Russia's quest for beaches and sunshine began closer to home, most recently with Cyprus. Sixty thousand Russians flew to Larnaca in 1994 (six months after travel was made available to those who could pay!). Whether this was to set up offshore companies, or swim in the Mediterranean, or to simply get drunk on the local zivania (which is stronger than vodka), more package holidays from Moscow to Cyprus were sold last year than to any one other destination.
Now that the few holiday resorts in the Crimea have joined the Ukraine, it is as easy for a Russian to travel to Turkey, Greece or Cyprus without a visa as it is to the Black Sea.
But the countries around the Aegean Sea are not the Russian idea of paradise, reminding them too much of conditions back home - even if they do offer the perfect opportunity to stock up with cheap cotton products to sell and reimburse the cost of the package deal.
A few more adventurous Muscovites I know tried the island of Zanzibar this year. Not only does the name have the exotic ring of a Scheherazade tale but it is also in the African continent, probably the most mysterious of the five for a Russian. All children remember the now politically-incorrect Barmaleyev nursery rhyme, warning them against travelling to Africa because "there is no marmalade, no chocolate and only scary natives".
Russians are generally pretty keen on Russia. They may grumble and complain, but it is a very rare Russian who does not fall prey to the specifically Russian malady, 'tosca". This is a nervous disorder that causes huge depression, long stints of gazing out of windows, watering eyes at the sound of Tchaikovsky, mixed with heavy shrugging of the shoulders. In English it is called homesickness and usually brushed away with an "Oh! He'll get over it" or a "For God's sake pull yourself together". For Russians, more sympathy is required, as well as a few litres of vodka. Usually a group will gather together, whether they know one another or not. You will find them crowded around a piano in Paris, singing songs, making endless toasts and hugging until dawn when they will stagger apart, intimate friends for life. Even in Bahamian bars you may see this malady laying low Russians by the dozen.
I picture Satan strolling along Paradise Island one day. He happens to bump into a fortunate Russian gambler who has just become even more of a millionaire on the roulette table. He is seeking out a palm tree to laze under, with a sexy cocktail waitress to attend his every desire. The Devil begins to hum Dark Eyes, smack his lips at the thought of Kalik beer and sigh "Oy! Russki Piva". The palm trees begin to dissolve in front of our lucky Russian's eyes. After a few more sips of his Tequila Sunrise, he is pathetically maudlin about the little wooden dacha he left behind, the one with the six-mile walk from the station, where water has to be pumped from the local spring. Then he thinks of Pasha, Dasha and Masha and how he would go to the forest in autumn searching for mushrooms and how they would catch fish that Dasha and Masha would dry in the banya, how he and Pasha would get red and sweaty, then roll about in the snow after birching one another with branches (as is the custom). And he would begin to find the Caribbean sun too hot and the local smiles too frequent and if this poor tosclievy (acutely homesick) Russian was really there forever he would probably become an alcoholic gambler, like some miserable Dostoyevskian anti-hero. Given the choice, he would get straight back on a plane to Russia, find his mates, tell them all how fantastic his trip to Paradise was. Then raise a glass and say:
Thank God I am back home.
A case of personality
THIS MONTH'S TRAVELLER HAS CRACKED MORE TOUGH CASES THAN MOST. HE IS THE PROLIFIC ED MCBAIN, AUTHOR OF 60-SOMETHING NOVELS WHICH HAVE SOLD 40 MILLION COPIES WORLDWIDE
THE SITUATION is this. You are leaving home. You don't know for how long. You get to choose the destination and one small suitcase for all your favourite and most necessary travelling items. You choose what type of suitcase you want. We provide a personal stereo and a camera.
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