Waiter wars: or cracking the Moscow restaurant code

TAKE things with you like post cards and pens and lipsticks,'' I was told by a friend who knows Moscow well. The idea, she said, is that while tipping is not really acceptable in a country where ``everyone is equal,'' little gifts seem to be. While I balked at the lipstick, I stocked up well with pens and with p.c.'s of Scotland. ``It might seem rather strange,'' said my adviser, ``but things that we scarcely value, they like a lot. Exchanging post cards is something they are very keen on.''

On the plane to Moscow, in further preparation for this new experience, I started dipping into a book called ``Moscow: A Traveller's Companion,'' by Laurence Kelly. Even as late as the 18th century ``trade had to overcome the medieval legacy of no less than sixteen customs' barriers into Moscow,'' he writes in his introduction. ``They were still there in the 1730s, and the principle was only abolished in 1753.'' Sixteen customs' barriers!

As I was to discover, there are certain barriers the foreign visitor to Moscow still encounters, even in this period of gathering glasnost and perestroika, but for me, at least, they were not at the customs.

The Hotel National is remarkable. Dark and Art Nouveau-ish. Nothing has changed, you feel, in its 100 years. Sinuous stained glass in the grand stairway windows, an elevator of creakingly similar vintage. Lenin had set up shop in this hotel for a while, and perhaps the d'ecor had been preserved in his memory. Visitors are given a minimum of information at the reception desk by unsmiling women. You grow determined, if nothing else, to make them smile.

After putting my cases in my box-like room, I went in search of the restaurant. It - or rather, they - were a couple of floors down, ranged along a gloomy corridor. I chose the restaurant to the right and approached the gathering of waiters who hung around its entrance. ``Can I eat here?'' ``You stay in hotel?'' ``Yes.'' ``Other restaurant!''

So I follow his gesture down the corridor and approach another gang of door-crowding waiters. ``Can I get a meal here?'' ``Moment!'' That waiter walks off and never comes back. Never.

After eventually giving up hope, you try another waiter. ``Food?'' ``You stay in hotel?'' ``Yes.'' He then starts to talk to another waiter as if to indicate that he has made HIS move in this game and whether or not you are going to make YOURS, and when, is not his affair. Your Western mouth gapes in disbelief. This is culture shock.

So I wandered off down the corridor wondering what to do next, and feeling glad that my adviser had also suggested I bring with me on this trip packets of powdered soup and chocolate, and a ``cup-immerser'' to heat them up. It was beginning to look as if I might have little else to eat over the next four days.

Then I thought, ``This is ridiculous. There must be a way. These are the restaurants in the hotel and there were plenty of people eating in them.'' (They looked as though they had always been there - perhaps once you do get in, you can never get out?) ``I'm going to try again,'' I thought. (I find that in countries where language is a problem, you soon start to talk to yourself a lot.)

There were notices around the place indicating that foreign currency was acceptable in one or other of the restaurants. The guidebooks also firmly said that most major credit cards are acceptable. So I took out a credit card and approached the first restaurant again. ``Can I, or can I not, EAT HERE?'' I asked. ``Can I PAY WITH THIS?'' Again I was sent down the passage.

This was too much. Obviously, bold moves were called for. This time I ignored the waiters' convention at the entrance and marched straight into the restaurant waving my credit card and - inspired idea - ostentatiously dangling my room key. A big waiter inside blocked my way. ``Yes?'' he asked. ``WHERE CAN I SIT?'' I asked. ``Wait here.'' There was little doubt that he considered me a great nuisance.

BUT this time I won through. He eventually came and showed me to a table in the middle of the long room.

The only problem was that all four chairs around this table were occupied: two by a pair of women friends deep in conversation, one by a man quietly studying the menu, and the last by a large bag. The bag belonged to one of the women, and it had definitely been put there to prevent anyone's sitting down. The waiter, however, making me hover temporarily by the chair, went and fetched another for the bag. I felt amazingly welcome. I was of more value than a bag.

Things started to go well. A band struck up on the platform at the far end - cheerful tunes from the '40s - and the waiter for our table turned out to be a splendid fellow with great black curled mustachios like a 19th-century stage villain, but beaming bonhomie and heartiness. His favorite English phrase was ``No problem!''

Only those items indicated as available on the menu are available, the guidebook had warned. I aimed to choose safely. A salad, some sort of beef stew, fruit juice. The mustache returned inquiringly. I pointed to my choices.

He, however, thought differently. ``No, no!'' he said, ``you have THIS - and THIS - and I bring you THAT. Good. No problem,'' and off he went, presumably in search of the kitchen. I could only hope they would let him in ....

The meal was food but not memorable, except for the ice cream (which the mustache ordered me to have): That was superb. The man next to me turned out to be a Belgian businessman who knew Moscow well, having lived here for a decade previously. We had an amiable conversation. He told me several unusual sights I shouldn't miss. And he gave me his card and Moscow telephone number if I ever needed any help. I paid the waiter with a credit card and left, harboring a good feeling that I'd cracked the restaurant code.

I HADN'T. That would have been too easy. The next night I got in after only a few trips up and down the corridor, but the cheerful waiter was off duty, the band was absent, and the credit card I presented again after the ice cream had a strange effect on the surly waiter of the day.

He got very cross. ``No,'' he said, ``you pay rubles.'' ``I do not have enough in rubles.'' (I had only a few because the guidebook had said you only need obtain enough for small items like the metro.) ``Last night,'' I said, ``I paid with this credit card.''

He looked crosser. ``You paid with credit card? Last night? In THIS restaurant?'' ``Yes.'' ``NEVER!'' he said (getting crosser). ``IN THIS RESTAURANT?'' ``Yes.'' ``N-E-V-E-R!'' he said. I somehow thought of Khrushchev - remember him? - banging the table at the United Nations. ``NOT IN THIS RESTAURANT!'' he repeated. ``Yes,'' I insisted, ``in this restaurant.''

The American tour operator who shared my table that evening took out his American Express Card. ``I can only pay with this, too,'' he said. The waiter snatched both cards, muttering to himself, and disappeared. The American had been telling me about the thousands of his countrymen he brings to the USSR each year. ``I like the Russians,'' he had said; ``I get on fine with them. They really can laugh at themselves ... But you know,'' he said, ``I tell 'em. I tell 'em: You guys here simply have not got your act together.''

Eventually the waiter did capitulate - perhaps he sensed something dangerous or unpredictable in the mood at our table - and the two of us paid by credit card.

My final meal, courtesy of the Waiters Brigade, was lunch, three days later, just before I was to head for the airport.

I had time to spare, and had handed in my room key. I had also used up all my rubles: You can't take them out of the country. By now, getting into the restaurant was not a problem.

I had at last discovered a card in my pocket that the reception desk had given me on arrival. It was my passport to the restaurant. Why had no one explained this to me? There was, however, a Swiss man who was having some difficulty getting in. He said, ``But the restaurant is half empty.'' The waiter replied: ``But you are not staying in the hotel. So you can't eat here.'' ``Why?'' asked the man. ``Why?'' echoed the waiter, incredulous. ``Yes,'' said the man, ``WHY?'' The waiter was stunned. Nobody had asked that before. He was speechless. But I noticed that the man was ushered to a table just after I was.

At the end of the meal, however, I once again found myself confronted by a furious waiter who didn't like credit cards.

After a fair bit of stomping back and forth and consultation, however, that problem was once again solved and I walked with a sigh of relief out of the restaurant.

I went to the restroom. Nobody barred the way, but there was a man in an office with a glazed window to one side, and after I'd washed my hands, he suddenly whistled at me. I turned, and he shoved a clean, dry hand towel into my hands. I wiped them. He then shifted his heap of clean towels to reveal the coin left by the last visitor. Was it a clandestine tip, or an official fee?

``I'm sorry, I can't!'' I said, ``No rubles!'' I said. Remember Khrushchev? - It was Khrushchev all over again. Only worse. His face went red. And then purple. It was a frightening performance.

``BUT!'' I said, clutching at straws, ``I can give you, if you would like it, this!''

The pen I proffered was bright orange and green plastic, a fine fiber tip model, made in Japan. I had not found any opportunity on my trip to give out any of the post cards or pens. I really couldn't imagine anyone's wanting them. But the effect now was magical. Fury changed to eagerness. He beckoned the pen toward him. He looked at it greedily. I gave him another. And two post cards of Scottish castles. ``Ah, Shotland!'' he said.

HE opened a drawer in his desk and placed his booty in it quickly. He was instantly my greatest friend on earth. ``Thank you, yes, thank you,'' he said, all smiles and international goodwill.

Thinking about it later I realized that it had probably been the most expensive drying of hands ever. At the time, however, I felt I'd been let off lightly. And next time I go to Moscow, I'm going to try post cards on the waiters, too.

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