DUBNA, Russia -- It's hard to tell Brownies apart, whether their scout badges are written in Cyrillic or Latin letters. But you know you're at a Russian Brownie hike when the parents bring out the champagne.
Recently, Brownies from Moscow's Anglo-American School traveled two hours by express train to Dubna, about 100 miles north of Moscow, to meet with one of Russia's first Brownie groups.
Dubna was a city built in the 1950s to house nuclear research. Children growing up there have been unlikely to encounter foreigners, ever. So the 12 foreign Brownies who visited the newly formed Dubna Brownies had the pleasure of introducing their Russian counterparts to the heights of Western culture: 2-liter plastic bottles of Coca-Cola, individual juice boxes, Bubble Yum bubble gum, potato chips.
Like most average Russians, the half-dozen Russian Brownies are desperately poor. While the foreign Brownies ate sandwiches of roast beef or tuna fish, Danish salami or chicken, the Dubna Brownies had what looked like slices of pork fat on brown bread and a bit of fatty salami.
No matter. Brownies -- and Russians -- can always make do. Characteristically, they found their own riches to share with their new friends. Their mothers had made delicious triangles of fried bread with sweet preserves inside. The girls had made cookies, laboriously shaped into stars.
The Anglo-American group was led by Enid Bardick, an Englishwoman in her mid-50s who moved to Moscow a year ago, when her husband, an engineer, was transferred there.
She had been a Brownie leader when her own children were young and decided to carry on in Moscow. Her Brownie group is an offshoot of the English Girl Guides, among whom the Brownie leader is always known as Brown Owl.
At 7:30 on a Sunday morning, Brown Owl and her husband, Brian (Mr. Brown Owl), met the Anglo-American Brownies at Moscow's Savelyevskaya Train Station. All about them, Russians balancing bags of food, cartons of tomato plants and various spades and hoes were heading out to the countryside for the day to work in their gardens.
The non-stop train to Dubna had few people on it -- the distance was a little far for Moscow gardeners. Mr. Brown Owl quickly cleaned the one toilet on the eight-car train, taking on the biggest impediment to traveling with children in Russia.
The Russian Brownies were waiting on the platform in Dubna, smiles and backpacks ready, wearing khaki Boy Scout shirts, because that's what they had been able to get.
They led the Moscow group to a bus stop and onto a bus, which was already pretty well-filled. No one paid. The bus fare is still so low here -- less than half a cent -- that people don't take the trouble to pay if the bus is crowded and the distance short.
From the bus, the Brownies walked about a mile to the banks of the Dubna River, where a couple of Dubna Boy Scouts and their scoutmaster, who had come along to help out, started swinging hatchets at wood, making benches out of logs, fashioning a table, starting a campfire.
The children played games. The Russian parents watched with polite horror as Brown Owl cut up strips of yarn -- one of many priceless commodities here -- and scattered them about the grass for the girls to pick up.
There was lots of eating, and a bottle of champagne -- a staple of any special occasion here, whether a scout hike or an evening at the Bolshoi. The group from the Anglo-American school was like a small United Nations -- one American girl, a Scot, a Dane, several English girls, Kenyans, South Koreans.
For a snack, Brown Owl produced a stack of marmite sandwiches on white bread. Marmite is an English spread made out of yeast that's supposed to taste like salted beef. Mr. Brown Owl jovially sliced pieces of cake, spreading Brown Owl's own strawberry jam on top of each piece.
The odd onlooker could well-imagine the Britons' forebears doing the same, sitting under a tree in India.
The Moscow party left behind the plastic soda bottles -- to the delight of the Dubna contingent, who found it rich treasure indeed in this society, where everything has a use.
Back on the train, Mr. Brown Owl had trouble making much of a dent on the toilet -- the train had been going back and forth all day.
The Moscow group returned home, tired, happy, and eager to go to the bathroom.