The lips pursed in the shape of the letter "O". "Pu" – a throat bulging from within, a mouth crammed with mouthfuls. "Lence" – rings like a brass bell. O-pu-lence. The word swells, then pops like a fountain gushing with sprays of gold coins. Rivers flowing with milk and honey, roast chickens tumbling from the sky.
"What image does the word opulence evoke for you?" I ask a friend and fellow countryman who is a little younger than I am.
"An American refrigerator," he shoots back.
It is an accurate representation for many East Europeans – especially those Yugoslavs who watched American movies from their earliest childhood – of the mythical "horn of plenty". The image of that immense American refrigerator so full to overflowing that food cascades out of it; the picture of the fridge (what a warm, soothing word!) out of which a sleepy American pulls a plastic half-gallon jug of milk or orange juice and chugalugs it down; or removes a tub of ice cream, brandishes a soup spoon, and sitting, cross-legged on a comfortable sofa, flips on the TV and slurps the ice cream from the tub as if it were soup. This has been etched on the imagination of Easterners for generations as the most direct and appealing image of wealth and comfort.
In an episode of Dynasty, Joan Collins' Alexis and her lover Dexter are soaking in a jacuzzi, sipping champagne. Dexter scoops something up with a spoon from a serving dish and tastes it.
"Hey, go easy," says chronically vulgar Alexis, "that is caviar!"
The director probably thought it gauche to zoom in on the salty roe, yet the audience still needed to register the couple's indulgence, hence Alexis gets her incompatible sentence. The champagne, the caviar, the jacuzzi: the simple symbols of opulence the media have thrust into the brains of poor people in America and all over the world. Yet many Russians during the starvation period of the Red Revolution had so much caviar that they were sick of it; there was absolutely nothing else to eat. Those who were short of a spoon scooped it with their bare fingers.
Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac.