It is August of 1993 and I am thirteen years old. I come to Moscow for a month on a school exchange program, and my host meets me at the airport with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks. Her family has a car, which is rare, and a vast four-room apartment, which is equally rare. There is no elevator, and we walk up slippery dark stairs to the cozy warmth of their high-ceilinged flat. Tanya is nearly fluent in English, as is her father, an executive at Aeroflot, the Russian airline. They have lived abroad. They have a vast collection of movies on tape, which is unheard-of. Tanya’s mother is a wonderful cook who serves a full breakfast and multi-course lunches and dinners, which always end with homemade fruit Jell-o. One day at lunch I absently eat all the olives, which are hard to come by in those days, and Tanya scolds me for my greediness.
In restaurants, everywhere the food is the same: tomato-and-cucumber salad, black bread and butter, unidentifiable meat with fried potatoes or rice, watery soups, and ice cream. My fellow students and I are perplexed by the tiny triangular one-ply paper napkins, the lack of ice, and the breakfast juice which is orange in color but not exactly in flavor, served in tiny glasses that we downed in one swallow. We buy Fanta or Coke in glass bottles at streetside kiosks, or ice-cream bars. The Mars ice cream bar is a thing of wonder. We go to the recently opened MacDonalds, bigger than any MacDonalds I have ever seen, and eat Big Macs, which I never have at home. One afternoon we head out to Gorky Park and buy shashlik from a man with a primitive little barbecue stand and go on all the amusement park rides. The roller-coaster cars have seatbelts like the ones on airplanes but no other restraints.
One weekend we head out to Vladimir and Suzdal, and see the beautiful white Church of the Intercession, which rises from a riverbank surrounded by lush, green fields. In a restaurant filled with wood paneling our teachers and some of the older students drink a roughly pleasant Georgian wine, which I am allowed to sip. Another weekend we take the night-train to St. Petersburg and stay in a grim Soviet-era hotel with bare rooms and dim lightbulbs and a cockroach in the bathroom. In the lobby we encounter a very, very drunk Finnish man, the drunkest man I’ve ever seen. It is cheap to take a train or ferry to St. Petersburg from Finland, and cheap to drink yourself into a stupor.
In the palaces we wear felt slippers over our sneakers, which make it fun to slide around on the parquet floors. At the museums we see groups of schoolchildren quietly sitting on the floor as their teachers tell them about the paintings. I haven’t learned any Russian, but I can puzzle out a few words here and there. This does not help much when I get lost on the metro, when everyone else gets out and I get left behind. Tanya is in tears by the time they find me at the next stop. The metro stations are like underground palaces, dimly lit and elaborate with marble and gilt and tile. The escalators seem endless, even though they are very, very fast.
The golden month slips by, and we return home. A few weeks later there is an attempted political coup against Boris Yeltsin, who retaliates by dissolving his government. I turn to the news and see that the Russian White House is in flames. Only weeks before I had driven by that same White House. Some time later I get a letter from Tanya. “Everything is as it was before…I suppose we will know the truth of what happened only after a hundred years…”