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    Tale of Three Cities

    TALE OF THREE CITIES
    Warning! There are absolutley no pictures in this topic. (Now there's a chance to use your imagination!)

    I had seen the brochure several times in the window of our local travel agents and what it offered caught my imagination. Pictures of those unmistakable gloriously coloured onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral as seen from across Red Square adorned the cover - it could only be Moscow. In the end I gave in, entered the travel agents and collected a copy. Once home I turned page after page as it described a trip to the USSR, with stays of a few days each in Moscow, Kiev and finally Leningrad.
    This was 1984. Chernenko had recently been elected as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, but he was in poor health and died the following year. Then followed the election of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms finally led to the break up of Communist regimes in Europe even though that was certainly not what he had intended. But at this time Communist USSR was still the “enemy” we had known for so long.
    Enemy or not, however, I was intrigued. Browsing the brochure, studying the itinerary and gazing at the pictures, I thought “Well, yes….. looks exciting.” Thoughts slowly morphed into “I wonder….. well, perhaps…. um-mm….. Oh, be a devil and go!”
    There were several optional trips offered, and I went on some delightful and very interesting ones, but I was equally keen to explore on my own as much as possible and even to get to know the Russian people as much as – or if - possible. Booking my holiday period at work and announcing where I was going resulted in raised eyebrows, widened eyes and gaping mouths and drew jokes on the lines of “Well, let’s hope you come back….”, “We’d better start looking for a replacement…..” But, like me, they were intrigued.

    The day had come - I was in Heathrow staring at the departures board which announced that the 6.30p.m. to Moscow was delayed some two hours. An excellent start, I thought, with a four hour flight ahead that means it will be well past midnight before we touch down, in fact a long way past midnight their time. Then Customs, Passport Control, perhaps they’ll demand our life history to check whether to let us into the country, might there even be a body search??? Then finally a coach to my hotel….registration at reception… finding my room… (or will I be escorted by armed guard?). By the time all that had been accomplished it would hardly be worth going to bed!
    Huh!! Why do I do these things?
    Somewhere between 8 and 9 p.m. the departures board suddenly flickered, re-scrolled and there it was – MOSCOW NOW BOARDING. Heart thumping just a little bit I headed off to where it would all begin. Settled in my seat, I waited, only half believing in my destination. Moscow, I reminded myself, yes, Moscow in the USSR. I would have to try and phone my mother as soon as possible as she waited anxiously at home for the sound of that mad daughter’s voice assuring her that all was well.
    Meanwhile, I waited.
    Then that magic moment came when, seatbelts fastened, engines suddenly roared full blast, the wheels began to roll. Gathering speed down the runway, I felt the nose lift …… heard the thump of the wheels folding back into their housing. I was on my way.
    Following the east coast as we flew northwards for a while, I concentrated on the view from the window. The moon must have been full, because the rivers winding below gleamed softly but clearly against the grey shadowing land, an image I have never forgotten. I tried to identify the river Waveney, which flows only two or three minutes from where I live in Bungay. Feeling a little calmer I settled back in my seat as the plane slowly veered away from the coast and got a fix on Moscow. Of the journey I now have no recollection, in the increasing darkness probably all there was to see were little clusters of city lights, perhaps more rivers, miles of blankness which made a mirror of the window.

    Descent had begun and the heart thumps also began again, this time with excitement. I had left Heathrow blazing with lights, chatter, hurrying people but here in Moscow we must have been the last plane in for the night (well, after all it was about 1.50 a.m. Moscow time) because most of the airport building was in darkness, leaving just the areas needed for our reception dimly illuminated. The plane finally stopped its trundle round the runways, engines quietened and shut down and we began to collect our belongings. Suddenly the cabin lights were switched off. We all sat there, silent, wondering in the darkness. After some time they were switched on again but still no-one appeared to open the cabin door and indicate that we were to leave. Some of the passengers were getting a bit restive and I didn’t blame them.
    In the end an air hostess came in, opened the door and we were allowed to descend. An official appeared to lead us to Passport Control. There was hardly a sound anywhere. The quietness must have been infectious, because most of the whole planeload walked in a kind of cowed silence. But in the queue I got chatting to a Mexican next to me and was amazed to find that he was studying at London University in what I used to know as the old Woolwich Polytechnic in south-east London, just a short tram ride away from where I was born and grew up. I never cease to be amazed at the coincidental meetings I occasionally have with complete strangers who turn out to come from a place, (even a street in one instance) that I have some connection with, or who know someone whom I also know.
    But this one was going to be a little troublesome! I had been observed as I chatted.

    (To be continued)
    Ivy

    "To thine own self be true.......
    Thou canst not then be false to any man."

    #2
    This is going to be fun - you write beautifully Ivy. Looking forward to the next exciting instalment.
    Cheers,

    Mark.

    www.pologlover.co.uk

    Comment


      #3
      WOW. You set the scene as John Le Carré did! Waiting for the next chapters, Ivy….

      Comment


        #4
        Many thanks, Mark and Yves. Writing about it now, after so long, is bringing it back to vivid life!
        Ivy

        "To thine own self be true.......
        Thou canst not then be false to any man."

        Comment


        • yvneac
          yvneac commented
          Editing a comment
          After rereading, on second thought, what proves us you weren't a spy???

        • wherrygirl
          wherrygirl commented
          Editing a comment
          Nothing my dear Yves. Absolutely nothing.

        #5
        Oh thank you, Ivy. This is indeed a spellbinder! Yes, i need no pictures, a complete scenery has been made up in my mind! Wonderful!
        Lofoten '07 ...... Nordnorge '11

        Comment


        • wherrygirl
          wherrygirl commented
          Editing a comment
          Thank you, Ralf. I hope the sceneries you build up will entice you to carry on to the end, for it was truly a great holiday for me.

        #6
        The passengers at the front of the queue had disappeared into the building and the rest of us waited to follow them inside. Slowly, so slowly, we inched forward. That, at least, was normal! At last I was able to enter, expecting the usual cluster of passport control desks. But in the subdued light there was just one, manned by a solitary uniformed individual who silently reached out a hand for the next passenger’'s passport. Absolutely deadpan he was, his face set as if it were a mask, not a word of instruction let alone welcome. The passport disappeared below the counter, which was set above chin level so that you couldn'’t see over it, and he was presumably scrutinising every page and, also presumably, photocopying it, perhaps even checking to see if the owner was on the “"detain immediately"” list.
        Ages seemed to pass while he checked, looked up as if to make sure that the owner had not absconded, looked down again, still deadpan… and waited. Around me in the queue passengers also waited, shuffled their feet, speaking –- if at all -– in whispers. I watched as the passport was eventually handed back and its owner walked on to Customs, the next person moving up to the desk to take their place. The same procedure was repeated.
        It was the silence that got to us. Was the chap behind the counter real, or an automaton? What was he doing all that time, almost motionless except for the nodding of his head as he looked at the document then up at the owner as if disbelieving that the hapless person was who they claimed to be.The procedure was repeated over and over as we shunted forward. In our silent glances at each other the raised eyebrows of impatience, mixed with unease, gave way to a few hastily suppressed giggles. Had they been louder I think there may have been a hysterical note in them.
        Eventually I was at the counter and placed my passport in the outstretched hand. Trying to elicit some human expression from him I smiled cheerfully, but not a muscle moved in that face. The up -– down movement of the head really unsettled me, but I did my best to look casual and looked back at him with what I hoped was a friendly expression each time he raised his head to stare at me. Finally I was through and went on to Customs.
        The Mexican had disappeared. I forget now whether he had been in front or behind me in the queue. The passengers before me were passed through fairly quickly with merely a casual glance at the opened suitcases. I unlocked my case and lifted the lid. I loved that case, it was a dark blue soft-top which my parents had given me years previously for a birthday present and was lined with a soft grey silky material. There were pockets round the inside, each with an elasticated top edge to hold the contents safely, and one with a plastic lining to hold damp items, while in the lid were two larger pockets, suitable for holding papers or suchlike. The official began to rummage through all my carefully packed clothes as if looking for something. I wondered why I was given this treatment. Then he reached into one of the lid pockets and drew out a piece of notepaper on which I had written a list of all the must-see places I longed to visit during my stay. He stared at it as if at a piece of incriminating evidence, turned and beckoned over a female official for her to see.
        And then I scored! She took one quick look at my list, then with a swift avalanche of Russian directed at the young man she thrust the paper back into his hand and turned on her heels. And I swear there was a look of scorn on her face as she did! He certainly looked somewhat crestfallen as he so carefully placed the paper back in the pocket and gently lowered the lid on the case. I felt really sorry for the lad.
        I walked away, cannot remember where to now, but it was probably to the waiting coaches which were to take us to our hotels. I should explain here that the plane load of passengers were not travelling as a party, but were all independent travellers of various nationalities going on one of two holidays organised by Intourist. The choice had been between the Three Cities one, which I was doing, or a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The latter passengers would board their train the following day after staying the night –- or what was left of it –- in Moscow. The plane had been an Illyushin of some kind, but was a relatively small one so we were not a large crowd.
        We were not all staying in the same hotel, maybe they used just two, according to which holiday option was chosen, I can'’t now remember. What I do remember is the long, long wait we had, sitting in our coach. Who, or what, were we waiting for now???
        The American in my Three Cities group, a pleasant, obviously retired gentleman who knew his way around, later told us that the culprit was the Mexican. He had been given a book by a friend relating to the rise of Communism in what became the USSR, a book which apparently was not particularly favourable to either and –- of all things –- he had been reading it on the flight over.
        The air hostess had seen it and doubtless reported it straight away. When we were inside the Passport Control building he must have been "“asked”" to step aside and had been taken off somewhere for questioning. I doubt they used the thumbscrews but it must have been a tricky interview. And meanwhile the rest of us were sitting waiting, dead tired and longing for bed. But things fell into place for me. That explained why my suitcase was so thoroughly investigated and the little episode of my sightseeing list. My casual chatter in the queue had made me suspect.
        Eventually the Mexican appeared and the coach moved off. By the time we reached our hotel it was nigh on half past three in the morning. Once inside and registering at Reception we were told that our luggage would arrive about 4 o’'clock! With all that hanging about couldn'’t it have been loaded off the plane and on to the coach? Obviously not. Maybe they were busy x-raying each suitcase just to double check. I waited up for my case -– my nightdress was in there, should have stuffed it into my handbag. At last there was a thump outside my door -– nightdress had arrived.
        I woke from a rather fitful sleep at a very late hour, – goodness knows what time, I can'’t now remember but I would be too late for breakfast. It had been explained at Reception that our meals would be at a precise time and we must be there. They didn’t quite wag a finger at us, but it was clear that if we failed to turn up at the time specified then that course would be removed from our place. If we appeared late and the first dish had been removed, then tough luck, we’'d had it. Or rather we hadn’'t had it..(Sorry) We would just be provided with the following course as and when it was due.
        So, still weary and now thirsty and hungry I stumbled out into the corridor. The hotel was the Cosmos on the outskirts of Moscow and was a sizeable curved edifice built for the 1980 Olympics. (You can find it online.) Each floor had a commissionaire who would hopefully attend to a guest'’s needs. I walked along the corridor, found mine and asked her if I could have a cup of tea and (remembering our earlier admonishments about not turning up on time for a meal) something to eat. Her English was poor and my Russian was limited to the obvious needs of a tourist trying to get directions -– please, thank you, how much, where is, how can I, etc. So I mimed what I wanted.
        However, I didn'’t need any language to read the look of puzzlement and dismay on the woman'’s face. Tea? Something to eat? I got the message – Nyet.
        I must have looked desperate, for eventually she rose, held up a finger, nodded and disappeared. She returned with a glass full of boiling hot tea, no milk of course. Well, it was something! Dredging up my self-imposed Russian language course from the phrase book I pronounced "“spasibo"”, we smiled at each other and I returned to my room.
        Once down in the entrance lobby I tackled Reception about public transport. They looked a bit surprised at this solitary apparition, why wasn'’t I with “"others"” was written all over their faces. They told me all about the Metro, which was not far away and from what I have read and Yves discovered, is palatial. Sadly I have a problem with claustrophobia, (as Ralf and Thijs may remember) so that was out of the question, although I did venture on it with a young English couple I became friendly with in Leningrad. Reception were very sad about that. But they then explained the trams, and I brightened up.
        I found the tram to take me to the city centre, about half an hour'’s ride away, and then began to feel that, even half starved as I was, this was really going to be fun. I was free, free to explore, I was in Moscow, wasn'’t everything wonderful!
        After a while the man I was sitting next to kept looking at my wrist watch. It was July with warm, sunny weather to match so my arms were bare. The watch was gold. Then, motioning to the watch, the chap spoke. He must have guessed I was English, wearing such expensive items that Russians could only covet. And covet it he did. Insistently. His few words made it clear that he wanted to buy it. How much? Then I also became insistent. Nyet. NYET. He was quite annoyed but eventually accepted that it was no go and, disconsolate, turned to look out of the window. I thought that if this was the sort of thing that was going to happen then the watch had better stay in my handbag, out of trouble. But I understood. And it was an eye-opener.
        (To be continued)
        Ivy

        "To thine own self be true.......
        Thou canst not then be false to any man."

        Comment


        • yvneac
          yvneac commented
          Editing a comment
          Ha Ha Ha. They have been conned! Because your list was a coded message, wasn't it?

        • wherrygirl
          wherrygirl commented
          Editing a comment
          Well, Sherlock Holmes, also the encounter in the tram was pre-arranged, of course. He was to pretend to want to buy my watch and my amswer really referred to the completion of certain devilish plans that were being concocted.

        • yvneac
          yvneac commented
          Editing a comment
          Don't worry Ivy. I will not divulge that.

        #7
        Great continuation. And i had to laugh out loud about the cases, which did not arrived in the hotel after such a long time. So typical. And so clearly "you are not welcome, we are also not allowed to travel like this, so why should you?!".
        I am totally overwhelmed about these many details. If i had to narrate my first visit in the former GDR, which is 35 years ago now, i still remember a lot, but not such a lot of details. This is really a pleasure to read!
        Lofoten '07 ...... Nordnorge '11

        Comment


        • wherrygirl
          wherrygirl commented
          Editing a comment
          Why, Ralf, you were visiting the GDR probably the same year as I was gallivanting in the USSR!
          Thank you for your comments, but I think that the details that remain so vividly in my memory are all connected with people, not places. The reaction of my colleagues when they learned where I was going was similar to what I was feeling inside me. Even when my booking was completed I still could hardly believe that I was going to such a country and I was so excited and curious about it. Yes, there were some marvellous places to see and enjoy, but above all I was wanting to try and find out what the people themselves were like living under such a regime.
          The result is that I am not going to be able to regale you with vivid and detailed descriptions of the museums, the magnificent buildings, the flats of famous people long dead but open to the public and a marvellous cemetery containing some beautiful sculptures on many of the graves of yet more famous people. Nor can I describe any of the scenery as I went on some of the optional tours. Much of all that kind of experience is now a blur. I have a small scrap of paper (not the one that the poor Customs man seized upon) on which is my list of the many optional visits available, but studying it there are several that I know I never went on, so presumably it was what I had copied from the brochure.
          At the time of this holiday I was not "bothering" with a camera and for long since I have regretted this very much.
          But what does remain in the sieve that I laughingly call my memory are encounters with just a few people, which is what I enjoyed, brief though they were. That, and a sort of "feel" for what life might be like there,.is almost the only taste of the USSR that I can share.

        #8
        During that first day (it was a Sunday and the schedule showed take-off for Kiev on Thursday) my mind would be at one moment keenly interested in detailed observation of people….. buildings….. shops….. streets, then at the next instant lost in a whirligig of images, swiftly moving but vivid impressions and wonder that I was actually in that city, Moscow, somewhere that I had never thought possible to visit until I saw that tempting brochure in the travel agent’s window in Bungay.
        Bungay? That small market town could have been on another planet, it was so distant, politically and culturally as well as geographically.
        Had I really travelled from there? Here I was in a Russian park, excited yet relaxed, just soaking up the sun, enjoying the trees and their shadow patterns on the grass, loitering to admire the flowerbeds and trying to identify the contents, just one of many casual strollers, one of them.
        Then a woman’s voice called out. She called again, and looking around I found she was trying to attract my attention. Her smile had a touch of admonishment as she shouted a rapid message. Not understanding a word, of course, I must have looked puzzled for she said it again and pointed first to her skirt and then to me. I looked down at my own skirt and found that my over-the-shoulder sling-bag, while rubbing against my thigh, had gradually worked my skirt up a few inches to reveal the slip beneath (lace edged, of course). Pulling the unruly garment back into place I smiled happily at the woman, called “spasibo” and wished that I had also learnt the Russian for “very much”. Her smile changed to one of approval and, probably guessing that I was one of those strange non-comrades, she went on her way.

        What I did that Sunday morning after my stroll in the park I don’t remember. I may have wandered around the streets a bit, getting the feel of the place, but pretty soon I would have dashed back to the Cosmos to appear in the correct place at the correct feeding time, thereby being entitled to the whole meal. I had had a late start to my day, falling into bed well after 4a.m. and awakening only to find that breakfast, for which I had disobediently not appeared at the appointed time, was long over and even the coach taking people on the city tour had gone. To be quite honest, perhaps I complained to Reception. But they knew what time we had all arrived the previous night, plus having to await our luggage, and so perhaps I managed to wheedle something out of them. They couldn’t just let me starve, err…err… could they??

        So, after lunch that first day and bounding with energy and anticipation, I caught the tram back to the centre of town. And I think I decided then to have a look at this famous department store GUM. I was expecting something on the lines of the big London Oxford Street and Regent Street stores and was keen to see what the Russian clothes fashions were like at that time and what other things there were for sale, some indication of their standard of living.
        What I got was a big surprise. In the clothes departments on the upper floors GUM was more a collection of what today we would call boutique shops. At least we would - had their wares been anything near the standard seen at home. Several of them were quite open-fronted and without actual doors so they probably closed by shutters. Wandering in and out of a few to examine the garments, I was not impressed. They were very utilitarian, without attractive style and in many cases with a poor finish.
        Later I was looking at the china department on the ground floor. And here I’ll have to confess to misleading you when I said there would be no photos in this tale. Nor will there be of any of the things I saw because I had no camera with me. (I wasn’t “doing” photography at the time). Actually, it is Yves’ fault that I‘m writing all this, because it was his mention of seeing the GUM store during his river trip that reminded me of a little something that I had bought there and which has at last come in very handy. The shelves in that department were very depleted by way of goods for sale. In fact they were almost bare. No stacks of pretty plates, no charming cups and saucers, no teapots with attendant dainty milk jugs, everything beautifully arranged to tempt you into buying so that you could replicate such a display in your own home – to the envy of your friends.
        But there on the back shelf of one counter were…… just one or two little lids. No sign of the utensils to which they had originally belonged. I drew a deep breath and pointed to a dear little white lid with a gold-topped knob and two simple decorations in gold just below. Raising her eyebrows the assistant touched it lightly, obviously wondering why I wanted it. I asked its price and immediately my “Russian” gave me away – I was one of these weird foreigners. That explained everything.
        I nodded and between us we counted out the appropriate coins. It was mine! And here it is.


        P1200211
        by Ivy, on Flickr

        The sequel to this little episode is remarkable. For years that lid has sat on a cupboard shelf, being occasionally brought into use to cap a small pot of something prior to it being put into the fridge. Rarely was the lid a perfect fit but as it was just a temporary usage that didn’t matter at all and it was soon put back into the cupboard out of sight, along with one or two other pot lids – common or garden English lids whose pots I had broken at various times and which now served a similar purpose.
        One or two years ago I dropped the lid of my teapot as I was drying up after breakfast. It fell into the sink – my deep white porcelain “butler’s” sink, none of these shallow, noisy, modern sinks for me. The lid broke.
        Cursing to myself I rummaged in the cupboard to see whether one of my spare lids would fit. This one, no, nor that one, but a-ha, like Prince Charming discovering Cinderella as the only one on whose foot the glass slipper fitted, I tried the Moscow purchase. Absolutely perfect. I couldn’t believe it. The little pot with the golden knob fitted precisely on the ridge, not a jiggle sounding to show that it was loose and would soon fall out.
        So this is what now stands on the table at breakfast time each day.


        P1200213
        by Ivy, on Flickr

        After the first day or so I was sort of picked up by an Indian gentleman and I think we went to one of the many museums. If we did, I can’t remember any of it! I kept no diary and after 36 years things have perhaps become a little vague – it’s the impressions and encounters that remain vivid.
        Aforesaid gentleman was very polite and pleasant to chat with but for some reason my mind retains only one of his remarks. That was that he was sorry to find that a young man who sat at the same table as us for meals had been spending time alone in his room drinking wine! He thought that it was so sad. Surely my momentary companion had made more interesting and relevant observations than that, compassionate though it was! I’m sure he did, but I don’t remember them. And that also is so sad.
        However, with such a short time in this great city I preferred to be alone to wander as I wished and see things which would not necessarily interest another person. So somehow I managed to slip away early the following day.
        (to be continued).









        Ivy

        "To thine own self be true.......
        Thou canst not then be false to any man."

        Comment


        • wherrygirl
          wherrygirl commented
          Editing a comment
          I've had tremendous problems uplooading this from MS Word. This is the fourth attempt, and with each of the fiirst three when I clicked Review the whole thing went dark and froze (other tabbed sites were OK) and only the last few lines were showing because I couldn't scroll. No response to the command Post. This last time I omitted Review and it was OK. Also quite a bit of my punctuation is missing. Grumble, grumble, BAH!

        • PoloUK
          PoloUK commented
          Editing a comment
          Dunno why that happened Ivy, but delighted that you persevered and look forward to reading that later.

        • wherrygirl
          wherrygirl commented
          Editing a comment
          That's weird - the punctuation seems to be all back in place now.

        #9
        Thank you for this continuation! And it is comforting me, that you don't remember all details of your trip. So i am feeling not so demented. Interesting to read the GUM story. And i had to smile, as i saw what you bought. Remember what you bought in Stuttgart as souvenir? I am waiting, that you will loose some day a knob on one of your cupboards to have also here the fitting replacement!
        Can't wait to follow you further on your secret walks!
        Lofoten '07 ...... Nordnorge '11

        Comment


          #10
          Nice to follow you in this exotic times in Moscow Ivy. I do like the story of the lid. Sometimes these little things become the symbol of great experiences and they find their place in the day - to - day life.

          Comment

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