25 years of The Observer

Though I didn’t know it at the time — how could I, I was but a lad of 16 — my blogging alter ego, The Observer, was born 25 years ago today.

Twenty-five years ago, my family took me to the airport, dropped me into the hands of chaperones who would keep me out of the gulag (or at least out of serious trouble), and I set off on my first real adventure.

Well, that’s actually kind of unfair. The problem with “adventure” is trying to understand it through perspective.

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20 years of blogging (and Post #1,000)

Well, okay, not so much “blogging” as journaling, but most of them are now online for everyone to ignore.

Twenty years ago, I got to do something that (comparatively) very few westerners got to do, and will never get to do again: I went behind the Iron Curtain. I visited the (former) Soviet Union. Believe it or not, the journey was a field trip, organised by one of the teachers in my school board. We had to do prerequisite classwork and had to write two length reports, all of which added up to academic credits.

And we had to write a journal.

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A Decade since the Soviet Union, Birthday of the Observer

10 years.

[[Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Leaving Canada|I can’t believe it has been 10 years.]]

On 30 June 1989, I departed for the first of what would become a string of interesting journeys into the unknown. This was my first trip out of North America, and my first trip as an Observer.

I can’t help but be somewhat reflective upon the arrival of this date. 10 years, no matter who you are, is a long period of time. A lot of things can happen in 10 years … certainly that is true for me.

Don’t worry — I’m not about to bombard you with a list of the things that have happened to me — that would be grounds for Amnesty International to boycott me for human rights violations.

10 years ago, I left Canada as a naive teenager, ready to take on the world without fear, not really knowing what the outside world was like. I learned a few things on that trip, but what surprised me most were the things I learned about myself. 10 years later, I’m still surprising myself, each and every day.

I suppose when I stop being surprised, I’ll stop living…

I’ve seen many changes in myself, even over the past five years. Most of my friends and family have seen these changes. If you don’t think I haven’t changed, just remember what I was like when:

a) I was in high school.
b) You first met me.

(For those of you who have met me within the past two years, you might not have really noticed much. So take my word for it. I’m certain those who have known me a while will back me up.)

The next obvious question is: What’s in store for the next 10 years? Who knows… it could be anything. Always in motion, is the future. It’s hard to see, tough to grasp, nearly impossible to predict. That’s what I find interesting about it — the inability to classify it properly. It scares some people, frustrates others. For me, it’s another challenge to overcome.

Today, the Observer is 10 years old, and is ready to enter his decade of development. With luck, the Observer will keep me young when I start getting old (particularly important, since my birthday comes up in a couple of weeks).

Tomorrow, Allison and I are off to scare the inhabitants of the Okanagan. You’ll hear about it on Monday.

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.

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Traveling to Helsinki

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890713.11

Day 14

We have just visited St. Issac’s Cathedral near the Neva. It is a very large cathedral, compared to others that we have seen. Established in the early to mid 1800’s, it is a younger cathedral but due to Nazi attack, it is one that has needed much restoration. The inside is very impressive. There is a ton of room and precious metals and stones line the walls and pillars. The outside still needs some work but it still looks fine. One of the most impressive things is that the entire building is set on hundreds of logs. Another is the pillars out front. They are about 100 ft. high and about 10 ft. wide and all one piece.

I didn’t give Pete or Shaun a wake up call that morning. I didn’t think they needed one. They didn’t, they were downstairs before me with their luggage. We checked out before breakfast, we would not be returning there for lunch. From there came breakfast at the restaurant ’round the corner. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who had been bugged. The only difference was that Lisa V’s, Lisa P’s and Greg’s bugs were all cockroaches.

I never saw any cockroaches in my room during my stay. I saw a couple of mosquitoes (both of which I squashed) and an ant or two. But no cockroaches. It was because of the cockroaches that we saw a major change in Lisa V. At the beginning of that trip, Lisa was akin to a nun (not quite, but damn close). Back then, she probably would have shied away from doing any harm. During our last night however, she nailed fifteen of the critters with her bare hands.

After our final breakfast, we returned to the hotel to remove our bags from the lobby. As the whole group was present again, we needed two buses. We got a new one again. Most of us in the Circle headed right for it. We thought that might as well live it up while we still could.

Even though we were leaving Leningrad that day, we still had some touring left to do. Our only historical site that day was St. Issac’s Cathedral, about a block or two from the Neva. As the bus was new, we knew we could rely on the tape deck. In went a cassette of the Doors. That was perhaps the first time I was formally introduced to that group. That trip in general was an introduction to groups I had never listened to before.

From the outside, the cathedral didn’t look too good. In fact, it looked as if it had just been razed by fire. The surface was black and scaffolding was erected all over the place. Little did I know that renovations were still in progress and were likely to be that way for a couple years to come.

As we were about to get off our guides informed us that at the cathedral, there was a charge to take pictures, another charge for flash pictures and an even higher charge for renting a camera. I only heard the renting prices and made the stupid mistake of leaving my camera in the bus. As we walked towards the entrance, we glanced back to see our bus driver dancing in his seat. We had left the Doors in the player.

There was a guard who made us all line up single file (she had surprisingly excellent English) and told us to watch our step as we went in. I quickly found out what she meant went I tripped on a step on the way in. Fortunately, I regained my balance quickly. Two seconds later, I found myself wanting to run back out to our bus and get my camera. Although this was the umpteenth church we had seen in the Soviet Union, this was the first to really catch my attention.

The interior volume was in my opinion, a little less than ten times that of any other church we had been in. Where the other churches may have used paint to make an impression, St. Issac’s used gold and semiprecious stones (some of which were found to be lethal to exposed skin, which was known only after several of the craftsmen mysteriously dropped dead).

As in all the other cathedrals, there was the iconostasis above the altar. But this one was much larger than any other we had seen before. The cathedral hadn’t had a service in it since World War Two. During that time, the building had been razed by fire, bombed and shot at. Through a determined effort, it was restored to it’s former glory. They had only finished the inside when we were there, the outside was still being worked on.

As the church was now a historical site, small stands with pictures and models depicting the original construction and the restoration. The models depicted the raising of the columns in front and the multitude of logs that the cathedral sat on. Since Leningrad was founded on swampland, the base for something as massive as a cathedral had to be very strong. Despite the fact that I neglected to bring my camera, I still remember St. Issac’s very well. This is because it left a very big impression on me, and probably the others too.

What really shook me was an impromptu concert by a choir group. All of the sudden, they broke out in song. I never did find out what they were singing, but with the acoustics in there, it sent chills down my spine.

I’ll try to explain the place, so you have an idea of what I’m talking about (this is because people usually don’t). The main chamber is over twenty metres high, with three smaller chambers lying to the northern, western and southern sides. Directly above the main chamber is a kind of cupola, which supplies most of the outdoor light.

At the eastern end is the iconostasis, altar and the priest’s chambers. The priest’s chamber is a small room just beyond the iconostasis. The only way in from the cathedral’s vestibule is through two large doors the reside in the middle, under a painting of Jesus.

Following a half hour or so of looking and talking (mostly to myself, my comments went unheard by others), I exited through the north side, gandered at the columns that supported part of the roof, and went back to my bus.

The bus driver was still hopping in his seat, but I didn’t take note of what was playing. Several others had bailed out of the cathedral before me. Couldn’t blame them either, after two weeks of religious institutions, I was kind of surprised no-one went nuts or something.

We bopped to the tunes over the P.A. system until our guides returned with the remainder of the group. Then we headed out for our final destination in the Soviet Union, aside from the airport.

It’s supposedly the largest BS shop in the Soviet Union, but the one is Moscow still seemed a big bigger. But I think no-one really cared, it was our last shot at a store before we left. It was time to stock up on a few things. The store had four or six divisions (it was a small even number), and we had two hours to take our time going through all of them.

I had a promise to live up to, so I spent the first few minutes tracking down the food section. I found Pepsi, loads of it. For now, I thought, I’ll check out the rest of the place. I ran into just about everyone as I hopped from room to room, carefully mauling over everything in sight. I did find something in one room that I really wanted … more pins.

A large sectioned tray had been laid out with about twenty to thirty different ones. It took me about ten minutes to sort through them all. When I was done, I had a two huge handfuls of them. When I went to buy them at the cash register, I just beat another American student by about two seconds or so. But I let her go first, she had a lot less to buy than I did. I rang up a total of ten dollars (Canadian) worth of pins. I was almost shocked at the amount, but then again, I did take a lot of them too.

Pepsi was the next thing on my list, I had to pay off the Suhs as I had promised (to this date, I haven’t gone back on one). I picked up three and was about to go for two more when I saw Helen (it might have been Mina, I had a hard time remembering who was who) and took two of hers.

I paid for the Pepsi (obviously) and returned the two bottles to the Suhs. Just as I was about to leave, I realized I needed a bottle opener. I quickly turned to the cashier and asked her about an opener. Actually, I just motioned it, I doubted she spoke English. She then handed me one from a small stack. I said “thank you” (in Russian) and left. It wasn’t until I got outside that I noticed the price stamped on the back and realized that I was supposed to pay for it. As no-one was coming after me, I guessed that either they didn’t care or I was wrong.

Returning to the bus, I dropped off my Pepsi and my pins, grabbed my camera and went over to the water’s edge. The BS shop was next to a rather large Intourist hotel (as I said earlier, the good Intourist hotels were the ones we didn’t stay in) and only a couple hundred metres from the Gulf of Finland.

There wasn’t a lot to take photos of, but I did get a good shot comparing on old Intourist bus to a new one. After that, I returned my camera to the bus and hauled myself over to the lobby of the hotel next to us. We were told to meet there for lunch. Most of the adults were already there, talking to a couple who were in the midst of their own travels. A small stand near them attracted most of the younger people. There we found several things that we wanted. The best part was that the ruble was the only accepted currency. This was a big benefit for us, we could get rid of as many rubles as there were things for us to buy. I bought as many pins as I could before I ran out of cash. Not long after, the rest of the group began to show up. At that point, I remembered what Greg had told a few of us earlier in the trip: “If you see anything with Aeroflot on it, let me know!” I found an Aeroflot pin.

However, I bought the last single pin. All the others were mixed with still more pins in special books. I wanted one of them, but I couldn’t afford it. Greg took a collection from a group of us and came up with just enough for a book, at which point everyone who chipped in snitched their pins. Greg got his Aeroflot pin.

Then we found out that we weren’t eating lunch at the hotel as we had thought. We had to go back to the bus. So we got up and headed back to the bus. Most of us didn’t even get past the door though, it was raining, hard. A couple of us were daring (or just stupid) enough to run back to the bus. I forgot what happens when jeans get wet. By the time I got back to the bus, I was pretty wet, not soaked, just severely dampened. Of course, knowing my luck, the bus then started up and went over to the hotel to pick the others up. After everyone had boarded the bus again, we headed down the ramp (the hotel’s main door was raised so a ramp was used to get at it) and headed towards the heart of Leningrad again. It was probably the first time that we didn’t care that it was raining. Hell, after all, we were leaving so what did it matter to us?

The semi-familiar sight of the airport soon came into view. Our time in Leningrad and the Soviet Union was drawing to a close. We pulled up to the International terminal and unloaded our baggage, which porters then took inside. But we didn’t follow, not yet. First we had a luncheon to attend to. This was one thing that no-one complained about, we were all hungry. We were led into an adjoining building, up a flight of stairs and down a hall into the restaurant.

Radar, Marina, Jason, Suzanna and myself made up a table, and food did not last long on it. We went through two or three bottles of Pepsi and one bottle of mineral water (which tasted like carbonated sea water again). After about half an hour, Suzanna stood up and let us know that we should begin to go back to the terminal. Very few of us even moved. Mr. Phillips, Andrew, KB, two to three others and myself comprised the first batch.

We entered the terminal and went over to the mass of luggage and tried to pick out which were ours. ‘Twas no easy task either. After finding them, the next part was to go over to the check-in counter and get our bags put away. We were flying Finnair on the way out, so not only we were assured of a safe flight, but the check-in clerks spoke English. It was getting better by the minute. One-by-one we hauled our bags up on the scale and weighed them in.

Now unlike in most other places, they did not take our luggage there. I was about to walk off when they told me to take it over to another area, where several people were already lined up. They were having their bags checked. But not physically, they ran them through large X-ray machines. The guards didn’t look into the bags unless they saw something suspicious. The guy ahead of me (who wasn’t in our group) had evidently done just that, his bags were being picked apart with a fine toothed comb.

At the sight of this, every horror story and film I had seen that had portrayed something to this manner suddenly whipped through my head. I broke into a cold sweat as the guy ahead was finally waved on. Following the actions of the guard, my carryon bag and my larger one went on the X-ray machine’s conveyor belt. But I handed my camera bag for him to check. Seconds later, I had my camera bag back, along with my other two that had gone through the X-ray machine. The guard had barely even glanced at them. I was beside myself. I could have smuggled a Lada out (not like I really would have wanted one).

But I didn’t get a chance to stand beside me for very long, I was quickly followed by (and started following) Mr. Phillips into passport control. But we didn’t get very far. The guards there told us to drop off our larger bags onto another conveyor belt that would eventually get them on the plane.

Then came, as I already said, passport control. All the guard did was remove the remaining half of my visa, stamp it and wave me on. In under five minutes, I had literally exited the Soviet Union. It took us twice that time just to get in. I was kind of disappointed that I had gone through so easily. I was virtually expecting them to search my things. Jason did as well, and as a result put all his dirty (and odorous) clothes at the very top. I felt sorry for the guard who would open his (I found out later that Jason had as little trouble as I did).

There was only one obstacle left, but I wasn’t worried about it. The metal detector is the least of my worries, I was through that in under ten seconds. Beyond that was the waiting lounge. Roughly 75 metres long and twenty metres wide, it wasn’t exactly the greatest place to wait for our flight.

At the far end of the rectangular lounge sat the last Russian store I would go in. A duty free shop. Those always come in handy. I finally got to give up my film budgeting when I found some rolls of 36 exposure 400 speed Fuji film, the stuff I had already been using.

Slowly but surely, the rest of the group began to filter in. I began to notice a startling similarity between our departure there and our departure from Toronto almost two weeks earlier. Our group was taking it’s time and there were a lot of other people taking up a lot of the space.

Then the worst happened, I was practically expecting it, our flight was delayed. The surprising part was that most of the people in our group were also expecting it. Even with all man’s technical achievements, they still can’t get a plane to take off on time. The strange part was that although we were delayed, no-one seemed uptight about it. Either we had gotten used to it, or didn’t care whether or not we were late getting into Helsinki.

During our extended stay in the airport terminal, many people from our group made a trip to the duty free shop. One could find almost anything in there, despite its small size. Helen and Mina Suh, Kara Lynn, Tammy, Jamie and a couple of others all bought Sony Walkmans. One thing I will say for the Soviet Union, they really don’t care about profit. Those walkmans cost over two hundred dollars in Canada at the time. They got them for about ninety. I almost bought one myself. Jason however, could not afford one. But with my help, bought a cheaper one (by some company I had never heard of). This single purchase brought silent cheers from some of us, namely those Jason had been borrowing walkmans from.

A small group consisting of Chris, Jeremy and Sasha (maybe another couple, but I didn’t see them) got their hands on guitars and the Russian version thereof and played to their hearts content.

I spent my time setting the clocks on the Sony Walkmans for the Suhs and Kara Lynn. I don’t know why, but for some odd reason, most of the females I know are completely illiterate about electronics.

Finally our plane was announced as boarding. At this news, almost every person in that lobby stood up and rushed to the door. It took a long time to finally get everyone out that door. We couldn’t all get out at one time, we had to wait for a bus to come, pick us up and haul us out to the plane.

A sole Finnair DC9 sat out on the runway. All around it sat almost every imaginable type of military aircraft. Several of us wanted to whip out our cameras but we knew that if we tried, and a guard caught us, we wouldn’t see Canada for some time.

Pretty well everyone in our group was seated in the rear of the plane (which made sense). I can’t remember who I was seated with, but it was a short flight anyway. I do know that I was on a window seat. Just as we were beginning to move out, Derek (a couple of seats back) began to quietly shout (how’s that for an oxymoron?) about something. A MiG fighter was taxiing out behind us. He quickly whipped out his camera and told everyone to make a simultaneous sneeze or cough to muffle the noise.

The flight was a good one, all the preflight instructions were in English, something which I noticed that we didn’t get when we flew on Aeroflot. Of course, then again, Aeroflot had reportedly never crashed. That never comforted anyone. Then we began our time travel. We landed in Helsinki five minutes before we even left Leningrad. Sounds confusing doesn’t it? For those of you who don’t really know geography very well, there’s a time line between Leningrad and Helsinki (Helsinki’s an hour behind Leningrad) and the flight was 55 minutes.

When we took to the air, I mumbled a final good bye in Russian (yeah I know it’s corny, but I’m telling the story!). On our way out, some of us on the right side of the plane noticed a Russian Bear (large Soviet bomber) “escorting” us out.

Less than an hour later, we were landing in Helsinki on the same runway we had landed on the first time. Following the same routine that we had followed for the past two weeks in regards to airplanes, we had to wait for another bus to come pick us up. We all crammed ourselves on the bus (not all at one time, that would have been impossible), we were whisked across the tarmac to the same entrance we had gone through almost two weeks previous. As we were disembarking, I couldn’t resist saying..

“Isn’t this where we came in?” Talk about dï ¿ ½ja vu.

This time however, we weren’t going back upstairs to the terminal. We continued along the ground to passport control and luggage pickup. There were two distinct lines: one marked in red, for people who had things to declare and another marked green, for those who either didn’t have anything or those who didn’t want to declare it!

Needless to say, we went through the green. I was kind of expecting a repeat of the treatment we got in Moscow. Was I surprised! All the guards (there were two or three in the booth) did was take a quick look at me, stamp my passport and bid welcome. No questions asked.

Then came the fun part, finding our luggage. Some people (Mr. Phillips for one) never seemed to take long doing that. For some reason mine always takes awhile just to get off the plane. But I soon joined the others outside in the lower lobby. During our wait for the others, some of us who had accumulated went over to a bank stand (an actual teller) and exchanged their dollars (rubles are worthless everywhere, including the Soviet Union) into Finnish marks.

When everyone had finally accumulated in our group, we headed outside to find our bus. For some reason, we all followed Radar. It felt a little weird as we normally followed our guides, KB or Mr. Phillips. But Radar seemed to know where he was going. My attention was temporarily lost though, as we walked through the parking lot. I nearly wept. I finally saw some real vehicles! Not shoeboxes on wheels but real cars like Beemers, Mercedes-Benzes, Saabs, Fords and the odd Jaguar!

Our bus was an even greater surprise! We didn’t get something like the Russian buses we had used (not like we weren’t used to them), but we got a Eurobus! This was the true definition of coach! We threw our bags in the bus (no more porters) and quickly got on, to try and get the best seats. Those of us who were really fast got to the back of the bus, the best place.

Greg, of course, was one of us along with Lisa V, Jason and myself. That was all I could see, I was on the window. Greg spotted the sunroof (sunroof?) just above him and stood on his seat to open it. He wanted to stay up there for the entire trip to the hotel.

We began to pull out towards downtown Helsinki, where we would find our hotel, sleep, shopping and if we were lucky, McDonald’s! We all wanted to know where that was and even before we got out of the airport parking lot, someone (maybe even all of us) shouted …

“WHERE’S THE MCDONALD’S?!?”

Unfortunately, Suzanna didn’t know right off. But she did promise to find out for us as soon as she could. Well, it was better than nothing. Most of us were starving for something we readily recognized.

On the beach at Sochi, a quick catching virus began amongst all of us. It was called the “WhatI’mGoing-toEatWhenIGetHome Fever”. It wasn’t dangerous, just annoying as several people kept repeating themselves. Jason must have planned his out even before we left Canada. He wanted to make a beeline for Tim Horton’s to get, and I quote, “a coffee, black, no sugar or cream and a Boston Creme donut”. That’s how often he said it. Kelly Hogan wanted to hit every chicken joint she could think of. Didn’t blame her either, after two weeks of fish I could have gone for some poultry myself.

As we entered the highway, one of Mr. Phillips’ cassettes from his vast collection ended up in the tape deck. On it were tunes from the sixties and seventies. One of them practically became our tour theme … American Pie. Why? Beats me, I didn’t even like the song until then.

Then suddenly, someone spotted something through the dense evergreens. A sign. A red sign. A red sign with a golden arch. Almost the entire bus jumped up and ran over to the left side to get a better view. It was only a McDonald’s highway sign, written in Finnish. Everyone sat down, kind of dejected that it was not a restaurant. Greg however didn’t. He grabbed Lisa V’s camera (still looped around her neck) and ran over to the window to take pictures of it.

When we finally got into Helsinki, everyone went on a McDonald’s alert. Everyone (except the adults I should add) was trying to spot the arches and remember where they were. At first I was doing it too, but then I remembered a little known fact about Raunchy Ron’s: the only place you will see those huge arches is in North America. In Europe, those are considered too much of an eyesore. Even in downtown Quebec City, there are no arches despite the McDonald’s. All there that you see is a small dark green sign with bronze arches on them. And they’re hard to spot.

After going down enough back streets, we finally arrived at our hotel, the name of which escapes me. Here we piled off and dragged out all our luggage. Then came the fun part, trying to get a room. We were told that it was four to a room. Pete, Shaun and myself spontaneously joined up. But they wouldn’t let us take a room without a fourth. Jason was still without a room, so I grabbed him. We really didn’t have much of a choice so there was only a quick argument on it. I won.

We got our room, on the eighth floor of the eight floor hotel and headed for the first elevator. There were only three of them, two of them could only hold two people and the third was a service elevator, which could hold four. The elevators themselves were really awesome, they had no doors. It was a box, with the front and back open. You could see the walls move by as you went up.

We were the only ones on that floor. Other than us, every room was empty. We found our room, and the double doors that they had (probably for security or something). We raced in and grabbed our beds. Shaun and I grabbed singles against the walls, Pete and Jason had the two beds that had been placed sidebyside.

Before we did anything else we trashed the room. All the heavy covers were on the floor in a second, the lamp by Shaun’s bed was tipped over (gently), books scattered, etc. When we were finished, it looked like World War Three. We felt like we were at home. Despite my luck with the bed, I lost out on dibs for showers, I was last. But this gave me time to watch, of all things, The Flintstones on TV. The English was still there (English is a major language there) but there were Finnish subtitles underneath.

As I was last for the shower, I made a quick decision to avoid dinner. When we found the map to guide us to McD’s (supplied by Suzanna), I knew what I was going to eat, and it wasn’t to be found at our hotel. Besides, by the time I got out, dinner was virtually over.

A small group of us (Pete, Kelly B, Sonya, Shaun, Jamie and yours truly) took it to find the illusive home of the Big Mac. So we made a drunken beeline for it. I say drunken because we really didn’t figure it out right away. We quickly found ourselves kind of lost. We knew where we were, but we had no idea where McD’s was. Fortunately, we ran into a couple of Finnish girls who kind of gave us directions. But at least we knew we were going in the right direction.

When we reached the next corner, we ran into Anita and group. She began to tell us that it had closed. She managed to convince Jamie, but not me. First off, if the McDonald’s around the world function the same way that they did North America, they wouldn’t close until about midnight. Second, my nose can sniff out a Filet O’ Fish a mile away.

So those of us who remained (all but Jamie) proceeded down a street perpendicular to the one we had come down. Sure enough, the green and bronze sign popped out from the wall. We had found our target. Just as we were about to enter, I got a sudden fear when I realized that the menu would probably be in Finnish. Luckily, my fears were for not, the signs (with a few exceptions) were in English.

Then we all gave in to one huge Big Mac Attack! I ordered the most in the group (I was the only one not to have dinner at the hotel). My dinner consisted of a Big Mac, large fries, cheeseburger, milkshake and a sundae. It was expensive though, the total was the equivalent of fifteen dollars Canadian. But I didn’t care, it was food that I recognized and liked.

As we sat, three of us got further nourishment with our eyes. Finland has some of the most beautiful women I had ever seen (aside from the girls on our trip of course there’s a suck up if I ever heard one). Pete, Shaun and I all went gaga. Shaun began chanting “dead puppies”. At first I had totally forgotten about that until Sonya asked what he was doing. Everyone else already knew, so we filled her in. From her expression on her face, I didn’t know if she was shocked or amused.

About ten minutes after we had begun to eat Kim, Lisa P and Jason showed up. They ate considerably lighter than me. Jason had no cash left, so Kim paid for him. Nice of her wasn’t it? Hint, hint, nudge, nudge, say no more!

Following our light to heavy dinner, our group headed out to explore the Helsinki night life, leaving Kim, Lisa P and Jason behind, they didn’t want to come. We found a designated crossover and headed to a large complex across the street. It was a huge commercial complex with stores, a Pizza Hut (if I had known about that, I would have skipped McD’s), and several bars. This interested Pete. In order to get near them, we had to get through a group of skate punks. Even Europe isn’t safe from the disease. And these idiots were a hundred times worse than those back in Canada. Their idea of art was the shoddiest job of graffiti I had ever seen in my life.

We went up a set of stairs to the third or fourth level, where the bars were. Almost immediately, one of them caught Pete’s attention and we headed right for it. But before we had gone four steps, Pete stopped.

“Uh oh, forget it, that dude’s too big!”

Let me put it this way, the bouncer, the “dude” Pete was referring to, could have creamed Arnold Schwarzenegger with both arms tied behind his back. Now that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but then again, it has been a year since it happened! We avoided that one. At the next one, we not only found Chris, Konrad and Mike but we lost Pete and Kelly, who disappeared into its depths for about five minutes. I really didn’t feel like going in, I felt kind of sick. That’s the only problem with fast food, it sinks to the bottom of my stomach and solidifies.

So when Pete came back out to drag everyone else in, I told them to have a good time and headed back for the hotel. The side of the complex we were on emptied out onto the street we had come up from the hotel. But that didn’t stop me from almost getting lost.

I still can’t get over it. I got lost twice in two weeks. I never get lost. The last time I got lost was when I was five and couldn’t find my way out of a maze at Ontario Place. Even though I was several years older, the last thing I wanted to do was get lost in another city that I didn’t know, that little thought gave me the creeps.

I never really got lost, I just got scared for a moment that I was. I quickly figured out what way to go. Soon, I found myself in my room, preparing for bed. I knew I couldn’t go to sleep however, I was the only one with a key and the doors were self locking. For about an hour, all I did was look out the window, write my journal entry (which is forthcoming) and watched some Australian movie. I had no idea what was going on, I came in at about the middle of it and got lost in the plot.

Despite the fact that I was supposed to wait up for the others, I began to fall asleep. But just as I was about to drop off, a loud knocking came at the door. Opening it, I found myself face to face with Pete, Kelly, Kim, Jason, Sonya and Shaun. This was when I found out how expensive the drinks were. That’s why they came back, Pete was short on cash. So after five minutes, they left for the bar again, this time taking the key with them.

Less than five minutes later, there was another knock at the door. Just as I was about to open the inner door, there were a bunch of them. I opened the inner door and was about to reach for the outer door’s handle but found myself looking at the others again.

“Very funny.” I mumbled.

They gave up on the bar. The drinks were too much and lights out wasn’t far off anyway. So in order to keep us interested until we fell asleep, we all grabbed positions in the room and talked. Shaun and I took our beds, Sonya took one of the two chairs, Pete and Kelly sat on Pete’s bed leaving Kim and Jason to unwind on Jason’s bed. Hint, hint, nudge, nudge, say no more! While we were talking, the subject somehow changed to Dead Baby jokes. Actually, it’s fairly simple. Normal jokes come around first, and then someone in the group has to come up with the infamous “Dead something” joke. In our case, it was Shaun.

“Why do you put a baby in a blender feet first?” asked Shaun. We all knew the answer, but did not bother to say anything.

“To see the expression on its face!!” continued Shaun, who then went “AHHHHH!” at the top of his lungs while simultaneously wrenching his face into an outrageous configuration that caused the rest of us to laugh ourselves silly.

Now I know that sounds sick, the thought of it is kind of disgusting, but the way Shaun tells it is enough to make your sides split.

Within fifteen minutes, Kelly was sound asleep. Not terribly surprising, we were all tired. But the rest of us didn’t stop talking. We yapped for quite a long time to, until a knock at the door came at about eleven.

“Who is it?” asked Jason.

“Lights out!” came a muffled voice through the door. It sounded like KB. Everyone except Kelly sprang into action.

“SHIT!” I whispered loudly.

“HIDE!” whispered someone to the girls (they weren’t supposed to be in our room in the first place — another rule that we continued to ruthlessly break).

“Turn the lights off!” whispered someone else. Jason and I made our way to the doors, opening them carefully. We lucked out that time, it wasn’t KB. IT was Mr. Hanson and Mr. Howard. I heard a few sighs of relief, one of which was mine, I think. I’m pretty sure that they knew that girls were in there, but I highly doubt that they cared. They knew that we were responsible (yeah, right!) and wouldn’t try anything. The only reason it was them was they knew that we were the only ones up there. They said good night and left.

The lights remained out after that. Everyone, except poor Sonya (who was still in the chair) had reclined to a horizontal position. Kelly was still sound asleep and the rest of us were following fast. But being the pain in the ass that I was at the time, I couldn’t resist a picture. Focusing in the dark was hard, but I knew basically where I had to shoot. A couple of them heard the whine on my flash, but I denied hearing anything. Hee hee.

FLASH! Everyone, except Kelly, started shouting at me. They were blinded, so was I for that matter, there was a mirror on the other wall that reflected some of the light. But that didn’t stop Shaun from trying to attack me with the lamp next to his bed. He didn’t get far (thank God), the cord was too short.

Soon after, Kim decided to head for her own room so she could get in before everyone else fell asleep. Ten minutes later, Sonya dragged Kelly out of the room too, leaving just the four of us again. Pete, Jason and I however, could not sleep. We just kept talking. I mentioned that no-one was to clean up the room until I got a picture of it. One of my other two conscious roommates suggested getting one in the dark. Why not?

I set the flash and self timer and the rest of us (except Shaun, who had told us to “f–k off!”) promptly crashed out in some unusual positions. Pete lumped himself in a chair, Jason draped the curtains over his head and I plopped on the bed, allowing myself to fall between the cracks.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

FINALLY!! Some REAL food! After arriving in Helsinki, Pete, Shaun, Jason and myself ran to our rooms and had a shower. While one took a shower, the rest of us watched The Flintstones in English (Finnish subtitles). Then we all went to McDonald’s were I ate too much (again!). Now I don’t mind Russian food, actually, I like most of it, but after a while, I could kill for a hamburger. Tomorrow is going to be a long day so I have returned to our room for some sleep while the rest party hardy.

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Touring Leningrad (St. Petersburg)

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890712.10

Day 13

WHERE THE HELL IS THE PEPSI?!? This question was asked many times last night and today. Everyone is thirsty and the BS shop doesn’t have any Pepsi. All they have is booze and tonic water. Soon I will be too desperate to care. At this moment, we are headed for Petrodvorets.

I forgot Jason wasn’t with me that night. It scared the hell of me for a second, but then I got my bearings again. I fumbled around for the alarm (which was driving me crazy with its incessant beeping) and turned it off. I was about to lay back and to some mental discussion as to what the hell I was doing in a Communist country (good timing there eh?) when I remembered that Pete and Shaun had asked me to wake them up, as they didn’t have an alarm between us.

Pete and Shaun were in a room together. Think my prophecy of Derek and Pete taking a dislike for each other came true? At first I though so, but I was later informed that passports got mixed up and Derek ended up with Greg by accident. Although that was the beginning of a trend.

I knocked on the door five times with my hand, and twice with my head (I usually do this with my sister). A couple seconds later, a weary Shaun was staring at me, probably wondering what I was doing.

“Good morning, this is your seven o’clock alarm call!” I said cheerily. Shaun looked at me, then looked at Pete, then looked back at me.

“Thanks.” he said, closing the door. I was expecting something a bit wittier than that, but after all, he had just got up.

I was about to take a shower when I remembered the water. Our guides said it was safe so long as we keep our mouths closed and our eyes shut. No good for me. The next shower I would see was in Helsinki.

I took a look out the window, hoping to see a decent day. Boy, was I fooled. It was Moscow all over again. The only good thing to come out of the weather that day was the fact that it didn’t rain. At about eight, we all grouped down in the lobby for breakfast. We expected to have a restaurant in the hotel, but were surprised to find that there wasn’t one. Our breakfast was awaiting us at a small restaurant just at the other end of our rather lengthy driveway.

As usual, they had set off an area just for us, just as the other hotels had done (it made it easier to find a place to sit down and eat!). The cheese and salami were waiting. Then came the eggs (eggs and cheese combined) that was as usual, revolting. As a bit of a bonus, there were raisin buns. But few people ate them, mainly because of the way Lisa P described them..

“These aren’t raisin buns, they’re cockroach buns!” she shouted. Just what we needed to hear first thing in the morning.

After breakfast, we went directly to our buses. We had been warned of this and had brought down the stuff we were going to need. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the same buses that we had the day before, the blue and white Italian special wasn’t there. Our trip that morning took us to Petrodvorets, more commonly known as the site of the Summer Palace. It’s not far from Leningrad, but it still takes a while to get there.

When Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg (the first name of Leningrad) back in the early 1700’s, he wanted a palace he could go to so that he could get away from the city, yet still be able to over look things. He had his palace erected in Petrodvorets. It’s the smallest of all the palaces but it’s also one of the nicest in my opinion. There isn’t a lot of junk kicking around. Very simple, that’s the way I like ’em.

When we arrived, the guide on our bus (who was much shorter than me, pretty nonetheless) instructed us to follow her and make sure that we didn’t loose her. This was good advice considering the large parking lot was filled with fifty or more tour buses. Not only that, but the entire complex as a whole was gigantic, and packed with people.

A few minutes later, we were staring down the middle of the entire maze, looking right onto the Gulf of Finland. From where we were, I could see fountains, hundreds of them, all over the place. The palace grounds were studded with so many fountains that one would think that the ground would mud instead of soil.

The strange part about the fountains is that not one of them has a pump. All the fountains are powered by the pull of gravity (how’s that for a contradiction?). The entire area is on a slope (although you really can’t see it) and the falling motion is enough to propel the water to heights as great as fifty feet.

We then went down the staircase to the lower gardens, where all the fountains are. Our guide tried to explain something, but I didn’t hear her, I was too busy trying to keep us with all the people. It was then I saw why she wanted us to be careful. wall-to-wall tourists. We progressed down the walkway that ran on one side of the canal which also ran down the middle of the complex. When we got to the first bridge, our entire group flocked on for pictures. From the bridge, you can take a picture of the main palace from over the canal. The pictures that one takes from that position are almost identical to hundreds upon thousands of others, the bridge floor was worn where all the tourists had taken pictures.

Then we disappeared into the forest. Scattered amongst the clearings are small buildings, more fountains, and the odd palace. It didn’t take us long to find Peter the Great’s old pad. The Romanovs had an unusual sense of humour. Of all the 144 fountains in the courtyard, there were three that were actually booby traps. The amazing part were all the boobies who couldn’t stay away from them!

The first that we saw was one on the corner of Pete’s palace. It looks nothing more than a patch of small stones that were just scattered there. But along the edges are two rows of nozzles. Step on the wrong stones and you get soaked. There is a permanent wall of people around it laughing at other people dumb enough to get onto the patch.

Not far up from that one was the most impressive fountain I saw. Even up close (as close as you can get without getting wet) the Oak Tree Fountain looks like a real oak tree, though it’s made entirely of metal. To make such a tree today would probably put you into the millions of dollars (not to mention stiff upkeep rates).

In the same area as the Oak Tree Fountain was another of the booby trapped fountains. This was a larger version of the one we saw back at Pete’s palace, but it had the same effect. Step in the wrong place, and your socks get soggy (not to mention the rest of you). Just across the way was the last of the booby traps. But this one looked nothing like the previous two. This had a small circular deck with a post in the centre. On this post rested the roof, giving it the appearance of a merry-go-round minus the horses. I have no idea how this one worked (like I had an idea how the others worked!). If someone stands in the wrong place or too many people got on one side, there was a sudden rush of water from the edge of the roof. A wall of water all around the edge of the roof. If you tried to get out, you got wet. A couple from our group got on, and soon regretted that they had done so.

Our tour of the lower gardens continued. We saw a fountain which looked more like an oversized chess board tipped on its side, but I didn’t ask our guide about it. I decided not to bother. We also saw dueling turtles. Not Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but two fountains that spat water (I think at each other, but I’m not sure, it wasn’t working at the time).

I wanted to take a picture, but a quick examination of my film stock showed me that I had only a roll and a half of film left. Until I got some more, I had to be careful what I took pictures of. Unfortunately, not many Soviet stores stock Fuji film (the only film I liked using at the time).

Soon, we were back at our bus, heading back for lunch. It took us some time to finally get everyone on, but soon we were on our way. Having two buses was a blast, I could easily bother Lisa V. She hated having her picture taken so all I had to do was point my camera at her when our bus pulled up next to theirs. After a while of just faking it, I did actually take one, but she ducked before the shutter opened.

Our bus made a quick side trip on the way back, to get a good look at a cathedral that was fairly close to the Summer Palace. It was in the traditional Russian Orthodox style, and not in any of the tour books. So everyone on our bus rushed off, took a picture, and then rushed back on.

Lunch was nothing out of the ordinary, aside from what we had to drink. We usually had two choices, one of which was often Pepsi. There was none here. Instead we had mineral water (that was the other usual) and what someone told me was Cabbage Beer. The mineral water in most places we had been was fairly good, but this stuff tasted like carbonated salt water. Despite my dislike of alcohol, I went for the beer. I had reached that point where I was too thirsty to care.

Following our lunch, it was back to touring. Another afternoon, another palace. But this time we didn’t have to leave Leningrad to find it. Although today it goes by the name of Hermitage, it used to be known as the Winter Palace. It’s one of the largest art museums in the world. Hell, the museum itself is art.

We had to go around the front of the palace and down a back alley to get to the Intourist entrance. It actually made quite a bit of sense to have an Intourist door separate from the conventional door, it would have taken us hours to get in had we gone in the front. As it was, the back door was much faster.

While we were outside, it gave us a very good look at one of the most famous sites in the Soviet Union. It’s called Victory Square for a good reason. On a cold November night in 1917, a small group of group of Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, stormed the Winter Palace, claiming control of what was then Russia. Although it has been over-glorified into a storm of soldiers engaged in a gigantic life and death battle for supremacy, the overthrow was tame and quick.

We finally got in after about a half hour wait. At first there really wasn’t much to see at all. It looked about as boring as the parliament buildings in Ottawa. But when we got to the top of the first set of stairs, hoo boy! Now that’s what I call a palace. I had never seen so much gold in all my life. I probably never will again. But it was impressive, noone could deny that!

Although the tour took most of the afternoon, it was a quick tour, and we didn’t even get to all the rooms. There were few areas that didn’t have art on them somewhere. Some rooms didn’t have a lot in them, but that was because the room itself was more impressive than the art that it contained. If I meet an alien one day who wants to see samples from all the great masters, even the not-so-great, I’ll refer him to the Hermitage. If you can’t find at least one painting of a particular artist in there, whoever it is never painted that well.

There are a few that I don’t remember seeing. Picasso for one. I think most of the artists in there didn’t do abstract. All the art in there is very much down to earth. Of course, I didn’t get to all the rooms, such as I have mentioned, so I could be wrong.

The tour was pleasant, even though I’m not a real art lover. I think that for the most part, everyone else in the group liked it too. The only that I know that none of us liked, the heat. It was unbearably hot in there that day, although it was cool outside. I found it maybe a bit puzzling that they let it get that warm. There were no fire sprinklers, no extinguishers. Combine that with all those oil paintings, oh brother, do you have a fire hazard! The value of all that artwork must be incalculable.

We finally ended our tour, but were advised to look around a bit more, if we wanted to. A small handful of us took a quick look in a couple rooms and then went outside to get some fresh air. We were outside for about a half hour before our bus drivers returned and we got back on. Then, of course, we headed back to the hotel.

The tour left us with a bit of time left before dinner. A few people took off to parts unknown. Some people returned to trading. The locals were always around. Jason, Kim and myself tracked down something to drink. When we were in Sochi, Jason had bought a couple bottles of concentrated orange flavouring. We poured this into cans of tonic water. The initial taste wasn’t bad, but the aftertaste was a killer. It certainly wasn’t Old South.

I stuck my nose into the bar next door, were I managed to find a real orange drink. I state drink, as it wasn’t juice of any kind, although it was much better than the orange flavoured tonic water. It got rid of the aftertaste, but we had to hang onto the bottles because the bartender wouldn’t let us pitch them in his garbage.

I quickly found Pete and Shaun, who were engrossed in some serious discussions with some traders. I stuck my nose in to see what he was up to. Pepsi shirts. Whoopee. But at least they looked good, there were some really bad looking t-shirts that we traded for at one point or another.

The three of us began to look around to see what else we could find. What we ran into were two of the most stunning Soviet women we had ever seen. Not a visible cavity or lost tooth, no lost hair. Perfect English to boot. They were offering lacquered boxes, among numerous other things. We were more interested in talking than anything else. I also suspected that they also did a few other services on the side that they didn’t normally advertise. Beautiful women in the Soviet Union seem to end up as prostitutes all too often.

Our dinner time soon rolled around. It was the final one for us. We still had a breakfast and lunch to go, but that was the last evening meal we had there. It was typical for dinner, as far as dinners went, except for our dessert. When we were in Sochi, Mr. Findlay received the gift of a watermelon from a little girl and her mother (I assume he did something for them) and he was just so nice as to share it with all 46 of us. The sucker was so big, it went around without any problem at all.

Following our dinner, we went over to the stairs in the front of our hotel for group picture time. I neglected to bring my camera though. It really didn’t matter, in all my shots I have at least one picture of each person on the trip. While we kept our places, people kept passing up their cameras for pictures. I thought of going up to get mine, but I decided against it. I could always get a reprint from someone else.

I could have gone though. We had to wait a long time before we could start while Greg and Derek got their cameras. Wonder why it took them so long? The maids caught them when they went up. What did they do? Five minutes after they had gotten into the room, everything except the beds had been turned on its side.

Just as the photo session ended, most of our group took off to parts unknown. The twenty or so of us left were informed that one last blast of cultural stuff was up. And it was mandatory that we go, no ifs, ands or buts about it. As there were only about twenty, we only needed one bus. But I did take my camera. I thought that it might prove to be interesting. Besides, I had high speed film in case there was a lack of light.

So the twenty of us filed on to our bus and disappeared into the depths on Leningrad. We crossed a few bridges over some canals, then over one on the Neva to the north side. A few minutes later, we found ourselves among dozens of other buses. At this point, we stopped as we had arrived at our destination.

The building didn’t look any different from the apartment buildings nearby, except for the ticket booth. We had to wait for a moment while Suzanna fixed something with the ticket agent, but then we went right in, through the very small lobby into the auditorium. Our seats were somewhere in the back, but the auditorium was small enough for us to be able to see quite well. When the lights went out, I was delighted that I had high speed film too. We were too far for a flash.

The show was put on by a troupe of dancers from Siberia. They were all from the Siberian area (of course) and traveled all over the Soviet Union, much like a circus show. That was what some of their show was like too. During the show, some of us made some interesting observations. For example, one of the dancers looked an awful lot like Greg. Those of us who noticed that then noted that the reason that he wasn’t with us was that he was dancing in the show. In all reality, he was probably at some dance hall.

I took a few pictures during the show (which turned out rather well too, I might add), but as I was still budgeting my film use, I kept it to a minimum. About fifteen minutes later, we were back at our hotel. As a reward for going to the show, we were given a later curfew, though I doubt any of us used it.

We were soon trading again with the locals. I made a deal with the kid the night before for him to bring more pins. He did, and I traded off the rest of my bubble gum. All the pins I had traded for had prices stamped on the back, and after some quick conversions, I found that I had saved about $10. If the kid had been a few years older, I doubt I would have been so lucky.

Shaun was going insane. It was probably the last time we would get to trade and he was determined to get his hands on as much military gear as he could. He was involved with the navy back in Canada, so his focus was on his Soviet counterparts. We was moving from trader to trader at such a speed I think the traders probably thought that Shaun was taking speed.

Somewhere around eleven (I think, it was still very bright out) I retired to my room, for my last sleep in the Soviet Union. As I was listening to my Walkman, I noticed something rather odd. My Walkman has a nasty habit of buzzing when a radio (turned on of course) is nearby. It buzzed near my pillow, a chair and a section in the wall. I was tempted to find out why, but instead of shredding something, I just assumed I was being bugged and mumbled for a half hour.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

The Summer Palace was mind boggling with all those fountains (some of which were booby trapped). The Winter Palace (now formally known as the Hermitage) was even more impressive and very, very elaborate. Not to mention very, very warm.Tonight, some of us saw a really interesting dance troupe. It was more interesting that I originally thought it would be. Too bad not everyone came.

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Traveling to Leningrad (St. Petersburg)

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890711.18

Day 12

If you’re wondering what happened to Day 11, it was spent trying to figure what the hell happened to this journal. Two nights ago, I gave the journal to Greg the Wonder Dummy to have it marked. He supposedly gave it to KB but he never got it. It was a total waste of time. There was nothing happening but there was no curfew so just about everyone made a beeline for the Heinekin Bar, including me (no drinks though).

Today was nothing special. But the BS shops have really got to work on their act. It took me two trips to get what I wanted. Well, time for dinner.

I do not remember much from Day 11, as far as my journal and my first version of this book goes, it’s part of Day 12. The morning of Day 11 was spent down at the beach of all places soaking up more rays. Beyond that, I’m not sure if anything special happened.

When lunch rolled around, we were informed that we had to have our journals passed to either Greg or KB himself that day for marking. Yes, there were many feverish writers that day. I on the other hand was up to date and had no worries … yet. Before lunch ended, I sprinted up to my room, grabbed my journal (simultaneously lobbing a bun at my partially deceased roommate) and tore back down to the restaurant.

Greg was still there, taking orders for t-shirts (which I was an order) and little rubber squeaky pigs. Don’t even ask! I didn’t want to find that out myself. Anyway, I gave him my journal. I should have told him “BE CAREFUL”. There had been nothing planned that day so I returned to the beach with the others. For awhile at least. I could feel the skin on my body become increasingly warm, even when it was covered. To an experienced sun burner, this was a good sign to cut out before it got any worse.

When I returned to the room, I spent my time trying to get a hold of Greg. I not only wanted to find out if he found any shirts but if he had my journal. I didn’t know that he’d misplaced it yet, but I needed it. For some bizarre reason, KB decided that we were to have a talent show that night. Yes, we were to supply the talent. I can’t sing, dance or play an instrument. Reciting Monty Python never crossed my mind but I could write good poems. For that though, I needed my journal.

That’s when I found out that Greg had lost it. Though Greg had said that he had given all the journals to KB, I knew that KB hadn’t lost it. Teachers don’t do that (usually). Greg had also failed to get me a t-shirt. It wasn’t really his fault, the store had run out, but I was in snotty mood anyway.

While I was out on the porch doing God knows what, we got a knock on the door. As Jason was still comatose, I went to see who it was. None other than Mr. Phillips. He was personally passing a book around which we were going to give to Suzanna. It was a large book on Canada full of pictures. I signed it and we managed to get Jason to do so as well. Mr. Phillips was also taking a collection for Marina. Five rubles each was all he asked.

I think Mr. Phillips was disappointed at Jason, for being sick. I’m almost positive that he linked to Jason’s drinking. I was going to explain that there were others who drank even more than Jason and were fine and chances were that it was food poisoning. But I didn’t.

After a while, I went over to the TV. We had watched a bit from time to time, if any English bits came on or Gorby was on (that’s how I got my only photo of him). We flipped through all six channels until we came across something rather interesting. We must have timed it well, we found Red Heat, with Arnie Schwarzenegger himself. We came in just as it started. Throughout the film, except for the parts that were in Russian to begin with, there was a single man doing all the translation. The Soviets really have to work on their dubbing, we could still hear all the English in the background.

That took us up right to dinner. Jason stayed behind though, he was still to ill to eat. At dinner, I noticed that Mr. Phillips and his entourage were not eating much. That’s when I found out that Mr. Phillips had spent more rubles buying eight or so whole roast chickens. He ate one by himself. So would I if I had the opportunity to eat one.

Following dinner was, as scheduled, the talent show. For this we had to go to a Roman style building just up the hill from our hotel. It was easily within walking distance. But we didn’t go in. We just stayed on the stairs. Then the performances began.

Jeremy had prepared a poem, which was quite humourous (I would have liked have done the same, but my journal was still in limbo). He’s the only other one besides a duo that stand out in my mind, I can’t remember the few who did preform. There weren’t many. The best group I think was the duo of Greg and Toni. Greg wore his Russian bicycling cap and a military jacket while Toni sported the matching hat. Why they wore them I’m not sure, but their little song was a riot.

Perestroika, perestroika,
Glastnost too! Glastnost too!
Gorby’s got a problem, Gorby’s got a problem,
Lenin too, Lenin too.

Perestroika, perestroika,
Glastnost too! Glastnost too!
Gorby’s got a funny head, Gorby’s got a funny head,
and Lenin’s dead, Lenin’s dead.

These were the first two verses of their song, sung to the tune of “Frere Jacques”. The song itself was funny, but some Soviet guy who wanted to get in on the action made it even funnier. The guy walked up, and stood next to Greg, peering over his shoulder at the page that contained the lyrics. Then he took Greg’s hat and put it on. To top it off for a finale, Greg literally hopped in the guys arms. By this point, Toni was virtually in tears from laughing, as were most of us. But Greg did get his hat back.

Then Mr. Phillips made his two presentations to Suzanna and Marina. Suzanna, as I had mentioned, received a book on Canada from all of us. Marina received a bonus, if you will. The average Soviet makes less than 200 rubles in a month. In one minute, Marina received 230. We didn’t let her refuse either.

That night was a bit on the dull side. As there was no curfew that night, Greg had suggested that we have a Toga party on the beach. It never got any further than a suggestion though. Somehow I doubt that the hotel would have let us. Most of us ended up going to the Heinekin Bar on the C level. I ran into Sonya and Kelly in the elevator on my way down. But we also ran into a little trouble, to the tune of four rather larger German men.

They paid no attention to me but immediately turned to face both Kelly and Sonya. I could feel their nervousness. Either that or I was nervous for them. Had anything come around, there would have been nothing I could have done. As much as I still practice the ancient art of Chivalry (no, it is not dead), I wouldn’t have lasted ten seconds up against those guys. When the elevator arrived at C level, the three of us got out as fast as we could. The Germans did not follow. A few steps more and we were in the bar. They don’t card you in the Soviet Union, I doubt they even care.

I was one of a very small number of people (two I think) that drank no alcohol. I was there simply to talk with the others. I did not stay long, I kept getting the distinct feeling that I was not wanted there. I didn’t want to ruin any friendships that I had then, so to make life a little easier, I left for the Observation Level.

I spent many of my evenings that way, alone. I felt alone for most of the latter half of the trip. I don’t know why, I just did. Almost like a void. I envied Greg, Derek and Pete for being lucky enough to have relationships during the trip.

Despite the lack of curfew that evening, I turned in at 11:00. There was really no point for me staying awake any longer. Jason had beaten me to sleep again, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised. What I was surprised at was the fact that no-one stayed up late. Everyone turned in at “a reasonable hour”, which means before one in the morning. This I found interesting. For at the beginning of the trip, no-one wanted to go to bed early. Now no-one wanted to stay up late.

Day 12

Jason made a return from the living dead today, actually showing up for breakfast. I was a bit surprised that he didn’t get a standing ovation, but then again, just about everyone was deeply engrossed in breakfast, as were the two of us in a short time. Jason set a record eating his meal. If it had been a buffet, the table probably would have been emptied by Jason alone.

Following breakfast, I got down to the serious task of buying souvenirs for not only me, but my family. I had promised them all something and was determined to get something fairly decent. I didn’t know when I was going to see a BS shop again so I used the one in the hotel. It wasn’t a bad shop at all, a bit larger than some of the others I had been in. I spent nearly an hour, but I managed to find something for everyone on my list.

I found a pair of earrings for my sister that were had painted china beads on them. I tried to find a decorative plate for my mom, but had to settle for a spoon. My dad got a key chain with a thermometer in it. I know they sound cheap, but the prices were quite high in there. As I collected coins, I also bought a coins set of all the kopecks in circulation. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in there that I could afford.

It took me two trips though, the staff there wasn’t too swift. I then took my newly found treasures back up to our room where I was almost instantly confronted by a short Soviet woman, one of the maids. My towel had fallen off the railing on our balcony a couple days previous and I had to pay for it.

Having gotten rid of her, Jason and I finished with our packing. Then, with great effort, hauled all our shit downstairs, where several of the others were waiting. A few minutes later, the buses (we finally got two of them) were loaded and we were on our way back to the airport. We traveled along the same route we had taken to get to our hotel and the sites were familiar, even though we had only seen them once before.

We didn’t go directly to the airport, as I had thought we would, but headed along a road that went along the shore of the Black Sea. Here we found a restaurant, were we had lunch. It was a rather peculiar design or a restaurant. It was decked out in a Polynesian design, despite the fact it was in Russia. But the food was Russian, and there was no doubt about that one.

After our filling lunch, we headed back outside and boarded our respective buses, making sure we got on the right one. Then we were on our way to the airport, about ten minutes away. When we arrived, our luggage was taken for us (as it was always) and we went into the terminal. But we didn’t stay in there long. Less than five minutes later, we were on another bus to take us over to the plane. I guess we were a bit late.

As we were flying almost the width of European Russia, we needed a larger plane. There were also more people going. Because of that, our Aeroflot Ilyushin36 ended up being the long distance kind. It was more or less a cross between a 747 and a DC10. As this was an international plane, it had a higher landing gear. But we still boarded from the runway. Just behind the rear landing gear was a door that folded down from the fuselage to rest on the runway. We entered through the cargo section, climbed a set of permanent stairs to enter right into the cabin, where we took our seats.

I guess our flight was carrying Leningrad children (Soviets often send their children away for the summer) because there were a bunch of them running around. I had a window seat so I didn’t have to worry about them. Radar on the other hand, a row up or so, spent time trading with them. The three hour flight was fairly uneventful. The flight was smooth (no in-flight meal either) and the landing, unlike a few others, almost flawless.

But, as usual, we did not stop at the terminal. This time, we stopped no where near the terminal. We exited the same way we got on, but instead of following everyone else on the flight to a small glass building, our group hung around until everyone else had grouped together.

Several of us took pictures of our plane. This was a definite no-no in the Soviet Union, and to top it all off, there were two guards nearby watching us. Now either Perestroika was really working or they were just plain lazy.

We then entered the small glass building. The only thing inside was a pair of escalators, one up, one down. It turned out that the building was a hub used to space planes out more. So we went down to the walkway, which was a moving sidewalk. This took us to the main terminal, where we promptly made a quick exit, only to lose half the group again. Greg double backed to find the others while the rest of us waited.

We continued along the outside of the terminal, occasional going inside the terminal and then coming back out, realizing it wasn’t what we were looking for. We finally found what we were looking for, the area our luggage was going to show up. Just up a staircase was a waiting lobby. There we found a bar where our group pretty well depleted the supply of Pepsi.

We waited there for about an hour until our luggage came out. We collected it and made sure it was all there. But we didn’t leave yet. First, it was back upstairs to the lobby. Fifteen minutes later, we went into the restaurant adjacent to the lobby for dinner. It was an average dinner for us, including the fish. The food was average, the activities however were not. For starters, Lisa P was feeling a bit kleptomanic, wanting to take a plate, cup, glass and some silverware home with her. But she promised to bring it all back when she visited again (yeah, right!).

Then Kim, Lisa, Jason and Mr. Phillips (everyone at my table except me) broke into verse. To be precise, American Pie. I never liked that song before the trip, since then, it’s been one of favorites. It was virtually our tour theme. I suppose that if I had gone on that trip two years later, I probably would’ve joined in, but I was way to insecure about my singing voice.

Not long after, our buses finally showed up. As we were already downstairs, all we did was grab our bags and chose which bus to get on to. It wasn’t a hard choice. One was the standard bus, the other was a brand spanking new one, not a single colour matching the other. Of course, I grabbed the new one.

We left the airport as we left everything, unceremoniously. We hit the highway and headed for the downtown core. It was a fairly long trip, along the way we saw nuclear power plants (long distance shot too I might add), Lenin shipyards and a few other historical monuments. Out of the skyline, we spotted our hotel. It didn’t look much different from the one we had in Kiev, but that was from the outside. We hopped off and grabbed our luggage. It wasn’t raining or anything, but we wanted to check out what we could find of the city while we still had light. We forgot the infamous “White Nights” that are typical of the northern region during the summer months.

Then we lined up to try and get our rooms. This was when the next problem cropped up. There were only so many double rooms. The rest were all singles. Jason gave me his passport and I tried to get up as far in the line as possible. However, they ran out of rooms, doubles anyway. I ended up with a single. So taking my key, I made a hasty retreat with my luggage up to my floor. Once again, the elevators were a bit slow. In this hotel, I used the elevator as much as possible, and as far as I know, that’s all the girls ever used. The stairs were dimly lit and spooky as hell.

Afterwards, almost all of us went out front to trade with the locals. You didn’t have to go far to get hit by one of them. A veteran trader can pick a tourist out at five hundred metres. Besides, it seemed that the traders had selected this as a common site to trade, there were almost as many traders as there were tourists. Just one tip to anyone who reads this and decides to go to the Soviet Union, take the price tags with you. Shaun tried to trade his $25 Batman shirt, but quickly changed his mind when the Soviets told us it was worth $4.

Pins seem to go nice and cheap. There was this one kid, who couldn’t have been much older than eight who had a large bag of pins. For a decent sized bag of gum, I got every one of the pins that he had. Call it a hunch, but he was a beginner. Most experienced traders knew a fair bit of English, this kids hardly knew any. In time, he would probably become fairly fluent.

Despite all I had learned of the Soviet’s great problem of drinking, I was a bit surprised when Mr. Phillips was unable to trade his Canadian scotch. The ironic part was that the guy he was trying to trade with was guzzling a bottle of vodka at the time. While we were working our way around the flock of youthful merchants, we happened to run into a group similar to ourselves. The only major difference was that they were from Alabama. All but one.

He was almost the spokesperson for the group. As he was from Iowa, his accent was almost undetectable to us. All the others had those indicative southern accents. I like to listen to the accent (I don’t know exactly why), but sometimes I do find it hard to understand, especially if the person has an exceptionally strong accent.

But you must realize, we didn’t bug them about the accent. As far as we were concerned, we had one too, providing you were looking from their perspective. One of them was warned not to speak despite this insight. It seemed he was from the hills of Alabama and had a very heavy accent. Chances were that this was the kind of accent we would have trouble understanding.

We spent quite some time talking to them, comparing our escapades through the Soviet Union. Regardless of the reports that American students weren’t doing well academically, we found our American twins to be quite educated, except that they referred to Canada as the 51st state. We corrected them on that one. We probably would have talked to them longer, but they told us they were on their way home. We bid them safe passage and I headed for bed. Sleeping is not easily done in the northern areas on the world during the summer, it almost doesn’t get dark. Two to three hours of dusk is all you get.

That was the least of my problems that night. I was dying of thirst. Just have a drink of water? Sorry, the water in Leningrad is worse than the water in Mexico. Thanks, but I didn’t want to get that sick at that point in time. To try and counter my thirst, I brushed my teeth. It worked, not as well as water but I wasn’t dying of thirst, not completely. But my luck was to improve when I went down to the lobby to sign in for the night.

The Suhs were signing in as I got off the elevator. That’s when I remembered that they had bought five or six bottles of Pepsi at the airport. I raced over to them, nearly scaring them half to death. Desperate people often do rash things. I almost ended up my knees begging them for mercy. They only had one left, but they were willing to give it up. I promised to buy them two bottles at the BS shop the next day.

Pepsi and AIM toothpaste do not mix well, but at least I wasn’t thirsty anymore. I owe the Suhs a lot for their generosity. If I hadn’t gotten anything to drink that night, who knows, I might have died of thirst. Okay, maybe that’s a bit over doing it, but when you’re that thirsty, you often tend to exaggerate things just a wee bit.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

We got a brand new Intourist bus … IT RULED!!! On the way out, I was going to snap off a couple more shots of our Ilyushin 36, but I decided not to. After we got to our hotel (somewhere in Leningrad), most of us went out front and did some heavy duty trading. Something that struck me as odd was the fact that Mr. Phillips couldn’t unload his good scotch. Very strange indeed.Radar (with some of his shady underworld techniques and my seven bucks) scrounged up a bunch of Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts. At about 10:50, I split for bed, while dying of thirst but I ran into the Suhs (thank God!) and got a bottle of Pepsi off of them (God bless them!!!!) Almost forgot one thing. While we were trading, we met up with a group from Alabama. They were great, not at all like some of the Americans we know, the obnoxious type. Well, g’night Y’ALL!.

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Boating on the Black Sea

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890709.20

Day 10

Today, almost everyone (except Jason ) was in higher spirits. Jason felt as if he were dead and spent the entire day in bed. Lisa and Greg disappeared for the whole day, which left the rest of us in suspense as to what was happening. Unfortunately, nothing “hot and lusty”, as Toni would say.This morning, most of us (those who didn’t sleep in) went to the Botanical Gardens. It was, to say the least, f–king’ hot!! Then we (Toni, Derek, Pete, Shaun and Myself) went to the beach to swim and catch some rays. I almost caught too many as I now have an acute sunburn. Others (i.e. Jeremy) were not so lucky. Then came lunch and an hour boat ride (which saw Mr. Phillips as the helmsman for most of the trip). Upon returning, most went back to the beach, some crashed. As for me, I forgot what I did.Tonight, there is to be another dance (except this time, Greg wants to crash the Heinekin Bar) but I have chosen not to go as I need a hell of a lot of sleep, something I haven’t been getting lately.

That morning was one I had wanted to wake up to since the trip started. It was bright and sunny, few clouds in the sky. It was also quite warm, bordering on hot. To put it mildly, a perfect day in the Soviet Union. The day did not start without problems though. My roomie, Jason, was sick. He didn’t have a cold or anything, he just looked like he was about to do a lot of worshiping at the porcelain altar. I never really found out why he was sick, but we traced it to the glass of wine he had the night before. Either that or something in the water got to him.

I then ventured downstairs alone for breakfast. It seemed however, that I was not alone. Several other people had their roommates abandon them too, if they even came down at all. The breakfast population was quite small to say the very least.

Again, news of that morning’s tour came up. A trip to the Botanical Gardens didn’t seem all that exciting, but it was better than doing nothing at all. So as soon as I finished my breakfast, I ran up to my room, grabbed my camera, checked on Jason to see if he wanted to come (he didn’t even move) and shot back down via the stairs.

Those of us who were awake then piled on a bus and proceeded along the one way road to the Gardens. We didn’t get onto the highway though, we stopped just short of it. We filed off the bus and walked over to a three story concrete tower. It was a cable car tower. The cable cars were suspended from wires, unlike the ones in San Francisco which run along the ground. The car was fairly large too, we all managed to get on (which shows you both the size of the car and the lack of people who showed up).

The ten minutes ride to the top of the hill was fairly uneventful, besides the initial rocking that was so bad, I though the cable might snap, and the docking at the other end which I thought was going to punch a hole in the side. One thing should be noted, the botanical gardens aren’t that large, but the cable car was most likely designed by the same engineers who designed the elevators.

The tower at the top was much higher than the lower one, but this also had an observation level on it. That’s where most of us went. From up there, we got some spectacular shots of the area in which we were staying, even though it was a little too bright. When the time came and we all hustled down to the ground. Mr. Findlay managed to beat us all down. I guess he didn’t like heights much. My mother didn’t even like the pictures I took that looked right down the side of the tower. She hates heights.

Walking down the hill was no easy task. The path was on a fairly steep incline and for those of us who didn’t let gravity jog us down to an area where it leveled out, we had to take our time. It was hard to keep slow. Jeremy was one of those people. He completely disappeared for a couple of minutes, but then his voice (sounding much like Jackie Gleason in the Honeymooners) boomed out from where he had been. He walked towards us claiming that:

“It’s ferocious! It’s a man eater! Don’t get near it! It’ll peck your eyes out!”

Peck your eyes out? I had to see this. So did several others. We headed back in the same direction Jeremy had come from but couldn’t see anything that dangerous. Then, through the trees, we saw Jeremy’s monster. It was a male peacock. I should have known better, Jeremy was a bit weird. Okay, he was a lot weird!

The Gardens was split up into sections that were made to look like the countries where one could find the plants that grew there. We found the peacock in the Japanese area. A little further down we found the Mexican area. Just before we reached that however, we found a small fountain around which were a couple hundred tourists. That’s when Derek, Shaun and Greg got it in their heads to act a bit unusual … they dunked their heads in the fountain. I have never seen so many dirty looks from so many Soviets all at the same time!

Of course, I couldn’t really blame them, I wish I had done the same. The temperature in the Gardens was almost unbearable. At least the Black Sea kept the beach a little cooler. This was a bit much. Although I didn’t have a thermometer, I guessed that the temperature was somewhere in the vicinity of 102 degrees … in the shade (providing that you add on the humidex).

A couple of minutes later, we were at the bottom of the hill. But the tour wasn’t over yet. We then went through an underpass to another section of the Gardens on the other side of the highway. The first thing we saw was a very thick and very tall growth of bamboo. Someone commented that we were in Vietnam. That was a little dull, but we quickly reached a small building with green windows.

The windows were actually clear, but at a distance, I didn’t realize that it was a fish tank. The water was a dark green, but it wasn’t cloudy. You couldn’t quite see to the other side, but you could pick out most of the fish in the tank. We stayed for about five to ten minutes before our guide said it was time to go. As far as I was concerned, any place cooler was better than that.

When we got to the place our bus was supposed to be waiting for us, it wasn’t there. While our guide took off to find it, the rest of us looked at the small market that was assembled near by. One of the small tents sold cold drinks. To the average person, it looked like cold Palmolive dish washing soap. A small glass cost 33 kopecks and several of us got a glass. A few even got two. It was very sweet and had an aftertaste reminiscent of dishwater. But when one is hot and thirsty, you don’t give a damn.

When we got back, we realized that we still had most of the morning to go. Pete, Toni (who had missed the Garden trip), Derek, Shaun and myself decided to make a break for the beach, while it was still a little on the empty side. We ran into Mr. Phillips (by now we called him John, his first name but for respect, I’ll leave it as Mr. Phillips) and asked him to join us. He accepted and we began the labourious task of finding a place to lie down.

To make lying down on the beach easier, the hotel made up several hundred little wooden beds, which you put on top of the stones (not especially for us, some of the benches looked about ten years old). They were quite comfortable, considerably more than the stones that we would have had to lie down on if we hadn’t been able to snitch any beds.

But we did snitch enough for our group. The towels went down (the beds were painted and got quite hot, but not as hot as the stones) and the suntan lotion came out. Everyone, except me, coated themselves with it. I can’t stand the smell, it makes me quite ill … I put up with the burns (after so many years, it doesn’t seem to matter much anymore). Of course, we took turns splashing around in the sea to cool off from time to time. We had to take turns, or chances were we would loose our beds, not to mention the stuff we had come down with.

Pretty soon, we had accumulated quite a large number from our group. As some of them were more intent on a dark tan, that meant more of us could splash around in the water longer. This led to something else. Anita had begun not long before to get me a bit worried. Either she was making passes at me (which I seriously doubt) or she was doing what I like to do others from time to time … making a pain of herself. To put in layman’s terms, she was following me around a lot and was determined to catch me in the water. This is when my three years on the school swim team and my ability to swim long distances underwater came in handy.

Suzanna came up with a good idea at lunch time how we could spend our afternoon. I didn’t care what it was, spending all that time of the beach got to me after a while and I would have gone parachuting from the fifteenth floor if it were more interesting. She made mention to a boat about a half a kilometre from our hotel that sail four or five times a day on an hour boat trip. To most of us, it sounded like a good idea.

So following lunch, we grouped in the lobby (after we had made hasty retreats to our rooms and back) and then headed out for the boat. Incidentally, Jason was still in bed, sick. Neither Derek, Pete or myself could get him to budge. When we arrived at the ticket booth, Mr. Phillips informed us that he would be paying for all our tickets. It seemed he had brought too many rubles and was intent on getting rid of a few. What he didn’t know was that many of us collected the fifty kopeck fees and put them in his camera bag. I wonder if he ever found them?

The boat looked circa World War Two with about a good solid inch of paint on it. In the Black Sea, it bobbed like a cork, but it didn’t flip over. I quickly glanced at the name, I almost thought it said “S.S. Minnow”. I couldn’t help but mention it to John. Soon, we were underway. Several of the girls had come in their bathing suits and were now tanning themselves in the strong sun. A few others were indulging themselves with a chorus of “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle”. KB was of course, filming with that stupid camera of his. I felt a bit like Sean Penn after a while.

True to my promise to Suzanna, I finally nailed her (in film, not Jason’s way, although I must admit I wouldn’t have minded). It wasn’t too hard, I just had to time it when she wasn’t looking directly at me.

Somewhere about halfway through the ride, I ventured to the leeward side of the boat where it wasn’t quite so sunny. There I found Suzanna talking to whom I assumed was the captain. Except she was talking in English, and I doubted the captain spoke anything but Russian.

I was right, she was talking to Mr. Phillips. I wondered where he had disappeared to, he was piloting the ship. As first I screamed (which caught his attention) and then I took I picture of him. About ten minutes before we finally returned to the dock, I went to the bow where I found Pete and Derek. It was surprisingly windy up and the front, and a lot cooler. Shortly after me, Toni arrived. The lot of us chatted and I noticed something which Pete told me about just after we got off. Toni was standing next to me, not him.

When we got off, I saw the full implications of Toni and Pete’s split. When Toni had got on the ship, she still had her bags from the BS shop. She hadn’t had the time to got back to her room to drop them off. Toni wasn’t carrying them when we got off. Derek was. Of this, Derek and I have a small dispute )he argues that Toni hadn’t brought any bags on). But this was engraved in my brain. I tend to remember things like that and if KB had video taped it (I’m surprised he didn’t), you would have seen Derek carrying her bags.

Previous experience had taught me that went such a thing happens, relationships become extremely strained and often snapped. I could see the same thing coming with Derek and Pete. I was assured about six months later, that despite events that supported my theory, their friendship had not deteriorated. Of this, I was very much relieved.

Once we got back to the hotel, everyone split up again. Some returned to their spots on the beach while others went to their rooms and crashed out. I’m pretty sure that’s what I did, although I’m not 100% sure. The only reason I think I took a nap was because I remember being waken by Derek and Toni during their search for Pete.

There was also a bit of controversy that afternoon. It seemed that Greg and Lisa V disappeared, and none of us knew where. Toni speculated something “Hot and Lusty”, but much to her dismay, nothing happened at all. At least not with them. There were a few others who avoided the trip on the boat and just laid in the sun. Jeremy fell asleep. When he woke up, his back was practically blistered from the sun. That’s what I was told. Believe me, if you had felt that sun, you would have believed it too.

Dinner was uneventful, Jason was still sick. By now, just about everyone was aware of it, and everyone kept asking me what was wrong with him. The best I could reply was that he was sick to his stomach and puking every five minutes. So I stretched the truth a bit. Who cared?

No longer feeling tired, I made a trip upstairs to the Observation Level. From here, you could see miles on any night. When no-one else was around, you felt quite peaceful up there by yourself. I could hear the bandshell that was near our hotel and the people in our group way down on the balcony of the Heinekin bar. I could see them, partially hear them. I didn’t bother to try and get their attention though, they were too far down.

On my way down to sign in for Jason and myself, I ran into Shaun. He was giggling his ass off about something. But instead of telling me, he dragged me back to his room to show me. The inner door, which separated the bathroom from the main room, was closed. I was about to open it when Shaun stopped me. He closed the outer door first and then led me into the room, cautiously. I couldn’t figure out what all the care was for.

Then I spotted it, standing on the TV. It was a pigeon. Shaun and Jamie had trapped a pigeon in their room. The bird had taken revenge for its entrapment by relieving itself all over everything. The counter, the floor, the TV, they were all dotted with bird excrement.

I laughed and left, making sure that I didn’t let the bird into the hall. That would have caused a lot of trouble. The last thing we needed was to have hotel security going through the rooms. When I returned to my room, Jason was asleep. Whatever ailed him seemed to make him sleep like my cat, which is constantly. I took my Walkman and went out on the porch, where I listened to some tunes before going to bed.

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Touring Sochi

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890708.16

Day 9

Today, we had a very wet tour of Sochi. This city of 130,000+ has only been here for about 150 years and does not have any significant history except for its Sanatoria, which are large health spas. They thrive on special mineral waters found in this area (they smell heavily of sulphur).

After we got back, Jason, Derek and Kelly B. went scuba diving and I went to track down others in our group. I soon managed to find Greg, Pete, Toni and Lisa Van E. We went swimming, talked a bit and then went for lunch. There, Toni and Lisa were showing some “suggestive” moves (they had been doing it since this morning) to Mr. Phillips, who took it all in stride.

At this point, Lisa realized (she actually declared it to the rest of us) that she was “The most covered up person on the beach.” This I heavily disagree with because there were several whales out there with bedsheets for bathing suits.

To say the very least, the weather we got that morning thoroughly pissed me off. This was weather I hoped we had escaped coming this far south. But much to my dismay, and Jason’s, it was raining. What was worse was that a week before, in every city that we had already visited, they had a record setting heat wave. This was unfair to say the very least. But seeing as we hadn’t yet developed the power to change the weather, we decided to venture down to the hotel’s restaurant for breakfast. As usual cheese, cold meats, eggs and bread were there.

Then we were let in on the morning’s tour. It had to come, we were expecting it. But the only parts of Sochi we were going to look at were in Metropolitan Sochi, the northern end. All but one place actually, which was less than ten minutes from our hotel.

Our bus returned to the road that had originally brought us down into the valley. As it was a one way street, we had to continue up the other side and back to the main highway, which was like Yonge Street (for those of you who know of it).

We headed in a southerly direction, in a heading that would take us back to the airport. But we were going only as far at the outer limits of Metropolitan Sochi. Along the way, our guides pointed out the other Intourist hotels (they always looked better than the ones we stayed in too — why would we have stayed there after all? We don’t need that kind of opulence, we were only students). We also spotted a stage being set up for a concertNorth American style.

Soon, we reached “Sulphur Valley”. If you’re wondering why I called it that, you would understand when you got a whiff of the air. It’s the sulphur that turns the Black Sea black and makes Sochi a major Soviet resort. In Sochi, there are countless Sanatoria. They aren’t insane asylums as the name might conjure up, but are actually health spas that exploit the sulphur rich waters to cure just about anything you can think of.

We reached one of the more famous Sanatoria, which was large to boot. We never learned the name however, our tour guide seemed to be constantly on Valium, and was by far the worst tour guide we had during the trip. Despite the rain, most of us unloaded to take a look around. The guide took us over to the main building, to a corner thereof. Here we found a fountain pouring out the precious waters.

A couple of the adults (Mr. McClelland and Mr. Findlay to be exact) went so far as to douse their balding heads. One of them exclaimed that their hair was growing back. But I doubted that was even possible. Just as things were beginning to look exceptionally dull, Mother Nature decided to spruce things up and let loose a downpour. You never saw thirty people move so fast to get back to a bus. I was running so fast, I accidentally ran right through the middle of a large puddle, completely soaking myself.

The bus then worked its way back up the road we had come down on to return to the highway, and reentered Metro Sochi. But instead of getting off for our hotel, we went right by towards the centre of town. We eventually stopped at one of the city’s several gardens. But by the time we had gotten there, the rain had stopped (which was good timing on Mother Nature’s part if you ask me!). We unloaded and entered the main gates.

It was a kind of Friendship Garden, every tree was planted through joint efforts from the citizens of Sochi and a sister city in the United States. In front of each tree was a clover shaped sign that read the names of people who planted them. One bore the name of Yuri Gagarin (this time I read it before we were told about it even though it was in Cyrillic) and another sign bore the name “ApolloSoyuz”.

After our short jaunt through the “Garden of Delight”, we hopped back on our bus to return to our hotel, not far away. The weather had already reached awesome proportions. The sky was now clear and it was rapidly getting much warmer. As nothing else had been planned, it was beach time! Several people made a beeline for it, after making a quick side trip to their rooms to get changed. These people included Pete, Toni, Lisa V and Greg. Derek, Jason, Kelly and I took our time, and probably for the better.

Undoubtedly, a few of us had to be caught completely off guard by the beach. Unlike the sandy beaches that we saw the day before, this beach lacked sand. It was made up primarily of fist sized stones. And hot ones at that. I was beginning to dislike this hotel more and more every minute. Derek, Jason, Kelly and I desperately tried to find the others. But there were simply too many people to look through and we had no idea where any of them were.

Near the only entrance to the beach (which was run by the hotel), there were a few concessions that sold food and water equipment. One of these places offered scuba diving lessons, which before Perestroika were reserved for the military only. I guess they must have liked the idea because Derek, Jason and Kelly signed up for lessons, which began immediately. I on the other hand, chickened out. I’m not afraid of the water, I love it. It’s the mouthpieces I can’t use. I choke on them, anything that goes in my mouth I try to eat. My dentist calls me “Captain Choke”.

Anyway, I resumed to the original task of finding my comrades before lunch rolled around. I left the main beach, thinking that they might have gone to another. Above most of the beach is a walkway for people who don’t want to go right into the beach area itself. This was a great help as it was much higher than the beach and gave me a good vantage point. But I still didn’t know what to look for.

Then my eyes caught something. A small, neon green and black Body Glove bikini. Toni. And I knew that where I could find Toni, it was almost certain that Pete, Lisa and Greg could also be found. I was down there in a matter of seconds. It’s a bit unnerving to be walking along the beach and suddenly notice a topless sunbather. Normally this would have sent my hormones directly to my abdomen, but this time, nothing happened. I couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t think it was humanly possible to mature that quickly. So I dismissed that theory.

I have to admit, I never did figure out how Toni could wear some of the things she did without feeling (or at least looking like) she was being ogled. And believe me, that was one of the smallest bathing suits on the beach (the only ones that were smaller came from the topless Italian women). I’m still kicking myself for not taking a picture. Of course, one of the reasons of going to any beach is to go swimming (another reason is to go … sightseeing). And we did. The Black Sea take a bit getting used to, but it’s reasonable warm for such a large body of water that far north.

The swimming would have normally been rather dull if it weren’t for a breakwater that sat a scant 100 metres out in the water. It wasn’t a true breakwater as it didn’t stop the waves, but sat just below the water. The tricky part was getting on it without getting washed off. But that was also the problem, getting on. The waves caused quite a suction near the wall, which was studded with thousands of barnacles. My leg still bears the scars I received from bad timing.

Lunch rolled around not long after. We were in for a bit of a surprise that day though. We had borscht for soup, but with a twist. We had, as we might call it “Weinies and Borscht”. It was actually quite good. I guess that the wieners canceled out the strong taste of the beets. You could still taste them, but they just weren’t as strong.

We sat at one of the tables with Mr. Phillips, who had used his time to take a quick trip into town, where he managed to pick up some nectarines. But the growers had picked them a little early. They were under ripe and a bit on the hard side. Lisa V began to complain about her bathing suit, comparing it to Toni’s. I had no idea why she would even think of that. Toni’s had maybe one fifth the material that Lisa’s did. Then Lisa claimed to be, and I quite, “the most covered up person on the beach”. Although I didn’t mention it aloud, I did make a point to myself that there were several Soviet women out there that made blue whales look like ants. I didn’t even want to guess how much fabric their fifties style bathing suits used.

About an hour later, Jason and I were back in our room, contemplating on the afternoon’s activities, as none had been planned for us. Then came a knock at the door. We had no idea who it was initially, but we assumed it would be someone from our group. It turned out to be a dude we met in the elevator on our way up there the first night. He was from Armenia, and spoke no English. We figured out where he was from when he shook his hands, indicating an earthquake.

He did actually speak enough English to get his point across. He assumed we were American (the fool!) and wanted to see if he could exchange some of his money for an American dollar. He explained that he collected money and did not have one. And if you believe that one, I’m Josef Stalin. I only had a few American dollars left and did not want to give them away just then. We had been told of a dance that night (planned by none other than Derek and Greg) but we couldn’t get any tickets. As a result, we would have to try and bribe our way in.

We chatted for a little while, finally convincing him that we were Canadians (he already had Canadian money) and that our American was to precious to give up. American cash incidentally, is quite valuable over there. Despite the official exchange rate at the time (approximately $2 CAN to 1 ruble), we could get 10 rubles for a buck!

At this point in time, the devils in us began to break loose. They actually started the night before during our game of Asshole. After Jason and put some water in my extra strong concoction, everyone but me began to get a bit tipsy. This led to Shaun. His brain shorted out. It got so bad, he tried to use a bottle opener to open a bottle that had a screw top. When it didn’t work, he tossed it out the window in disgust.

Well, it must’ve caught on, because a lot more things began to fly from other balconies. Someone on the thirteenth floor (probably the same one who lost the bottle opener) tossed a few water balloons into the parking below. That’s when the cops showed up. The next thing was paper airplanes. Many us got into the act on that one. But someone did the coup de grace that night. The overabundance of alcohol caused them to toss their cookies (in other words, they puked) … on a taxi.

Eventually, dinner rolled around. I asked a few people if anyone had seen either Greg or Derek. I was curious as to where they had been all afternoon. But no-one had any idea at all. After dinner, I went up to the dance hall, and tried to get in. But I couldn’t bring myself to doing so. I don’t know why. Totally giving up, I retreated to the observation lounge on the fifteenth floor, and gazed down at the terrace around the dance hall. I could see everyone down there, but they couldn’t hear me.

I was feeling sorry for myself, something which I now realize was utterly stupid. I did manage to force myself back downstairs and into the dance hall, along with several others. It cost us three rubles, but we got in. That’s when I found out about Greg and Derek’s problem. Their entire afternoon of planning went down the drain when the managers of the hall decided that the music that they planned was better than Derek and Greg’s. Given, Greg and Derek’s music was about six months ahead of the manager’s selection, so they would naturally be apprehensive. Greg made a constant vigil with the DJs trying to get them to play just one of their songs. Most of the stuff they played I recognized, but did not dance to.

I’m scared to death of dancing, one might call it waltzaphobia. I explain it as having two left feet. I just don’t want to dance. Maybe it’s from a previous life. All I know is I can never venture out on a working dance floor and have good time. John Braniff was much the same way. Both he and I stayed outside, guarding our table which had just about everyone’s junk on it. Jason was also there, he didn’t dance either. However, if sixties music had come on, he would have gone too.

Greg came bouncing out of the hall into the cool night air, sweatin’ like a hog. Not only was it hot in there, but this dude was a heavy dancer. I asked him when they were going to play one of his songs. Almost as if in response, the beginning to “She Drives Me Crazy” thumped over the speakers. Almost instantly, everyone in our group who danced rushed in through the doors into the hall. I think there were three of us left outside. Five, tops!

The ironic part of the whole thing was that the managers had said no-one would dance to the music that Derek and Greg had chosen. Most of the people on the dance floor were Russian. Even Radar, the sexual party-pooper of the group got into the act. He gave us a bit of a scare, as he was already married, and he seemed to be making passes at Marina (who was good looking too, for a Soviet woman), but we knew that his own family came first. He had the lot of us cheering (and jeering) at him.

When I noticed this, I went over to Pete and Toni to tell them. They were standing away from the rest of the group and couldn’t see in the doors. Toni was quite pleased to hear it, she wanted revenge I suppose. I didn’t find out until the next day what Toni and Pete had been discussing. But according to Pete, their relationship was falling apart. At least one didn’t dump the other. At first Toni said they could work things out, but by the next morning, they had separated.

Once again, the abundance of fresh air brought Mr. Sandman on. And this time he dumped the whole Sahara Desert on me. But I didn’t want to leave for bed. I wanted to stay. Jamie took off to find me a sugar cube, which I hoped would get me hyper, countering my sleepiness. Much to the delight of John, who really didn’t like Jamie getting me the cube, I didn’t get at all excited. I was simply too tired. It pissed me off, I was always getting tired just as things were getting interesting.

Jason and Pete were at our table, discussing something over cheap wine. I bid them a good night, and made for the door. Ten minutes later, I was gazing out onto Sochi, listening to my music once again.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

It was a very solemn night for me and a few others. I had only Radar’s antics to help cheer me up. They weren’t enough. For the fifth or sixth time in my life, the one person I thought I might have had a chance with ended up clear out of my reach. The worst part is, she was the best one to date … I doubt I will every find anyone better. Part of the problem might be me, I just couldn’t ask Lisa to dance, even after I tried so hard to get in. I wish this trip was over.