MOSCOW — 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 \o7 perestroika\f7 , 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.