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


Return of the Black Leather Jacket

It disappeared from the overhead baggage compartment between Raleigh and Chicago.

The missing black leather jacket was a Christmas present from Karen, so disclosing it was missing carried the very real possibility of creating a bit of marital discord. She has long since given up on lost wedding rings, but losing the jacket?

Checking with the airline staff at O’Hare did not have the desired result, that being: “Oh yes! Here it is! It was turned in just a few minutes ago by a man who said he was so sorry to have snatched the jacket thinking it was his.”

Five days later, following a round of golf, my much smarter than I am cell phone told me I had a call that turned out to be from the lost and found office at the Raleigh/Durham airport (RDU). I returned the call, eagerly worked through a thick Spanish accent, drove to the correct building at the airport (which turned out to be the airport police building), and retrieved my jacket from a beaming receptionist. Good thing they discovered my crumpled old business card in the jacket pocket.

Sure. It shows up in 75-degree North Carolina, not in 40-degree Chicago April wind, my blood having thinned considerably from 22 years in Wake Forest and daily doses of blood thinner to ward off the unwelcome effects of atrial fibrillation.

Have to wonder where my jacket went and how it got back to Raleigh. The nice lady that called me had left for the day, the receptionist had no answers, and RDU is not on my regular route. Among the never to be answered questions: who found it, where did it go while it was missing, and why did it take 5 days to come back?

We’re both happy it now hangs in the front closet, ready for the next round of chilly weather. Probably December.

A Visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

At long last I had the opportunity to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum today, September 11, 2013, the 12th Anniversary of the attack on the New York World Trade Center, September 11, 2001.   The museum is in Washington, DC, and the best way to get there is to take the Metro to the Smithsonian station.

Before taking the elevator to the 4th Floor (you work your way down), I was asked to take an “Identification Card” that “…tells the story of a real person who lived during the Holocaust.”  I drew Leon Franko, born to a large Sephardic-Jewish family from Yugoslavia Macedonia, near the Greek border.  He and his wife perished in Auschwitz on April 1, 1944.

Judging from the somber facial expressions and occasional audible gasps of fellow visitors today, I’m certain their and my gut-wrenching reactions to the identification cards and exhibits are not unique.

The most difficult for me were the photos of the children and my despair whenever I think about the evil and those appalling horrors that took place in Germany and much of Europe less than a hundred years ago during the period 1933-45.

Following closely behind the photos of the children was the lack of response by the U.S. to what appeared to be a clear picture of the atrocities by the Nazis.  Granted the U.S. was still in a state of economic emergency in 1933, but the case is made by the materials at the Museum that the U.S. turned a blind eye at best and at worst refused to raise the immigration quota to admit Jewish immigrants who wound up among the murdered.

Senators, Congressmen, the State Department and others argued that increasing immigration quotas would mean fewer jobs for Americans.  A bill to at least allow the immigration of 20,000 children never reached a vote.

A product of Catholic education in Chicago that culminated in graduation from high school in 1957, I was told nothing about the Holocaust until two years later, 1959, when I read “Silent Is The Vistula,” a heartbreaking account of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw under the Nazis.

From a Museum brochure titled: “A Changed World – The Continuing Impact of the Holocaust,” the changes since World War II:

– Nations pledged to prevent and punish the crime of “genocide.”

– Criminal trials for crimes against humanity

– Expansion of international protection of human rights

– “Informed consent” as an ethical approach to medical experimentation

– Protections for refugees broadened

– Israel as the Jewish homeland

– Progress of reconciliation between Christians and Jews

I pray for continued progress and hope a visit to the Holocaust Museum is included in the itineraries of the tourists in plain sight in Washington every day.  This awful memory must be shared and preserved in order that we do whatever we can to ensure the community of nations understands nothing remotely resembling the Holocaust will be tolerated.


Late Spring Road Trip: North Carolina Crystal Coast

It all began with an article in the May 2012 issue of Southern Living and a mutual itch to get on the road and away from it all for a few days.  We are not “foodies,” but there was no resisting a piece titled “Eat Your Way to the Outer Banks,” by cookbook authors Matt Lee and Ted Lee, who would “…take you on a culinary road trip to Carolina’s Crystal Coast.”  Turned out the article was more inspiration than roadmap.  We had to stay patient, mutter “oh well” a few times, and provide our own inspiration, but we still had a good time.  All told, a good time is the most important feature.

We began early on a Saturday morning in June, arriving too early in Goldsboro, the first stop, only 64 miles from Wake Forest.  We didn’t locate the first recommended restaurant because it appeared we were heading for a less friendly part of town, and WayCo Hams Co. was closed on Saturday.  Undaunted, after a car tour and brief stop at a church bargain sale, we put another 28 miles on the odometer and rolled into Kinston.

We were still too early for Mother Earth Brewing, but were able to dally enough at local shops to enjoy a glass of Weeping Willow Wit and an excellent and informative tour.  The brewery was established in 2008 and its motto is “Peace, Love, & Beer.”  Important note: if you go, make it a Saturday, the only day tours are offered.

With good fortune we stumbled upon a genuine highlight of our brief stay in Kinston: the Neuse Way Nature Park.  We lingered for a picnic lunch and visits to a nature museum and a planetarium presentation before checking into the EconoLodge on New Bern Road.  The Southern Living authors had recommended the Hampton Inn at $129, but that must have been the off-season rate.  The June rate was much higher.  We gambled, unsuccessfully, on a lower rate and can with all confidence recommend skipping the EconoLodge.  Suffice it to mention the least of the problems was the closed pool, which was not disclosed at reservation or check-in time.

We finally found a recommended restaurant that was open and enjoyed a fabulous dinner at Chef & Farmer; pricey but an absolute winner, although the menu didn’t show the recommended wood-roasted clam stew with ramp-new potato broth.  Not being hungry enough after a late picnic lunch at the park, we still managed to polish off several smaller dishes, including hot and sour glazed bacon meatballs; grits with sausage, mushrooms and pepper ragout; and crab cake with cucumber, kohlrabi and blackberry salad with buttermilk vinaigrette.  Yum!

Leaving Kinston Sunday morning we found the recommended Byrd’s Restaurant with no trouble, but it was not open.  Too hungry to wait, we surrendered to a place that shall go unnamed (but has a drive-through window).

Our next planned stop was New Bern, but we decided on a change of plan.  Since we were running into so many closed attractions, we did a quick drive-through, decided to put New Bern on the back end of the trip, and headed on to Morehead City, Beaufort and Atlantic Beach.  Highway 70 runs through the enormous Croatan National Park.  A few days after we returned home we saw on the news that a fire had started in the park and the scent of smoke was in the air all the way back to Wake Forest.

At the EconoLodge in Morehead City, a bit more than slightly burned up over the accommodations in Kinston, we asked to see the room before checking in.  Though we fully expected to be shopping for another room, we were pleasantly surprised – a reasonably priced room that was clean and conveniently located.  The Southern Living authors had recommended the very attractive Seahawk Inn and Villas, rooms from $90, but again we discovered that the June price was a budget-buster.

Settled into our lodging, we decided to have lunch in Beaufort and visit the NC Maritime Museum.  Once again we were too early for the Museum.  Not wanting to get back in the car, we walked across the street to Finz, a restaurant on waterfront at Taylor’s Creek.  The food was good and reasonably priced.  We dined on oyster and shrimp sandwiches while watching the crew of an enormous yacht/fishing boat prepare bait for the Big Rock marlin fishing contest.  One of the crew was busy gutting smaller bait fish and sewing the fish back up after inserting a hook.  Later we would learn that the winning boat, Flybuoy out of South Carolina (not the one we watched as we ate lunch), landed a 499.3 pound marlin worth the first prize of $444,050.

While at lunch we noticed a fellow diner’s t-shirt with a line that quickly became one of my all-time favorites: “Beer.  Not just another breakfast drink.”   I want one.  Not a beer right now, but a t-shirt with that on it.

After lunch we enjoyed the NC Maritime Museum, learning about the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” and the few thousand ships sunk along the NC coast.  The museum also offered an excellent video and detailed exhibits about Blackbeard and his pirate ship, recently discovered sunk off the coast near Beaufort.

Next on our list was one of the NC aquariums in Pine Knoll Shores, overlooking Bogue Sound just down the road south from Atlantic Beach.  We beat the crowds at the aquarium and enjoyed the displays, including a presentation by aquarium staff in and out of the water in front of a huge tank containing a reproduction of a living shipwreck and, among other fish, several sharks.  There were three divers: one did the talking (using a microphone in his diving mask), while the other two held long-handled prods to make sure the sharks didn’t get too close.

Somewhere along the line we learned that the Neuse River Basin refers to a wide swath of NC land in which all the smaller rivers, creeks and other bodies of water drain into the Neuse River.

Food: another lunch at Finz and dinner at Mykonos Grill – authentic, tasty and reasonably priced Greek fare.

On getaway morning we had breakfast at a the Four Corners Diner in downtown Atlantic Beach.  Our friendly waitress came up with a whopper of a fish story.  She told us her father had competed in the Big Rock Contest a while back and brought in half a marlin. Painting a picture as vivid as Hemingway’s fisherman’s plight  in The Old Man and the Sea, she told us the half that didn’t make it to be weighed at the dock was taken right off the line by a “great white shark.”

After the fish story we took a walk to the beach before driving back through the Croatan National Forest to New Bern to experience the History Center, the Tryon Palace,  the birthplace of Pepsi, and lunch.

New Bern’s Tryon Palace is something all NC natives and others who have adopted the state as home should visit and learn about.  We could have spent the entire day at the History Center and its attractive and informative exhibits.  The well-prepared, friendly, and period costume dressed Tryon Palace tour guide and other staff made for an enjoyable and informative experience.  The Palace, outbuildings and grounds were restored in a 30-year campaign begun by Mrs. James Edwin Latham.  Tryon Palace was the governor’s residence and the site of the NC general assembly following the revolution.  State governors lived in the Palace until 1794.  In 1798 the original Palace building was destroyed by fire.  The restored Palace reopened in 1959.  (On the way home we heard a radio broadcast about the NC budget problems and a proposal to cut funding the maintain Tryon Palace and grounds.  Why do many legislators take aim first at the arts and education?  It’s no comfort supposing they do that to alarm and gain attention.)

Try Morgan’s Tavern in New Bern for a good and reasonably priced lunch in a restful and interesting setting.  Don’t miss the shrimp taco in a flaky flour tortilla.

After lunch we visited the Birthplace of Pepsi, festooned with every manner of product featuring the familiar Pepsi logo, from Pepsi belt buckles to baby bibs, nostalgia calendars, Birthplace of Pepsi aprons and ball caps, bottlecap earrings, and so on, all while listening to hit songs from days gone by.  Caleb Bradham invented “Brad’s Drink” at the soda fountain in his drugstore in 1893 using carbonated water, pepsin, kola nut extract, vanilla and “rare oils.”  He renamed the drink “Pepsi-Cola” in 1898 and described it as healthy and an aid to digestion because it contained pepsin.  All of this makes great sense to lifelong Pepsi drinkers such as myself.

On the way home we drove around Greenville a bit, mainly to see the East Carolina University campus.  We veterans of life got a bit tired, however, and only saw the stadium and other athletic buildings before the heavy traffic persuaded us it was time to continue on home.

Despite the lack of detail from the Southern Living authors, we enjoyed our little getaway.  Next time we’ll do more research before we leave.  And sleep in more…..