avatarSai Ezra


Back in the USSR

Huh? More madcap adventures on the road

Photo by Marjan Blan on Unsplash

The European freeway system is a miraculous way to move people quickly and safely; of course, hitchhiking is forbidden. Not to fear, my intrepid reader, they have petrol stations. Akin to truck stops in North America, these are way stations along the ribbons of asphalt.

These highways were teeming with high-performance vehicles gliding their surface at speeds in excess of 200 kph, yet with an eloquence reminiscent of ballroom dancing. From the onramps at each station, one could hitch their packs and unfurl their thumbs until they were picked up. It was at one such station, while I walked from pump to ramp, that I was hailed by a white-haired older man.

His face was positively beaming as he alternated his gaze from the large maple leaf on my pack to my face and back again. His beckoning gestures garnered my attention, and as I approached him and his vehicle, he opened the trunk.

No, the idea that he may be a serial killer did not cross my mind!

“Are you Canadian”? I said yes as my eyes followed his gesture to the open trunk. A repast fit for a king awaited my gaze—meats, breads, and cheeses—enough for a week.

It was, in fact, exactly enough for a week; the gentleman, as it turns out, had just retired and rented an eight-hundred-year-old farmhouse for a week as a present to himself. Within seconds, he laid a cloth on a picnic table; meat, cheese, bread, and beer followed. While eating, we chatted about similarities and differences between our countries and peoples. He invited me to accompany him on his holiday to the farmhouse.

Okay, now it gets a little serial killer creepy, I will admit. Always one to calculate my risks, and still not having enough gayness, I declined and carried on my original path after much shaking of hands and hugging. With my belly and lunchbox full, I set out for the next experience.

Poverty does not equate to misery.

Once upon a time, there was a country called Yugoslavia. I found this place purely by chance.

After leaving the retiring gentleman, I continued to explore and camp in Austria. Then, one early August morning, as I climbed out of my slug-covered tent into the cold and dew-covered grass, I thought about the weather back home. It was warm and welcoming on August mornings; this would not do.

I suddenly remembered something from when I had been camped outside Munich in a tent city. It was full of backpackers and travellers; estimates at the time put the transient population at around three hundred people. We had running water, toilet facilities, and a piece of ground to sleep on. There were people from all over the world hanging out and enjoying the magnificence of Munich.

Some had tans; where had they said they were before Munich? Ah, yes, Greece. I was going to enjoy the warm comfort of the Mediterranean. Damn this damp cold, slugs, ugh.

I broke camp and headed for the highway, with a quick stop at the local pub, to gain fortification against the cold morning. Within the hour, I was safely ensconced in an automobile travelling south. A young couple on holiday, heading in the direction of Greece, owned the car and were more than happy to take me as far as they were going.

My understanding of phonetics and a childhood of listening to French and German gave me the ability to understand enough words in Western European languages to grasp simple concepts when they were spoken to me. I could pick out more from the written word, to be sure.

This couple had a rudimentary understanding of English, and we made due. During the several hours we spent driving through Austria, I could tell there was an important idea this couple was trying to convey; they just couldn’t come up with the right word. Then we arrived at a border. I saw the sign, and I understood that it meant a communist country.

Now I understood the word they were looking for, visa. I had no visa to leave Western Europe for the USSR. Is it strange that my first thoughts ran to a Beatles song in this predicament? Or does that demonstrate how pervasive and embedded in the society I grew up in their music became?

My less-than-ideal education left me bereft of a full understanding of what it meant to travel to a Soviet country, and the young couple politely told me they would wait only 15 minutes on the other side of the border before moving on. They expected I would be there for at least an hour if I was allowed to cross at all.

Crestfallen I approached the border control office. There did not seem to be a lineup, and my spirits began a slow climb. As I approached the uniformed officer seated behind the glass, I mentally took two steps back in my optimism. There were at least six passports in front of him, which meant at least six people were ahead of me waiting for approval or denial. “Passport,’’ he said. I removed my passport from its hidden location and handed it to him while quickly scanning those laid out before him. I was the only Canadian; his mask of suspicion and doubt cracked. Was that a smile? “Destination?” I told him it was Athens, Greece. He wrote down a number.

Was this a request for a bribe?

I had read that this sort of thing could happen. My mental math being about as productive as a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest, it took me a minute with pen and paper to calculate exchange. No, this was not a bribe, just a visa fee. I was through!

With my passport stamped and a huge grin on my face, I approached the young couple's car. Amazed, they started babbling together. I caught fragments of ideas, concerns, and interest in my welfare. It took me a few minutes to finally understand the idea they so vehemently tried to impress upon me: get to the closest airport and fly to Athens.

Yugoslavia was troubled; the economy was in tatters, and the have-nots were taking from those that have. Sage advice I thought at the time, my education in such matters being nonexistent.

They dropped me off at a bank near the Ljubljana airport and told me approximately forty US dollars would purchase my flight.

My goodness, the faded Levi’s took a stretching that day; the two rolled-up bundles of bills barely fit in my pockets. Surely I appeared as a deformed porn star. Inflation had devasted the economy, their currency was virtually worthless. Before I purchased a flight, I figured I would have a little look around and see for myself what this magnificent city might reveal.

To be continued

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