Once upon a time the Soviet government tried to limit contact between residents and visiting Americans. But that was in the past. Nowadays travelers to the Soviet Union can take advantage of one of the chummiest ways of meeting the local folks: bed-and-breakfast lodgings.
This summer, a Silver Spring-based travel company has begun offering lodgings in private homes in several Soviet cities, including Moscow and Leningrad. So far, the company has registered several hundred Soviet families who are eager to welcome Americans and other travelers into their spare bedrooms.
These bed-and-breakfast lodgings should appeal to anyone interested in meeting the Soviet people, and at the same time, they offer big savings on the cost of a trip to the Soviet Union. A bedroom for two rents for $85 a night and a single for $75 -- compared with a rate of perhaps $150 for a night in a Moscow hotel. The lodgings also come in handy as an alternative for business travelers.
In addition to Moscow and Leningrad, bed-and-breakfast accommodations currently are available in Kiev, Tblisi, Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. The apartments used in the program tend to be among the finest in the country, since only wealthier Soviet citizens can afford the luxury of a spare bedroom or two. All lodgings are inspected to make sure they meet Western standards and are close to public transportation; most are centrally located.
"Everything has happened very fast," says Ilhan Cagri of Amico International, the new company she and her husband have founded with partners in the Soviet Union to operate the enterprise. Since 1983, the couple also has run Capitol Visa Service in the Washington area. They obtain visas for travelers who don't want to complete the process themselves.
The bed-and-breakfast endeavor came about, says Cagri, as a result of the couple's visa work. Their frequent contact with Soviet Embassy officials in Washington opened the way for the partnership with a private Soviet firm. To Cagri's knowledge, this is the first venture between a private U.S. and a private Soviet company. Several U.S. companies have partnerships with Soviet government agencies.
Amico promises a "private, spacious and comfortable bedroom with a full breakfast." Some rooms may be decorated with family heirlooms; one Moscow bedroom features a piano and a desk. Often the rooms are larger than you might find in a hotel, Cagri says, and the service is more attentive. Typically, a breakfast consists of eggs, sausage, bread, butter, jam, juice and fruit.
At least one member of the host family speaks some English or another language known by the guest. The guest also can ask to be placed in the home of a host in a similar profession. The hosts, says Cagri, have proved to be "very gracious, very warm, very generous." One of her clients occupied the apartment of a woman whose son is a principal dancer in the Bolshoi Ballet.
"By staying in family homes," Cagri says, "guests are treated to an intimate experience. They learn about the country from the inside and see things that aren't in the guidebooks." Soviet participants on Amico's roster receive guests on a rotation basis so they aren't overwhelmed by visitors.
Una Brunani, general manager of Gaithersburg Travel, recently asked Amico to book three of her vacationing clients into a Moscow home. "They were very happy," she says. "The room was very large, very Russian and very clean. And the lady who ran it was kind and very helpful." She admits that initially she was skeptical about the lodgings, "but I didn't have much choice. Moscow was sold out. I'd certainly do it again."
Pat McDowell of Arlington, Tex., says he and three business colleagues in the aerospace industry turned to Amico after being unable to reserve rooms in Moscow in June. "We were very, very pleased. The rooms were extremely nice -- much, much nicer than the hotels." The apartments in which the four were housed were located in the same neighborhood near the University of Moscow. One of the hosts was a professor in the music department.
Cagri says the response she is getting from clients returning from the Soviet Union is similarly positive. By mid-July, she had booked about 50 business travelers and vacationers into bed-and-breakfast lodgings. About the worst complaint she has received to date came from a woman who asked, "Why didn't you tell me the Russians were so generous? You should have told me to take them gifts." On more than one occasion, a host has rewarded a friendly guest -- someone who has stayed for several days -- with a big farewell dinner.
As gifts to Soviet hosts, Cagri suggests taking soap, shampoo, cologne, hosiery, T-shirts and "other Americana."
For travelers in a hurry, a bed-and-breakfast reservation and the necessary Soviet tourist visa can be arranged in less than a week, says Cagri. She is linked by computer with her Soviet partners, which means she can confirm a lodging reservation overnight. Her firm also is authorized by Soviet officials to issue a tourist visa reference number, which is needed before a visa is issued. Amico will obtain the visa from the Soviet Embassy for an additional fee of $27, or travelers can do it themselves.
Cagri credits the speed with which she completes the lodging arrangements to the fact that she is dealing with a private Soviet company and not the Soviet bureaucracy, which is often much slower in responding to reservation and visa requests.
Among its other services, Amico can arrange with its own drivers and cars in the Soviet Union for airport pickup and delivery and city tours. Air and lodging packages are available with travel on Finnair, the Finnish airline, and Aeroflot, the Soviet airline. And Amico offers adventure trips in the Soviet Union, such as hiking, hunting, mountain climbing, camel riding and falconry.
Cagri cautions bed-and-breakfast clients not to be misled by the outward appearance of some Soviet apartment buildings. They are owned by the government, she says, as are the interior hallways. As a result, the buildings and halls can show lack of care. Individual apartments are privately owned, however. "Inside, it's quite different."
For more information about the bed-and-breakfasts, contact Amico International, 13113 Ideal Dr., Silver Spring, Md. 20906, 942-3770. For more information on current travel in the Soviet Union.
B&Bs in Prague
Bed-and-breakfast accommodations for Western travelers also have opened up in Czechoslovakia. A Prague organization is offering a list of 400 apartment owners welcoming guests at a rate of $4 to $18 a night. The cost for the list is $5.
About 100 of the lodgings are in Prague, the Czechoslovak capital, and the remainder are in the Bohemian countryside outside Prague. They range in style from modest to very nice, according to Nelson McAvoy of Keyser, W. Va., a U.S. spokesman for the Prague enterprise. A retired physicist from the Goddard Space Flight Center, he has traveled extensively in Czechoslovakia.
With the 14-page list in hand, travelers can write to individual hosts in Czechoslovakia for reservations. Or they can use the list to find accommodations once they have arrived in the country.
The list is quite basic, and does not describe the accommodations. Only a small number of them have been checked out, and you probably will have to share a bath. You might even have to show your hosts how to prepare an American breakfast -- if that is what you prefer.
For a copy, send a check for $5 to Geotour, P.O.B. 11, 11121, Prague 1, Czechoslovakia.
Language Lessons One big problem with taped language lessons is that the narrator usually moves too quickly for you to master a word or phrase. You have to rewind the tape constantly if you want to hear multiple repeats of a pronunciation. Sony has come up with a new language system called the Sony Repeat Learning System that eliminates the hassle.
It works this way: You receive 150 cards, a bit larger than a credit card. On each card is a magnetic strip that contains a short foreign language phrase used in everyday dialogue. You insert a language card into a small plastic device called the repeater. Operated by battery power, the repeater is about the size of a thick novel. The device will repeat the phrase automatically up to 100 times, unless you insert the next card or turn it off.
You can voice the phrase along with the narrator until you are comfortable that you know it. No rewinding is necessary. A text accompanies the cards explaining the grammar and suggesting ways to improve pronunciation.
The repeating device is on the market now. But so far, the only card programs that have been completed are Japanese (for English speakers) and English (for Japanese speakers). One set of 150 cards is for everyday dialogue; a second set covers business dialogue. Other language programs for English speakers are expected by Christmas, among them French, German, Spanish and Italian.
The repeating device alone sells for $169.95. Each card program, sold separately, is $99.95.
For information about where the Sony system can be purchased, contact the International Business Education Corp., 11 E. 44th St., Suite 700, New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 867-2000.
Baltic Guide A visitor to the Baltic States today is an eyewitness "in a dramatic process of national rebirth and rediscovery," according to the introduction to "A Guide to the Baltic States." Just published, it is a 309-page tourist guide to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where five decades of Soviet rule is unraveling. It sells for $17.95.
Rochelle Jaffe, owner of Travel Books Unlimited in Bethesda, says it is the first new book on the three former independent European republics that she is aware of and sales have been brisk. It was published by Inroads of Merrifield, Va.
A paperback, the book is organized by country. Ample historical background for each is provided, and there are well-thought-out sections on such cultural aspects as language, literature, art, music and food. Walking tours and maps of the capital cities are included as well as suggested day trips into the countryside.
The guide also includes information on how to get there, visa requirements, where to stay, where to eat and shopping possibilities. Useful phrases and a pronunciation guide are included.
The book was written and edited by Baltic Americans and residents of the Balkan States, and an understandable resentment at the Soviet presence is readily apparent throughout. For example, the description of Riga, the Latvian capital, notes that it is often referred to as the "Paris of the North" because of its broad, tree-lined boulevards and numerous parks and gardens. "But do keep in mind," the section continues, that "Riga's evolution as a Latvian city was arrested with the Soviet occupation. Signs of Soviet decay are visible. Restoration and upkeep of national treasures has been lax, and historical accuracy often takes a back seat to Soviet propaganda." However, Latvian groups have begun restoration work in Riga.
Upcoming from the publisher are guides to the Ukraine and to Prague.
The Baltic guide is available at Travel Books Unlimited in Bethesda, Lloyd Books of Georgetown and Borders Book Shop in Rockville. For information: Inroads, 641-9118.