Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Touring Helsinki and Heading Home

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890714.17

Day 15

We are presently at our cruising altitude of 31,000 ft heading for New York. A few minutes ago, we passed over Iceland. Earlier this morning, Kelly B., Pete and myself scouted out the market by the harbour. It felt so good to smell fresh fruit after two weeks of fish. I got to freak out a couple of people who were at breakfast today. They leave (probably left by now) for Moscow today. Both of them HATE fish.

During our tour today, we saw the neatest church. Built in the sixties, it is embedded in a rocky hill. Only the doors and dome are visible. We also went to a park dedicated to a famous Finnish composer, but I can’t spell let alone remember his name! We are approx. 4 hours. out of New York. Almost Home.

No-one in our room moved quickly that morning. My alarm went off, instantly waking everyone in the room. Although we were awake, we were slow to move. My brain was the first to kick in and as a result, was the first in the shower. That was a slow morning. After I got out, feeling a hell of a lot better than I went in, I changed into the clothes that were to last me for the next 24 hours and stuffed everything else into my suitcase.

Leaving our baggage in our room, we progressed downstairs for breakfast. What a surprise! Pancakes, cereal and milk, eggs, just about anything we hadn’t had in the past two weeks. But in all that wonderful food, the only thing I could eat was the same thing we had been eating for the past two weeks. Talk about pathetic irony.

As I ate with Jason, we were joined by a pair of girls who were heading to the Soviet Union that day. When she asked us what to expect, we let her in on most of the ugly details. God it was fun! My favorite part was when we told one of them that fish was served every night at dinner. She hated fish. After two weeks, so did I.

Following breakfast, we ended up with about two hours of free time to get in a shopping or whatever before we had to leave to catch our flight to New York. Pete, Kelly, Jason and I decided to see what we could find. We got about a block before we ran into Mr. and Mrs. Hosking who were returning after an early morning romp through Helsinki. That’s when we found out about the open market at the harbour.

Our mission: find the market. We didn’t realize how close we were to the harbour to begin with. It just took us a while to find it. After going down enough roads, we managed to run into Kim and Lisa P, who were shopping (of all things). That’s when we lost Jason to Kim.

So the remaining three of us continued in the quest for the bazaar. We ended up in the old town square, thinking that’s where the market was. It wasn’t. And we had no idea where to go. Kelly however, with her eagle eyes, spotted something through an alley. So we followed her lead down the narrowest sidewalk I had ever been on to end up across the street from the market.

Even from there, our lungs were filled with the smell of fresh fruit. It was heaven. After two weeks of smog and canned peas that had the consistency of monkey balls, the smell of fresh strawberries was unbelievable good, even though I can only eat them frozen in ice cream. The market itself isn’t permanent and probably changes its configuration from day to day. But I’ll guarantee that they do a lot of business no matter where they are. Fruit stands, vegetable stands and souvenir stands were all over the place. We had a ball. Pete and Kelly indulged themselves on a large basket of strawberries while I spent sometime looking around to see what I could find.

Lo and behold, I found a stand that sold t-shirts, my favorite kind of souvenir. I quickly found a shirt that said “Suomi Finland”. Suomi means Finland in Finnish. I had to get it. But I found another shirt that I wanted. It said “I survived CCCP”. I got ’em both, and they weren’t cheap. I thought I was going to have a bit of trouble communicating with the person attending. But much to my surprise, she spoke perfect English, with no accent yet! Couldn’t resist a chat with her.

After my purchase, the three of us continued to look around. I was kind of amazed at all the fur hats, fur coats, fur anything and everything. Animal rights activists would have had a field day! But we were more interested in other things. We found another booth that sold t-shirts, attended by a guy who looked awful familiar. Then I placed him. Remember that episode of Gilligan’s Island where a Russian dresses up like a ghost and tries to scare the castaways off the island? He looked like the Russian. Uncanny resemblance. We talked with him too. Pete bought a t-shirt I rather liked. It had a Nazi swastika in one circle, a Sickle and hammer in another. Both had large slashes through them. Humourous, I must admit.

After that, we had no choice but to return to our hotel, so we could head for the airport. Upon our arrival, we temporarily split up (Kelly to her room, Pete and I to ours) to retrieve our luggage. But Shaun or Jason had the key, and neither of them had returned yet so we couldn’t get in. I had to get a spare from the front desk. We then hauled our luggage down and I dropped the key back off as both Jason and Shaun had returned. Our bags were loaded on the bus and we took our spots on the bus waiting for the others.

Finally, we were ready to roll, tour guide and all. Our flight didn’t leave until about two o’clock so we had some time to kill. We didn’t leave right away though, we had to wait for a couple of people to return their keys. There were a handful of people who tried to keep their room keys from every hotel we stayed at. The ones in the Soviet Union were fairly easy to keep, but this one wanted them all back, or we wouldn’t get our passports.

Finally, Greg returned his key and we were on our way. Helsinki is a nice place to visit and search by yourself, unlike Soviet cities. By bus tour, it’s not so nice. We came to the same square that Kelly, Pete and I had found earlier. We stopped for a quick photo session. Then we loaded back up to continue the trip. We passed by the market and through the downtown core of Helsinki. Along our route, our guide filled us in on some problems in Helsinki, namely the price of homes. If you want to move there, try and find a small apartment, that’s about as much as you’ll be able to afford, unless you’re rich.

We passed several embassies, America, Turkish, and the new British embassy, still under construction. That road soon brought us to the shoreline, where we found people cleaning their rugs in the sea water, which we were told was a kind of ritual. A short trip from there brought us to the Helsinki shipyards. We didn’t get off, we just went by it. But we miss anything, we got a good look at the biggest cruise liner I have ever seen. Undoubtedly they’ll get bigger in the coming years. At that point we reentered the city. We never really left, we just got away from most of the buildings. We were then briefed on a church.

“Another church?” I thought to myself in dismay. This was no ordinary church though, from the outside, it looked like a large pile of rocks. Of course, that’s what it was supposed to look like, or so we were told. We stopped at near the entrance, part of our tour was to take us inside. From the outside, looking through the doors, it still didn’t look like a church. It looked more like some fad sixties house than a religious structure. Inside, we were told to be quieter than church mice. That was hard in that place, there were no mice in there to model ourselves after.

Besides, the place was so awesome, we couldn’t help talking about it. The inside was circular, with one door. The main room was about fifty to sixty metres in diametre and about twenty metres high. The roof alone was interesting, made from eighteen miles of copper wire. Between the outer edge of the roof and the top of the wall was a ring of clear windows.

Across the room from the doors and a little to the left (I think) sat the organ, its pipes creeping up the wall. Immediately across from the door sat the traditional cross. Except for those two items, it sure didn’t look like church to me. That’s probably why I liked it so much.

The church is small, not much larger than the majority of the ones we visited in the Soviet Union. As a result, the structure quickly lost its intrigue, and most of us exited to find something a bit more interesting. What we found was a store across the road. A few of us picked up something to drink while the rest of us view the souvenirs. I already had two t-shirts, and didn’t need anything else.

Our tour progressed back to the waterfront, along the shore to a memorial park not far from the city’s centre. From the edge, you have no idea who it’s a memorial to, there are no signs. It’s when you find the sculptures in the middle that you know. To the man who created Finlandia, Sibelius.

To be honest with you, I had never heard of him before. If I had, I don’t remember it. The park was small, many trees, a small pond with a fountain in the centre, a sculpture made of long vertical tubes and a relief of Sibelius’ head. We didn’t stay there long, there really wasn’t much else to see. We hopped back on the bus and headed back into the city again, hoping that we’d find something a little interesting.

We soon arrived at the site of the 1952 Summer Olympics. We didn’t get off the bus though, we were getting a bit pressed for time. We took a few quick pictures as we zipped by. We did stop a bit after it, where our tour guide got off. Our next and final destination was the airport.

It didn’t take us long, we only got about three quarters of the way through American Pie (the extended version) before we arrived at the airport. At that point, the bus was emptied of its occupants and cargo beneath. We headed inside and walked rather briskly to the check-in counters for the long task of departure. It took about ten to twenty minutes to check everyone in. I was one of the last in line. By the time my turn came around, the only other person left was Jason.

“Would to two of you liked to be seated together?” was the clerks question.

Now I probably didn’t get across the strain that Jason and I shared during the last few days of the trip. But we both knew that relations were strained and we knew how long the flight was. We both knew the answer.

“After two weeks of living with each other, we’ll be at each other’s throats in under two hours.” we replied in unison.

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’.” said the clerk.

“Smart man.” said Jason. So we ended up at opposite ends of the plane.

Following the usual routine, we ended up in the X-ray zone. As my largest bag had already been sent on to the plane from check-in, all I had was my camera bag and my carryon. The carryon bag went in but I tried to pass my camera bag around. All I got was …

“If the film speed is a thousand or over, we’ll look at it. Otherwise just pass it through please.” said one of the guards in a monotone voice. Boy these guys looked like they liked their jobs!

When I reached the other side, which for some odd reason looked a little familiar (gee, I wonder why), I happened to find everyone else. We were all grouped around the gate to our airplane (it was the first time since Toronto that we didn’t get on from the tarmac since Toronto). We had about 45 minutes before our plane boarded. This gave us some time to check out the stores again. I say again because we had checked them all out two weeks before. We did managed to pick up something to eat and drink. That was a good idea as we wouldn’t get anything to eat until later on during the flight.

While I was looking around, I managed to see a sign of departure flights. A flight was leaving as I watched … to Toronto. We could have made that flight easily if we hadn’t taken that tour in the morning. Instead, we had to go through JFK and La Guardia before we got home. A small side trip that would soon prove to be rather interesting.

At about a quarter to two, we boarded for our flight. I was four rows from the rear of our DC10. I had never been in a DC10 before and I’ll tell you one thing, I wish we were in a DC8. There was no leg room at all. It was a nine hour flight to top it off.

Four days after we got home, my dislike of DC10’s grew to a pure fear of them, when a DC10 almost identical to ours (aside from the airline) crashed in Sioux City, Iowa. That completely freaked me out. I know that it was a chance occurrence, but it still gave the willies.

Anyway, at about five minutes after two, we departed from the terminal and taxied to our position on the runway. It was one of the few times we left on time. In the Soviet Union, we really didn’t have a departure time, so we never knew if we were early or late. I had a window seat once again. My neighbour was a Finnish businessman heading for New York on, what else, business. We talked only a few times during the entire flight. I have to remember for the future to get an aisle seat on long flights. My earlier decision not to sit with Jason was proved to be of poor judgment.

About an hour and a half into the flight, our lunch (or dinner as that case might have been, I had no idea what time it was) was served. Being airplane food (which I like a lot), it did not last long in front of me. Unfortunately, the flight was full and that was all I got. Roughly an hour later, we got our in-flight film, Cousins. BORING! I couldn’t watch it at all. I mean come on! In June they had Rain Man and at that time, half way around the world, they had one of my favorite films, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? No wonder the flight went so slow.

Along our route, we passed over Quebec. I kept thinking “Hey, just give me a parachute. I’ve had enough of this flight!” But we kept on towards the U.S. of A. After an eternity on the air, we set down at John F. Kennedy International airport just outside of New York. Then the irony and the fun began. Irony? For starters, it was pissing rain. I was not having a good day. The last thing I wanted to see was rain. And to make it worse, we didn’t even come near the terminal to get off. We parked out on the tarmac again! So we waited for special lift buses to come and take us over to the terminal. Those of us in the back had to wait a hell of a long time to finally get out. So far, not so good.

When we got off in the terminal, we were directed down the hall. Dummy me, I should have known … Immigration and Customs. Our connecting flight was at La Guardia and for the life of me, I’ll never understand why they don’t just have a shuttle bus!

There were about a thousand people in that room. Most of them were from a country other than Canada. In case you’re wondering, Canadians get easy access to America, but not as easily as Americans. Jamie, being an American, just walked right through to a very short American entrance.

The line moved agonizingly slow. Mr. Phillips, Jeremy and Andrew were the first of our group to hit the line. The Three Musketeers, Konrad, Chris, Marcus and myself were not far behind. We knew that we had a while to wait. Almost an hour and a half later, we were about to get to the immigration booths. There was a guard at the front, guiding us to awaiting booths. That must be the worst place to work if you hate people.

Once we got through, we all headed over to the baggage retrieval area. Those of us who had accumulated then tried to get the bags of others in our group and group them all together. Slowly, one by one, more of our group came through. This was not good, they were coming in too slow. The clock was ticking fast. We had precious little time before our flight and we all wanted to make it. Because of this, Mr. Phillips took off to try and find our bus. But before leaving, he gave us strict instructions not to go through customs.

About fifteen minutes later, some of us began to go through. We couldn’t be bothered to wait any longer. However, a few of us didn’t quite get the idea that we had to pass by clerks. Those of us who did had to turn them back, otherwise they wouldn’t get out of that room. We didn’t stay long on the other side. Security then had us move outside. It was probably for the better, it was getting rather warm in there.

We found our spot outside at the corner of an overhang in the fresh air (fresh New York air? Another oxymoron). Fortunately for us there was a roof over our heads. As most of us were getting comfortable, we saw a distant flash followed five seconds later by a clap of thunder.

Remembering the Kiev Night train, I instinctively turned around and glanced at Toni. I was right. Her dismal mood (similar to everyone else’s) had suddenly brightened up and her frown was replaced with a huge smile.

“AWRIGHT!” she cheered at the sound of thunder. Her mood perked a few of us up too.

Then the rain hit. And it did not come lightly. A better analogy than rain might be Niagara Falls. This was maybe the first time everyone dug out their rain jackets so they wouldn’t get soaked. Even under the overhang we were getting wet.

A long wait later, KB finally showed with the bad news. Our bus had come for us, but because we didn’t show up (we were still in Immigration), it took off without us. KB had to phone Stockholm, Sweden (the HQ of EF) to get the name of our bus company. A second call went out to find our bus. He was assured one would arrive in time.

We picked all our stuff up and headed over to the area KB said the bus would come and pick us up. No problem right? Almost. We had less than half an hour to get to La Guardia, check-in and get to our plane. Everyone was ready when the bus did arrive. The bags were loaded at light speed and we were outta there in under five minutes. But we still had one very large problem … we were trying to get to one of the busiest airports on the Eastern coast, on a Friday, during rush hour. Time was not on our side.

We found out the name of our driver through the efforts of Lisa P. When she screamed it to the rest of the bus, all of us started cheering at him. A couple of us shouted …

“STEP ON IT GEORGE!!”

We popped Mr. Phillips’ tape back in and finished off the last quarter of American Pie. We listed to only two or three songs during the time we were going to La Guardia. Hotel California and the above are the ones I remember.

It was looking like a lost cause. Most of us doubted that we were going to make that flight. Konrad (my neighbour at the time) believed that we would make it. He tried to get everyone else going via The Wave, but didn’t get much response. Just as it was beginning to look utterly hopeless, someone spotted a low flying DC9. La Guardia! Everyone’s hopes suddenly lifted two fold. But we had only about ten minutes to catch that plane. George spotted a break in the traffic and floored it, getting us into the airport’s driveway.

We got in at the Eastern end (and saw the pilots on strike) and began to pass every major (and no so major) air carrier along the way. Knowing our luck, Air Canada was at the other end.

Four minutes. We unloaded the bus almost as fast as we had loaded it. Those of us who were on the ball then whipped inside to the check-in counter. KB, of course was already there. I put my bag up to be tagged, so did Konrad.

Then the two of us looked at KB and asked “What now?” He replied to go down the hall and make the flight. So Konrad, Mr. McClelland, Paul, John and I whipped around the corner and charged down the hall as fast as we could go. Ben Johnson had nothing on us.

Three minutes. I could have sworn I heard the William Tell Overture as we whipped through the crowd of people heading for their respective flights. Then all of the sudden, the crowd got very dense. We had forgotten about the metal detectors and X-ray machine. I had to grab Konrad by his suspenders before he shot right through them. This was not going well at all.

Two minutes. We were fidgeting in line, it was obvious even to us. We were so close, yet so far. When our turn came, I didn’t give a damn about my film, I just tossed it in there. I set off the metal detector with all my coins, but the guard let me go.

One minute. The five of us continued to travel down the hall like stampeding bulls. We almost charged right by our gate. But we managed to stop on a dime (and got nine cents change). We went to one desk and were sent to another. But we made it. Before we boarded though, we told the clerks there that there were forty other people yet to come.

Everyone else made it onto the plane, but were scattered. Most of us were in the rear of the plane, the rest were somewhere up front. Greg and KB ended up in first class (the scum!). Due to our tardiness arriving, the plane was delayed at the terminal about an hour. Our luggage was going to arrive in Toronto at the same time we did. I swore never to gripe about a delayed flight again.

When we did finally leave the terminal, we thought it would be a simple wait of three or four planes and we would be off. Yeah, right! This was New York’s La Guardia, on a Friday, during rush hour. English translation: we had to wait for thirty other planes to go first.

Okay, I had to gripe about that. Everyone in the plane did. Ten I could believe, but not three times that number. Now that’s just plane outrageous. Over two hours after we were to take off, we were getting ready to follow suit. From my position in the middle of three seats, looking out the left and side windows, I could see New York, over what I assumed to be the East River.

I wanted to see New York, I intend to visit there one day. That day will be December 31st, 1999. Hey, I wanna be around for the biggest bash the human race will ever see. And I won’t be going alone!

Suddenly, the engines roared. The G-forces crept up on us, pushing us back in our seats. Next thing we knew, we were in the wild blue yonder, only a metal casing between us, a few thousand feet and the ground. The flight was a short one, a little over an hour or so. There wasn’t much to see or do. A lot of us fell asleep, it was late in the evening back in Helsinki, the time we were still working on.

During the flight, I kept playing a tune over and over in my head. I didn’t have the tape (I had neglected to bring it) but after listening to it enough to wear it out, I had it memorized. It was one of Phil Collins’ classics, a rather fitting one for us all. Take me home.

The plane began to descend, soon we saw Hamilton harbour. We were close, very close. The plane continued to get lower. I dug for another tape in my bag. The wing extended and the landing gear dropped. It would not be long now. Timing landings was something I was always good at. The theme to Mission: Impossible finished just seconds before we touched down. When we did, everyone in the back let out a very loud cheer. We were home.

And for the first time since we left, we pulled into the terminal to get off. No more buses. We were in no rush to get off the plane. We were all half comatose. But before we could go completely brain dead, we had to get through customs. Two booths and about a hundred people. As we were at the back of the plane, we were also in the back of the line. The crew of the airline had no trouble, they whipped right through their own personal line. One of them commented about my hat. I was wearing the one I had traded for with Igor, it was coated with all my pins.

The guard at the crew’s booth opened it to the rest of us, and I jumped to be the first in line.

“Where are you coming from?” he asked me.

“Soviet Union.” I replied wearily.

“Welcome back.”

“Thanks, I needed that!”

One by one, we got through and headed down the escalator to the baggage claim area. Our luggage was just beginning to come through. KB had already got his and was working his way out. We had to check in with him before we left. A couple seconds later, my only piece of luggage appeared. I hefted it off the conveyor belt and without a second thought, headed outside.

I found KB talking to my dad (somehow, I wasn’t surprised at all). I then told KB I was cutting out before I fell flat on my face. I was utterly drained.

“So Tigger [that’s what my dad calls me], how are ya?” asked my father.

“Dad,” I said in a very weary voice, “all I want is three things: my own bed, a long sleep, and a large pizza with double cheese and pepperoni!”

With that my mom, my dad and I vacated the premises for home. I only wish that I had stuck around to say goodbye to everyone. I knew that we were to get together again in September to finish the last of our classes, but I still felt like I had to say “catch ya later dudes!”

I can imagine (something I do rather well) what happened. I can guess that a fair number of people cried and undoubtedly, phone numbers were passed around. By that time, I was on the highway home. Upon my arrival, I grabbed something to eat (we hadn’t eaten a thing since the Helsinki flight, aside from a pack of peanuts at La Guardia), brushed my teeth, scribbled down a final journal entry and went to bed.

I should have fallen asleep. But I still couldn’t help but think about one thing. It had been nagging be ever since I had got up that morning. Was that night really the end? Or was it simply the beginning of something much larger? Only time will tell.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

We barely made our connecting flight to Toronto. You should have seen us sprinting through La Guardia in order to make our flight. Because of us, the flight was delayed about an hour and we had to taxi behind about 30 other planes. Upon arrival in Toronto, we all cheered. We then went through customs, said our good-byes, and disappeared into the night.

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