Trips to ex-Soviet lands often involve mice

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

January 12, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- This city has its shortages and shortcomings but Westerners who visit other parts of the former Soviet Union have strange stories to tell.

Many have to do with mice.

A British traveler awoke one night in an Armenian hotel when a curtain laden with mice fell, sending many mice scampering over him. He had not complained about the lack of hot water and the intermittent electricity. But this was too much.

He charged down to the front desk, where the frowning clerk couldn't imagine why a few mice had made this man so obstreperous.

Finally, it struck her. "Oh," she exclaimed, "you want the floor with the cat."

A few weeks later, checking into the same hotel, a U.S. couple who had heard the story asked for the floor with the cat. "Of course," the clerk said matter-of-factly.

Sometimes the little critters just want to get warm.

The last two winters have been dreadfully cold in Armenia, which is warring with Azerbaijan.

A U.S. diplomat tells of living in a hotel in Yerevan where her blanket-wrapped body provided the only source of heat. Every night, as she was drifting off to sleep, a row of mice would tuck in close to her, warming themselves at her side.

She endured this for a while, but finally couldn't take it any longer and went straight to the top, begging the president of Armenia to get her into a better hotel -- he alone had the authority to allocate the precious space. He took pity, and she was saved.

Mice may be abundant but things people actually want are hard to come by.

A young American recalls a hotel meal in Ukraine, where an unusually pleasant dinner was set before him in an unusually prompt and courteous fashion.

The only thing missing was a useful utensil to eat with, like a fork. The American kept asking and the waiter kept promising.

Finally, frustrated as his food grew colder and colder, the young man shouted: "All I need is a fork." The waiter looked at him sadly and replied, "If only it were that simple."

Of course a lot of places don't have any experience with tourists or any other kind of visitor from the outside. Sometimes you wonder if any strangers have been around since Wendell Willkie.

In Chapayevsk in southern Russia, the city is full of military chemical factories, and until the last few months it was closed to foreigners.

"You are the first American here since Wendell Willkie," a city official tells a U.S. journalist. Last year at this time, arriving in Chita in Siberia aboard a U.S. Air Force plane bearing humanitarian aid, a local newspaper reporter announced to the same U.S. journalist: "You are the first Americans here since Wendell Willkie."

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Mr. Willkie on a world tour to get him out of his political hair.

He was the last American many Russians ever saw.

He must have made a good impression, because both Chita and Chapayevsk proved extremely hospitable 50 years later. In Chita, there's a former Communist party guest house where a crew of elderly women serve up fried chicken and rice for breakfast.

This was a great improvement over a visit to Saratov, where the hotel could only offer beer and fish in aspic for breakfast. That evening, only omelets were cooked -- and absolutely no beer could be found.

Chapayevsk, like Chita, could not do enough for a visiting American. The city has no hotel, so one is invited to stay in the local prophylactory.

Russians love prophylactics. (The word is pronounced the same way in Russian as it is in English.) Cars are given prophylactics -- which means they get a tune-up.

Like cars, people get tune-ups -- in the local prophylactory. Workers are sent there for a few days to get some vitamins and perhaps the odd electrical shock. They can sleep at the prophylactory and go to work during the day -- if they can make it out of their room.

This reporter almost didn't make it out. When I tried to open the lock on my door, nothing caught. I finally got most of the lock off by taking it apart with a Swiss Army knife. But the rest was bolted to the door frame and the guy across the hall had to help by kicking the door in.

No one complained about the noise, and a very relieved American left Chapayevsk, hitting on all cylinders.

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