Gail Howard's Travel Adventures in the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) Communist Russia 1967 Written by

Continued

Finally, I was able to enter my little rat hole and lock up my bags and go buy a ticket for that night's opera, Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor.

It was cold during the opera so I removed my shoes and slipped on the heavy wool socks I had bought in Iceland. During intermission I put my shoes back on and went upstairs to the restaurant with the rest of the crowd. I bought apples priced at ten kopeks each (a real bargain!) and stuffed them into the socks so I could carry them home. My stomach told my feet not to worry. After the opera, I rushed home to eat the apples.

Being back in Moscow again was almost like coming home. They even put me in the same Berlin Hotel. The Intourist woman rewarded me with a rare smile, which faded when I asked to have my visa extended again, this time so I could go to Siberia.

Ah, but she was a clever one. She said if I went by train to Irkutzk it would take four days and I would have only one day to spend in Siberia, then fly back and go by train the same day to Leningrad. This meant, of course, that I would arrive too late to use my plane ticket (which I had already paid for) to fly to Helsinki from Moscow.

Not only that, I could not stay overnight in Moscow because every room of every hotel had been booked for the past year by delegations. She won her game, but not entirely, because I asked for a five-day extension in Moscow and I had the nerve to ask to buy a ballet ticket.

The elevator operator flashed me what must have been his first smile in 62 years. But I was no longer at his mercy and caprice. This time my room was on the second floor, an easy walk up. Before, when my room was on the fifth floor, I could press the buzzer all day without a response. When I'd reached the lobby, I would find him sitting on a chair in front of the elevator. I soon learned it was faster to just walk down the five flights.

The day I returned from the Kremlin Walking Tour, I begged and pleaded with him to take me up in the elevator to the fifth floor. When I gestured that I was suffering excruciating back pain, the scoundrel lifted his chin to indicate the stairway. I fought him steadily until the day I left the fifth floor.

So, communism believes that each person will perform his job efficiently because of his own conscience. Well, not until all the lazy old buzzards have met their maker!

My hotel window looked directly into the second story of the GUM department store. GUM is an entire city block long, filled with huge swarms of people grasping for mothy-looking merchandise.

When a customer is finally close enough (or tall enough to look over the heads five deep) to scrutinize the price of the desired item, she must wait in a long queue at the cashier's cage to pay for the item and is given a receipt. If she wants more than one item in the store, she must find the price of each and wait in a separate line for the slip for each item. After all that, she must wait in a thick crowd, again, at each department to exchange her slips for the merchandise. An unbelievably inefficient system!

When I walked through GUM the first day I was in Moscow, I thought I would either be trampled, squashed or die of suffocation -- and that was just passing through the center of the store. I would go naked before I would shop at GUM.

Everything was closed on Sundays, no tours, nothing. So I went in search of my Mexican friends at the Hotel Rossiya. It was no small feat locating a guest in a hotel with six thousand rooms. Hugo had told me there were many elevators, yet it was a 20 minute walk from the closest elevator to his room.

A tourist checked into this huge hotel and went for a walk around town. When he returned to the hotel, he had forgotten his room number. Reception could not find it, so the man had to sleep in another room. Hugo met him in the bar drinking off his dilemma. I don't know if he ever found his old room and suitcases. Needless to say, I couldn't trace my three Mexican friends.

I gave up and had lunch in the Hotel Rossiya. As I was soaring straight to heaven, devouring a dish of wild mushrooms baked in sour cream, a familiar face approached my table and asked how I was enjoying my stay in Russia. Antonio Gambino, editor of the Italian magazine, L'Espresso, had carried my hand luggage off the plane my first day in Moscow. I was happy to see him. After lunch we walked all over the city.

We took the escalator deep down into the subway. Moscow escalators are much steeper than those of the London Underground. Our steep and rapid descent into the bowels of the earth activated my acrophobia. When I looked down, I started to fall over. Clinging to Antonio, I almost pulled him over with me.

The wide area between the trains was spotlessly clean, not a piece of paper nor drop of spittle anywhere. It was palatial with crystal chandeliers and white arched colonnades. Murals and statues of students and workers lined the walls. There were no advertising billboards and, of course, no graffiti. New York's IRT could learn something from the Russians.

As we made our ascent, I did not allow myself even one terrified peek back, although others on the escalator were casually reading books or newspapers, totally relaxed.

Next day, I went to the head office of Intourist to try to get a refund for the plane ticket that I had paid for twice. The woman I was to see at 10 a.m. hadn't shown up by noon, so I figured that wherever she was, she would be more likely to go to lunch than to the office, so I went to lunch at the National Hotel nearby.

I found an empty seat at a table where a big stocky middle-aged man was drinking whiskey glass after glass. After offering me a glass of whiskey, which I politely declined, he related his sad tale. He had been in Moscow for four years, waiting for a work visa for the United States. But, alas, he must have a sponsor to make the final arrangements. Maybe I would sponsor him? He related all his qualifications. He had $10,000 in the bank in Teheran. He used to be the manager of a big company and was a qualified accountant. But the Soviet government had taken away his passport and he was stuck in Russia.

"Why don't you go back to Iran?" I asked.

"Oh, no. Unthinkable."

Not being able to return to his own country sounded suspicious. I had him pegged as escaping to Russia after embezzling his firm in Teheran.

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