A time of gifts Summer travels

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By 2017-06-17

Rajiva Wijesinha

Sadly there are no letters from the longest segment of the vacation, which was in Yugoslavia where I was hosted by Milan and Helga Kovac who had worked in Ceylon and suggested I join them. Milan was I think surprised when I turned up at his house in Celje, not least because he was due to go abroad, but he duly took me to where Helga was, by the seaside, with the Ceylonese girl Ayra whom they had adopted (and named after my cousin, Ayra Perera, who later married Derrick Nugawela).

In addition to a lovely week with her in Ljubljana, and a climbing expedition arranged for me by Milan's sister (soon abandoned when it was clear I could not cope), I did much exploring on my own, down the coast and to Sarajevo and later to Belgrade where I stayed at the house of our ambassador, Walter 'Jew' Jayawardene, who had been Co-Secretary with my father to the Constitutional Assembly. I went from there to Rumania and Bulgaria, and also got a visa for the Soviet Union since my father had suggested I join him on a Parliamentary delegation there.

But there are notes on the highlights of that long summer in a letter from Russia, where I was treated very well, by the government as well as by our ambassador there and his immensely hospitable and caring wife. I do not think my father had expected me to turn up, and was astonished to see me walk into his hotel in Leningrad, but he and the delegation and the Russians coped admirably. Oddly enough, it was this year, when finally these letters are seeing the light of day again that I have travelled again in the countries of the former Yugoslavia that I so enjoyed 45 years ago.

The vacation ended with a few days at our High Commission in London, where Pam Gooneratne organized a sale which I was roped in to help at the beautiful Tea Centre which sadly the next government sold.

1 September

I'm still quite depressed about having wasted six pounds by stopping over in Kiev instead of buying a direct train ticket to Moscow from Budapest, which was charming, as is Moscow, particularly in the company of the Ambassador's family – father himself having gone off on a tour (he did phone).

I hope to join him in Leningrad tomorrow. On the 30th, we went to the Kremlin, and yesterday Tchaikovsky's house and one art museum and 'Swan Lake' in a smaller theatre – the Bolshoi beginning next week - which was still super.

Sovietskaya Moscow

8 September

Due to a surfeit of stamped envelopes supplied to state guests by the Soviet government, I feel compelled to overcome my inhibitions about writing. I have installed myself in Thatha's hotel room here too, as MVP is at the Embassy and Siriwardena was tying herself into knots trying not to upset me, due to their having only three bedrooms, the daughter going into the parents' room, instead of the brother's, where I was, and not telling me – besides it's more interesting here. How our father survives is beyond my powers of comprehension – incidentally, with all the food, all our stomachs are in a chaotic condition.

Due to nearly two months having passed – to my regret – a detailed exposition of my travels will be most difficult. Suffice it to say that the Adriatic seacoast was magnificent and I'd like to go back, the mountains were exciting, but I wouldn't - can you imagine the emotions of a lazy coward in a hailstorm with lightning jolting him, after six hours of steep climbing? Ljubljana with Helga and puddings was quite pleasant only I'd have liked more books.

Venice was delightful , so was Belgrade in Jew's quiet house, with abstruse Catholic philosophy, Bucharest and Sofia weren't worth the money, though now I can always say - disgusting reason, but practical! - that I've been there. Budapest was charming, Kiev was a waste of money. Moscow was an experience – it's enormous – Leningrad was beautiful. To that cursory list, I can only add a few things that ought to be remembered always – unless I become even more blasé, which is quite possible - my paying-guest place at Dubrovnik, with the girl who looked somewhat like you if not for her lameness and squint and slight mental deficiency? - with a beautiful sister who bullied her; walking through the rain along the battlements; searching through Split for two hours for a room with a Dutch girl and an excitable old Croat who adored Mrs B and finally let me sleep on his floor; the long walk up to the castle in Ljubljana on a beautifully meandering day; deer on a glacier in the Logarska Dolina valley; the Oxford graduate in Bucharest who took me round his monastery and dilated upon the 'Trout' - he knew our worthy chaplain; Sofia in pouring rain and a Russian church service – and so on and so forth – probably, particularly the mountain views, enjoyed more in retrospect.

10 September

I had to vanish again - for the Bolshoi "Swan Lake' – it really does things to one's heart. I've seen it thrice here so far - at the Stanislavski here, which was quite thrilling too, at Leningrad, which was disappointing and this, which was magnificent; also the circus, a breathtaking experience - being known before only through Enid Blyton's loony books. In addition to my official programme! - which is the best way of seeing things, since one doesn't stand in queues or pay, while attentive guides are provided – I went to Tolstoy's house and Chekhov's and Stanislavsky's graves, and a few minor museums. Also, as I wrote, the Siriwardenas took me to Tchaikovsky's house, and the Puskin Arts Museum which has a super collection of itself, though nothing compared to the Leningrad Hermitage – where, though, we could only have two hours, officially planned, which meant missing the Impressionists and most of the painting - though they did give us da Vinci, Rembrandt - the best collection in the world – and Rubens. Unfortunately, the Museum shut on the Monday, when I was free due to hyper-official functions.

I nearly forgot - talking of 'Swan Lake' - sunrise in St Mark's Square in Venice, and evening with a gypsy orchestra – or, at least, a haunting violin - the beer, though, less than a pint, cost eight rupees. I think it was worth it though.

After this incoherent and interminable massive, I think you'll welcome post-cards hereafter. Best of luck for your GSQ but do write – to my absolute horror, I dreamt of you last night – eating too much, I suppose. I leave for Warsaw and Berlin tonight by train while the delegation flies.

24 September

After the super Russian trip, I took the train to Warsaw, the night Thatha left, and had a rather interesting day in dripping rain, persuading custodians to open museums and palaces that were shut – it was, unfortunately, a Monday - and visiting heaps of churches - the most per street in the world, notwithstanding Italy. Got to East Berlin next morning and discovered Thatha after quite some trouble – and a fantastic museum with reconstructions of Babylonian, Greek and Roman temples. However, father and I were routed by East German officialdom, and ordinary tourists have to spend 1 pound 50 a day, so, despite having to miss Dresden, I left next day, had a few hours in West Berlin (which is extraordinarily colourful after the East, which is colourful enough after Moscow and Warsaw) but hasn't museums and so on – and then left for Hamburg where I woke up my poor cousin at midnight, and left for England to get here on the Friday, straight into Aunty Pam's fair.

However, due to Janaki's in-laws arriving and a general feeling that I'd dodged touristic obligations in Germany, I went to Paris on Monday, found the Samarasinghes missing - which meant a hotel room - and an attack of conscience as I'd let the friend who came with me down – broke my spectacles and rushed back, to be overwhelmed with work for the fair. However, I did have to go down to Oxford one afternoon for my spare specs - and Leslie has fulfilled his promise of last Saturday when I went down for some books and to show my school friends the place, to have Thatha for the feast - a big Univ do – with guests like Marghanita Laski, Tom Stoppard - best playwright in England at the moment, if you're an ignoramus – and Constance Cummings.

Got my spare specs, which aren't too good but have to do since getting new ones on the NHS is a process so I'll wait to get back to Oxford, and survived two mad days which meant being on my feet for 16 hours yesterday and an equivalent amount, I felt, the day before. Everyone was getting quite neurotic – but it seems to have been quite a success - I'm quite glad, since I'm getting to be very protective about the Gooneratnes.

For the 2 weeks before the sale Aruna left the house since she couldn't live in chaos! - and she and Tilak consoled each other.

Superb. I met heaps of people yesterday, including Manel Tampoe, as loony and nice to talk to as ever - awaiting the revolution to sweep away the privileged – there was a small demonstration outside, which was conquered by Carmini and orange juice, and the lamprais were stolen at the end and the Tea Centre is in a mess which means clearing it at dawn tomorrow, but I quite enjoyed myself.

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