10 Weeks a Russian – Addendum 1

A few messages have arrived telling me the photos didn’t come through well or didn’t come through at all. I’ll try to fix that, but if I can’t get the job done on WordPress and you’d still like to see the photos, send me an email (ejb240@gmail.com) and I’ll send them to you.

Some have asked for a few more interesting things that happened on the trip and about whether my family and friends had a lot of questions.

For a few weeks I was invited to make presentations to a few service clubs (Rotary, Optimist, Kiwanis); my 15 minutes of fame. As for family, they seemed happy that I’d managed to return home. My Lew Wallace H.S. Russian language students in Gary, Indiana, were very energetic with their questions and interest in the souveniers I brought home.

One of the best in my souvenier collection was a set of copies of a book titled “Kartinny Slovar,” Cartoon Dictionary, which contained what the title suggests: lots of drawings of different situations with captions in Russian. For example, a drawing of a youngster asking a policeman for directions. In that example, the caption contained a brief conversation between the two. Seeing “lessons” in a form that was almost a comic book was no small attraction for high school students.

As for other interesting things, imagine seeing former Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev walking by the displays from the World Fair held in Moscow when Nixon was President. He was by himself, without any entourage, smiling and waving to everybody; just another Muscovite out for a stroll on a pleasant August afternoon.

And the books; everywhere books. Book stores, book kiosks, sellers pushing carts loaded with books; everywhere books, and everywhere people reading books. All in Russian, of course, and all remarkably inexpensive. At a time when a hard cover book in the US was priced around ten dollars, a similar book in the USSR was two or three dollars.

And the omnipresent “babushkas,” middle aged to elderly Soviet women, who admonished anyone who threw away anything any place other than in a proper trash container and gave other directions and motherly advice without hesitation; for example, telling me it was too chilly to be without a sweater one morning.

And the streetcars, buses, and subways, where one got on board and placed the correct amount of money in the proper container without any involvement or supervision from the drivers and other staff. The Soviet public transportation Honor System. And if you didn’t have the money, no one said a word, not even the babushkas.

And the vending machines on the sidewalks dispensing “gazirovnaya voda,” the Soviet equivalent of a carbonated soft drink. There was one glass. You turned the glass upside down over a shelf in the front, pressed a button, and a spray of water rinsed the glass. You turned the glass over, inserted the coin, and a drink was dispensed. You drank it, repeated the rinsing, and replaced the glass for the next person. The waste water ran down the sidewalk to the street. It truly was 1965.

And when we checked out of a hotel and boarded our bus, the bus didn’t move until someone from the hotel appeared and gave the driver approval to depart. Our supervising professor from Indiana University (IU) told us the bus didn’t leave until the rooms were checked to make sure we didn’t take anything we shouldn’t have taken. Fortunately our IU advisors had also warned us about taking hotel souveniers and our bus always got the go-ahead sign.

If I remember any more, I’ll peck out another addendum…..

Ten Weeks a Russian

How it all got started

In the Summer of 1965 I was one of a group of high school Russian language teachers who embarked on a ten week journey to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, commonly called the USSR, or simply, the Soviet Union. Funded by the Natonal Science Foundation, the purpose of the journey was to improve the Russian language skills of the teachers so that their students would have the benefit of teachers who had actually spent time living the language and exploring the culture they were teaching.

Indiana University (IU) today offers a Summer Language Workshop in many languages. In 1965 the Russian program included the summer journey to the Soviet Union.

After a week of orientation at IU, during which we were required to sign a pledge to speak only Russian, even to each other, for the duration of the trip, we boarded a flight from Bloomington, Indiana and connected in New York with a flight to Copenhagen, Denmark, where we completed testing in speaking, listening, reading, and writing Russian.

Where we went; what we did

Our first stop after the testing was Leningrad, today returned to its historic name of St. Petersburg.

Our other destinations included Rostov, Piatigorsk, Sochi, Kiev, a sports camp in the Caucasus Mountains, and, of course, Moscow at the finish.

At each stop we presented our passports at the hotel reception desks, where our passports were held until we were checking out of the hotel to travel to another location. That practice made us more than a little nervous, what with being in the Soviet Union without a passport during the Cold War.

At each stop the entire group was together for breakfast, morning lectures, guided tours, and lunch.

We were advised that the lecturers and tour guides were experts in their fields. For example, the woman that took us on a four hour tour of Leningrad was a professor of Russian literature. She told us about a famous Russian author who wrote many of his works in Leningrad and preferred corner apartments. She pointed one out that the author had rented.

After lunch we were usually had free time for shopping, attending films, additonal touring, etc. A few of us were fairly good basketball players and we made some friends at most of our stops by finding local games. Some of us were also skilled at finding places to have a beer or two and made friends at those and other places as well.

The sprayground

(Note: I first heard the word sprayground when I was a member of my local parks and recreation board. A sprayground today is an area set aside for children to skip through gentle jets of water that are turned on randomly.)

Our Leningrad visit included a side trip to Petropavlosk, often called the Russian Versailles, where I saw my first sprayground. The laughter of children drew me to a section of the beautiful summer palace of the Czars where the children were scrambling around a set of paved trails. Every so often jets of water erupted through the entire square causing the children to run and laugh and get wet. The water was aimed randomly through the square; some were four to six feet high, some higher. All in all, a lot fun was happening. I noticed a small man who resembled one of Disney’s seven dwarfs sitting on a chair facing the square but mostly out of view of the children and people like me who were watching the kids have fun. Turned out he operated the jets of water by pressing on a switch of some kind with his foot. He waved us away with a smile when we tried to talk to him. He was obviously having a great time. Our Intourist guide told us operating the sprayground was his job.

What do you bring to the Soviet Union?

At IU were were encouraged to bring a collection of photographs we could show our new Russian friends, photos of our families, homes, schools, and others which would give the people we met some idea of what home was like for us. I showed my photos at every opportunity, but it was 1965 and I noticed many of my new Russian friends giving each other glances that suggested they thought I was showing them propoganda and not genuine photos depicting my life back in the U.S.

What we learned about how Russians think

First of all, every one of us came away once again convinced of how much all human beings have in common. Russian people were concerned about work, children, other family members, friends, living conditions, health, aging parents, and so on – all the day to day things all people are concerned about.

I never encountered anyone who was deliberately unpleasant or rude. On the contrary, people I spoke with were courteous, and surprised if not astonished, that Americans were studying Russian language and culture. Though just a few of us managed to be invited to a residence, those that did, myself included, enjoyed an abundance of hospitality and good will. And vodka.

Almost every person I met was genuinely interested in America. So many told me that when I returned home I should tell everyone I can that the Russian people do not want war – with anyone. (Remember, this was 1965. The Cold War was still a reality, and many we encountered had memories of the terrible things that happened in their country during World War II, just twenty-five years ago.)

Spooky stuff

Some of my fellow teachers reported being followed occasionally. I did not experience that, but did miss the diary i was trying to write to preserve some of my experiences. The diary disappeared from my room in Leningrad and reappeared in my room in Kiev a week or two later. I recall thinking my Russian writing skill was awful at best, and that whoever tried to read my wrtiting had a good laugh at second-grade Russian written by an American language teacher..

Things were different there; a few examples

Using public bathroom facilities meant you had to pay a few kopecks (about a nickel) and there was usually an attendant to make sure you paid and sometimes to provide soap and advice.

In a pub in Leningrad two of us sat in a bar with a local we’d met at a book store. When the waitress came by he ordered nine bottles of beer, three each, a bowl of caviar, a dish of butter, and some black bread. When we asked why nine bottles and so much snack food, he told us that waitress wouldn’t be back for an hour or more because she worked in three or four other nearby bars.

Each floor in our hotels was staffed by a “dyezhurnaya,” usually women, usually older if not elderly, usually at a small desk by the elevators, and usually nosy but very pleasant. We were told to leave our room keys with her when we left the hotel.

At a famous and famously huge (a hundred or more tables organized in a circle) Moscow ice cream restaurant several of us sat down at an empty table when we reached the head of the line. After waiting fifteen minutes or so we asked a passing waitress if she would please let our waitress know we were ready to order. She told us the waitress that took care of that table was on vacation.

Shopping and Aeroflot

We managed to do some shopping for typical Russian souveniers; e.g., nesting wooden dolls (matrushka). I brought home a balalaika (triangle shaped Russian guitar). At every stop there were shops exclusively for tourists (beriyoski). Those shops typically had better quality items than the other shops and the big department store in Moscow (GUM, pronounced “Goom”).

Small restaurants, sandwich shops, were a challenge, a five-step process: 1) select an item, 2) wait in line to pay for it, 3) wait in line with your receipt to give to the person who would make it, 4) wait for it to be made, and 5) eat.

There were many automats; that is, refrigerated units containing a variety of food items on rotating trays. You pressed a button to rotate the trays to the item you wanted, inserted the correct amount of money, opened the little door guarding the item, took it out, and sat down to eat or just wandered down the street while eating.

We travelled mostly by bus and train, but did fly on Aeroflot (“Ah-arrow-float”) twice. Our first airport adventure was arriving early and not boarding until two hours after the flight was scheduled to leave. The aircraft was in sight, but the Aeroflot staff told us they had to wait until more people wanted to take the flight.

Refreshments aboard the flight consisted of hard candies, black bread and butter with caviar, and water.

Speaking only Russian, even with each other

We did. All of us. Russian/English dictionaries were part of our every day accessories, but by and large we all got by without referring to those books as often as we thought we would.

To be sure, there was a wide variety of skill levels in our group. To say the least, at the beginning of the journey I was not one of the more skilled in any aspect of getting by in Russian only. But even the least of us was surprised at how quickly we picked up much more than what we started with. It only took a few days, even for me, to improve speaking, listening, and reading skills. Writing was another matter: not so easy and none of us did much writing. As mentioned earlier, I did attempt to keep a diary, but in general we were too busy to do much writing; busy soaking up everything we could to bring back to our students.

Two amusing results of weeks of Russian only.

First, several Russians told me I spoke with a Swedish accent. I am Swedish on my father’s side, and did learn some Swedish as a child, but for that to come through twenty or more years later in Russian just made me wonder how. And smile about it.

And second, I had so completely immersed myself in the language I used it a few times the first week or so I was back home, in situations that left the persons I spoke to somewhat bewildered. For example, when a grocery store clerk asked: “Is that all?” my response was: “Da, eto fcyo, spasiba” instead of “Yes, that’s all thank you.”

Going home

We had our last look at Russia as the airliner taking us to Helsinki, Finland, for our exit testing. The subjects were the same and the entrance testing: Ruddian language speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Our scores all dramatically exceeded the entrance testing scores. Our professor told me mine had improved the most. No surprise: I had much more room to improve than my colleagues.

Back home

Curiously, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when our airliner landed at Kennedy Airport in New York. Despite the welcomes we enjoyed, all the wonderful people we had met, and all the learning we had accomplished, I was glad to be home. Not Gary, Indiana yet, and not my actual residence, but home.

A few photos

Teaching the Statute of Frauds

The title of this short story is a bit misleading; can’t make it more accurate without giving away the ending…..

A young mother came to me before class to ask whether it would be OK if her 8 year-old daughter sat with her. “My sitter called at the last minute. She couldn’t make it. Amy, say hello to Mr. Bohlin.”

I’m a world class sucker for kids, especially kids whose parents have clearly taught them well.

I told Amy and her mom I was a dad and a grandfather and it would be fine for them both to be in class for the evening.

I was teaching aspiring real estate sales persons what they needed to know to pass the North Carolina broker exam. During the first hour I spent a fair amount of time on a law called the Statute of Frauds, which requires certain documents to be in writing. Can’t say exactly, but I probably said Statute of Frauds a dozen times or so.

At break time I was making my way out of the classroom to get a soft drink. Before I reached the door Amy presented me with a drawing. Clearly a talented young artist, she gave me a drawing of a man – looked like a soldier – sitting on a horse. On the ground around the base of the pedestal on which the man and the horse were perched there were several smaller drawings I didn’t recognize right away, until I read the sign on the front of the pedestal, which read: “Statue with Frogs.”

Amy’s version of the topic was much more amusing. And interesting.

Puzzle Piece Pilferer?

Panda Elegance

Again, a missing piece. This time an edge, a corner of a thousand piece “Panda Elegance” jigsaw puzzle. (If I have succeeded in including a photo, check the lower left hand corner.)

Grrrr! Ahrgg!

We wonder whether the house is haunted. Or is there some creature that preys upon jigsaw puzzle persons, snatching a piece here, a piece there, and husstling off to a secret hideaway to add a piece to an ever growing pile hidden somewhere humans are not able to penetrate.

We have searched on our knees with flashlights, brooms, and those fiber duster things (available only from Publisher’s Clearing House for four easy payments of $3.95. You get one long, adjustable one and one short one). No luck. No missing pieces located.

Although we are embarassed to admit it, we carefully watch family and friends and other visitors, but are certain that none have slipped a piece or two into a purse or pocket. We wonder about motive, but suspect we do have the occasional visitor who might be gleeful to hear about our thousand piece puzzle with only nine hundred nintey-eight pieces.

What to do?

We are hopelessly addicted to puzzling and not likely to let our frustration prevent us from the stressless hours of assembling dazzling pictures from tiny pieces of cardboard.

The puzzle manufacturers include contact information and urge us to get in touch if we experience problems or would like to shower them with compliments. One even sent us another puzzle. A different puzzle, but we enjoyed assembling it until we discovered the replacement puzzle was missing more pieces than the original one…..

We’re looking into ways to make puzzle manufacturers great again.

Good grief.

The Clearview Kidnapping

I’m sure my pal and partner will correct me if any of the following doesn’t comport with his ancient memory….

The year was 1968, the weather was perfect, and my partner and I were in our first year, first weeks truth be told, of working criminal cases out the Seattle Office of the FBI. Most of our work involved fugitives, but we often were assigned minor roles in a case or two that would wind up in the Seattle newspaper.

We were following up on a few fugitive leads north of Seattle on that perfect day when a call on the radio reported a kidnapping in Clearview. The radio dispatcher asked who might be close to Clearview to get there quickly and begin the investigation. We looked at the map and called in. We figured we could get there in less than fifteen minutes.

My partner will no doubt dispute this, but I was driving and was by far the better driver. He wasn’t that good at navigating either, but I headed north and figured he’d manage to get us to Clearview (just kidding, partner!). He put the flashing red light on the roof of the car and I hit the siren. I’d been wanting to do that since Day One…..

Our radio dispatcher provided more information. The mother of the missing children had parked in front of the general store, left the children in the car, and did some very quick shopping, only to discover the car and the children were gone when she left the store. She was back in the store and she and the store owner were on the phone calling for help.

We were first on the scene as I turned to park on the main street in front of the store. The general store was one of about five buildings in the downtown area, the largest of them and the one with the signs that offered everything from milk to hiking boots for sale.

This is critical information: there was no parallel parking or parking in a lot. All I had to do to park our high-powered pursuit vehicle was angle toward the store a bit, and with the car completely clear of main street engage the parking brake because the front of the car was a foot or so higher than the back. In other words, we were parked on an angle, on a small hill between two other cars, and without the parking brake our car might have rolled away into the building on the other side of the street.

Except the building on the other side of the street was, as we say in golf, not in play. Had any of the cars parked in front of the store rolled away, they would have missed the building across the street on the left, where there was nothing but open land. Open land that fell away in a downward direction.

We didn’t notice all that at first, but here’s the rest of the story.

As the senior agent (by about four weeks and by marksmanship ability), I had my partner do what he did best; that is, talk to and calm down the mother and the owner while I began to canvass the neighborhood, sparely populated as it was, and wait for other agents to arrive.

As soon as I stepped outside and took a good look at the surroundings, I noticed the aforementioned vacant land streching downward and back to the edge of downtown Clearview, about three hundred yards south.

I started walking across the street to ask whether anyone in the building there had seen anything when I noticed the two-foot high weeds in the vacant area, particulalry the ones that were matted down in a manner that suggested tire tracks. Looked like a vehicle had driven through them.

Highly trained investigator that I was, I decided to walk over and see just how far those tire tracks went. As I came to the edge of the road it was easier to see how much of a hill was there. Another few steps and I could follow those tire tracks a few hundred yards down the hill. I could also see a car at the bottom of the hill and two children waving at me through the front window of a car.  

Clearly in Clearview, the mother’s car had rolled away, crossed the road and down the hill.

I waved back, held up my index finger in the “just a minute” gesture, ran back across the road to get help just as another pair of agents was parking. I told them to go make sure the children were all right while I grabbed my partner and informed the mother that her car and two children were apparently all right and were in the car across the road at the bottom of the hill.  A very happy young mother was out the door in a flash.

I spent the next few minutes on the radio advising people that we had already cracked the case and not to bother continuing on to Clearview.

In my mind, the case became known as “The Clearview Parking Brake Caper.”

Sometimes there were (and still are) happy endings……

Observe and Learn, Part 1 (Perhaps)

Things are piling up around here. Time to decide what to do about health insurance. Can’t possibly watch all the catchy new TV programs, not to mention football 5 days (and 4 nights) every week. And the World Series. And the NBA season has started. And the few surprises encountered on a recent short trip to hometown Chicago.

Here goes:

    • Did you know that if you rent a car from a Southwest Airlines partner for the additonal Rewards points you pay the rental car company extra for those points? Seems more like penalty points to me….
    • The HUMANA Medicare Advantage booklet contains 167 pages and lists roughly 920 medications. And if you happen to need a translator, you can get one in 16 languages. Plus English. I need an English one. Preferable one who will not only read to me but explain everything he or she is reading.
    • At Midway Airport in Chicago you can get pancakes and sausage and a cup of tea for just over $5, but be sure to bring along some sort of lap table so you can eat without having to sit in a highchair facing the rushing mobs of passengers who give you “tsk, tsk” looks for eating something from McDonald’s. And by the way, those highchairs have no footrests, so be careful when you leave your perch because your legs will have fallen asleep from having dangled in the air while you ate.
    • The “Medicare & You 2016” official U.S. government handbook provides you with another 163 pages to read. I no longer wonder why it’s called the health care “industry.” Printing costs alone must account for a healthy chunk of the budget. The manuals for the IBM computers I worked with back in the 60’s had fewer pages.
    • Airliner seats have not been made more comfortable.
    • Chicago traffic is more awful than it was just a few years ago, but not quite, yet, as bad as Singapore traffic. Or any large city in China.

Moving on……..

The DIY Guy Does It Himself

Most every do-it-yourself home project there is I have tackled with various success over the years. Finished three basements (Michigan, Virginia, and North Carolina), finished an upstairs room (Virginia), added a sun room and garage (North Carolina, with lots of professional involvement), handled carpentry, electrical and painting projects, done the heavy lifting for Karen’s gardens, and even tackled a few plumbing and HVAC projects.

Got pretty good at all of them except plumbing. The plumbing projects go in this order:

a.  Turn off the main water supply.  Very important.  Do not ignore this critical               step.

b.  Take whatever it is apart.

c.  Take parts to parts shop and attempt to get advice.

d.  Attempt to put back together; i.e., fix.

e.  Repeat b through d.     (Three or four times.)

f.  Call plumber.

The only time I didn’t follow that routine completely was when I redid two bathrooms here in Wake Forest. Much to the relief of the lovely and patient female plumber in the plumbing department at Lowe’s (she had taken reluctant part in previous projects), I actually replaced two vanities and faucets on the first try.  No leaks.  Drains drained.  Hot and cold water came out of the correct faucets.  

On my next trip to Lowe’s I looked up my helpful plumber to let her know of my success.  Her response: “Do tell.”

Miracles do happen.