In a strange city? Take a long walk. It could be the start of a whole new business. Let me tell you the story of the General and the pen. January 1992. The Russian Federation is a few weeks old, and I am walking along a freezing Moscow street.
The company flat I was using didn’t exactly encourage one to stay in. Its attractions included a VCR player (broken), a half-bottle of vodka (left by the previous occupant) and the occasional cockroach scuttling(not much company on those long Moscow nights).
So, a walk. My first chance to see what had been left behind in the rubble of the USSR. A huge red star still perched on top of the Kremlin. The flag and the name of the country might have changed. But stern-looking army officers and even sterner baboushkas still went about their business.
After an hour or so of walking, it was time for a coffee. I knew that a single dollar bill from my wallet would probably buy ten coffees. But why come all this way and take the easy option?
I knew that the grand hotel opposite the Kremlin would give me the poorest exchange rate in the whole of Mother Russia. One of the unofficial dealers tucked away in tiny booths nearby would be a better option. I ducked into one tiny dimly-lit booth, manned by a young and wild-eyed Russian dealer sitting behind a flimsy plastic grille.
Mr Wild Eyes examined my 20-dollar bill as if it was a fake miniature stolen from the Hermitage. He flexed the bill, examined Andrew Jackson’s portrait for flaws and – if I remember correctly – even smelled it. After a very long pause, he fixed me with his gaze while his hands got busy counting out roubles, out of sight beneath the counter.
At this point, a huge bear of a man in uniform squeezed into the tiny booth (a space, I will remind you, barely large enough for one). He didn’t look happy to see me. Oh great. I’d been in town less than a day and felt sure I was about to be busted under some obscure foreign exchange law. Wild Eyes had finished counting the roubles and shoved a thin piece of paper under the grille towards me, along with a stubby little pencil. He gestured for me to sign.
I produced a pen from my pocket, an ordinary fibre-tip, and signed the bottom of the form. It could have been a one-way ticket to Novosibirsk for all I knew at the time. Then Wild Eye and the man in uniform both stopped and looked. Not at me. But at the pen. This ordinary fibre-tip.
“Horoyshee,” said Wild Eye. The man in uniform, which by now I realized was of the Soviet Sir Fotrce, broke into a grin and added his own “Da. Horoyshee.” Horoyshee. Good. For some reason, they loved the pen.
The uniform, a two-star air force general as it turned out, explained that our Wild Eyed friend liked the pen very much. He liked it so much he wondered if he could buy it for a few roubles. In broken English, the general explained that Soviet-era pens would leak and blotch. And back then, even those blotchy leaking pens were hard to find and more expensive than a bottle of beer. It was a classic Soviet era shortage: something poor quality and unavailable.
All at once, I had a vision of some poor Russian navigator, at 30,000 ft over the North Sea, with a cheap pen leaking all over his maps. No wonder the Cold War ended. If I had been more entrepreneurial at the time, I might have set up a pen import business on the spot. I might now be enjoying summers in my very own palatial dacha – the Pen Tsar.
That walk had taught me one simple thing: that this was a society with the most unexpected shortages. That’s what a walk in a strange city might do for you: cut through the received wisdom and reveal a facet of life you would never get from the guide books and the economic briefings.
Marx was right, after all. Groucho Marx, that is, not Karl. As Groucho once said: ‘Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticise them, you are a mile away from them. And you still have their shoes.’
Hywel Jones is a television producer who has travelled the world with the BBC and ITV. He now runs the international broadcast and corporate TV production company hi.tv. His favourite destination is San Francisco.