Sunday 15 December, 2013 by Uncle Spike
In this post, we hear some great travel yarns from almost 30 years ago, back in the days of the USSR and the Iron Curtain. Uncle Spike’s special Guest Writer for this week is Evelyne Holingue, a French-American Writer and keen blogger.
When you comment on Uncle Spike’s blog you might
be invited to share one of your life’s adventures.
In 1984 I had never met anyone who had been to the USSR. It wasn’t exactly a top tourist destination, but Moscow wasn’t far from Paris where I lived, and the attraction for the unknown pushed me to go. Back then nobody could enter the USSR without a travel agency and a guide. Mine was a young French woman, fluent in Russian. Our group was an eclectic mix of French men and women of all ages. From the minute I landed to the moment I left, everything was a shock for the young Parisian I was.
But Uncle Spike asked specifically for the flight story, so here it is, with a small extra story…
Based on my observation, if you lived in the USSR you stood in line a lot, including for public transportation. I was not really concerned. We rode our own bus. The driver picked us up every morning at the hotel and drove us to the museums and diverse attractions, before dropping us at night in front of the hotel.
But I experienced Russian transportation the day we flew from Leningrad (Saint Petersburg since 1991) to Kiev, a flight of about an hour and half.
The airport resembled more a warehouse than an airport. No boutiques. No cafés. No wandering around. Men, identical in their military looking uniforms, monitored the passengers. Soldiers? Airport personnel? I never really understood who was who when I visited the USSR but never dare ask.
Our dedicated guide took care of the airport bureaucracy for us. We only had to show our passports and open our luggage for inspection. I congratulated myself for traveling light because the guy who went through my stuff was very thorough. I had nothing to worry about, but there is something unnerving when you go through silent systematic inspection. When I took in the citizens who unlike us didn’t have a special lane, I stopped feeling sorry for myself.
Aeroflot – the Soviet national airline – worked closely with the Soviet armed forces. So, most planes in the fleet were of the same basic design as military aircraft. I was slightly worried, when I saw the stern looking plane we would board. The winged hammer and sickle, displayed on the fuselage, added to the feeling of being very isolated from my familiar western world.
We boarded a cabin with low ceilings and no air conditioning. The tourists complained about the discomfort and I was suddenly aware of the cramped and stuffy space. Claustrophobia is hard to fight, but it was useless to object since the cabin crew was pretty indifferent.
I was looking forward to take off. But when the sound of the motors started to roar, the noise was deafening. The plane shook and vibrated. Was it normal? Through the thick fishbowl window I could spot several guards clad in their long brownish coats or shorter belted jackets. I wondered what was best: staying with them or flying away.
Finally we were in the air and I relaxed a little. The flight attendants, wearing a winged hammer and sickle on their uniforms, weren’t really friendly, yet I was aware of my privileged status of observer, and understanding for them filled me.
I tried to forget about the plane, but it was hard. For the entire duration of the flight it growled and shuddered. I silently begged the pilot for a safe if not smooth landing and almost applauded when we finally landed. But I wasn’t sure it was the appropriate thing to do so I remained seated as everyone else as we taxied for several endless minutes. What took the pilot so long? Was something wrong? Would we disembark soon?
To be on the safe side I kept my questions to myself. Besides I had only learned five words in Russian.
– S’il vous plait was Pozhaluysta (Please)
– Merci was Spasibo (Thank you)
– Thé was Chai (Tea)
Tea replaced coffee, and Russian people brew it very strongly. One day, I had overdosed on tea and gasped when I caught my teeth in the mirror of my hotel room. They were so stained I thought I had caught a terrible disease. Staining went away after vigorous brushing.
I also said Da whenever someone addressed me, which was rare. I figured that it was safer to agree than disagree. But I mostly smiled.
On a warm Sunday afternoon our guide took us to a public park in Moscow. The place was bursting with families. From a distance I saw people waiting in line. It was a common sight, yet I was intrigued. At the Luxembourg in Paris there were puppet shows and merry-go rounds and vendors. Maybe, I thought, there are also some here.
When I got closer I saw a vendor selling ice cream.
“Can we get ice cream, too?” I asked our guide.
“Of course.” She encouraged us to experience Russian lifestyle whenever possible, which was rare since shops and restaurants were either open to tourists or to locals.
“How do we say ice cream”? I asked.
“Morozhenoye,” she said, articulating until I got it.
I practised while standing in line behind little kids dressed like my parents on black and white photos of the forties.
A sudden thought hit me: I had no idea how to say ‘pistachio’ and ‘strawberry,’ my two favorite flavors. When my turn came I realized with a mix of relief, shock and compassion for the Russian people that there was only one flavor available.
One scoop was also the only option.
After two weeks in the USSR I saw Paris and France with very different eyes. I had taken total freedom, modern comfort, and food abundance for granted.
And airline companies, too.
written by: Evelyne Holingue
Evelyne Holingue lived in Paris before following her husband to California where they live with their four children. While everyone works and attends various schools, Evelyne keeps practicing her English and French through her blog Stories, Chronicles & Books by a French-American Writer.
Chronicles, Stories & Books
You can visit her blog at EvelyneHolingue.com