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Back in USSR – Gum a la Proust

It was a sunny summer day in Soviet Moscow. Our neighborhood was a typical one for the city, blocks of grey buildings, 5 to 12 stories high, full of lilliputian apartments. There was no “living room” or “dining room” concepts, tiny kitchens, sometimes shared by multiple families in communal apartments, with single rooms belonging to entire families, or one or two room “private” apartments, belonging to more fortunate individual families, still small, with one or two rooms usually shared by parents, grandparents and children. Hand washed clothes drying on each balcony. No washers or dryers there. Ageless wrinkled babushkas in year-round head scarves sitting on benches and engaging in neighborhood gossip next to every building. Sweaty children running around and playing Chinese jump rope. Hatted men quietly drinking vodka from their sleeves while loudly enjoying chess battles on shaded benches. Sonya and I have left the area next to our apartment building where we normally play, presently hiding behind the bus stop wall, where nearby the tourist buses park by the hotel. We are nine years old now, third graders, dressed in collared shirts, pleated skirts and sandals.This is an exciting expedition indeed. The hotel is tall and beautiful and blue,  fascinating and untouchable, never to be entered by our kind.  At least 40 stories tall, it towers over us, the street, the neighborhood, as a silent reminder of where we don’t belong. It is blue and sky high, it is the color of the sky and unreachable like the sky. The buses arrive quite often, filled with interesting, crazy, colorful, foreign people, so different from us that they almost  register in the same way as an animal in the zoo or a circus performer would, something to look at and observe but never interact with. We make sure we are not seen, ducking even more behind our cover of concrete pillars behind the bus stop, when they walk off the bus and wait for their things to be unloaded. They chat loudly, they make funny sounds, they laugh and show an obscene amount of their really straight white teeth. The ones with dark skin have especially white teeth, and I wonder why that is. I have never met anyone with dark skin before and I am puzzled. I secretly admire the beautiful colorful clothes they all wear, nothing that could be bought here, and I am deeply jealous.  Sonya and I have talked about approaching them or just standing where we could be seen.  Although it is tempting and we have heard from others that occasionally they were handed a pack of gum or candy, or a t-shirt, by one of the foreigners, we cannot do it. We are scared and the fear is stronger than the desire to get something in a fancy wrapper. We also know it is impolite to beg, and we are not beggars. We are girls from good families, well raised with good manners, raised to be quiet and polite and not stick out. We will settle for the unwrapped, for the used up, chewed up and spitted out. Literally. We wait for these unsuspecting tourists to collect their suitcases surely filled with marvelous treasures and we watch their mouths. Some of them are chewing. They are chewing the object of our expedition, the end result, the “raison d’etre” for the day. We are hoping for the ones with most flavor and color not yet lost. We are amazed that someone would spit out, get rid of, let go of something that is yet still so useable, so delicious, so powerful in bringing you pleasure. We are not used to throwing away anything. My grandmothers went through World War II and nothing is to be wasted ever! Things here are kept, reused, repurposed and recycled in every manner. There is no gum in my country. None to be purchased at the government supermarkets, none yet that is manufactured and available. It will come a little later, when we are slightly older, and it will not be as delicious and exciting as these original ones from overseas. It will not bubble. It will not come in different colors or with wrapper inserts or that amazing bubble gum smell. It will be of the boring orange flavor and a dirty beige color. But it will be something. Right now the coast is clear, the bus is gone and the tourists are off to the hotel, and we are about to come out of our hiding spot and search the ground for any spit up gum that was left by this latest load of tourists. We find it, we smell it, we put it in our mouths. “This one is strawberry”, I yell. “Mine is almost brand new”, screams Sonya in excitement! “I’ve got a couple more for later”, I say. Sonya finds a few cool wrappers too, she will be able to trade for something with the boys. They have this game where they slap the wrappers to turn them over, so wrappers can be valuable. As we taste the gum, it is not only the sweetness and the flavor, but the touch of the untouchable, the unknown, the exciting world that exists beyond the borders of the Soviet Union, the colorful, the delicious, the multitude of choices, the taste of different life seen through different set of eyes and ears. Unconcerned with dirt, disease or disgust, we enjoy the rest of the day, feeling the good life, having crossed over just for a second, just with our tastebuds, and proceed to brag to our friends about how many gums we found and the flavors and tastes of them all. I wonder if we were attempting to taste a bit of the foreigners lives, so remote and different from our own, while in a way sharing their experience.



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