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  • Valarie Anderson

From Russia with Love

We took advantage of our time in Finland which shares its eastern border with Russia, to make an overnight trip to Vyborg, Russia, by ferrying through a lock system that connected Lappeenranta, Finland, with Vyborg. We wanted to touch the medieval Vyborg castle built in the 1200s, walk the streets of an ancient city, sail through a canal, and we wanted meet Russians. (See picture above). They were the people who had haunted my elementary school dreams in the era of “duck and cover” drills, which involved hiding under my school desk clutching my books to protect me during a nuclear strike. Later, I would learn that my step-grandmother had fled the country as a teen. I wanted to glimpse the monster under my bed. I also wanted to see some of Russia’s beauty.

The ship operator, Saimma Travel, told us ahead of time that our passports would be held, that Rubles were needed as credit cards where only accepted in hotels. They told us we couldn’t photograph the harbor as we entered, and if for any reason we were detained, we were on our own. No worries, we were only going for an overnight, and the operator made several trips a year. On our trip we learned that Finland lost Vyborg to the Soviet Union during the Winter War of 1939/40. They conceded 10% of their country to the Soviet Union to save their country and end the war. Four hundred and eighty thousand Karelian Finns were displaced.

After passing through customs in Lappeenranta, where the officer inspected every page of my passport, we had another passport check as we boarded. We found ourselves on an 80 person ferry full of Finn’s for the six hour journey down the canal. Their language is musical, their demeanor detached, but the hostess went out of her way to welcome us and translate as needed. We soon discovered that we were the only American’s onboard and the only “English only” speakers.

I exchanged some Euro’s for Rubles on board, asking how much I should get. She said most people have trouble spending $50.00 because things are so cheap in Russia. I got $100.00 worth, just in case.

As we cruised across Finland’s largest lake, Lake Saimaa, (40% of the country is lakes) the young couple who shared our table told us that it that freezes so hard in the winter they celebrate the New Year with bonfires on the lake. Then we dropped through the first lock on our 230-foot descent to the Gulf of Finland. The canal has an ancient history. Digging had begun in 1499 and went through various stages of construction based on the ebb and flow of conquerors. It was dedicated in 1856 when Finland was the Grand Dutchy of Russia. It was expanded in 1968. Now Finland owns half of it and leases the other half from Russia. When we crossed into Russia, passing through a line of metal pillars that crossed the expanse of water above the next lock, we noticed a difference. Rusty parts adorned the shore; riprap took the place of neat concrete retaining walls. Unsmiling Russian guards waved us through. And to our delight, we had five more locks to go. (First lock on the Saimma Canal pictured above).

When we arrived at Vyborg, being careful not to capture the harbor in any of our snapshots, the tour guide herded us into a small wooden building for customs. A uniformed guard kept watch. The customs officer sat in locked plywood boxes behind a Plexiglas window. We were to wait behind a yellow line until signaled. I was in front of Andy, and so went first. The customs officer was a beautiful, but unsmiling blond. She took my passport and proceeded to turn every page, glancing occasionally at her computer screen. She flipped the pages back and forth and peered at me, repeating the flipping and computer screen looking several times. Then she picked up the phone, and dialed a number. She didn’t speak a word, hung up, glared at me one more time, and then stamped my passport.

I stood as stoically as I could the entire time, doing my best not feel apprehensive or look guilty ( for what?). Thank you, Catholic upbringing! Andy made it through with no drama, and we proceeded to the next quick passport check before we boarded a bus.

Stamped, intimidated, and humbled, we were driven two blocks to our five-star hotel (more like three+ stars in the States) where our bus driver gave us our room key and collected our passports. He then gave us instructions in Swedish, Finnish, and then made a point of speaking to us in perfect English. He told us to carry copies of our passports, temporary visa, and our Saimaa travel itinerary with us at all times. He was engaging, sincere and a bit haggard. He made a point of telling us that had to be back at the hotel by 3:00 PM the next day to retrieve our passports so we could ferry back to Finland with the group. We could not go to the dock on our own. His parting words were, “Don’t drink the water.”

It was evening, and we’d eaten Finnish meatballs on board, so Andy and I headed across the street to the indoor market where we made the mistake of touching some garlic. Quick as a striking snake, the vender was on us, bag in hand trying to sell us the garlic. The other stalls hawked us as we passed. We learned quickly not to touch, make eye contact, or pause if we didn’t want to buy, so we sauntered down the isles looking at stuff out of the corner of our eye, not daring to stop. Returning to the hotel, with a strategy in mind for tomorrow, I thought I’d check my email because the hotel offered free Wi-Fi. To connect I had to register your cell phone number with, what I think, was the state owned provider. I stayed off line. Emails could wait. We settled in for the night, marveling at the fact that we could rent different types of pillows.

The next morning we were greeted with a fantastic breakfast spread in the hotel restaurant—cheeses, cold cuts, dense rye breads, pickled herring, salted and smoked salmon, Karelian rice pies, hard eggs, bacon, oatmeal, fruit, salad and cardamom cinnamon rolls. It was a feast typical of Finnish hotels.

We were too early for the shops and castle, so we decided to stroll the promenade and take pictures of two replicated Viking longships at the hotel across the waterway. Three men were fishing and spitting in the canal; pigeons were at our feet, joggers wove their way between us, and women pushed prams in the rain. I was a bit ahead of Andy, who was smiling like he always does, when a man approached him. He was about our age, carried a bag, and was well-groomed. He began to speak to us in Russian (I think), and I said, “English only.”

He haltingly asked, “UK?

“No, America,” I responded.

He stepped back, threw up his hands in a defensive posture with a shocked look, and proceeded to pantomime a conversation with us. He was married (pointed to the ring on his finger) had four children, two big and two small. I did the same, pointing to Andy as my husband and holding up three fingers, high to indicate my three grown children. He blabbered non-stop, he smiled, we smiled. He seemed delighted and we shook hands. Then he got in my face began to smack his lips in a kissing gesture, held up two fingers, pointed at the hotel. I recoiled, and he whispered in my ear, “Fuckie, Fuckie.” Andy asked what he said. When I told him Andy took my arm, and we walked briskly toward the hotel, with our Russian friend following. As we drew nearer, he left us for his bus. We laugh about our Russian encounter now; Andy likes to think he was KGB, checking us out because we were American. I like to think that I’ve still got it at the age of 71. But I must admit, I felt big-city uncomfortable and was very aware of my limited language skills.

From there, we struck out for Vyborg Castle, which did not disappoint—ancient walls feet thick, cobblestone walkways, turrets, and a well-curated museum. Negotiating the rickety boardwalks and stairs to avoid construction and keep us out of the mud made me thankful for our sometimes-overzealous cautionary barriers in the US.

We then braved the indoor market next armed with the knowledge gained from our first trip. This time we bought souvenirs and were grateful the vendors spoke some English. And once again, we encountered shock when they found out we were Americans. I think it was because we weren’t with a tour group and Vyborg is a pretty small city.

For lunch, I had borscht, and Andy had a salad at a restaurant housed at the top of a medieval round tower that used to protect the gate. I’d been sure to count my rubles checking that we’d have enough, and then we ordered two waters with no gas (un-carbonated), from the smiling waiter. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, but when the bill came, I was short! Thankfully, Andy remembered I’d stashed a 100 ruble note ($1.00) in my sleeve wallet. I wasn’t going to have to stay in Russia, washing dishes for my meal!

Caught in a downpour, we worked our way back to our hotel to await the three o’clock rendezvous. We dodged 1970 cars that boomed and pulsed to a rock song as they zoomed down the cobblestone roads without regard to people, buses, or other drivers.

The next group of Finns was being booked into our hotel when we arrived, one woman was crying, tour operators were consulting, and we sat there marveling at the fluency of our bus driver, as he switched seamlessly between Russian, Finnish and English.

In time, we received our passports, boarded our bus for the two-block trip to customs. We queued at the building as instructed. Three peach-fuzzed, camouflaged guards with guns manned the room. This time, I made the mistake of standing in the doorway that had a sensor on either side. Fortunately, a young Finnish woman who spoke excellent English explained that I had to stand on one side or the other. OK. Then a Russian officer, impeccably groomed and stern-faced, pushed his way past me without a word and escorted in a man with a baby carriage. Apparently, I hadn’t set off any alarms after all.

Our first stop through customs was a metal detector scan like at the airport, bags on the belt, and then a walk through the detector. What? Were the Russians worried that we’d smuggle out guns or something? You’d think they’d be more worried about us smuggling stuff in. From there, we marched into the room with the plywood boxes for a passport check. Again, I encountered a shocked look when the officer began the “flipping pages, computer screen-looking” procedure. No phone call pantomime this time. However, I had to find the paper I’d filled out on the boat, which apparently was a visa, even though the trip was “visa-free.” Andy, in the meantime, had gone to the wrong booth and was sent behind me. We fumbled and found our visas. Now the officer was satisfied. The sound of “Stamp, Stamp” was music to our ears. One more passport check and we boarded, headed back to Finland. We arrived at 10:00 at night and went through two more passport checks, again, getting our stamp allowing us back into Finland where our car, luggage, and room awaited us.

I’m glad that we made the excursion to Russia. Karen Gilden, who started me on my writing journey when she looked me in the eye and said, “Why don’t you write the story,” had spent several months in the 1970s touring the Soviet Union in a camper van. She and her husband took their young daughter, who, when they exited the country, asked them to stop so she could run.

“Strange she never wanted to do that before,” Karen wrote.

“It’s a release from pressure,” her husband, Ray, responded.

Karen continued, “Yeah, there she goes; freedom in tennis shoes.”[1]

Street sceen near Vyborg Castle

[1] Gilden, Karen, Camping with the Communists, Artha Press, Sisters, Oregon, 2013.

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