I came to the conclusion, at a young age, that communism sucks.
When I was nine, my beloved Mom and her consort (my then step-father) Fulldemerde, got a wild hair up their collective hind ends. This was not an unusual occurrence. This time, however, was unique. They decided, for reasons unknown to me both then and now, to pack up the moppets (my brother and I) and gallivant around Europe. In a 1969 VW Westphalia Pop Top Camper.
Prior to our departure, the parental units visited our school to announce our lengthy absence. I was just starting the fifth grade at Dixie Elementary, in Lucas Valley, CA. My teacher was Gladys Bernard. Don’t ask me how I remember this. One memory-triggering device was that Mom referred to her as “Happy Bottom.” Gladys…Glad Ass…get it? You may begin to realize that my sense of humor is genetic.
Anyway, the two of them breezed in to see my teacher and informed her that I would be taken out of school, to return after Christmas break. “Why, that is nearly a four month absence,” she exclaimed. (You can see why she was a teacher…she had a keen grasp of the obvious).
“Yes, but, counting the Christmas break, it is really only three-plus months,” retorted Fulldemerde, as if that made a difference. “Mari won’t miss much.”
That is the part of the conversation I remember clearly. We’re taking our kid out of school for OVER THREE MONTHS, but she won’t miss much. La dee da, and folderol. What’s one third of the school year, give or take a week? As an aside, I happened to agree with them at the time, but I was nine. The thought of no school filled me with glee. My brother, Warren, was in first grade. He really wouldn’t miss much. “Oh,” continued the parental units, “give us all her assignments and we’ll ensure she completes them on the trip.” My bubble burst at that announcement.
Off we went. I remember that Mom and Fulldemerde packed little Lufthansa bags for each of us to use as carry-ons.
They were full of things to keep us quiet on long journeys. Mine included books, in amongst the toys and doo-dads. I do not remember what Warren had in his. I was also forced to carry numerous blank notebooks, because one of my school assignments was to keep a detailed journal of the adventure. We eventually had to purchase more notebooks, but I admit that I made journal entries under duress. I’d give anything to find them today!
We arrived in Frankfurt, West Germany and went to pick up our new camper. Warren and I were enthralled. It was da bomb. I, being the older and bossier sibling, claimed the long bench in back, forcing my younger brother to sit on the shorter bench, that was immediately behind the driver seat. There was a table, as well as a sink that dispensed water (after one filled the reservoir), and all sorts of storage…and a pop-up camper top. I have no idea why this was an important feature for Mom and her husband. We didn’t intend to CAMP in the vehicle.
While investigating the pop up top, Fulldemerde, who has never been mechanically inclined, dropped the thing on his finger, nearly amputating it. A visit to the nearest Krankenhaus somewhat delayed our departure.
The plan was to drive all over Europe – west and east. It was going to be a Grand Adventure. We moseyed around Germany for awhile, then went to Holland, Switzerland, Austria and East Germany , en route Czechoslovakia, Poland, the USSR and Romania. After Romania, we dabbled in Bulgaria before going to Greece. Keep in mind, this was in the middle of the Cold War. The war was downright frigid. What were the parental units thinking?!
I have several memories of the Soviet Union. I was basically not fond of the place, but we had to go because Fulldemerde wanted to visit his roots or some such nonsense. In the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, I found a bug (not the crawly kind) in our hotel room. The other three family members were in the Tea Room of our decrepit and enormous hotel. I ran down the hallways and dragged them back to the room to show off my discovery. Every night thereafter, Warren and I sang the recording devices a little ditty of our own composition, to the tune of “Good Night, Ladies.” It went thusly: “Good night, comrades; good night , comrades; good night, comrades; we’re going to bed now. Are you listening?; Of course you’re listening; Stop your infernal listening; we’re going to bed now.” We made up other verses on our long drives around the city, but I can’t recall them all.
This, episode, however, is not about bugs. Or about Warren telling our Intourist-provided guide (substitute “Intourist” with “Commie-Pinko-Government-Spy”) that he believed that the body of Lenin was really a wax figurine with a green lightbulb shoved up its nose. Or me stomping indignantly to a neighboring table at dinner in Leningrad to inform the two snarky men in shiny suits that they no longer needed to follow us…and that I was on to them. No, this snippet is about why Communism did not appeal to two pre-pubescent Amerikanskis.
We spent three weeks or more in the USSR. It seemed like a year. It was dingy, grey, cold and inhospitable. We did see some amazing things – the magnificent Moscow subway (it had chandeliers!), the treasures of the Hermitage, the Bolshoi Ballet, the 1812 Overture performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, dancing bears at the Moscow Circus and the Moscow Zoo, which seemed larger than Rhode Island. Mostly, the people were very nice, but very inquisitive. They’d not ever seen a family of foreign capitalist devils, who freely dispensed bubble gum, candy, ballpoint pens and other trinkets. The VW van perplexed them, too.
Warren and I drank lots of tea and water. After a couple of weeks, we had a serious soda pop jones. There was none to be had in the entire, godforsaken country. As well-behaved as we were, we tired quickly of the slop that was passed off as soda by the stinky communist bastards. You recall that our Pop Top Camper had a sink. We filled the reservoir with water before disappearing behind the Iron Curtain. One never knew what kind of water one would get in the Eastern Bloc. We didn’t want to suffer from Trotsky’s revenge, after all. To slake our thirst and to stop our whining, Mom and Fulldemerde bought bottles of unidentifiable fruit flavored beverage concentrate.
It was orange (ish), pulpy and putrid. To this goop, one would add water from one’s own vehicle, and stir. And try not to hurl. The adults believed that this would keep us quiet on long car rides. They were wrong. They didn’t have to drink this crap…they had beer.
This vile substance was available everywhere. The reason I remember the Zoo was that, after tromping around the cold grounds for hours, Warren and I began to complain that we were thirsty. We were dragged up to a beverage stand, where we ordered “pop.” Oh, joy, we’d get Coke, we thought. Nope, not even close. Apparently, even in areas where the five tourists who visited the USSR every year might go, there was a serious shortage of both palatable drinks and drinking receptacles. After placing our order and giving the clerk a fistful of kopeks, we were rewarded with a filthy little glass filled with diluted orange-ish slime. But, we complained, we ordered two. A second glass was not to be found. Warren and I were told to appreciate what we could get, not cause a scene and to drink the liquid crap without a peep. We were thirsty. Tap water was off limits, but, apparently, exceptions could be made. Warren drank the swill and returned the glass. The glass, then, was rinsed out on a spinning, filthy, bristle-machine, then re-filled. Then it was my turn. So as not to show my true capitalist-American-pigdog colors, I refrained from throwing a fit and drank the concoction. It was horrible. Worse, though, was my imagination. I didn’t want to die in a Soviet hospital. Turns out, I didn’t.
But, that is all we had for weeks…other than water or tea. I don’t think there was a different flavor to be had in the entire country. The largest country the planet, mind you, with one stinkin’ flavor of liquid hell. Neither Warren nor I asked for another beverage in public. This was back in the day before plastic water bottles…not that the Soviet Bloody Union would have had those. So, we made due with the dwindling reservoir of tap water in the van. We filled it when we could find bottles of still water, that had not been visibly opened and filled with tap water. It was there that I learned to love carbonated water. Carbonated water with sugar and caramel coloring would have been better, but, any port in a totalitarian storm would suffice.
On we traveled through Mother Russia. I despised it. Maybe my hatred had something to do with the drink choices. Likely, it had everything to do with the lack of choices. Whatever, I was not pleased. Nor, for that matter, was Warren. So, because we were unhappy kids, we made life miserable for the adults. To this day, I think they deserved worse from us.
We made it, mostly unscathed, into Romania. Romania…further down on the communistic evolutionary scale, one would think, than the fecking Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Fer cryin’ out loud, the USSR trampled all over eastern Europe. One imagined that they would be somewhat higher on the comfort scale than their eastern bloc satellite slave-states. One, clearly, imagined incorrectly.
I don’t remember much about Bucharest now. As a city, it was pretty dismal and not too different than the country we had just left in our rear view mirror. Bucharest was smaller than Moscow. And sunnier. But they didn’t have a metro with chandeliers. If I’d know how to say “meh” back then, I would have. There were lots of gypsies in the Romanian countryside, so that added some color, whereas the Soviet countryside was grey. We stayed in some “upscale” hotel, which, at the time, meant a state-run quasi-dump where foreigners were not just allowed, but directed, to stay. It was kind of mod, compared to some of the fleabag hotels in the glorious peoples’ republic of hell. There a doorman, who found some gypsy waif to wash our filthy VW van. The decor was sparse, and not so clean.
However, when we arrived in what passed as the dining room for our evening repast, Warren and I discovered that they had Coca Flipping Cola. They also had ice, which they claimed was made from bottled water. At that point, they could have made it from toilet water. The moppets just wanted those curvy bottles of Coke. I think we drank them dry. We rejoiced, we wept, we declared Romania to be the best country on the planet. We declared that Ceaușescu might be a fine, upstanding individual. After all, he allowed his country to have Coca Cola, not just orange-colored sewage.
Communism still sucked, but we determined that there were varying degrees of suckitude. We hadn’t seen sunshine for the eternity that we were in the Soviet Union…but Romania was awash in light. And, awash in Coca Cola, until Warren and I consumed the entire supply available. Life was looking up, as we headed south towards Greece. Opa! Here we come, cradle of democracy. Do you have Coca Cola?
11 April 2015
***I will relate stories as I remember them, in no particular order, starting with this one. There will be many chapters to this section wherein I will relate our many misadventures.