Tuesday, August 20, 1991
At 0830, I was awakened by the sounds of fists pounding on the wooden door. For a second, I thought I was late for school or taking too long in the shower. The pounding continued and suddenly I realized the pillow smelled like dust not Downy, the sheet was like paper and not a comforter, and my legs dangled over the bed instead of touching its edges. I smiled at the thought of my observations, but was again interrupted by the loud sounds of fists pounding on the old wooden door.
Leo & Helen, the tour guide, banged again and yelled, “This is the police! This is the police! We’ve come to arrest you!” As I approached the door, I almost tripped on the neatly packed emergency evacuation bags waiting by the door. I rubbed my eyes, opened the door, and told them to SHUT UP! Ralph and Vivian opened their door as well. Helen is a short woman, a little overweight, red to brownish hair always pulled up in a bun, and made-up with lots of lipstick. She is feisty and I believe she is WITH one of the drivers. They seem all over each other in an on-the-side dirty kind of way. She spoke perfect English and her voice, although thick and Russian-accented was strong, independent, and assured.
Leo, her mom, and her aunt arrived fine in Leningrad (LED). They said that on Monday at about 1330 all the MOW sites closed. They couldn’t see the Kremlin cathedrals and Red Square was closed off with buses and Soviet reporters were all around. All the streets up to McDonalds were closed. They said there were tanks in the Square and mobs of people. Everything was peaceful, but Leo’s mom and aunt were a bit scared, but Leo thought it was adventurous and exciting. I kind of wish I was there videotaping it, but I was glad to be out of the center of it all. At least, if anything happens, we would be close to Finland.
Helen and the others said it was safe in LED. The tour of the Hermitage started at about 1100. We all were excited to finally get out of the freaken hotel. We were sick of the seeing the same four walls. Oh, by the way, breakfast was awesome. We had bread and eggs. A new waiter, Nicolas, gave us pins and Soviet flags. He was real cool. On the way to the Hermitage, we saw huge crowds of people crossing the bridge and men with flags (and without hats) riding on horses. It was pretty cool, but a bit crazy.
The Hermitage is incredible. It has five buildings and it’s located in the Winter Palace. It got its name because the Czars and Peter the Great built Catherine a room so she could hide away from visitors and become a “hermit.” We were there for about three hours. It houses thousands of art objects from paintings to sculptures to furniture. Helen said if you saw every object for one minute, it would take you nine years to see everything. The museum also has paintings from Matisse, Picasso, Da Vinci (two of the 14 originals in existence). It also has Florentine inlay table carvings in color. We left the museum and went to the Winter Garden Plaza which you can see from inside the Hermitage’s many windows. It’s a huge plaza. We started to trade stuff with some Soviet guys. They had watches, hats, etc. and we had Pan Am headsets, Marlboro T-shirts, calculators, and other items. During one of the stops in the museum, Helen started to speak loudly of the situation on how lucky we were and she tried to explain what was happening. We caught the whole rant on video and it is quite moving as she spoke with conviction and fear.
After that, we went back to the hotel. For lunch, we had potatoes and meat, but I did not eat the meat. Nicolas gave us cigarettes, Soviet passport covers, pins, and viewfinders. He is probably in his late 50s, early 60s. He is short, wears sweaters, and he seems happy being a waiter.
YEARS-LATER NOTE: Throughout the trip, we would see him walking home at night which made me wonder about this life, his family, how he came to be the waiter of some crazy MIAMI kids flying around the world rather spoiled, but totally impressionable by what they were experiencing in the moment with no worries and no regrets. It was beyond belief what I was experiencing and it made me overwhelming grateful to be me. I had never quite experienced that up to my Pan Am days and I welcomed it with open arms. I think of Nicolas now and I wonder where he is. Is he happy? Is he sad? Does he remember us?
After lunch, we went on a city tour and saw St. Peter & Paul Fortress, St. Nicholas Church, St. Isaacs Church, and St. Issac Square. In this square, the bus stopped so we could buy water at the Astoria Hotel. It’s a hotel that has every Western comfort in a gift-shop-like store. After buying water and sodas, I found out that we could call back home, but it would cost us big time. We had NOT called home before because we simply had no way of doing so. We went to the business center to use a hotline phone. After the introductions, I noticed a television set blaring international CNN. We saw the coverage on the news for the first time and realized what everyone back home was watching: complete upheaval and tanks on the streets. I felt like finding a CNN reporter who would interview us so the world can see we were OK. Better yet, I have to call Mom so I did.
She was glad I called, but she didn’t let me talk. She was screaming, “vete para Finlandia! Vete para Finlandia!” By the tone and capacity of her voice, all I heard was: Get the fuck out of Russia now and go to Goddamn Finland before you give me a heart attack and we told you not to go to fucken Russia. I told her we were all registered with the U.S. consulate and that we were not in any danger. I ended the calm explanation of our existence with the words parents do not like to hear, “No te preocupes. No te preocupes.” I believe all she heard was: Don’t worry overprotective mother who smothers me and nags me about everything including a trip to the Mother of all Communist countries that is directly related to the asshole Fidel Castro and all the bad things he has done to Cuba. I told her to call Vivian and Ana’s parents. It was a weird two-minute conversation about Finland and no worries. We hung up. The call cost $37 USD. I was glad she knew her Commie son was alive and well kicking it back in the U.S.S.R.
We finally left the place after 45 minutes and everyone on the bus was waiting for us. Helen, the American women from Worldspan(?), and the Swiss man were pissed and they couldn’t understand that we HAD to call home. Obviously, they do not know what it is like to be born of Cuban parents. They do not realize or begin to fathom Latin parents and their nerves. I didn’t care that we made them wait. I felt bad, but what are you going to do. By the way, the old woman from the night in the Moscow hotel didn’t go on the tour because she fell at the hotel and was pissed because no one saw her. I am glad she didn’t go because she is a nagging bitch.
We went back to the hotel for dinner. We had picadillo and rice inside squash. It was good. Nicolas had left each of us pins and we gave him money and American coins. He is the coolest. After dinner, we went upstairs and hung out in Conchi’s (Leo’s mom) to watch TV and discuss the whole situation. Conchi called the U.S. consulate and they told her that LED is safe, but MOW is heating up with all this political shit. So, I am glad we were in LED. Tomorrow, we plan on going to the U.S. consulate and to the Pan Am City Ticket Office (CTO) to see how the flight looks. We’re kind of worried because Pan Am only has one flight a week and we have the feeling a lot of Americans would want to leave LED. So, we’re praying things will be fine.
UPDATE ON SITUATION: So far, there are note any military tanks in LED, but MOW is full of them. The latest news is that Gorbachev is under house arrest in this summer home in some Baltic state. Yeltsin is the new acting President and wants to give Gorbi his time to speak to the people. The military has seized all power. Things are shaky, but we have no CNN and the people don’t really know what is going on. All we know is that a self-appointed social committee took over and Gorbi is out. This situation is serious and everyone back home must be worried, but I have a feeling everything will turn out for the better.