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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, back to the story at hand…

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

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

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