According to Google, an “ancestor” is a person from whom one is descended or who lived in the past. I also asked Google if a person has to be dead to be an ancestor. The answer was confusing, but it seems you need to be dead, or nearly dead. I’m well aware of where I am on the “cradle to grave” continuum, so I thought I’d share some memories before they become unavailable, so to speak. Readers will undoubtedly be limited to those who will be known as my descendants. I credit Covid-19 for providing the quiet time, and boredom for providing the incentive.
In the summer of 1970, (halfway through the Cold War with Russia 1946-1991), I signed up for a seven-day (all inclusive) trip to Moscow and Leningrad for $110.00. (Not a typo) I repeat, (Not a typo)!
It included round-trip flights to Moscow from Frankfurt, Germany, a flight from Moscow to Leningrad; hotels, meals, a ticket to the Swan Lake Ballet, a boat ride in the Bay of Finland and a side trip to the beautiful Russian monastery in Zagorsk. Then there were the standard tourist attractions in Moscow, which included Lenin’s Tomb, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and the Kremlin on Red Square. In Leningrad, we visited the Hermitage Museum and the Czar’s Winter Palace. It was a whole lot of Russia for fifteen dollars a day.
I’ve had fuzzy suspicions for why a German Tour Agency would, or could, offer such a low cost vacation. In 1970 Russia was desperate for hard currency, like the German mark. Or maybe it was the opportunity to propagandize the celebration of Lenin’s 100th Birthday. Those were two possibilities, among many, that I suspected.
The least likely, and most humorous (ludicrous) that I came up with for the bargain trip is that I was being recruited as a spy. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” comes to mind, where I, like Mitty, fantasize to escape the boredom of an ordinary life. I went to Russia without a decoder ring on my finger or a suicide pill in my shoe, but there was one very small task I was asked to do which is the pathetic little support I use to prop up my daydream.
I was overlooked while in Russia because I was the only American on a German tour. I wandered around Moscow and Leningrad without being watched by Intourist Guides or the KGB. If I was, they were really good. Their primary responsibility was to keep a close eye on foreign tourists, especially Americans. It was their job to control what they could see, and where they could go.
I imagine one of the reasons the trip remains vivid, is the danger I perceived from being in a country at war with America, even if we weren’t lobbing bombs at each other. Moscow was full of propaganda demonizing America. In Moscow I saw a full-sized billboard with a picture of an American Master Sergeant in full uniform. He was holding a burning dollar bill above his head, and had a ball and chain around his ankle. I never quite figured out the message. Were they suggesting American soldiers were mercenaries? Another full sized billboard showed a long haired and tattooed addict injecting heroin into his arm. That one I got. America was decadent.
The propaganda was pretty effective because I almost caused the death of an older lady sitting beside me during the intermission of the “Swan Lake” ballet. We struck up a little conversation in elementary Russian, and when I told her I was an American, the blood literally drained out of her face, which is one of the first signs of shock.
I think my memories are indelible because of adrenalin laced books like “The Spy who came in from the Cold” and movies like, “From Russia with Love.” I saw all the James Bond movies made in the sixties. In addition to the imaginary dangers I perceived through books and movies there were some I hadn’t thought about; like “air travel” on a soviet airliner!
In 1970, Russia’s primary airline, Aeroflot, was owned by the government, and had very high accident records. It was rumored that Russia never disclosed all the air crashes of their flagship carriers. One of those never to be forgotten memories is the scary Aeorflot flight from Moscow to Saint Petersburg (when the cabin lost pressure and I worried that the wings would clip a telephone pole). How “low” did we fly? So low I could see the startled field worker’s faces as they looked up. All the workers in the field were husky looking women. Most had scarves or cloth wrapped around their heads, work boots on their feet, and what looked like aprons covering their plain dresses. They were dressed similar to a female crew of brick masons I’d seen building a wall on a side street in Moscow. The few vintage looking tractors I saw were operated by men.
A young Russian girl sitting beside me spent the entire two-hour flight with her head between her knees, praying in Russian, and throwing up in a brown paper bag. Russia’s policy of atheism wasn’t exactly working for her. I was remaining hopeful, remembering an article I had recently read of a Russian air crash, where there were many survivors, because they crashed in a muddy drainage ditch. I’m such an optimist!
I did a few things on the trip that were dim-witted. Sneaking black market rubles into Russia and ignoring tourist curfews might make the list. My 77 year old self would have given some seasoned advice to my 27 year old self, but I wasn’t around back then to give it.
I’ll try to dig deep and salvage some elusive memories on how that low cost Russia trip came about. I wish I’d kept a journal of some kind. In the spring of 1970, I left active duty in Darmstadt, Germany, early, through an overlooked loophole in army regulations. Enrolling in school could get you out early, although attending a short three-month German language school in Bavaria was probably not what they had in mind. Buffing brass, and shuffling five or six copies of useless paperwork from the in- box to the out- box in my office job in Darmstadt seemed pointless, since the war was now taking place in Vietnam.
Learning a little German also made sense because there was the tantalizing option of extending our stay in Germany indefinitely. My wife, Sharon, was especially enamored with all aspects of European culture. She loved the history, the music, the old churches and the medieval walled cities. She said (seriously) that she thought that maybe she had lived a previous life there. She still has her “what if” moments decades later.
We rented three small rooms on the second floor of a home in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. We lived in the eastern Garmisch region of the combined towns. The owners had divided the second floor into three small apartments. Everyone on the second floor shared a very small bathroom at the end of the hall. It was so small that when Sharon was in the last months of her pregnancy, she couldn’t close the door completely. When she needed to use the commode she would ask me to guard the door. The compensating factor was that our apartment had a tiny balcony with a beautiful view of the Alps that included the Zugspitz, Germany’s highest mountain at over nine thousand feet. Living in that Bavarian town was surreal. I still envy the Bavarians who live and die there, not realizing how stunning and special it is compared to the rest of the world.
One lasting memory from Garmisch is walking at daybreak from our apartment to the bakery after an early morning snowfall. Everything was buried beneath three inches of soft snow. There were no other footprints but my own, and the snow burial included the neighborhood Saint Bernard at the end of our road. Bruno? Maybe that was it. I’ve forgotten a lot of people names, but dog names pop up frequently. He had slept through the snowfall and laid there in the front yard of his home looking like a huge white sculpture. Anyone passing would have guessed the breed, with his massive head and body, plus that distinctive short rounded Saint Bernard snout. He was a big dog to begin with, looking even bigger beneath the three inch layer of snow. On my return home, hauling my bag of warm apple-strudel muffins, Bruno was still sleeping, undisturbed by the late spring blanket of snow covering him.
This alp-studded area of Bavaria is easily one of the most beautiful and magical locations on earth. Hitler was a demonic monster, but he had the good taste to pick Garmisch to showcase Germany’s Winter Olympics in 1936. Hitler’s top generals had built lodges for themselves in Bavaria, and gifted Hitler with a beautiful lodge (the Eagles Nest) in Berchtesgaden for his fiftieth birthday.
The Olympic ski jump used in 1936 was within walking distance from our apartment and was still being used. The “problem” was that improved skis were allowing jumpers to out-jump the slope. The really good jumpers were getting hurt by landing near the bottom of the slope, where it leveled out.
In view of the ski jump is the district hospital (kreiskrankehaus), where our first daughter, Natasha, was born on May 21, 1970. I was in class thirty kilometers away in Murnau when Sharon went into labor and knocked on the locked hospital door. She convinced them that this was not a false alarm, and somehow they got word to me via telephone. When I arrived they would not allow me to see her, but I could hear her screaming in the hallway behind the metal doors. A midwife had gone to find an English speaking doctor, but Natasha was born before they returned.
They kept Sharon, and the tightly bundled newborn for ten days, which was standard procedure in Germany. When Sharon unwound the blanket for my first viewing, Natasha was wearing a little white ski sweater, and a pink cap that the hospital provided. The total bill was $50.00 for the midwife, and I feel obligated to give a belated “thank you” to Germany’s practice of socialized medicine.
I could ramble on about the “snow globe” beauty of the area, but I’ll get back to “the too cheap to believe” trip to Russia. I’m still trying to remember how it came about, and not quite giving up on my fantasy about being recruited as a spy.
If you followed the milk cows that came out of the alpine meadows each night on their way through the middle of town to their barn on the far side of Garmisch, you would pass an unimpressive one-story building. I’m confident the local lederhosen and dirndl clad populace were infuriated with the uninspired structure sitting among the old-world Bavarian alpine chalets and buildings, which made Garmisch a “five- star” tourist destination.
The building was headquarters for an elite school that turned out experts on the Soviet Union. The structure was designed to be as forgettable as the spies it produced. Actually, it stuck out like a cheap peanut butter cup in a box of fine German chocolates, and as disruptive as a factory built trailer home in an exclusive neighborhood. Non-military folk had nick named it “The Sneaky Pete Institute”. Its official name was “The United States Army Russian Institute”.
It was ground zero for fifty select students who studied Soviet political affairs, military history, arms control, and the finer nuances of the Russian language. You needed a minimum of a Master’s Degree in Soviet Studies to get into the school. The school always maintained that it was not a spy school. “Pravda”, (the official Russian newspaper), insists it is still to this day, a spy school.
I’m not sure what it really is today, but when I was there in 1970, it was a nest of spies. All the teachers were cryptically referred to as “displaced persons” recruited from the Soviet Union.
Strange circumstances connected me to one of the school’s students. Eventually he admitted he was being trained as a spy. My friend was big burly man named Guy Sapienza, who held the rank of Major. He and his wife Judy, were from Arkansas, and Sharon and I shared similar backgrounds and interests with them. They bought a table, four chairs, and some other antiques we had brought to Garmisch from our previous residence in Darmstadt, where we had rented an upstairs apartment from an antique dealer. Sharon loved the antiques and went on buying trips with our landlady Ellen Schmidt, who had a peacock in the backyard, and a caged canary named “Kleine General.” Major Sapienza generously let us ship some of our heavier antique furniture back to his parent’s beautiful river-side home in Little Rock, Arkansas, compliments of him and the U.S. Army.
The Major and I were sitting under the outside awning of the town’s finest bakery (my second home) one Saturday morning enjoying pastry and strong coffee. I was addicted to the apple-strudel muffins but the cinnamon muffins were a close second. The bakery was conveniently located halfway between our attic garret and the Russian Institute. This is where tourists would jockey for chairs in the late afternoon to watch the cows meander home from their alpine meadow to their barn, moseying right down the middle of the street
, nothing but the quiet clanging of the bell hung about the neck of the lead cow. No shepherds required. The cows had the right of way during this slow procession, as all motorized traffic came to a standstill.
Guy and I were discussing the beauty of the area, and some big four-inch castle keys I had bought in Narbonne, France at a flea market for a dime apiece. On the trip to France I had also bought several cases of etched pewter seltzer bottles in Strasbourg, and Judy had bought several of them for five dollars each. I paid seventy- five cents apiece and sold them to her for five dollars. Even with the huge profit, gasoline was so high in France, I should have charged ten for the bottles.
Guy’s studies at the Russian Institute came up, and I mentioned that I chose Russian to fulfill my language requirement. I don’t know where my alma mater found a Russian willing to relocate to a small Methodist college in Missouri, (surrounded by nothing but cows and cornfields). I’ve forgotten the teacher’s name, but he had an unruly mop of hair, and looked like a shorter thicker version of Boris Johnson. He spent both semesters with his back to the students writing the Cyrillic alphabet in cursive on the chalkboard. I’m not sure if he even knew much spoken Russian. His accent was so thick he was hard to understand. He wouldn’t have come close to landing a job at the Russian Institute in Garmisch. Guy (Major Sapienza) told me he had spent five years studying Russian, and his studies at the Institute (spy school) were designed to prepare him for a mission to Russia as an entry level diplomat or envoy, which is where most spies start out.
There was one more thing that Guy gave me that morning besides the check for the table and chairs. When I traveled to Russia I had a torn piece of paper in my pocket on which Guy had written (in Russian cursive) the name of a Russian Military Strategy Book that he said was needed for the library at the Institute. If I got the opportunity, he asked if I could check the bookstores in Moscow for a copy. My older self would have waved a red flag in my face, but my younger self would have argued that Major Sapienza was not asking me to scale the Kremlin wall, climb through a window, and pluck the book off a shelf. He merely suggested I check the public bookstores. Maybe he thought I would be more resourceful, wink, wink? Walter Mitty and I have a lot in common.
I could tell he was more than a little annoyed that I was traveling to Russia and no one questioned my recent military service, my rank, or whether I was a security risk. Sharon had worked as a GS-15 Court Reporter for the Army Command Center back in Darmstadt, and had dealt with highly sensitive documents, trials, and hearings. She was prohibited from traveling to Russia for five years. Guy had spent five years intensely studying the nuances of the Russian language, but had been put on a list of suspected spies, insuring that he would never be allowed to enter Russia, never, ever! A postcard from his wife Judy, sent to us a year later in 1971, and kept by Sharon these past fifty years, says “he is quite envious of you Dan – he will probably go to Vietnam, just the place to use his Russian!”
I’m sitting here trying to remember whether the trip was offered before, or after, I had the muffin and chat over coffee with Guy Sapienza. Is it possible he helped set up this incredibly cheap trip behind the Iron Curtain? I’ll have to say that’s highly unlikely, but I ended up taking the Major’s note to Russia with me. I have no idea how important the book was. It couldn’t have been too important if it could be bought in a public bookstore. Maybe it could have given the Russian Institute some clues on Soviet strategy. In my spy fantasy I should have memorized the cursive note, chewed it up and swallowed it, but I’m no James Bond, or even Mr. Bean! I failed to obtain a copy. I didn’t even “give it a good go”, as the English say.
Here’s what happened. When I got to Moscow, I nervously walked into the biggest bookstore I could find near Red Square. Using my handful of Russian words, I asked a young male clerk with wire- rimmed spectacles, if they had a copy of the book. He mumbled some Russian, and headed to the back of the store. Since I had no idea what he just said, I didn’t know if he was back there actually looking for a copy of the book, or calling the KGB. I considered the fact that I had black market rubles folded tightly into the belt of my stretch slacks and decided to quit the spy business then and there, if that’s what it was, which it wasn’t. I quickly exited the big glass doors and melted into the busy street crowd. I reluctantly left my spy fantasy somewhere on the streets of Moscow.
One of the other (many) suspected reasons for such an inexpensive trip was that it was subsidized by the German government through the language school. Graduates of the Goethe Institute would adapt more readily to German culture, and then would get better jobs, and become productive citizens if they could speak German. Traveling with Germans would be a good language building exercise. There were students in the class from sixteen different countries. I can’t remember if all the students were invited on the trip to Russia, since only two students ended up going, Dietrich, a skinny sullen teenager from Frankfurt, and me. Dietrich was seventeen. His father was a high-ranking American General, and his mother was a German lawyer, somehow involved in sentencing war criminals at the Nuremburg trials. Dietrich and I conversed in English most of the time but we did pay close attention to the German guide when he was telling us when to board the bus or plane, not wanting to be left in Russia without our passports
I guess I’ve run through all the suspicions I’ve had for such an inexpensive all-inclusive trip to Russia. It wasn’t a third-rate excursion, and often meals included a dish of black sturgeon caviar. I guess I’ll never know why the trip was so remarkably cheap.
Russians were desperate for hard currency back then; Swiss francs, Deutschmarks, and American dollars were all highly desirable. Officially, the exchange rate was: one dollar to one ruble. It took some long-distance thinking to remember who suggested I could quadruple my buying power if I bought rubles outside of Russia. I’m ninety per cent certain it came from the German tour guide, as we waited at the airport in Frankfurt, for our flight to Moscow: (maybe eighty per cent certain). It could have been another tourist waiting for the plane, but I had enough time to hustle over to the Deutsche Bank nearby. With fifty dollars, I bought 200 rubles and immediately quadrupled my buying power when I arrived in Russia. I don’t know how many other tourists in the group had black market rubles, or how many were wearing an extra pair of Levi’s beneath their own. Some tourists were known to finance their entire travel expenses to Russia by selling extra Levi’s, (they went for two or three hundred rubles). That was more than a month’s salary for the average Russian worker.
Unfortunately, I didn’t own a pair of Levis, and wore a pair of gray slacks with an expandable liner, in place of a belt. They were definitely not a sought after item in Russia. I exchanged for paper rubles, rolled them tightly, and slid them into the opening behind the belt liner where they would be difficult to see or access. When we went through customs in Moscow, I bought ten dollars worth of rubles at the going rate: one dollar for one ruble. I felt it would be suspicious to cross the border and not buy any rubles through the official process.
Once inside Russia, I found that the average Russian citizen couldn’t get their hands on Japanese cameras, good cuts of meat, or even a high-quality vehicle except to buy them at Beryozka stores (hard currency stores). They accepted only Dutch guilders, Swiss francs, American dollars, and other hard currency. Rubles were not worth the paper they were printed on in these stores, even if you had a hefty suitcase bursting with them.
With my black market rubles I bought nesting dolls for Natasha (my 2 month-old daughter), and “Red October” perfume for Sharon, but I was afraid customs would check to see if I had souvenirs worth more than what ten rubles could buy. I ended up buying a lot of consumable chocolate that I gave to the German tourists in our group. I never lost sight of my small suitcase, and it was never opened coming or going, so all my worries were for nothing. I could have even brought back a few fake Russian icons a student tried to sell me on the sidewalk outside of Lomonosov University. He tried to tell me, in his broken English, that they were authentic icons given to Russians when they were baptized at the Russian Orthodox Churches. I kept walking and tried to ignore him as he continued his spiel a few paces behind me. This was the smarter version of me walking away from trouble.
As I mentioned, I ran under the radar being the only American on the tour. Intourist guides reportedly kept track of tourists and reported any suspicious activity to the KGB. When I was out and about on my own, or with Dietrich, the only Intourist guide I was aware of was on the trip to Zagorsk, a Russian Monastery fifty miles outside Moscow. I sat with a young Russian man who spoke perfect English with a British accent. We sat near the back of the bus and he was excited to practice the English he had learned listening to British Broadcasting on a clandestine radio. Our multi-lingual Intourist guide was a young 20 year old girl who stood in the front of the bus explaining in German, how the monastery we were about to visit was more like a museum, since Russia had relegated organized religion to the back burner, practicing a sort of scientific atheism. She looked nothing like a guide who would be in contact with KGB agents. On the return trip she flirted with the young Russian man sitting beside me. Maybe she was ‘cagier’ than I thought, possibly noting that we were conversing in English. My seat partner was careful, and when she was up towards the front of the bus, he would whisper, and asked if I could send him a stamp of the moon landing, or of President Kennedy, when I got back to the United States. He wrote down his address on a slip of paper and I stuffed it into my pocket. Alas, I lost it somewhere on the trip. I hope he got his stamps after President Gorbachev eventually opened up the society with his “glasnost policy”. I hope he’s thumbing through his collection of stamps as I sit here writing this. The name “Pyotr” pops into my head, but so does the name Laika, the terrified little black and white dog the Russians sent into space on a one-way trip. They evidently didn’t have a branch of the S.P.C.A. in Russia.
The Zagorsk monastery was one of the highlights of my trip. It is now a World Heritage Site, but for centuries it has been the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church. Even though our young guide said it was now a museum, I watched a priest in his colorful vestments christen a baby in one of the chapels. Later he blessed water from a holy well for a long line of women in peasant clothing who were in need of consolation or healing. If this was some kind of reenactment it was very convincing. Outside the gates is where I bought the nesting dolls for Natasha. They are a set of colorful wooden dolls in decreasing sizes that fit inside the other. They are also called Matryoshka (mother) or Babushka (grandmother) dolls. I think there were originally five dolls in the set and Natasha still has three of them displayed in her town home.
There were times that I roamed around the city of Moscow, sometimes alone, and sometimes with Dietrich, without being trailed or watched by anyone that I noticed. Our group stayed on the third floor of the Moskva hotel and was told that there was someone on each floor assigned to watching over the activities of foreign tourists. Our hotel had an older stout Russian lady sitting at a desk in the hallway. I assumed she was “the assigned watcher”. I think our German group drew almost no notice from the KGB. At one point members of our group were invited to share schnapps and socialize with some other Germans on the third floor, but the invitation was quickly rescinded when they found our group was not from East Germany, but from West Germany.
Here are some of the things I did in Moscow that were definitely on the forbidden list; I left the hotel late at night (no hall monitor in sight) and walked around to sites close to the hotel. For some reason, I felt safer than I might have on the bad side of Chicago, or Central Park in New York. I walked to the train station and was shocked to see hundreds of shabbily dressed men and women sitting or sleeping on the concrete aisles between the train bays. They had very small parcels which I assumed were food or other items not available in the outlying villages. This was definitely not the Moscow the government wanted the tourists to see. In the daytime all you saw were well dressed citizens shopping in the stores and walking through the parks.
The year of Russian I took in college did help me get around the city. I could ask a few simple questions, and work out the meaning of basic signs. One day, with Dietrich at my hip, we entered the subway, and rode three sets of escalators deep into the myriad complex of tunnels under Moscow that doubled as nuclear shelters. Think of a Macy’s escalator twice as long and twice as fast, and then triple it. The subways had been built beneath the old city of Moscow and beneath the underground rivers and swamps, which must have been very expensive engineering. Deep underground there were chandeliers, mosaic tile floors and art exhibited. In the darker recesses near the track tunnels you could see crates and canisters containing what I presumed were emergency supplies in case the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on the city.
Expecting to burn some of my “black market” rubles by riding around in the subway, I was disappointed to find the fare was only five kopeks (100 kopeks to a ruble). Most of the destinations listed were suburbs of Moscow, but “Cosmos Pavilion”, caught my attention, so it became our destination for the day. I remember Dietrich and me walking through the gates of the pavilion and the first thing in sight was a huge towering rocket. I thought it was an ICBM at the time, but it was one of the rockets that sent Russian cosmonauts into space. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was featured in the pavilion. The day before this excursion I had been walking around Red Square and saw a small marker where Gagarin’s ashes had been interred and I thought for some reason, with a marker that small, he must have fallen out of favor. I was wrong, many streets and even towns were named after him, and the Cosmos Pavilion showed how much the Russians considered him a hero. He had died in 1968 in a Russian Jet, two years before I was there, and they said the memorial service at Red Square was attended by a huge crowd of Russian citizens and foreign visitors. I suppose that even if a KGB agent or an Intourist guide had been following us that day, they would have welcomed us observing the achievements of the great Soviet Space Program.
Another item on my list was to visit Lenin’s tomb in the middle of Red Square. Dietrich, the sullen teenager, followed me like a shadow, (not necessarily unwelcome), but “ever present” it seemed. This was a bad day for Dietrich. Lenin’s tomb was a huge mausoleum covered in marble that backed up against the Kremlin wall. You might remember Lenin is the communist who led the Russian Revolution in 1917 that resulted in overthrowing the oppressive Czarist Romanov Dynasty. You’ve probably seen reenactments where Czar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their five children are whisked into a basement and executed when a squad of revolutionaries bursts in, and guns them down.
I heard its different now, but in 1970, the Germans in our group were saying the Russians treated Lenin like a God. When Dietrich and I were there, a long line of Russians were waiting to catch a glimpse of their Russian hero. Three to four hours was the estimated wait time. We were put in a tourist line (seems very unfair), and we arrived at the entrance of the tomb in less than an hour. At the entry were two somber and very serious looking guards in soviet uniforms. At the top of the stairs a guard informed visitors that cameras and talking were forbidden. If there were other instructions, we didn’t hear them or understand them. We started down the stairs into the darkened tomb and Dietrich was in front of me with his arms folded loosely in front of him, (appropriate for his usual listless uninterested teenage rebellious manner). As Dietrich got to the bottom stair, a guard by the sarcophagus took two quick steps toward Dietrich, and using the butt of his rifle, knocked Dietrich’s arms apart. That brought the seven or eight tourists that were reverently circling the glass covered body of Lenin to rapt attention. To his credit Dietrich didn’t cry out, but he was bruised and lucky there wasn’t a fractured tibia or fibula with the force of the blow.
Lenin’s body was dressed in a blue woolen suit beneath what looked like thick bomb proof glass. The guards kept us moving counter clockwise so there was little time to examine the body. He seemed very small and looks more like one of Madame Tussaud’s wax figures than a well preserved corpse. Exiting the dark tomb into the bright sunlight of July was hard on the eyes. Dietrich was subdued, and we walked over to get a closer look at Saint Basil’s church.
This is the iconic church that doesn’t fit into any traditional style of architecture. Bizarre and extravagant seem appropriate adjectives. The church was commissioned by Czar Ivan the Terrible during the 16th century. Rumor has it that he had the architect’s eyes put out so he could never design another church or building to match it. The cathedral was originally painted white to match the Kremlin, but a century (17th C) later, they started painting it the riot of colors it is today.
This walk down memory lane is turning into a marathon, but it reminds me that I got a lot of value at bargain rates. At fifteen dollars a day, I still had two days, or thirty dollars of travel left in Leningrad, (now named Saint Petersburg). The Czar’s Winter Palace was huge and we were told all the gold ornamentation was real. We were whisked through the Hermitage Museum featuring famous impressionist paintings the Russians had looted from Germany, at the end of the Second World War, or so I was told. If Sharon had been with me, we would never have gotten her out of the room that showcased all the priceless Romanov jewelry and diamonds. The Palace also had beautiful fountains outside. Some were trick fountains, and I was soaked by one before I could escape the stream of water.
A short walk took our group down to the Bay of Finland on the Baltic Sea, and we boarded a large hydrofoil boat. As we gathered speed, the boat rose up on its skis as we sped around the Bay passing other boats manned by Finnish sailors.
That last night in Leningrad, I looked out from my third story hotel room, and although it was past eleven p.m., the people in the streets showed no signs of heading home anytime soon.
It never did get completely dark. I found out the next day these were what they called the “White Nights” in Russia, from mid-May to mid-July, when it is light almost 24 hours a day.
Since the few readers of this blog will include my daughters and nieces I have to address this burning question. “How could I leave Sharon for seven days with a newborn while I traipsed off to Russia?” Good question! No good answer! In my plea of guilty to the charge of being an insensitive male in the company of insensitive males from my generation, I have only one thing to say in my defense: actually more of a question to the jury who has unanimously and rightly convicted me. If you saw a Louis Vuitton purse, or a pair of Gucci shoes marked down to a fraction of their price, could you really pass them up? How about a trip to the Hilton Spa Resort in French Polynesia for fifteen dollars a day? Really? Are you sure?