x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

How to order a Big Mac in Moscow

For someone who grew up during the Cold War, it is surreal to be sipping a latte in Red Square, just around the corner from a McDonald's.

For someone who grew up during the Cold War, it is surreal to be sipping a latte in Red Square, just around the corner from a McDonald's. It's as if, 30 years hence, Osama's cave had become a Starbucks.

We are on the patio at Basco Cafe, which is attached to the magnificently ornate GUM department store (but really, it's a mall) at the north-east face of the square, across from the Kremlin and Lenin's tomb. We wait for a waiter. And wait and wait. We'd probably get faster service from Vladimir Ilyich himself. Finally the waiter emerges from hiding. My wife and I order coffees; our daughter wants hot chocolate.

Meanwhile oldsters with a CCCP flag march slowly by, playing martial music under a grey sky, bearing pictures of Lenin, pining for the days when drinking bourgeois beverages on Red Square would get you shipped to Lubyanka prison - conveniently, only one metro stop away.

I browse through the menu - startlingly, it includes cigarettes.

The waiter is back in witness protection, so I poke inside the restaurant to ask him to add whipped cream to our daughter's drink. Inside, a half-dozen blank-eyed servers stand around and practise their thousand-yard stare, like Nutcracker characters waiting to be brought to life. A waitress offers to bring us menus. I tell her we have already ordered but want whipped cream on our hot chocolate.

"No hot chocolate," she says.

*****

The raucous ice hockey fans inside the Sokolniki Sports Palace beseeching Spartak to beat Sibir are a rarity for Moscow, allowed to drink nothing stronger than hot sugary English breakfast from a plastic cup, no milk, bag in. The idea being, I suppose, that the national passion for hockey requires no additional stimulation.

The canteen, alongside the normal delights of international hockey cuisine (soda, crisps, hot dogs), also has distinct Russian touches: slices of white bread with either smoked salmon, cold cuts or cheese on top, and buns filled with applesauce.

After the second period, I try the bread with smoked salmon. I offer my wife a bite. "No thanks." I offer my daughter a bite. She makes the I'd-rather-die-why-are-you-doing-this-to-me? face.

To my right, in the visiting fans section, I spot, for the first and probably last time in my life, a Siberian puck bunny: team scarf draped over her shoulders like a feather boa, ruble-sized hole thigh-high in her fishnet stockings. Final score: Spartak 4, Sibir 1.

*****

On a Tuesday evening, a brusque woman is selling pastries out of an open tent beside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. I buy the strudel, which at 35 rubles (Dh4) is the priciest item she has. Devotees are lined up halfway around the church,  from the front, around the west side to the back. I consider asking what the special occasion is but decide that would be rude.

Most of the queued women wear scarves on their heads. There are young and old, some in high heels. You can hear a hymn from somewhere in the crowd. A lame woman leaning on a crutch sells icons of a saint. A few men read the newspaper. The line is barely moving; it's as slow as a snake digesting.

The godless communists tore the church down in 1931. The Orthodox Catholics built it back up in 1994. New Russia, old religion.

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The Starlite Diner is an imitation of America yet despite its three-patty burgers, milkshakes in tin cups and waitresses in cheerleader regalia, it resists classification as a symbol that Moscow has been Americanised.

On the Starlite's fissile menu, Awesome Peanut Butter Pie lives kitty corner from Chicken Blini. As I briefly digest, it strikes me that there is something else that makes the Starlite emblematic of Russia's uniqueness rather than its assimilation into global culture.

It's the haircuts: the short-cropped young men, the bushy swept-back grey wave of the businessman, his female peers with their pouffy 1980s 'dos (think Jessica Lange in Tootsie; actually, think Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie), the waitress with a mullet she's put into pigtails. A mullet. In pigtails. Seriously.

*****

Inevitably, McDonald's. I have never been to a McDonald's during my two years in the Emirates but it tempted me in Moscow. Maybe it was the Cyrillic lettering; maybe it was, as mentioned earlier, the frisson of capitalism's stake in communism's heart. I have trouble making myself understood so the kid working the counter brings out a pamphlet that lists the fare in Russian, German, English and French. Example:

Russian: Big Mac

German: Big Mac

English: Big Mac

French: Big Mac

Okay, maybe not the best example. I go for the Big Mac, my wife chooses a chicken wrap, daughter goes cheeseburger. I wonder if I should have tried the Chicken Mythic (but which myth? Does it involve deep-frying?). In a nod to the days of Soviet scarcity, they charge for condiments: 14 rubles (Dh1.5) gets you 25ml of mayo or ketchup.

The fries taste different than we are used to. "They taste like soap," daughter says, later adding, "They have a chlorine aftertaste." We split a chocolate caramel McFlurry to wash down the soapy chlorine. Total cost, 537 rubles (Dh65).

*****

Moscow can be cold one moment and comforting the next. Cold is wandering a bleakly rich neighbourhood while looking for a bite to eat; comfort is finding a diner where two kind ladies in aprons feed us cheese bread and cabbage rolls. It's the kind of place where people sit and read the paper for hours. Red vinyl booths and plants on the windowsills. A beefy guy in a shiny suit having Coca-Cola and meatballs. Overhead TVs showing the local version of MBC Action.

The sour cream for my cabbage roll sticks to the one lady's spoon, so her colleague grabs another spoon and scoops every last bit out; a most maternal gesture.

People warned us that Moscow would not be friendly; in fact, such was not the case. Yes, the subway matrons will, at the slightest violation, throw you a glare that would crack the bronze on a Stalin statue; but their contempt is atavistic, a throwback to mean old days.

Again and again, when we asked directions, people were only too happy to help. And if the person we solicited did not speak English, someone who did would pop in. After we went to the Bolshoi Ballet, and were unsure of the way home, I asked an old couple to point us on the right path. They walked us halfway to our hotel. How sweet was that?

rmckenzie@thenational.ae