Sweet Holiday Camp

School always began on September 1st and ended on the last day of May. September 1st was the first day of school and it started off with an impressive festivity. All of us, dressed-up and with flowers in our hands, went to the official "square" where the first bell was rung. The girls wore ribbons and uniforms made up of a brown dress and a white little apron, and we wore our blue suits and white shirts. We all wore our pioneer's cravats, with the exception of the first graders who were Oktombrels, and the senior graders, who were already Komsomolists. The pupils arranged themselves in groups, military style, beginning with the smaller ones and ending with the bigger ones, on the sports field behind the school. Speeches were held, and at the end there was the ritual of the "First bell." Two senior-year pupils held two first graders (a boy and a girl) up on their shoulders, each of the latter holding a bell in their hands, and they ran around the field like that, ringing the bells. It was an exciting moment. After that we offered the flowers, depending on our age and obligations. The school year began, and there was a similar ritual to mark its end. The summer was coming, three months of play and fun. We all went away to pioneer camps, especially those who didn't have grandparents or other relatives in the countryside. It was a different kind of fun there. Summer camps were generally placed in picturesque locations: at the seaside or in the mountains, by a lake or by the woods. All four camps I visited during my school years had a simple structure and organizational logic. First of all, the camp had a well-determined perimeter. It was like a small holiday village. Inside the camp there were dormitories (palata) with two lines of beds, enough to receive a pretty large number of children, in separate rooms for boys and girls. The bathroom and the showers were for common use, at the end of the hallway, but separated according to sexes. On the boys' door there was a large M, and a Ж on the girls' door. The camp had playgrounds, especially for team sports and games, an open-air cinema, a big canteen and different other things. Officially, we were assigned to our rooms according to geographical or age criteria, after which there was a real internal competition as to who and where and next to who to stay. A day in the life of a Pioneer in camp looked like this. The wake-up call was, I believe, around 7 a.m. Grab your towel, the other necessary things for you morning toilette and hurry to the bathroom. As it was summer, the bathrooms were "open-air" also, meaning a sort of long wall with pipes and taps on it. Wash your face and brush your teeth and then hurry to the "morning exercise." There followed a few exercises, some sort of gymnastics, physical education, elementary physical exercises, and then hurry back to the palata. It was time to have breakfast. I think we usually had breakfast around 8 or 8.30. We always moved around in an organized manner, in groups and in lines. In most of the cases we went from one place to another to the sound of a marching song – zapevaya, as we called it – or reciting those famous lines which resemble what we can see today in American army movies. "One, two" (shouted our captain), "Three, four" (we replied in a chorus), "Three, four" (the captain), "One, two" (us), "Who is marching along in line" (the captain), "Our pioneer team" (us). We had an entire collection of this kind of lines which we knew by heart and which rhymed perfectly in Russian. Inside the large-enough canteen, there was a table reserved for each group. After we ate, either we had some free time, or something was organized. Games, going fishing, discussions and many other activities that the children invented right there and then. At noon, around 1 p.m., all organized and singing a song, we headed for the canteen to have obied (lunch), which was followed by the resting hour, a big torture for us because we had to sleep or at least lie in bed. It was a tough challenge for a small regiment of children sharing the same room. After waking up and fussing about a bit, there was some sort of meal which I found very strange. We went to the canteen again for the poldnik. The poldnik was a sort of "5 o'clock tea" served at 4 p.m., that is we were given some tea or some kiseli (juice) and biscuits, prianiki (ginger bread) or other similar things. Anyway, the poldnik seemed to be something coming from another world, as it wasn't normally a part of our daily habits. And again we had some free time, when normally some activity was organized, and again a meal at 6.30 p.m. After dinner, there was a movie, a game, a disco, some fun, and then the night came and it was time for "blackout," which ended the pionervozhata begging us to go to sleep. It was hard to fall asleep for many reasons. First of all, nobody was willing to go first. It didn't look good. And besides, how could you go to sleep when you were having such a jolly good time with your room mates and everyone had a story to tell! And, last but not least, if you happened to be the first to fall asleep, there was a good chance you'd wake up the next morning with toothpaste spread all over your chest and face. It hurts, take my word for it, and besides, you become the laughing stock among your colleagues. This was one of the pioneer camps rituals. Despite the existence of a convention which said that only during the night of Neptune, when there was a sort of costume party, we were allowed to use toothpaste and "decorate" the faces of our colleagues who fell asleep early, nobody respected the convention entirely. As a rule, we reserved that particular night to the girls. Although all camps were organized approximately according to the same model, still there was one which served as an ideal model, for outstanding pioneers. The camp was called Artek and every Soviet child dreamt of going there. This camp was in the CrimeanPeninsula, on the shore of the Black Sea. It was an international camp for children coming mostly from the USSR and other socialist countries. To go there, you needed not only exceptional grades at school and good conduct, but also many other out-of-school recommendations. I think only few children went there from our school; besides good results, they also had parents with a high degree of political education. Let's face it, there was social injustice even in the USSR. As the doorkeeper of our hostel, an old revolutionist, used to say: "If Lenin were alive, he'd send all these bureaucrats to Siberia." Who knows? I never went to Artek as a Pioneer. It wasn't meant to be. Later on, during one of my trips to Crimea, I went to see my childhood dream. The place looked exactly as I had imagined it to be, a bit more shriveled, but reasonable enough. I would have loved to go there then, when I was in school, but who knows what kind of friends I would have made here. from I Was Born in the USSR, Polirom, 2006

by Vasile Ernu (b. 1971)