Soviet Union in 1975

(Clockwise from left) Scenes from the Soviet Union in 1975 include the town square monument outside Kiev, a Russian cemetery worker and children gifted with chewing gum.

While writing about other people’s travels in recent weeks, I admit to being envious. There’s so much of the world I haven’t seen, but surely hope to. I’d at least like to be on the same par as my husband, Tim. Before we got married, his free spirit took him all over the place.

In eastern Europe, he made his way through what were then Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. In Romania (still known as Romania), he went to Transylvania to take pictures of Dracula’s castle. He explored Denmark, Sweden and Finland, and after camping in Germany, left his tent pitched with a sign that read “bitte nicht storen” (do not disturb).

He took two trips to the Soviet Union when it was still the Soviet Union, entrenched behind the Iron Curtain. His first visit was as a student tourist, his second as a chaperone, which never fails to make me snort giggle. Tim Barton, a chaperone??? (Case in point, he broke away from the group he was supposed to be chaperoning and headed to Italy for some pizza.)

He has shared with me his memories of Moscow’s Red Square, seeing Lenin’s body and watching customers in line at a kvass truck for a drink of fermented goat’s milk, the communal cup rinsed with a hose between sales. The same unhygienic process was used at honey-water vending machines — a single glass in the dispenser, rinsed by each customer before using. And yes, he tried it.

What did it taste like?

“Water. With honey in it.”

He tried but couldn’t finish Soviet meals, such as blanched barley with a raw egg on top. He lived off bread and cheese instead. (Hence, I suppose, the reason for a pizza detour.)

He has a collection of interesting photos. Russians going about their daily routines. A woman selling cabbage. A man using a sickle to clean out a cemetery. “I heard a noise behind me, turned around and there he was,” Tim said. “I took a picture — and ran.”

He has a sweet photo of a family in a horse-drawn cart heading home from market, one of the children asleep on a bag of grain. Another photo of a different family in a cart, this one hauling a coffin. “With each bump in the road, the lid bounced up and down,” Tim remembers. “You could tell there was a body in it.”

He may or may not have departed the Soviet Union with forbidden souvenirs hidden inside his socks and pockets. Coins, paper money, military insignia. I’m not saying anything for sure considering I don’t know if there’s a statute of limitations.

At the border crossing, armed guards put his vehicle up on blocks for a thorough search as he stood back and watched. At that moment, he may (or may not) have had a hammer-and-sickle flag wrapped around a leg under his jeans and some military belts buckled around his waist under his clothing. Stuff he received in trade for a Levi’s brand T-shirt. “Levi anything was a hot commodity over there back then,” he said.

U.S. customs waved all those souvenirs through with no objections. The only item questioned was one he purchased at a German flea market while waiting to board the plane home. A black top hat like something Fred Astaire would wear. He had it on while standing in line for the customs search.

“Where’d you get that hat?” the agent asked him.

“Germany,” he said.

“What’d you pay for it?”

“A couple of dollars.”

“Got any pine cones?”

“What? No!”

To this day, he has no idea what that was about.

As a husband and father, Tim’s globetrotting days aren’t so footloose and fancy free, but he did cross the Atlantic again — with his wife and daughter along for the ride. He attended mass at the Vatican, stood at the very top of a Swiss Alp and even set off an alarm at the Louvre in Paris. (“Monsieur! Monsieur! Step away from the painting, s’il vous plait.”)

Workplace responsibilities get in the way of extended travel these days, but retirement is not that terribly far away. Gives both of us more time to work on our bucket list.

Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at