lodge was much what I expected: massive pine log architecture, large fireplace, several bear rugs on the floors and the walls, and a huge dining room, able to seat perhaps 150 people. At one end of this dining room a table had been set with a buffet breakfast. Other than myself, there were only two people here to enjoy it. The other 147 seats were empty.
Ayya was right, I thought, remembering the woman from Helsinki I’d met on the train. Lapland is going to be a very lonely place this time of year. I nodded and said good morning to the woman who sat behind the tiny registration desk, but she didn’t speak English and just smiled in return, motioning me to the dining room. I went up to the buffet to help myself to the food. There was pickled herring and smoked fish, a large tureen of oatmeal, a basket of hardboiled eggs, cold cuts of meat and cheese, a basket of warm rolls, butter, and finally a pot of cloudberry jam, a Finnish specialty. There were also pitchers of orange juice, milk, and coffee.
I filled my plate, and walked back to one of the many available tables. Of the other two guests, one had now left, and the other, a woman of indeterminate age, was immersed in a book. Looking out the window I found just enough light with which to see my surroundings. The lodge had been built on a small rise, surrounded by heavy pine forests. About a quarter mile to the south, the direction I was looking, was a very large hill running east and west. It was so large it could almost have been called a mountain, but not quite. Near its top the trees thinned to nearly nothing, and then died out completely. Obviously this hill was higher than tree line, but that was odd. The elevation of Sodankayla could be no more than a thousand feet above sea level, probably less. The hill was certainly no more than a thousand feet high itself. But then I remembered the latitude. The farther north one goes, the lower the tree-line. In Colorado it occurs at about 11,000 feet. In the Swiss Alps, which are much farther north, it occurs at about 8,000 feet. Here in Lapland, deep in the Arctic, it seemed to be occurring at about 2,000 feet.
I also realized that this hill must be my first glimpse of a Finnish ‘fell’. The guidebooks had made considerable mention of the word ‘fell’, but had never defined it. From the context of its usage, I determined it must refer to some hill or small mountain of a type endemic to Finland. I later found this was true. A fell is a large elongated hill, a mile or more long and perhaps half a mile wide. These occur all over northern Finland, as if a colossal gopher had dug a number of tunnels that caused the earth above to be pushed up for short distances. In reality, they were carved by the passage of glaciers during the ice age.
The ski area to which Juoni, my driver of yesterday, had made reference was now visible. Several runs came down off the top of the fell, and two lifts could be seen which obviously served them from a base only a short distance from the lodge itself. It was well after nine in the morning now, but there was only a disappointing amount of light. And it was a cold, diffused light which gave off no shadows. It was similar to what one finds in the twilight before dawn–not so much actual light, as a lessening of darkness. And in less than six hours it would start getting dark again!
I began to have serious misgivings about the wisdom of coming alone to Lapland, especially in the winter, and especially for three days and four nights. I’d read somewhere that people react to the solitude of Lapland differently. Some find the arctic wilderness contains a special beauty. Others have been quoted as saying they wouldn’t send their worst enemy there. Often writers come to Lapland, the guidebook had said, to take advantage of the solitude and quiet. Perhaps after all my rushing around and lack of sleep in the Soviet Union, this was just what I needed. But how much could a person sleep anyway? And if the ski area was only open from ten to two, what else was there to do?
I walked back to the buffet to re-fill my plate, and my timing was such that the only other occupant of the vast dining hall, the lady with the book, arrived at the same moment I did.
“Good morning,” I said politely, doubting I would be understood but accomplishing the twin goals of politeness and notification of my inability to speak Finnish. I was expecting a nod, maybe a smile, maybe some reciprocal words which I wouldn’t understand.
“You’re an American?” she asked, amazed.
She was no more amazed than I. “Yes, are you?”
“I’m from San Jose.”
“San Jose, California?”
I wanted to hug her I was so happy to find someone I could talk to, and here was someone who spoke English as a first language! It seemed forever since I’d heard an American accent and I was surprised to realize how much I’d missed it. Without even waiting for an invitation I re-filled my plate and joined her at her table. The woman’s name was Daphne, and I judged she was in her late thirties.
“How long are you here?” I asked.
“Two more hours,” she said. “The shuttle’s taking us back to Rovaneimi this morning.”
“Murphy’s Law,” Robert would have said, and that thought only increased my loneliness.
Daphne had been at the lodge for three days. She and her uncle were travelling together, and they had come to Lapland as a finale to a two week organized tour to the Soviet Union.
“That’s where I’ve been!” I exclaimed, and briefly told her something of my last week.
“You were lucky to meet actual Russians,” she said. “We just drove from museum to museum and never got to meet anyone. And my uncle isn’t the easiest man to travel with.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“For one thing he’s eighty years old. He’s very healthy and able to get around and everything. But he’s like a lot of old people, he gets crabby very easily. He’s always arguing and complaining.”
“Someone who likes to complain would find fertile soil in Russia,” I said.
“Exactly!” said Daphne. “It’s really been miserable. He was always shouting at the tour guide, causing problems.”
I was unsure what to say in sympathy. It was the worst kind of trip I could imagine, so different from my own experience. I thought about the conductor on the train from Tallinn and the manager at the nightclub in Leningrad. Perhaps Daphne’s uncle was the kind of American they’d been afraid of.
“Well if you’ve been here three days,” I said, changing the subject, “you must have found some things to do, and I bet you know your way around pretty well. Is there anyone in this lodge who speaks English?” Of the half dozen lodge personnel, one woman spoke English a little bit, Daphne explained. Her name was Paula, and she promised to introduce us before leaving.
The major activities up here, Daphne said, were (a) visiting the reindeer farm, where a person could ride a reindeer sled, drive a snowmobile, and eat great quantities of reindeer stew at the little cafe; (b) visiting the Lapp Village, where primitive Lapp culture could be witnessed; and (c) visiting the reindeer farm again. This had pretty much been Daphne’s schedule during the last three days.
“What about skiing?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve never skied, and my uncle refuses to try, so that’s one thing I haven’t done.”
We’d finished breakfast and Daphne now escorted me out to the lounge where she introduced me to her uncle. He seemed pleasant enough, but as soon as he found I’d come from Leningrad his tone became sharp.
“How many rubles did you get to the dollar?” he asked me. “I got two to the dollar on the black market! Incredible, two to the dollar. That’s four times better than the official rate. Could you get that many?”
I found it fascinating that everyone who had been to the Soviet Union assumed that everyone else had illegally traded their money on the black market.
“Do you really want to know?” I asked, not wanting to brag but feeling comfortable talking about it for the first time, being now hundreds of miles from the border at Vyborg.
“Yes, did you do better than two to the dollar?”
“Day before yesterday I was buying rubles for ten to the dollar.”
“Ten to the dollar! No! It’s not possible! Daphne! He says he got ten rubles to the dollar.”
“Is that true?” she asked.
“Yes, but it wasn’t really a fair trade. The ones selling didn’t know what the market rate really was.”
“It’s really two to one isn’t it?” said the man, his voice beginning to rise.
“No it’s really six to one. Ten to one was unusual.”
“Six to one is normal? And I got only two to one!” Now the old man had something new to complain about. Daphne and I walked away.
“I have to go back to my cabin, to make sure everything is packed up,” she said. “You can come with me if you want, it will only be a moment.”
“I’ll come with you.” I wasn’t about to let the only American within a hundred miles just walk away, and the grouchy old man didn’t count.
It was considerably lighter now, being after ten o’clock. There was as much light as would be seen at mid-day in a normal latitude during a very heavy snow storm. But here the sky was not cloudy.
“Where’s the sun?” I asked. “Shouldn’t we see something of it by now?”
“You’ll never see it here,” said Daphne. “The fell is in the way.”
“But that’s to the south,” I protested.
“So is the sun. It rises in the south, and it sets in the south, if you can call it rising and setting. Even when you can see it, like at the reindeer farm, it’s just a red blur on the horizon. At noon it looks like a sunset. “
When we arrived at her cabin I was startled by something I saw just outside her door. It looked a little like a dog sled, but with extremely long steel runners, a little seat, and wooden handle bars for the driver.
“That’s a kick sled!” I exclaimed. “My father has one back in Colorado.”
“It’s been here since we arrived,” admitted Daphne. “Maybe it goes with the cabin. Do they use them in Colorado?”
“No, I think my father has the only one. He was driving through a Scandinavian settlement in the Midwest a few winters ago, and saw them in action. He found one for sale and bought it.”
“Does he use it?”
“It doesn’t work very well in Colorado,” I explained. “It’s worthless in deep snow because of the narrow runners, and the roads don’t stay ice-packed for long. They get sanded and then the sun melts them. Kick sleds do best on ice or on very hard packed snow.”
“Well, I’ve never tried it,” said Daphne.
“Let’s try it now!” I picked the contraption up from its resting place against the cabin wall and carried it over to the snow-packed road. “Sit here,” I ordered, pointing to the little seat. Daphne took her place. I grabbed the handlebars, placed one foot on the little pads set into the runners, and pushed against the snow with the other. The kick sled moved forward effortlessly.
There were a number of small roads connecting the little cabins with the lodge, and we followed these for some distance. Daphne and I took turns pushing the sled, either empty or with the other as passenger. The one over-riding truth of kick-sledding quickly became clear: it is easier to go downhill than uphill. We encountered some of each before we had completed the tour and were back at her cabin. Daphne just had time to throw her things together before the jeep arrived to carry her and her belongings up to the lodge where the grouchy uncle was waiting. We found him in the lounge, just where we’d left him after breakfast.
“Where are the bags?” he asked Daphne suspiciously.
“I left them in the jeep.”
“Well why the hell did you do that?” he demanded. Daphne stood there silent. “You don’t leave bags in a car without a reason,” he continued, unstoppable. “What are you stupid? Where is that car going? Why did you leave our bags in that car? You must have had a reason. No one is so stupid they just leave their bags in a car if they don’t know where the car is going!”
He wouldn’t let up, and Daphne seemed unable to rescue herself. This was pitiful. “She left the bags in the car,” I said slowly, with a touch of anger, “because that’s almost certainly the car that will take you to the airport. It would have been pretty stupid to take the bags out of the car and then just have to put them right back in again, now wouldn’t it!”
“Oh,” he said, and backed off. He was willing to browbeat his niece, but not someone who’d gotten ten rubles to the dollar. I waved good-bye to Daphne and her uncle as the jeep pulled away from the lodge. They were the only two Americans I would meet on the whole trip, and with them gone I was going to be lonelier than ever, but I wasn’t completely sorry to see them go.
The ski area was closed on Mondays I was told, and it was Monday now. I walked back to my cabin because it was the only thing I could think of to do. There was a pile of laundry I needed to wash in the sink, and the sooner that began drying the better. Juoni was right. This was certainly a stress-free world. But the lack of stress was beginning to worry me. I opened the door just as the phone rang.
“This is Jamie.”
She was calling from Ayya’s house in Helsinki, and said she would be coming up on the night train, arriving in Rovaneimi at 7:30 the next morning. I told her to take the bus to Sodankayla and to get off at the Torvinen stop. I’d meet her there.
“What do I do if you’re not there?” she asked, which I thought was a sensible question, especially knowing what the Torvinen bus stop looked like.
“If I’m not there, don’t get off,” I said. “Stay on the bus and then call for a cab from Sodankayla. But don’t worry, I’ll be there.” I hoped I could make good on that.
“Ayya’s been telling me it’s going to be very lonely up at the lodge, and with very little to do. I think she’s trying to talk me out of going. I’m glad you were there to answer the phone but if you’re sitting in your cabin at 12:00 noon, maybe Ayya’s right and there is nothing to do in Lapland. Should I be worried?”
I reassured Jamie that there was plenty to do in Lapland, and then said good-bye. Well, that added something to the stress quota. I needed to plan some activities by the time Jamie arrived. The only sensible thing left to do was to go find Paula, the English Speaker, and try to get things organized. Laundry could wait until after dark.
I headed back towards the lodge, but just outside the door to my cabin I found a pleasant surprise. There was a kick sled here too! I just hadn’t noticed it. Apparently one kicks led must come with each cabin, and this one was mine. I carried it over to the road and kicked my way up to the lodge, cutting the travel time by at least eighty percent.
Paula was on-duty and I began explaining the situation to her, speaking as slowly as I’d needed to with the Naval Cadets at the Kirov Theater. Her English was limited.
We agreed she’d call Juoni and have him pick me up at my cabin in time to meet Jamie’s bus in Torvinen, so that was settled. I also picked Paula’s brain on activities available this time of year in the area. It turned out there really was quite a bit to do. In addition to the Lapp Village and the Reindeer sled rides, there was ice fishing, snowmobiling, skiing of course, and even some overnight pack trips.
The stress level was working its way rapidly upwards now. I wanted to do all of those things, but now I had very little time. To make matters worse, further questioning of Paula revealed that any one of those activities was normally allotted a full day (four hours) at minimum, and that reservations needed to be made. As luck would have it, the man responsible for arranging trips pertaining to Lapp Villages, Reindeer, Snowmobiles, and Ice Fishing was here now, at the Lodge, to determine if there were any customers. He spoke no English at all, so Paula translated.
“Tomorrow morning a friend of mine is going to be coming up on the bus from Rovaneimi and will spend two days here,” I explained. “I think we’ll spend her first day skiing. So we’ll have to get everything else into the second day.”
“Do you have to do everything?” he asked.
“Well, I could probably give up the ice fishing and pack trips. But the Lapp Village, the Reindeer Sled, and the Snowmobiling are essential.”
“Maybe it can be done,” he allowed. “I could pick you up here early, right at ten o’clock. We could go see the Lapp Village, do an hour or so of snowmobiling, and still have enough time for the reindeer.”
“Pick us up at nine,” I countered. “That way we can make a full six-hour day out of it.”
The present six-hour day was fading rapidly, but I wasn’t ready to go back to the cabin and hibernate just yet. Daphne had mentioned the existence of a small grocery store about a mile down one of the snow packed roads and I decided to pay it a visit. Eating a fancy dinner alone in the lodge’s huge dining room seemed like a waste of money, especially as each cabin was equipped with a kitchenette. With the help of my kick sled I covered the mile to the grocery in just a few minutes. The fact that it was downhill may have helped.
The store was a log cabin located in a small clearing in the forest. I parked the sled in front and went in to see what I could obtain. One whole aisle was devoted to reindeer. There was reindeer jerky, smoked reindeer, reindeer in cans, frozen chunks of reindeer, freeze dried reindeer stew, reindeer sausage, and other reindeer products I could not recognize.
I bought some items for dinner, and then kicked back to my cabin. It was 3:30 p.m., and pitch dark. The arctic night had arrived. By the time I had washed my clothes, done some reading, straightened up the cabin, and had dinner I was surprised to find it was eight p.m. These arctic nights might come early but the hours passed quickly. And I couldn’t deny there was something cozy about it.
The cabin was equipped with a remote-control television mounted on the wall so I sat back and began flipping through the channels while the sauna heated up. I was surprised to find I could receive TV Moscow and I watched a little of it, enjoying the sounds of the Russian language once again. But the programming hadn’t improved. TV Moscow was still covering a convention. There are two stations local to Finland, called Finland 1 and Finland 2. Finland 1 was showing a test pattern, which I found somewhat more interesting than TV Moscow. I watched it for a few minutes to get my blood flowing.
Finland 2 was broadcasting an episode of “Moonlighting” with Finnish sub-titles. Most people in America consider Moonlighting, a show about Cybil Shepherd bickering with Bruce Willis, either the best program on television, or the worst. I’ve always been in the second category but there was no denying it was in English and the competition was weak. Even the title ‘Moonlighting’ seemed appropriate for this land of no sun. I watched it for ten minutes, then tried the Soviet convention again, then the test pattern. Finally I turned off the TV and went to take a sauna. For the first time since I’d left America, I got a good eight hours of sleep.
The next morning I kick-sledded up to the lodge for breakfast, and then back again. I was becoming much more adept with the vehicle. The lodge sits on a small rise, and the journey back to the cabin involves a severe downhill segment. A kick sled without a passenger on a steep snow-packed road is like an empty pickup truck on ice, and will easily spin out of control and flip, or so I suspected. But I took the hill at full speed and just managed to keep it upright.
It was snowing lightly, and the wind had picked up. I was hoping Juoni hadn’t forgotten our errand this morning. I didn’t want Jamie to be let out at Torvinen with no one to meet her. If that were to happen she would either freeze to death or be eaten by wolves. But here came Juoni and his Mercedes taxi. Torvinen was only a few kilometers away and we got there five minutes early. Soon we could see the large bus approaching down the highway, snow swirling violently around it.
I was suddenly doubtful that anyone I knew would really be on that bus. Could the girl I’d met on the train actually have had the resolution, and made the necessary connections, to come 900 kilometers north from Helsinki, to this wide snow-covered spot in the highway surrounded by arctic wilderness? It seemed unlikely.
But the bus did pull over and Jamie, in her bright blue ankle-length parka, stepped down. We climbed quickly into the cab and started back to the lodge. “I’m glad to be here,” Jamie began. “I think Helsinki is too dangerous.”
I had read that Finland had the lowest crime rate in Europe, and I could not imagine a less dangerous place than Helsinki. “What happened in Helsinki?” I asked, puzzled.
“I had a kind of bad experience on the way to the train yesterday,” she said, enigmatically.
“Can you tell me about it?”
“Well, I don’t mean to make a big deal out of it, it was just very unpleasant.”
“What happened?” Now I was intensely curious. This was the woman who had found Irkutsk and Outer Mongolia ‘fascinating’. Yet she found Helsinki unpleasant and dangerous.
“As I was walking up to the station, a man in a car beckoned me to come over. I thought he was lost or had a question or something. Anyway I got there and he opened the door, and he had his pants pulled down. He was a–how do you say…”
“Yes, exhibitionist. He was showing himself to me.”
“What did you do?”
“I just shook my head and backed away. I said ‘No thank you.’ That was a pretty silly thing to say I guess but it was all I could think of.”
“Sounds like you handled it well.”
“It kind of shook me up.”
Juoni had been listening. “What do you expect from a big city?” he asked. “You won’t have that problem here in Lapland. Everyone is very easy-going in Lapland. No stress.”
“Juoni’s a real mellow guy,” I explained. “He wouldn’t recognize stress if it hit him on the nose.”
We came to a sharp curve in the road, which required Juoni to slow down considerably. Just to our right was a drab concrete building, probably a maintenance shed of some sort. Jamie misinterpreted our slowing down.
“Is that the lodge?” she asked, trying to keep the disappointment from her voice.
“No,” I reassured her quickly. “I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the lodge.”
She was. When we arrived and Jamie had completed her tour of the little cabin, with the Finnish design, modern fixtures, and complete furnishings she said “This is just what a person needs after Russia! It’s wonderful!”
“That was my reaction.”
I had decided that we should spend this first day skiing, and then do the local Lapp things tomorrow. Jamie was very eager to try skiing, but was a little apprehensive. “I’ve been told its very dangerous,” she admitted. I reassured her by telling her I’d been a ski instructor in America, which wasn’t quite true. I’d been offered a job as a ski instructor at Arapahoe Basin seventeen years ago, but I’d turned it down. And that had been for downhill skiing, not cross country. With only one day to devote to the project, I’d decided we should go cross-country skiing, by far the easier. Yet I knew only slightly more about cross-country skiing than did Jamie herself.
Under questioning, the truth of this story came out. “How can you teach me cross country skiing if you don’t know anything about it?” she asked.
“You don’t need to know anything about cross country,” I explained, hoping I was right.
But the day was waning fast. It was already ten thirty and there were only a few more hours of light left. I recommended the proper clothes for Jamie to change into and then kick-sledded her over to the base of the ski area, where we rented equipment.
“Do you have anything smaller?” Jamie asked, after trying on the smallest size boots.
The rental shop attendant didn’t speak English but he understood her predicament. Finally he just shrugged his shoulders.
“Do you have anything larger?” I asked, after trying on the largest boots. It appeared the day might be over before it started.
“Let’s trade socks,” suggested Jamie. So I gave her my large wool socks and slipped her tiny ones on. Now we both fit. The cross country ski trails around the Kantakieveri lodge were well marked and expertly groomed. Jamie fell down the normal number of times, but it was fun skiing through the forests. I again marveled at the way the snow clung to the branches of the trees in Lapland, and at the peculiar frost which shrouded the trunks, turning everything white. The sky had cleared and, being just after noon time, was now diffused with a cold purplish light. But here in the shadow of the fell there was still no trace of the sun.
We skied to the lodge for lunch. There were many delicious items on the menu but all seemed expensive. We decided to make a meal of the salmon soup which Paula recommended, but even the soup came to $5.00 apiece. When it arrived I realized why. Several large salmon had given their lives for this soup, and even though we were both very hungry and ate ravenously, we could not get to the bottom of the tureen.
While we ate I asked Jamie what she did in Peking, and discovered she was a secretary for Westinghouse. She’d accepted the Peking position because the pay and benefits were so good. It sounded like it was as traumatic for a Hong Kong citizen to work in Peking as it was for an American to take a post in Saudi Arabia. The companies had to pay well to attract qualified workers. One of Jamie’s primary qualifications was that she spoke Mandarin and English, as well as her native Cantonese.
I knew Cantonese was generally the language of southern China, the area around Canton. It was also used by the Chinese population of Hong Kong, which is near Canton. Mandarin is the language of northern China, and is the official language in the capital, Peking.
“They’re really the same language,” Jamie explained. “When the words are written down they look identical. It’s only the pronunciation of the words that are different.”
“Give me an example,” I asked. She took a pencil and drew a Chinese character on a paper napkin.
“In Cantonese we pronounce that ‘Peking’,” she explained. “In Mandarin it is pronounced ‘Beijing’.”
That was interesting. “So you mean,” I said, “that when the communists changed all the place names in China a few years ago, all they were really doing was asking people to pronounce them in Mandarin?”
“Yes. They didn’t like all the world maps showing the names of their cities with Cantonese pronunciations.”
Well, that’s understandable, I thought. My anger at the Chinese communists for decimating the world map lessened somewhat.
“Tell me about your friends back in Russia,” she said, “the ones I saw you with at the train station.” So I told Jamie the story of how I’d met Robert, and much of what had happened in Tallinn and Leningrad.
“He was very dark, wasn’t he?” said Jaimie, remembering Robert. “When I saw him on the train, I couldn’t figure out what country he was from. Do you think maybe his parents were from the Caucasus or some place like that? Maybe he’s from a different race.”
I knew Jaimie didn’t mean that the way it would have sounded in America. As a world traveller she was just intellectually curious. I remembered my own first impression of Robert, that he resembled Michael Dukakis, but that had faded after five days of close contact.
“I don’t think Robert’s that dark,” I said, surprised. “He’s certainly not from a different race! He’s just like you and me!”
“You and me!” she said. “What do you mean by that? You’re white, I’m yellow! We’re not the same race!” She was laughing at my blunder, and then I started laughing too. But I’d meant what I’d said. Jaimie didn’t seem like a different race, anymore than did Robert. In a way it was gratifying, to realize how quickly awareness of such things can fade.
After lunch it was hard to contemplate energetic skiing so we coasted back to the cabin and decided to relax for a few hours. Jamie did some laundry in the sink. I watched some TV. Three o’clock came and went, and with it the light. I was a little worried what we would do during those long night time hours of the afternoon. On my suggestion we kick sledded down to the grocery store and bought some items for dinner. I was hoping to find marshmallows for sale, as our cabin with its little fireplace seemed ideal for roasting marshmallows. Jamie didn’t know what a marshmallow was and the more I tried to explain it, the more ridiculous it sounded. I tried to explain it to the grocery clerk as well. “Little white things,” I said. “You put them on a stick and roast them over a fire.” Ah! He knew what I meant. He spoke enough English to inform me that there weren’t any at this store, but down the road a short distance was another small grocery, and he was pretty sure they had them. He taught me the Finnish word for marshmallow, and then Jamie and I sledded down to the other store.
I looked around and didn’t see any marshmallows so I asked the clerk, taking pains with my pronunciation. He beamed comprehendingly when I said the word and walked over to a nearby shelf. He came back in a minute bearing raw reindeer sausages.
“No! No!” I said, finally giving up. Marshmallows are apparently little known outside of America.
After dinner we tried night skiing. The six-kilometer course was well lit, and we pursued it at a beginner’s pace for a good kilometer. Surprisingly it was not deserted. Every few minutes we would be passed by someone in a sleek one-piece body suit, using the fast skating motion that denotes the Serious Skier. This wore us out, seeing all these people use up so much energy, so at last we turned around and retraced our path back to the cabin.
The Swede on the train from Leningrad had told Jamie that the one absolutely essential thing she must do while in Finland was to experience a sauna. “It is the Finns’ greatest gift to civilization,” he’d told her. Jamie had stayed her first night in Finland with Ayya’s family, and they had invited her to take a sauna with them. Now she was addicted to them, and thrilled to discover our little cabin included its own sauna.
After I started heating it up, I began to have misgivings. I’m accustomed to taking saunas with a bathing suit on. That had been normal in my old neighborhood back in Iowa, where saunas were a social event, and almost always involved mixed company.
But I also knew that in Scandinavia it is customary to take saunas with no clothes on at all. I also guessed it was unlikely Jamie had even brought a bathing suit, since that’s not something a person would normally pack for a winter-time trip across Siberia.
I consider myself almost as uninhibited as the next person, and would not have minded taking a nude sauna in a large group, if that’s what everyone else was doing. But a nude sauna alone with a 25 year old Chinese girl didn’t seem the kind of thing a happily married man should do, especially if he intends to stay happily married. Like it or not, the situation had to be dealt with. But how could I raise the question delicately?
“So, Jamie, I understand you took a sauna when you stayed with Ayya’s family?”
“Yes, I loved it.”
“Now I’m just curious, because in different parts of the world it’s done differently, when you took a sauna at their house–well, did they wear bathing suits, or towels or anything?”
“Of course not! We didn’t wear anything. Why would you wear bathing suits or towels in a sauna?” She seemed genuinely surprised.
This wasn’t getting any easier. I remembered that people in the Orient have a very different attitude towards nudity. A nude sauna to them was probably no different than a community bath. This would make a good “Scruples” question I thought ironically, remembering the popular board game back in America where you get asked these kinds of things. “If you are a happily married man but nonetheless find yourself alone with a young single woman in a log cabin deep in the wilderness and the two of you are about to take a sauna, and she assumes neither of you will wear clothes, what do you do?”
Yet what could I do? I could not force Jamie to wear a bathing suit or a towel if she didn’t want to, and it would look awfully strange if I did and she didn’t. I simply did not know how to handle the situation.
“Let me check the temperature,” she said. “It’s probably almost ready.” I was hoping it wasn’t.
She poked her head back around the corner. “It’s ready,” she said. “Do you want to go first, or do you want me to?”
Go first? What did she mean by that?
“I’m confused, Jamie. When you took the sauna with Ayya’s family, didn’t everyone take it at the same time, all together?”
I’d never heard of taking turns with a sauna.
“What?” she exclaimed. “Together! Of course we didn’t take it together! That’s not what you were thinking is it?” Jamie was looking at me with a horrified expression.
Now I was off one hook and on another. “No! Not at all!” I said hastily. “I was just curious. You go first! By all means!” (Whew!)
We got up early the next morning, and I loaded Jamie into the kick sled, and all our ski equipment into her arms. I kicked us over to the base of the ski area where we dropped off the equipment, then enjoyed the downhill ride from there to the lodge where we had a quick breakfast of smoked fish and oatmeal. At nine o’clock sharp the man who spoke no English picked us up in his jeep and we headed towards the Lapp village.
After fifteen minutes of driving he pulled over to the side of the road, near a sign written in Finnish. He helped us out of the car and then indicated we were to follow him, as he set off down a path in the forest. A thin violet light permeated the air, and the trees were thickly coated with frost. It was enchanting, walking along this trail amongst the pines and spruce trees. There was no wind at all, and the forest was absolutely silent. The air had a purity to it I’ve never experienced, and I breathed deeply. I read later that Lapland has some of the cleanest air in the world. At one point Jamie wandered from the path and fell into snow up to her waist.
It required a twenty minute hike to reach the Lapp Village, and while I enjoyed the hike I was less impressed with the village. This wasn’t a Lapp village, this was a Lapp ghost town. A half dozen structures resembling Indian teepees had been built out of thin lodge pole trunks. Each had a little door on wood-plug hinges also made of lodge pole. Our guide led us through one of these and pointed to the remains of a fire. I looked up and sure enough there was a small hole in the top for the smoke to escape. The lack of such a hole might have explained the reason for the exodus.
We were also shown a miniature log cabin on stilts which had apparently been used for food storage. After looking at that, and the rest of the teepees, we’d pretty much seen the Lapp Village. I knew that the next time I found myself at a cocktail party in which someone asked “Say, has anyone here ever seen a Lapp Village?” I’d be able to step forward and say “Yes, as a matter of fact, I have.” I’d gained that much at least.
We returned to the jeep and the driver now headed in a new direction, presumably towards the reindeer farm. I hoped it wouldn’t be a ghost reindeer farm.
We came to a collection of small buildings, just off the highway, and the jeep pulled in here and stopped. One of the buildings was a little cafe and we were ushered in the door and served hot chocolate. Apparently this was included with the price I’d negotiated for all of the activities together. When we’d finished the hot chocolate our guide bade us follow him again and he walked over to another of the little buildings. This one looked like a barn but inside a room had been set up which contained fifty or sixty large snowmobile suits, and accompanying footwear. Obviously Jamie and I were supposed to change into these but, as with the ski equipment, there weren’t any quite small enough for Jamie or quite large enough for me. I gave her my parka which filled her out and narrowed me down and in that way we made do. Our guide next brought out large motorcycle helmets with ski goggles attached, and heavy duty mittens apparently made from reindeer hide. We struggled into these as well, and were soon ready for our next adventure. I was surprised to see that our guide had changed, not into one of the snowmobile suits, but into a colorful Lapp costume, complete with a four-tasseled hat representing ‘the four winds’.
Near the little cafe were a dozen powerful-looking snowmobiles, all made by Arctic-Cat. I thought that choice of brand appropriate. Reindeer hides had been thrown over the seats to make them warmer. The guide-turned-Lapp started up two of the machines, and with hand signals showed me how to operate the one I would drive. It had been twenty years since I’d driven a snowmobile but it didn’t seem complicated. One lever made it go forward, the other made it stop. Jamie climbed on behind me and held tight. The guide climbed on his machine and we followed him on a one kilometer test track through the forest. Deciding that I was able to handle the snowmobile, he beckoned me to follow again. We crossed the snow-packed highway, descended a little ravine, and re-entered the forest. The frost-covered trees whizzed past as we wound between them, slowing only as necessary to make the turns. This was rolling countryside and we went up and down over the little hills as much as we wove through the forest. After about ten minutes of this we emerged into a less forested open meadow, and were now high enough that the whole countryside could be seen. It was shortly after noon and the first thing I noticed was the sun. It was a pale smudge of red on the southern horizon, like the last few seconds of a sunset. To the east I could see several fells, lying like sleeping giants across the countryside.
The snowmobile in front accelerated to full speed, and I squeezed the throttle to keep up. We were really flying now. The wind whipped and tore but could do little against our helmets and reindeer mittens as we rushed over the arctic plains.
The hour and a half we’d allotted to snowmobiling went quickly, and back at the farm we were taken once more inside the little cafe. A large pot of reindeer stew had been set out on a table, for us and any other travellers who might stop in. It was disconcerting to eat reindeer as I knew our next activity would be reindeer sledding. It was like eating horsemeat before a trail ride.
Everything we had done for the entire day had been with a guide who spoke not a word of English. This had not been a problem in the tour of the Lapp village, and certainly not in the snowmobiling, but a reindeer sled is a dangerous contraption. I didn’t know this at the time and was not as worried as I should have been.
After lunch we were taken over to the reindeer corral. Several reindeer were kept here, and they looked at us the way a cow might look as it was led away to slaughter. These reindeer knew more about what was to happen than we did, and they knew it would not be pleasant. The Lapp/guide selected one of the reindeer, attached a halter to it and led the beast over to the beginning of the one kilometer track. While he managed to keep hold of the reindeer with one hand, with the other he maneuvered one of the sleds into position behind it.
These reindeer sleds are close cousins of the dugout canoe. They appear to be made from a single log, and are about the size and shape of a kayak. They are completely open on top, and afford seating for as many as several people if they all sit between each others legs, facing forward. That was part of the problem, we didn’t know if all three of us were going to get in one sled, or only two of us, or maybe only one of us. And we couldn’t ask the guide because he spoke neither English nor Chinese.
At the moment, he wouldn’t have had time for questions anyway. He was engaged in what must be one of man’s greatest challenges: the harnessing of a reindeer to its sled. As I watched, I realized that ‘reindeer’ must mean a type of deer which can be harnessed and guided with a rein! The harness itself is simple enough, resembling what is used with a horse, except that the two leather straps that connect the animal to its “sleigh” go directly between the reindeer’s legs, causing a considerable nuisance. Aware of this, the reindeer was determined to keep the harness from being attached at all. The animal would veer around and try to bite the Lapp. It would kick. It would struggle. It would shake all over like a wet dog. All the while the Lapp was cursing at it in Finnish, and hitting it occasionally for good measure.
I could just imagine what he was thinking: Why do these silly tourists have to ride reindeer? Why can’t they be content with snowmobiles like us civilized people! But at last he succeeded, and the reindeer was connected to the sled. He kept his hand on a long rope attached to the port side of the animal’s head, and motioned me urgently to climb in. I gripped both gunwales of the sled as if I were entering a canoe and carefully lowered myself down in. Through all of this our guide had been unable to give me any clue what to expect. I thought it most likely he would walk along the track leading the reindeer. Instead, he handed me the long rope and began yelling at the reindeer. “OY-OY-OY-OY-OY-OY-OY-OY!” he yelled, and the reindeer began walking reluctantly down the track. “OY-OY-OY-OY-OY-OY-OY!” he yelled again and now the reindeer began loping along in a brisk trot, picking up considerable speed.
Unlike Tsar Peter’s boat back at the Naval Museum in Leningrad, my little dugout canoe had no keel, and hence no directional stability whatsoever. It rolled from side to side, it yawed uncontrollably, it even pitched violently and would launch itself into the air for brief distances. The more I tried to balance it the worse it got. It was like a boat being towed through the water, and as all sailors know, a boat being towed will meander unpredictably and sometimes violently. I finally realized that the best thing to do was simply relax. Left to its own, the little craft would keep upright and stay on the course. I was just becoming secure with this knowledge when the reindeer began relieving itself. I was at a serious disadvantage, being directly on the ground behind the reindeer’s rear end. Our speed of movement, combined with the flashing hooves of the animal, were such as to send the reindeer’s output directly from the point of origin towards the sled.
To make matters worse, while all this was going on I was trying to take a picture with my Russian camera. I was already worried about the snow flying off the reindeer’s hoofs. Now I was having to also worry about one of the flying turds hitting the lens.
But the Lapps, doubtless through unpleasant trial and error, had evolved a harness of just the right length. Despite my fear, none of the reindeer’s by-products ever quite made it beyond my lap.
We had come to the point in the one kilometer track where it makes a sharp turn and begins a long uninterrupted straight line back to the farm. I had a sudden doubt as I realized what a horse would do in this situation. A horse, especially one ridden by a novice, would choose this opportunity to break into a full gallop. Might not this reindeer take off in a full gallop as well?
That is exactly what it did. The sled had barely stabilized from having turned the corner when the reindeer smelled the barn and broke into a high speed run. The sled veered from side to side, threatening to capsize at any moment. I could not remember ever having been so frightened in my life.
But eventually I decided that the sled was not going to flip. In fact the more I relaxed, the stabler it became. It was only a short time later that I decided I was having fun, and the fear had been replaced with exhilaration. The course began a long upwards slope at this point and the reindeer’s speed dropped slightly. “OY-OY-OY-OY-OY-OY!” I yelled, and the reindeer took off in a full run again.
Now that I was relaxed I remembered that our guide had tried to show me how to steer, by holding one arm or the other out to the side. I tried that and it worked. The reindeer would turn away from the outstretched arm. Juoni later explained that the reindeer has such good rear vision it can see the arms, but only as a shadowy blur. Being frightened by the appearance of a vague shape on its vulnerable quarter the reindeer will instinctively turn so as to avoid it.
I was glad that system worked, as otherwise it would have been awfully difficult to turn the reindeer more than one direction since there was only one rein. We arrived back at the farm and I pulled hard on the one rein, turning the animal sharply to port and ultimately causing it to stop completely. The Lapps had done fairly well in domesticating a difficult animal, I judged. They hadn’t had a horse to work with, and it had not occurred to them to put a rein on each side. They were lucky the reindeer had wide-angle vision. I heard the sound of a snowmobile behind me and here were Jamie and the Lapp. They’d been following me for the whole course, probably to pick up the pieces in case I’d fallen.
Now it was Jamie’s turn. She squeezed deftly into the sled, but as soon as the Lapp handed her the rein the animal darted forward and veered off the track. The Lapp ran up and got Jamie back on course. He let go again and the same thing happened. On the third try the reindeer stayed on the course but the sled began swinging wildly from side to side and finally the very thing I had feared happened. Jamie’s sled flipped, sending her sprawling face down in the deep powder snow by the side of the track. With the sled upset the harness became tangled in the reindeer’s legs and the animal stumbled to the ground as well. Meanwhile the Lapp and I had run back to the waiting snowmobile, jumped on, and given chase. We arrived at the scene of the crash only a few seconds later.
Jamie was still lying on the ground, unable to get up because she was laughing so hard. The reindeer was trying to extricate itself from the tangled mess of its harness. And the sled was upside down and nearly buried in the snow. I began to feel sorry for the Lapp, because despite all that had happened, he still was unable to communicate with us. We could only obey his hand signals. To his credit he set to work immediately and soon had the reindeer back on the track and pointed in the right direction, the harness untangled, and the sled in position. Deciding that Jamie wasn’t quite up to handling the reindeer, he now motioned her to get into the sled again, but this time slightly farther forward. Timing the maneuver with care, he jumped in behind her just as the reindeer bolted forward again. This time however the rig was under control so I hopped on the snowmobile and followed them around the course.
With the end of that ride, our activities had come to an end. Someone had driven off with the jeep, so after changing back into our regular clothes the Lapp motioned us towards an old Volkswagen minivan parked behind the coffee shop. I slid the door open on the passenger compartment, but instead of passenger seating I found the van stuffed floor to ceiling with reindeer hides, the kind they’d draped over the snowmobile seats. We squeezed into the front seat and were soon back at the lodge.
Before saying good-bye to our indomitable guide I used hand signals to ask him how much he would sell one of the reindeer hides for. At first he tried to talk me out of it, showing me that these were used hides, and pointing to imperfections in them. But that was all the better from my point of view. I suspected I could not afford a good reindeer hide. I persisted and finally he shrugged his shoulders and wrote ’60 Finnmarka’ down on a piece of paper. That was only fifteen dollars. I handed him a 50 piece note, and was reaching in my billfold for a ten when he held up his hand. Apparently his conscience had got the better of him and he decided 50 finnmarks was plenty. That came to only $12.50 for a beautiful reindeer hide. I later found them at the Helsinki airport for $280, but of course mine was “used.”
Jamie and I decided to celebrate our adventure at the bar in the lodge. There were only two other people there and they invited us to sit with them. One of them was a man from Rovaneimi who spoke English, the other was his father who spoke only Finnish. After our drinks arrived the man from Rovaneimi looked at his watch. “Well, it’s started,” he said.
“What’s started?” asked Jamie.
“The strike!” he said. “As of five minutes ago every broadcasting station in Finland is shut down. You go back to your room and turn on the TV, you’ll see that both Finland 1 and Finland 2 are test patterns.”
“How do you know about this?” I asked.
“I work in a broadcasting station in Rovaneimi,” he explained. “I’m up here taking a vacation because we’re on strike.”
“What do you do at the broadcasting station?”
“I have a talk show called ‘The Voice of Lapland’.”
“You’re the Voice?”
“I’m the Voice!”
Jamie and I needed to return to the cabin soon for she was catching the bus at 5:30 to head back to Helsinki. We also needed to contact the taxi company and arrange to be driven to Torvinen. Paula the English Speaker didn’t seem to be on duty, so I turned to the Voice of Lapland, and explained our situation.
“I’ll call the taxi company for you,” he said, eager to help. He used the phone at the bar and after a few minutes returned to the table.
“A taxi will meet you at your cabin,” he said.
“But how will the driver know which cabin?” I asked. You couldn’t have given him our names as you don’t know who we are either!”
“He asked if it was the American with the Chinese girlfriend and I told him yes.”
Jamie thought that was funny. “I’m not his girlfriend,” she explained, laughing. “He’s married.”
“Oh?” said the Voice. He looked quizzically first at me and then at Jamie. “But what if he wasn’t?”
“But he is,” said Jaimie.
“Heh, heh!” said the Voice, with a skeptical leer. “This is a romantic place. I think you two must be in love!”
“I think you’re drunk!” said Jaimie.
She was correct. His head was at a lopsided angle, he was grinning stupidly, and there was a chance he would fall over at any moment. I was surprised that I hadn’t recognized the symptoms earlier, although when someone with a heavy accent begins to slur their words it’s not very obvious. But his statement made me realize what an unusual pair we must seem to the local Lapps. How many American/Chinese couples did they get up here, after all, especially in late November?
I decided it was time to change the subject. “How do you think the strike will come out? I asked. “What’s the issue?”
“Oh we’ll win,” he said. “We want a seven percent pay increase and they’ve already offered five and a half. They’re not going to tolerate having the whole country shut down to save one and a half percent.”
“Good luck,” I said. We bid the Voice of Lapland farewell and left the bar. Our kicks led was still by the door to the lodge where we’d parked it in the morning, and we covered the downhill course back to the cabin quickly. Sure enough, Finland 1 and 2 were both test patterns. But TV Moscow was coming in loud and clear, broadcasting another meeting.
As she was finishing her packing, I called Jaimie’s attention to a little guest register in which visitors were encouraged to sign their names, and say a few words. There was a tremendous diversity of languages represented in the little book, with Finnish, Swedish, and German being the most common.
“Write something in Cantonese!” I said to Jaimie. “That will be a first.” It took some prodding but finally she sat down and begin scribbling little Chinese characters. She could draw them amazingly fast, which more than anything convinced me she must truly be from China.
“Now translate it right below, in English,” I suggested. She worked away for a few more minutes, and then closed the book. Suddenly a horn sounded, and I saw Juoni’s Mercedes pulling up in the driveway.
We arrived at the Torvinen stop just before the bus, and had only a moment to say goodbye. Jaimie climbed on and took a seat, waving from the window as the bus drove off amidst the swirling night-time snow.
It was awfully sudden. As I watched the bus disappear down the highway I found myself wondering if she’d had a good time, and if she’d been happy with her decision to come so far out of her way. More than that I was beginning to feel as if the whole trip had consisted of good-byes, although, I reasoned philosophically, that must be a common delusion for single travellers. Travelling alone makes it easier to meet people but a price must be paid. The companionship is short-lived, and when a parting occurs the resulting loneliness seems all the more vivid. I considered trying to finagle an invitation from Juoni to come visit his farm, have dinner, meet his Lapp grandfather, and maybe shoot some wolves before bedtime if any needed shooting. That would certainly be in keeping with the day’s long string of adventures in the arctic darkness. On the other hand I was leaving for home early the next morning; it was probably time to call it quits.
So I treated myself to a relaxed and elegant dinner at the lodge, ordering the reindeer specialty Juoni had recommended. While I ate, a snowshoe rabbit sat motionless outside my window, providing me company of a sort. But in fact this was the first meal I’d eaten alone in a restaurant since arriving in Europe ten days ago. I had assumed, when planning the trip, that I would eat every meal alone in a restaurant.
It was late when I finally returned to the cabin and set about lighting a fire. The birch logs had just begun to crackle and spark when I noticed the guest register lying on the table, where Jamie had left it. Turning the pages I found the funny Cantonese characters and there, beside them, was the English translation:
It’s such a unforgettable memory for a Chinese city girl to have a unbelievable great time here in the LapLand. The first time of skiing in my life, and driving reindeer, and snowmobile. So, my feeling…you can imagine. -Jamie Wan From Peking (Beijing) P.R. China
I could not help but smile. Both Ayya and the Swede had tried to talk her out of coming. “It will be dark,” they’d said, “and lonely.”
Perhaps. But then how many ‘Chinese city girls’ ever get to drive reindeer?
* * *
I tied my pack onto the sled early the next morning and kicked my way over to the lodge where I caught the shuttle car to Rovaneimi. The Finnair jet was on schedule and soon we were airborne. The most exciting event of the entire trip occurred thirty minutes into the flight when the plane banked at just the right angle, and I was struck directly in the face by the rays of the sun. This wasn’t a red blur on the southern horizon. This was the full, yellow sun, warming me like the red smudge had never done in the Arctic. I suppose I was like a man deprived of water for three days. I knew I would never again take that yellow ball in the sky for granted.
The change to the Pan Am flight in Helsinki was tight, as I knew it would be, but with the advantage of carry-on luggage I made the connection. We flew over the Gulf of Bothnia and the Aland islands before stopping briefly at Stockholm to take on more passengers and fuel. During this layover security guards came brusquely through the cabin, checking every passenger and their baggage. “They’re checking for bombs,” said one of the stewardesses. “It’s just routine.”
Two weeks later Pan Am flight 147 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, and with hindsight I realized the baggage check hadn’t been routine at all. In fact, the bomb threat had been made in Helsinki just prior to my flight.
Leaving Stockholm, I found that the only vacant seat in the plane had ended up right beside me. Having no one to talk to I began writing down my memories of the trip while they were still fresh. I had thought it would take only a few minutes but the more I wrote, the more I realized there was to record. The plane flew over the frozen fjords of Norway, the Shetland Islands, and even Greenland, but I was still writing. As we neared New York the Swede in the seat across the aisle finally asked what I was writing about. “You’ve been going non-stop since we left Sweden,” he said.
“I was in Russia,” I explained. “I’m trying to put down some of the memories before I forget them.”
“Do you think you’ll forget them?” he asked.
I paused, considering the question. I let my mind fill with the images for a moment: Tatiana whispering in my ear, Robert telling everyone he needed a break, Ana waving at the train station, Ella walking with me silently in the park, Maria rushing through hidden passages at the Kirov Theater, and finally Jamie, sprawled laughing on the Arctic snow, her sled tipped over and her reindeer tangled in its harness.
“No,” I finally said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.” The plane banked to the right and for just a moment the sun, setting in the West, illuminated the wings of the aircraft. Then it was gone and the plane began its long descent into Kennedy Airport.
I have managed to stay in reasonably close contact with Anu-Livii, Maria, and Jamie. Robert has been on fishing boats for months and I’ve not received a letter back from him. I did send in the article on Estonia, and with his help it was published in the Tallinn newspaper. Ana herself entered and won the Miss Tallinn, ’89 beauty contest, and went on to compete in the Miss Estonia competition. I felt this somehow vindicated my impression that she was in fact ‘the prettiest girl in Tallinn.’
Maria, in Leningrad, has become a full member of the Kirov Ballet Theater, which surprised me not in the least, and she is already hard at work on plans for visiting America. I have no doubt she will succeed. Ella I have not heard from, but then I was never able to talk to Ella anyway.
Jamie was transferred by Westinghouse to one of their branches in Canberra, Australia, missing by only a few weeks the massacre at Tiananmen Square, and the bloody violence now sweeping China. She is presently engaged to an Australian and, she says, wants to go back to one of the log cabins at Sodankayla, Finland for her honeymoon.
As for me, I returned from the Arctic to face the coldest winter in Colorado’s history. For the first time in my life I saw a thermometer register 43 degrees below zero. “The Siberian Express” was the name given to the cold winds that blew down out of northern Asia and across the Bering strait. In this environment I have not found myself inclined towards returning to the frigid Baltic. These days every time I look at a world map I find my eyes drawn to the tropical regions. Memories of frost-covered pine trees standing motionless in the silent darkness of Lapland have been giving way to visions of graceful palms swaying in the balmy trade winds of the South Pacific. I have heard very good things about the Marquesas and Society Islands, including rumors of a Club Med on Bora-Bora.
I think I might be able to convince my wife to come along this time.