The Taiga Home Companion: Letters Home from Moscow, 1993

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Part 12: Summertime

July 6, 1993

Season's end

There is a sense of disintegration and flux around me. I am still planning on going home in early August, and I know three other people who are also leaving Russia in the next few weeks. Katherine, who had always seemed to be the most stable member of our group, has been laid off by her company and doesn't know what she is going to do exactly, though she has a few options. The privatization project that employs Ian, Laura, and Mike is scheduled to end in mid-August, unemploying all of them at once.

I'm not sure why all of this should happen at once. Part of it may be the scholastic calendar still working in us young'uns, urging us to start something new in the autumn. Part of it may be Moscow's own rhythm, August being the month when the city shuts down and its inhabitants flee to their dachas or the Black Sea. Either way, there is a snowball effect, as each departure inspires someone else to flee.

Meanwhile, a new crop of faces are appearing, the '93 college grads. Good luck to them.

A hard-currency restaurant

Last week the assistant editor of the Guardian couldn't find a hard-currency restaurant to review, and asked for suggestions. By proposing the name of a Korean restaurant Laura had recommended, I won the right to review it on the Guardian's money.

I went on Friday evening, in the company of another Guardian writer. The meal was utterly fantastic--marinated beef grilled at the table, a superb noodle salad, pickled vegetables, short-grain rice, soups, and tea. The setting was elegant, the service attentive (the Korean waitress spoke fine Russian), and the mood cheerful. The bill, including tax but not service, was $99.50 for two.

Expensive, yes. Overpriced, no. The beef, I was told, had been flown in from South Korea, and it was a safe bet that the bean-thread noodles hadn't been bought locally. Perhaps some of the ingredients, say, the sugar, came from Finland, but almost certainly the rest had come by ship, rail, or plane from Western Europe or the Far East. There is no other way, really. Even Russian salt is liable to have some mysterious objects floating around in it. So if you want to run a really nice restaurant here, you pretty much have to count on importing almost everything you serve and charging proportionately.

This leaves Muscovites with the choice of spending rubles for bad service, mandatory appetizers, floor shows, difficult reservations, and dubious meat, or dollars, lots and lots of dollars, for a pleasant meal out. The exception, of course, is McDonald's, which has opened two new downtown locations in the past month. A place where you can pay rubles and still expect that your food was handled in a sanitary way and cooked thoroughly. I will never take a Mickey D's for granted again.

A bad afternoon in Moscow

I had a good weekend. I got some shopping done on Saturday and I was paid for my Estonia articles. On Sunday we overcame rain, lack of fireworks, and the refusal of Finnish charcoal to burn by celebrating Independence day indoors with a small party and token hamburgers from the skillet. Monday morning was also relatively pleasant. I spent it at home -- studying Russian, eating lunch, and flipping through Frommer's Eastern Europe on $25 a Day, there being a non-zero chance that I may end up updating that book in the fall. Then around 2:30 I left the apartment, and things began to get ugly.

  1. On the metro in from Krylatskoye, I was minding my own business, reading a letter from Will Bachman, when the middle-aged woman seated next to me began chewing me out. I tried very hard to understand what she was saying, but all I could get was "not proper" and "on public transport." I looked around; the car was indeed full, with people standing, but I could not see a single old man, old woman, child, disabled person, person with heavy luggage, or anyone who had a better claim on my seat than I did. In fact, for a Moscow subway car, the straphangers were a remarkably fit crew. Yet my tormentor seemed to want me to get up, and I did, to which see said "right." But no one took my place for two stops, when a healthy looking young woman of about 19 years sat down.
    Maybe I misinterpreted the conversation; perhaps it was my reading material she was objecting to. But how could she have known Will Bachman?
  2. After leaving that train, I transferred to the ring line of the metro. The train got increasingly crowded, until there was no room for people to rearrange themselves to allow the passengers whose stop was coming up to get near the door. Instead, we all stood crushed into place until the door opened, when the car became a near-brawl, with half its occupants either fighting their way down half its length to get to the door or fighting equally hard not to be pushed out before their stop, while another twenty people tried to get into the door everyone else was trying to get out of. Great fun.
  3. Finally I arrived at my stop, and had only a long, long escalator between me and the sunlight. Usually metro passengers stand on the right side of the escalator to let others pass on the left. But this time that system was ruined for dozens of people by three or four standees on the left side, each of whom created a clump behind him. One woman, muttering "I'm running late," pushed her way past the obstructions, but the rest of us didn't have the will.
  4. My whole reason for going on this trip was that a Chinese acquaintance of Ian's had assured him that if one went to Metro Taganskaya and out the exit, there would be Chinese ingredients for sale "right there." I thought that if it were true, it would be both a good thing to put in the Guardian and a chance to get more thin soy sauce for rubles. Instead I spent an hour poking through kiosks and shops, finding nothing more promising than a store selling jars of Korean "health product," which I think may have been royal jelly. But I did get a nice tour of several Taganskaya-area food stores, with their dim, unswept, unventilated 80-degree interiors and slabs of raw meat sitting on tables and countertops. I can't imagine inhaling in such a place, much less buying one's dinner there.
  5. While I was waiting, standing still, to cross the street to hunt some more, a young man, apparently involved in an intense conversation with his girlfriend, walked straight into me. Blam. Too bad I wasn't a lamppost.
  6. I gave up and went back down into the metro. The guy in front of me on the stairs was wearing a jean jacket with a patch sewn onto the back. The patch showed a hand with an extended middle finger and bore the English words "Fuck You."
  7. I went to the Guardian where there was supposed to be a staff meeting. In the lobby downstairs I met a couple of fellow staffers and we began talking. A young woman entered the building and walked by. Once she had gone, the door-lady began jovially berating us in rapid Russian. Eventually, one of the other writers understood her complaint: we had not shown "due respect" to the young woman when she passed. My second gratuitous dressing-down of the day.
  8. There was no staff meeting.
  9. I went to the Hotel Metropol to try to get the English-language newspapers. They had only Saturday's editions. I had been out of the apartment for only four hours.

It got a little better after that. I found some ice cream that was a little less wretched than normal, and even some cold soda. Then I went to dinner at a friend's house. But you don't recover quickly from an afternoon like that. I just hope I have one the day before I fly out of this country.

Trying to stay cool,

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