The Uffizi was all that it claimed to be and did not disappoint. How could it? It also confirmed my love and preference for the painters of the Quattrocento… Masaccio, Bellini, Uccelo and most of all Piero Della Francesca.
The ‘High Renaissance’ with all its immense technical trappings simply became too 3 dimensional and denied the two dimensional surface on which the marks were made. I am certain that this opinion would have got Renaissance scholars quaking in their boots.
The journey south through Italy was, and is, a visual joy, both from the landscape and the splendid architecture. Initially we headed north east to Ravenna and the wondrous basilica of San Vitale completed in 547. Therein we see the Empress Theodora, a mosaic marvel. She, along with her husband Justinian, were immensely powerful. She was quite a girl, being variously described as beautiful, intelligent and, depending on what one reads, her sex life could hardly be described as pedestrian. What is not beyond doubt is her virtual invention of feminism, an amazing achievement in that day and age.
South then to Brindisi and the car ferry to Greece. Some of the Greek myths and legends percolated back from childhood as we crossed the wine dark sea. How I hated Theseus and, in some versions at least, his treatment of Ariadne. Bastard. Later on, what was not in doubt, was the savoury delights of the Corinth Canal lamb kebabs. En route to Athens we stopped at a small village tavern for lunch. It was all agreeable enough, but the passport/ nationality issue re-appeared with a fine symmetry, although not quite as happily as previously. In my response to the usual nationality question my single word response ‘Australian’ got the world spinning again. Why? This was the time of the Vietnam war and the Australians were sending conscripts to this conflict. Further, some of these conscripts could have come from the very large Greek community in Australia. This was not good. Our village was fiercely communist, but we had to eat and the landlord wanted the business. So we sat at a large table in the company of our hostile fellow diners. This was very stressful, to say the least. We were not welcome.
By chance we sat next to a little girl (5/6?) who was busy with her pens and colouring book . By instinct I started to help her with this task. This took the form of me drawing a load of animals and she supplied the appropriate Baaa, Mooo, or whatever. This game went through several mutations, including birds, machines and the like. The best bit was giving clues to the identity of the creature by gradually adding bits until she guessed correctly. We entered a good world and became wholly engrossed, oblivious to the previous situation. More generally, and thankfully , the implacable hostility melted away, as I became aware of adult participation in the guessing game . The lunch was delicious.
And so to Athens and the conclusion of this part of the journey. We took Esmeralda to a local dealer and despite the transmission problems and sad appearance, he gave us a fair price for this splendid piece of engineering.
Off to New Zealand to meet the in- laws. Transport was provided by the now ubiquitous Boeing 707, another splendid piece of engineering and a darn sight quicker than the Ellenis.
But, I did miss the table tennis…after all, it changed my life.
To see East Germany as a refuge after the previous encounters would be a folly indeed.
This was the cold war alright, both psychologically and materially. Even the air seemed to be contaminated by the insidious power of the STASI. We paused somewhere to check on directions. This involved the simple procedure of knocking on the door of an unremarkable house. The reception from the male occupant was a symbiosis of suspicion and palpable fear. GO AWAY. Maybe somebody had been informing and he dreaded the chilling rattle of an unknown visitor… An unnerving experience for both of us.
The STASI or Ministry of Security was founded in 1950. At it’s height it was the largest and most feared state security outfit on the planet. The scale of ‘informing’ on your fellow citizens was staggering. One could simply disappear. Citizens turned informants became a vast network. It had strong links to the KGB and could infiltrate Western countries.
Materially the traffic and roadside furniture were the embodiment of menace.The whole theatre was given dramatic emphasis by being enveloped in freezing fog. Troop carriers, half-tracks and tanks emerged from the misty depths and rumbled on their way. The roadside borders consisted of watch towers, barbed wire and search lights. The ‘Third Man’ was not in this league. It was the culmination of all the totalitarian literature and experience that one had ever read. One pathetic consolation, our German plates would not raise an eyebrow here.
In the encircling gloom and darkness we got to West Berlin. The whole process of finding somewhere to stay, let alone pay for it, was beyond us. A cosy night in Esmeralda beckoned. Oh joy. In the morning, through the fogged up windows, we could see the plump, well breakfasted inhabitants toddling off to work, chatting away, life on earth turned upside down. How could this be? What about the world we had just left?
Esmeralda had a freshen up and a pep talk. The fading clutch continued in fade mode. I pretended the gear box was full of newly hatched chickens, gently does it. Off to the south through West Germany en route to Munich, progressing through an agreeable landscape. Ahead, a signpost, a rather flimsy affair, almost an afterthought. One word. Dachau. We get there.
One abiding image; a grainy 2 metre square photograph of a pile of children’s shoes.
How such an image of apparent innocence could have such unimaginable implications burns itself into your head. Forever.
Onward across the Western Alps and into northern Italy. By now a few green shoots of spring were starting to appear. As we descended around a sharp corner, a small bank of lovely wildflowers presented themselves. A moment’s inattention. Keep your eyes on the road David! Too late.
Two motorcycle policemen were dead ahead as I drifted to the left. They were impressive and would not disgrace an Italian rugby team, their whole physicality set off by their splendid tan uniforms, Sam Brown belts and the shiniest of black boots imaginable. Even their bikes were Concours standard. Black shades glared. They passed by. I counted to ten. By the time I got to six they had re-appeared, one at the front of the car, one at the rear. God they were menacing. The German plates screamed at them. A notebook was produced as we were ordered out of the car. Ronda was quite blonde and could pass for German, I was close enough. A fine of horrendous proportions was mentioned. We would pay for this, and how.
‘PASSPORTS’ one of them snapped. Ronda produced said document. He read the two words on the cover and handed it back, unopened. The world then spun 180 degrees on it’s axis. Our man gazed into space in some kind of reverie. As he crunched the dangerous driving violation into waste paper , he breathed three words…..Orsongna, Cassino, Faenza. From late 1943 to mid 1945, New Zealand regiments fought alongside the Italians in a series of brutal battles. Silence. ‘Where are you going?’, he asked ‘Firenze?’ ‘The Uffizi’, came the reply. Moments later, Esmeralda had a police escort, front and rear, to take us to the gallery. They helped us find a car park and bade us farewell in the most generous terms.
This Russian exit border post resembled Dodge City when all the saloons were at full tilt. Loosely attired officials were all paralytic or pretty close to it. Bonhomie abounded, as did litres of vodka, the pervasive odour of which drifted through the airwaves. Would we bother trying to show these jolly elbow benders that, as agreed, a copy of Dr Zhivago was about to leave the USSR… or just decline the offer of a rinse or two and be on our way? The good doctor stayed put. Off we went. Goodwill prevailed.
I am certain that the Polish border was on the lovely sounding river Bug or one of it’s tributaries. When we arrived, the air splintered with the cold, and if there was a river, it would have been a metre below, buried under solid ice. Getting out of the car, we saw our reception committee, a load of bored squaddies armed to the teeth and dying for something to do. If for some reason I had panicked and made a run for it, my metamorphosis to cat food would have been instantaneous.
We were ushered into the border building. A fire crackled in the grate, comfy surroundings, no sign of booze, only two pale blue eyes greeted us, eyes that weighed up the new arrivals with measured calculation. They belonged to an officer of no mean rank, captain, major? He spoke fluent English and, settling in his creaky but cosy chair, asked about our travels. As by way of mere formality, he asked for our passports and travel documents. ‘This won’t take long’… A measured pause in his examination of the documents. His chair creaked as he his finger tapped on the desk top. Calculated silence. A card was about to be played… ‘We have a problem, a rather big one’, our man intoned in a gravitas sort of way. He was enjoying this, his chair creaking again in anticipation. He went on, ‘Your Russian visas have expired as of now, and your Polish visas don’t start until tomorrow. Oh Dear. You are persona non grata, you can’t go anywhere, you can’t stay here, but you have to. What are we going to do?’ He knew bloody well what we were going to do. We would find out. The next tangential musings from him told me exactly where this train was going. ‘Australia eh? Big country, isn’t it?’ A few more anodyne questions. Come on sweetie, I thought, time to play your big card. He did. ‘Is the Australian dollar a hard currency, a la Sterling, US Dollar?’ He wondered. So that way goes the game. ‘Yes, it is,’ I replied. ‘What do they look like?, old blue eyes moved his Queen to the pre-checkmate position. By chance I had about 80 bucks of varying denominations in my wallet.
The next exchange approached the speed of light. In a wonderful ambidextrous display he pocketed the money and stamped the passports with a resounding. ‘CHING! CHING!’ in the same swift movement.
‘Enjoy your stay in Poland’ he said as he indicated the door.
The chair chortled rather than creaked.
We set off. WHAT? … The premonition was still there…more so than ever….
Moscow was drab. The Italian sparkle of Rastrelli’s Leningrad architecture had not caught this bus. Worse, historical degradation of some earlier wonderful buildings was wholesale, with post industrial projects or raze and rebuild carrying all before it. But, one thought, the pride and joy of contemporary Russian space achievement (aka VDNKh… the All Russian Exhibition Centre) would be a jewel in the crown. God it was tired. Should I have been a space explorer and this kind of technical skill was the best on offer I would get the hell out of it. If one had a sneezing fit, the whole theme park would have flattened, domino like, before your eyes. A Tupelov rocket seemed to lean against a wall, totally unloved. Even Yuri Gagarin, in effigy, was covered up, as he could not bear to look.
A kind of wide -eyed ‘wow/hate’ spectacle replaced all this. No peeing about here, this took the form of good old fashioned social realist sculpture. Muscles the size of barracudas, breasts you could throw a hen party in, these heroic defenders were a mile high and the set of their jaws would discourage any kind of opposition. Their muscled legs and arms would get you to Vladivostok in one bound. Should spurs be needed to hasten the journey, loads of hammers and sickles were to hand to help things along. They induced a morbid fascination, imagining that some starving Stalinist peasant would see this and, so deluded, die a happy man.
I once gazed at a Brancusi sculpture which you could hold in the palm of your hand, it would dwarf all of this.
The Pushkin museum was wonderful.
One abiding memory. In many hotels, at the end of the corridor, a little babushka sat (for eternity it would seem) in order to monitor the comings and goings of the guests. Were we under surveillance? I doubt it. I once whispered to Ronda (Sotto voce) that Esmeralda was stuffed full of Western codes and detailed drawings of prototype Exocet rockets. Rosa Klebb wasn’t listening, or if she was, she was still thinking about the time she saw me on the dance floor in Leningrad.
The next stop was the city of Minsk, the capital of today’s Belarus. Until 1991 Belarus was part of the Soviet Union but now has become an independent state. It suffered terribly in WW2, a huge local museum testifies to this. It also has a rich tradition of Russian Orthodoxy and this was demonstrated to me by our charming guide. At one point we gazed at some stunning early ceiling frescoes which had additional sparkle provided but the cluster of icicles which refracted the light. How had they survived? All of this splendour sat cheek by jowl with hectares of Stalinist architecture.
However, Poland beckoned. The temperature dropped alarmingly, but the wind speed increased in the same ratio. On a dead straight road the snow cascaded across the road . Dead ahead an intrepid babushka was sweeping off the roadside blizzard. WHY?
I will never know. I could not understand.
Much later than this, I read Colin Thubron’s splendid book ‘In Siberia’, a masterpiece of travel writing. I wish I had this to hand as we traversed this country. His account of the gulags in Eastern Siberia has no equal.
‘At Oimyakon the temperature has been recorded at -97.8 F. In far lesser cold, steel splits, tyres explode and larch trees shower sparks at the touch of an axe. As the thermometer drops, your breath freezes into crystals, and tinkles to the ground with a noise they call ‘the whispering of the stars.’ ‘This country of Kolyma was fed every year by sea with tens of thousands of prisoners, mostly innocent. Where they landed, they built a port, then the city of Magadan,then the road inland to the mines where thy perished. At first the convicts were peasant kulaks and criminals, then as Stalin’s paranoia heightened – imagined saboteurs, and counter revolutionaries from every class: Party officials, soldiers, scientists, doctors, teachers, artists. They died in miners tunnels from falling rocks and snapped lift cables, from ammonal fumes and silicosis, scurvy and high blood pressure, spitting up blood and lung tissue. A prisoner had no name, no self. He could be addressed only by his number.’
From In Siberia by Colin Thubron
We approached the Polish border. Premonitions were not unknown to me, I think they were pretending to hide, although not very well, in the frozen air.
The crowd surrounding Esmeralda was impressive. The main attraction was the car with an engine in the boot. Not a lot of those around. The interest in the mechanic was rather more desultory, perhaps fueled by a sense that he was pretty clueless. Unfair. The VW engine was and is a very clever bit of Teutonic engineering. A flat four boxer engine, air cooled, it neither freezes nor boils.
So far so good. As a kid, this mechanic had a bit of experience with car engines, at least enough to know the basics. The culprit was usually fuel or electrics. Petrol no problem, now, where was the distributor? Take that to bits and where the hell would I get a set of points, let alone install them? What I could try, following the advice of the previous owner, was to see if the plugs were oiling up. The only item in the ‘tool kit’ was a socket spanner for exactly that purpose. A search began for the plugs. My exploration was not helped by a load of interested heads peering into he engine bay and following every move. My air of quiet confidence did not fool anybody. Heavy snow was falling, the air temperature well below zero. Freezing.
EUREKA! I found the plugs and a couple of skinned knuckles later I got them out. They looked as though they had been dipped in oil. As I had no emery paper or feeler gauges, all they got was a basic drying off. She started at first crank. The audience was most impressed, more importantly, my sense of relief was palpable. What if this had happened on a lonely road, in the dark, about 100 kilometres from anywhere, with heavy snow drifts and the wind chill temperature around minus 20C. No heating whatsoever. Hmmmm…
Off to Moscow. This is a journey of about 710 km, driving time about 9 hours. By Russian standards this is rather like popping down to see Aunt Anastasia, a mere scratch on the map. Progress was good, and in due course, we decided to stop for lunch. Before that, I nipped off the roadside for a slash, and stepped softly into space. Well, snow space. It was rather like going down in a faulty lift, there was no resistance whatsoever. Eventually I got to the ground floor, with the top of my head just showing above the snow line. Panic receded, climbing commenced.
Ah, lunch. Our cooker was a little Gaz burner with a single flame and bottle. Pretty basic. The unit was placed in the footwell and coaxed into life, hoping all the while that a waft of petrol fumes had not insinuated themselves into the car. That would have livened things up no end. To have attempted this exercise outside would involve heating the whole of Russian air space. The food was edible, pre-packed anodyne anything. A food writer would have placed it somewhere between early and middle nothing. However, it was better than the alternative. Veg and Vegan hadn’t been invented. [This blog editor would surely have perished]
Our route to Moscow took us quite close to the town of Zagorsk, north of the city. Some years later, I revisited this town as part of a Russian package holiday. Our guide was an epitome of Komsomol, a Soviet youth whose brief was to show a load of capitalist tourists the neutered dinosaur of Russian Orthodoxy. His indifference to this task matched that of his tailor… couldn’t care less. He showed us to a splendid church where a service was in progress. He stayed put and relaxed into the arms of an evil cigar.
Another Matisse moment. As the door closed behind us, the darkened scene slowly materialised. Bathed in the heady aroma of incense the glorious iconostasis glowed, the little babushkas sang like angels and the service proceeded. Glory again. How far back in time would this have been played out? Deep involvement was immediate in this other sublime magical world. One did not have to be a born again anything, or even not born at all to be transported to this kitsch free place of deep devotion. Like Bach’s B minor mass, an indelible memory.
Another ‘cordon zero’ meal was prepared and soon after that Moscow hoved into view. I hoped there were more people here than greeted Napoleon and there might be the odd PECTOPAH making an appearance. Esmeralda purred. Deo gratias…