This week, a post in Piper Bayard’s blog about Russian naval spying bought back a memory of perhaps the strangest experience I ever had as a tourist. In 1985, I visited the USSR, as Russia and it satellite countries were then called. In those days, Russia had strict currency exchange control laws. The Rouble was tied to the British pound at one for one. But, on the streets, one British Pound could get ten Roubles.
The Russian authorities wanted to control street speculation: they wanted all the foreign “hard currencies” to go to the state, not to private individuals. How they achieved this was unbelievable.
On the train going into Russia from Finland, the dining car took western currencies. Shortly before we crossed the border, the waiters stopped taking new orders, and went to balance the cash register. When we crossed the border, we pulled up at a train station where we were all encouraged to get out of the train, and changed our foreign money into Roubles. I had Deutschmarks (the German currency before the euro.) I changed my money, bought something in roubles, and a few hours later we arrived in Leningrad (now called St Petersburg). In between, I saw what the waiters were going. They were balancing the tills in different western currencies, before they changed to operate in Roubles. It dawned on me. The waiters were not allowed to handle Roubles and western currencies at the same time. If they did, a customer would pay with a British Pound, the waiter could put a Rouble from his own pocket in the till, then sell the British Pound on the street for ten roubles. The waiter would get the benefit of the Pound, not the state.
After checking into my hotel, the problems began.
The hotel had two bars: a Rouble bar, for visitors from communist countries, and a western currency bar for types like me. I made the mistake of going into the Rouble bar and trying to order a drink. The waiter point-blank refused to serve me. He pointed up the corridor the corridor to the western bar. I went. In the western bar, I tried to order a drink. But the barman wouldn’t serve me there either. I had my money in hundred Deutschmark travellers’ checks. He could only take real money: Deutschmark paper money. He told me to go to the gift shop. They would take my travellers cheques and give me Deutschmark paper money in change. Up to the souvenir shop. Yes said the woman, she could take my travellers cheques and give me change. BUT, only if I bought 85 marks worth of souvenirs, and then she would give me fifteen marks of change.
I have to buy 85 marks of tourist photo books and grandmother dolls to get fifteen marks of change to buy a drink?? I’M GOING TO BE IN RUSSIA FOR TEN DAYS!! THIS IS A FINANCIAL DISASTER! HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO PAY FOR FOOD?
Down to the hotel foyer. They tell me to go to the bank opposite. I do. The bank teller will cash my 100-Deutschmark notes into Roubles. Not Deutschmark paper money, just Roubles. That’s no help.
Back to the hotel.
I’m grinding my teeth into dis-existence with this frustration.
A Finish woman asks me what’s wrong. “Didn’t you know?” she asks. “When you come to Russia, you must bring many small paper monies. US one and five Dollars, one, five or ten Deutschmarks, or one and five British pounds?”
“No. No one told me.”
I go to the hotel counter again. This time a woman tells me to go to the desk which sells opera and ballet tickets. The woman there can take my travellers checks and give me Deutschmark change. Hallelujah! I buy an opera ticket for that night. Who cares what the opera is? Not me. It turns out to be something about drunken priests in a monastery, but I can’t follow the plot. I have change. The whole process of being given the run-around has taken about three hours. Seriously.
The next day I meet an American couple from Chevy Chase. I explain my problem and ask if they want to see any opera or ballet. Yes. Could I buy their tickets for them? Yes. We go to the desk and find out the price in Marks and Dollars. I buy the tickets for them in Deutschmarks, They give me American Dollars for the tickets. Now I have two useable currencies. The woman on the ticket desk watches us, but doesn’t care. Everyone’s happy. For the next ten days I become a man of culture.
So what about you? What’s the strangest experience you’ve had in another country?
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