Each year our college used to organize short ‘field trips’ abroad to give us the opportunity to test our newly acquired language skills on native speakers in real life situations. These little outings were only open to students of the corresponding language groups. In my first year I visited Florence, Siena and San Gimignano in Tuscany. In the second year I went to London. These short city trips (3, maximum 4 days) were organized every year. Russia, however, was quite a different matter. Because of the distance and the red tape it involved the Russian field trip was a four-yearly event, giving Russian students the opportunity to visit Russia at least once during their four year training program.
And there were yet two other elements which made this trip special. First, it included a two weeks tour of several Russian cities, plus it was open to students from other language groups. The Russian language group being the smallest student population (with hardly 20 students) it was imperative to find other participants. Otherwise the cost per person would be too important.
It took some coaxing to convince my father to let me go on this expedition with my fiancé, but in the end he gave in and we started making the necessary arrangements. These included a.o. getting a passport and a visa. The visa was organized by one of the college professors who had been to Russia before and was familiar with the procedures.
You can't go to Russia without getting some of these!
My fiancé also gave me a crash course in Russian. As I was unfamiliar with the characters of the Cyrillic alphabet he made me repeat several sentences over and over again until they stuck to my brain like glue. Even today, thirty years later, I still know how to say “How do you.” – “Very well, thank you” – “My name is …” and “I don’t speak Russian.” in Russian. Later, ‘in the field’, learning and using this last sentence turned out to be a mistake. But I’ll tell you about that later.
And so, one nice day in July 1979, our mixed (French and Dutch speaking) group of 40 students and three professors took a Sabena plane with destination Warsaw, where we spent an hour in the transit zone before flying to our final destination: Moscow. Everybody was very excited, curious and … nervous. We had been warned about the Soviet customs officers, who apparently had few scruples when it came to searching your luggage for ‘illegal’ objects … This turned out to be a massive understatement ...