Mementos of the USSR

I’ve had some fond memories on my mind of late: 30 years ago today I, along with my exchange trip group, sat down for a farewell dinner at a hotel in St Petersburg, Russia, on our last night before leaving the country (we would board a train to Helsinki the next day and have a night there before flying back to the US.) A special treat for us was one bottle each of Coca-Cola that had been chilled – cold drinks were rare on that trip since ice is not a common part of the diets in that region. I plucked this memento from that bottle; with it rarely being chilled the labels didn’t typically get wet and a water-soluble glue was used which was nicely dissolved by the condensate forming on the bottle.

That trip changed my life in so many ways. I grew-up in an area with people who had lived through the “Red Scare” in the US and were so influenced by the Cold War. My life was one small corner of Pennsylvania.

The period was a heady time in eastern Europe. In the preceding 1.5 years the Iron Curtain was unraveling. The Berlin Wall had fallen in late 1989, Germany reunified in mid-1990, and various Eastern Bloc countries had major changes. The USSR would even cease to exist as such before

I went from a few square miles being the entire world I really knew to experiencing a place that I’d only seen in books or on TV previously – I stood in Red Square, was the guest of honor of a traditional bread and salt welcome ceremony, got to have conversations with so many people, particularly around my own age, and share meals with them. We talked about our lives, our hopes and dreams for the future, and more. I realized that while we were a people divided in so many ways we were so very much alike. I remember from my hotel room I could see onto the roof of a nearby block of flats and graffiti on the roof read “U2 Rattle and Hum.”

A month after my return I would see footage on the national news of the coup attempt in Moscow as hardliners attempted to prevent the changes. I saw people erecting debris barricades in streets I had walked through weeks earlier. Unlike the people around me this wasn’t just something happening to a nameless/faceless population, this was something affecting people I knew and considered friends and I worried if I would hear from them again (we did exchange letters for a time and there was one from whom I never heard again.)

When I read this quote so many years later I instantly understood it in a deep way what Anthony Bourdain meant because of that experience, “If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”