I once found myself singing The Star Spangled Banner in a place that most people would not think suitable, and I feel an obligation to explain myself to my fellow Americans.
In the mid-1960's the international convention of psychologists was held in Moscow, and, since my wife, Sara, was a member of that profession, we found it a good opportunity to see the Soviet Union with some of our travel expenses tax-deductible--an opportunity no red-blooded American could resist. We made our reservations through the professional society, and it, in turn, made arrangements through Intourist, the Soviet government's tourist bureau. When we got to Moscow's airport, we learned that, although we were supposed to have reservations at one of the city's hotels, they had run out of hotel space, and instead we were being put up in a student dormitory at the University of Moscow. Since the University was the site of the meetings, and was some distance from downtown Moscow, we figured it might be more convenient to be there, if the room was reasonably comfortable, and anyway, it was late at night, and we didn't have much choice.
The University is on a hill overlooking the city, and consists of one large building, a skyscraper with Gothic design,, reminding a New Yorker of the old Woolworth Building on lower Broadway. Lecture halls, classrooms, dormitories, gymnasiums are all contained in this structure.
The dormitories had a single design: a suite for two students consisted of shared bathroom facilities near the door and two separate rooms side by side, each serving one student as bedroom, living room and study. They were narrow, lit by big windows, and contained a desk, a chair, a large cabinet with glass-door bookshelves at the top and drawers for clothing at the bottom, and a bed so narrow that it looked like the government's attempt to achieve birth control through abstinence. (Compared to the dormitory room our younger daughter later shared with a roommate at the University of Chicago, the Moscow University suite was about as big, and had the advantage that each student had privacy and could study without the help of the other student's radio.) After trying it for a night, we decided to stay there through the conference.
The suite had just one little drawback: if you used toilet paper, the toilet got stuffed up. Apparently this monument to socialist education was built with waste pipes that were too narrow. When this happened, one had to walk down to the elevator bank, where the concierge, a little lady, sat behind a roll-top desk and say, in your tourist's Russian, "Toilett nyeh rabottit." She would reach under the desk, pull out a plunger, and trot down with you to fix things, explaining all the while that the thing to do was to put the used toilet paper in the open waste basket provided for the purpose, a practice that gave the student dormitories of the University of Moscow their characteristic odor. Rather than do this, we kept trying to dispose of toilet paper in the usual way, and had much contact with the concierge in the week we were there.
The conference had many meetings that were interesting to Sara, and in addition we got out and saw a bit of Moscow, visiting a cousin who lived there, looking in awe at the Tsar's jewels displayed in a Kremlin museum, and seeing a flower show in Gorky Park, where we happily learned that the Russian names for many flowers are derived from the Greek names, as are ours, so that an American can walk through a garden speaking fluent Russian.
The conference wound up with a big event staged by our Russian hosts: a gala ballet performance and dinner at the Palace of the Soviets, in the Kremlin. The Palace is a handsome modern structure set amidst the old Tsarist buildings within the Kremlin's walls. No expense was spared in building this showpiece, and the Communist parties all over the world contributed gifts of their nations' best products. There was marble from Italy, escalators from East Germany, lighting fixtures from Sweden--the cream of the world's goods.
When I went to the men's room I learned what the Communist Party of the United States had contributed. There, in a large room, were gleaming rows of urinals, and booths with beautiful toilets--a regiment of the Red Army could have used the place at one time. And, standing in front of a handsome urinal, I read the inscription on it: "American Standard." This meant, to me, not only a familiar trademark; it said something else. It proclaimed that there was one country in the world where everyone, rich or poor, could have decent plumbing. After a week putting up with the facilities at the University of Moscow, I was suddenly suffused with an overwhelming warm feeling for my country. Standing there, I found myself singing. Other men around must have wondered whether I was just some nut, or whether the Cold War was about to heat up as they heard me singing about "the rocket's red glare, bombs bursting in air" but I felt strongly, and didn't give a damn.
There's a sequel to this story. My older daughter was married to a college professor of Russian, and one year he was offered the opportunity to spend a year in Russia running a student exchange program--American students spending time at Russian universities. (Why did a boy from the small town of Cambridge, NY become interested in Russian? Because he was intrigued by a spiritual quality Russians are said to have--the Russian soul, with which writers like Tolstoy and Dostoievsky are in tune, and which is so different from our own materialistic values.) The Soviet educational authorities provided housing for the family at the University of Moscow. They had two suites in the student dormitory, one for my daughter and her husband, one for the two boys. The boys spent the year in Russian schools. . The family got to know many soulful Russians, and made good friends they later saw on return visits It was a wonderful experience for all of them. And, yes, they got to know the concierge really well.
Me, I'm a plumbing man myself, but I guess there's another side to it..