in the wooden salt container
that you bought for me that Winter,
a smell of some sweet fungus
mixed with a cheap perfume
is waiting for shared memories,
the kind I hope you
will find somewhere too.
Keep looking for them
in the lines of old women’s faces,
like those that folded
when she sold us
a newspaper in the Newski Prospekt,
“Pravda”, which means “the truth”,
but we couldn’t read Russian that well
so the truth never hit us.
Do you remember the taste
of my father’s burning vodka
when everything was frozen?
We had chosen not to judge the world
covered with black spotted snow.
A cold war ended in the mean while
as we grew up, but where
my friend did you go?
in the wooden salt container
is the Winter when I first saw
life as lovers know it.
My sixteenth birthday
In December 1973, a day after Christmas, my mother and I got a physical check-up, in order to get a real Seaman’s book. It was all done in a hurry, in Amsterdam, and from that moment on we were supposed to be stewardesses. It says so in that book, I still have it somewhere.
A stewardess, on a coaster! There is no such thing, of course, let alone there would be 2 of them about, but only with that piece of document we were going to be allowed to go ashore in Leningrad, (that is where the trip was going to), by the authorities there. We had to pretend to be real sailors, mama and me.
The officials in Amsterdam were very creative and cooperative.
Oh, and it turned out we were both healthy. Always good to know.
I was very excited to go to Russia, it was the only time I went there. My father got me some English-Russian study books and by the time we got there, I had learned the alphabet and some lines that might come in handy.
The ship was called Noorbeek (former Timca), owned by Rederij Spliethoff, and we were to get a load of wood. My father was first mate on that voyage, and I got the pilots cabin to stay in. It was locked by my parents every evening from the outside. My father was a bit overprotective I guess, or he didn’t trust me to behave, but I had never given him any reason not trust me I think. Anyway, it did not bother me just then. I also had to make a deal that I would occasionally wear a dress instead of jeans. Now that was the hard part as I hated dresses. Jeans for ever!
The trip went smoothly. We sailed through the canal between the North sea and Baltic, we called it the “Kielerkanaal”, and as we had a pilot on board in the canal, who had to have access to his cabin because of his trade union-issues, I stayed up that night in the wheelhouse. I found a nice place on the floor to be out-of-the-way and listened to the calm voices of my father and the pilot. “Midships!”, answered with ”Midships.” Very relaxed. There was almost no conversation. A men’s world really. Women would probably have spoken a bit. Chatted. Not these men.
After a few days, on dec. 31, we reached the port of Leningrad, now (again) known as Saint Petersburg. The dead trees used for guiding the ship to the harbour were the first thing we saw. It was cold, it froze about 15 degrees C. It stayed a bit dark almost all day. I probably wanted to go ashore right away, but that was not possible of course, it never is with ships, the custom officers have to have their say first.
Two soldiers were standing in front of the ship, with real guns, keeping guard. I had never seen a presumably loaded gun before and it scared me to bits, those things can be dangerous! One soldier on one end, we called them all Iwan and a good change that was really their name, and one on the other end. They were there the whole day, also at night. Well, they got released every now and then of course. I cannot remember ever seeing that, though. We felt awfully sorry for them. Nobody on board was quite sure whether they were there to protect the Russians from us, or to make sure nobody tried to leave the Soviet Union as a stowaway. As one of them was always right in front of my porthole, underneath a lamppost, I could see him go up and down with the tide at night.
There was a green sort of box near the gangway, with a sloping lid, and in there our harbour passes were kept. Every time we wanted to go ashore, we gave the precious seaman’s book to the soldier, he gave us a harbour pass in return and the harbour officials in the building at the entrance of the port would exchange that for our passports, and then we could go into town. Till eleven pm.
Meanwhile the timber was being loaded. The workers were so cold, my father gave them things to eat and drink to keep them motivated.
First thing when he got a change, it was my father’s duty to organize transportation from the harbour to the centre of town for the crew to spend their leisure hours. He went ashore and I followed him through the snow. He didn’t wait for me, so I really had to walk fast. I felt very adventurous, here I was, with my father, in Russia! But for him it was just another day at work, I suppose.
We came across a lonely Christmas tree, that puzzled me, I thought they did not do Christmas over there at that time. Well they did, on the 6th of January. With Father ‘Frost.’ (Djed Maroz)
There was a building, very old I remember, built of clay and it had irregular walls. We entered, there were some women sitting round a table, silent, but one of them was crying her eyes out. Something terrible must have happened. Somebody had died or something.
I looked at my father, weren’t we suppose to ask what was the matter? Perhaps we could help? But he ignored the women, only asked if he could use the phone on the wall, phoned and arranged things with Intourist, an organization not just for tourists, but also for seamen I suppose.
As it was New years Eve, we got instructions from the captain, an excellent cook by the way who made all of us a very nice festive diner, NOT to do any fireworks. It would not be appreciated by the harbour authorities. So in the middle of the night, 2 am local time, that was midnight in Holland, after the captain went ashore with drinks for the soldiers and we had all watched, knowing they weren’t allowed to accept even though it was so cold, the second mate and I went to the upper deck and he fired off a beautiful red emergency light. It went al across the dock and landed in a pile of timber. And got alarms started. Nasty sirens. We had a great time. My mother predicted that we would all be sent to Siberia. Instead we got a third armed soldier to watch us in front of the ship. Iwan the third.
The next days we strolled along Newski Prospekt, were a man in a shop wanted to sell us a fur coat. Never! The rest of the shop was very empty. All of Leningrad was a bit grim, but great. The people were silent and sad, life was tough for them, that was obvious. Things were scarce, not much to get. In a pedestrian-tunnel I sold my old scarf to a well dressed Russian man for 8 rubel. We saw the Herimitage, (Winterpalace), the best museum in the world I guess, it had 27 Rembrandts we all got to see.
We could enter without having to wait in line, as the Russians had to themselves. That was very unfair. We visited the vessel Aurora, were the Revolution started with, and also the seaman’s house, a former palace of a kind.
A woman, in full make up and probably to be rented by the hour or something like that, turned out to be quite nice actually.
There was one Russian seaman who was sitting on a different part of the bar. He did not speak to us. There we were sort of obligated to watch a film about enormous tractors, fields of waving grain and a lot of happy singing people. Boy was it fun to live in the Soviet Union!
“Propaganda,” my mother sighed. We saw it through politely. A man came sitting next to me and started to ask all sorts of things, in German, like: What did I think of Russia etc.
“Ignore,” my father said. “He just wants you to work as a spy and make photo’s in ports and such.”
Ok, as if that sounded normal! But to him it did.
The second mate had a girlfriend in town and stayed away one night. It gave trouble with the authorities.
“We will all end up in Siberia!” my mother exclaimed. He was the kind that always got into trouble, and I was not allowed even to play chess with him with the door of the cabin wide open. “We will all end up in Siberia!” my mother exclaimed again.
And there was a matter of the harbour perhaps freezing over, icebreakers not being able to fix a route anymore. If that happened, we could be stuck there all winter. I hoped for it to happen. It didn’t.
My 16th birthday on the 4th of January was celebrated on board and in the seaman’s house. I got a real balalaika from my parents, it is now in the attic, and also a gift from a very nice crew member, who did not speak Dutch. It was a wooden salt container that I have had for many years. And I got another souvenir: I exchanged a ring I had, for a pin with Lenin and a red flag, with one of the soldiers, who was not much older than me.
The exchange was pure friendly, nothing romantic! We did not say very much to each other, him standing on the quay, me on the ship. With my father being around somewhere it had to be done quickly and sneaky, and what is there to talk about, if you don’t speak each others language well and it is freezing hard. But Rembrandt he knew. When the ship left january 7, he was on the quay doing what soldiers do I suppose and I was on deck. We did not wave, hey, it was not as if we knew each other.
Goodbye Leningrad. The best thing I remember now about that holiday, was my father being a man of the world I could look up to as he walked on that quay. Of course my adolescence-battles with him were about to start…. Sweet sixteen, forget it! I must have been a difficult teen. But that holiday has left a very dear memory.
This is a repost of 26 December 2011