The drive from Le Havre to Brest in Belarus, through Holland, Germany and Poland was wonderful for me after many years of limited travel, due to ill health, and the sun shone day after day. I particularly loved driving through rural Poland and seeing how people live and farm their land. A cow tethered by the side of the main highway while an elderly man lovingly groomed her and his wife sat on a stool milking. A slender young woman in long dress and cotton scarf round her head with a child holding her skirts - an ageless scene - throwing grain to chickens in her small yard where a stork had flown down amongst the chickens. In some of the villages, there were houses - quite small - like fairy tale castles, very ornate and ostentatious. Massive garden gnomes and other plaster figures, but mostly gnomes, for sale by the roadside mile after mile - also tomatoes and oranges, probably fallen off the back of a lorry! Too early for home grown produce but everywhere gardens were carefully tended and vegetables and flowers growing in orderly fashion.
The dichotomy of the long low pony carts commonly used in rural areas throughout Poland, Belarus and Russia - and the building of super new service stations. The ornate wrought iron security fences round a whole orchard south of Warsaw and the simple wooden houses, open and unprotected. Long stretches of new highway and suddenly pot holes and chaos. Cities and towns everywhere on my route - Poznan, Konin, Lodz and especially Warsaw, had ALL their roads, it seemed, being repaired or reconstructed. I wanted to stop and talk to people, but didn't know any Polish at all. I had learned some basic Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet in the weeks before leaving Scotland, but perhaps that wouldn't have gone down too well in Poland!
In the Poland I saw on leaving northern Europe six months later by a different route via the Republic of Slovenska, Bratislava into Austria - the 'new' consumerism was palpable near and in the cities of Lublin, Rzeszow, Tarnow and Krakow, where there were advertising hoardings every few metres along the highways - but travel only a few kilometres off the highway and villages and small towns in the south of Poland had an air of comfort and resistance to change. On the edge of the roads here were small 3 litre empty milk cans waiting to be exchanged by a farmer from his pony drawn wooden milk cart and then retrieved by the householders nearby. Charming though these traditional sights were, it's hard to describe the feeling of pleasure when driving into a Shell Service Station in Krakow and finding plastic disposable gloves and paper towels at the pumps - water hose to refill the tank of my van, and the usual (in the west) snacky foods that we take for granted e.g. potato crisps and packaged nuts and raisins, and that I had not - in the past six months - been aware of "missing"
So my experience of Russia began gently - I was gradually taken from western cultures to the country that stole my heart in the six months that I travelled west of and including the Urals. This in spite of - or perhaps because of - the difficulties I encountered (these were the occasions when I experienced the kindness, the courtesy and genuine desire to be of assistance of these people - also the curiosity!). Difficulties but NEVER was there even a feeling of danger and I camped, in my van, in a wide variety of places - my favourite being in remote forested areas.
Camp sites as we know them just don't exist. I camped wherever it felt right and safe to be - this perhaps often being the biggest decision I had to make each day! I had no water hose to fill up my water tank - there were only rarely taps anyway - but carried three 5-litre bottles and filled up every day or two with the wonderful water from springs or stand pipes in villages. Water from lakes or rivers was often my choice for laundry.
In my van I had a porta-loo tucked away in a small cupboard, but it became too much of a problem to empty this ecologically - so I resorted to the Russian way. In Canada when people want to go to the toilet, they say they're going to the bathroom/washroom/powder room - In Russia they say they're going to the "forest" ! This is what I did.
When I ran out of Gaz for cooking, I used a Coleman stove until, after many weeks, I came upon a GAZ supplier who was happy to refill my two cylinders - for the princely sum of 17 roubles (25p) for the two.
Fuel for vehicles has to be ordered and paid for before filling the tank, the required amount is released from the cashier's office. Western style service stations are appearing but VERY gradually and in the cities VISA cards are usually accepted, but in many smaller towns and certainly in rural areas, VISA is like something from another planet! In one bank in Petrozavodsk - cashiers gathered round to examine my VISA card, with the Amnesty International hologram of a dove embossed on it. And, yes, they did in this bank have the system to give cash in this way - but only one teller had the knowledge to facilitate this - a relative rarity since devaluation during the previous two years. American dollars are the preferred currency for changing into roubles. These are loved everywhere at currency Exchange Kiosks, forget the travellers cheques.
In Sochi, a resort in the Black Sea Region I began to have problems with a grinding noise in the nearside wheel and needed to have it checked out. I found a modern style service station that had gone out of business and was being run by four men who were teachers, but refused to work for no pay for a government they didn't like. The owner of the service station - obviously a friend of theirs - allowed them to run it as they saw fit. I had the wheel checked on a hydraulic lift, the part needed identified and the nearest supplier identified by telephone - this was 300 km away at Krasnadar along a tortuous coastal mountain route back the way I'd come - the mechanic recommended that I drive 30 km per hour!! for safety. He'd take no money from me. I'd already had the bodywork cleaned and polished for £1 and air in the tyres checked (this is not usually possible - people carry pumps and maintain their own tyres) - and an ice cream given to me by the cafe manageress while I waited in the heat of the day!
By the roadside in this, the Black Sea Region, it was possible to buy fresh figs, grapes, hazel nuts, and walnuts by the bucket - plus a larger variety of vegetables than I'd seen anywhere else in Russia. Colourful caravans of bee hives had been brought down from the mountains of Caucasia and keepers had row upon row of jars of colourful and flavourful honey for sale - I sampled several before selecting two large jars, wishing I'd bought more later as it was such good honey and so cheap - £2 a 2 lb jar.
Two days later I arrived at Krasnadar and by mid-morning found the VW Service Centre that had the part I needed. The mechanics there had never worked on a vehicle with power steering - nor in fact with a van as new as mine - so they spent the day learning about the mechanics of the machine and I, in absolute faith in their ability - rested and communicated with the youth in the shop via his computer which had a translation package. This was great fun and we got to know each other quite well! My van was ready by 5 p.m; bill for parts only and I've had no further trouble - faith justified!
This faith typifies the whole of my Russian experience. I felt safe and protected the whole time and joy would well up seemingly from nowhere and for no particular reason. I communicated with people wherever I went and afterwards was unable to remember whether the communication was from the heart or through Russian or English spoken. It was the people - the courage, the honesty and simplicity of the ordinary people of my generation; the enthusiasm and unique style of materialism of the younger generation, the interested curiosity of all I met, concern for my safety - when I felt (and was) safer in their country than in Italy or in many places in the UK (though I never parked in Moscow or St Petersburg overnight! - nor London or Manchester!)
Russia may not be ready to join Europe yet - they have so much to consolidate within their own nation - but when they do, what a lot they will be able to teach the rest of us about survival and perseverance, about human-ness.