On Camping and Driving in the USSR Part 1. Getting There

My oldest son turned 21 this week. I took a 2-hour nap on his birthday to recover from the staggering verklempt-ness of having my little boy hit that mark. Another hurricane is dashing its way towards our shores, and the west is burning. Oh yeah, and we hit the 6-month mark from the night of The Fire. I reserve the right to swing back and grab one of these topics later like a wayward hoedown partner, but am choosing not to write about any of them. Instead, I am caving to my son’s insistence that I write about some of my “adventures” from long ago. Both my boys are fascinated by the things Craig and I did before they existed.

So, here goes. Back when I was in college, before I was 21, I was faced with a dilemma in the summer between Sophomore and Junior years at Northwestern. I didn’t want to spend another summer in Wichita living with my strict parents, and working at the local Savings and Loan as a part-time receptionist, but had failed to get cast in Northwestern’s Summer Theatre program. I had no legitimate reason to stay on campus. All my friends had gotten in, and it left me feeling lonely and desperate to stay at NU so I could at least party with them. The only thing that might work was if I found a way to take extra classes in the summer, but my hubris in thinking that OF COURSE I would be cast in the Summer Theatre program meant that I had missed the registration deadlines.

Backing up a little, you should know that all of Sophomore year I had been taking Russian Language. Not from desire, but by default.  It was the only course that fit my schedule when I realized on the second day of Economics class with the brilliant Robert Eisner that economics had math in it, meaning I was doomed to fail. The change to Russian was a necessary leap of faith. I surprised myself and did rather well. I’ve an ear for vocal patterns, and I like puzzles. The Cyrillic alphabet certainly qualifies.  Madame Linchevskaya said that while I was certainly learning the words I needed, my accent made me sound like a Volga Boatman. Madame Linchevskaya never minced words, and Russian is filled with long rolling ones with growling undertones that make you realize you are small, and have no business existing in the universe.

Despondent about the Summer Festival and the seeming inevitability that I was headed back to my parent’s home for the summer, I dragged into Madame Linchevskaya’s class.  She pinned me with a look, and handed me a small flier.  “This. This you must do”, she said.  “You will like it, and is only thing that will fix your uzashni, gloopni (terrible, stupid) accent, is to live there.  You will bring me back some Banki* as thanks.”  I read the flier: CAMPING AND DRIVING IN THE USSR.  It was a travel program out of Harvard, in which (as you may have guessed), participants camped and drove through Soviet Russia.  The idea was to live as Russians, eat the native food, and speak a lot of Russian along the way. It entailed driving 3 VW Vans 3,800 miles through the spine of the USSR from Finland to the Black Sea and would take a little over 6 weeks.  I had just two days before the registration closed. I looked up from the paper and saw Madame Linchevskaya grinning at me. “Da?” she asked.  “Da, eto bosmoshno”, I replied in my very best Russian pronunciation of “Yes it’s possible”.  She grimaced, but said “Horoshow”, (Good), and winked at me as if we had just planned a heist.  I phoned my parents, did a much better acting job than I had in my audition for Summer Theatre, and convinced them it would be educational. I got their permission to sign up and grabbed the final slot of 18 available.  Looking back, I realize that my parents were incredibly good about letting me go on this trip.  It was the days before cell phones or that great app where you can follow your kid’s planes as they travel so you know they haven’t crashed.  They were signing off on their only child travelling across the globe and being out of communication for 6 weeks in a country not known to love Americans.

The flight to Europe left from New York, and getting to that was an adventure all on its own.  I had driven to NYC with my boyfriend at the time.  His car broke down halfway to the airport, so I had to get out and snag a cab in Manhattan as rush hour started. I managed, but then that cab ran out of gas in the middle of Midtown Tunnel.  Time was ticking down, I had to make my plane.  Seeing no way around it, I hiked out of the tunnel hauling my suitcase (this was before suitcases came with wheels) and my sleeping bag.  I walked along the median with multiple lanes of traffic whizzing by me on either side with no clear plan, feeling desperate. I am sure I looked utterly lost. Then a miracle; a cab driver with another fare slowed next to me, and leaned over to roll down the passenger window. He shouted above the irritated horn honking behind him to ask where I was headed. I believe there are travel angels and these two unknown men earned their wings that day. I marvel now that I trusted they wouldn’t kidnap me, but that was in the days before we knew such things happened, so I hopped in.

I was dropped at the door of the International terminal, and discovered my fellow Camping and Driving adventurers brazenly holding the plane for me by refusing to board.  Again, a different era.  The leaders of the group were an engaged couple, Bryan and Bridget, and a burly Harvard Professor who was just seeing us to the Finnish border. The other travelers ranged from 18 to 70.  The professor smiled at me as I approached and said, “I knew you’d make it”.  He waved his massive arms in the air, and shouted in a magnificently loud and booming voice, “Onward!”  Staffers from the airline bundled us out of a side door and onto a luggage trolley and drove us out to the waiting plane.  We walked up temporary stairs and settled into our seats headed for our first stop: Amsterdam. There we were to pick up 3 VW vans, our transport for the next 6 weeks.

To be continued… and now my kids know why I insist on leaving super early to catch planes…

*Banki are the small glass vessels used for fire cupping. You may have seen swimmers in the Olympics with red circles on their shoulders and backs from this practice.  The Banki are placed on the skin and heated to create a vacuum and draw blood to the surface therapeutically.  It hurts a lot, and if you leave it on too long, you get burns that linger.  



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