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Vacation Memories : T-Shirt Is a Heartfelt 'Thank-You' in Soviet Union

October 04, 1987|RANDALL S. GROSS and JOHN F. WRIGHT | Free-lance writers Gross, of San Francisco, and Wright, of Los Angeles, are both recent graduates of UCLA. and

"Yerevan?" exclaimed the old Russian babushka as she waved a tattered railway schedule in front of us. "You're on the wrong train. Why didn't you tell me you were going to Yerevan?"

Because my Russian wasn't good enough to catch the rest of what I assumed was a harsh reprimand, I slowed the conversation down enough to make certain that we could follow her instructions precisely.

With endless assurances as tothe accuracy of her information, we somewhat reluctantly descended the metal steps of the train at the third stop--an unsigned outpost somewhere between the Black Sea coastal resort of Sukhumi and the capital of Soviet Armenia, Yerevan. There, in the middle of nowhere, we were instructed to wait for the right train.

We stood alone on the creaky, wooden train platform--two American college students with eight weeks' worth of luggage--and waited. We cursed the confusing Soviet train system and cursed the confused Soviet tourist official who insisted that we get on that train in the first place. We sat on some broken wood crates and tried to forget our dilemma.

We noticed, off to one side, several men loading large brown burlap sacks onto a truck.


The deep voice startled us, and we turned to see one of the workers standing beside us on the platform.

"How's it going?" he continued.

Used to the more formal expressions of my college Russian courses, I struggled to match his colloquial speech.

"Fine" I answered a bit hesitantly, "and you?"

"You're not Russian?" the large bearded man exclaimed quizzically. "Where are you from?"

"America," I answered, not realizing the impact my simple response would have.

"America!" he exclaimed jubilantly "I've never met an American before. Where do you live in America? California?"

"Yes, California," I said, surprised at his assumption.

"Americans from California," he repeated to himself. "From where in California? Los Angeles?"

"Da, Da, we live in Los Angeles." But before I could finish, I was interrupted by shouts of "Ivan, Serge, Yuri."

"My friends won't believe it," he continued, still shouting. Before either of us realized what was happening, we were surrounded by a group of 13 insatiably curious men ranging in age from 18 to about 40, but all of a similarly rugged, unshaven and uniformly drab appearance.

"What are you doing here in the U.S.S.R.?" asked Yuri, a short man in a gray cloth cap. But before we could answer, the others, apparently only concerned with their own curiosities, shouted a cacophony of questions.

"What other cities have you visited?"

"How long will you be in our country?"

"Is life better in the U.S. or in the U.S.S.R?"

"Which country do you like better?"

For 15 or 20 minutes we answered as many questions as we could. It was then that Serge, introduced to us as the pryezidyent, (president) of this worker's group, brought more hostile political overtones to the conversation.

"Why is it that you Americans all want war?" he asked with a touch of resentment.

"That's not true," I said. "We don't want war between our countries."

"Then why has your president rejected the arms control proposal our government has offered?" Serge countered.

Having been in the Soviet Union for over a month already, we had found ourselves effectively isolated from the rest of the world. During our entire stay we received virtually no reliable international information.

Unaware of recent developments in arms control negotiations, we tried to persuade them that what we wanted was a mutually beneficial agreement.

"If the specific terms weren't acceptable this time," I said, "it doesn't mean that we aren't interested in continuing the talks. Believe me, the American people don't want to go to war with your country."

Resolving the Stalemate

But despite repeated assurances of our intentions, we found it difficult to allay their fears. To move on to other areas of interest, but not as an indication of any concession on his part, the young Russian sitting in front of us broke the stalemate.

"Is it true that many Americans are out of work, and are forced to sleep on the streets at night?"

"It's true," I said, "but it's not a large percentage of people who don't have homes. We're trying to do something to help these people."

"How big is your apartment?" one of the men asked.

"I live in a house," I said, "not an apartment."

"How many rooms in your house?" he continued.

"We have a kitchen, a living room and a dining room," I said, "plus four bedrooms and three bathrooms."

"How many families live in such a great house?" Serge broke in.

"Just my family," I answered, feeling a little guilty.

My response brought gasps of amazement and disbelief.

"Your father must be a very important man," Yuri said. "What does he do?"

"He's a doctor," I told them. But my casual remark was met with vehement protest. They couldn't believe that a profession in the Soviet Union dominated by women who earn salaries less than one-third that of bus drivers, could enable a man to own his own home.

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