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Friday, January 21, 2011

Breaking the Rules (my Russian trip in 1989)


From the very beginning of our travels in we were told by our USA tour guide that there were two important rules when traveling in the Soviet Union. One must never buy anything—as tempting as it may be—from the thriving Black Markets. "It is, first of all, against Soviet law, and, secondly, is extraordinarly dangerous given the individuals who sell the outlawed stuff.

Two: "Do not attempt to eat outside of the hotel restaurants. It's nearly impossible to get a reservation, and, you never know what you might be fed or where it comes from."

Lyn Hejinian had added a third rule: "Don't ever get sick in the Soviet Union!"

The Russian tour guide suggested a fourth: "If you take a taxi, do not pay in American dollars. It was for that very reason that he had to hijack ordinary drivers to take us to our out-of-the-way resort spot in Latvia."

I am generally quite obedient, although I do have a stubborn independent streak when it comes to being told not to do something while traveling, as I think I've revealed in these Russian memoirs so far. But these four rules all seemed to represent good advice. Why endanger yourself by buying off the street or in dark corners of a hotel? And when I observed the seedy and surely sinister figures loitering in the dark stairwells of our Leningrad hotel, I had no desire to approach, being more than a little bit frightened they may try to approach me.

It was far easier to eat at the hotel dining rooms than to find an open or available restaurant, and after my "soku" incident in the same city, I had a great fear of unknown food stuffs.

It seemed ludicrous that taxi drivers waited to serve only "rich" Americans, leaving their compatriots to freeze on the streets.

And I had no intention of getting ill.

Yet, one by one, I broke all but one of these sacred stipulations. It began in Latvia, when Susan Hopkins Coolidge, Clark Coolidge's wife, and I both speculated on the quality of Soviet restaurants. One of our group had gone to a restaurant before joining up with us, claiming it was an excellent experience. We were both curious and, more to the point, bored our by current repetitive fare. Consequently, we sought out a restaurant, and boldly entered. The place was utterly desserted, appearing as if it had never seen a customer. Approching the man we thought to be the host, we were told we could not eat there.
Displaying my stubborness, I asked, "Why not?"

"Because you do not have a reservation," snapped the host.

"How do we get a reservation?" Susan shyly asked.

"See the coat check," answered the uncoperative comrade.

We had experienced the coat check maneuver previously, when, at one hotel, we had found that we could get vodka at the coat check. At another inn, the coat check quietly arranged for cans of Beluga cavier to be sold at our table. Accordingly, we followed the host's instructions, and found a friendly face behind the empty coat racks.

"What time can we come for lunch?" we inquired.

He looked at his watch. "Two hours. You pay in advance."

"How much?"

He quoted a price in rubles that was something close to $10.00.

We readily paid, and returned precisely at the hour he'd suggested. We were quickly taken up to a pleasant table, but the room was still barren. Evidently, we were their only customers that day. But what a wonderful treat! The food was plentiful and excellent, exactly the kind of break in diet we had been seeking. And it was, so it seems twenty-two years later, extraordinarily tasty. Out tip made everyone happy. I felt it was worth, this one time, breaking one of the rules.

By the time we reached Moscow, I had discerned that perhaps we had been somehow misinformed, that good things happened only when one didn't quite follow the rules. I had intended to bring back a Russian Babushka doll for my grandmother, a doll within which sits a series of nesting dolls. She had asked if I might get her one, but, clearly, none was to be found. As I have written elsewhere, most of the stores I visited were nearly empty, and when they contained products they were not what any tourist might desire. So one afternoon, met in the stairwell by two young Russian boys, I asked if they might be able to find the item for me. I was told to meet them in their room (Room 305) in about an hour.

Fearfully, I attended the appointment, knowing that anything might happen. I might be robbed, beaten, even killed. But no, there was the doll, and the transaction, for a few American dollars, went off without a hitch. My second such breaking of rules was rewarded just as nicely as my first. Obviously, I might have purchased the dolls more easily in Los Angeles.

While I was in Moscow, I was determined to visit the major English-language bookstore, The House of Foreign Books. Yet, when I asked where it was located, I was told that it was quite a distance, and that I would be unable to walk. Taxi's were just as hard to grab in Moscow as they had been in Riga. When I found a cab-driver willing to roll his windows down while remaining tentative about a stop, I quickly offered to pay in American dollars if he would wait for me, and, after I had visited the store, return me to where he had picked me up.

The cab door opened, and I was wisked away to Kuznetsky Most Ulitsa, where I spent more than an hour studying the shelves. Although I purchased only one book, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. And when I exited the place, there was the taxi, patiently waiting to carry me back!

I told no one about these transgressions, and Susan apparently did not mention our secret rendezvous except to her husband. As we gathered in the lobby to leave Moscow, however, the two young boys who had sold me the Russian dolls, ran up to us, explaining to our US tour guide that I had forgotten my proof of purchase (obviously a fake document), necessary to take the dolls out of the country. The guide handed it over to me, tsking, "Douglas, shame on you, shame!" I bowed my head like the bad boy I was.

As I mention above, I obeyed only one of the rules. I had no intention of visiting a Soviet hospital.

Los Angeles, January 20, 2011

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