In 1991 I got published (and this is consistent with the idea that literary success is entirely a matter of luck) twice on the endpaper of the Sunday New York Times travel section. What I remember: (1) how intoxicating it was to get paid for something I'd written, (2) an editor who said of one of the pieces, "This is funny. Really funny," as if that were amazing, which it is, in a newspaper, (3) another editor (there were so many) who agonized over the one-sentence bio to appear at the foot of the piece, and (4) the fact that both times, some other amateur contributor got HER pieces published the week before I got mine done, and at least one of the times, HER bio stated simply that she "writes about lifestyle issues." Note to journalists: this is just one reason why normal people think your trade is stupid and probably going to die. Oh, and admiration for dictatorships: that bugs normal people too.

Thanks to (1), I sent a good number of further contributions, all rejected (and this is consistent with the idea that literary success is entirely a matter of luck). The one that follows is the last one for which I got an acknowledgment, and on the phone too. After the call, a friend standing nearby asked what was up, and when I told her, asked to read the piece. She did, and said she thought it itself might have been considered to be in bad taste. I doubted that. But many years later, June 2004 to be exact, right after Ronald Reagan died as a matter of fact, I dug it out and reread it, and I had to agree. As I've suggested elsewhere, quite a few people have never forgiven those who sought successfully to win the Cold War, or those who dared to chuckle at our fallen adversary.

I recently traveled within the former Soviet Union. And when I was finished, I left, thinking exactly the same thought that every Western visitor before me has thought:

"Wow, I can't believe we ever worried about fighting a war with these people. Heck, if it had ever come to that, we would have won in ten minutes!"

But I don't want to belabor the obvious. A country where half the cars don't even have windshield wipers is too easy a mark for cruel fun-poking, never mind nuclear warheads. Thus I will ignore that country's technological shortcomings, preferring instead to look at its more debatable cultural misapprehensions. It would not be sporting to razz the ex-U.S.S.R. for the likely inability of its missiles to hit anything smaller or nearer than the Crab Nebula. On the other hand, I don't think it's ungentlemanly of me to josh it over its achievements in the fields of interior design, textiles, architecture, music, statuary, and so forth. At least a Russian could venture to dispute me. He could put up a fight.

But he would lose, because it is indisputable: Russia is in bad taste.

You don't need to be a trained observer to detect this, though it helps if you've read Jane and Michael Stern's Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. Since the regions I toured were devoid of mobile homes, bowling alleys, and Astroturf, the book could not have served as a field guide - the authors had made it clear their volume's scope was strictly American. Still, it was useful. I knew before I even alighted on the dock at Odessa that I was in for some dedicated ugliness. Thanks to the Encyclopedia, my eagerness to analyze it equaled my inclination to cackle at it.

Actually, I knew before I even took ship for Odessa that my ability to maintain an attitude both clinical and wry was about to be tested. Istanbul, my point of embarkation, was full of beefy people in garish nylon jumpsuits. They looked like pop-art astronauts who'd discovered they could take off their helmets on this planet without asphyxiating. And so they were - overheard conversation told me they were Russian tourists. (I mean "Russian-speaking," but since no one I met seemed to mind, I will call them all Russian.) Their garb was tacky beyond belief. And yet I couldn't mock. These were their good-time duds, and I had to applaud anyone who could manage a good time in a place as mirthless as Turkey. In a shopping mall I'd've been less forgiving. Here, however, I was almost sympathetic. This is the right mindset for the appreciation of bad taste.

Not that many other mindsets were practicable, in my situation. My ship across the Black Sea was full of space-suited aliens - if I'd conceived a dislike of them, it would have been foolish to confine myself to narrow quarters with them. I was receptive. The hostesses on board wore awful miniskirts, but I just grinned. I realize I was supposed to slaver over all those legs. One of the cardinal principles of tastelessness is that agreeable stimuli can be made downright intoxicating by simple increase in size or number. More is always better, and pleasure never reaches a plateau, according to this theory. On land or sea, nothing is sumptuous unless it's pointedly sumptuous.

Thus it wasn't enough that there should be melodies piped into my stateroom. There had to be written notices assuring me this proto-Muzak was available to be listened to.

That's bad taste for you - you rarely have to guess at its existence, because it usually announces itself for you. Still, you cannot assume that every excess, every grossness, is a manifestation of bad taste. The trains in the Odessa railway station were so long they stretched out of sight, yet because they were unconcernedly ugly - labor-camp green - I do not think they qualify. No conscious effort to pretty them up was ever made. Now if the Ukrainians painted a yellow Smilie on each carriage, it would be a different story. They'll think of it sooner or later.

One thing they have already thought of is to give each ticket seller both a computer and an abacus. Again, however, I don't think this qualifies. Yes, there is that sense of exuberant redundancy so typical of bad taste, the vulgar belief that surplus is the surest proof of vitality. But a likelier explanation is that in Odessa, as in the rest of the world, the people most fascinated by computers are the ones least capable of operating them. Abacuses are there because abacuses work.

But I digress. There are plenty of unambiguous examples of tackiness yet to be described. One such example is neon signs. There really aren't a whole lot of those, at least in Odessa and Kiev*; but such as can be seen are woeful in a weirdly brash way. The problem, surprisingly enough, is the Cyrillic alphabet. It looks great on the side of a ship, because it gives that ship an ominous tang. For precisely the same reason, it looks dreadful on the side of a restaurant or theatre. My vessel had been the M/V Peter the First, but if it had been the M/V Forced Collectivization, I would have boarded with no less alacrity. But the "Zagreb" movie house in Kiev suffers for the grim glaring characters above its entrance. Inside, there may well be enchantment, fantasy, brilliance; outside, it feels as if you're buying a ticket to a beetfield after a hard rain in February. Your imagination is moved, but in a bad direction, toward things you don't generally go to the movies for.

If you looked at the Zagreb, and then somebody told you the Ukrainian word for "inedible popcorn" is zagreb, you'd believe it.

This is an admittedly rare case of bad taste falling flat on its face. The phenomenon is essentially good-natured, and resilient too, so failure is almost never total. The problem here is that the surface of these cities is not the best place to look for really jubilant offenses against propriety. Soviet urban exteriors are mostly enormous apartment blocks and ponderous monuments, which tell you merely that Russian cities, unlike the Russian language, do not distinguish between "big" and "great." These are minor nubs on a steppe of cheesiness. To get to the really good stuff, you have to probe interiors.

This is not too difficult, if you have a little Russian and a lot of hard currency. In a land where nobody does anything unless reward or punishment is involved, securing a billet in somebody's apartment can be cumbersome; but the fact that there are no hotels (at least, none whose reception desk actually receives guests) guarantees that both you and your self-appointed cash-hungry aides will concentrate on the task at hand. And when they finally come up with something, you know at once that all that travail was worth it.

You know you've come to the right place when the door to it is upholstered. (Naugahyde, not leopard skin, but it's the thought that counts.) Beyond that door is such a cacophonous array of imported personal items, evidence of a pathetic gluttony, that you realize: a diorama titled "Bad Taste" would be identical to one titled "Soviet Consumer Freakout." Everything worth owning comes from somewhere else, and vice versa. By "personal items" I do not mean merely blow-driers and VCR's, I mean toothpaste and teabags, too, all clamorous in their German or Arabic or Hindi labels. Russianization only emphasizes this. On the VCR I watched an American show which had been bizarrely dubbed: one male Russian-speaker took all the parts, speaking over the muted original voices on a one-second delay. These are imperatives of bad taste, owning things you don't understand, making them understandable in the most artless way, and not minding it a bit.

My host sure didn't mind. As we watched the show, he opened a bottle of champagne, poured us tumblers, and downed his in one tilt. His wife served caviar.

It was all so meretricious. And yet I couldn't hoot at it. Like those tourists in Istanbul, we'd zippered ourselves into a good-time cocoon, and like them, we were having a good time. I was, again, sympathetic. You can say "living" in Russian, but as far as I know you can't say "livin'." That's what we were doing, or doin'. Livin'. I wanted to tell my host this. I think he would have appreciated it. Bad taste loves a good whack on the back.

1992 J.A.Hutter


*and (I'm adding this note as I type this up in January 2009) in any of the villages in between. These I saw from the cab I took the whole way, a Lada, under whose hood was a grimy vacuity, itself some kind of contrarian-bad-taste hole deserving a story all its own. "Wait, where's the...oh. That's the engine?"

Other travels