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Russian roulette

Posted: February 14, 2014 6:22 p.m.
Updated: February 17, 2014 5:00 a.m.

The game of Russian roulette consists of taking a loaded gun, aiming it at your head, firing it, and hoping the chamber will be empty. After I completed my Ph.D., I still lacked wisdom. When my husband wanted to give me a trip for a graduation present, I thought I had earned at least a trip to three locations, so I chose China, Egypt and Russia. Each location was different, but this article concerns Russia. The tourism brochures painted marvelous pictures of an elegant vacation with spas, up-to-date hotels and excursions. The brochures did not lie: the sites were there. Nothing, however, worked. I early learned the phrase for hot water (phonetically sounding as “kippy tok”). No such thing existed anywhere, even in the hotels. To take a bath, I would have to steel myself and force myself into frigid bath water; that is, until a huge American youth caused no water to flow. Then, we had to wait until China for a tub bath or shower. Russia was a land of unexpected surprises.

One of the first surprises was the bathroom facilities. No commode existed, even in the finest hotels. My first introduction to the hole in the floor made me believe that the aide had ushered me into a cubicle undergoing repair. When I backed out with a puzzled look, she swabbed the floor and gestured for me to enter. Finally, I realized I was to aim at the hole or forget the activity. All cubicles were the same.

Russian women are amazing! One sought after honor is to be “the mother of the hero,” meaning she must have eight to 10 sons. Some of them are quite beautiful by Western standards. Others are solidly built and strong beyond belief. For example, when shopping one day, a Russian woman and I were attempting to pass each other, always getting in the way of the other. Neither of us spoke the other’s language, so the Russian woman simply reached out with one hand and lifted me aside, no mean feat. No pain or intimidation was involved; however, I did carry her fingerprints on my shoulder. Perhaps their strength and desire for male offspring come from their losses in several wars. I do know, weight lifting or not, I would be no match for a “mother of the hero.”

Americans were constantly under scrutiny, but certainly not to the same level as the Jewish people. When we went from one city to another, the bus was entered by armed soldiers who checked passports and gave closer scrutiny to certain others. Some guides pretended not to understand English, but they listened to every word the American spoke. At that time, American tourists received a warning not to carry any reading material into Russia. I thought how foolish such an edict was until a woman was imprisoned for questioning just for having a Time magazine! Her two-day interrogation meant she lost two days of an expensive vacation … and her magazine.

At Lenin’s Tomb, I discovered my arms had to be covered or I could not enter. Since I had left my coat on the bus, I had to borrow a sweater from a friend, a tiny lady. I entered the tomb with a sweater that came slightly below my elbow, but I did gain entry. When I attempted to enter by a shorter entrance, one of my friends called out a warning: a soldier had clicked off his safety and was aiming his rifle at me.

One of my habits was to have my hair done at each different country I entered. I learned the customs for this activity. In Russia, tipping by giving money was an insult. At the time, your tip had to be stockings, chewing gum, candy or cigarettes. I had a cold water shampoo, but got special treatment by the beautician heating the rinse water on a coal heater. I learned that the electricity was free, but there was never any working! The regular Russians did not complain; perhaps they were afraid of being reported.

The consumer had a difficult time. The food was unpalatable. I saw long queues of people lined up for tomatoes about the size of plums. If a person wished to buy souvenirs, he had to find the article, go to a second individual who gave him a chit, then to a third individual who exchanged to a token showing he had paid, and finally to the line where he would get the article. Jobs were hard to find. Some doctors were in the bartering process, since it was the only possibility for employment.

The Russians did not trust the Americans at the time and often spoke derogatorily of America. As a result, the bus load of tourists passed the Kremlin singing “God Bless America” at the top of our lungs. We had our own Cold War.

Just before leaving Russia, our group had a debriefing. My husband, fearing my mouth and bravery, told me I should say nothing, a matter that would have been hard for me to do. When he saw my reaction, he said something akin to leaving me behind might be the only choice if I didn’t follow instructions. The debriefing was nothing but a propaganda seminar in which the leader told us how mistreated we were by our officials. I could barely contain my patriotism, but I did want to get back home. Certainly, even with some of the questionable activities of our elected officials in America, we can unseat them at the next election and do not have to fear our lives.

Having traveled is always better than getting ready to travel. No wonder so many people are jealous of America’s prosperity. What we have, we often take for granted. Truly, no matter where we are guests, home is best!

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