24 June 1980

End of the semester abroad in Poland

We spend the morning in Venice, just showing Cathy the highlights. I have some rubles left and manage to change them, at a very unfavorable rate, at a money changer in Piazza San Marco.

After lunch we get back into Giallina one last time for the home stretch to Rome. Mum, dad and my brother Fabio are waiting at our apartment in Via dei Mille, and a genuine Italian home-made dinner prepared by our family chef Anna concludes our trip.

It is over.

But I know it is not really over. I know I will return to Poland in the future, for personal and professional reasons. Borzena is scheduled to come and visit this Summer. Marian and Ewa surely will be in touch and we'll try to make some money together trading goods between Italy and Poland.

It's been the most instructive period of my life. I went to Poland because I was interested in the "real" socialism. Never a socialist myself, as a political scientist in the making I wanted to understand the thinking beyond the wall. I thought better knowledge could foster mutual understanding, and peace.

The problem is, no one in Poland seemed to care about socialism. Those who did speak about it hardly ever said anything positive. It was different in the USSR, where some of those we met did seem to believe in their official ideology.

We'll see, for now it's time to take in a good night sleep in my own bed!

23 June 1980

Driving back through Yugoslavia and on to Italy

Left Balaton lake at 10.00am. It would have been nice to spend more time here, after four intense months, and relax a bit, take in the cool atmosphere and sip Hungarian wine, by far the best that is coming from the brotherhood of socialist countries. (Georgians might disagree, and I must admit I don't know Georgian wine much.) Much better than the Crimean "champagne" we had in the USSR.

The road is just OK and we proceed slowly toward Yugoslavia. No problem with this border. Two socialist countries, in theory ideological siblings. In practice, Yugoslavia has long been pursuing its own version of socialism, quite open to the West and relatively more relaxed at home.

Surprisingly, the roads in Yugoslavia are worse than in Hungary or Poland. At least the ones we drive on today. Once we reach Nova Gorica, the Yugoslav half of Gorizia, I pull into a service station to fill up Giallina. Gasoline is much cheaper here that in Italy. The man at the pump speaks Italian and says he only agrees to sell us fuel because he sees Giallina has a Roman plate. He refuses to sell to Italians from Trieste and Gorizia, who just cross the border to take advantage of subsidized fuel. Border inhabitants of both Italy and Yugoslavia can go shopping in each other's country fairly easily, and while Yugoslavs go to Italy to buy what they can't find at home, Italians hop beyond the border to buy cheap subsidized staples, fuel first of all.

We reach Mestre at about 9:00pm and get a couple of rooms at the "Garibaldi" hotel. Then out for pizza. Nice to be back in Italy, I enjoy hearing Italian and soaking the warm air, though everything now seems soooo expensive! A pizza here is more expensive than a gourmet fine dining experience in Warsaw!

22 June 1980

Driving south, policemen and lake Balaton

We wake up at 8 after a good night's sleep and head out to visit the house where Cathy's father lived before emigrating to the United States. It's a modest house but in fairly good shape. Who knows what it looked like when he was here?

For dinner Cathy's family serves us some hearty boszcz, lots of proteins and vitamins to take us through the day. After lunch we bid farewell and head south, toward the border. No problem with Polish customs, all our stuff gets through no questions asked.

We are back in Czechoslovakia and this time we manage to get through without getting lost or running into Soviet military bases. Can't help but notice the innumerable monuments to Soviet military equipment that dot the road. Kind of eerie, anyway better than the other military we met when we transited the country northbound.






We reach Budapest in the late afternoon and start looking for a hotel, but prices are way too high for our budget, so we decide to drive on.

As we progress along the main highway we stop occasionally to look for a place to sleep. Some camping grounds are cheap enough but fully booked. We decide to drive on, maybe all the way to Italy! At this point two policemen stop us and start looking for trouble. They check our passports, Giallina's papers, our tires, everything is fine. Or almost fine: they find that the light of Giallina's rear plate is broken. They say we must pay a fine of 200 forints (about 10 official US dollars, there is almost no black market for currency here, the black rate is abut 30, only fifty percent higher). We could pay but their attitude is irritating and we decide to dispute the fine. What follows is an endless discussion, they are clearly trying to take advantage of us foreigners to pocket some cash. But we finally manage to tire them out and drive on.

It's pretty late when we reach lake Balaton and find a nice little hotel for 5 dollars per room! We are not sure exactly where we are, but the area is pleasant and well maintained. Balaton is the main resort region of Hungary and a destination for many tourists from the socialist brother countries. Our fleeting impression of Hungary is that the standard of living is higher than Poland.

21 June 1980

Drive to Przemisl

We are ready to leave Warsaw at 9:30am. Last pictures together with our Polish classmates and friends. All of them came to say goodbye: Stefan, Romek, Borzena, Ella, Bonga, Elzbieta, Alina, Leszek, Tadek. This is it, our last departure from Warsaw, not for a drive around the country or the USSR, but to go home.

Romek and Stefan

Borzena Romek Ann Stefan Andrew and Marco

Alina Bonga Marco Ann Elzbieta Cathy
Leszek

Elzbieta Alina Bonga

Elzbieta Andrew Alina Tadek Bonga
Cathy Wadim Ann

Andrew and Romek


It's been an immensely interesting and fun to spend these four months in Poland. I know I will be back, though I don't know when. Borzena will come visit me in Italy soon.

Just before leaving the capital, we fill our tank with our last black market gasoline from Jan's station. The drive to Przemisl is smooth and easy. Funny I should think of it this way. A few months ago I would have described Polish roads in less positive terms, but I guess we are used to it by now.

Once there, we meet Cathy's auntie, her father's sister. She's been waiting for us. She can only offer one room to us in her small apartment, but it will do. We'll squeeze in, Andrew and I in one bed and the girls in the other. There is no hot water and no sewage in the building, a strange smell whiffs out of the toilet, but we don't mind the small hardship.

This family is clearly not rich, but very hospitable nonetheless. Dinner is based on kanapki. After  which, three ladies and one man, in their thirties, not sure who they are, friends we guess, arrive and offer to take us for a tour of the town. Nothing much, but it gives us a good idea of a different Poland than that we have seen so far in Warsaw and other major cities.

20 June 1980

Last day in Warsaw, for now

Andrew and I go to the girls' dorm after breakfast, but they are not there. They were supposed to return yesterday from their tour of Finland and northern Poland. We are slightly worried, not that anything serious is likely to have happened (though you never know) but we had planned to start our trip back to Italy tomorrow...

Then Marek, Borzena's brother, calls to say everything is fine: Ann and Cathy are in Warsaw, they arrived in Gdansk with the night ferry from Helsinki at 9 o'clock, and managed to hop on a plane on to Warsaw. They just did not have a chance to call. We are relieved!

The afternoon is spent looking after our luggage and especially the last paperwork. We need a Polish exit visa, a transit visa to get us through Czechoslovakia and an entry visa into Hungary. By 5:30 in the afternoon our passports are decorated with a new collection of colorful stamps and we can relax. The most difficult was the Polish exit visa: after several months here we need to prove our course is over, our stipend is properly accounted for, our onward visa are in order. A friendly lady at the office somehow likes us a lot and puts our papers on top of the pile, just to be nice. She does not ask for money, just smiles.

We then go and say good bye to Marian and Ewa. I decide to buy a silver and marble clock they wan to sell, will present it to my parents. Because there are no official receipts, I am, strictly speaking, not allowed to export it. Silver is one of those precious metals that, if you can find it on the black market, is very cheap here, so the authorities want to prevent its contraband.

We also have various items that are not backed up by official sale receipts, like our monster 2kg Soviet caviar can, next to the pocket-size half-kilo can of Soviet caviar.


Final dinner at Borzena's home. The final intake of hearty home made Polish food. The kind that is often impossible to find in the shops but that her family, can manage to squeeze out of the black market. Or "free market" as, more appropriately, it is called here. She, always a melancholy type, weeps a bit, her mother more. In fact we all do a little bit, though the guys try to hide it.


19 June 1980

Getting ready to leave Poland

In the morning we go to meet the Rector of our university. We have a plan: organize a two-pronged student seminar meeting between Georgetown U. and SGPiS, one event each in Washington, DC and Warsaw. It should do much to improve understanding and it surely will be lots of fun. He agrees but, as expected, has little money to contribute except hospitality expenses in Warsaw. We'll have to take care of that from the US side. We'll try.

This highly intellectual endeavor is followed by a more mundane one: buying Russian caviar in the market of "Praga" a neighborhood of Warsaw that is famous for a farmers'smarket. Or fishermen's market. Or Soviet traders' market. Here you can find Russians who have the right connections to buy caviar (or gold, diamonds, furs...) at subsidized prices in the USSR and then sell it at enormous profit in Poland. Sometimes to Poles, in the best case to Westerners who pay convertible cash.

We buy half a kilo of premium Beluga caviar to eat ourselves and a huge can of 2 kg which we plan to resell once we reach Italy. We'll see.

Romek presents me with a beautiful fur hat. It's not the season to wear it now but it will come in handy in Washington next Winter.

One last currency exchange. I buy some Czechoslovak Koruna from Marian. Keep some and sell some to Pat for Hungarian Forint. We'll be driving through both countries and need a bit of each. Our professionalism in currency black market deals has reached enviable levels of sophistication.

In the evening we start packing crystals, caviar and the rest of our belongings. It will be a challenge to fit everything in Giallina's trunk. Also, there where three of us on the way from Italy, now we have Cathy. But somehow we do it. We stuff even the back seat of the car with tightly wrapped merchandise.

If they stop us at the Czechoslovak border and ask about all the crystal, we'll say we bought it with our student stipend. We are entitled to spend up to half of it on domestic goods and export them duty-free. Hardly believable but it's the law. We are going to be safe.

18 June 1980

Crystal and corals

Easy day of rest, laundry, catching up with our classmates at the dorm.

In the evening I go and meet Marian and Ewa at their place. News of our shipment to Italy is not good: my crystal vase broke. The big atlas and my old Tsarist rubles made it OK through customs and the rough handling of LOT Polish Airlines. There was no choice, Alitalia is not flying to Warsaw. Even Alitalia is usually better that flag carriers from Comecon countries. I long for a time when flag carriers won't exist any more. Why should governments have anything to do with flying people and cargo?

Marian and Ewa are very kind, they got me a new crystal vase! And one for Andrew. He also has a gift of corals for mom and another set of corals which he kindly asks me to smuggle out of the country. I am not sure why corals are such a good deal in Poland. But they are.

17 June 1980

Back to Warsaw

Our ferry docks at Gdansk harbor in the early afternoon. It's been quiet sailing, quite different from that of a few days ago from Finland to Sweden. Lots of Poles on the ship: Sweden is one of the few Western countries that grants visa-free access to Polish tourists and they take advantage of it. For tourism, for business, for trading, at the edge of legality, all the goods they can buy in Sweden and that are out of reach in Poland. Sweden is surely capitalizing on its neutral role in the Cold War.

Smooth ride to Warsaw and evening with Romek, Stefan and the rest of the crowd. We tell our stories from the USSR over kanapki and vodka.

16 June 1980

Flags, blonds, and ferry

We leave Oxelösund and the Ericsons after a hearty breakfast at 11 o'clock. In town I manage to buy a Swedish flag. I collect, and hang around my apartment in Rome, flags from the countries I visit. I always wanted a Swedish flag because of the special significance of this country in my life, but did not manage to do so until now. When I was dating Karin Ericson I asked her about buying a flag and she recommended I write to the king. So I did write to the King of Sweden to the effect that I was going to get married with a Swedish lady and we wanted a flag from him as a kind of blessing. I did not really lie, we were a real couple (as sixteen-year-olds can be) and in theory we could have been married at some point in time. The secretary of the king wrote that he had no flags to give away; however, she sent me a wedding picture of the king and the queen.


Flag properly folded in my suitcase, we drive to Stockholm and meet Lena, Karin's sister. She is as stunningly beautiful as she was three years ago. We have a ice cream while strolling together in the pretty downtown area, and after saying good bye we hit the road again, direction Nynäshamn, a small port town where we board a ferry headed for Gdansk.

Once again we leave the world of opulence to return to real socialism. We also leave the world of stunning blondes.

15 June 1980

Car washing, catching up and night fishing

Rather unexciting morning at the Ericsons'. We need to wash Giallina from all the black tar that stuck to it during our drive to Novgorod, when we rolled over a highway while it was being built!

Rest of the day... rest. The previous weeks have been intense and we don't mind putting our feet up for a few hours. It's a warm and sunny day in Sweden, we wear T-shirts and it feels just perfect. Long chats with the Ericsons, we've got a few years to catch up on. They ask a lot of questions about the United States and Georgetown. I ask about Karin, who's got a good job, is living with a nice guy and come to visit once in a while. We also get in touch with Lena, her sister, and plan to meet when we go to Stockholm to catch our ferry back to Poland.

In the evening again we go out with the small boat, this time trying to catch salmon with a net. It is illegal, strictly speaking, to fish with a net, but normally law-abiding Swedes do it anyway for their own personal consumption. We do get some fish but, alas, no salmon.

Washing giallina

14 June 1980

Swedish friends, salmon and Soviet submarines

After a long night spent listening to the moans of drunken Scandinavians, we arrive in Stockholm at 9 o'clock in the morning. The plan is to visit the Ericsons, the parents of my high-school girlfriend Karin. I have lost touch with her, but they never forget to write to me for my birthday, and we have kept in touch over the last few years.

We drive to the Ericsons' apartment in Hasselby, near Stockholm, but there is no one there. It is a green neighborhood, lots of flowers. Quite a change from the last time I was here, in the depth of winter, with sub-zero temperatures and all the flora either frozen stiff or covered in snow. Given the difficulty of communication, I had not been able to advise of our arrival, though I had told them months ago we could come by in the Summer. And anyway they had always said I was welcome any time, and I know they meant it.

We then drive to Oxelösund, where they have their Summer house. No one to be seen. Unusual. We wait a bit and have a light lunch. After a while Bo and Ulla-Britt Ericson arrive. Ulla-Britt is a bit surprised but smiling, Bo is enthusiastic as usual. Maybe my mother-in-law-that-never-was is a bit disappointed that her daughter and my did not solidify our relationship? Who knows?



Looking for salmon, or Soviet subs
We are fed abundantly with smoked fish from the Baltic, and then four of us set out on the Ericsons' small outboard-powered wooden boat to go fishing in the archipelago. These cobalt blue waters always bring to mind the USSR to me as a young student of defense affairs. It is here that the Swedish navy has repeatedly spotted unidentified submarines - widely assumed to be Soviet - trying to make their way and sound the defenses of the nearby naval base at Karlskrona. The USSR always denied its subs crossed into Swedish waters, but who believes them? I keep looking at the quiet waters to see if a periscope emerges.

No luck today... we see neither fish nor subs.

(P.S. In 1981, scarcely a year after my visit, a Soviet submarine ran aground for all to see a few kilometers from here!)

13 June 1980

Finnish border and ferry to Sweden

Wake up at 7am, quick breakfast and sadly we must leave Leningrad. We drive slowly and take in the landscape. Brief stop at Vyborg (Viipuri), a town now in Russia that's been contested for centuried between Russia, Finland and Sweden. Everything goes smoothly until the Finnish border.

At the border station we must wait a good half hour before the Soviet guards even so much as look at us. Then another half hour inside the border station itself. The first thing to do is change the 7 rubles I have left into dollars. The exportation of rubles is not allowed. Not that we wanted to take any out of the country anyway. It's a non convertible currency and can not be spent anywhere else.

We are slightly concerned about the two bottles of Soviet champagne we got, strictly speaking illegally, from our waiters friends. Even more concerned with the Soviet Army belts we got from igor in Moscow that Andrew and I are wearing, but no one seems to care. This time they hardly even look at our luggage. They completely ignore the car.

We reach Helsinki easily and quickly. What a relief, the roads are clean and smooth, service station convenience shops are lined with shelves stocking everything one can possibly need while traveling by car. We are back to normalcy.

At Helsinki Andrew and need ferry tickets to Stockholm, the plan is to visit my friends, the Ericson family. Ann and Cathy head back to Poland.  The Silja line, the best one, is fully booked. We get a place for us and the car on a Viking line. Viking is cheaper but the ferry does not really exist as a means of transportation between Finland and Sweden. It is a floating pub where kids from both countries can buy and consume cheap alcohol without restrictions. On board, everyone, from 12 to 82 years-old, is completely drunk. We are not going to have a very social experience, rather an anthropological one: Scandinavians trying to find any possible way to beat the system and get drunk.

12 June 1980

Leningrad churches, gasoline and romantic white nights

Touring under the rain around Leningrad city.

At the Saints Peter and Paul cathedral all we can see is a few tombs from Tsars.

Then to Saint Isaac church. We read on a poster that "the people requested that the state take it over from the Church in order to better preserve it and remedy the neglect that it had been abandoned to and because of which many artistic masterpieces were being ruined by time".

Some pictures show damage from WWII but at a closer look they are infantile photographic alterations to magnify the state's role in the restoration and its respect for religion. It is true that Stalin and the Orthodox Church did collaborate during WW II to defeat Germany, but that did not last. On a wall there is a quote from Lenin: "The Church is an enemy of the people, not historically, but by definition".

We climb the stairway to the dome but from the top it is not allowed to take photos of the city landscape. Military secret. There is a large bin with hundreds of film rolls, the film pulled out allegedly from tourists who violated the ban on photos.

We then move on to the Hermitage Museum. Here it is allowed to photograph. Many Italian exhibits. The best exhibit of the Soviet department seems to be a large low-relief map of the USSR which allegedly " stunned visitor from all over when it toured the world in a roving Soviet exhibition.

We then move on to buy some fuel. We have official and perfectly legal coupons, but the lady at the service station does not want them. We guess it is too much paperwork for her. So we pay the local price in rubles, only 6 rubles for 30 liters!! Basically free gasoline!

Evening dinner at the Austeria restaurant, where we eat a lot of caviar and other delicacies to spend all the rubles we have left. At the end the waitress proposes that we pay in dollars, exchange rate 1 to 1. Not so interesting for us. We counterpropose to pay in rubles but give her 8 dollars on the side for two bottles of Soviet champagne. She accepts without hesitation and runs to get the two bottles for us.

Back at the hotel we spend some time chatting in the terrace of our room, it is mid-June, one of the brightest nights of the year, and Leningrad is famous for its "white nights". Very romantic.

11 June 1980

Petrodvorets palace, moose and watch

Morning at the Petrodvorets palace. The imperial-looking, majestic palace of the Tsars, reasonably well maintained, rubs sorely against all the current regimes stands for. But here it is, witness to history.

It is very hot! Even too hot, incredible as it may sound. it is an incredible complex of imperial palaces built by the Tsars, now a museum.

In the central fountain of the palace a moose is swimming around having fun! After repeated efforts, the guards manage to pull it out of the water, but he goes right back in. In the end they must turn off the fountains and lower some row boats in the fountain to get him out for good.

Andrew and I throw our American football around a bit. There is a larger than life statue of Lenin in a pensive, intellectual mood, sitting on a pedestal, and I sit next to him trying, with only limited success, to imitate his pose.




Soviet moose swimming



Trying to imitate Lenin's pose











In the evening, we have booked tickets for the opera, "la Traviata", but when we get to the theater there is no opera. The program has been changed and we are offered a mediocre ballet accompanied by recorded music. Disappointing.

I manage to buy a Soviet watch from the local "Raketa" factory. Pretty though not so reliable reputation. We'll see.

All is well that ends well however, and we splurge for another caviar and champagne dinner at the Moskva restaurant.

10 June 1980

Sightseeing and dining in Leningrad

Wake up around ten o'clock and off to town for some strolling and shopping along Nevsky Prospekt, the main high street in Leningrad. There is almost literally nothing to buy. Big shops and lots of salespeople but inevitably empty shelves. We have a look at the prices for staples, like meat, butter, bread. Everything is cheap, but nothing is there for anyone to buy.

Except for the Beriozka stores of course, but prices there range from uninviting to prohibitive, at least for us.

We go for lunch to the Sodko restaurant where we had booked a table. Just before we go through the door though, a couple of middle-ages men approach Andrew (for some reason black market dealers prefer him to me) to ask if he's got "anything" to sell. He does not. We really should bring along more stuff to sell next time.

Fixed menu for 22 rubles (about 25.000 Italian lire, or 30 USD at the official rate, about six times cheaper at the black market rate). No choice for the manu but we can't complain: excellent tender smoked salmon, caviar and Soviet champagne. There is also a show of Russian folk music and dances, at the end of which a waiter comes to our table, and only to our table, to ask whether we liked the performance. We did, really.

We end the day with a leisurely drive through the city. It is so much more pleasant than Moscow. It's still mostly Soviet apartment blocks, but here and there the occasional pre-Soviet building makes for an interesting dive in the past.

09 June 1980

Novgorod to Leningrad, black market, caviar and Soviet champagne

Tour around Novgorod. Many monuments to tanks, artillery guns, Katyusha missiles from WWII, anti-aircraft guns. A war monument on the Kreml (citadel) is guarded by young chidrenm about 10-12 years-old, who perform a change of the guard with an elaborate goose-stepping choreography like the adult guards at the Kremlin in Moscow who guard Lenin's embalmed body in the Red Square. Some other "Young Pioneers" are marching up and down the central avenues of the city.

We have lunch in a restaurant in the Kreml, a charming building that is a converted old Orthodow church! Many other churches are still... churches but closed "na remont", for restauration. But no one is working at them, it seems there is no hurry to restore them any time soon.

After lunch we hit the road again, direction Leningrad. The road is poorly indicated  and once we get to Leningrad we are lost. Andrew gets off the car to try and buy a road map at a service station but after a few steps he is stopped by a man who wants to buy his jeans from him, and makes some business by selling one of his jeans and a T-shirt for 85 rubles. The man approaches the car where we are waiting and tells us in excellent English he is interested in buying more from us. We ask what exactly does he want to buy and he says he'll buy anything we are willing to sell: our frisbee, sun-glasses, anything. Tongue-in-cheek, I ask him if he'd be interested in buying Ann and Cathy. He is very serious and replies that I would not be laughing very often if I lived here and knew how hard it was to buy any of the objects we have in the car.

When we reach the camping ground the receptionist has a proposal: we would be upgraded to a proper hotel but on one condition: we must now ask why. Well, it's an easy one. So we accept and get settled in a fairly nice if simple hotel.

In the evening we go to town. Again shut churches dot our serendipitous itinerary around the city. They must have been really magnificent in their old times.

Nicer if it were open

We park Giallina by the "Neva" restaurant, near the bank of the river of the same name. As we walk to the restaurant, one man comes up to me and offers 20 rubles for a crocodile belt I am wearing, but I need it and must regretfully decline. He offers 30 rubles. No deal.

Once at the restaurant door (we did not reserve a table in advance) we are told we can't eat there because the whole restaurant has been booked for a private party. But the belt seeking man, who is still following us, perhaps pondering to increase his offer, explains to the restaurant receptionist that we are Italians and need to have dinner. The receptionist goes inside to confer with his manager and after a minute he comes out and says yes, we can eat, they'll set a table for us. A waiter arrives running and leads us to a free table.

We end the day with one of the most luxurious dinner of our trip. Of our lives really: starter, main and dessert consists of black caviar and Soviet champagne! When we are almost done the belt man barges into the restaurant and ups his offer to 50 rubles, then gives up. I'd like to sell him the belt, he is a nice guy and got us dinner, but it's the only one I have. I strongly regret not having taken more stuff along to sell here. I knew one could sell trendy clothes like jeans on the black market but had no idea of the pervasiveness of local demand for so many items we just take for granted.

08 June 1980

Highway experiences and Novgorod churches

Departure in the morning direction Nogvorod. We'll miss Igor for the rest of our trip, he was fun company and quite informative. But then again who knows, maybe he was a KGB operative, haha, no I don't think so but it is not inconceivable. So few tourists these days, and three kids from NATO countries in a yellow Volkswagen? Very suspicious!

It's a long ride and the road is of mediocre quality at best. About 50km out of Moscow, there is some road work on the highway. Again, as we have seen before just after we entered the USSR, most, in fact, all workers are women. The workers who work that is. There is plenty of men road workers who just lie down by the roadside and look on.

Soviet female road workers and male onlookers.


Anyway, after witnessing some of the work of the unsmiling stocky Soviet ladies, we can see all vehicles ahead of us are re-routed to a secondary, much smaller, road. When we approach the deviation the man who is sending everyone for the detour flags us to go straight through and stay on the main highway. Such a privilege! Why? I imagine they don't want to show foreign capitalists poorly paved secondary roads that would make the country look bad. Not sure.

We then keep driving splendidly alone on this newly surfaced black highway. Almost alone that is, because at some point we are passed by a very official-looking convoy of black cars, led by two big Mercedes Benz sedans (the first we have seen in the USSR) with police markings. Usually the police have Ladas, this must be an important convoy but they are too fast for us to try and peek inside and maybe try to recognize a Politburo member or two. The only problem is that the tar is so fresh much of it gets thrown up by Giallina's tires and ends up sticking to her pristine yellow sides. It will take a lot of work to clean it up when we get around to it.

When we reach Novgorod we settle down in our assigned camping ground then head to town. Lots of small churches, I counted at least twenty, all next to each other in the same part of town. And they are ALL shut down "NA REMONT", for restoration. It's one of the first Russian words I've learned and I've read it so many times I am sure I'll never forget it. Can't get into any of them. Oh well.

07 June 1980

Hard currency shopping, Kremlin Museum and Bolshoi dancers

Lazy morning and lunch at the Rossiya hotel, absolutely forgettable. Much (most?) of what is on the menu is not available. After repeated "we don't have" by the waiter we ask what they have. Some mediocre meat and potatoes.

Kremlin and Saint Basil


We then visit the "Beriozka" shop, that sells all kinds of stuff that is much in demand in the USSR but taken for granted by us. These shops have a long history and exist in several Communist countries, we use Pewex in Poland, but here they have a special transgressive flair, maybe because most Soviet citizens are not allowed in. Prices are quite high, really the same as in the West and much more expensive than Poland for certain items: for example a beautiful book on the Kremlin that I bought in Warsaw for 430 zloty (15 dollars) here costs 40 dollars. In fact they sell quite a few beautiful art book, Soviet authored and Soviet produced, that are not available to normal Soviet consumers in regular bookstores.

Unknown soldier's monument

Kremlin march
We then go the Kremlin for another walk. Lots of soldiers marching around. There are many churches in the citadel (the meaning of the word "kremlin" but they are ALL closed NA REMONT, "for restoration". We try to buy tickets for the famous "multifaceted palace" but they tell us you must book several weeks in advance. No luck. However we are treated to a free show of thousands lining up to visit Lenin's embalmed body in his mausoleum.

Long line to see Lenin


We all feel a bit depressed and keep walking along the Kremlin wall, chatting with Igor. He says that it is very difficult for a Soviet citizen to travel abroad. First, you must apply at the local police station, and they will apply on our behalf to the relevant foreign consulate. Then, after you have a visa, you can apply for a passport. Strange, hard to believe in fact, that any embassy would issue a visa to someone without seeing a passport. Anyway it is well knows that it is difficult, most of those who do leave go on organized tours. Private trips abroad almost unheard of and usually require an invitation by someone in the country to be visited.



NA REMONT
After a while we see a small door that is half-way open. There are a couple of guards but they are mostly intent at chatting with each other. We decide to try our luck and walk through the door. The guards notice us and come to meet us, speaking Russian and indicating fairly unequivocally with their hands that we must leave. I reply to them in Italian that we are tourists, only here for a few days, we'd like to see more of the Kremlin. I was about to say I am Communists and a friend of the Soviet Union but that would not have been very credible with three Americans by my side. Meantime, some stranger, a Russian, comes by and starts talking to the guards. Not sure what they say for the next few minutes, but at the end of it all the guards escort us to a ticket office where we can buy the last three student tickets + a regular ticket for who knows what.

Church in the Kremlin
Once inside our jaws drop at unison. There is a fantastic museum of the Tsars' ceremonial weapons and armour, robes, furniture, carriages, etc. Absolutely stunning. There is a separate museum for the jewels of the imperial family but that requires yet another ticket and we can't get it today. Not allowed to take photos, unfortunately.

In the evening, another amazing show in the Kremlin's Congress Palace's theater: a dance performance by the Bolshoi ballet, one of the most famous in the world. Much much better than anything I've ever seen before, or that I am likely to see again any time soon. So much better than the one we saw in Warsaw. Again, no photos.

06 June 1980

Moscow books, champagne and army belts

Brunch at the "Arbat" hotel, not bad, and only 4 Rb, about 1 USD. There isn't much choice but because this is a hotel frequented by many foreigners there is enough.

Next up is a visit to the "Dom Knigi, (website in Russian) the biggest book store in town. And an official one, with lots of propaganda and political books. I am not so interested in these, but I do buy some posters. The Soviets love political posters, many with uncontroversial historical overtones, like for example those on the victory in WW II. Or those of smiling papa Lenin with children. Lenin is the last, and almost the only, leader to be represented in posters. All subsequent leaders have been discredited by their respective successors, so there is no Stalin, no Khrushchev and no current leader either. Of course no foreign leader either: no Mao, no Castro. Well at least one can say there is no personality cult in the USSR today. Some posters are more general in their subject matter,  like for example those that deal with socialism as a force of peace in the world.
Andrew resting

We meet Igor and go to the "Kosmos" hotel for a drink of Soviet Champagne (8 rubles). It is made in Crimea, a bit on the sweet side. And they have no qualms to call it "Champagne" as the USSR, of course, does not abide by European rules on protected denominations. Over a glass of bubbly we talk about the upcoming Olympics, and Igor says he read on the Pravda (the official newspaper of the Communist Party, it means "Truth") that all western countries are coming with their flags, and the the US boycott is a failure. Sounds strange, the Herald Tribune reported Italy and the UK are going but without flags. France is going with its flag. West Germany who knows. We'll see. Perhaps there is still time for a solution so that all can go and compete and have a proper Olympics. I exchange five packs of American "Salem" cigarettes for a Soviet army belt that Igor conveniently happens to have in his pocket.

Comecon headquarters
Driving around the city, to get a feel of the atmosphere, is not especially rewarding: dull and boring. Several policemen make it more lively by stopping me as I drive around. There are some avenues with twelve lanes (!) and it is impossible to change lane fast enough to take a turn, especially at some huge roundabouts. So I change lane a bit too fast and they  inevitably stop me, ask for all my papers, give me a dirty look and let us go. The building of the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA, or Comecon) provides a rare example of modern architecture with an original twist.

In the evening we look for a restaurant to have dinner, but by 21:30 most are closed. We end up in a small and very forgettable eatery before heading back to the camping ground.

05 June 1980

From Smolensk to Moscow and first real taste of the USSR

Smolensk cathedral
In the morning we visit the Smolensk cathedral, one of the oldest in Russia. As we will find out, one of the relatively few to be in good condition and open to the faithful as well as to visitors.

As we approach on foot from a nearby parking lot, an old lady, head covered in a black scarf, is crawling on the floor. Must be some kind of penance to punish her body for one's sins. It is hard to imagine what this fragile god-fearing woman could possibly have done in the recent past to deserve this but here she is. A young kid, perhaps ten years-old, briskly walks by her on his way.  The contrast could not be starker.
Boy and lady go to church

Once inside, another old woman has no sins to repent for and instead screams at me for taking some pictures although, unlike in so many other places we'll visit in the USSR, here it is not forbidden to take photographs.

We then move on to Moscow and reach our camping by the afternoon. It rains hard and it is cold.

Once settled in our bungalows we drive to the Red Square, in the center of the capital. At a first glance, the Square and the Kremlin are by far the main attraction of the city, which is pretty gloomy, oppressively grey and characterless.

After a brief walk around we visit the GUM, the most famous (or infamous?) shopping mall in the USSR. Lots of shops in a decrepit old structure that must have seen grander days, but hardly anything to buy. Much worse than comparable malls in Warsaw like Centrum, and that is saying something.

One guy named Igor, about our age, introduces himself to us and asks Andrew to sell him the jeans he is wearing. Andrew can't do that without risking arrest for indecent exposure, but I happen to have some extra pairs of jeans in the car and sell three pairs to him for 350 rubles, quite a considerable sum of money, but money can't buy much in this country. Prices are low, but unless you have connections, preferably in the Communist Party, you can't buy anything with it, with a few exceptions that I'll write about in later.

Igor is very friendly and we spend a few hours walking around Red Square together. The Saint Basil cathedral stands proudly at the edge of the square

Several people stop us long the way and ask for chewing gum, but we don't have any. Lots of policemen all over the place. At one point they stop us and, it seems, almost everyone else for no real reason. They ask a few general questions about what we are doing, where we come from etc. and then let us go.

Kremlin with Lenin mausoleum

Igor and us

Saint Basil cathedral

The Kremlin wall



04 June 1980

Minsk to Smolensk, Afghanistan, Bulgarian wine and the Olympics

After a leisurely breakfast we get moving at 11:00 o'clock. We drive around downtown Minsk, and find it rather forgettable. The high points of the tour are a couple of huge monuments to Lenin and to victory in WW II. Good weather tough, warm and sunny.

One policeman stops me because I am trying to make a right turn from the middle lane of a wide boulevard. I did signal my intention to turn (I think I did) but anyway I was very careful and waited for the road to be clear before turning. He is initially a bit brusque but we start speaking Polish and it all ends with big smiles and a pat in the back. Again, I think he was just curious to meet funny-looking foreigners in a yellow beetle...

We hit the road again in the direction of Smolensk after a quick lunch, and it start raining heavily.

Once in Smolensk we are very warmly greeted by a group of students who run the camping site where we will spend the night. Banter and casual talk accompanied by Bulgarian wine drag on for several hours.

Only a couple of times the discussion is a bit tense, when we touch Afghanistan (they insist Soviet forces are providing brotherly help to socialists threatened by imperialism, pure party line) and the Olympics, (they insist sport and politics should be kept separate, and here they have a point).

They also believe that China (Moscow's Communist rival) got a bloody nose in Vietnam (Russia's Communist friend) last year when it launched its "punitive" campaign following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Here the truth is somewhat more blurred, and lots of people on both sides died for no reason when the Chinese pulled back.

The point I take away from this conversation is that the young people we have met actually still believe in Communism and in the leading role of the USSR, in one way or another. Not ONE Pole we met does.

03 June 1980

Off to the USSR

Early rise today, it's going to be a long one. Just to get started on an upbeat note, we take a cold shower, as there is no hot water in the dorm. Andrew and I load Giallina and pick up the ladies at their dorm. Then the four of us drive to Borzena's for a hearty breakfast. We are going to miss her and her family for the next few weeks. After that we fill up with some black market gas and off we go, to the east.

On the road to the USSR


We reach and cross the Polish border at Terespol very easily, then slowly drive over the Bug river and meet the Soviet border guards. Here things take a long time. We see some French tourists who have just finished to have themselves and their car inspected. They are coming out of a small building next to the parking area where we stopped. Ann and I try to ask a few questions, but we are not allowed to talk to them. After a few minutes we see them again getting ready and do talk to them more extensively, asking questions like... "did they search you everywhere?" and get a nod in response, they also say they had even their spare tire taken apart and inspected!

As we wait for our turn to be inspected, Andrew and I play American football in the parking area. Some Soviet soldiers look at us slightly bewildered but say nothing. I guess they are more curious about a game that is not played in their country than interested in showing authority. And I imagine there is no regulation that forbids playing American football in front of border crossing stations.

When our time comes, Giallina is thoroughly inspected, they even take apart the air filter (Giallina is an original VW model, with air-cooled engine). They open everything, look everywhere. But they put everything back in its original place at the end. In the meantime, I chat a bit with an officer who is friendlier than the others. He even lets me try his military hat! It's too small for me. I'd like to buy one, will try to exchange some of the stockings we have with us. We speak Polish; my Polish is at a simple conversational level after four months of practice, and I wonder how he learned his. Maybe he lives near the border and is in frequent contact with Polish traders, maybe he comes from a family that used to be Polish, as the border was more than one hundred kilometers to the East.

After all the checks are done, we meet with a guy from Intourist who gives us all kinds of detailed instructions about our trip. All hotels and camping sites are pre-booked, we are not allowed to seek accommodation elsewhere. We are to stay on the direct road between all the cities we visit, though we are allowed to drive around at will within each city.

Finally we are free to go and hit to road in Belorussia, or the White Russian Soviet Republic, headed for the capital, Minsk. Smooth driving, but not for long. After a few kilometers a couple of policemen stop us for speeding. I was driving at 90km, which seemed reasonable on this highway, but apparently the speed limit (not shown on any sign that we could see along the way) is 60. Or so they say. They look at our papers and let us go. I get the impression that they were just curious about this bright yellow foreign car, of which they must not see many. In fact we do not see any other tourist car all day. It's only a few months after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has frozen contacts between East and West in Europe and tourism must have suffered accordingly.

After about 100 km the two-lane highway is merged into one lane in each direction and a bit later it is completely interrupted because of some road work. Interesting to note that it is mostly (only?) women who seem to do the hard work with spades and tar

Soviet road workers



Because of the road works, we MUST leave the highway that had been assigned to us for a side road, thus contravening the instructions we have just received, but we have no choice. And to make matters worse, we don't know where to go: there are no road signs, in any language, about a detour to go back to the highway after the road works interruption. We are stuck and have no idea where to go, the memory of our arrest in the Warsaw Pact military base in Czechoslovakia is still quite vivid in our minds. It starts raining quite hard.

Luckily, after a short while we manage to stop a truck and the driver points us to a secondary road that leads us to Minsk. We need fuel, but several gas stations along the way are "under construction". We are forced to leave the secondary road and wanter into a small village where we finally can fill up our tank.

We finally reach our camping by early evening and get settled into our two bungalows. Simple but adequate for the night. Quiet dinner and we go to bed quite early, it's been a long day.

02 June 1980

Bureaucracy and floor lamp for a wedding

Full day dedicated to jumping over bureaucratic hurdles. Pick up passports, fill in forms... We considered buying rubles on the black market, the savings are huge. We actually bought them, but then changed our mind and decided the risks were not worth the gain. Because tomorrow is our big day to travel to the USSR and we don't want to spoil it with problems at customs before we even set foot in the country.

Dinner is at Borzena's, of course.

We later go and see Marian, who will ship my "old" atlas and the crystal to Italy, with a little tip to the customs officer my "antique" should make it through without problems (it will).

Late at night, back in the dorm, we get a visit by Marta, the lady who had tried to marry either me or Andrew a couple of months ago (see posts or 1, 3, 24 March, 1 April). She says she got engaged and is getting married soon. She does not say with whom. We give her the floor lamp we bought here as a wedding gift. We are leaving soon and won't need it any more. She readily accepts and appreciates, they have to furnish a house now!