A man in a ski jacket like mine was waiting for me at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. He told me his name was Iouli Matstitski, and that he was in charge of the Moscow office of IBV Bed and Breakfast Systems. That was the company I contacted when I brashly decided that for my first trip to the Soviet Union, there would be no tour group--no insulated, bland, overpriced hotel filled with Yankee accents. I was going to dive right in and live with the folks we considered the enemy not that long ago: Soviet families.
From my vantage point in Marina del Rey two weeks before departure, things were going almost too well. The Washington, D.C.-area company claimed to be one of the few in the United States to offer just what I was looking for: reasonably priced home-stays with hand-picked families in Moscow and Leningrad who spoke English. Visas and transfers were included. They promised the best of both worlds--independence by day, the warmth of an adoptive family by night.
I was told not to worry. The Cold War really was over.
But as I reviewed my situation on the 14-hour flight to Moscow last October, I realized I was more than a little scared.
Once at the airport, I would be looking for someone I had never laid eyes on, and who might or might not show up. You could count the number of Russian words I knew on one hand with fingers to spare. And even though I'd paid my $75 per night in advance to IBV, I had no idea the names or addresses of the families I was to stay with, except that they were "professional people" who could afford the luxury of a guest bedroom. Even so, I had been warned, with all the shortages there, not to flaunt my relative wealth--and to pack toilet paper. The travel company to which I had entrusted my nine days in the Soviet Union had only been in business for five months at the time and were, in their words, still ironing out the kinks.
My right brain issued an opinion: If I had any smarts, I'd be heading to Cabo San Lucas, where I could wear and say anything I darn well pleased . . . and not have to worry about toilet paper.
Luckily, Iouli (pronounced (YOU-lee) whooshed me through Customs before I had a chance to really get worried about the Marlboros, pantyhose and other Sav-On goodies I'd bought as gifts and bartering tools.
As his Toyota sedan ambled toward Moscow, I relaxed for the first time in almost 24 hours. I was too jet-lagged to worry about who I was staying with; I'd find out soon enough. The highway could have been anywhere in Southern California, except that most of the cars were Ladas, a bulky Soviet make. Even with my ski jacket, I was glad the car heater was working that late fall afternoon.
As it turned out, Iouli was a well-traveled mathematician who had decided to cash in on perestroika , the reforms that allowed, among other things, private enterprise. "I thought, they have had bed and breakfast all over the world," he explained in surprisingly good English. "Why shouldn't we have it here?"
Iouli's car reeked of stale cigarette smoke. That was fine with me--it was a sign that I was really going to get to know the people, warts and all.
After a fleeting glimpse of the Kremlin and downtown Moscow from the car window, we headed for the suburbs on Prospekt Proletarskaya (Proletariat Avenue), one of the main thoroughfares through Moscow. There were no detached houses that I could see, just miles and miles of identical apartment buildings that looked like housing projects, but without graffiti. I would be living in one of those apartments for the next few days.
Two women with thousand-watt smiles answered the bell next to the modern elevator on an upper floor. They lived near the Orekhovo subway stop, about seven miles southeast of Moscow center, in an apartment building that looked like all the others I'd seen. The three-bedroom apartment was toasty and reeked of home-cooked smells.
Although I had paid for bed and breakfast only, the table in the tiny kitchen was set for dinner, enough for an army: broiled chicken, fried potatoes, salad, bread and butter and, for dessert, chocolates and strawberry compote.
Obviously, Jenny Craig was unknown in this part of the world. And, though I had asked to stay with families who didn't smoke, the request apparently had fallen on deaf ears. Everyone lit up. My adoptive family consisted of Ludmilla Sepelkova and her daughter Natalie. Ludmilla looked the epitome of Mom in her apron. Wholesome, but hardly a dowdy Russian stereotype. With her pageboy hair and eyeliner, she could almost have passed for a sister to her 39-year-old daughter.
Natalie looked a bit like Meryl Streep. She was the one who supposedly spoke English. But when I tried to tell her she resembled the actress, the only word she picked up on was "cinema." She told me, in fits and starts, that she'd been studying English, once a week, for seven months.
I worried about how we were going to communicate, but couldn't bring myself to say anything to Iouli. He was too busy toasting my arrival. We lifted glasses of Georgian wodka . I, who might possibly have a glass of wine once a year, tried to bolt it down with the others, but choked. That got a big laugh.
With Iouli's help, I found out that Ludmilla was an artist who had worked for the government but was now retired. Natalie designed shoes in a government factory.
Iouli left. I was on my own.
The frilly bedroom in the L-shaped apartment was all mine, and it looked as though I'd been given the best room in the house. The one bathroom I shared was a lot more pleasant than some I'd seen apartment-hunting at home. So what if the shower was a hose that hooked on the wall, and the same faucet swung from the bathtub to the sink? It was stocked with all kinds of luxuries--from egg shampoo to Polly Bergen eye shadow, fancier than the gifts I had packed. The toilet, as in much of the world, was a separate room. And there was toilet paper. Scratchy scraps, but it was there.
The portable TV in my room didn't seem to work, but who cared? I sank thankfully into the single bed with the satin quilt, feeling like Scarlett O'Hara. I'd worry about being galaxies away from L.A. tomorrow. "Mom" fussed with the space heater, making sure I was warm enough.
Next day, I--the grandchild of Russian immigrants--was aching to see the Kremlin. I expected a little breakfast and some basic tips on Moscow's transit system.
But Natalie wouldn't hear of me traveling around Moscow by myself. In her sputtering English, she told me she'd taken off work and would go with me anywhere I wanted. That, after plying me with breakfast: instant coffee from Brazil, sausage from Finland, bread and jam, a box of chocolates--and a Russian lesson. I was touched by her patience, as she rattled off the Russian words for everything on the kitchen table. In turn, I tried to teach her to say you're welcome after thank you . She got out the Russian-English dictionary. We giggled like kids trying to speak each other's language.
It was a start.
Out on the street, it was just another manic Monday. People were streaming out of their high-rises to start the hour's journey to work downtown. Snowflakes danced in the air. There were plenty of cars glutting the streets, but more people were headed for the bus that would take them to the subway. Hard to blame them: At about $1 for the round-trip bus and subway ride to downtown Moscow, it was a bargain, and the Moscow subways are extensive.
Inside the immaculately clean car, hardly anyone smiled, but I was bombarded by stares and soon figured out why: I was the only woman in the subway car wearing jeans and running shoes.
I've navigated subways from New York to Hong Kong, but I don't know what I would have done without Natalie. The Russian Cyrillic alphabet looked like hieroglyphics. It was exceedingly difficult, on a moving train, to match the words on a subway schedule with the loudspeaker announcements and signs at subway stops.
We got off at the Prospekt Marxa stop, and took the escalator to street level, near the Kremlin and Red Square. I kept blinking to make sure that was really a hammer and sickle waving in the wind atop the Palace of Congresses, where the party meets. A police officer let me take his picture, but he didn't smile.
I couldn't put the camera down. There were the onion-shaped domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, just as it looked on the news, and the Cathedral of the Annunciation, another Russian Orthodox cathedral where the Czar once worshiped. And leaves changing color. A real autumn day.
I'd heard so much about G.U.M., the department store almost as famous as Neiman Marcus, that I couldn't wait to get there. I almost pulled Natalie across the street, only to be stopped in my tracks by a sign in one of the store windows: United Colours of Benetton. Was I really back in Westwood?
Natalie didn't shop at the Benetton store, one of many that sublet space inside G.U.M. "Expensive," she explained. (I later learned that in addition to designing shoes, she made most of her own clothes, including a spangled wool coat that almost looked Rodeo Drive.)
Inside, G.U.M. was a far cry from Westwood. The store consisted of many stalls on several floors but except for Benetton, the word trendy did not apply. The stalls were so mobbed with people I got claustrophobic, but Natalie expertly steered me through the herd. If she minded battling with this crowd on her day off, she didn't show it.
I wanted a watch. But so, it seemed, did everyone else.
What was available--and it wasn't much--was displayed before you got in line. That's where you made your decision and hoped they weren't sold out when you got to the head of the line. They were. Frustration almost gave way to a tantrum over something I had no control over--the Soviet way of doing things.
Natalie patiently led me to a bus that took us to an open-air market across town. She smoked while I haggled for souvenirs.
Back in the subway, I offered to buy Natalie a cup of tea at what was supposed to be the hippest spot in town, the McDonald's in Pushkin Square, about a mile from G.U.M. It was like waiting to get into the Hard Rock Cafe, but I didn't mind; I needed a little taste of home at that point. We took a look. Natalie politely declined the tea, saying she could have tea at home, with bread and homemade jam to boot.
On the way home we stopped at a modern supermarket. There were U.S.-style labels for meat, produce and dairy on the aisles and cases, but except for some bread and salt, the shelves were bare and the line was long to pay for what little there was.
Outside, a woman was selling produce. She looked as forlorn as her bedraggled vegetables. But when she heard I was an American her face lit up, and she threw in some extra carrots.
Dinner was chicken again--much more satisfying than McDonald's, seasoned with lots of laughter and chatter. The Russian-English dictionary was close by.
With all the bare supermarkets, I had to know: Where was our food coming from?
Some amused looks, and then Ludmilla confessed: "Black market."
That unleashed talk so frank, I couldn't believe my ears. The pages in the dictionary were fairly flying. "Gorbachev and Raisa drink water from France," Ludmilla grumbled, while the rest of the population has to face the threat of starvation. She blamed that on the "Russian Mafia"--a privileged few who, she claimed, controlled food distribution.
But she and Natalie had nothing but praise for Russian leader Boris Yeltsin. He seemed to care about the common folk, and Gorbachev didn't, they said. The topic shifted. Both women were divorced: Natalie had a boyfriend in Georgia, a three-hour plane ride away. We commiserated about long-distance relationships.
After two days it was time to go on to Leningrad and my next family. I was reluctant; I was getting used to sitting around the kitchen table with these people who laughed so easily.
They invited me back before I left. I said I'd try.
The train to Leningrad left at midnight. Iouli picked me up and took me to the depot in downtown Moscow. I tried to fight off my renewed fear of the unknown.
The first-class sleeper was a popular way to get from Moscow to Leningrad. At $50 round trip, it was about the same price as flying, but was said to be more reliable than the domestic airlines.
It wasn't much different than Amtrak, but my toilet paper came in handy after all: There was none in the bathroom.
Breakfast, served at the end of the eight-hour trip, was tea in tall glasses. I woke to the sound of news on the radio (deduced from the announcer's somber tone and the words "George Bush"). That was followed by the Eurythmics singing "Winter Wonderland," as the train wound through forests spattered with traces of an earlier snowfall.
At the Leningrad station, a beefy, ruddy-faced man was waiting for me. His name was Sergei Rusinov, a former Olympic swimmer who was IBV's representative there. He was 31, with a family of four. I would be staying at their apartment.
It was colder in Leningrad, no surprise considering that the city founded by Peter the Great is 400 miles northwest of Moscow, on the same latitude as Finland.
Sergei's Lada (with the radio hidden in the glove compartment to discourage thieves) headed toward housing projects identical to Moscow's, but this time the neighborhood was near Prospekt Bolshevikov, the street named for the Communists who masterminded the revolution. I was starting to feel like just another comrade.
Sergei's wife Svetlana--Svetta for short--offered breakfast and a big smile. She, a swimming coach, and her husband looked like Olympians, the kind you see on TV. They had a 3-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter, who was away at boarding school. I was staying in her room. The Rusinovs' taste in furniture ran more modern, but the apartment was about the same as the Sepelkovas'. The bathroom had a washing machine. Where they found Prell shampoo, I'll never know.
Breakfast was interrupted many times by the antics of Sasha Alexander, who, like any other 3-year-old, was interested in everything but eating. Their mutt Darik ( gift in Russian) looked hopefully at me while they yelled at him to get away from the dining-room table. The TV blared a Jane Fonda workout dubbed in Russian.
I was relieved to discover Sergei was fairly fluent in English. He admitted that as an Olympic-caliber swimmer he'd had an easy life. Swim meets took him all over the world--even to Mission Viejo, Calif., where he was dazzled by the quality of life and the freedom of choice. He even thought about trying to move to the States, but kept his thoughts to himself.
Now people are much more outspoken, but with Gorbachev trying to change the economy over to private enterprise, things are happening too quickly, Sergei believes. Svetta explained that there are many, like her mother, who long for the days of Stalin. She said there have always been lines for things, but no one could remember when things were as bad as now.
Sergei said that even with things so uncertain, he and Svetta are committed to staying where they are: "Who am I in America? Here, many people know me."
He gave up swimming full time to get in on the home-stay opportunity, which he thought had more of a financial future.
In the past year, up to 30 families in Leningrad have opened their homes to visitors, according to IBV. However, Sergei (whom I learned recently is no longer associated with the company) said that it's tough because with the food shortages, many people have a hard time feeding their own, let alone anyone else.
I got to see all the sights I'd dreamed of. But I was much more entranced by reality: I was smitten by the friendliness and candor of the people.
I did make it back to Ludmilla's apartment in Moscow. But this was one time I felt the travel company's growing pains. Someone was supposed to meet me at the Moscow train station. I waited and waited, frantic because I had only a few hours before I was to catch the plane back to London and LAX. Finally, I decided to take the subway. What should have been a half-hour trip turned into two hours.
I was almost screaming by the time I got there. But I melted when I saw Natalie outside, waiting for me. Then I found out the driver who was supposed to pick me up had gotten into a traffic accident.
Natalie didn't have to accompany me to the airport, but she did. I told her she should take her designing expertise to America. She smiled, and we hugged a long time.
I found myself worrying about her future, and the futures of all the people I'd met, and I vowed never to take my own lifestyle for granted again.
On Sharing a Soviet Home
How can you tell if a Soviet home-stay would be your cup of tea?
The following tips are based on common complaints received by guests and hosts affiliated with IBV Bed and Breakfast Systems:
--Communism is supposed to be egalitarian, but many Soviets are class-conscious people. Your host may take offense, for example, at the assumption that he or she is supposed to carry your luggage. Ditto for services at home. You may be paying good money, but it's not a hotel. They're also not obliged to make your bed or do your laundry. That doesn't mean they won't offer, but you should never assume.
--With the exception of a few places in the Baltics and Central Asia, all host families live in apartments, not houses. Though the rooms are comfortable, there is less space than in a home and that means less privacy. Some hosts, in their eagerness to please, may seem overbearing.
--On the other hand, don't expect your hosts to be at your beck and call, and don't expect them to take you around. Many hosts are shy, and will not let on that they think you're taking up too much of their time.
--Be prepared for the unexpected, such as cars and plumbing breaking down, and take it with good humor. Soviets are used to hardships. If, for example, a bathroom sink were broken, it would probably not occur to a host family not to take in guests. They would find another way to wash, and would expect a guest to, also.
--You may be lodged with a family that claims to speak English, when in fact it is spoken by only one person, who may be the breadwinner--and thus away at work all day.
At Home in the Soviet Union
Getting there: If you prefer or need to make your own arrangements: British Airways, Pan Am (although Delta will take over this route in the fall) and Aeroflot all fly from Los Angeles to Moscow via London or New York. KLM flies from Los Angeles through Amsterdam to Moscow; Lufthansa through Frankfurt to Moscow; SAS through Stockholm or Copenhagen to Moscow; Finnair flies through Helsinki (but this route will be discontinued in late October). Round-trip advance-purchase prices range from about $1,500 to $1,700.
The Soviet airline, Aeroflot, now has service between San Francisco and Moscow, the first time there have been direct flights across the Pacific. Flights depart every Sunday, stopping in Anchorage and Khabarovsk, Siberia. The trip takes 12 hours--slightly less time than it takes to go via the East Coast and Europe--but industry sources advise that service is inferior to U.S. and European airlines. Round-trip price is about $1,500. Arranging home-stays: Below is a partial list of firms that offer home-stays. Prices are approximate and generally include transfers within the Soviet Union. Most agencies will make airline arrangements and secure visas. To get what you want, ask questions and shop around.
* IBV Bed and Breakfast Systems, 13113 Ideal Drive, Silver Spring, Md. 20906, telephone (800) 727-8472.
The company I traveled with last year has since expanded, with participating families stretching across the Soviet Union into Siberia. Prices are $75-$85 a day for bed and breakfast and transfers. Other meals can be arranged.
* Cultural Access Network/Traveling Shoes, P.O. Box 4410, Laguna Beach 92653, (714) 497-6773.
Usual trips are two weeks, at a cost of about $1,400. Also provides rooms and meals on a daily basis, at $75 a day. Focus is on special interest and business groups.
* American-Soviet Homestays, RR 1, Box 68, Iowa City, Iowa 52240, (800) 876-2048.
Wide-ranging network, stretching to Central Asia. Also specializes in matching interests and occupations. Asks that shortest time for home-stay be three days at $150 per day, including meals. Requests that hosts take off work to show guests around.
* International Bed and Breakfast, 1010 Arthur Ave., Huntington Valley, Pa. 19006, (800) 422-5283
Husband-and-wife operation, with an impressive network of contacts, stretching to Siberia. Strictly bed and breakfast for $60 a day; you're on your own after that. Will help with visa, but airline arrangements are up to you.
For more information: The Intourist Travel Information Office, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 868, New York 10111, (212) 757-3884. For updates on travel safety in the Soviet Union, contact the U.S. State Department travel advisory line at (202) 647-5225.