Back Then, You Brought Your Own Sponge

Last week my husband and I quietly celebrated five years of living in Russia. I say "quietly" because no champagne corks were popped, nor did we spend even a moment reminiscing. Life here moves forward quickly, and if you stop to think about all that has happened in Russia in five short years, it is pretty overwhelming. In fact, it seems more like a century than a mere half decade.


Comparing life in Russia today with "the way it used to be" is a common theme in this column, but on my fifth anniversary as a Muscovite, I just cannot help but reminisce about my first day.


It was January 1990, back when you could ride anywhere for a pack of Marlboros and count the number of Mercedes in town on one hand. We landed in Moscow with 12 bags stuffed with everything imaginable, from breakfast cereal to sponges to fuzzy car seat covers for a Russian friend. We had been in the Soviet Union several times as students and knew to come prepared.


Of course, it only makes sense to come prepared if you're not going to forget your luggage at the airport, which is what I did. In the rush and confusion outside the airport, we managed to miss putting one of our herd of bags into the car.


But Sheremetyevo II then was not the den of thieves it is today. I raced all the way back to the airport from the city and retrieved my huge duffel for a 10-ruble finder's fee from a policeman who had spotted it on the curb.


Then it was off to the only Western-style hotel in town, the Mezh (International Trade Center), where I was stopped at the entrance by a sour-faced guard.


"Propusk," he demanded. Then he looked at my husband next to me. "She with you?" he asked, and stepped aside to let me by.


This was ridiculous. I had seen these doormen stop women in slinky black dresses as they tried to screen for prostitutes, but here I was a haggard traveler in jeans and a ski jacket.


Passing by a lobby full of vinyl-coated thugs pretending to read newspapers (yes, the KGB), we settled into the little suite we would call home for eight months. Like many other foreigners, we were on a waiting list to get an apartment, and until we did, we would eat off a little stove and wash our clothes in the bathtub.


We went foraging for food and to call Russian friends from a discreet phone booth away from our bugged hotel phone. We got a loaf of bread for 25 kopeks, then took the metro to one of the city's first new foreign supermarkets. The shelves were bare.


We finally got some food at Stockmann, although we were embarrassed by the stares we got from Russian passersby as we emerged with our bags.


Later we hopped the metro to Pushkin Square to see the city's newest attraction -- the McDonald's that was to open later that month. Peering into the lighted windows, we saw fresh young faces at the cash registers taking orders across the counter from their managers. It looked like intense training. I figured such a picture of perfection could not last.


"I give this place six months before they're down to sosiski (hot dogs) and muddy coffee," I loudly proclaimed.


Who could have guessed back then that, five years later, we would still be enjoying Big Macs -- although no longer for just three rubles?