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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When the Entire World Slips Out of Your Hands

One of my key functions when I was a student back in the days of the Soviet Empire was to answer endless questions from Russians about life in the West. Does everyone have a swimming pool? How big is your mansion? Are there speed limits? They had, after all, logically deduced that since America is a free country, there could not possibly be any speed limits. No matter how hard I tried to paint an accurate picture, they were convinced Americans strolled streets of gold without a care in the world.


Naturally, these questions became tiresome after a while. But I sympathized with my Russian friends who were so isolated from the outside world. I watched them spend hours poring over Americana calendars or recycled fashion magazines that foreigners had left behind, oohing and ahhing over each tantalizing, glossy page. My photographs from home were also a big hit. My friends would look right past my smiling relatives to examine the food processor, the decorations on the Christmas tree, the Volvo parked in the driveway.


These memories came flooding back to me not long ago while I was making dinner for a kompaniya of friends I hadn't seen in a while. The conversation had turned to travel.


Vanya and Lena had just gotten back from Malta and were already planning their next trip to Austria. Natasha, still glowing from her week in Spain, was about to deepen her tan in Egypt and Israel, and Alla and Vitya were wondering what to pack for Thailand. Apparently they'll need a completely different wardrobe than the one they packed for the Himalayas.


"I went to Kizhi," I added meekly, trying to work my way into the conversation. My friends are nothing if not polite. They bubbled supportively about my trip to the north, inquiring about the comfort of the train, the beauty of the countryside, my taste for adventure. For all their enthusiasm, I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable, as if I had suddenly become an object of pity for being stuck here in Moscow. I don't really mind. At least I get to enjoy their trips through the eye of their Betacams.


Whenever people back home ask that inevitable question, "How are things in Russia?" I always point to my friends. They are my barometer of change. After all, they do not belong to that new breed of Russians who never go anywhere without a mobile phone and several thousand dollars. They don't wear track suits and drive Mercedes. Neither are they begging in the streets or collecting bottles from trash cans. These are my friends. Doctors, scientists, artists, journalists -- normal people with normal lives.


I have seen them in the bad times when their monthly salaries barely covered the cost of food. These are the same people whose birthday banquets grew more humble after prices were liberalized in 1992. Suddenly costly kilos of sugar became bely yad (white poison), and de facto vegetarianism was de rigueur. These are also the people who would break into their winter supply of vitamini for the unexpected visitor, treating their guests to the homemade jam they had spent the better part of August canning. It seems we couldn't get through an evening without hearing something like, "I remember when ice cream bars were only 17 kopeks."


Whenever the subject of travel would come up, I would discreetly knock a few countries off the list of places I'd seen. The shoe is on the other foot now. I don't really remember when this happened. At some point we went from discussing the price of kolbasa to perusing their photographs of the Mediterranean.


If back then you had told them they would be world travelers in just two years' time, they would have considered it a cruel joke. But it's not a joke, and the stamps in their red passports can prove it -- the same passports that kept them locked inside this country for so many years. Now it is my turn to welcome them back and to listen to the stories of their adventures. And this has turned out to be a fascinating lesson, as many of their comments took me completely by surprise.


Take Vanya and Lena, the ones who just got back from a week in Malta. The beaches are rocky -- they tell me -- the food inedible, and the country generally unsuited for vacationers. I only hope Austria fares a little better in their eyes.


Even more amusing was Olga's critique of her recent bus tour of Europe, which took her through Poland, Germany, Belgium and France. Poland and Germany didn't fare too badly. She whizzed through in a blur. Her senses didn't wake up until she got to Brussels, the city where some of my Western friends vow to have eaten the best meal of their lives. Olga had very little to say about the food, however. She was more impressed -- and not favorably so -- by the unsavory character of the patrons populating the local cafes. She opted instead to buy sandwiches and eat in the streets of a city she dubbed "the last place in the world anyone would ever want to visit."


The next stop was Paris. Paris. The city Olga has dreamed of seeing for as long as I've known her. She finally got her wish. But it was not the Paris of her dreams. It did inspire her to express all sorts of superlatives, but they were not the kind she had anticipated. The women were plain, caking themselves with make-up, and the men were downright ugly. The only lasting impression the Louvre gave her was a headache. The Eiffel Tower is a monstrosity, and the Georges Pompidou Center the ugliest building ever constructed. And oh, yes: the night life. Apparently the sidewalks rolled up at 10 P.M. (At that point I started to wonder if she hadn't, by mistake, gone to some other Paris.)


And that's not all. The people are humorless and rude, pushing and shoving at every turn. No one apologizes. No one smiles. And the drivers -- you had better check your organ donor card before crossing the street. This Paris she visited was starting to sound a lot like Moscow.


"I kept wondering what was wrong with me -- what I was missing," she told me, truly baffled that the city of her dreams left her cold. After three days, all she could think about was getting home to Moscow.


I knew what was wrong. After dreaming of Paris for years, Olga was anticipating the fantasy world she had created from glossy magazines and Alain Delon movies. Who wouldn't be disenchanted?


My Russian friends may no longer be trapped by their red passports, but it will take time to deflate their expectations. In the meantime, Mother Russia is always waiting for the weary -- and disappointed -- traveler.


The other day I visited my friend Anya to welcome her back from Italy. She greeted me as she always does, with tea and jam. Only the jam wasn't homemade -- it was some imported brand. Anya just doesn't have time to make jam anymore. I miss her jam.