Travel: Something To Declare

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True or false? The telephone has been disrupting our lives for more than 100 years.

True. London's telephone subscribers, coping this week with their fourth number in less than a decade, may think it's a modern problem, but phones have long caused frustration.

Anton Chekhov knew all about telephone hell. He even wrote a humorous short story about it, called "On the Telephone". I was reminded of this when I visited the Polytechnical Museum on a visit to Moscow and saw the city's first telephone central switchboard, built in 1904 and preserved in the museum in its entirety.

It was working, not very noisily, and was about the size of two large walk-in wardrobes. Persistent metallic rattling and gentle clattering accompanied little rectangular lozenges of metal and rubber moving rhythmically up and down. Where were the impulses going? Were they trying to get in touch with those long-dead Muscovites who had bravely installed the first telephones? By the look of the machine it was clear that there can't have been many subscribers. Perhaps a few hundred; a thousand at most.

The museum also had working models of coal-cutting machines, and a troop of children were being shown round by their tiny, elderly teacher, who wore a neat, dowdy dress and horn-rimmed glasses, and indicated the exhibits with an ivory and polished wooden pointer, and was treated with great respect. She showed them the spaceship in which the dog Laika (here represented by a grinning woolly toy) was sent into space to frighten the Americans. And here was the equipment Yuri Gagarin carried with him into orbit, including fishing hooks and lures, and instructions on how to tie knots - in case he landed in the sea and had to wait a while to be rescued.

But that's another story altogether. Chekhov's was written in 1886, 20 years before Moscow's central switchboard existed. How did the telephones work then? Presumably on a private basis. How do you install a telephone from scratch, when no one else has one and there's nothing to connect it to?

It seems that the first people to sign up were restaurants and clubs, so you could make a call from your club to book a table at a restaurant. But the whole point of the story is that the system was chaotic, with many a wrong connection, crossed line and misunderstanding. The narrator - maybe Chekhov himself - is trying to book a private room at the Slaviansky Bazaar restaurant. A key character is a small boy, a doctor's son, whose parents have gone out for the evening and left him in charge of the telephone:

"Have you a private room free?" I ask.

"Nobody's at home," answers a childish voice. "Papa and Mama are out at Serafina Petrov's, and Louisa Frantsovna has the flu."

"Who are you? Is that the Slaviansky Bazaar?"

"I'm Seriozha... My papa's a doctor. He'll be here in the morning..."

"My dear child, I don't need a doctor..."

Throughout the story, the hapless narrator is forced to wait on dead lines, to listen to "a light wind blowing", ghostly voices, and endless wrong connections on crossed lines. Several times he is put through to the Hermitage.

No, it can't have been the Hermitage, surely... Can it? That's in St Petersburg. And in any case, at the time of the story it was still the Tsar's winter palace, so it can't have been that. Or was the Tsar on the telephone too? No - the Hermitage must have been another Moscow restaurant.

It's a very short story, and nothing happens in the end except that the exasperated writer gives up in despair, and presumably calls a troika. Still, the anachronisms that stalk the narrative are enough to make you dizzy.

Nowadays, of course, the telephone is everywhere in Moscow, often held like a weapon in a fist as its owner, a man with a thick neck, drives around in a big black car.

Polytechnical Museum, 3-4 Novaya Square, Moscow. Open daily except Monday, admission 10 roubles

Caroline Dilke

Bargain of the week

Venice and back for pounds 60

Alitalia is being hit hard by competition from Britain's no-frills airlines. Ryanair, Go and Debonair have flooded the UK-Italy market with new flights - including, from this week, a new Debonair route to the Umbrian capital, Perugia.

To try to fill its planes, the Italian national airline is discounting heavily on flights from Gatwick and Stansted. Rather than advertise these direct, the airline is selling them through an agency called Italy Now (0870 733 3000).

The best bargains are on the routes with greatest competition: Rome, Pisa, Venice and Bologna. The lowest price, pounds 60 return, applies to departures from Gatwick to Venice, outbound on a Monday to Thursday inclusive; you can return any day of the week, subject to a two-night minimum stay.

The offers run until the end of June.

Trouble spots: Poland

The Pope is visiting Poland from today until 17 June 1999. Security measures and crowds are likely to produce major traffic problems

In addition, says the Foreign Office, "road delays may occur owing to protests by Polish farmers, who have threatened to block roads with the aim of paralysing the country's road network. There is no indication of how long the protests may last."

Even when traffic is flowing normally, says the FO, "Driving on Polish roads can be hazardous. Poland is a major east-west transit route for heavy vehicles. Even major roads can be narrow and crowded and the surfaces rutted. Driving long distances at night out of the main centres is not recommended. Theft of, and from, vehicles is common."

Travellers by train are not immune, either: "There is a serious risk of robbery at main rail stations, and on all train services. Passengers are most at risk while boarding trains. Keep valuables out of sight. Do not leave the compartment unattended. Busy streets, tourist sites, areas near main hotels, money exchange facilities and trams are also popular with thieves."