Kiev Diary: When dining out becomes a weighty issue

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The Independent Online
I AM suffering from an obsession with weight which arises every time I go out to eat. I am not talking about any hang-up of my own in this department which, though entirely justified, has failed to take root. In the former Soviet Union, restaurant proprietors, rather than the clients, count every gramme. This practice particularly struck me in a small establishment in Kiev, the charmingly faded capital of Ukraine. Every item on the menu had its weight written next to it in large letters.

By way of adding legal authority to these appetite-chilling statistics, each page of the menu was signed by the restaurant director, the head cook and the chief accountant. We quizzed the waitress. "Tax police", she said. It seems that someone out there in the bureaucracy - still a veritable empire, alas, in this largely unreformed ex-Soviet republic - is totting up the tonnage of bread and butter, and even lettuce leaves, that pass through each and every restaurant kitchen. My scorn on discovering this was not shared by my colleague Lena, a Muscovite. All food was weighed in Soviet times, including ice cream sold on the streets. "I like it," she remarked, over her 250g of Ukrainian borscht. "I know exactly what 200g of white bread looks like. This way I know whether or not I am getting our money's worth." Next time, I swear, I shall take along a pair of scales.

THESE might also come in handy at the Hotel Kiyivska Rus, one of this ancient city's main hotels, where value for money remains an alien concept. This huge concrete monolith, overlooking a football stadium, is grappling with the transition from government-run Soviet establishment to luxury hotel which actually justifies the sky-high room rate of $180 a night. Similar battles are being fought - and usually lost - across the old Soviet empire. The jury is still out on the Rus, which is in the throes of refurbishment, but it is not looking good. Beady-eyed floor ladies - or dezhyrni - still patrol the floors, just as they used to in the old days, scuttling crab-like out of their lairs at the softest tread in the corridor. It is very tempting to walk around in the early hours for the pleasure of watching them hurry out, dazed and irritated.

REGULAR users of the old Intourist hotels quickly learn the survival rules. I always travel with a pot-holers' lamp, which has a harness allowing it to be worn on the head while typing in the event of a power cut. But top of the list is the comb. You need not live long in the former Soviet Union before beginning to wish the divinities had issued us all with a fixed, unalterable, haircut at birth. The problem is the winter malady: "Hat Hair", caused by a combination of cold temperatures and static. You either turn up at interviews with a Ken Dodd-like spray of electrified hair or a flattened crop, bearing the imprint of the last object on your head - in my case, a tight woolly hat. The Russians are as troubled by this as anyone else. Next to every cloakroom, there is almost always a mirror, which few venture past without a bout of preening. This custom even extends into the heart of the 30km exclusion zone around Chernobyl. The place, 12 years on, is bleak, a monument to human folly. The surrounding countryside is almost deserted. And yet, before setting out, Lena and I found ourselves checking ourselves in the cloakroom mirror. God forbid we should be spotted on this wretched landscape with a hair out of place.