Behind the Iron Curtain - My Trip to the Soviet Union - Introduction

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

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

Where was I? Right, high school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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