Though most shops were pretty empty there was one exception, book shops. Betty and I had an enjoyable time looking at their books. Betty bought a set of school primers for English classes that described life in England. A total travesty about the capitalists driving down the heroic workers and an unrecognisable parody of English ordinary life. As I drove round and as I sat in the bus, I could hear snatches of conversation between the Russian students and ours and it was obvious that they thought our girls were very rich and therefore the children of capitalists. There were lots of useful exchanges of information going on and the beginnings of the breaking down of stereotypes just as much on our side as theirs.
St. Peter and Paul Fortress. Leningrad.
One morning they took us to the Peter and Paul Fortress on the opposite side of the River Neva to visit the cruiser Aurora It had mythic status for all Russians as being the place where the first shot was fired as a signal to start the Bolshevik revolution and the great march to take the Winter Palace. We were practically the only people there (nowadays you have to queue for ages.) We had a lovely old man as our guide. The ship was like a museum inside. The other display that we went to was about the siege of Leningrad by the Germans in the second world war. You cannot imagine how they ever survived, the deprivation was so extreme, the Russian will is very resolute. Neither Napoleon or Hitler could vanquish it.
Houses on the Banks of the Neva.
When the school children had gone home we were invited to tea by a Russian woman writer who lived in one of the very beautiful houses on the banks of the Neva. It was a very grand house but typically it was divided up into very tiny apartments with large families occupying a few rooms. The rooms were often divided by curtains to provide privacy and cooking facilities shared also bathrooms. She told us about her experience of the siege, a hideous time, it was such an interesting afternoon.
On another occasion we asked our hosts to take us to the only monastery that still had public worship. They had never been there before or into any church and they appeared to be fascinated by this unusual (for them) experience. It was an impressive great dark . space, no chairs, with a glittering roof high iconostasis. The chanting and singing of the monks with their deep bass voices, seemed timeless. It was mostly very old head scarfed women who bowed their heads in prayer and kissed the icons reverently. There didn’t seem to be a beginning or end to the service people were coming and going all the time.
On our last day we were invited to go to the school in the morning they had told us beforehand that there would be a final concert they would perform for us and in return we had to do something. It was both amazing and horrifying as they started with a perfectly enacted scene from Shakespeare in excellent English then went on to sing a song in perfect four part harmony…the horror it was our turn! Only one girl knew a poem and that was Albert and the Lion! It went down like a lead balloon they looked totally mystified. Fortunately I had my guitar with me and I played and sang Pete Seegers ‘Where have all the Flower’s Gone’ and then to my utter amazement they all (the Russians and our girls) joined in. I felt very emotional because in a way it summed up what we had been trying to do i.e. foster warm relationships between the ordinary everyday people of the countries we had been to but especially her in Russia.
We were not driving back but putting the mini bus as deck cargo on a Russian boat bound for Tilbury, obviously we went as passengers. Our boat was due to leave from Leningrad at about 5pm. Some of the students from the school came with us to guide us to the port and to say goodbye. When we arrived there was no sign of any boat at the dock and the an excited discussion amongst the Russians, they had brought us to the wrong port and the other one was miles away and it was almost time for embarkation. I had to make a hair raisingly fast drive across the city to the other port. We just got on the boat by the skin of our teeth and had no time to make proper farewells. I was sad about that.
Loading our mini bus.
The boat sailed down the Leningrad canal in dusky light and it was magical to go past little houses and dachas on either side. We had Russian
food for the first time which was interesting lots of borsch, meat balls and schnitzels. Tea was served in a glass with no milk of course but with a spoonful of jam. At breakfast times cold meats and a kind of caviar. When we had left the camp site for the last time we still had lots of food left over, especially cornflakes. We had met some Australian swimmers coming into Russia from Finland. They were so grateful to have the remains of our supplies, one of them was a famous Olympic swimmer, I think it was Dawn Fraser, but I can’t be totally sure.
On the deck the next day we all noticed a rather beautiful lone Russian woman. When we docked at Riga we went to the rails to look at the port and only one person got off, it was the Russian lady and there to meet her was a man holding out a red rose, all the passengers cheered, we shall never know her story.
Our next port of call was Helsinki.
The previous summer I had taught at an International summer school run by the Herts County Council. One of my students was a Finnish girl from Helsinki, we had corresponded and she said that when the boat docked she would come to meet us and take us round Helsinki and then back to her mothers for tea. Helsinki was such a great shock after Russia, there was dazzling bright colour everywhere. On the quay the fruit and vegetable market full of good things. We hadn’t seen, let alone eaten. fruit and veg for over a fortnight. The market looked like a cornucopia of good things. The shops were full of beautiful clothes and domestic goods unheard of in Russia at that time. There were advertisements all over the place bringing in more colour. There were none in the Soviet Union.
On our voyage from Helsinki the crew organised a fancy dress party in the evening. I was ill but I went down briefly and there to my amazement was Paul Ostereicher, the priest who had advised us. He had been brought up in New Zealand. He did a very impressive full blooded ‘ haka’ complete with Maori make up. I hadn’t realised that he was on the ship.
Coming up to Gothenberg
There was one more port Gothenburg, another country and more interest. We went to see a replica wooden boat being constructed and the tall ships were in the harbour ready to set sail. When we sailed we went through the Skaggerat not the Kiel canal, it was very, very rough, as it often is and a lot of people were sea sick. Our mini bus was deck cargo and was fastened down with chains but the week before two cars had gone overboard so we were a bit anxious. Finally we made it to Tilbury and I had to drive the bus onto a little platform, it was then lifted by crane onto the dock. When we reached Stevenage there was quite a crowd, lots of Mums and Dads and brothers and sisters were there to greet the girls. I had been amazed in the first place that they had been trusting enough to let their children go on this extraordinary trip. Two of the girls went on to read Russian at university and one of them went to work in Russia. When Betty reached her eigthieth birthday, Penny wrote her a moving letter to say how the trip had changed her life. Of course the next day we were back doing our ordinary teaching…all back to normal.