I was talking to a friend who's about to visit Moscow, so I thought I'd entertain her with a rather sordid anecdote from my first visit there in 1976, when I was a mere 13 years old.
It was a trip organised by my school and we spent five days each in Leningrad (as it then was) and five days in Moscow. For a thirteen year old it was quite a trip - the first time I had been abroad, or indeed away from home for any length of time. I remember I took £14 spending money - and returned with £7 unspent. A ride on the immaculately clean underground cost a mere 2 Kopeks.
Leningrad was spectacular. The River Neva was full of huge chunks of ice. The Hermitage was spectacular. Even as a youngster with no great love of art I could appreciate it.
I have many memories of the trip which I could relate (or bore you with) but perhaps the most vivid is one which if you have just had your breakfast, you might want to avoid reading...
One evening we were taken to see the opera Madam Butterfly in the Hall of the Supreme Soviet (pictured) in the Kremlin. I have to say that we did not view the prospect of sitting through three hours of an Italian Opera sung in Russian with any degree of enthusiasm - especially as we were in the front row and going to sleep would have been a bit obvious. Ever since then I have viewed opera as lovely music interrupted by raucous screeching. Anyway, I digress.
In the interval, we were treated to Russian ice cream covered in a blackberry source. Russian ice cream is just superb - probably the best I have tasted anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, however, half way through the second half I felt decidedly ill. I leant over to our teacher and whispered: "I need to go to the loo, and I need to go now." "Shut up and wait," he hissed back. "No," I said, you don't understand. If I don't go now, you'll live to regret it." We made our way out but couldn't find a loo anywhere. I was becoming increasingly desperate and almost doubled up with pain. Eventually, he located a loo and I ran through the door and ... well ... how can I put this? Suffice to say that by the time I got into the cubicle nature had already taken its course.
Now I am sure there are many Russians who had cause to **** themselves in the Kremlin metaphorically speaking. I, on the other hand, managed to actually do it. I have often wondered where those lovely red underpants ended up...
There is a postscript to this story. A dozen of us had contracted a terrible virus called Guiardia Llambia. At the time it was very rare. It was so serious that we were not allowed to use the same toilet as the rest of our families. We all lost a lot of weight. Before that I had been an incredibly good swimmer and I was about to be entered into some championships. It took six months to be cured and by that time I was never the same swimmer again.
So if you want to know why I never won a swimming gold medal, blame the Soviets!