redcrinkle

A modest orchestra, with a middle-aged woman violinist garbed in an unbecoming striped house dress, played “A Sleepy Lagoon.” Partners left their tables to twist and fox-trot on the hotel’s ballroom floor. Suddenly a sandy-haired gentleman and I were on the dance floor, too. Appearing out of nowhere, he had bowed to my boring Finnish escort, and I was happy to nod my approval.

“Communist, Prague,” he announced proudly above the music. I thought it only polite to answer, “Democrat, San Francisco.” His smile ended the conversation.

Here I was in Sochi, touring undiscovered Soviet Union cities in the spring of 1966, leaving my home base Tehran where I was completing a teaching Fulbright at the Shah’s University. The Fulbright director was not happy that I was traveling alone in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: the U.S.had no consulates in the exotic places on my solo adventure.

Yesterday I abruptly left snowy Rostov-on-the Don, extolled in history and literature; but the city’s March weather was freezing cold and snowy. Even my In-Tourist guide concurred there were few sights to visit. Sadly, Rostov had not yet recovered from massive World War II destruction.

When I attempted to take a panorama picture of the Don River, he shook his head and put his hand firmly over the camera’s lens.

“Niet!” he said. “When I was in your San Francisco, I was not allowed to take pictures from the Golden Gate Bridge.” There was no arguing. And besides, during the night my hotel phone kept incessantly ringing; I had been harassed by a stranger whose repeated calls left me in an uneasy sleep.

This was no American Express tour. I had to argue with In-Tourist, the state’s official travel agency, to depart from my itinerary and leave Rostov a day early to fly to Sochi, a two-hour trip, rather than take an uncomfortable overnight train.

Sochi in spring 1966 was a small,lovely city, filled with tree-lined streets. I could leave behind my heavy travel coat. I could walk along the Black Sea boardwalk and gaze toward the Caucusus. A trip to the mountains, however, was out of the question. My In-Tourist guide, an affable 28-year-old fellow who had just returned from Scotland with a delegation, told me I was not allowed to take public transportation. I could,however, hire a private In-Tourist car and driver for the three-hour trip. But I had to leave that possibility for another time since I did not have an extra $100 in American cash.

Under Joseph Stalin, Sochi had become a fashionable resort area. My In-tourist hotel was an imposing building from the late 1920‘s, one of many used as a worker’s sanitarium. These guests of the Soviet government, mostly men, appeared in our breakfast area only, awkwardly carrying little string bags, containing bathing suits, towels, and notions; they sat apart from us foreign guests as they awaited the start of their mud baths and massages, rewards for a year’s hard work. After their tune-up, they returned to their buses to be taken to more modest rooms.

Walking along the paved landscaped boardwalk, I was sorry I had left my shopping bag at the hotel, for each day a long line formed at the local market: today it would be kilos of hard green apples that local women and tourists would buy to ship home to Moscow or to other cities where winter was still in session. Another day oranges seemed to be plentiful as if trucks suddenly unloaded large pyramids of brilliant citrus.. When women’s stockings, serviceable but unattractive, suddenly appeared, the line stretched for miles; no lady left her place although the wait might be for several hours.

When I was tired promenading through Sochi’s streets — and often being quite a curiosity — I looked for a beauty parlor to hideout. The very friendly youthful operators were pleased to have an American in their shop. I watched with interest as Russian women had their heads uncomfortably scrubbed with bar soap and then their hair, often unattractively bleached, rolled with obsolete large metal curlers. My choice: just a no-nonsense manicure: astringent liquid to remove my admired American polish, hands dipped in lukewarm water, no cuticles removed. Then the polish: ALWAYS RED. How I quivered when the operator skillfully navigated my nails with a miniature paint brush. But while my nails dried, I thanked her politely, paid the modest 40 kopeks, and tipped her with a pack of American cigarettes,

which she shared with her co-workers and clients. Then it was time for our “do svidaniyas” and time for me to take my leave, sadly waving goodbye.

Before I left for the Adler Airport, a 45-minute winding ride from my hotel, I bid goodbye to my friend Mrs. Rosendorf, a Belgian of Russian birth, who had lived in the U.S. for 11 years as a war refugee. She had been allowed to visit only Sochi to reunion with her Russian uncle whom she had not seen for many years.

And so I left Sochi, accompanied by my In-tourist guide, who surprisingly treated me to a dinner of crab salad and a glass of tea at the airport where my IL118-jet whisked me to Tashkent. And a few days later I was an exhausted American visitor in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, where an over-night on a small Russian freighter returned me to Iran.

©Ruby Bernstein, 2014

Ruby Bernstein, BAWP ’74 and ’83, had a great surprise recently when she found her Travel Journal from her 1966 two-week solo journey to the USSR. This journal, the source of her memories, is filled with colorful cancelled stamps, pressed flowers, train tickets; and a few postcards and pictures. She thanks Wikipedia for giving her a current picture of Greater Sochi, 343,334 inhabitants,now preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Ruby currently serves on the City of Oakland Library Advisory Committee.

4 Responses to “Sochi on My Mind by Ruby Bernstein”


  1. What a wonderful glimpse into a distant journey!!! What fun it must be to look through your journal from 1966!!


  2. ps….not sure why/how/when/ where the little purple icon came from….??

  3. Kathryn Sterbenc Says:

    Oh my God, what a great piece! Keep looking for more journals! Why are you not publishing these and traveling the world on book tours?!! Thanks for sharing your Sochi memories!

  4. jane juska Says:

    this could very well be your best. Thank you.

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