Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia Trip
by John Fuhring
The Tour Bus Arrives at Berlin
and I want to go home
All too soon our time was up and it was time to move over to the tour's cheap hotel and join up with the tour. As I mentioned, our little hotel was very comfortable and very tasteful in a pleasantly understated sort of way. Our little hotel on Ohmstrasse had been so nice that I wasn't prepared for the terrible shock of seeing what the tour was going to put us up in. The tour hotel was the most garish, tasteless, cracker box of a place I'd ever been in. Outside was a lurid sign and "decorated" in plastic panels so that it made me think it was some kind of a really cheesy cat-house or something. Somehow this hotel chain had earned a "One Star" rating and (would you believe it) they bragged about on the sign outside. If this tasteless and uncomfortable place was a "One Star," then my former hotel must have been a "Ten Star" at least. Believe me, any Motel 6 would be considered very tasteful and elegant next to this hotel (a Three Star by their reckoning). The hotels and motels in Russia may have been older and more run-down, but none were more cheesy than this place. To make matters worse, I learned that I would have to have a "roommate" on this trip and the though to loosing my privacy filled me with dread.
To tell the truth, I had had a wonderful time in Berlin and after seeing this garish new hotel and knowing I would loose my privacy for the next three weeks, I really didn't want to continue with the tour. If some one would have suggested that we stay another week in Berlin and then just go home, I would have been all in favor. In fact though, I had paid my money and I was committed to go on with the trip. As reluctant as I was to continue, I knew that there was much more to see. Looking back, it would have been a terrible mistake to go home after seeing only Berlin.
Next morning we all met at breakfast at this awful hotel, were given a briefing by the tour staff and then we boarded the bus and started the drive through Eastern Germany.
You want to talk about a small world? On this trip were two young women that had recently graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obisbo - just 35 miles north from where I live. One young woman was from Solvang - 35 miles south of me. They were very pretty and very fun loving girls. Every night they would go out with young Russian guys they would meet at the little night clubs that were always attached to our motels and served as dining rooms during the day. At first I couldn't believe what they were doing. I was frightened for them going off with strangers in this alien land, but they always had a wonderful time. They were always treated as Royal Princesses by these very rustic Russian boys. They would ask the boys where the most fun places in town were and then proceed to take the guys to places these guys could never have afforded to go on their own. I have to admit that it was touching how much these boys just worshiped those girls. Not once did anything ugly or dangerous happen. Can you imagine what would happen to Russian girls touring the U.S. and going out with strangers? Their youth, beauty and joy in life sure made me feel old and frumpy.
Before I go on, I need to say something about this crazy old geezer who was my roommate.
Since I am a single man, I had to have a roommate for this tour, as I think I've already mentioned. In a way I was lucky to get who I got because all the other single guys (except me of course) were really weird. My roommate, Peter, was about as eccentric as old geezers get, but not too weird and really quite an interesting old guy.
According to the story he told me, he was in the Polish army when WW II started and was captured by the Germans. He was kept under close confinement under miserable conditions because he was a radio operator and the Germans distrusted anybody more intelligent than an ordinary soldier. He told me about the Allied bombing of his prison camp, but when I said that it was wrong of us to have bombed a POW camp, he set me straight. According to him, it was right to bomb the camp because that harmed the German war effort and it allowed some of the survivors to escape. When the war was finally over and Eastern Europe was under occupation by the Red Army, Peter became a refugee and ended up in America somehow. Uncle Joe annexed Peter’s home district into White Russia and he was barred from ever returning home by the authorities (except as a member of an official tour such as the one we were now on). The animus the USSR had against him was such that for years and years the authorities wouldn't tell him what happened to his wife and son until finally the International Red Cross informed him that they had been killed. In the late 40s Peter became an American Citizen and did quite well living and working in Florida. His brother’s family is still living in what is now Ukraine and every year he takes these tours so that he can bring them clothes, money and all kinds of other goods that they just can't get at home (believe it or not, he even bought them two Russian cars). You can imagine how popular Uncle Peter is - more so than Santa Claus, I'll bet.
When we crossed over the border from Poland to White Russia, a horde of his nephews and their wives met him at our motel and I got to meet them too. They were very friendly people and insisted that I stay and "talk" with them - they assumed that I knew Russian I guess. I had to tear myself away and perhaps they thought I was being rude, but I couldn't understand a word, felt alien and their "right guard" was wearing thin - if they used any at all, which I doubted. By the way, his old roommate of mine, could speak Polish, German, Russian and English.
Peter's story didn't rung true to me. It was obvious that there was a lot he didn't tell me. For example, why was he officially ‘persona non grata’ in his homeland even after 47 years and why were the authorities so cruel and steadfast in their refusal to tell him about his dead family? The truth is, Peter's private life and whatever he did during WW 2 was not any of my damn business and I wasn't about to cross examine him or try to pry out of him any painful or politically dangerous secrets. What ever bad things he had done during and after WW 2 to earn the hostility of the Soviet Union and now the Belarus and Russian Governments was his secret.
As mentioned, Peter was about as eccentric an old geezer as I've ever met. I quickly found out that it wasn't a good idea to go sightseeing in Peter's company regardless of his language skills and local knowledge. First of all, he had this terrible compulsion to visit every little shop that sold any kind of food. I can't understand why he had this thing for food stores, perhaps it was because times were so hard during WW II and hunger was so widespread he felt compelled to check on the availability and cost of food where ever he went. When visiting a shop, he would walk in and start talking with the young girls who worked behind the counter. What exactly he said to them I don't know, but it must have been scurrilous because they always looked shocked, then blushed and giggled. Finally the girls would look at me with a "can't you do something about your old pop?" kind of look. From the looks they gave me, I knew that everyone thought that Peter was my father. I would just smile sheepishly and shrug my shoulders and then they would look back at me with a pitying expression, knowing what a trial it must be to have a father like that old coot.
After a while I learned to avoid being around Peter when we were not in the bus, on a tour or in our room. I will say one thing about Peter, he knew all about good quality beer and he really liked to have someone to drink beer with. I drank more beer and more different types of beer with him than I had in the previous 10 years -- I am not a great beer lover and never drink the stuff by myself. By the way, the bus driver (who was from Holland) made extra money by selling Dutch beer to us travelers and Peter was, by far, his best customer. Believe it or not, he drank the bus's beer supply completely dry after just a few days. After the bus's beer was gone, he'd buy from the street vendors and together we would sample all the better beers available at whatever city we were in. Peter would never buy local Russian beer but would always purchase German beer. To my surprise, no matter where we were in the deepest parts of Russia, the street vendors always had a good selection of the better German beers. Isn't that amazing?
Peter really was a very generous old guy, not only did he give lavish gifts to his kin folk, but he bought all the beer too. OK, yes, it was cheap of me to let Peter buy all the beer, but on my own I wouldn't have bought or drunk any of it otherwise. Besides that, I felt I was doing Peter a favor by providing him with a drinking companion. Then there is this too: I would sip perhaps one glass out of the three bottles he'd usually buy and consume, so I just couldn't see sharing the cost of the beer.
As a final note about Peter: he appeared to be an eclectic mixture of racial types. His very light skin color, light colored hair, a goatee beard and his large (over 6 feet), slim but robust size were all things that indicated Caucasian racial features. On the other hand, his facial features were definitely, unmistakably Oriental. For me it was very odd to see a large man with white skin but having such a patently Oriental face. To my eye, he did not look Han Chinese, but perhaps Siberian or Mongolian. That's another reason I doubted the "Polish Army" story. He sure didn't look like any Polish person I've ever met. To this day, I have never seen such an odd mixture of Caucasian and Oriental features in a person. By the way, I looked for similar Oriental features in his nephews when they visited, but I could detect none. Genetically he was a very interesting specimen.
OK, back to the story.