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Holidays by the Black Sea

In 1961 my parents made up their minds to go on holiday to the south of the Soviet Union, to the Black Sea coast, and find out what it was like there. My brother and I stayed in Achinsk with my mother's aunt whom we called "Babushka". In fact she was my grandfather's brother's wife. Her name was Maria, Masha for short. Some people called her Marusya. I remember that summer at Babushka's very well as it was so different from many others before or after.

Babushka lived in a little wooden house in Gorky Street. The house was very typical of Russia but very different from our modern block of flats. It only had one room and a small kitchen. The three windows of the house had shutters which we shut every night.

Gorky Street had been there for a long time. We liked to go to Babushka's because it was like a village in town. In the beginning of 1970's more and more blocks of flats were built, but Babushka's house still survived.

Later it was Babushka's turn to move to a new block of flats as her little house was to be demolished. She liked her new flat as she was getting old and it was more and more difficult to carry water and coal. Her new flat had all modern conveniences: hot and cold water, a bathroom, a toilet. Her old toilet had been outside.

In 1961 when we were staying with her, Babushka had a big kitchen-garden with lots of vegetables and berries in it. We helped her to weed and water them, the two jobs that were never done. I adored running around barefoot.

She grew her own potatoes, cucumbers, onions, carrots, turnips, beetroots, parsley, dill. We children especially liked beans and sweet peas. There were raspberries, black and redcurrents and gooseberries in Babushka's garden. Fruit did not have enough time to ripen in the short although warm Siberian summer. We picked our own vegetables and berries when we needed them which was very nice.

Once we helped Babushka to move coal from the old shed into a new one. It was a heavy job and she needed to hire somebody to do it but the three of us managed it in two or three days. We put the coal into buckets as much as we could lift and then carried it from the old shed into the new one which were only several metres apart. She was very pleased we managed that heavy job and Yura and I were very proud of ourselves.

Babushka's two sons with their families lived in Leningrad which sounded very exotic to us. Their photographs were on the walls together with Babushka's third son called Nikolai who had been killed in the second World War.

Babushka had been to Leningrad twice and she often told us about life over there and about our cousins Irina and Kolya who were about my age and Masha who was a baby. I was a little envious that they lived in such a great city as Leningrad, the former capital of the Soviet Union. People who lived in Moscow or Leningrad always seemed special to me. I would gladly live in one of those cities if I had a chance.

I liked it when Babushka told us about her young years, about our grandmother and grandfather and other members of my mother's family, and also about the events from the past which she was the only one left to remember and to recollect. Babushka was very interesting to listen and to talk to and she had a good witty sense of humour. I wish I could remember some of her jokes and repeat her manner of speech.

Babushka was a Moslem, she could read Arabic and prayed in it. She also taught me some Tatar language. It was very different from Russian and I wish I put more effort into it and learn more from Babushka while she was alive. I think we were very lucky to have her especially that our own Babushka was dead long ago.

Our parents came back home from the seaside very pleased with themselves, they were brown, happy, well rested and promised to take us with them the next year. They kept their word and from 1962 our trips to the south started.

By that time my mother's two sisters had already been living in Georgia for many years. Visiting them in Georgia was a separate story, it was like going abroad where everything was so different from where we lived!

It was a long way from Siberia to the Black Sea coast and even further to Georgia. Not many families could afford to travel that far every year. How did my parents manage to do it?

My father was given a free railway ticket once a year as a privilege for being an officer. My mother was headmistress in a school which belonged to the East Siberian Railway. The pupils of the school were mainly children of the railway workers. The teachers could use railway free of charge once a year too. Children under 12 years old were only charged 50 per cent of the cost of a ticket. So it all worked out very well for our family.

Many years later some of my friends admitted that they had been envious of me having such a wonderful opportunity to travel. I did not realise that they were envious. It had not occurred to me to ask myself why other people travelled much less than we did.

To make it cheaper at the seaside we did not stay in the hotels but rented a room in someone else's house. There were lots of seaside residents who were eager to make some extra money that way. Normally they met us at the train on the arrival and offered accommodation.

The price was one rouble per night per person which was not big money, but for a family of four for a month was quite a bit towards a salary or a pension. We knew some people in big houses who had up to 15 holiday makers at once for three or four months. They had to pay taxes to the local authorities of course. We always tried to rent as near to the sea as possible. If we liked the place we went to the same people again the next year.

In the south it got dark very early in the evenings. By nine o'clock it was hardly possible to see anything. We liked to sit outside with the other families who rented accommodation from the same family and talk. The grown-ups did the talking and the children were listening. We tried to be good and quiet to avoid being sent to bed.

There were families from all parts of the Soviet Union but mostly from the northern parts of the country. They travelled that far for the sea and the sun. The conversation was usually about the places where this or that family came from or stories and adventures that had happened to them on holidays.

As the Soviet Union was such a vast country there were always people from some exotic places and their stories were quite interesting to hear. Siberia was also exotic for some people so we had stories to tell too.

Sometimes somebody suggested to go for a swim in the moonlight. There were always people to support the idea. The sea was warmer and calmer at night and night swimming was especially pleasant.

Some nights we had a joint supper when everybody cooked something nice and we all sat at the table to eat. There was always southern wine to taste, we children were allowed some as well. The rest was all the same: conversation late into the night, going for a swim. The children played and did not try to be quiet. On those nights nobody minded us being noisy.

With some of those people we became long-term friends. With most of them we parted for ever and there was new company next year.

Most of the day we spent on the beach. We hardly used any sun cream in those years and I did not hear people mention skin cancer. Nobody seemed to be aware of it.

I liked to swim far from the shore. It was good I had not read "Jaws" then and was not afraid of sharks. The pleasure of swimming far into the open sea was spoiled once when I was arrested by the local coastguard. I had swum far beyond the marker buoys and they took me on board their boat.

I was brought into the office and asked many questions: where I came from, my school's address etc. I could have lied to them but I gave all my details correctly. They never made any complaint about me anywhere and no punishment followed, but since that day my swimming became less enjoyable as I always expected them to arrest me again.

One year my mother came out with a new idea: "Lets go to the seaside and live in tents!" We saw many tents on the shore every year and they were quite attractive to us. There were camping sites at the sea, occasionally we saw single tents or small groups.

We thought living in tents at the very sea was so romantic! The people who lived there did not depend on any hosts, even on good ones, as even the best of hosts wanted your money at the end of the day and to see you as little as possible.

I remember my parents arguing about it. Father thought it was a crazy idea. Mother insisted. In the end things always were how she wanted them to be. There was a lot of hassle preparing for such a journey. We had to send all our stuff there by train including the bedding and the kitchen things. Everything that we might need there.

Living in the country with shortages we could never predict what we would find in another part of the country and what would be missing. Packing took a lot of time. Father had to take things to the railway station and send them. I was always sorry for him when he had to carry heavy things like that. A car we never had. Taxi he always tried to avoid. He thought it was waste of money.

It was only five-seven minutes' walk from the house but it was not a short way with the luggage like that. He also had to go two or three times as there were always more than one piece to carry. The price for sending the luggage was trivial especially that our own tickets cost very little to us.

We did enjoy our holidays in tents, it was romantic and we spent many summers like that. After a year or two we started to leave things at some people's houses who did not mind to store them for us for a small fee. Then we did not have to send things or carry them on a train with us. On the other hand there was always something else we wanted to take or our mother had some more ideas. We never travelled light. I was still sorry for father as he had to carry the heaviest load.

Mother believed it was the right thing to do. Father although conservative in the beginning did agree with her in the end. Later during the cold winter months he liked to tell friends and neighbours what wonderful holidays we had had and how he could not wait to go again.

Seaside Tent It was probably worth it because although my parents spent much effort preparing for those holidays we never stayed in the south for less than a month. We had forty or forty-five days on average. It was good and healthy for all of us: fresh sea air, swimming, sunshine and lots of fruit and vegetables, many of which were not available in Siberia.

Good weather was almost guaranteed, rain was very rare. Sometimes we were bored a little bit by the end of the holiday but we read books there, played, found friends. The main things were still sunbathing and swimming.

We went to the seaside with tents for many years until Artyom was born. Then we thought it was too chilly at night for a small child in a tent and we started to rent rooms again.

When the holiday was over it was still sad to leave. When we were already on a train watching from the train window people swimming in the sea we felt we wanted another swim too. It was so warm on a train usually that our swimming was already forgotten.

After several hours we could not see the sea any more. The further we went away from it the more often my thoughts returned home and the more I thought about going back to school and meeting my friends and teachers again.

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