While other canny investors are waist-deep in soybeans or up to here in pork bellies, we have sunk everything into toilet-paper futures and detergent options, gone aggressively after ketchups and balanced the weak spots in our portfolio with a smattering of peanut butter and shampoo.
Last week we left for the Soviet Union for three years, where my husband, Will Englund, and I will share a job as The Sun's Moscow correspondent, and where our daughters, 5 and almost-9, will live most un-Americanally without those small conveniences of life in the United States -- like toothpaste.
Or a kitchen. Packing for three years, we took everything we would need to sustain us, including the kitchen sink -- and faucet and cabinets and drawer handles and screws and screwdriver and hammer and nails. We didn't have to take a refrigerator, though. Our predecessor, Scott Shane, took that three years ago when he and his family took up the post.
Along with the kitchen sink, we bought and packed birthday presents for our daughters' still unmet friends. We took candles and party hats for two sets of birthdays per year for three years. We amassed an enviable collection of Barbies and Kens and other glittery touchstones of Western capitalistic decadence.
We bought shoes and boots and underwear and party dresses and sweat pants and socks and warm coats and hats and mittens (extras to replace the inevitable losses) -- all in six sizes, one size per daughter per year. We packed Christmas decorations and Easter-egg dye, school notebooks and
windshield wipers, anti-freeze and windshield scrapers, smoke alarms and Halloween candy.
And, just when we thought we had everything, Scott Shane told us that the latest shortage is windshields. You park your car on the street and when you return, like as not, your windshield will be gone. That's the last straw, Will and I told each other. We are not going to take a spare windshield to Moscow. We'll just have to do as the Soviets do -- plaster our windshield with fake cracks, so no one will want to steal it.
This is life in Moscow. While our parents and friends worry that this caper is ill-advised, that we won't have enough to eat, that the KGB or World War III will overtake us, we reassure them. If you have dollars or credit cards, you can get food in Moscow. The problem is all those other things. They can be found, but you have to make a choice: either spend all day following tips on which store is selling soap that day or spend all day following tips on what Gorbachev plans to do with the country's arsenal of nuclear weapons. Our choice is clear.
With our American dollars and credit cards, we also have the luxury of being able to order almost anything from a Finnish store with an outlet in Moscow. But this, Scott tells us, is incredibly expensive. Everything is three and four times what it is here.
So, we did what generations of Sun foreign correspondents have done before us. We called Hampden. Hampden Moving and Storage, that cavernous warehouse mushrooming out of an old house at 36th Street and Falls Road, comes by with paper and pen and next thing you know your favorite armchair and beer glasses, along with your kitchen cabinets and new sofa, are steaming their way across the Atlantic to Bremen, where Hampden's German agent takes over and trucks them into the heart of the Russian Socialist Republic, right to your apartment on Sadovaya Samotechnaya, where every motion is occurring in reverse for Scott, minus the toilet paper.
It's so easy, Hampden tells us, that we can call the Giant at the Rotunda a few blocks from our house, put our feet up and before we can flick our cigar ashes on the floor, we can have our 200 rolls of toilet paper delivered right from the Giant truck to Hampden's door.
Being compulsive cheapskates, we didn't do that. Instead, we spent three months carrying off armloads of toilet paper or laundry soap or dishwashing detergent whenever it was on sale. Being a complete American, I love to consume. I love to shop. But after a while, even I got slightly nauseous pushing yet another cart spilling over with tennis shoes and blank video tapes ("I never saw anyone buy that many!" one clerk exclaimed) and stain remover and batteries and battery rechargers and half-price patterns for Halloween costumes to the check-out counter, especially as I thought of how we live with royal carelessness compared to much of the rest of the world.
We weren't extravagant. Though a few rolls of toilet paper would add little to the cost when our belongings were going into a big ship's container anyway, we tried to calculate carefully. Will figured out how much toilet paper or Kleenex or dish detergent or laundry soap we used in a week and multiplied it by 156, throwing in a little extra for the occasional guest.
The big guys from Hampden treated us with care, even packing the toilet paper in an anonymous carton to lessen the chance it would be stolen. We kept marveling at the incongruity of it all, from Hampden to Red Square in one easy step. One grizzled Hampdenite finally put it all in perspective as he packed one of our crab mallets for storage. "Doesn't matter if it's Russia or Chicago," he pronounced. "If they don't have crabs there I'm not going."
Suddenly we thought of our painful departure in a new light. Our new home would be no stranger than a move to Chicago. We couldn't help but think of Mimi DiPietro, proclaiming the virtues of his beloved Baltimore. "At least it ain't got no volcanoes," he told the national news media.
Our container is on its way now, laden also with a box of syringes (they reuse them in the Soviet Union, so if you have to get a shot and don't want AIDS, you take your own) and a medicine chest prescribed by our doctor to treat ailments from the Leningrad parasite to bacterial infections. (If you need anything more than that," he advised, "get on the first flight to Finland.") We hope to meet up with it all in July.
As it wends its way, we think of how circuitous the world economy is. We bought an entire kitchen, all packed up for us in nice flat boxes, from the Swedish company IKEA, which bought it from Poland. It cost under $3,000. Yet, Scott tells us, if we had bought similar cabinets in Russia, imported from Europe, it would have cost at least five times that. The cheapest price he has heard for remodeling a small kitchen, he says, is $40,000.
I have set one major goal in my life as a foreign correspondent, finding the answer to this question: Why is it cheaper to bring something from Poland to Baltimore, then ship it back past Poland to the Soviet Union than just to get it straight from Poland?
What a job! If you ever try to do something like it, be sure from the very first to make the acquaintance of someone like Steve Aveson, former co-host of the late Evening Magazine on Channel 13. He and his wife Heather chaperoned us on a trip to the Price Club, where they helped shepherd three cartloads of Woollite, Lysol, pizza mixes and popcorn into a station wagon and a van. "You'd think these people were moving to Russia or something," Steve muttered to a totally unmoved clerk.
During all this, Rudy Lentulay was meeting with us trying to drum the beginnings of Russian into our heads. Rudy is head of Russian at Goucher and not only incredibly skilled but incredibly patient with students who have their minds on lock de-icer and cotton balls instead of declensions and verbs of motion.
And Bruce Marsh! Bruce may be head of earth sciences at Hopkins and a renowned vulcanologist, but his true metier lies in the world of machinery and cars. He loves to pass this arcane knowledge on (three different people saw fit to bestow copies of Robert Bly's book on male bonding, "Iron John," to him). So when we despaired of selling our 1978 VW Scirocco because of rust, Bruce spent a weekend teaching Will body work.
Will actually made gaping holes disappear, and learned this trade so well that we managed to sell the car exactly 15 minutes before we left for the airport and three harrowing months in California studying Russian.
That's what it takes to get to Moscow.