It seems like a thousand years ago, when I was young and Russia was still the USSR, I took a trip to Russia with the man I loved, married and divorced (another story).
The USSR was sealed up pretty tight and I traveled with a group from Oxford University under the eagle-like care of our USSR-supplied InTourist guide. And bless me, I can’t remember his name, though I do remember he was better at word games — in English — than any of us!
We visited Leningrad (before it resumed its older name of St. Petersburg) and Moscow, and I was deeply impressed by how — compared to the USA — poor the country seemed. During one of our train trips, I saw a farmer working his field with a horse and plow. Hard work.
Hotels were very concerned about making sure we didn’t run off with the very small towels, and the sink did not supply stoppers. Of course, my boyfriend accidentally packed one of those precious towels. The chambermaid came running from the elevator and we had to unpack our suitcases to find the offending contraband.
So maybe the authorities were keeping a special eye on us.
You had to make a declaration of whatever money you had when you entered the USSR. And a declaration when you left. They were very concerned about black market wheeling and dealing in foreign currency. I seem to remember that a small fortune could be made selling jeans!
When I arrived, I didn’t include the travelers checks I had brought with me — I flew from Boston to England and stayed there several days before we went on the trip to Russia.
I bet you can see where this is going. We took a train from Moscow to East Berlin, and from there we were supposed to make a transfer for a train to West Germany. At that train station, there was the usual checking and double rechecking of paperwork and this time I stupidly remembered the travelers checks and declared them, forgetting that I had not written them in on my arrival.
The powers that be weren’t happy.
The whole group was detained at the train station and we missed our connecting train.
EVENTUALLY the mess was sorted out and we were free to go.
They marched us from dour, grey East Berlin, through Checkpoint Charlie, to West Berlin,
Checkpoint Charlie was very quiet, oddly so considering all the soldiers and the guns and the lights. There was a narrow winding path rimmed with barbed wire that we walked, only our footsteps making a noise, our silence adding to the greater hush
In contrast West Berlin’s blazing 24/7 night life was overwhelming.
We found a train to take us across East Germany and I opened a window to say “goodbye” to the Iron Curtain. I was glad to have experienced it but really happy to be heading home to all our wacky freedoms. As I was waxing all philosophical, a piece of grit flew into my eye, as though the East was going to have the last word. I was busy tending to my eye and never saw us rumble from East to West.
Haven’t we yet learned how stupid walls are?