My trip to Russia
August 17 - September 4, 1997
by Jon Wallace Jacobsmeyer
August 17 - Sunday
Up bright and early to go golfing with my welder buddies from work. Lonnie Smith, invited me to join him at a best ball tournament at Los Amigos golf course in Compton. It was a blast and the course was fun. Everyone hit off the tee and then everyone got to hit from the best shot, etc. We didn’t win but I had a chance to win $50 on one hole and left my putt 2" short. From the golf course I dropped my car off at Wendy’s apartment and she took me to LAX. I was late checking in and so my seat had been given away on the Lufthansa flight and the sweet lady at the counter bumped me up to business class for the nonstop to Frankfurt.
So, for nine hours I had the entire front row (two seats) of the 747-400 to myself. They were the big leather seats with the little TV’s in the armrest and the free travel kit with socks, toothbrush, and comb. I used the socks later in Russia when I ran out. The in-flight movie was Jungle to Jungle with Tim Allen but I fell asleep halfway through it. It was strange and yet comforting to be in Frankfurt Airport with all the German signs and speaking. It was almost like being home again in Germany.
Lufthansa flt #453 LV LAX 8-17-97 6:40pm AR Frankfurt 8-18-97 2:20pm
August 18 -Monday
After a short, four hours of darkness, night of a long, nine hours, flight I had a couple of hours to kill in Frankfurt before the next short hop to Moscow. On advice from other travelers, I borrowed a roll of German toilet paper from the restroom and put it into my carry-on bag - it came in handy later in Kazan when I swapped it for a new roll of Russian TP which had the same anti-hemorrhoidal texture to it as the German. On arrival in Moscow at 10:30pm my impressions of the city from the air was one of any large metropolis lit up by a million lights but on landing I got that feeling of insecurity that I first experienced in going into East Berlin in 1964. Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Terminal 2 is a no frills kind of building but I was just glad to be on firm soil. We had to walk down a long corridor and then down some steps to passport control. I kept having flashbacks of “Checkpoint Charlie” and how scary that was with all the armed soldiers standing there looking like they wanted to try out their new guns on a smart young American tourist. Well, when I got to the top of the stairs and got into line to have my visa checked I had to laugh and then the anxiety disappeared when I noticed the sign that said “Passport Control” and then right above it was an ad board that read, “For your venetian blind needs call Yuri at Moscow 7734511". It was at that moment that I realized the big difference between communism and capitalism and that Russia had turned the corner.
I was the last one leaving the customs area because I put down that I was bringing money into the country to spend foolishly and they wanted to make sure I wasn’t some kind of wack-o. Just outside the door was this petite little goddess who ran up to me and put her arms around me and gave me a big hug. To be in a strange country at night and alone is always bad, but to see someone you know who will take care of you makes it all seem better, sort of like a Band-Aid on a little hurt. Maya had one of her dad’s friends there with a car and he took us to the hotel after a quick tour of downtown Moscow at night. I was impressed by all the billboards on the street leaving the airport and all the way into downtown. The Russians have discovered the secret of making money by themselves. The hotel was hidden down some side street and hard to find but we eventually found it and retired for the night after Maya checked to see if there was hot water in the bathroom. I guess hot water is never a certainty in Russia. The room I had was a smoker’s room and the stench was awful but I was so tired I fell asleep anyway. My body clock was horribly out of sync with my surroundings but my reflexes got me through the day.
Lufthansa flt #3226 LV Frankfurt 8-18-97 5:20pm AR Moscow Sheremetyevo #2 10:25pm
August 19 - Tuesday
Awoke to an absolutely beautiful sunny day, showered, repacked my suitcases and waited until Maya could drag herself out of bed about 9:00am. We went and had breakfast at the hotel cafe which consisted of fresh tomatoes, bread and a small omelette for me, and washed down with juice. That pretty much set the tone for the whole trip and is the main reason I lost weight while eating everything I could get my hands on, well, that and the fact that we walked 10 miles a day. We hitched a ride from some other friend of the family’s and went downtown and checked in our luggage at the train station for our trip that night and then headed to Red Square and the Kremlin.
We stood in line for 45 minutes and when we got to the front the guard said “NO CAMERAS!” and that we could go around the corner and check them in and return but we lost interest in seeing the dead Lenin by then. So we wandered over to the Kremlin and stood in line for 30 minutes to buy a ticket to get in to see the inside. Since the government still uses the area for their offices, we were only able to go into several old churches on the grounds. Hey, it wasn’t much but it was Russia and I was there finally.
After visiting the grounds for an hour or so we left and went shopping on the Arabat Street around the corner. It’s a tourist dive but the booths were fun and little old babushkas (grandmothers) brought their knitting and sold it on the sidewalk. I bought a bunch of nesting dolls at the first booth we stopped at and then a chess set down a few more booths. I bought a lace crocheted centerpiece from one little old lady for about $20 and it’s absolutely beautiful. We stopped for lunch at some Armenian restaurant and I had the lamb shish kabob of course. Little old babushkas were coming up and begging for money so Maya and I would give them a few rubles and they would go off happy. There were a lot of beggars and they were mostly old ladies who probably were on a small pension of some kind but just didn’t get enough to live on. It was sad for the most part but very widespread in the big cities. The one thing that really hit home was how nicely the people on the streets were dressed.
The young girls all wore expensive and modern fashions with the high heel ugly shoes. I priced them in the stores and the girls were wearing Nordstorm priced stuff, and it was everywhere. It was then that the light clicked on that Russia’s cities had become modern European centers of commerce and it was no longer the drab, depressed place that the media had painted in the U.S. We just hung around the new Arabat Street and watched people for an hour or so and then went to the train station because we couldn’t think of anything else to do. Our train didn’t leave until late that night and we had a sleeper compartment we shared with two other people. When the train finally did come everyone hurried to get on and I just lay down on the mattress and fell asleep. I must have been exhausted because I was sleeping with three good-looking girls in PJ’s and couldn’t even stay awake long enough to check it out. It was hot and muggy all day long and it didn’t get any better on the train. You always felt a certain moist glow about yourself. Thank goodness for colognes.
August 20 - Wednesday
This day dawned with the train rushing across the Russian countryside, eastward, through dense birch forests interspersed with golden fields of wheat and small villages with people starting their day’s activities. It was a very pastoral scene like some old black and white movie. The train crossed the mighty Volga river and pulled into Kazan where we were met by Maya’s father and uncle with a car and driven to an apartment house where they had rented a room for me. On the drive to the apartment I marveled at the traffic and how fast everyone drove. We almost took a head-on at a 5-way intersection but the other driver cut us enough slack that he missed us by inches. I sat there in the front passenger seat thinking that it was all very normal so far. The apartment building was a 9-story walk-up with no elevator, plain cement floors, painted walls and bare light bulbs in cheap fixtures at intervals along the dark hallways. I don’t know how much they paid for the room but I was glad to just have a place to put my heavy suitcases down for a while. Each suitcase must have weighed about 60 pounds, the one being full of my clothes and the other full of gifts for everyone. Funny how it happened, but they weighed the same going home with one full of dirty clothes and the other full of gifts for everyone at home. Later on that day, after a hot shower and hour’s rest, Maya picked me up in yet another friend’s car, a new Toyota Land Cruiser, along with her sister, Lilia or Leela for short.
The friend obviously had money and belonged to the “new Russians” that have made it good in capitalism. He dropped us off in downtown Kazan and we walked over to the University of Kazan where they had a museum because Lenin had studied there before the revolution. It was interesting, what I gathered from the Russian explanation. Upon leaving the tour guide, a sweet lady of about 45, gave me a little pin from the gift store to remember my visit there. We went to one of the classrooms which had been restored to its original, uncomfortable condition, where Lenin and others of the revolution discussed their ideas for a better society. It would have been hard to sleep on those benches. After visiting the university we walked around town window shopping until we found the Italian pizza restaurant which we just had to try out. It was run by an Italian guy and the food was excellent. Well anyway, to a starving guy it was better than homemade pizza.
That evening we were set to have dinner at babushkas’ apartment. Babushka, the Russian name for grandma, had been a doctor and hospital administrator before retiring the previous year, and lived in a fairly nice apartment which she had shared with Maya’s family until just recently. Maya had to sleep on the couch but except for the lack of privacy and the fact that Maya’s father didn’t get along too well with his mother-in-law, it didn’t seem to be too bad a place. Of course it was on the top floor of a 5-story walkup, but everyone had strong legs anyway. Babushka is a Tatar woman as well as Maya’s mom, while her father is a Russian. The state that Kazan is located in is called “Tatarstan” because it is the home of the Tatars - in fact they were having their 2nd world congress in Kazan in September. The Tatars once controlled most of central Russia and are mostly Muslims. Anyway, Maya picked me up at my apartment and I took the suitcase full of gifts and we went out into the street. Maya held out her hand, like she was giving out free big Mac coupons, and within seconds a car would stop and we would get in and they would take us down the street to where Babushka lived. Maya would then give the driver some gas money, usually 10,000 rubles (about $1.65) and everyone was happy. Taxis were too slow and too expensive she would tell me and besides the guy was going that way anyway so it was a good deal for him. Dinner was a feast for 20, including fresh salad, vine ripe tomatoes, fresh dark bread, a hearty Tatar stew, champagne, etc. It was delicious but when she said that she had made two bowls of stew just for me and I had trouble finishing the first one, I knew I was in trouble. There was even a dessert of some kind that was soo rich. I could hardly eat it. But anyway, onto the good stuff. During the course of the meal, which Maya’s father missed because of something which the parents yelled about over the phone, I would periodically get up and go to my suitcase in the hallway and pull out a gift for someone and go back in, sit down and give it to them. Leela freaked out when she got the box of self-sticking stickers and then screamed at the crayolas and really got loud at the walkman and tapes. Mama got some Victoria’s secret cologne and jellybeans and babushka got a giant bag of candy and some liquid smoke for cooking. There were other gifts, like picture books, etc. and the fun lasted an hour as I tried to eat more that any human should except in times of severe torture. It was fun giving away the gifts and seeing how happy they made everyone. I sometimes wish I really was Santa Clause. Maya and her mom took me back down to the street, Maya held out her hand and seconds later a car stopped and took us to my apartment. I couldn’t believe how fast we got a ride every time Maya stuck her hand out. I guess being a cute little fox might help some after all. I watched about 10 minutes of Russian TV and then drifted off to sleep.
August 21 - Thursday
Maya came by to get me in the morning and we walked over to the next main street about half a mile away to catch the streetcar. We were going to the “Dacha” or cabin across the Volga to spend the night. We met up with Mama and Leela and boarded the boat for the 20 minute ride across the river. During the trip we looked at a book that I gave them with pictures of Los Angeles and Leela played with her gifts. She wore the walkman on her belt and had her stickers and crayolas in a bag with her. I was told she slept with them so nobody could touch them. Papa was waiting for us when the boat landed and we walked up to the dacha, past a variety of small cottages belonging to other apartment dwellers from Kazan. The dacha had originally been a one room shack that Maya’s dad had enlarged to a three story, comfortable, 4-5 room cabin. The original room remained with a stove and sink and holes in the floorboards, like something out of a Robert Redford movie. The newer additions were all paneled and very up to date. A lot of hours and many trips to the boat dock had been required to create the cozy cabin that stood. It seems bizarre that the family now lives another 200 miles south of Kazan on the Volga in a town called Ulyanofsk, which is where the two parents teach at the university. It’s now a major trip to go to the cabin from their home. Upon arriving we ate a little lunch while Papa fired up the homemade “Banya” or steam room. After lunch we took a hike over to the banks of the river and skipped rocks and took pictures. The Volga is about a mile wide at this point so the people on the other shore weren’t in any danger, although I did manage a ten skipper. The air was crystal clear and the wild flowers were everywhere. It was a time for Papa to spend with his two girls in play. After the hike the girls went first into the Banya and the men waited.
When it became our turn Papa and I got naked and went inside for some serious bonding and beating with birch branches. One has to realize that Papa didn’t speak a word of English and my Russian wasn’t too good but we could converse in German and understand each other. The steam bath felt wonderful, the moist birch leaves were slapped all over the sweating body and the poisons just ran out of the skin. Papa even threw some beer onto the hot rocks and gave the 6X6 foot room a malty odor. As is always the case with steam baths, you feel squeaky clean upon leaving and in dire need of a nap. We didn’t have time for a nap because dinner had to be cooked and gathered from the garden. Fresh vegetables and shish kabob together with a few traditional toasts of vodka made dinner around the cooking fire an interesting affair.
After dinner Maya and Leela and I went into the room I was to sleep in and I taught them how to play American poker. Of course the little 10 year old kicked our butts but then she hates to lose. The mattress was hard and the pillow was huge but I was tired and the night went quickly.
August 22 - Friday
With a burstable bladder I got up and went outside in the cool morning air and just enjoyed the peace and quiet of their little getaway. It was easy to see why everyone has a cabin out of town somewhere to escape the city life. The others dragged themselves out of bed an hour or so later and Mama cooked us a breakfast of eggs, pancakes and juice. After breakfast we had to get ready to go back to Kazan and everything had to be secured for the winter because it would probably be the last visit of the year to the Dacha. Papa stayed behind to finish winterizing the place and the rest of us took the boat back to town. I was taken to my apartment again and told to rest up because were going to visit one of Mama’s best friends, a sweetheart, SINGLE woman, etc. etc. So that evening we went to this woman’s apartment and had a nice dinner with very sweet watermelon as the dessert and then the kids and I showed the two children (a 13 year old girl and a 11 year old boy) how to play poker. Leela won again - like expected. There was a piano in the living room and the women begged the young girls to play but they didn’t want to start so I sat down and played my only song (Greensleeves) and that broke the ice. Leela was really fantastic and the other girl did okay but you could see she needed some practice. Maya’s mom even played a piece or two. The evening ended and Maya and her mom escorted me back to the apartment using Maya’s magic hand - even in the dark! I was always told to keep quiet and not let on that I was an American so the price would stay low. It must have worked because the price was always the same - 10,000 rubles. Kazan was still jumping at 10:00 o’clock at night and I was tempted to wander around and take in some of the action but I let reason get the best of me and I stayed home, turned on the TV to the German channel and fell asleep.
August 23 - Saturday
Spent the day shopping in Kazan with Maya and Leela. Bought some Tartar music, alphabet blocks, etc. and walked a hundred miles. We went briefly through the Kazan Kremlin but there wasn’t a lot to look at except that it was a beautiful building commanding an important spot overlooking the city on the river bank. Maya took me to the city mosque where I bought some jewelry and a Koran and prayer cap just for kicks. After shopping and having another pizza at the Italian place ( and of course the Italian ice cream) we went to Babushka’s apartment for a send off dinner before starting our cruise up the Volga to Moscow. The meal was “Tartar Pie” and was layered like lasagna with meat, rice, raisins, etc., in a dough shell. It was really good but again they expected me to eat all of it, meaning the entire pie. I tried my best and managed to ask for a small portion of seconds to make her feel good but I was stuffed. Then she brought out dessert! If I married that woman I’d weigh a ton. After the meal the two kids from the previous night came over and we played a little poker, which Leela won, of course! Daddy finally showed up and ate and his brother and some other guy with a car came over and ate before driving us to the pier to catch the cruise ship. We all piled into two cars somehow with all the luggage and drove through Kazan to the dock on the Volga. Papa stayed to see us off and it was sort of nice just sitting on the bench looking out over the flowing Volga as the sun went down and the air cooled down. Then of course the mosquitoes came... The ship eventually came, its lights reflecting off the water like some mini-city moving toward us. Goodbye’s were said and we boarded and found our cabins. They hadn’t bought a ticket for Leela thinking that she could sleep on the floor and wouldn’t be a bother, but Russian efficiency soon found her out and charged her the fare which I imagine was quite expensive in Russian money. My cabin was on the top deck, a single in what was in its glory days, a first class stateroom. There was a small sink with mirror, a couch bed about 4" shorter than me and a small desk/table. I had a window but it opened up onto the walking promenade right next to where everyone sat so I could only have it open at night after everyone had gone to bed. The blind had louvers so some air could pass through but it was still hot and stuffy in the humid, hot air. Eventually we got underway about 11:00pm and it quieted down enough in an hour or so to try sleeping so I curled up into the fetal position and lay my head on the hard sack that was my pillow and lapsed into unconsciousness. The cruise had begun. Another adventure.
Sunday, August 24
The gentle vibrations of the chugging boat overcame the shortness of the bed and I awoke to a bright sunny morning. Maya came and knocked on my door to inform me that the ship would be making its first stop at 8:30am and that we would be going ashore to shop. The names of the small villages where we stopped throughout the day aren’t even on the map. In fact it’s quite possible that they only exist in the minds of the boat captains who stop there. Some were cities of thousands and others were small villages with just a few shacks along the riverbank. In any case we visited them all and bought fresh vegetables from their own gardens, pickled mushrooms from the nearby forests, handmade boxes and spoons, and any variety of stuff one could imagine. I had a great time. That first day we stopped about every 3 hours or so and the visits varied from half an hour to 2 hours depending on the size of the town and what it had to offer in the way of interest.
We made stops at such places as; “zelonodolsk”, “cheboksar”, “Yurino” and of course “Nezhnee Novgorod”, a city of millions. In Cheboksar we hopped a bus and went to the town market to buy fresh tomatoes, in Yurino we took a tour of an abandoned palace of some nephew of somebody but the place had no furniture and was sort of a joke so we walked out in the middle of the tour and went into the village and bought some soda pop and water for the cabin. In Nezhnee Novgorod we went into town and had breakfast at McDonalds and did some shopping. They all sort of blend into each other now but each was interesting and fun while we were there. I always felt comfortable with Maya at my side even though everyone was nice and the towns were clean and busy, it was still strange that they spoke so funny. That first day went by in a flurry of shopping and walking around the decks looking at the beautiful forests that lined the banks of the Volga. Small clusters of houses would suddenly appear in small clearings and just as rapidly disappear as the boat moved onward. I guess a person could live and die in such a small place and never have a need to go anywhere else.
Monday, August 25
Maya was knocking on my door early again but I was already awake, trying to get the knots out of my legs from being curled up all night. Mama had fixed breakfast in their cabin and we all gathered to eat our fresh tomatoes, bread, fruit, tea or warm soda and meat and cheese. She really did take good care of me the entire trip. Such a sweet woman, a full blooded Tatar woman. (For those of you not current on Russian history, the Tatars ruled most of Russia for a thousand years and were also known as the “Golden Horde”) Most of day was spent sitting on the bench in the front of the boat watching the miles of forest go by. It was in the high 80's and muggy so the wind generated by the movement of the boat gave some relief from the stickiness. At lunchtime we ate in the ship’s dining room with a good meal of Borscht beet soup and meat and potatoes. We weren’t able to eat the first day because lunch has to be ordered 24 hours ahead and then scheduled. The dining room had no open windows and these really obnoxious flies but it kept body and soul together. We had to bring our own bottled water because it wasn’t served anywhere.
That afternoon I spent my usual millennium watching the fish swim through the algae floating on the top of the Volga’s water and wondering what the heck I was doing there. It is so hard for a born and raised Californian to relax that it takes days before it really takes over. We encountered several locks that afternoon which take about an hour to get through. They each raise the ship almost 30 feet vertically and there were at least a dozen on the trip into Moscow. The evening sunset was it’s usual gorgeous and the cool night air made it wonderful for just sitting and day-dreaming while the miles of forest drifted by. It was still warm but one could see that fall was sneaking up through the trees. A night of peaceful slumber, curled up as usual, and another day of adventure awaiting.
Tuesday, August 26
Another day of forced relaxation, another day of beautiful birch forests and blue water, another day of small, quaint villages with old churches topped with golden domes. It was almost too much for a human to take. I felt my heart rate slowing down so much that I took my pulse from time to time just to check my existence. Maya came to get me sometime in the afternoon, not like I didn’t see her ten times a day, to invite me to their cabin for tea. Well, it was a surprise birthday party with gifts and everything. Mama had carried a beautiful crystal serving dish from Kazan and wrapped it in festive paper so I would have something for my birthday, since they would be back in Ulyanofsk on my real birthday, the 31st. It was a wonderful surprise, much the same as my 50th surprise party that my children sprung on me. After some cake and champagne we played a new game for them called “Go fish!” Leela didn’t win all of those but came very close by cheating, coquettishly.
About 11:15pm, after I had retired for the night, there came a knock on my door. Maya was all excited and told me to get dressed because “Maruschka” was going to be at the next lock. Well I got dressed, in the same clothes I had been wearing all week, and staggered out onto the deck with my camera. Maruschka turned out to be some old swayback horse that came to the lock when boats would come through and the people would throw her bread and apples. The horse appeared to be living very well on the traffic as no bones were showing anywhere. Leela is a horse fanatic. In our stop at one of the cities there was a pony ride and Leela (the precocious ten year old) had to ride or she would go into one of her quiet tantrums which drove Mama up the wall, or at least so it seemed to an old guy whose kids were long since into more serious mind manipulations. The thrill ebbed and I made it back to the safety of my cozy little cabin and folded myself into my bed and slept.
Wednesday, August 27
This was to be our last day on the ship as we were scheduled to reach Moscow in the evening. Sometime in the night we had left the Volga and entered the canal that connects the river with the city. It must be a hundred miles long and mostly straight. While sitting on the bench, again watching the endless miles of forests march by, I composed the following poem;
On the Volga
August 27, 1997
On the riverbank the mindless trees standing shoulder to shoulder,
Straight and tall, like soldiers at attention.
Guarding the view into Mother Russia’s heart from stranger’s eyes.
A village sneaks into view - no roads, no electricity, only the quiet peaceful solitude
Of a stress free lifestyle - then it disappears behind the trees leaving no trace.
A gilded dome, shrine of a Holy Icon, stands alone on a hill near another small village.
Beliefs that go deeper than life itself draw the villagers to the sound of the bells.
The mystical beauty of old babushkas singing sacred songs for no one but God
And the intruder doesn’t understand the connection.
Again the Volga grabs at one’s spirit, slow, deep and quiet.
It brings life to the soul of Mother Russia and nourishes her.
Looking into the water, a holy mirror, one can see into oneself
And feel the peace that is offered without conditions.
The trees, watching from the banks say nothing - they only watch and guard.
The boat moves onward.
The scene repeats itself over and over
Until one becomes a believer, a pilgrim,
Knowing that it must be seen again before the end.
It is life itself.
Towards evening we neared Moscow, traveling through some nearby lakes that were filled with boats of all descriptions, jet skis, sail boards, yachts, and any other kind of water play toy. I’m sure that this is a relatively new phenomenon with the new Russians but it shows how far they have come in only six years. We docked in Moscow and the people streamed off the boat like rats. I must say I was just getting to like sleeping in the fetal position every night - little did I know that I would get another chance. A good friend of Mama’s met us on the dock and it was decided that Maya and I would stay on the boat another night since it was cheaper and more convenient than moving to a hotel. So Mama and Leela left with her friend and Maya and I walked down to the bus stop and hopped a ride to McDonald’s for dinner. We walked back since it was a nice, warm evening and Maya wanted to. I guess all that walking gave her such cute legs. Upon retiring I lay there with the window open and the cool breeze drifting in on me as I recounted the events over the past days and finally fell asleep - but not before one last peek at the Moscow skyline with it’s glowing high-rise apartments lining the water’s edge and shimmering on the water. The next day we were to say goodbye to Mama and Leela and head for St. Petersburg.
The trip up to this point had been “once in a lifetime” but some of the best experiences were yet to come.
Thursday, August 28
Upon waking and packing my suitcases I was ready to leave my little first class stateroom and seek new adventures. Mama came for us about 9:00am and we hitched a ride with somebody to the subway station where we caught the train to the suburbs. Mama told me that it was the neighborhood that Boris Yeltsin had his apartment in. It was a nice area and just as we exited the station there was a super market and I was dying for a cold Pepsi. So I whined and cajoled them into going to the store with me for a few minutes. This store was as good or better than any supermarket that exists in California. It was clean, well stocked and beautiful. So beautiful in fact that I wanted a picture of the inside just to show people back home how modern Russia had become. I made the mistake of asking Maya to ask permission if I could take a picture and of course the standard Russian answer was “No Photos”. So, believe me folks, somewhere in Moscow is a market as good as Pavilions.
We went up to Mama’s friend’s apartment on the tenth floor, this time by elevator and made ourselves at home. It was a modern European apartment with three TV’s, piano, beautiful cabinets, and all the modern conveniences that go into a kitchen. Most of the appliances were from Germany, Bosch I think. We had a little lunch, well in fact, we had a lot of lunch and I stretched out on the sofa to relax when the lady of the house offered me a hot shower in her modern bathroom. It was too good to pass up since I had only had one quick shower on the boat some days before. After the wonderful water massage and euro-soaping I smelled and felt a lot better. Maya was taking the day off and staying at the apartment (female stuff she said) so Mama and Leela and I went into town shopping. Now, for those of you who have never been shopping with someone who fights for the best deal, as compared with my method of never quibbling and buying anything I take a fancy to immediately, Mama is the definition of the word frugal. This is only because she wants me to get the best value for my money but sometimes the opportunity only presents itself at that moment and you can’t go back later after thinking about it. I like to call such action taking advantage of “a fireman’s deal”. So I tried to buy anything I saw that was not available at home and Mama would try to talk me out of it because she knew someplace else where she could get it cheaper. Since her cheaper places were 600 miles away I finally prevailed and loaded up on the touristy things.
We did McDonald’s for lunch and Leela found another horse to ride and it was a thoroughly fun day, all things considered. Upon returning to the apartment Maya was feeling better and we sat a watched a video tape of some Russian singer who thought he was Tom Jones. Maya said he was hot stuff so I guess my tastes are definitely changing. Towards evening we said our goodbye to the hostess and left for the train station. Mama and Leela were taking the sleeper train to their home in Ulyanovsk at 10:00pm and Maya and I were leaving on a sleeper at 1:00am to St. Petersburg. We did a lot of sitting around at the train station because we couldn’t think of anything else to do. Farewells were exchanged amid watery eyes and we went our separate ways. The compartment that Maya and I were sharing with some young couple was a lot nicer than before and included bottled water and breakfast. I was so tired I just lay down on top to the covers and fell asleep, clothes and all. In the middle of the night I had to answer natures request and I didn’t want to wake anyone so I stood at the stupid door trying to figure out how to open it and almost wetting my pants. I finally, in desperation, pushed real hard and it opened. Whew!! The rest of the night was less eventful and the morning was sunny and bright and the trees rolled on past the windows. There were more towns and villages streaking past so it must be a better place to live than along the Volga river.
Friday, August 29
The train eventually got to St. Petersburg and Maya grabbed a porter who took our bags from the station to the hotel across the street. Maya and Eileen had stayed in this same hotel when she had come to visit so Maya knew it was fairly nice. We checked in and I paid the bill for two rooms for six nights which came to 3.6 million rubles or a little over $500. There was a floor monitor at the end of the hallway who stay awake 24 hours to check people in and out of their rooms, providing of course that you made it past the security guards downstairs. We both took a little rest and shower and late in the afternoon we walked down to Pizza Hut for dinner. It was okay but not as good as the real Italian pizza we had in Kazan. We walked back to the hotel and took in the sights along the way - the trip was about two miles in each direction.
After following Maya down this path several times I got smarter and we took the bus for eleven cents each way. The bus is an experience in itself. Every one is full to capacity and the ticket takers can’t move around because everyone is packed together so most of the people ride for free anyway. Only once did I get stopped by the transit police and Maya had the tickets all ready. It wasn’t that you had to just have a ticket, but it had to be punched with a series of holes signifying what bus you were on and who knows what else. The fine was about $1.50 if you got caught and the only person I saw get caught was screaming loudly that she was innocent and couldn’t get a ticket because it was so crowded - a good point actually! When everyone near her came to her rescue they walked away from her and left her alone. That’s when they came for me........
Saturday, August 30
Maya is not what one would call an “early riser” so I lay on my bed with the sun streaming into my room until past 9:00am when she called that she would be ready for breakfast soon. The little cafe in the hotel was like some B-movie bistro with everyone smoking and the cloud hanging low due to lack of air movement. It made my tomatoes taste barbecued - that smoky flavor. After breakfast we hopped a bus to the river Neva to visit the Hermitage (the Czar’s winter palace) which is a series of connected buildings with over 400 rooms filled with all kinds of treasures. We rented a tape player guided tour with two earphones and set off to see the wonders. It is hard to describe the gold that covered everything from floor to ceiling and gave the place a warm glow. It was really impressive the way the Czar had to live just to be in charge. How could you even visit 400 rooms and find your way back to the kitchen? We hurried through miles of corridors seeing priceless art pieces, sculpture, pottery, jewelry, etc. and in the end only went to less than 100 of the rooms. The Hermitage was started by Empress Catherine II in 1764 to house her collection of art purchased in Europe. The collections grew and today claim no less than; two paintings of the fourteen remaining works by Leonardo de Vinci (1452-1519), two by Raphael (1483-1520), forty-two paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), twenty-four pictures by Anthonis van Dyck (1599-1641), twenty-four by Rembrandt (1606-1669), six by Renoir (1841-1919), twenty-five by Gauguin, thirty works by Picasso, etc, etc. As you can well imagine it was a literal feast for the artistic eye. Unfortunately my tired feet dictated the pace more than my artistic eye and we more or less rushed through hundreds of priceless paintings in a matter of minutes. The paintings were only a small part of the beautiful collections of jewels, pottery, furniture, tapestries, etc. that were on display. The only thing guarding them were the old Babushkas sitting in each room to keep fingers off the gold and treasures. It would literally take days to appreciate the optic feast stored in this one building, let alone take the time to understand all that went in to it.
It was in this palace in 1917 that the Red revolutionaries arrested the acting president of Russia, Krenski, in a small dining room on the second floor. How they ever found him is a mystery. On the way home I suggested that we take in a little culture while we were in town so Maya stopped at a “Ticket Master” look alike and got us tickets for the ballet, “Don Quixote”, on Saturday night and a folk dancing variety show on Sunday night. We went home for our little rest before leaving for the theater and when it was time to go Maya came out looking “HOT”. Boy did it make this old man proud to have her by my side walking through town. We had seats in the second floor boxes on the side and the ballet was an avant guarde production but very beautifully done. Throughout the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the Second World War the theaters stayed open and performed classical works to boost the morale of the people trapped in the city. After the ballet we walked home because it was such a nice warm night. The weather would turn before we awoke the next morning and fall would come creeping in on my birthday.
Sunday, August 31 (My birthday)
I awoke and flipped on the TV to the BBC station to witness a mangled car somewhere in Paris which had been the undoing of Princess Diana. A heck of a way to start one’s birthday, I thought. And to top that off the weather had changed and Fall was in the air with a little nip. Maya made her debut about 9:00am, as usual and we went off to a quick breakfast and hurried to catch the bus to the river. We were going to take a ride on one of the fast “Hydrofoil” boats that zip all around Russia. It took us just 25 minutes to travel the 29 kilometers across the Gulf of Finland to the “Peterhof”, summer palace of the Czars.
Now this place was truly unbelievable in its splendor. The “Hermitage” was large with a lot of rooms but “Peterhof” was gilded way beyond belief. The entrance from the Baltic Sea presented a grotto of fountains and waterfalls with the statues gilded in gleaming Gold.
The grounds were spacious and every little trail led to another cute waterfall, fountain or villa. We walked around the gardens for an hour or so because the palace was full of touring groups. During our little trek we came upon a costume rental place where you could rent a period gown or costume for $10 and have your picture taken. Maya begged to do it and when she came out of the dressing room she was all lit up like a nuclear reactor during meltdown. She had a grin from ear to ear and was loving every minute of playing the princess. She really was darling in her long court gown and hat.
We eventually made it into the palace and took the quick tour. There was so much to see that it was truly overwhelming in perspective of how we live today vs. the Czar’s lifestyle. He didn’t have a garage to play in so I think I won’t trade for now. Each room in the palace was completely decorated and furnished and the hardwood floors were inlayed with different designs in every room. There were some pieces of furniture that would be almost impossible to build using modern equipment, let alone with hand tools as they were originally built. “Peterhof” was an idea of Peter the Great in 1714 and he supervised some of the work personally. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Peterhof Palace served as an official summer residence of the Russian Emperors. The numerous fountains are fed by gravity from springs over 20 kilometers away. It would be redundant to tell of the rich treasures decorating the interior of the palace so I’ll just say it was truly breathtaking.
It was a lovely day and we had lunch at the palace snack bar and headed for home. That night we took a taxi to another theater which was really someone’s house at one time and had a small theater built into one of the upper rooms. The play was a Russian variety show with balalaika music and Cossack dancing and singing and a really entertaining show. At the intermission they served Caviar on crackers with Vodka, Wine and Pepsi. All this for about $10 apiece.
Monday, September 1
In our continuing quest to humble ourselves amidst the riches of the Czars, we set out to visit the third Palace in as many days. This time it was another summer palace to the south of St. Petersburg called, “Zarskoje Selo” (Czars town). We were driven there by another friend of Maya’s dad, a colleague in chemistry from Armenia. He was a pleasant chap and took us to the Palace gate and dropped us off. We did the old “try to sneak Jon in as a Russian because foreigners had to pay twice as much” but were caught and forced to buy a full price ticket. It was a game Maya and I played often in our travels. Most of the time it worked and we cheated the government out of a few cents just on principle alone. Zarskoje Selo or the “Catherine Palace” was heavily damaged by the German troops who occupied it during the siege of Leningrad in the Great Patriotic War. It is remarkable that it has been restored to original condition by using the drawings preserved for hundreds of years. Though not as large as the two previous palaces it was none the less spectacular in its presentation. The main hall where dances were held glowed with the brightness of gilded carvings illuminated by crystal windows. The parquet flooring was gleaming with precious hardwoods in various designs, changing in each room to give it individuality. The most spectacular view in the palace is the “Golden Corridor” where the doors to each room align in their gilded splendor to offer a tunnel of gold hundreds of feet long. Another wonder is the “Amber Room” where the walls are covered with precious amber to give the room a soft woodsy feeling. Maya and I went through this palace twice just to see the rooms again. On leaving we went shopping at some of the little booths outside the main gate. I bought me a Russian shirt and some other gifts for the folks back home and then we drove to the relative’s palace a short distance away, where the czars would house their siblings and relatives. It had been used by the military for many years and not yet restored to it’s former glory. We then visited the college where the good chap worked and had a little snack of apples, sandwiches, cognac and coke. It was a nice visit and I got to see how basic the construction was under the communists and how everything was falling apart because the new government was de-emphasizing education due to the lack of collectable taxes. It’s not that the Russian people are poor, it’s just that the government can’t figure out how to get their cut with all the dealings going on between people on the street. On the way back into town we stopped at the point that the Russian Army stopped the German advance and held them there. The Germans could see the buildings of Leningrad in the distance but couldn’t break the Russian lines for 900 days. I took a couple of pictures and there was even a monument or two to commemorate the event. We stopped at the Leningrad Memorial on the edge of town and visited for an hour or so. It had the eternal flame and many relics picked up during the siege, as well as the names of all the military units that fought in that area. There were 900 flickering lights in the underground memorial to symbolize the 900 days they were surrounded. Having read many books about the siege and the German invasion of Russia, it was like visiting history for me.
During our many walks around town I happened to see two young men in white shirts and ties going into a bank and guessed that they might be “Mormon Missionaries”. So upon returning to our hotel that afternoon I looked up the telephone number of the St. Petersburg Mission Home and called them. A missionary answered and to my query about taking all the missionaries to dinner he stated; “All 125?”. Well, needless to say I cut the figure down to about 5-6 and we arranged to meet at Pizza Hut for dinner. Maya looked great and she sat there chatting with the six Elders while they proceeded to polish off $90.00 worth of Pizza. It was a very pleasant meal and upon leaving we decided to go down the street and use the ATM machine in the fancy hotel. About a block away one of the Elders came running after us yelling, so we stopped and waited for him. They had taken a Russian edition of the Book of Mormon and all signed it and then had a hard time trying to find us to present it. It was a thoughtful and appreciated gift and we said goodbye and continued on our quest for the bucks. The card worked wonderfully and I was once again a Russian millionaire. I tried to talk Maya into the long bus ride home because my feet were calling for relief and it was already dark but she won and we walked and stopped at the market on the way to buy water and cookies.
Tuesday, September 2
Another glorious day dawned and we bummed a ride from another friend of the families to go to the fort across the Neva where it all started under Peter the Great. It was the Cathedral where the Czars and their families were buried and the site of the prison where the original prisoners of the revolution were held. It also contained the Mint but it was no longer active. Afterward we went to Saint Lukes Cathedral in downtown St. Petersburg and climbed up to the roof to look out onto the city. There were 200 steps and my legs turned to rubber by the time I got to the top. Maya’s friends dropped us at the bus stop because they had to go to work and we jumped on a bus toward the hotel and past the hotel until we found a Patio Pizza that Maya had read about in the newspaper. It had a great salad bar and Maya filled herself up with just one plate full, leaving me to eat the entire pizza myself. One would think that a normal human couldn’t pull off such a feat but then again I’m not normal! Fortunately Maya liked to rest every afternoon before dinner and that night we had tickets to the ballet again to see; “Red Giselle”. When it was time to go I had decked myself out in my finest and Maya was looking HOT! There had been an ongoing banter between us about having the tickets every time we left the hotel because Maya kept them most of the time. Well, this time she asked me if I had the tickets and I of course thought she was joking so I said, “Ya, right!”. She was already mad because we hadn’t left enough time for dinner and the trip down to the theater was at her pace which was a killer on my feet. We stopped for an Ice Cream and she calmed down enough to check in at the theater about 15 minutes before the show was to start. She turned to me and asked for the tickets - again I thought she was joking. She had given them to me earlier in the day to put in my bag and I had forgot. So we took off toward the hotel to retrieve them. I offered to go alone but she insisted on coming along so I wouldn’t get into trouble. We made it to the hotel and back in about 45 minutes and missed the first part of the show. The nice lady allowed us to sit in one of the boxes until intermission, when we had to go to the seats we paid for, which weren’t bad either. The ballet was by the same avant guarde group that had done Don Quixote but was very well done. In our conversation on the way home I taught Maya the meaning of the word, “facetious” because of what had happened earlier that evening and it came back to haunt me often thereafter. You must realize that Maya and most of the Russians are very straightforward in their dealings. They can’t tell when someone is kidding as easily as we do. So once I found out that she took me literally about everything, I had to cool it a little.
Wednesday, September 3
This was to be our last day in St. Petersburg so we got to do anything we wanted. I dragged Maya (against her WILL) to the Military Museum that I had seen across the street from the previous day’s tour of the prison. She hated it but was gracious enough to let me enjoy it for an hour. Then it was on to shopping, our favorite activity. She was looking for books to help her in college and I was looking to buy some more gifts for the stay behinds. The highlight of the day came when I was trying to buy a very nice watch and the lady at the cash register refused to take my visa unless I signed the back of it. So I took my card and went elsewhere and found someone less picky. The day went quickly and we went back to the hotel because I had a 4:00 o’clock appointment to get a massage (on the advice of my physical therapist at home). The masseuse was named Igor or Ivan or Bruno, I can’t remember but he was built like a blacksmith, short, stocky and powerful. “Gee”, I thought, “this is going to be interesting!” I should have taken the clue when he checked my pulse every few minutes but I lay there on the table while he took me to the threshold of pain in a pleasurable way. If you’ve ever had anyone take their thumb and push it all the way to your bones and then rub, you can get the drift of how it went. He kept forgetting to put enough oil on his hands and I was getting razor burn from his rough skin. He worked his way up and down both legs and over my front and back, finishing up at the head and neck. Then he had me sit at the end of the table while he slapped my shoulders with his cupped hands. Just as I thought it was feeling good he reached in and cracked my neck, first one way and then the other. Hey, I lived through that, I thought so it can’t be too bad. He then stood me up, I guess to drop kick my back like I do for my son, except he was shorter than me and had to grab me really tight around my chest and lean back. Well he must have really grabbed super tight because two days later I discovered that I had a broken rib where he had grabbed me. So if you ever get a “Russky Massage” be careful who you get to do it. Actually I felt great when he finished, I can’t be sure if it was out of relief to get away from the pain, or that he had done a good job of kneading the soreness out of my body. Anyway I slept good that night.
Thursday, September 4
Maya and I had an early flight back and didn’t get all the sleep we needed so we were both a little on the grouchy side. She stood in line for the two of us as it turned out and we eventually made it to the plane. It took a while for the people who worked at the airport to show up so there was a big line of people trying to crowd to the front. The Russians love to do that - crowd each other to get to the front of the line. I guess it comes from not having enough goods for everyone and those who made it to the front of the line got and those who didn’t, didn’t. The Lufthansa flight went smoothly but when we arrived in Frankfurt to change planes they pulled our plane off to the side of the runway and posted guards at the doors checking passports. They pulled off about 10 middle easterners and took them away in a van while the rest of us got on the bus to the terminal. The two and a half hours to Frankfurt seemed like a hop compared to the eleven hours from there to Los Angeles. It was one of those days with 22 hours of daylight that screws up your body clock something fierce. We made it to L.A. and found it to be 100 degrees again. Just what I wanted! We hopped onto a Prime Time van that took us to my front door in a timely manner. If it had taken two minutes longer I would have had airplane food all over the inside of my shorts. It was good being home but I loved every minute of my time in Russia with Maya and her family and I will cherish the memories forever.
The Author and Maya Ofitserova