How to Please Your Moscow Hosts
Gifts of nylons and coffee are welcome - but beware the misstep our writer made with soap. TRAVEL: SOVIET UNION
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After Masha's feeding, her mother, Olya, held her naked over a plastic tub so that, to put it delicately, the first diaper would not be ready for the wastebasket quite so quickly. But Masha didn't oblige, and when she began to shiver, Olya gave up and sacrificed the first of the diapers. Those 88 diapers lasted three months, used only for certain occasions, like going visiting.Skip to next paragraph
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Of course, among Moscow's elite, disposables aren't a luxury - they're a necessity. But when you're a famous newspaper columnist, for example, you simply can't be seen walking out of a hard-currency shop with one of those big pink boxes. ``Would you be so kind, Miss Feldmann...?'' comes the inevitable request.
For another layer of society, styrofoam McDonald's boxes have become de rigueur. At the local farmers' market, seedlings are sold in them. And for Moscow's multitude of visitors from other cities, a visit to the Golden Arches on Gorky Street is essential - which makes the line there, now down to 1 1/2 hours, an easy spot for journalists to sample a cross-section of national opinion on the issue of the day. Big Macs toted to Tashkent
It seems, also, that McDonald's has become a required item to bring to the folks back home. A few months ago, a colleague noticed an Uzbek peasant carrying a large shopping bag laden with Big Macs as she got off the plane in Tashkent, a four-hour flight from Moscow.
Aside from its natural attraction as an island of American culture in the heart of Moscow, McDonald's is unique in another way: It is the only place here where you can buy something for rubles and be guaranteed polite service.
Soviet friends who have made the pilgrimage have been most impressed not by the food, but by the efficiency and some rarely heard expressions - ``please'' and ``thank you,'' accompanied by a smile. Bread for 2 1/2 cents a loaf
One of the ironies of perestroika is that, as its economic dislocations have made life harder for the average Soviet, life for foreigners has gotten easier. The advent last year of two well-stocked, foreign-run, hard-currency stores has meant the end of monthly orders to Helsinki for just about everything from toiletries to cereal to frozen vegetables.
The Soviet government has long had two hard-currency grocery stores of its own, but their selection is less than adequate, with an emphasis on booze and candy. Soviet milk spoils instantly. Soviet chicken can be tough.
Still, grocery shopping in stores for ``white'' people - Soviet slang, apartheid-esque nuance intentional - makes me uncomfortable. So I try to buy as much for rubles as I can.
Bread is easy - still 16 kopeks a loaf (about 2 1/2 cents, at the official exchange rate), and readily available. The nearby farmers' market is colorful, fragrant, and abundant with certain types of fruit and vegetables.
Meat and milk products are sold in separate outbuildings. Meat and tomatoes are both going for about 15 rubles per kilo now, but prices fluctuate wildly depending on the day of the week, the time of day, and the nationality of the shopper.
None of this is to say that Soviet-American friendships these days are based purely on material considerations. In fact, with Soviet fear of associating with foreigners on the decline, it's much easier to get to know people here than it used to be - and therefore make friendships that aren't simply, as one wag put it, ``mutual exploitation societies.''
Come to think of it, my best friends never ask me for anything.
Maybe they could use some laundry soap. Stockmann's just got in a shipment....