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 …


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 …


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.