In Soviet Russia, stale jokes laugh at you

“Do you need any help with that?”
“What?”
“If you need me to lend a hand…”
“No, don’t be crazy – I’ve done this a million times before.”
“Okay.” I take a sip of 7Up.
“Now where is that adapter?”

It’s kind of awkward, but also rather amusing, this waiting for grandpa to finish setting up his slide projector. And indeed, he’s probably done it dozens of times before; I was probably there before, when he was busy unfolding that weird rolling screen of his. 1987? 1988, perhaps. That was when I was still a young lad with very little interest in static pictures of seemingly random locations, mostly containing a bunch of old people standing in front of even older buildings. And although I loved gramps at the time, the same was true for grandma – probably even more so. After all, she was the one to provide her grandchildren with food, cookies and candy ’round the clock – a big plus on most childrens’ favorite-persons lists.

Twenty years later, it had been about four years since grandma spoiled her grandson for the last time. A few of her last words fell to my ears, meaningless in theory yet entirely unforgettable.
“You be good now, you hear? Yeah, grandma – I’ll try. And I’ll keep an eye out for your best friend.
Because, as we speak, her husband still misses her – even tells us as much, every few months or so.
That’s a big breakthrough to gramps’ standards, who’s never been someone to express his emotions in any other way than through sarcasm and cynicism. Other than that, he tends to keep to himself – lips sealed like an unsuspecting Zealandic mussel, ready for the plucking. We have a lot in common, I’ve begun to realize since grandma passed away.

“So which ones did you want to see?” he asks.
“Which ones do you have on you?”
“Well, all of them, of course.”
“I guess I’d like to see Russia, then.”
“Alright. Let me see if I can find the right container. I’ve written descriptions on all of them, but it’s pretty dark in here now,” grandpa says, pointing at the closed shutters, “And the labels are about to come off. This stuff is pretty much ancient by now. Although, I haven’t touched it in years, so it ought to be okay.” All the containers and labels are in mint condition, from what I can tell.

He goes on for a few more sentences without me even noticing. Instead, I try to find my way towards my glass of tepid 7Up. The ripples on the side of the glass feel familiar; even without much sunlight getting in, I know the glass in my hand to be a deep-green color. My grandparents have been using these green ripply glasses since forever, and they still make me feel very cozy and familiar with my surroundings; it’s as if grandma is standing just around the corner, making soup or something.

But no, she isn’t. Instead, she’s in Soviet Russia, standing on her head.

“Oh, it’s upside down.” Grandpa takes out the projector’s remote control, and a couple of clicks later he begins to mumble in a displeased tone. His deceased better-half seems to shy away from her husband-from-the-future. “This is supposed to be at the back of the row.”

A piece of paper, full of handwritten notes seems to be of little aid at first; until, suddenly and without saying a word, gramps pulls out another tray of slides and swaps my upside-down grandmother with another piece of framed celluloid. “There,” he says, “That’s better.” And so the slide-show begins.

“This is near the German border.” Click. “Czechoslovakia.”
“Oh right, they were separate countr…” Click.
“Prague.” He names the one bridge we all know, as well as a few more obscure details.
“Not sure what this is. Must be Poland.”
“So what was Poland like in 1985?” Not sure if I’m genuinely interested yet.
“’87. We didn’t get to see much of it.” We’re hardly off to a great start. Clicks and sips.
“Ha.”
“Ha?”
“Ha. This is the border to Russia.” The 83-year-old man looks up, as if he’s trying to dust off forgotten memories contained within those hard-to-get-to ceiling corners.

“Well, the Ukraine, to be precise. We stood there for almost a full day. Man, they took the entire bus apart – I’m not kidding here! Dogs, mirrors-on-sticks, compartments that had to be emptied, suitcases cracked open without even so much as a warning.”

Sounds to me like an awful experience, but gramps apparently disagrees and bursts into laughter. In his case, this means a couple of powerful laughs interrupted by thorough breathing and the occasional nose and throat clearing.

“And there was this couple, they hadn’t even bothered with checking their visas – well, needless to say… they were on their way home three days in. Three days out of a 40-day trip that cost a small fortune!” Sarcasm, cynicism frosted with a thin layer of pity. “There’s always a pair of those aboard, I’ll say that much.”
“Welcome to the Soviet Union,” I add.
“Their military personnel took pride in their job, that much is true.”

And he begins to sum up a few run-ins with the Red Army, including a stand-off with some provincial guards, in front of a roadblock in the middle of nowhere. What was once a simple slide, slowly being eaten-away by dust and overexposure to sunlight, quickly becomes a welcome illustration in a 400-page historic novel. I’m genuinely interested in seeing the remaining 193 pictures or so. Most of them have stories attached to them – stories my grandfather links to the past, whereas I’m beginning to inject myself into that clumsy foldable white screen, creating future stories of my own, trying to use the present as a placeholder.

“Kiev. Probably.. Yeah, this was just after the 1st of May.”
“What’s so special about the 1st of May?” I prove my ignorance. I’m still one year away from finishing Orlando Figes’ “Whisperers”, and yet – this is where it all started.
“Labor day. Look at all the children holding hands, wearing red scarves.” Pioneers, I now know.
“Doesn’t look like the weather was too great.”
“They had to hose down the streets every time it rained, too.”

Kiev. The streets have just been de-contaminated.

Grandpa loves reminiscing details, and before I get the chance to ask him a predictable question, he continues to tell about Kiev’s proximity to Chernobyl, and the dangers of radiation falling from the sky. To me, the clunky-looking trucks spraying a thin mist of fluids across Kiev’s boulevard seem as useless as hurdling rocks at a meteorite. Gramps is 84 now, and his wife made it to 85 – who am I to criticize Kiev’s safety precautions at the time?

We wander from Rostov-on-the-Don to Krasnodar, all the way to Georgia’s capital via Sochi – host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Also host – in 1987 – to a guy just turned 60, going out to take a pictures by himself in the Black Sea resort, especially enjoyed by those “more equal than others”, the Nomenclature of the time. Without being able to speak more than a few words of Russian, my grandfather seems to have had a great time in Sochi – leaving his wife alone to rest for a bit, since she was feeling a bit under the weather at the time.

Next stop: disputed territory, Abchazia. I expect to hear tales of civil unrest and armed resistance; instead, there’s nothing but memories of a beautiful scenery and a very pleasant climate. One particular slide stands out: grandma a tea plantation, her garments forming a beautiful blend with the looming mountains of the Caucasus, far-off in the background. That’s where my grandparents were supposed to be heading, after having visited Gori – the place where Dutch journalist Stan Storimans would meet his end 21 years later, during the conflict over South-Ossetia. Their path would take them close to place like North-Ossetia, Dagestan, Ingushetia and even Chechnya.

“We were forced to abort the original itinerary there and then.” It didn’t come to me as a surprise. I can’t even imagine trying to travel through these areas nowadays.
“The road was blocked by huge pieces of mountains, as a result of avalanches.”
“That’s it? Rocks and rubble?” I imagine the avalanches being triggered by insurgents. Wrong time-frame, Rob.
“Yeah. This was the only road accessible to our tour bus. There was no way around it but to go back – all the way back to Kiev.”

Suddenly my own occasional detours through sleepy little towns as Diepenbeek and Hamont-Achel seem a lot less annoying. They certainly take up less time; imagine having to go back and forth between the Southern-tip of Belgium and the utmost northern-end of Holland – three times in a row, only to end up right where you started!

The stories go on and on; pictures come and go. Grandma continues to appear before us upside-down. She was quite the stubbornly persistent woman at times, we both agree. But in the end she made it to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, with lots of places to fill in the blanks in between stages. Undoubtedly, I’ll tell you more about this and other trips my grandparents have made over the years – they were amazingly explorative people, in retrospect.

Happy birthdayAt some point, we see grandma being offered a cake, having turned 65 during this trip. Sips of 7Up taste a bit like vodka, at this point. It isn’t exactly a very clear slide, but that’s kinda typical of who she was. She didn’t care much for spotlights, preferring to keep a low profile instead. But, when food was involved, she’d thread into the light of day every now & then – if only vaguely. “На здоровье, бабушка! Приятного аппетита!”

All of the sudden, gramps announces: “Well, that’s it. That was Russia.” It’s been about an hour, likely more, since we got off to that rocky start. We end our voyage with depressing slides of Travemunde, a random harbor-type of town in Northern-Germany. Grandpa seems happy enough, though. Same for me: the only thing I wanted, was for him to keep himself busy for a while – I’d gladly fain interest along the road. Funny, how that works. At this point, gramps is the one more likely to fain interest at my rhetorical yet genuine queries. It doesn’t really matter, though, because we got to know each other a bit better half-way in, while enjoying most of our individual trips as well.

But there’s more – much, much more. For the first time in years, there’s a distinct tingle going through my body. It wants to go somewhere, somewhere far abroad – to follow in the footsteps of pre-digital people and re-live their experiences through all five senses. It’s fed up with being fed up.

In 2009, my grandfather’s dusty little slide-show vaguely opened up a window to my future. Once I had begun to realize this, back there and then, I was in dire need of another glass of soda. Turns out gramps had already taken the green ripply affair to the kitchen to be dish-washed. And there it was, this glass I’ve used since forever every time I went to visit my grandparents. Upside-down, sure enough.

I miss you too, grandma.

(A few more pictures on Page 2)

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3 Responses to “In Soviet Russia, stale jokes laugh at you”

  1. LEuk hoor :), Hou je zeker even in de gaten 🙂

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  3. Interesting, I passed this on to a friend of mine, and he actually bought me lunch because I found this for him, so let me rephrase: Thanks for lunch.

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