WHAT IT'S LIKE TO DRIVE A BUICK TO MOSCOW

A. J. NEWLANDS December 16 1961

WHAT IT'S LIKE TO DRIVE A BUICK TO MOSCOW

A. J. NEWLANDS December 16 1961

WHAT IT'S LIKE TO DRIVE A BUICK TO MOSCOW

Here, as Arch and Florence Newlands, of Montreal, saw them, are the things to watch for m fine roads, shabby shoes ■ more trucks than cars, dirty gasoline u no tipping, no litterbugs and, too often, no waiters ■ the world’s loudest jazz, the world’s politest opera buffs ■ women car-washers, empty churches and, everywhere, “western hospitality”

A. J. NEWLANDS

Peter Gzowski

WE ENTERED RUSSIA from Finland one fine morning early last summer, down a spruce and pine-lined road, not unlike many of the scenic roads of northern Ontario. At the border there was a wooden gate, like the barrier at a railway crossing, and a few soldiers with rifles. The soldiers lifted the gate but signaled me to stop. We showed our papers—you have to tell Intourist exactly where you're going and just how' long you'll be in each place. The soldiers looked under the hood and. I don't know why, into the ashtrays, but they didn't ask us to open our luggage. They checked my insurance card — Western companies are reluctant to insure a car while it's traveling in Russia, so it's easier to buy Russian auto insurance; mine cost me about thirty dollars. Then we drove off, unaccompanied and without knowing a word of Russian, for two weeks on the road in the U.S.S.R.

I'd been interested in geography all my life, and my business—I was vice-president of a typewriter company before I retired last year—had taken me to many parts of the world. Still, I’d never seen Russia and so much of what I’d read seemed one-sided or secondhand that I decided to have a look for myself. My wife and I took a cruise ship to, and then through, the Mediterranean. We landed with our car in Italy, spent the summer and fall driving aimlessly around Europe, and wintered in the British Isles. Because of the need to file exact dates we didn’t apply for Russian visas until we got to Stockholm late in the spring. We had to wait eight days to get them. But Stockholm is a pleasant city and we didn’t mind, except for the excitement of being so near our adventure in Russia.

A NICE PLACE TO VISIT BUT ...

Coming into Russia from Finland is like what going from Ontario to Quebec used to be: suddenly the road becomes much smoother. The Russians have very good asphalt and it's kept marvelously clean. Cleanliness, in fact, was the thing that impressed us most about Russia, as well as first. A few days later. I remember, we were standing outside our hotel in Leningrad when a tourist, an American I think, opened a package of cigarettes. He rolled the silver paper from inside into a little ball and dropped it into the gutter. The Russian doorman sidled quietly up to him and told him very politely that that wasn’t done in Russia—it isn't, either; there are trash receptacles every dozen feet or so along the curbs—and the tourist very sheepishly picked up his tiny bit of litter.

Since I've skipped ahead to Leningrad

anyway, perhaps I can use another experience we had there to underline the second strongest impression we carried away from Russia. That was of the politeness and the desire of the people to help strangers. One of the reasons we had decided to go by car was that it would give us a chance to meet more people than on one of the Intourist tours, and we certainly don’t regret making that decision. We met —everywhere in our 1,500-mile drive across western Russia—the kind of treatment that Canadians call western hospitality. The incident in Leningrad was on our first day there. Though we had a fairly detailed map, we still had no guide and apparently I took a wrong turn while looking for our hotel. We crossed a bridge that oughtn’t to have been on our route and I stopped the car, the way worried travelers always do, to mull over our predicament and look again at the map. Soon, a car coming the other way also stopped. The people in it. a young man and woman, just looked at us. We were already used to people staring at our car, so at first we didn’t think anything of it, but after a few minutes, I realized they looked more friendly than curious. I got out and crossed the street to them and said, “Europa. Hotel Europa.” (I wasn’t fooling when I said we knew no Russian.) By sign language — what a grand thing sign language is — the man indicated that I was to follow him. He led us with his car to our hotel—which turned out to be five miles away—and when we got there all he would accept in the way of thanks was a handshake, and we all parted nodding and smiling at each other.

I’m making our trip sound so simple and pleasant that perhaps I should stop here to make a point. Our trip was pleasant and easy and we enjoyed it immensely. But I am no apologist for Russia, nor do I want to be. These notes are simply my impressions of what it's like to drive a car from the Finnish border to the Polish one. I will leave the political reporting to the experts, noting only that by no stretch of the imagination would I like to live in Russia. Besides, there were difficulties, even on a two-week trip.

One of them was gasoline. On the way from the border, through the city of Vyborg and on to Leningrad, we noticed two kinds of traffic. The first, near Vyborg, was holiday traffic, much like our own on a summer week end. though perhaps not quite bumper-to-bumper, traveling to the lovely resorts in the Baltic area. But it was made up mostly of small cars, which use seventy or eighty-octane gas. My Buick uses a minimum of ninety-three, and runs best on about ninety-eight. The other heavy traffic was made up of trucks, of which we saw thousands in Russia; they seemed far more plentiful than cars. And they, of course, use diesel fuel. So you can imagine how difficult it was fotus. In the entire city of Moscow, for instance, there are only two gas stations serving the kind of gas I need. (There are only twenty-five gas stations of any kind in Moscow, we were told.) I got some gas in Vyborg, but barely made it to Leningrad, and I had to turn down two motorcyclists at one stop who wanted to buy some “benzina” from me. When you do get gas, it’s quite good, and no more expensive than in Canada (the Russians have lowered their price more than forty percent in the last couple of years), but it’s very dirty. I could see the sediment in the glass filter in the fuel system before we’d gone more than a few hundred miles,

FOR $16 A DAY, GOOD FOOD, GOOD BEDS

We didn’t go farther than Leningrad without a guide. On our first morning there — after the evening our friends had guided us to our hotel—we went to the Intourist office and met a lovely and jovial girl named Mila, who spoke English with the barest hint of an accent. She was a language student in Leningrad, and was to accompany us all the way to the Polish border, picking up some supplementary help from local Intourist offices in towns she didn't know very well. These guiding services were included in the daily sixteen-dollar charge we paid per person for our tour. The sixteen dollars included hotels (always first class), meals (ditto), but not that difficult-to-find commodity, gas.

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“Most churches were monuments. In one congregation, no one appeared to be under fifty’*

Mila showed us around her own city with obvious pride and delight. We were delighted too. We particularly enjoyed a riefe on a large, glass-covered boat along the Neva River, where we saw women doing their wash along the banks anti where, at one jetty, Mila took her sandals

off and bathed her feet in the river, with an air of being at ease with us that we found very charming. I would have liked to spend more time at the Hermitage. Leningrad's justifiably world-famous art museum, which has, for instance, twentyfour Rembrandts, and where all the paint-

ings are hung under brilliant skylighting, but I was told it would take three complete days to cover it all and our schedule just wouldn’t permit it. We discovered that Novgorod has fifty-two churches, but most of them are monuments now; only one serves as a church. (Later, in Minsk.

we got to church ourselves and found, as we had expected from what we'd read, that no one in the congregation appeared to he under fifty.)

In Leningrad we first learned that American chewing gum is as popular in Russia as everyone says it is. One little fellow got a stick from us and then said in clear English, "give me the whole package." But by and large the children were well behaved. They didn’t want the gum for nothing and usually gave us something in return—often some sort of small badge, perhaps with Lenin’s picture on it. or commemorating an event in recent Russian history, with the result that we now have what must be Montreal's most complete collection of small Russian badges.

After three days in Leningrad, we set off toward Moscow. Again, the country resembled parts of northern Ontario; I was frequently reminded of the north shore of Lake Superior, except that this part of Russia is flatter. Here and there were collective faims and we got a close look at a few. Except that the buildings are huddled in bigger groups, they’re quite a lot like our western farms. Perhaps not as many buildings are painted, but they all look comfortable, and there is a profusion o‘* potted plants—they looked like geranium. —in the windows. Once I was photograph ing a house that was pretty ramshack! _■ and Mila said, "Why do you Americans (she did know we were Canadians, but. as it did with many Russians, the difierence sometimes slipped her mind), always choose the worst buildings to take pictures of?” I said I didn't know, and offered to let her choose my subject at the next collective farm. She took me up on it. too, with a well-constructed and wellpainted house.

A word here about food. My wife and I are not particularly food-conscious people; we eat to live, as they say. rather than live to eat. So that while gourmets might not be overwhelmed by the food in Russia, which is generally plain, we found it satisfactory. And it was certainly plentifulloo plentiful for us. The meal tickets we were given by Intourist entitled us to four meals a day. I don’t know when we were supposed to eat the fourth, or how, because we never finished all we were served at three. Breakfast usually started with a fruit juice and a rather tasteless cereal and continued on through bacon and eggs and toast and coffee or tea. none cooked as well as in America. Lunch and dinner were heavy. Russians seem to like soup; they make a milk soup we saw a lot of. There were many dishes with sour cream and lots of quite good cheese. Many meals were accompanied by a salad of lettuce and cucumber. A common dessert was an open apple pie. or a strudel. We're not wine drinkers, so I can't report on the quality of the Russian wine, but they certainly have it in quantity; we saw wine, often several bottles of it. on nearly every table in the restaurants we ate at.

We did find the service terribly slow anti sometimes we waited for two hours just for our soup. This inconvenience didn't seem to bother the Russians at all ---including our guides, who would chat merrily until the food came and then dig in like starving decathlon stars, even oui Mila, who nearly always finished everything put before her.

We liked all our guides very much. Generally, they resisted the temptation it) propagandize and one little girl in a small city was chastised by her superior at Intourist for boasting too much about what she constantly called "my country.” It was her first guiding job. we learned. 1 hope it wasn't her last.

The trip from Leningrad to Moscow took us three leisurely days and we stayed in Moscow a week, seeing all the sights, from the subway to the Kremlin, where we were embarrassed when, as visitors, we were whisked to the head of a very long line and given a special look at Lenin. I enjoyed a vast technical exhibition, which included, of course, a sputnik.

In Moscow we had our only unpleasant brush with the police. It wasn't with the secret police. (I had two cameras with me and was never stopped from taking a picture. though I didn't, naturally, attempt pictures of anything smacking of a military installation.) It was with a traffic cop. We were driving along a square about as wide as a football field when I heard his whistle. Mila said we'd better stop or they'd follow us to the “ends of the earth.” The policeman was very nice. He spoke with

Mila for a few moments. Apparently I'd gone through a traffic light: the system in Moscow is very complex. And. maybe it was Mila’s charm, since a pretty girl is a pretty girl anywhere, or maybe it was because I w-as a tourist, but he let us off with a warning. That time. The next day I committed an offense in another part of Moscow—I’m not certain if it w'as the same offense—and. stranger than fiction, there was the same whistle and the same officer. He greeted me like an old acquaintance but neither our long-standing friendship nor, this time, Mila's charm worked. Fine: four rubles, paid on the spot, and receipted.

One offense I didn’t commit, and it, or rather the story of how I came to avoid it, illustrates both what I said earlier about cleanliness and a point I’d like to make about tipping in Russia: there is none. I soon learned that it was an offense. everywhere we traveled in Russia, to drive a dirty car. In Novgorod we headed for our first car-wash and found it was run, like every other car-wash we were to see, by a woman. She worked for an hour and a half over our car. She even raised it on a lift and washed the undergearing. The charge was roughly fifty cents, ridiculously low, so I went up to her with a handful of silver. She backed

away from me. shaking her head firmly.

That's something that bothered us: all the women working. 1 had read about them cleaning streets, but I was surprised to see them working on the highways and to learn that there are women stationed every couple of miles there, much like our railway section gangs, except that the women’s duty is to pick litter from the asphalt and even to sweep the shoulders of the roads with their brush-brooms.

Perhaps this passion for civic and national cleanliness is one reason why we saw no slums in Moscow. “Slums are

American. " Mila said, somewhat touchily, when we asked where they were. At any rale, we were unable to discover a neighborhood that could be described as slum, and we were constantly on the lookout— including a couple of days when we went off to explore without either of our guides. We did see miles and miles—three miles along one street — of concrete apartment buildings going up. each apartment having a balcony and a bathroom, but certainly not being luxurious or even very comfortable by North American standards. There seemed a total lack of private houses.

We didn't do much shopping, and weren’t impressed by the quality of the consumer goods we did see—particularly such things as shoes. 1 mentioned shoes to Igor, our Moscow guide, and he was quite put out. “Tomorrow I will take you to the finest shoe store in Moscow,” he said. But when he did I thought the shoes were quite shoddily manufactured, and said as much. “Well, certainly I wouldn’t wear that jacket you have on. either,” he said. He appeared to be quite insulted and we dropped the subject.

One article of ours the Russians were interested in was our car. Sometimes when we stopped we’d find a hundred people around it, arguing about how fast it would go. Occasionally, we heard cries of, “Tchika, Tchika,” as we drove down the street; the Tchika is Russia’s new sevenpassengcr automobile and is bigger than a Buick. Our car was also the source of some concern to us. We discovered that Russians have no tubeless tires and don’t know how to service them. Fortunately. we had only one flat and a passing motorist insisted on mounting the spare for us. We called the Canadian Embassy and. while no one there was able to fix our fiat, they were able to direct us to the U. S. Embassy, where someone was. (Mila and Igor wouldn’t go into the U. S. Embassy grounds with us, and quietly slipped out of the car as it went through the gale, to rejoin us when we emerged. )

There is one other impression I'd like to set down: of music. Wc were told that in Moscow there are thirty thousand people every evening being entertained at the opera, the ballet or a concert. If the samples we saw were at all typical, they must be thirty thousand of the world’s most polite people. No one is late for a performance and it is regarded as rude to cough. At a truly fine Rigoletto that we attended at the Bolshoi Theatre, one young woman began to cough and she rose immediately and tiptoed up the aisle. At the other end of the scale was the American jazz we heard — there is quite a bit of it played in restaurants, for instance. It seems the Russians think the best way to listen to jazz is to have it played loudly; we heard louder jazz there than we ever have in North America, and we are not fond of it, loud or soft.

Jazz notwithstanding, we were sorry to leave Moscow after our week. But there was that itinerary to meet. We traveled across the rolling plain, much like Saskatchewan. down to the Polish border. By

now the dirt in the Russian gas was choking our car’s fuel system rather badly, and the engine was straining and wheezing.

Mila left us as we entered Poland, refusing. of course, to accept any sort of parting gift. The car finally coughed to an asthmatic stop on the main street of Biala Podlaska, a small Polish city, but with the help of a friendly policeman-— who didn’t give us a ticket or a warning — we located Orbis, the Polish Intourist, and Orbis, in turn, billeted us with a suburban family in a very comfortable home, while we waited for the overnight repair job.

We never felt quite as helpless during our trip as at the very last stop in communist territory, the Berlin border, although. of course and thank goodness, we arrived before Ulbricht’s restrictions. By this time, all the money I had was in a cheque from the Russian state bank (the refund from our unused Intourist chits), and in American travelers’ cheques. At the border between Fast Berlin and the American zone. 1 asked a guard for directions to the Berlin Hilton. He showed me on a map and 1 asked him to trace the route in red. When he did so, I accepted his map. "One mark. ninet\ pfennigs,” he said. “But I have no cash," I said. "Will you take a travelers’ cheque?” "Sorry,” he said. He wouldn't take his marked-up map back, either. At last, we hailed an American soldier, just over the border. Neither he nor his buddy was carrying any cash at all. But. he said, with a casual Southern drawl, he was going off duty and would come back with some. Forty minutes later, he did—counting the change out of his wife’s piggy bank. We were out of hock. and. shortly after, out of the communist world and heading for the Hilton for some American breakfast cereal and an English-language newspaper. Someday, I'd like to drive from the Crimea to Moscow, ic