Some college students go to Palm Springs, others to Fort Lauderdale, Miami or Cancun. All for Spring Break. I went to Moscow at the height of the Soviet era. And Leningrad too. But, of course, it’s now back to being called St. Petersburg.
It was 1973 and I was a graduate student at Stockholm’s Universitetet. I lived on about 10 Kroner a day, which was the equivalent to $2.50-in those days. My main meal was eaten in the student cafeteria and invariably coincided of torsk—a.k.a. cod. Torsk with cream sauce, torsk with lemon, torsk fried, torsk in a casserole. Always with boiled potatoes.
So money was an issue. All my fellow students purchased the “femtikort” which was a bus pass that cost 50 kroner a month and gave unlimited travel. Instead, I walked the roughly four kilometers to the university wearing black Swedish clogs and coat purchased in Pasadena, California. My leather-shearing coat, which had been a gift from my boyfriend’s brother-in-law, was stolen out of his car. Those walks gave me time to think and dream. I sang Carly Simon songs to myself and once I found an Irish coin on the sidewalk.
In the early months of my program most of the students went on a trip to Goteland. I chose to save my money. But when spring break neared and the opportunity to go to the Soviet Union arose, I was in.
As a treat I bought a copy of NEWSWEEK for the trip. It happened to be the week that
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in the cover after Leonid Brezhnev had exiled him from the USSR.
First our student group boarded a ferry that took us on an overnight trip through the Swedish archipelago to Helsinki, Finland. I slept on the floor between the seats of people who had booked a touch higher class than the carpet. Helsinki was an amazing spring fest of market gardens, floral delights and reminded me of my mother’s love of the Marrmekko brand that has now been added to Crate and Barrel. A touch of spring, cat tails and flowers and we were on the overnight train to Leningrad.
I was raised in a family that showed us the wonders of nature: Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Yosemite. But the skies I saw from that 1940’s era train were like nothing I had never seen. They were the BIGGEST and WIDEST vistas that I hade ever seen. The train chugged across Finland and finally into the Soviet Union.
And then when we were at the border of the country I had lived in fear of my entire life I wondered what would happen. I tucked my copy of NEWSWEEK under the cushion of my seat. My papers were in order.
The Soviet custom guards entered the train and proceeded through every compartment. When they came to mine, they lifted the cushion I was sitting on, removed the NEWSWEEK with Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the cover and moved to the next compartment.
I found it frightening and wondered if they had bugged the compartment. Soon waiters with hot tea in high glass containers and sugar cubes arrived to server us.
We were on the way to Leningrad. Not the stuff of a little Silver Lake kid.