International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Travel Stories:
Russian For Two Weeks
Russell in St Petersburg
was September, 1991. Our oldest daughter, Mara, was in Moscow working
for CARE and we were headed there for a visit, but first we had
made arrangements to live with a Russian family in St. Petersburg
for two weeks. That came about through a Travel organization fostering
"better understanding among people".
We bought in, because
it seemed interesting, the price was right and the agency had a positive
track record. So, departing LAX aboard Lufthansa Flight 451 my wife
and I headed for St. Pete with a change of planes in Frankfurt. The
long flight was handled with German efficiency, but even with superb
German cooking and drink plus many naps, we still arrived in a zombie
Waiting with our fellow zombies for our luggage, we all milled and stewed,
until an hour after landing, the baggage finally arrived. Then, we met
our Russian Hosts.
"Um", "huh", somehow the game had changed from our
stateside arrangements and agreements. Our to-be hosts, with whom we
had exchanged E-mails were an English speaking husband and wife living
in the city center. Urban, polished travelers, theyd visited the
States many times. Suddenly, they were missing. At least that was the
storyline we were fed. With our original hosts unreachable, through
quick work the agents had found a different "substitute" family
That family, at least 30 years our seniors, spoke practically no English.
She none. He almost none and their tiny flat, far out in the countryside,
was no where near the advertised St. Petersburg.
Also, rather than a bedroom, our bed was a small pull out. And wed
all share one tiny bathroom with no tub.That was a long way from what
we had been promised, as if the arrangements we had made were for one
world and suddenly we were in another quite alien. We were not
Not wanting to insult our "hosts", but knowing they couldnt
understand our conversation, I phoned the "local manager".
Without raising my voice, after a twenty-minute back and forth, I convinced
him we could not stay there. We had no means of communicating with our
hosts, had no idea where we were located, they had no car nor could
they explain how to use local transport. Finally ceding, he agreed to
move us next morning.
Exhausted, we indicated the bedroom and squeezed in, going to sleep
in our travel clothes, certainly not ready for an unexpected all night
battle with mosquitoes coming through a broken window.
Around noon, instead of our travel manager appearing, the hosts
son arrived; a University Assistant Professor of Computer Services who
spoke fluent English.
Though his job seemed to be to convince us to stay, when we explained
our position, his heart wasnt in the effort. So, we talked computers,
a bit of politics, ending with a raised Vodka toast to better future
understanding between our peoples. Finally, the son called the local
manager and agreed we couldnt stay with his parents, though they
would sorely miss the $200.00 they would have received for having us
in their home.
As best he could, he explained to his parents the problems our stay
would cause. The father was quite vocal in opposition. The mother said
little. Finally, the son prevailed and all was quiet as momma brought
from the kitchen stove a Chicken she had been roasting. With a Borscht
opener, Chicken, Rice and Vegetables shared our praise for her
cooking seemed to have helped settle things. Shaking hands with poppa,
slipping him a $50.00 bill and hugging momma, we again met the lady
agent who would now deliver us to our new host family.
What a difference! Natasha and Serge were the kind of hosts wed
envisioned. About our age, with two teen boys. Natasha was an Assistant
Professor of English at St. Pete U. Serge a Radio Astrology specialist
at a College Level Institute. More important they lived within walking
distance of the sites you came to St. Petersburg to see.
The first day, Natasha led us on a walk across the Neva River Bridge,
past the Hermitage, alongside the canals, then to the Nevski Prospekt
shopping area with its hundreds of one-person "businesses",
many sellers peddling only a book or two.
Natasha told us at the University she earned 2100 rubles per month.
About $10.00 U.S. Dollar. $120.00 a year for an Assistant College Professor.
Quite sobering. Of course the $100.00 a week the family would receive
for hosting us would allow them to enjoy some of their favorite foods
from better times, which now they considered a luxury. For us, all everyday
purchases. Obviously, we still had a lot to learn about being Russian.
Dinner for them was a feast, Chicken Soup with Rice, the Chicken itself
served with canned Spaghetti, a fresh vegetable salad, Pumpernickel
Bread, Butter and Tea. We ate with great relish; Claryce and I from
our exhausting walk, they for the pleasure of the filling meal. After
dinner, we phoned Mara in Moscow with our new phone number and confirmed
our Moscow arrival. I noted Serge watching the clock, so cut the call
short and put two 500 ruble notes on the table. No one said anything
but I believe they voiced a silent sigh of relief.
Next day, for pre-dinner drinks, I bought a bottle of Stolichnaya for
219 rubles, $1.10, which we sipped while watching the news in English.
Since our hosts had to get their kids off to school quite early, bedtime
was also early.
Claryce and I slept in their living room. She on a full sofa and I,
an arm chair with a leg bench. Quite comfortable. It had been a satisfying,
though tiring day, walking the heart of the city, seeing the Palace
Square, the Czars Winter residence, Pushkins Home (now a
museum) and again the Hermitage which we would visit in two days.
Next day our walk took us to the Island Vasilevsky at the Delta of the
Neva River, where Alexander The Great thought to do away with streets
and avenues, replacing them with canals. Not a smart idea because Alex
met with total local resistance, from citizens refusing to pay taxes
for the project and a general merchants "Nyet", also
a flat refusal by the Army because it would give the Navy a leg up.
Today, it remains ordinary pedestrian and motor traffic walks and driveways.
Continuing, we past the Peter-Paul Fortress, constructed to serve as
a protective guard at the entrance to the Baltic. Though it didnt
really protect anything, it was an effective way to collect shipping
taxes. Doesnt sound like much of a walk, but it took us hours
and we covered many miles, so at the end of the day, sitting with feet
up and a vodka in hand, was mighty comforting. As was another early
Next day, a school holiday, we got to sleep until 8:30, when strong
kitchen odors woke us. Serge was preparing his "famed" omelet
breakfast liberally sprinkled with Onions, Curry and Curry Powder. Bread
fresh from the downstairs bakery was on the stove being toasted, ready
to receive tablespoons of home-made jam. All washed down with mugs of
Alex, their 11 year old English-speaking son, joined us as we took a
train to an outlying station where their family car was garaged pretty
much continuously; it hadnt been used since last year. Natasha
not with us, had gone to the University Dental school, because rumor
was, free dental work was to be eliminated.
Our car use was made possible by the travel people provided cans of
petrol, so we could avoid the hours long waits at the few operating
petrol stations and also to cover its "excessive" cost.
(All spelled out and included in our cost up front.) For Serge, to fill
his tank would cost equal to half the familys monthly spending
Now on wheels, our destination was Pushkon Gardens or more precisely
Pushkon Township, the Czars village; home to the Imperial Family
from the days of Peter. The first sight was the extraordinary garden
created by or for Catherine the Great.
The Palace front hall, credited to Catherine was a beholding edifice,
with an eye-popping, gold-inlaid entranceway. The Palace itself with
over 1,000 rooms, had much Foreign influence, especially Chinese, Turkish
and English, plus furniture and furnishings from former Czarist territories.
In the garden were erected replicas of Italian and Greek Temples, all
situated on a man-made lake.
Our hour there was too short to take in the full spectacle, but it was
what we had allowed because we were also to visit the oversized home
Catherine had built for her son Paul; a hunting and carousing lodge
in the nearby town of Pavlovsk. Charles Cameron, a Scottish architect
had been brought over by Catherine to design and construct it. But,
no sooner had the spoiled, know-no-bounds Paul moved in, then, to show
up mama, he hired the Italian, Vincenzo Branna, to add a few "little"
romantic geegaws such as a Golden Yellow dome supported by 64 white
The building atop a bluff, overlooked a small fast running river, but
did not overlook an entrance fee no local could afford, about $1.50
The surrounding park, with Statues of the Czars and their families featured
thousands of flower beds surrounding a tightly winding path said to
equal the distance from St. Petersburg to Moscow, approximately 400
miles. No, we didnt walk the full path.
What we did do was find a cool spot near a water fountain and picnic
on Cheese and Ground Veal sandwiches. Our beverage was the cool fountain
While we still had the car, we headed to the Winter Palace to meet our
travel person and collect Aeroflot tickets for the upcoming Moscow flight.
And since we were close, peeked into the windows of the closed Summer
Palace, where Peter had lived with Wife 1 and Wife 2; wife 2 being Catherine,
who added the title, "The Great", after she "allegeably"
helped do in Peter, who obviously was not so great.
Back at the flat we had our first "hello" with 15 year old
son, Sasha. In Sasha, we saw what we had seen in our own growing teen-agers,
the beginning of separation from family and an attitude reflecting rebellion.
Sasha and his buddies, facing life in what projected to be a have-not
society, were cutting school and already "working" the street
in the early stages of the coming drug age.
After he slammed out, Natasha rolled her eyes and with tears confessed
that with limited resources, they felt they had to concentrate their
efforts on Alex who still had a chance. His "A" school efforts
and aspirations of higher educational goals gave them hope, while Sasha
was fast burning his bridges and momma and poppa were shortening his
safety net, knowing it was only a matter of time before he left to wherever
the road would take him. Too bad. Too sad. But, life in that Russia
had delivered them to where they were and being intelligent people they
opted to over-compensate their efforts and resources to "save"
Alex. Yet, even at 11, Alex too young to leave home, cast a semi-envious
eye to the freedoms his brother had managed for himself.
Friday was a late morning again. Natasha rushed out for another dental
appointment. Alex was off to play with a friend while we sat with Serge,
asking questions about his radio work. For the past 20 years, his theoretical
study and research had been interrelated with those of other scientists
worldwide. He had been published in his specialty, some of it based
on practical experience in Cuba where he was stationed when the Russians
were there. Now, with all that service and study behind him, Serge worried
whether or not his funding would be continued. He, like Natasha, both
trained and educated people, had no idea if a year hence theyd
still be employed.
Alex came home and immediately switched on television; it was time for
his program. Cartoons? Not. It was an English language program designed
to offer expertise in vocabulary, grammar and conversation. His note
book opened, his pencil making quick notes, Alex industriously addressed
the information as if it were a classroom challenge. Serge said the
program was superior to any school class Alex had. He and his friends
were so was into it, they practiced conversational English with each
After lunch, we took the tram to our stop, a 10 minute walk from the
Hermitage, where we were met by Vera, an in-tourist, English speaking
guide, who had traveled broadly in the U.S. Vera would lead Claryce,
I and another U. S. couple on a fact-filled 3-hour tour which allowed
extra time on the 3rd floor for the French Impressionist collection.
Half of the extensive Russian holdings were at the Hermitage, the other
half at the Pushkin in Moscow, which we intended to see.
In content, viewing the collection was exciting, except that much of
the art seemed hung haphazardly and with many paintings the lighting
was misdirected or bulbs were missing. We were glad wed taken
Natashas advise to bring flashlights. With the paintings mounted
three high, minus our flashes wed have missed much of the top
tier including a few major Rembrandts. Hopefully, today, using modern
techniques, the hangings and lighting have improved. And, unlike when
we were there, they are limiting flash photography. At the Moscow Pushkin,
all was much more professional.
Vera, in her 60s, spiced her lecture with experiences from her
20 In-Tourist years, at the museum and guiding private tours. Speaking
freely, now that In-Tourist had all but ceased operations and spies
no longer lurked about, she said when she first started touring, she
slyly collected autographs of many famous people. She once got a signature
from Margaret Thatcher and her host, President Gorbachav. urged to sign
by Thatcher. But her favorite autograph was from Frank Sinatra who wrote
"To Vera, thanks for showing me the true soul of Russia".
That framed note still sits on her dresser. At 60, Vera was still a
fan of Old Blue Eyes.
At the end of our tour, she turned serious, worrying what would happen
in her country if conditions didnt improve. That the increased
costs on everyday items put in place by the Yeltsin Government, would
soon topple it, because people were ready to revolt. However, what might
follow could be worse. Sighing, she said "Russia only understands
a strong man with spies and the military control. You only hope you
are on the right side.".
Vera, in part cast blame on American TV Shows and American Movies for
portraying a too idealized life style, that young Russians wanted. And
wanted now. Russia did get its strong man in Putin. Yet, life for common
people seems to have changed little, if at all. But, enough about Politics.
Yet, Veras words remained with Claryce and I so we were much more
circumspect with what we said about life in the U.S.
Breakfast on our last full day in St. Petersburg, was Fried Bologna,
Yellow Cheese, Toast, Marmalade, a soft-boiled Egg, Tea or Coffee. A
veritable feast to begin that final day.
Serge collected his car and we were off to see what we had not, with
our first stop being the Saturday Service at the Leningrad Chant Synagogue,
arriving in time for final morning prayers, a play between the Cantor
and a beautifully voiced boys choir.
As we admired the architectural beauty, we were stopped time and again
by people asking where we were from. One man said he was from West Los
Angeles who was touring Russia before going to Israel. Many asked for
money. On Sabbath. In an Orthodox Synagogue. How hard times were, was
described by one man, saying, "we live very badly".
Wishing we were able to help more, but knowing giving to one meant giving
to all, we made a donation at the office as we left.
Next stop was St. Isaac, the truly magnificent Cathedral; almost a museum,
with mosaic tiles over painted backgrounds depicting scenes from the
Old Testament (no halos) to the New (All had halos).
Throughout was Bas Relief on Gilt, delicious carvings and a set of exceptional
10 x 20 bronze doors; sculpted like Rodins "Gates Of
Hell". These, however, were Hell balanced with scenes of Heaven.
From the floor, the main dome rose 100 feet, with tiers at secondary
levels. Columns embellished with Lapis and Malachite met the height
of the dome. And under our feet an unbelievable tile and stone floor,
all showing why construction took 40 years. During the siege of Leningrad,
St. Isaac was spared serious damage by both Axis and Allies so it had
required minimal restoration.
Another stop was to see statues, a typical tourist stop, minus tourists.
Just gypsies holding babies and begging, a copy of downtown Mexico City,
Istanbul, Rome, Athens, you name it.
We escaped to the artists market, just moved officially from its
original Nevsky Prospekt home to a controlled, gated area, where entrepreneurial
youngsters hawked their wares in multiple languages; their stalls crowded
with versions of Modern Art, Gorbachev and Yeltson stack doll sets,
cold boiled eggs, used books, boxes of photographs, T-Shirts including
Hard Rock Café and blushing Russian phrases; anything that might
generate a few precious rubles. We settled for stack dolls.
The last stop was the hard currency shop. Serge couldnt enter
but we could, buying with dollars items cheaper than he could in a Russian
Ruble Market. So, we sat in the car filling out a to-buy list. When
he attempted to hand us money, we told him our intent was to buy a hundred
U. S. dollars worth of food for the house. He stopped for a minute,
mumbling a surprised thank you, then hurriedly added one more item to
the list, Godiva Chocolates. When asked why, he said that years back
when attending a convention in the states, Natasha fell in love with
Godiva Chocolate. Since he wasnt permitted in dollar stores without
a U.S. Passport, the only place he could find them occasionally was
at tourist hotels. But now, he couldnt afford the purchase. For
him, a simple box of Godiva Chocolates was far beyond his reach.
Without further word, Claryce and I went in, showed passports and began
to load a shopping cart with basics including Sugar, Salt, Bread, then,
giant-sized Kelloggs Corned Flakes, Canned Peaches, Spices, Dairy
Products, Fresh Cut Meats and Chicken, Canned Smoked fish, 4 bottles
of White Chardonnay, some good Russian Brandy and Vodka, a large container
of Ice Cream, tins of Coffee and Tea and with the cart piling high,
a half dozen boxes of assorted Godiva Chocolates. After bagging and
paying, a clerk helped us out and we loaded the car trunk, assuring
Serge that we had the Chocolate. Though offered, the clerk accepted
no gratuity and in English said, "thank you for coming to our store.".
That night dinner was a real treat. Filet Steaks, a fresh Salad, and
Corn-On-The Cob, preceded by a Vodka toast (or two) and finished with
scoops of Ice Cream. Alex got seconds. After all was cleared, Serge
opened one Godiva Chocolates box.
Both he and Natasha were in tears as they looked at and fondled the
gold wrappers. We didnt think theyd ever eat them till Serge
assured Natasha he had another box put away.
If I ever saw a more beautiful look than that on Natashas face
as she nibbled a bit of the chocolate, I couldnt remember when.
And the love in Serges face was so obvious as he watched his wifes
pleasure, so Claryce and I said short good nights, using the excuse
of last minute packing and left them in their moment.
Next morning, Serge wanted to prepare a large farewell breakfast, but
we insisted on just coffeet, since the travel agent would soon gather
us for our Moscow flight.
The last moments complete with hugs and kisses and promises to stay
in touch were done quickly, each knowing we would never see each other
again; there was just too much difference between our lives and theirs.
We could drop into (and out of) their difficult, terribly limiting world
on the whim of a spur-of-the-moment lark. After a few months, their
letters stopped and so did ours.
© David Russell August 2009
Russian Part II MOSCOW
Visiting Moscow, where we lived with our oldest daughter, who was then
working for CARE.
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