Sunday, March 6, 2011

Homeless In The Soviet Union - A Long Way From Manchester

I realised I was killing generations of Western stereotypes at a stroke. Whether the gathering crowd swallowed the official Party line that the Soviet Union was the ultimate paradise, or were clandestine followers of JR and Dallas, there was no escaping the reality that there was no stereotype out there to match to the events unfolding in front of them - a British student with three words of bad Russian had finally cracked and was now unpacking a tent in the children's playground and seemed to be shaping up to spend the night.

Even with the more relaxed atmosphere of Gorbachev's glasnost, entertainment in the vast apartment blocks in the suburbs of Moscow was thin on the ground, but this Brit had endeavoured in the past hour to liven up an otherwise dull Saturday evening. With darkness approaching, it seemed he was saving his grand finale for a spot of camping among the apartment blocks. Perhaps P.G. Wodehouse was right - the English really are eccentric; that was one stereotype being reinforced.


Money was more than tight. Having paid for the course and home-stay accommodation with a real Soviet family in July 1991, I needed to make some decisions about my finances and the summer. Once I got to Moscow, life was cheap. I could live a month there for almost nothing and, assuming I could get to Bulgaria afterwards for my month of teaching English with the Moonies, that should also cost next to nothing. The tricky part was getting to Moscow and back from Bulgaria with only £200 ($300) for the whole summer. Flying to Moscow was out of the question.

"Sorry, I am only going as far as Stafford," answered my first lift, after I told him that Moscow was my destination, but I hopped in anyway. Stafford became Dover, Ostend and soon Poland, after a very generous Pole took me all the way to his home town from the ferry, fed and housed me and slipped me 20 marks before dropping me on the road to Warsaw.

A ten-minute wait and I was off again and was soon in the Polish capital, destination train station. It had gone like a dream, but I wasn't insane; the train from the border town of Brest to Moscow took 24 hours, so who knows how long it would have taken to hitch? Besides, a $3 ticket to Brest and inside the Soviet Union, the real cheap living could begin; I had been told that the Brest - Moscow ticket was just $1.

My illusions were shattered when I went to board the train. I had heard about people hanging off trains in India and now I had a real-life East European equivalent, and there was not a hope I would make it alive. I fell into broken conversation with an equally ejected Russian who was returning home after selling his Lada for good profit. He ended up smuggling me into a hostel for the night and was gone when I awoke.

Onward travel options were limited and I finally took advantage of a $90 one-way special with Polish airline LOT, later that day, thereby abandoning my lofty overland ambitions and touching down at Sheremetyevo some hours later. Having negotiated passport control, I was through, alone in the Soviet Union.

I suppose I could have called the host family and got them to meet me, but it seemed an inconvenience to them, added to the fact that my Russian wasn't good enough to ask for change for the phone, never mind make a phone call. The school had sent me an excellent detailed map of Moscow and I had found my address on the map, a mere couple of inches from Red Square.

A couple of inches on a Moscow map is a long way in reality.

By now, I was on a mission to arrive unannounced, proudly showing that I could get by without having to rely on my host family. All was going well as a friendly lady with a little English mothered me onto the dirty yellow bus and we were on our way. Claiming she was going the same way, she escorted me to the fabled Moscow Metro, gave me a 15 kopek token and bid me farewell, insisting I got out after two stops.

The escalator was fast and deep, the train punctual and quick and within minutes I was ascending another escalator and out into the evening sunshine and the street containing my new home. I felt a flush of pride. My house number was 268 and I was passing 34, so not too far to go.

Russian apartment blocks are further apart than terraced houses in Rusholme.

After more than an hour inching towards my goal, I finally saw the magic 268 and veered off to the left. The various entrances were round the back facing a massive central courtyard. It was perhaps 8pm and there was a relaxed, neighbourly feeling about the place: kids playing, old ladies gossiping on benches, friends walking and smoking. They all noticed the arrival of the foreigner.

I nodded to a few and checked the paper with the address. Entrance five. Pleased, I passed three star-struck babuskas by the door and entered the dimly-lit corridor. The rickety lift smelled of urine and I doubted its uneven floor would hold my weight, but I went up to the fifth floor. There in front of me was my final destination - under the spy hole of a heavy metal door, a small oval metal tag bore the numbers 492. I rang the bell, heart pounding a little, my sentence of introduction prepared. I heard footsteps but the door remained closed.

"Kto tam?" It was an auspicious moment. I was having my first Russian conversation with a native. And I understood! Admittedly, enquiring as to my identity was the most taxing of questions, but it was a start.

"Menya zavut Paul Bradbury. Ya anglichanin," I replied with pride, as though I had uttered a code to open the gates of Babylon. The door remained closed. The Voice muttered something incomprehensible and, worse, the footsteps retreated. I rang the bell again, only to go through the same routine again. For whatever reason, The Voice was not convinced.

I needed another plan of attack and my options were limited. I decided to try and find a phone, but with no coins, a private phone was the only option. I went back to the old ladies, who eyed me with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.

"Ya anglichanin. Vi telefon?" After some brief consultation among themselves, my pathetic appeal for a telephone seemed to have been not only understood, but granted, as I was led into a ground-floor flat and handed an archaic bright purple phone. I dialled the number of my host family.

"Menya zav..." Clunk. It seemed The Voice was even less amenable to telephone solicitation. My last resort was to call the emergency number on the school's welcome letter. They should be able to sort something out. Under the watchful eye of the spellbound old ladies I dialled and it rang. And rang. And rang.

I am sure there were useful practical suggestions from the old dears but I didn't understand a word. It would soon be dark and here I was, alone on my first night in the Soviet Union. There was nothing for it but to unpack the tent and choose a grassy spot next to the kid's playground. I was aware of the growing crowd, of windows being tapped, of other windows opened and, once assembled, I nodded to the crowd and disappeared inside the tent.

It had been an adrenaline-filled day, but I had finally made it to the Soviet Union. I was safe and, although the accommodation was not quite how I had planned it, tomorrow was another day and I was sure I could get The Voice to crack. I drifted into sleep.

"Englishman!" I was roused from slumber soon afterwards by a young male voice. Unzipping the tent, I emerged to find a tall, handsome young man hovering over me. "Are you Paul Bradbury?" Shocked that he knew my name, I was impressed at how good the KGB were - scarily impressive. I nodded, wondering if I was about to be arrested for violating some vagrancy law.

"My name is Timur. I hear my grandfather would not let you into the flat. I am sorry. We were not expecting you for another month. Come now. You must be hungry." To the delight of the lingering onlookers, the tent was dissembled, explanations were given and we disappeared inside. It was time to meet The Voice.

A hugely humble 84 year-old pensioner greeted me warmly and apologetically, ushering me into the kitchen, before plying me with food and vodka, as if stuffing me somehow could nullify the shame he felt at refusing entry to his foreign guest. No amount of assurance from me could console him.

If the excitement of the Summer of 1991 had stopped with arrival in flat 492, it would still have been a memorable time, but the ensuing weeks attempting to learn Russian in Moscow and teaching English with the Moonies in Bulgaria took the adventure to a whole new level. But that's another story.

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