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An hour later, I awoke, sick again. I woke up every hour, each time hoping the train had reached Moscow; each time quite sick. I ran to the closer, pitchdark bathroom to throw up. Sometimes I didn’t make it.

Finally, at 4:30 in the morning, we arrived in Moscow. I staggered back to my room at the institute, untied my vomit-saturated shoelaces, pulled off my vomit-stained shoes and jeans, swallowed two of the lovely green pills my doctor back home had had the wisdom to give me, crawled into bed, lay my head on the large pillow, and slept.

‘Everything is better in America, right?’

Naturally such an experience made me appreciate the comforts of my home country. And I found that many Russians still know little about what life is like in the West; many simply cannot imagine a life as comfortable and easy as we have it here.

One young teacher’s aide, just out of college, asked me, “In America, can the average worker afford to have his own apartment?” When I answered that most working people have their own places (though I didn’t mention they rented them), she said, “You have it all. I’d give a lot to have my own place.”

Most people in Russia don’t have a lot, materially speaking. Like Vova, who didn’t discard his tattered old playing cards when he received a new deck, people in Russia possess an ingenuity born of extreme necessity, and are very adept at making the most out of what they do have. A friend, Volodya, wanted to heat his small garage so he could work on his motorcycle during the winter. Bribing a mechanic with a bottle of vodka, he obtained a huge heater out of a public bus. Then following the guidelines in a college physics book, he built a power transformer for the heater from scratch. I was impressed.

Click page image for larger view

Click page image for larger view

This resourcefulness, however, is not always so charming. At the orphanage we quickly learned to dispose of our trash very discreetly, as we would see kids playing with yesterday’s refuse — sucking on a dead battery or substituting a used syringe for a squirt gun.

Sometimes people would say to me, “Everything is better in America, right? Everything is terrible here in Russia, but there are no problems in America.” These same people worried, “You’ll only have bad things to tell the people back home, won’t you? Yes, bad things.”

Sometimes they would use this tack as a ploy to get compliments: “All the food here is terrible,” the cooks at the orphanage would suggest daily (they loved this game), “and the food in America is much better, right?” “No,” I answered dutifully each time. “The food is good at home, but we eat very well here.”

“That’s right, the food here is great!” they would cheer in response. “I bet you’ve never had aladdi like these in America.” Aladdi are little cakes of fried dough served with sugar or jam, a bit like pancakes or flat donuts. I answered, “I can honestly say I have never had aladdi like these in America.”

“That’s right! We make the best aladdi in the world!” the cooks would say triumphantly, pushing a big plate of steaming hot aladdi toward me, a reward for playing their game.

Americans’ odd eating habits

At the orphanage, we ate with the children on the European schedule: the big meal at midday. But the other two meals were totally unpredictable: donuts for dinner, pasta in thick cream with sugar and butter for breakfast. The nutritional value of most items was questionable: Both the cabbage soup and the mashed potatoes were often served with chunks of fat, which we left aside.

The Russians pile butter onto bread as if it were a luncheon meat: eight pats of butter on a single slice. They don’t spread the stuff. They thought we didn’t like their butter and took offense because we used only half a pat per slice.

“You eat poorly, ” the cooks would tell us after each meal. “You never eat enough butter, either.”

They served us everything on their finest dishes, and gave us salt, a symbol of wealth in Russia, in a very attractive little bowl. We admired the bowl, but used the salt as sparingly as we would at home, perhaps even more sparingly, as all the food had been generously pre-salted.

Every week the orphanage staff asked us about our strange eating habits, and over and over we would explain the current Westem theories about what fat and salt do to your heart. When an article about our group appeared in the town’s newspaper, two large paragraphs detailed our bizarre eating habits. “For some reason they don’t like butter or salt,” one cook marvelled in the article.

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