Brother Can You Spare a Ruble

I had flown since I was a child and never really liked it, especially landing, but I was never sick until our honeymoon trip to Greece. I started to feel ill on the tarmac here in Calgary and it only got worse as the flight progressed. I ended up having to be wheel chaired off the plane in Heathrow, spend the layover in the medical clinic injected with mega doses of gravol only to be wheel chaired onto the flight to Athens. I had nothing to eat or drink in over twenty four hours by the time we landed in Athens. The flight home wasn’t much better, thus began my aversion to flying. But I refused to allow it to stop me from ever travelling again, which I did.

The following year we took five and a half months to travel throughout Europe from Dublin to Moscow and Stockholm to Venice. Failed to see Monaco instead I chose to lie on the beach in Nice being served ham sandwiches with Orangina by our lovely waiter, Jacques. Zaia has never let that one go and references it every time he has to give in to my choice, by saying “Remember Monaco!”

I remember being just gob smacked when we saw La Pieta in the Vatican, it looked as if her naked body had first been sculpted from the marble and her clothing laid on afterwards. The Canova sculptures in the Louvre were another amazing, awe-inspiring sight for the senses. Realizing how small this world really is when you meet a couple from the States on the beach in Nice and two months later walk past them in Salzburg. My mouth waters at the memory of that pastry shop in Vienna where I could have spent the entire time there eating my way through each and every one of those delicious morsels of loveliness. The skies above Stockholm were so reminiscent of Calgary, it made one homesick.

But the one part of this trip I want to relate is our journey in the USSR, now Russia. At that time you couldn’t just book a flight into Moscow and take a wander around, it had to be organized by the state run travel agency. This had to be done via a London office and we chose to do the Moscow/Leningrad tour for ten days. Zaia had always been a keen enthusiast of Russian writers and was looking forward to this trip and walking in their footsteps.

Upon arriving in the Moscow airport, besides the usual security checks, this is where you had to exchange your money into Rubles. This currency was not available on the open market and therefore you had no choice but to exchange it there at the rates they saw fit to use, which at that time was the same as the pound Sterling. We were later able to find Rubles in a train station in Germany and there they charged something like $0.05 for one Ruble not what we paid $2.40 for one Ruble, bastards. So figuring we were going to be there ten days we exchanged $1000 Canadian into Rubles.

As this trip was organized in the UK the rest of the tour group were English. The tour provider used this information to determine the type of food that would be served at the meals included in the cost of the trip. Stereotypical ideas like fish and chips or at least the Russian version of this.

We get to the hotel and get our rooms assigned where you do not get to have a key but rather there are stations on each floor that give you you’re key to enter and when you leave you have to give that key back, so off to our first meal with our fellow travelers. We had run into a tour group from England when we stayed in Crete on our honeymoon and found them to be very uncivilized for such a civilized people, so our guard was up to see how this group would behave.

The meal times had a set seating time and you had to wait behind a velvet rope before you were allowed to enter the restaurant and get to your table. So the masses gathered at the set time and literally jumped over the woman who released the rope and ran headlong to the table she had pointed to as if they hadn’t eaten in a month. This would happen three times a day, every day. Waiting for the group at each table were two large beers, because you know those British people loves them beers. The first two people to get there grabbed those two beers and had it for themselves instead of pouring a little into each of the other glasses on the table. So this only intensified the race to get to the table at every meal.

Now for the main course, I don’t really remember breakfasts but I do remember lunches that consisted mainly of tongue sandwiches, apparently another British treat and dinners that were some variation on the theme fish and potato. The fish being Sturgeon, some poor old thing that had finally died on the operating table when they were extracting her precious roe for caviar. You do realize that Sturgeon live to well over 100! Sometimes I would be fooled into believing that something else lay under those mashed potatoes, but no, it was that old Sturgeon. All the while Zaia and I were looking longingly over at the tables that were occupied by the East German contingency. They had several bottles of beer per table as well as champagne, scrumptious cold cuts and all sorts of yummy bread, not a tongue insight.

The only saving grace in our daily meal was the ice cream, man that Russian ice cream was great. We would always ask for seconds as we had barely eaten any of our meals. This was like when we were in Italy, we survived on gelato and Coke, the only good meal we had was at the Vatican cafeteria.

The first day we figured that to hell with what was on the set menu we were capable of finding food on the streets of Moscow and taking care of ourselves, no. It turned out that the restaurants are on the second floor and unless you read Cyrillic you had no idea what to look for so all we were left with was buying ice cream from the street vendors.

This brings me back to our Rubles, while shopping at the designated souvenir stores we were allowed to buy from, the cost was always listed in Rubles but when it came time to pay, the cashier would say no thank you to the Rubles you were giving her instead insisting on hard currency, cash or credit card would do nicely. So we spent our Rubles on more ice cream.

This set trip included various trips to see historical sites and cultural events which we went to enmasse in buses. Our group was made up exclusively of couples; there were no singles, only couples. One couple in particular stood out and would cause our group much anguish. This was the British wife and her Italian maitr’d husband or at least that is how he came off, something out the British sitcom Fawlty Towers. She had decided that the while in Russia she should dress the part of the peasant woman but still making sure that the locals knew she was from England, hence the Harrods’ bags she invariably carried with her. Three different sizes depending on the occasion, the smallest was her evening bag. Her husband was tasked with carrying all of their camera equipment, bags and tripods strapped to either arm.

On these outings, we would all gather at the doors of the hotel and wait for our guide to arrive and point out the buses that we would be taking and just like in the restaurant the group would elbow and kick their way so as to get the premier seats in the bus, the ones at the front. It would only make sense for these couples to sit together but no, it was everybody for themselves leaving Zaia and I to mostly sit apart. The other major hazard running these gauntlets was the Italian husband and his camera equipment hitting you in the face as he struggled to run and then being left with only the back seats available, passing through the skinny aisle way to get to it.

So we tried to get out on our own and look for Dostoyevsky’s apartment and find his gravesite. It was quite the challenge to navigate the underground system as it was multi-layered and that damn Cyrillic that with the speed of the train you could only make out the first two characters and had to hope that you had stopped at the right station.  Unlike the organized tours that left one with a much better impression of these Russian cities, our behind the scenes wanderings showed something all together different. Suffice it to say I came back home having no fear of Russian missiles hitting us because there was no way they would work any better than the rest of the country and besides the population was pissed drunk on Vodka by 10:00 in the morning.

In Leningrad we enjoyed the White Nights festival that celebrates the fact that the sun only goes down for an hour before rising again. I remember looking out of the hotel window at 4:00 in the morning watching the boats going up the river under the raised bridges, the water a murky green just like the water in the tub when we thought to have a bath but decided we would pass. We wandered through Hermitage and were enthralled by the art that hung on those walls and so much gilding on the walls, the gorgeous fountains at Petrograd, all gravity systems and so much gold. Our trip came to an end and we had survived the meals and the races to the buses, which in hindsight was something because every place we went, be it a boat or a theatre, there were no safety precautions. No lifejackets on the boats and every door save for one locked to prevent one from escaping should a fire have broken out in the theatre.

Still this was our last bus ride to take us to the airport in Leningrad but we were missing two of our group, the British peasant and her husband. They had decided that final morning to go explore the underground and got hopelessly lost and ended up in a restricted area, what with all of their camera equipment made for a very dicey situation. So we waited on that final bus until the authorities released these two numbskulls so that the rest of us could return to England.

Upon arriving at this very new and clean and surprisingly empty airport we now have to reverse the process of exchanging our Rubles into hard currency. We are then left in this waiting area for a very long time and eventually I need to have a drink. There was a kiosk that sold Pepsi (no Coke) and the price shown in Rubles as per usual so I reach for my hard currency, I knew the drill only to be told that I could only pay with Rubles! By this point I had enough of this country. We were left in this holding area before boarding and I was hot and tired and thirsty and cranky so I looked up at the camera and said “You idiots missed the pipe bomb I so cleverly hid in my Knirps!” On hindsight not the best idea but apparently either nobody was looking or they couldn’t understand English either way Zaia disowned me on the spot.

We still had to get to the plane on another bus and the insanity continued and nobody would move from the doors so that they could be the first ones off to run up the stairs to the waiting flight, the crew standing on the tarmac giving the machinegun toting military personal their passports before entering the plane. Again the kicking and clawing to be the first onboard only to be split up again arguing with a fellow passenger to allow us to sit together which we finally were able to do, thankfully. There we sat all boarded waiting for take-off which wasn’t happening and time kept marching on and still no take-off. The plane finally begins to move down the runway only to circle back and once again go around and around only to return to the terminal. The captain comes on to the PA system and announces that the plane is experiencing mechanical problems which meant we had to return. No sooner had he hung up when the plane’s engines fire back up and we head out to the runway and take-off, what the hell!

The Stewardess comes out to give what you would think is the in-flight safety system lecture but as there were no lifejackets or flotation devices onboard and did we really think the oxygen would work; the presentation was a short one. But they did bring us some delicious tongue sandwiches for lunch. Another key item that was missing was a barf bag, I was lucky to find a plastic bag in my purse to puke in later.

Apparently the pilot of this Aeroflop, oops Aeroflot plane, took his flying lessons by correspondence. They sent him a joystick and a map of Europe and Bob’s your uncle a pilot was made. Since there was cloud cover, it was pretty hard for him to get a fix on exactly where over Europe we were so every 45 minutes or so he would have to dip the plane below these pesky clouds and take a big turn to the right and a big turn to the left in hopes of recognizing a prominent landmark to gauge our flight path by. This was the way he found his way to Heathrow, me barfing my face off and the rest of the passengers so terrified that you could hear a pin drop for the entire flight. When we landed, to a man, everyone kissed that tarmac and thanked their respective Gods for bringing them safely home!