Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Leaving Canada

It was a most unusual Friday, but it started off as a very routine morning. As usual for a summer day, I awoke late in the morning, about eleven o’clock. The day was sunny and bright, with only a few clouds in the sky. It was also fairly warm, temperatures in the mid-twenties (Celsius, not Fahrenheit). It was an excellent day to start the trip, or at least so I thought. Looks are often deceiving.

All of my essential packing (clothes, towels, and the like) I had accomplished over the previous couple of days. This left me only with my carryon luggage to pack. (“Carryon” luggage, for those of you who have never heard of it, is luggage you can take with you onto the plane. It’s usually small, about the size of a small duffel bag or knapsack.) This was considerably more difficult than packing my clothes. My carryon consisted of my camera bag (carrying my Minolta X370, my father’s 3070mm zoom lens, and eight rolls of Fuji film), and my EF bag (EF was the company who organized the trips for other schools) which was full of my Calvin and Hobbes books, about two dozen cassette tapes, a couple of novels (both of which went unread), snacks, toiletries (toothpaste, soap, shampoo, bla bla bla), and a bunch of other things that I thought might come in handy during the trip.

The next thing I did was finish a booby-trap on my computer. It wasn’t to keep anyone out, but it was designed to print something very important. Call my a skeptic, call me paranoid, call me what you will. This was the first time traveling anywhere without family, and my first time out of the continent. There was no way for me to know if I would ever be coming back.

I programmed my computer to print my Last Will and Testament two days after the day I was supposed to return, which was, ironically, my birthday. I was supposed to remember to tell my parents (my mother specifically) to turn my computer on every day, so the program would work. (Under the guise that the computer needed to be turned on so it would keep working. My parents believed anything when it came to computers.) But I forgot. As it turns out, I was only paranoid. But there’s always that nagging “what if?” that lurks in the shadows of my mind.

The only other thing I still needed to do was obtain some foreign currency. I had two or three hundred dollars in American Express Travelers Cheques, but I needed some spare cash for Helsinki. While I was at it, I should have also changed some money for Rubles, as the rate at Deaks International was better than in the Soviet Union (go figure). But that would be on the way to the airport.

We had to be at the airport for 15:00, where we would meet with the rest of the group. Our flight was at 17:00, so we wanted to make sure that we had the time to get all 46 of us checked in. My family likes to be early for such things, and we had a few stops to make along the way, so we left around 13:30.

First stop was a couple blocks from my home to pick up Laila, to whom we had offered a lift. It took only a few moments to load her bags (of which she had two: a suitcase and a carryon bag) in the back of van, but a while longer to get through the traditional teary-eyed goodbye to her mother (Laila’s father was at work). Then it was off to Square One.

Square One is a mall in downtown Mississauga, and is probably the largest mall in Ontario. But Deaks was right next to one of the entrances, and not terribly busy. So it was a matter of running in, switching about $50 into Finnish marks, and running back out. Our last stop was to pick up my father.

My father’s office wasn’t too far away, just a quick jaunt up Highway 10 from Square One. From his office, you can see the low-flying planes landing at Pearson International Airport, less than 10 kilometres away. For an international airport, Pearson has got to be the most mismanaged airport in North America. For example, other international airports operate 24 hours a day. Pearson can only operate from about 07:00 to about 23:00.

Why such odd times? Well, somewhere along the line, someone let developers build subdivisions around the airport. Then the IQ level of homebuyers dropped, and people seemed to think that living near an airport wasn’t such a bad idea. Then they realized just how loud it was. So they complained to the governments, and the next thing we knew, the airport stopped running flights late at night. After all, who would be so silly to fly on loud, sleep-disturbing planes so late at night?

At any rate, we arrived at Terminal 1 ahead of almost everyone else (which I have to admit, wasn’t much of a surprise). Our group had set aside a meeting of two hours before the flight. I hoped that they wouldn’t be too far behind. I wanted to make sure everyone arrived in time for the flight. I didn’t really want to have to go through arranging tickets for different flights.

When we entered the terminal doors, and found one of our group already waiting. Chris Frederick had arrived a little before us, and was lounging on his suitcase, trademark shades firmly planted over his eyes. His smile seemed to indicate a lessening of anxiety that he had entered the wrong terminal. My parents left shortly thereafter, and it became my turn to become anxious.

But my anxiety also dissipated as others appeared over the next 45 minutes. Unfortunately, it didn’t completely go away. And as 15:00 came and went, it started to grow again. The bus that was supposed to be bringing the remainder of the group hadn’t arrived. And the number of people in the check-in area was growing seemingly exponentially. We couldn’t go in either KB had all our tickets.

An audible sigh of relief echoed in our little corner of the terminal as a large yellow school bus appeared just outside the terminal doors, and a large man wearing a yellow visor entered the room with a giant smile smeared across his face. As if on cue, we mounted our bags, and awaited instructions. The confusion all started the moment we entered the check-in area.

The room was wall-to-wall people. We had only an hour and a half until our flight, and from what we could see, there was at least an hour and fifteen minutes of people. We were told to find a line, get in it, and hope for the best. It wasn’t looking good from the beginning. This wasn’t exactly the way I had hoped this crazy little trip.

I and a couple of others stood in a line, completely unable to keep calm so long as the ticket clerk took his time. But then, in the darkness of the hour, a piercing light hit me from across the room. Actually, it was John Philips yelling at me. Our airline, Finnair, had realized that we were in trouble, and had opened a booth specifically for us. In the blink of an eye, we exited our slow moving line and raced across the room to the swifter line.

But our problems didn’t end there. Now most of us were in the single line. The clerk moved like The Flash, processing each person in about half the time it took normally. At first, I admired the man simply for his efficiency. Then I found out the reason for the urgency the airport’s computer was told the flight was at 16:30, not 17:00. In less than 15 minutes after entering the line, the computer would automatically cut ticket distribution off. It seemed there was no override.

If this wasn’t an omen, I wouldn’t have known what was.

As it turns out, I was the last one to check in for our original flight number. Pete and Jason, who were right behind me, both complained at my fortune. I was now wondering what they were going to do. I was wondering also about KB. He would be the last person to check-in. But he also had all of our official documents. So if he wasn’t with us, we were going to have a few problems getting to where we were going. But I couldn’t reverse a check-in, and proceeded through to Security.

Finnair wasn’t about to strand anyone in our group. Instead, they started booking the rest on another flight, bound for Helsinki, but scheduled to leave a half hour after us. And as for my fortune on getting in on the first flight? Not much of a fortune their flight would arrive a half hour ahead of us. I could only assume that they had a faster plane.

And so I proceeded to Security. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Security. Sometimes they’re completely nonchalant about checking people, and that makes me worried about bad eggs slipping through their fingers. On the flip side, they annoy me to no end when they’re in their “everyone is a suspect” mode, and they tear your bags apart looking for anything that might be considered unwanted. They can never get a balance between the two. But better to be annoyed than dead, I guess.

Knowing my luck, I got the annoying one. Despite the fact that I had sent my carryon through the x-ray machine (the camera bag was passed around it, I didn’t want to expose the film), the guard at the other end had a bone to pick with me. She started to pull my bags apart, examining each individual item as if it were a vital clue to an international spy network. She even had to look through my camera, just to make sure it wasn’t concealing a gun or a bomb. Give me a break, lady! I was only 16 (going on 17). I suppose that in some bizarre way I should feel a bit flattered because she honestly seemed to think I was capable of wrongdoing on that scale, but at the same time I wanted to smack her for taking it so far beyond what would be considered appropriate.

She finally gave up trying to arrest me, and with a grump and frown, told me to get lost. I wanted to tell her what to do, but I was more interested in leaving that starting an insult fight. I proceeded to the end of the terminal, where the rest of the group was waiting around for the flight to board. Some were listening to music, others were chatting (most trying to figure out what was going to happen to those who didn’t make our flight we didn’t know about the later flight yet).

I was only there a few minutes when the flight was called, and we started boarding. I pulse was pounding, and liquid excitement surged through my body. Traveling was in my blood, and flying was my favourite way to get somewhere.

Our flight was with Finnair. But for some unknown reason, we weren’t flying with Finnair. We were on a charter line, Crown Airlines. I had flown with a couple of charter lines before (most notably Canada 3000), so I wasn’t all too excited with the prospect of flying on a charter line. (If you’re wondering why, then you’ve never flown on a charter line. Picture a cattle car with wings. Charter lines are interested only with money. They know they’ll get hired by other airlines, so they cram as many seats into their planes as possible. They usually use Airbuses, which live up their name in every detail.)

I was hoping for a Boeing 747. I’d never flown in a 747 before (unless you count the one time I went to BC when I was 21 months old). But we didn’t get a 747. We didn’t get an L1011. We didn’t even get a DC10. I just assumed those were the only planes capable of transatlantic flight. I was wrong there was at least one more: a DC8.

I didn’t think that DC8s were still used as carriers. The design was old, and probably inefficient. Although on the bright side, the design predated the profit-over-comfort theory used by charter lines, so the seat spacing wasn’t so bad. Of course, I was seated next to the emergency exit, so by default my row had more leg room.

Nothing prepared me for the next little detail. Okay, flying a DC8 was bad enough. But it was more specifically known as a DC8 Series 52. Not knowing was the “Series 52” meant, I mistook it to mean: “built in 1952”. Image my shock when I realized that I was going to be flying in a plane built two decades before I was born. The plane, by all rights, was 37 years old. I was ready to jump off and wait for the later flight. As it turns out, the “Series 52” means something completely different, although I have no idea what that is.

Owing to the computer error, the flight was only half full (or half empty, for you pessimists out there). This resulted in me with a row of three seats all to myself. That was until the flight attendants started rearranging passengers. It seems that even with a vehicle that size, a few measly people can through the works out of whack. Thus, I lost my status as a single person when Derek took position next to me. At first I thought badly of the situation I had lost the ability to lie down and stretch out but I came around when I realized I now had someone to talk with.

Despite the earlier departure time (at least according to the airport’s computer), we sat in our seats for nearly an hour before the plane left the terminal. During that time, we saw a Finnair DC10 leave. Derek and I knew that those who didn’t make our flight were on that plane. We were justifiably annoyed about not having left yet.

Somewhere around 17:30 (or later) we finally backed out of the gate, and the plane started rolling towards the runway. I kept muttering to myself: “No turning back!” I started digging through my now disorganized carryon bag (no thanks to the security guard), and pulled out my Batman soundtrack. (Batman had opened a month earlier, and I had purchased the soundtrack shortly thereafter.) I cued up “Batdance”, and waited for the plane to start takeoff. With Prince, Jack Nicholson, and Michael Keaton blaring in my ears, we took to the wild blue yonder, and banked eastward.

Ever taken a transatlantic flight? Ever taken one where you can’t wait to get to the other end? Some people are like that because they don’t like flying the sooner their feet touch terra firma, the better. But I love flying (I’m convinced I had to have been a bird in a previous life). The only reason I wanted to get to the other end was so our adventure could begin. I could hardly contain myself. I wouldn’t be touching ground for another eight hours. And when I did, I would be on another continent.

The traditional minuscule bag of stale peanuts and pop (or other beverage of choice) began moments after we were in the air. The peanuts are usually gone in a mouthful or two, and the drink rarely lasts more than a few minutes. But lucky us, Finnair (or Crown Air) gave us free drinks. I don’t know if it was because of the screw up with boarding, or if it was part of the transatlantic service. At any rate, the offer was readily abused.

The abuse was particularly bad in the back half of the plane, which was where most of our group (who had boarded that particular plane) sat. The only drinks they were interested were the alcoholic sort. (If this wasn’t a sign of things to come, I wouldn’t have known one if I saw it.) Needless to say, those in the back (comprised mostly of the Jeremy Squad) had a great deal of fun during the flight.

I entertained myself with examining my little space of the plane: my chair, the chair in front of me, the magazines in the chair in front of me, sections of the wall — it was amazing what came apart in a plane that old. Derek’s slight phobia of flight came to surface when I started examining things. He became particularly jittery when I managed (without hardly any effort) to pry off part of the wall. (It wasn’t anything major, just some carpeting meant to hide the seams between the plastic panels.) He virtually begged me to put it back, as if the plane’s structural integrity hinged on the carpet remaining on the wall.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890630.21
Day 1
We are now approx. halfway through our journey to Helsinki and are now situated about 35,000 ft. in the air in an old DC8, built in 1952 (real comforting!). The sun is now just rising and most of us (those who ended up on this plane, the rest ended up in a DC10) haven’t slept or haven’t even tried yet. Next stop, Helsinki.

Quick explanation time. Undoubtedly, you’re wondering what’s with the above paragraph. Why the devil is there this strange abbreviation of what happened? What possible purpose could it serve? It was part of our assignment: everyone had to write a journal of what we did and saw.

So why is it here? Well, when I originally wrote my journal, all there was were a little over a dozen entries, similar to the one above. At the time, my handwriting was notoriously bad (to this day I still cannot read one of the entries from Kiev). I knew that if I tried to hand that in, my mark wouldn’t be too good. So I decided to be a good little student, and wrote them out on my computer. Only thing was, the more I wrote, the more I remembered, and the more I wrote. (You can see where this is leading.) The Observer’s Log is what I ended up with.

Anyway, back to the story at hand…

There are a few advantages to half-empty flights (and in this case, half-empty is the optimistic view): less noise, less distractions, more leg room, and more food. Seconds on airplane meals are always welcome, especially when they expect you to survive for eight hours on only a pound or so of food-like substance. I have rarely griped about airplane food (except for “continental breakfasts”, which are a total waste of time there’s barely anything to eat with those), I usually find it quite good. I will admit though, the flight attendant gave me a very odd look when I asked for seconds. I felt a little like a character in a Dickens novel. I needed both helpings just to get me through to Helsinki. (Ironically, it would be the last meal I would have for some time that I actually liked.)

Night never really came that day. You see, it was summer in the northern hemisphere, which meant that the sun was spending more of its time above the equator. The days were longer, and the night shorter. Especially when traveling at 35,000 feet. We saw the sun dip very low along the horizon (almost disappearing into the clouds), and then start to rise again. So although the clocks would tell us a new day had begun, our minds were telling us otherwise.

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Getting Edumacated

I had to suffer through most of the school year, anxiously awaiting departure. The date was set for late June / early July. Ten months of school seemed like an insurmountable barrier. And for a hyper 16 year-old, that was eleven months too long.

In late fall of 1988, those who had signed on were asked to attend an informational forum. I assumed it was to tell us the schedule of events, who to contact for things like passports and visas, and anything else that revolved around the trip. You can imagine the gasp of disbelief from the students when we learned that we had to attend classes.

More school. How utterly depressing.

But that’s how the Board of Education (remember, the morons?) wanted us to learn. We had to attend 90 hours of classes prior to departure. Assumedly, we would learn the background and theoretical information of our destination, which would then be backed up by actual experience. At the time, I thought the entire idea was hideously sadistic. (In retrospect, some eight years later, I see this as nothing but unadulterated genius.) My philosophy behind the affair was simple: we’d learn a lot on the trip, so why not do the 90 hours during the two weeks we were actually in the Soviet Union?

But Boards of Education rarely listen to the student body — something about lack of intelligence (though on whose part is up for debate). So the griping went on for only a short while before we accepted our fate, and waited longingly for the trip to start. Although with the classes in the way, our enthusiasm was diminished slightly.

When the final count was taken, there were 33 students, and 13 adults-cum-chaperones. (The adults didn’t have to attend the classes. Mrs. Pollitt did, only because she was taking the courses along with her son, Derek.) We came from various walks of life, and from all over Halton county (which at the time was a region of six or seven cities/towns/villages, with a combined population of around a half million people.)

Because we were so scattered, the classes were regularly moved between three schools, which were deemed “fair” for those traveling about. They were, in no particular order: White Oaks Secondary, an Oakville high school (though not mine) about 10 minutes from my home; Nelson High School, which was roughly in the middle of Burlington (a half hour drive) and accommodated the very large Burlington compliment of our troop; and E. C. Drury High School, situated in Milton (a little over a half hour drive), which accommodated everyone north of Oakville and Burlington. A fourth school in Acton (over 45 minutes from where I lived) was used in the last three days before the trip to cram as many hours into us as possible given what little time remained.

My mother, Ms. Organization, took it upon herself (amidst my objections, mostly due to shyness) to organize a carpool with everyone from my school — all four of us. It turned out to be a truly advantageous system. First of all, Kelly Hogan, Laila Singh, Pete Skrivanic, and I got to know each other much better (a large bonus in the first couple of classes, until we got to know others in the group). We particularly looked forward to the nights when Kelly drove (she was the only one with a driver’s license), as it allowed us to goof off in the car without fear of repercussions from our parents.

Our first class began on April 5th, 1989. There was one teeny-tiny little problem with our classes: we had to cover all the material that would normally be covered in five months, in fifteen two and a half hour classes. This is not humanly possible. And it gets repetitive. Very repetitive. Annoyingly repetitive. So repetitive, many us got bored after the first half hour. (Which, when you think about it, really doesn’t say much. I know of very few students who paid total attention in any class, regardless of what the subject was, or how long the class lasted.)

On the bright side, we only had two topics to cover: Russian History and Urban Geography. At least this made classes a little easier, as we all still had day school to contend with (which usually mean four to five more classes worth of work). Geography and history, at least for me, were easy topics. For some reason, I liked then both, and could easily pull high scores in tests (Skippy’s Canadian History classes excepted, but only because I slept through half the semester).

To guide us along that long and dark path of knowledge, we had four teachers (and three supervisors who kept an eye on us). Mr. Black was the Master of Ceremonies, and wasn’t directly involved with the course material ( without him, there would have been no trip at all). Performing the dirty work were our history and geography teachers, John Phillips and William O’Reilly (I often think that if there had been a hierarchy in all this, Mr. O’Reilly would be a staunch second or third). The last teacher was Mr. Hanson. He was more a gopher (e.g. “Go fer”) than a teacher, as the only thing he taught was Driver’s Ed, which few of us needed at the time.

Then there was our set of in-class supervisors. First off, we had an elderly couple, the Findlays. (Glen Findlay was my other choice for second or third in the hierarchy.) Mr. Findlay was a bit of a spoilsport, but he knew when to take control of things. We had no idea whether or not they had been teachers before or if they were just good friends of Mr. Black’s, but they were there anyway. They didn’t do much academically, but they were instrumental in getting our visas processed.

The other supervisor was a little off the wall. Greg Lane was a graduating student of Mr. Black’s, and was anything but supervisory. He would take cues from the other supervisors and teachers until such time as Greg was the only one. Then it became an all-out party. To this day, I still wonder what possessed Mr. Black to make Greg a person of supposed authority.

It was in the first few classes that we really needed the Findlays. We had to organize all our visas and passports, not to mention the pictures for them, in the first month. If you thought the Canadian Government (or whichever government you’re subjected to locally) was slow, guess again. The Canadian Government has to deal with some 25 million people, all at the same time. The Soviet Embassy only has to deal with probably a few hundred (give or take a few hundred), and we still didn’t get our visas until two days before we left.

We spent most of our class time absorbing information about the history of the Soviet Union, and the geographical theories that accompanied the studies of the areas we would be going to. The history was interesting, but the geography was snoresville! (Mr. O’Reilly was not exactly what I would call a riveting lecturer.) The history was very in-depth, most likely due to the short period of time we were studying. Prior to the classes (dating back into my childhood), I had gained a passion for documentaries, which probably fed my interest in history. But now I had a really large infatuation for documentaries on pre-World War Two Soviet Union. Some may find them dull, but I, for some reason, didn’t.

Our history lessons began around 1800’s Russia and progressed from there. We probably should have started a little earlier (about 800 AD probably would have been sufficient) but then we wouldn’t have been able to finish in time for the trip given the depth of detail we received. We started in the Czarist regime, just before Nicholas II popped his little head into the picture. (I had heard a little about Nicholas II, and I thought he was simply a moron. But it turned out he was a monarch who made a couple of bad mistakes, ones that cost him and his entire family their lives. And contrary to common belief, Anastasia wasn’t spared, she died with the rest of Romanov family.)

We also had a few lessons in speaking Russian. Pete Skrivanic’s family had emigrated from a Russian-speaking country, so he knew a bit of the language. Mr. Black coaxed him into giving the class a few key phrases and words that might get us through the country in one piece. (We even got the venerable “Where is the bathroom?”)

Our classes were aimed towards going on the trip. This was most evident when Mr. Black had a professional photographer come into tell us how to take good looking pictures. This woman was so pretentious, she had an entire forest firmly rooted in her rectum. She spent half her time telling us our pictures were crap (even before we took said pictures), and extolling her perfection. (Which, in my humble opinion, were at best average. Good looking, but average.)

The hardest time for the classes came in June, which for many people meant final exams. It was particularly bad for the four from my school — almost all the schools outside of Oakville started their exams earlier. And not all of them were at the same time. As one could expect, this caused a fair bit of trouble — we all ended up missing at least one class each. The worst part of the deal was that we were expected to make up for time lost. It seemed mildly unfair. We couldn’t control when the exams were scheduled. Why should we be punished for that? In the end it turned out that we weren’t the only four — a few others from other schools also fell victim.

The last three classes were held on June 27-29, at Acton High School. They were full-day classes, designed to cram that last few hundred facts and details into us before we left. It was an uncomfortable three days, if for only the fact that the room we used was air-conditioned. Painfully air-conditioned. During that time we reviewed the material we had studied, and watched a Soviet movie — Dr. Zhivago. Beautiful movie, but I saw little use in our courses. (For those of you unawares, Dr. Zhivago is a Hollywood production.)

Those last classes were also used to finalize the last of the details. Up until that point, we weren’t entirely sure what was going on. You see, when you went to the Soviet Union, you had to deal with Intourist, the Soviet Union’s tourism bureau. Unlike other countries where they simply give you information and you go where you please, Intourist tells you were you may go and arranges everything for you. They even changed our plans for outside of the Soviet Union. Originally, we were scheduled to pass through Berlin on our way east. But Intourist said “nyet”. Helsinki was put in as a replacement.

Once the classes were over, the next step was to pack, and prepare for the journey of a lifetime…

Well, almost.

There was one thing, that at least for me, was hindering some excitement. On June 9th, 1989, the Chinese Government cracked down on democracy supporters and students in Tianamen Square. So what did mean for me? After all, it was China, not the Soviet Union. Well, as history seems to indicate, Communism, like birds of a feather, tend to stick together with one another. Hence, I began to get a little worried. What if the crackdown soured some sentiments back in Moscow, which would in turn lead to problems for us? Whether anyone else had these same thoughts, I have no clue. (I never discussed any of my apprehensions with anyone else.)

Did we encounter any problems? Well, read the story, and you’ll know the whole truth.

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Introduction

High school, at least as it’s made out in the movies, is supposed to be the best (and worst, depending on where you fit into the social cliques) time of your life. (According to some of my university professors, post-secondary education is supposed to be the best time of your life, but I found it about the same as high school.) For me, it was just something else to go though.

My high school career, non-academically speaking, was pretty dull. I had a few friends, most of whom where classified as either “geeks”, “nerds”, or “weirdos” (I personally fell into the latter), but no friends by whom I could refer to as a “significant other”. To put it mildly, a rotting corpse saw more action than I did. But that’s a whole other story, and not what I’m trying to get at here.

Where was I? Right, high school.

It was dull. Following Grade 9, I figured out how the education system in high school worked, and how to get through it in one piece. Pattern is not a kind mistress however, and I soon found myself, well, unfulfilled. I don’t know how else to explain it, other than there was nothing there to truly interest me. Maybe it was the courses I was taking. Maybe it was the teachers. Maybe it was because our school was so old you could kick holes in the walls.

Everything was reasonably dull — until one fateful day in Grade 10.

My Canadian History course with Mr. Lloyd was one of my daily tortures. Don’t get me wrong – there was never a nicer man. But history is a dull enough subject without the Human Sleeping Pill as the teacher. Mr. Lloyd (whom his students called “Skippy”, alluding to an incident where an old student of his covered his treasured blue bicycle with peanut butter) was from England. (That in itself should be indicative, but I’ll continue nonetheless.) He had a heavy Welsh accent, and a very soft, airy voice. Even if you were strung out on caffeine and cocaine, he could put you to sleep in under five minutes. (I still wonder how in the world I ever passed one of his courses.

This particular day though, he was interrupted by a largish man by the name of Keith Black. Mr. Black hailed from Acton High School, about 45 minutes north of Oakville, which was where I lived. He was there to introduce us to the joys of learning abroad.

He ran a project in Halton County (my educational district) where students could earn up to two credits by traveling to another country (or set of countries). I was so rapt with attention, even Mr. Lloyd would have a tough time putting me to sleep. It was essentially summer school, which many of my fellow students balked at. But it was a summer (or part thereof) in the Orient.

The Orient! I’d never been there! I’d always wanted to go. At least ever since Mr. Black had mentioned it. Immediately any apprehensions I’d had of the six foot tall, two hundred and fifty pound teacher who looks right of the movies (the kind that’ll nail you with a detention if you so much as sneeze in class?) disappeared. He passed a sheet around, on which a few of us signed our names as wanting some more information. It was a signature that would eventually change my life. (Whether for better or for worse has still to be decided.

When he left the class, we returned to our history lesson. Whatever that lesson was, it sucked my mind out of my head, wrung it dry, and placed it back in without my ever knowing it had ever left. As much as I hate to admit it, I forgot all about Keith Black’s visit within a couple of weeks. Suffice to say, when on a dark night in July the phone rang with purpose, I was completely dumbfounded when a stranger called for me about a trip to the Orient.

It took some time for the rusty gears in my mind to start turning. This was due to several things: first, the presentation had been some ten months earlier, so I was less likely to remember; I was working for my father’s company as a general labourer (I essentially spent two months cleaning up the messes the workers left behind, a mind numbing task at best); and it was summer, when all students’ brains automatically begin to atrophy. I had to sift through ten months of trivial garbage before remembering the fateful encounter.

According to Mr. Black, everything was “go” for the trip to the Orient. My parents must’ve been somewhat concerned, as my body was vibrating with excitement. Then the other shoe dropped. The Directors at the Board of Education (euphemistically referred to as “morons”) failed to see any educational value in such a trip (unlike similar trips which had been ongoing for years), and had canceled the academic credits. The trip was still going, but without the possibility of gaining some ground in school, I knew the chances of convincing my parents to let me go were significantly lower (about the same odds as Canada taking over the United States in a military confrontation).

My body shifted from vibrating to implosion. I was not a happy camper. About to hang up on Mr. Black, he quickly interjected with an alternative: the Soviet Union. Behind the Iron Curtain. In Communist Territory. Needless to say, I started vibrating again. Unlike the Orient tour, this escapade did have academic backing (again I restate: morons). I spent the next 15 minutes writing furiously as Mr. Black gave me the low-down on the trip.

With the credits approved, it seemed more likely that I could get approval from my parents to go. Actually, approval wasn’t the only thing I needed. There was also the issue of $1,500 to cover the costs. (Remember, I was about to enter Grade 11. My $6.50/hr job didn’t afford me that kind of a luxury.) By the end, I was as excited as my little sister (who was excited only because she wanted to use the phone – but then, don’t little sisters always want to use the phone?). And so I started my master plan: Operation Beg.

For four months I begged, pleaded, dropped hints (both blatant and subliminal), attempted to save money, considered robbing a bank, anything that would get me the necessary funds to get me on that trip. In the end, I won, but only through the gracious generousity of my grandmother. I’m nearly certain that I caught the travel bug from her, and I can only assume that she recognized it in me. There’s something to be said about supporting what some might call a bad habit.

I was to be the first person from my family in God-only-knows how many generations to visit the Soviet Union (or Russia, for that matter). My parents were sold on a few things. Price for one, the trip was surprisingly inexpensive (when compared to other such trips). I would also get the two credits I needed for school. And last, but most certainly not least, my parents would be getting rid of me for two weeks.

There were obviously good parts in all this for me. For starters, I would be leaving North America for the first time in my life, and entering a country that hasn’t been completely commercialized. (Given, the Soviet Union “sanitized” their society from tourists – separate hotels, tourist-only gift shops, and so forth.) Maybe the best part was that it was behind the Iron Curtain. I would get to see first-hand the Communist society, and see how all of Gorbachev’s policies were really working.

The rest, as you can probably guess, is history.