Nylons for caviar

17th May 2011

This is the story of how my mother traded nylons, jeans and lipstick for Beluga caviar.

It all began in the late 1970’s. My mother was a flight attendant for Swissair and had just turned 21, when she was asked by her boss whether she wanted to fly to Moscow. She was thrilled by the prospect of going to the Muscovite ballet and opera. She imagined herself strolling through museums and the Kremlin with her Swissair-colleagues and quickly applied for the visa.

The reality proved to be quite different. First of all, only very few of my mother’s colleagues had agreed to travel to Moscow, for Russia was at that time still on the other side of the Iron Curtain. For one year, my mother flew to Moscow once a week. She did see a few ballets. But she never made it on time to see the entire performance, as the plane landed at Moscow airport only at 8 pm. This is why she is now very good at telling the end of the most famous ballets. Just don’t ask her about the first halftime.

Second, the flights back to Zurich were scheduled for 6 am on the following morning. Particularly gloomy were the winter months. Then the crew arrived in the dark and left before daylight. And it was freezing cold. On the way from the airport to the hotel, the bus passed nearby a lake. Horror-struck my mother observed people breaking holes into the ice and jumping into the lake at minus 20 degree C.

Third, my mother had no money to go out a lot in Moscow. She spent most of her evenings in the hotel. This is where she met the receptionist Daria and the night porter Mikhail. Their French, German and English were terrible and my mother didn’t speak a word of Russian. But they all spoke the language of trade. The Russians wanted jeans, nylons and lipstick. All these things were strictly forbidden in communist Russia. In return, they offered tins of Beluga caviar, which my mother intemperately loved.

From that day on, she regularly traded three to four nylons, a jeans or a lipstick for a pound of Beluga caviar. She used to eat it after she got home from Moscow or just after a long day. Then she poured herself a bubble bath and a glass of “Krimsekt” (Soviet Champagne). She ate the caviar with a soup spoon directly from the tin.

My mother hated the flights to Moscow, but she loved caviar. In this one year, she probably ate more Beluga caviar than most people have ever seen at once. Today, flying to Moscow has become much easier than it was in 1976. Trading nylons for a tin of high-quality Beluga caviar, on the other hand, is no longer an option.