When I was still in high school (years 1980-1984), I enjoyed at least two great vacations. One of them in the winter, when I flew with the school to the then Soviet Union, specifically to Moscow and St. Petersburg (which, for a change, was still called Leningrad at the time).
Sometime in 1983, she announced herself at the gymnasium where I studied competition for the best binder. The participation was originally supposed to be decided by about a million criteria, such as grades, extracurricular activities, participation in SSM meetings, the number of kilos of paper and iron handed over to the national company Sberné sauroviny, and I don’t know what else. Yes, such was the time that you young people no longer remember. It was announced that the top 20 boys from the entire school would go on an eight-day trip to the Soviet Union, three days in Moscow, three days in Leningrad, and the rest of the time on air and train transfers. For a while, there were regular competitions, bulletin boards were maintained, but then it became clear that the school would subsidize the trip with a thousand crowns for the best team members, while the participant of the trip, or rather his parents, would have to pay an additional four thousand on top. And four thousand, that was the monthly salary of the whole family at that time, really quite a lot of money.
It was found that quite a few adepts from the first twenty unfortunately end up with money. Well, since the trip was booked with Čedok, its cancellation was out of the question, because how would the director look in front of the students if he didn’t comply with the written conditions, the conditions were simply adjusted slightly, and the remaining places were offered to those who still have the four thousand.
I asked my parents, and they provided me with the required amount of money, even adding a not inconsiderable amount for pocket money. Exchanging Czechoslovak crowns for rubles at the bank did not present any problem at that time (as opposed to exchanging crowns for western currency)and so on the appointed day, together with my friend Petr, whose parents also paid for the trip, and eighteen other classmates, I was standing in Prague at the Ruzyňské Airport, and I was waiting for the first ever plane trip in my life.
Our twenty-member group was accompanied by a single teacher, the dreaded Russian professor Anita. She was a native of Russia who once married a Czech military officer during his service on some rocket batteries somewhere in the USSR, and when the soldier was transferred back to Bohemia, she followed her husband here and became a language professor at the local gymnasium. It is true that she was one of the most competent teachers from a professional point of view, on the other hand, a huge but HUGE strict. She did not forgive us a single bad accent, a single soft character somewhere in the word. When I said something at the board, and I thought it was Russian, Anita had her favorite comment – “Ahh, you were on holiday in Slovakia! Isn’t it? And what about the ending???” (I must say, however, that thanks to her, I still understand Russian quite well today, and when it is necessary in my current job as a driver, I speak Russian just as well. Thanks, really big thanks, madam, I was actually a fellow professor at the time).
But as soon as we boarded the plane, Anita changed beyond recognition. It was clear to her that she wouldn’t mute everything, everyone and everywhere, and that sometimes during the trip we would really have to speak Russian ourselves. And suddenly she started explaining to us: “You know, Russian and Czech, just like Slovak, are actually very similar languages, they have a similar basis, we are all Slavs. And so, if you can’t say something, just speak slowly, give your Slovak endings as Russian an accent as possible, and don’t worry, the Russians will understand you.”
I got the opportunity to try this sentence right after arriving at the hotel. Peter and I stayed in one room, and after a long journey, the first room we both visited was, of course, the toilet. But be careful – a luxury international hotel, and a lapel problem, the toilet simply couldn’t be flushed. When we both broke our teeth on the flushing system, Petr sent me as an alibi for the maid, saying that I speak Russian better.
On each floor of the hotel there was a table at which sat the “továrišč dnežúrnaja”, i.e. something like the supervisor of that floor, receptionist, maid and watchman in one person. And so my first sentence that I ever said in a foreign language to a real foreigner in my life was in Russian and it was “Good day, comrade dnezhúrnaya, we don’t use the toilet in our room to sazhelenia.” It’s true that the young lady was satisfied with my message she wondered, because something like that cannot happen in their international and luxurious hotel. But willingly she rose from her little table, and followed me into the room.
There she gave a practical instruction: She grabbed the flush lever with her hand, with a force that I would not have expected for the small woman, jerked the lever sharply first upwards, then backwards and finally in the expected downward direction. And immediately there was the salutary sound of the water being flushed. She then waited on the spot, and personally convinced herself that we would be able to handle the same operation in the future, and then she left, with a wish for a nice stay in Moscow on her lips.
Our Moscow program was packed and packed, we had a bus with a driver, a guide from Čedok and Anita at our disposal, and we drove nicely from one sight to another. And so we saw Red Square, the Mausoleum, the Kremlin, the Gum department store, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lomonosov University, and all those places that are normally shown to tourists in a large country.
We then met regularly in the evening for dinner in the large, spacious dining room. We dined there for three days, and the exact same experience was repeated three times. At the beginning of the dinner, there was a bottle of champagne, i.e. “Sovetskoye igristnoye”, on each table, always for four people together. Probably in the price of the tour paid attention of the hotel to its guests. Anita carefully collected all the bottles, went to the waiters, and exchanged them for chocolates, candies and candies, which she then brought to all of us. We thanked each other, had dinner, and after going to our rooms, we collected the chocolates and candies again, and one of our classmates, a beautiful long-haired girl by the way, went to exchange them with the waiters for champagne without the supervision of her fellow professor with a charming smile. Surprisingly, she always managed to…
However, most of all I was looking forward to the one free afternoon in Moscow, when we were separated and we could go wherever we wanted. I really wanted to know the “real Soviet Union”, that is, how people here normally they live, and not what is commonly shown to tourists. I admit that starting this desire right in Red Square in Moscow, and having only four or five hours to fulfill it, was not the right thing to do.
First of all, I tried cleaning shoes, I didn’t know that from the Czech Republic at the time. In the corner of the square, a grandmother had her stall, there you came, you sat down on a wooden stool and put your feet on a wooden step, next to which knelt a grandmother, probably over sixty, who immediately began to use creams and rags and brushes, and shined her shoes really into a brilliant shine. I don’t know if it was a free service for tourists, I didn’t see a price list anywhere, so after cleaning my shoes, I took two rubles out of my pocket, I think (then about 20 CZK), and I hand them to my grandmother with a questioning look in my eyes, whether it will be enough. I guess it was enough, because she immediately started rummaging through the bag and handed me some pennies back. I unequivocally refused them and left. I felt sorry for the grandmother, because a sixteen-year-old boy, whose shoes she had just cleaned “by the mouth”, was leaving her, and she was calling after me “Help, young man!” (= thank you boy) and she bowed to me almost to the ground.
I decided that I would see “ordinary Russia” the best way, right I will drive somewhere far from the center, preferably at the end of one of the twelve subway lines I guess. By the way, the metro had very nice, beautiful stations, lined with marble, clean, as if ancient, it left me with the impression that it is a much nicer metro than in Prague. I reached a randomly selected terminal and got off. Hmmm – modern panel housing, wide multi-lane boulevards, grass on the central strip, clean and tidy. I just wandered around there for a while, and headed off to another dead end location to discover essentially the same thing.
Hmmm, well that wasn’t what I expected.
I changed my plan and decided to do so at least taste something, what real Russians eat, preferably in some out-of-the-way buffet of the 4th or even worse price group, i.e. not at our international hotel. And so I set off again by subway, and into the streets really far from the center. And I found such a suitable one – let’s say “putyka”, and there you go. I realized my mistake when the waitress brought me the menu. It was a Georgian restaurant, the dining room was entirely in Georgian (which has nothing to do with Russian), and me at the ends. I deciphered the only line on which something like “eggs” was written in the alphabet, that is, eggs. I wanted to order that, but the girl is shaking her head that they don’t have that today. Oh no. And so I turned to her helplessly with the question “what do you advise me”, just give me some advice. She answered in Georgian, to which I just shrugged my shoulders and said “well, bring it on”. After that, things started to happen.
First, regardless of my age, I got aperitifs, i.e. a glass of vodka. I remember that she was very gentle and good. Meanwhile, she landed on the table crimson red fish soup, in which sliced apples floated and the whole thing was flavored with whipped cream on top. You won’t believe me, but the taste was perfectly balanced and it really went together. Then meat balls topped with interesting sautéed vegetables that I can’t even name and potatoes. Finally baked pear dessert and an excellent “pear drink”, that is non-alcoholic pear juice. I think that I ordered either the current daily menu, or rather a tasting menu of that restaurant. I was a little nervous when paying, I didn’t have much money with me, and the rest was kept safely at the hotel, but how would I explain this to the Georgian staff?? Fortunately, I didn’t have to wash the dishes there, the price of the meal was only 12 rubles, even with the discretion of the waiter, which corresponded to 120 crowns at the time. A perfect experience.
After a culinary experience in a Georgian restaurant, I left take a taxi to the hotelon the one hand because the prices of petrol and therefore taxi services here were really low, but mainly because I got a little lost in the big city, and before I could find my way back, I wouldn’t have time for dinner (and Anita would announce a worldwide search for me, in which she would undoubtedly involve the Russian president as well).
The day came when we had to leave the hotel about two hours after dinner, as it was ready for us overnight train to Leningrad. Basically, as soon as we started packing, the maids visited us in our rooms and started negotiate carefully. That is, that they would like to buy the sweater that we have in that closet by the window, on the bottom shelf. And also the Rubik’s cube, which I have in the drawer by the bedside table. The girls then said on the train that their maids were most interested in jeans, underwear and nylon stockings. We agreed that although none of us had lost anything, and none of us was missing anything, the hotel staff had really cleaned the rooms down to the smallest details and to the last corners of every drawer. Oh no…
All I remember about the whole train is that it was a sleeper, comfortable, but… the windows on one side of it were impenetrably blacked out. Anita told us that we would pass by some military area on the way, and that what was there was top secret. And that the trains simply run here modified like this. Well, it was still dark outside, the wagon was relatively comfortable, there were many experiences… we slept well the whole way. But I have to praise the Russian Railways for the fact that there was a samovar on the corridor of our car, big enough and with a sufficient supply of always warm tea for all those interested, free of charge. We don’t have that on Czech railways even today.
Even in Leningrad we had a completely packed program, Aurora, the Hermitage and so on, only champagne was missing on the dinner tables, so there were no more exchanges with the waiters. But at the end of the stay, the “Moscow” ritual was repeated with the offer to buy our things from the hotel staff. Since our stay here was already over, we sold a lot of things, mainly canvas bags from Čedok, jeans, girls especially nylon stockings and some underwear. We then bought the last travel souvenirs at the hotel with the money we got. For example, I for 10 rubles digital (!!! at the time !!!) battery alarm clock Electronics, which was perfectly accurate for several years, had a century-old calendar, a built-in calculator and a simple electronic game. It woke up with an absolutely horrible screeching sound that was unbearable, but at the time I was a star among my friends thanks to its ownership.