A stranger in a strange land: my strangest experience in a foreign country.

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.

Red Square – from Wikipedia commons

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.

WHAT?

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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My novel ‘Fire Damage,’ an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, at:
The novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here:
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The world is getting stranger: that piranha ate my kid’s finger!

Here’s a collection of strange things I’ve come across recently.

A family in Chicago thought their pit-bull had eaten one of their daughter’s finger. When the doctors said it wasn’t a dog injury, the father went home, gutted one of the family’s two piranhas and found the finger. Seriously? They have a toddler and a pit-bull and two piranhas?

In Britain, a team at Bristol University  has developed  a chewing gum called Rev7. It’s water soluble and  won’t stick to footpaths (sidewalks).  London Mayor Boris Johnston is strongly in favor. He’s tired of the cost of cleaning gum and other “adhesive” objects off the  streets.

Motorist Flora Burkhart  has been charged in Van Buren, Arkansas, for rear-ending another vehicle and then fleeing the scene of the collision because she didn’t want her ice-cream to melt.

Two cops in New Mexico, Ernest Armijio and Brian Bernal,  aren’t allowed to carry guns  because of their law-breaking history. One because of a dispute over child support arrears, and the other because of domestic violence.

Some things in life are too quaint for words. I learned this week that Britain has a public office called  “Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary”. What does it do? Conducts reviews of how well the regional police forces in England and Wales are doing their jobs. But it’s a cute title, isn’t it?

Recently, I came across the Finnish and Russian habit of swimming in frozen, or near-frozen rivers and lakes.   Apparently they punch a hole in the ice and jump in, often wearing ordinary swimwear rather than wetsuits.  How do you stop the ice freezing up again on you? Keep a pump in the water to keep it circulating.

So would anyone else care to contribute  anything odd you’ve come across in papers, on the net, or seen personally? The stranger the better!

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My novel ‘Fire Damage,’ an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, at:
The novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s.
If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here:

Official over-reaction: Pussy Riot again.

I’ve blogged before about Pussy Riot, the all-female Russian punk-rock band, some of whom were arrested and charged with “hooliganism” after five of the members performed an anti-Vladimir Putin song in Moscow’s main Russian Orthodox church cathedral on February 21. Talk about an over-reaction!

Pussy Riot, image from Wikipedia Commons

A you tube video is here.  (The group has ten members, but not all perform at everything they do. They wear coloured balaclavas so that the police can’t tell who is who.) OK, It’s not exactly the greatest song I’ve ever heard, even allowing that I don’t speak Russian. The song asks the Virgin Mary to “Drive Putin Out.” (Putin being the current President of Russia, and former head of the FSB, successor to the KGB.)

Three of the women who sang in the cathedral were arrested, and two of these women have children. They have been held without bail, on a charge that carries a potential seven-year jail sentence. Amnesty International has designated them “prisoners of conscious” on the basis that the potential penalty is totally disproportionate to the “crime.”  On July 2, Faith No More performed in Moscow, and invited some of Pussy Riot onstage to hold up a banner after FNM’s encore. You can see the youtube clip here.  Last week, the three in jail went on a hunger strike starting Wednesday 4,, after their case was bought forward to Monday July 9. They said they would be unable to prepare a defence in time because of numerous procedural points of law they wished to challenge. Over the weekend, their lawyers claimed to have received assurances that the group would be released on Monday.

So let’s see what happens. Frankly, I’m not optimistic. Over 300 journalists have either been murdered or disappeared in Russia  since 1993.   It doesn’t sound like a state on the way to becoming a liberal democracy. I’d like to think the judge might acquit, or just sentence them to time served. It’s about the best you could hope for at present. I’m posting this late on Monday in Australia, so by this time tomorrow, Tuesday will have arrived in Russia.  Let’s see. In the meantime, what’s the biggest over-reaction you’ve ever come across to a work of music or art?

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My novel ‘Fire Damage,’ an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, at:
The novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/ref=sv_kstore_1?ie=UTF8&docId=1000493771