Through the Iron Curtain, 1978

Robin Walz took this photograph of the Kremlin. He asked me to pose. I had to hold up my right hand to shade the camera lens from the brilliant sun.

Robin Walz took this photograph of the Kremlin. He asked me to pose. I had to hold up my right hand to shade the camera lens from the brilliant sun.

In 1978 I went through a number of Winter to Spring cycles. After six weeks in snowy southwestern France, the weather had just started to turn balmy when it was time to leave. We boarded a train to Paris, switched to another one that drove straight across Germany without stopping, delivering us to Warsaw on Easter weekend.

Our next train was a local, packed with rustic crowds returning from Easter celebrations in the capital. Not only was it impossible to find a seat in a compartment, but the aisles themselves were crammed so tightly that people had to force their way through shoulder first, dragging luggage behind them. A squat and rotund old woman in a colorful headscarf, who ended up jammed against the same window as I squeezed up against, somehow managed to dance heavily across my feet time and again.

The farther we got from Warsaw, the fewer people were left on board our train. Snow crusted the fields outside the windows and there was something wrong with the heater on the train. We’d been warmed by the crowds before, but now it started to feel chilly. The sun plunged behind naked black trees, and it was full on to nighttime as we entered the last Polish town, where we disembarked into a freezing wind. For several minutes we milled about on the concrete landing, huddled against a freezing wind while the professor sought out some official to give us leave to climb back onto the train to continue our trip.

Alas. It was not to be. A frantic railroad station manager absolutely refused to let us continue into Lithuania. It seems that the customs officer had already gone home. We couldn’t go through passport and visa control until morning. We got the railroad official to unlock the padlock on the vacant warehouse that served as the customs hall so we would have someplace to spend the night. That night was the coldest one I believe I have ever spent. There was no heat in the hall. The few students who had sleeping bags with them were able to wrap up and get some sleep. For the rest of us, we relied on body heat, massing together in a huge group hug and taking turns being on the outside every few minutes. All night long.

In the morning we cued up to get our documents processed. As I stood in front of the desk watching the officer who had my passport flip through the pages, another officer approached him and murmured something in his ear. The two spoke intensely for a moment, probably discussing where to go for lunch, and the officer at the desk distractedly handed my passport back to me. As we compared fancy stamps in our passports on the train later in the morning, I discovered that my passport hadn’t received the stamp everyone else had. I laughed it off, not realizing that this would indeed become serious as we attempted to leave the Soviet Union.

As our train swayed and clattered over a bridge coming into Vilnius, one of the students gave a shout of alarm: “There’s a submarine in the river! Look at the periscope!” We dashed to the window to study the grey rushing water. I saw nothing but sticks. It wouldn’t be the last of our paranoia on this trip.

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2 responses to “Through the Iron Curtain, 1978

  1. Yes. My brother and I had to stay overnight in the East Berlin train station in 1976 for a similar reason. We were allowed to continue on to Warsaw the next morning. One of the greatest trips I have had in my life. East Germany and Poland still had mainline steam locomotives in 1976.

    Our trip was in June, however. Not winter…. Amazing how one can get through these hardships when one is in their 20s…

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