You’d think 1984 would be an ominous year to visit the USSR, but my parents hadn’t read the book. To put it in context, my mother didn’t read anything unless she had toand my father read Louis L’Amour and Harold Robbins, not Orwell.
I had read 1984, and didn’t want to go. My 16 year old’s objection (“I’m in the middle of my final year of highschool!”) was overruled. But I’d also read Animal Farm, so knew all about ‘equality’.
Instead, I was bundled aboard a BA flight out of Melbourne for Helsinki via Singapore and Moscow knowing I’d be out of the country for four months. So I packed twelve novels, many from my Year 12 English curriculum, would buy eight more at foreign airports and in Helskinki, and I would read all of them.
Discounting the flight that brought me from Helsinki to Melbourne in 1969, this was my first international flight. From my mother’s stories, our ’69 emigration from Finland (-30°C / 40°F) to Australia (+40°C/ 104°F) put me in hospital for a week on a drip.
I still hate the heat, but that’s not relevant.
In Singapore, we were assailed at the baggage carousel by a small, persistent man who carried our bags to a taxi. When my parents jumped in the cab, he began cursing. Guessing he wanted a tip, I put $5AUD in his palm and saw his face light up. I thought maybe he’d grab a “Double Prosperity Chicken Burger” or ’84 equivalent from that fancy place my brother and I discovered deep in the bowels of Changi — McDonalds.
From memory, my brother ate five cheeseburgers and three thickshakes. You could say it was the beginning of the end for him.
I’ve always believed we stayed at “The Merlion Hotel” but Google tells me it never existed, so maybe it was a hotel near the Merlion. I saw the famous mer-lion with my own eyes. With our transfer not until the next day, we went shopping. A small, persistent man sold me a blue silk shirt printed with tiny golden merlions. My 16-year old brain thought it was cool. $5AUD? I began to think everything in Singapore costs $5AUD!
Next morning, I found out why.
Standing on the toilet to look through a tiny glass window facing away from the harbour, I saw the slums behind the facade of international hotels lined up facing the harbour. Textbook third-world shanty town with dirt tracks between huts made of corrugated iron, dogs, dirty children and goats everywhere — all hidden out of sight of the tourists.
Gotta house your migrant workers somewhere, I suppose. Maybe that’s why $5AUD was enough.
Our flight to Moscow was on Aeroflot. I don’t remember much, except that I read Legend by David Gemmel from cover to cover. I do remember the dour air hostesses were nothing like the supermodels in the advertisements. Every request by a non-Muscovite was answered with a shouted “Nyet!” whereas the returning Russians laughed and skolled endless shots of Stoli. It put my father in a dour mood too: he loves his Russian vodka.
An hour out of Москвá, they gassed us. Half an hour out of Москвá, the wing froze.
Welcome to the USSR!
Disembarking at Sheremetyevo, I was dragged forward by my father to speak to the dour-faced woman at customs, who not only didn’t speak Finnish, (understandable, Finnish is fucking brutal) but also didn’t speak English. Which in retrospect made her fairly useless in the international-arrivals-customs-officer role.
Our visas NYET! being in order, we were bundled onto a bus where a dour-faced soldier with a submachine gun watched us carefully in case we, I don’t know, tried to invade his so-far-utter-shithole country, or something. The bus deposited us at a grey multi-storey hotel in a birch forest where we were detained for two days while the FSB decided if we were spies. I read The Rats by James Herbert.
I met my first persons of Middle-Eastern appearance after emerging from a 19-hour fugue at lunch on Day 2 of our incarceration. Because every table was a four-seater, my family made me sit with three adult male ‘Arabs’, for wont of more accurate descriptor. When they saw what I had to eat, they gave me something out of a plastic bag which was probably cold mujaddarah, that tasted infinitely better than the poisonous slop the Reds fed us.
With typical feckless stupidity (i.e. every 16 year old male) I wrote “Send help! Kidnapped by Russians!” on a sheet of paper, folded it into the shape of a MiG-31, and threw it out the window. It speared towards the birch forest, then performed a slow banking turn before entering a kamikaze death-spiral to smashi into the steps outside the hotel’s front door, not six inches from the armed guard’s boot.
He immediately lifted his weapon, and of all the hundreds of windows he might have looked at, he looked straight at mine. I spent the rest of the evening and night finishing off The Rats, waiting for them to come and pack me off to the gulag. If I’d had a pocket-knife I would have hidden it in my shoe. I’d read One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich that year, and knew what to expect.
At the airport the next day, still expecting the heavy hand of the militsiya to fall on my shoulder, I begged out of the shuffling queue to run to the toilet. None of the toilet cubicles had doors. The place was full of penes and creepy old dudes taking a dump in public. “Хуй тебе́!” I thought, martialing control over my sphincter, and returned to the queue and freedom.
Although quick, the five hour flight to Helsinki proved Finns are all alcoholics. It also got me 100 pages into Radix, by A.A. Attanasio. When the plane’s nose tilted and I resurfaced, not a sober male was left standing, including my father, who’d finally got the stiffener he needed — a few shots of Finlandia to put the lead back in his pencil.
And those Finnair air hostesses!
I have no idea how it must have felt for them, my mother and father, sitting quietly on a plane filled with Finnish conversations. Sixteen years estranged from their mother-tongue and fatherland. I’m guessing my mother, not a drinker, probably squeezed in a couple of shots too by the look on her face, either that or the Romani witch in her was waking up.
For me (eyes open, ears twitching, mouth shut) it would take four months before I caught up — started thinking in Finnish. I didn’t know it at the time, but my brain was maturing at hyperspeed from child to adult throughout the fateful, unexpected European summer of ’84.
Part of it was the books I read during that long Finnish summer.
But that’s a whole ‘nother post.