Feb 28, 2017
Travelling in the Soviet Union, Part 1:
“What Do You MEAN, My Luggage is in New York?”
In December of 1986, I had the rare opportunity to travel with a group of educators to the Soviet Union. It meant I would be spending Christmas in the Soviet Union. And New Year’s Eve.
This was because of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost which began in 1985.
I talked it over with my principal, and we decided this was a great trip for me! I would leave the day Christmas break started, and would return the day before school started back. A two-week trip with NO DAYS missed. It was a sign.
I signed up, mailed in my money, and bought my ticket to New York (where I would meet up with the rest of the people going). I bought new luggage (with wheels), bought my dress for New Year’s Eve, winter boots, and gifts from the U.S. for the people I would run into (including candy canes I planned to put out on Christmas morning for all the participants). I took photos of the the Christmas lights around Richmond to share. I packed my watercolors (because I knew I would have time to paint), and my sketch pad. AND, I packed the things I could not do without in my carry-on: make-up and toiletries, toothbrush/toothpaste, pjs and underwear. The essentials. At the last minute I put my sketchbook into the carry-on. We had an overnight stay in Brussels, and this way, I would not need to even open my suitcase. That was the plan. Here's my carry-on. Pretty small by today's standards.
The day came. My family drove me to DC for a grand send-off (I was going to the SOVIET UNION, for Pete's Sake), I checked my bag, I flew to NY, I met up with the group, and I…didn’t have my luggage.
I think I told the DC people I was checking the luggage to New York. I was SUPPOSED to tell them to check the luggage to Brussels (where we changed from Sabrina Airlines to Aeroflot). Who knew? By the time the person in charge of the group (Peter) realized what I had done, we had to board the plane. With my checked luggage still in New York.
On the up side, I looked really nice in my black wool skirt and heels on the plane.
During the trip to Brussels, Peter told me I had better buy boots once we landed, because I would certainly need them and he was not sure how long it would take me to find a pair, if I could, once in Moscow.
So, once we landed in Brussels, while the rest of group went to see the sights, I went a few blocks down the street to buy boots appropriate for the cold snowy days ahead. I found a big department store, found a great pair of boots (flat, fur-lined, and suede on the outside). MUCH better that the ones with heels in my suitcase in New York.
Now, I did not speak Dutch or French (although I understand a bit), but I had been able to make my needs known through signals. I got my American Express travel Cheques out, and….found out the store could not accept them, because they were in American dollars, and I was not in the tourist area, they were not in a position to exchange money. My only chance was to get back to the hotel, hope the exchange bank in the hotel was open, get some Belgium francs, get back to the store, all before the store closed at 6 pm. It was about 4.
I walked back to the hotel, the bank was open, got the cash, headed back to the store, and…slipped on the sidewalk, because it had started to snow. And I was in my heels. By this time it was rush hour, with everyone trying to get home. Not only did no one stop to help me up, they pretty much stepped right over me without breaking stride. So much for the Christmas spirit.
I picked myself up, got to the store before it closed, changed my shoes right there in the store, and was still able to join the group for dinner. Sans heels.
The next morning we left for about a week in Moscow and a few days each in Tallin (Estonia) and St. Petersburg.
When we got to our hotel in Moscow, I realized we were on Red Square, with a view of St. Basil’s Cathedral, with the snow falling down, light EXACTLY like a photograph I had from National Geographic. I was so excited, I didn’t even notice I lost my hat. But I was getting some great photographs.
For the rest of the trip I wore my wool skirt, my new boots, by wool coat, my cotton knit long-sleeved shirt, a sweater someone loaned me, a hat someone else gave me, and my blue scarf and gloves (which matched the hat I lost, and also a cobalt blue sweater that was still in my suitcase in New York). For the rest of the trip I did not have to make decisions about what to wear. For the rest of the trip it took me about HALF the time to dress it usually did.
And for New Year’s Eve I tucked the neckline of my t-shirt and draped a beautiful Russian scarf around my neck. I felt gorgeous.
I discovered that not only did I not mind NOT having a choice of clothing, I actually enjoyed not having to think about it. It was the most freeing experience in the world, and it changed my entire way of thinking about clothes.
So when I take a casual ‘la-de-dah’ attitude towards multiple changes of clothes, this is why.
Eventually I did some paintings from my trip: See the paintings
What did I learn?
• Carry WHAT YOU CANNOT LIVE WITHOUT in your purse and in your carry-on. It is precious little.
• Wear your essentials if possible (boots).
• You will always need to depend on the kindness of strangers (my travel mates).
• You can do with a lot less than you thought, and it is very freeing to do so.
NOTE: I almost titled this blog, “These Boots Were Made for Walking”. p.s. The banner for this blog shows a 50 Belgian francs note. Now they use euros.
Next blog: Why I went, and what would it take to change your mind?
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