Moscow on the Charles? A Soviet views Boston

Yelena Hanga is a Soviet journalist visiting on an exchange program.

Until only a month ago, whenever I heard the words ``United States'' my mind would be filled with images. ...

Of glistening skyscrapers made of glass and concrete.

Of cars rushing at high speed along wide highways.

Of people hurrying about their business, their faces expressionless as they focus on their own concerns.

Of a mysterious night life, with blinding neon lights and police cars chasing robbers.

There were many other stereotypes I had acquired from American films and the Soviet press.

But Boston defied all my expectations. It is a quiet European city, built up tightly, with two- and three-story houses with neat little lawns. Along the narrow streets, streams of cars flow unhurriedly. To my surprise, drivers are eager to be polite, willing to let pedestrians cross. Bostonians, unlike Muscovites, are used to such gallant treatment. They often ignore the rules of safety and don't think twice about crossing the street in the most ill-advised places.

There's one more ``king of the road'' whose maneuvers police ignore: the bicycle messengers. I gasp when they weave among cars during rush hour and go right through red lights. I had never seen this type of messenger before.

City people have turned out to be surprisingly warm. ``Welcome to the USA,'' everyone says. When the hairdressers I went to, called ``La Parisienne Academie Inc.,'' found out that I'm a Soviet, they wouldn't let me pay for my haircut.

It is pleasant to walk among such open people, so generous with their smiles, saying hello even to strangers. My stereotypes were so wrong, I thought.

But soon I realized I was too quick with conclusions. One evening the doorbell rang, and there I saw a nice-looking man of about 25. With a pleasant smile, he said he had brought me money from work, pulled the money out of his pocket, and asked me to open the door. If I hadn't just that morning received my salary, I might have believed him. But I didn't, and politely refused. His smile vanished. He tried to force the door open. Just in time, the owner of the house arrived and scared the man off. I hope this episode was an exception to the rule.

Speaking of rules. ...

I remember how on my first day here I got lost on my way to work. A young man showed me the way, and when he found out that I'm a Soviet journalist, he peppered me with questions about the Soviet Union. ``I'm afraid I know very little about your country,'' he admitted when he said goodbye.

In this case, the young man was not an exception to the rule. I am convinced that Americans know much less about the Soviet Union than we know about America. Average Americans limit themselves just to reading the press, which is not always accurate or objective. Soviet people dig for knowledge not only from the Soviet and American mass media, but also from literature.

At home, people love to set up their own libraries. One very often sees volumes of Dreiser, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald on people's shelves. Children's literary heroes are Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Many study English and try to read modern works in the original. In the homes I've been in in Boston and Washington, I have not come across any books by our authors. Of course, I'm not talking about Russian language students or Sovietologists.

It is said that America is a nation of unlimited possibilities, and that if you want, you can find practically any literary work or piece of information here - but only if you want to. It seems to me that here there is less interest in what's happening beyond the borders of the country. Fewer people study foreign languages than in the Soviet Union. Maybe here they don't see the need, since so much of the world speaks English.

I have also been struck by American pride. I had said in my interview with the Boston Globe that I would like to hear jazz and visit black churches. As a result, on my first day at The Christian Science Monitor, I got a call from a person inviting me to visit an Afro-American Baptist church in Valley Forge, Pa.

I also got a letter from a man named Leonard Murray, which began with the words: ``Yes, the United States has a wonderful musical heritage.'' He continued with a huge list of radio stations and times when I could hear good jazz. ``I love real American music!'' he ended his letter. I was quite touched. Some things have surprised me greatly. For example, when I visited Plymouth, Mass., I noticed flags - both national and state - flying from many homes. In the Soviet Union, stores don't sell government flags and, what's more, flags are hung only on big holidays.

What has caught my eye the most has been the appearance of young Americans. America is full of top-quality clothes, and if you have the money, you can buy to your heart's content. In contrast with fashionable Boston women, Moscow's fashion plates must go hither and yon to acquire nice things.

But there's a paradox: Young Moscow women pay more attention to their everyday clothing than do their Boston sisters. Here, I often see that women wear a dress and sneakers. Of course, it's more comfortable to walk that way (and what's more, one can change shoes at the office). But a Moscow woman, true to style, does not allow herself such an indulgence, even in rainy weather.

Fashion is at first always shocking. I experienced this one cold evening when I saw some nice girls in torn jeans. In all my innocence, I thought they didn't have money for new ones.

Don't be surprised that I take this so seriously. I'm just afraid, because after several years your fashion can reach our youth. And I will be forced to tear my favorite slacks, so as not to seem old-fashioned.

Hanga's story

Yelena Hanga works for the Soviet weekly Moscow News. She is one of two reporters in the United States on a journalistic exchange arranged by the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. Two reporters - one from the Berkshire Eagle, one from the Monitor - went to Moscow News earlier this year. Miss Hanga's mother is the daughter of two Americans - a black and a white - who emigrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Her mother married a minister in the Tanzanian government. Lena was born and raised in Moscow.

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