Friday, June 17, 2011

From Russia, With Love

My present from Masha
Generally, I don't like accumulata, but I do keep a few very dear treasures. The napkin that you see pictured here is one of them.

It was 1994, and I was teaching at a private language school in Moscow. One of my favorite five-year-old students bounced into class. Masha's naturally fiery, intelligent eyes danced with excitement. She looked ready to pop.

"Yulia! Yulia! I have a present for you," she boasted happily as she pressed a colorful, printed paper napkin into my hands. Her face beamed, anticipating my surprise and pleasure.

It might not seem like much to an American, but it was a big deal to little Masha. Let me see if I can put the enormity of this gift into perspective for my readers by describing the paper goods available to the average Russian at that time.
  • Paper towels. I never saw them.
  • Paper napkins. McDonald's had them, and I spied some flimsy ones that looked like tissue paper at my favorite gyro "restaurant." (I use the term restaurant loosely for this particular establishment, but that's another day, another post.) However, I can't really think of very many others.
  • Paper bags. Stores didn't carry them. They didn't provide plastic bags either. You either purchased a bag or brought your own. (Not a bad idea in my opinion.)
  • Toilet paper. I observed five kinds. These are detailed below:
    1. Nonexistent. In public toilets, this type was most commonly encountered.
    2. Shreds of newspaper. A really thoughtful public toilet would provide yesterday's news for wiping. As you might have guessed, most people carried their own tissue paper with them.
    3. The Revolting Red Paper. Frequently, homegoods stores carried what my ex-patriot friends referred to at the Revolting Red paper. It was rather stiff, but maybe a little more flexible than sheets from a child's drawing tablet. It was completely serviceable except for the off-putting red color which deepened into an even more unattractive hue after it had been... er, used. Of course, the upside to this TP was its even texture, unlike #4 on this list.
    4. Tree Bark. It wasn't actually tree bark. It was a tannish, brown tissue that looked like ground and pressed tree bark -- complete with splinters. Squeezably soft Charmin it was not. Although our ex-pat group was of mixed opinions on the subject of TP, I still maintain that the "tree bark" was a step up from the red stuff.
    5. Glorious White Paper. In terms of texture, it didn't differ much from Revolting Red, but it was white! This was the elusive, Holy Grail of bath tissue. I rarely saw it in the stores, but now and then I'd find some entrepreneur on a street corner with a whole pyramid of it piled on the sidewalk. Score!
As you can see, paper goods were of a completely pragmatic nature. Napkins didn't come in a rainbow of colors. They certainly weren't printed with every Disney character under the sun. While this napkin would have been a throwaway for an American child, for Masha, it was an object of wonder.

The generosity and thoughtfulness of her gift touched me deeply, and I keep it to remember one of my very favorite little people. But it also humbles me. It's a reminder to be grateful for all of my blessings, for all of the little things that are so easy to take for granted. Running water, sunshine on my face, ice cubes in a cold drink on a summer day... I could think of a million small wonders that I've done nothing to deserve but enjoy all the same. I am truly rich.

Self-portrait of Masha


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