O, Tannenbaum

 

-1-

On the twenty-third of December Frau Mommsen woke up very early. She walked to the window and drew the curtains aside; the humid darkness outside resembled anything but Christmas portrayed on her tin cookie boxes: it drizzled and her whole street – houses, trees and earth itself – looked perspired and sickly. Watching a wet car crossing an empty crossroad, Sabine Mommsen felt like she was the only person left in the whole world, and that it was up to her to decide whether Christmas would come this year – or not. She put on her gown and went to the kitchen; there she set the dough for fifty Vanillenkipferln, hundred cinnamon stars and a few dozen rum cakes. The egg yolk drifted in hypes of sugar and flour like sun floating between snowy hills, whisked whites gleamed like icy peaks, and Frau Mommsen’s cheeks got so rosy one could think she had spent a day sledging merrily off the hill. Two hours later when the last batch of cookies was sent  into the oven and Frau Mommsen glanced into the window again, she saw that the temperature must have fallen below zero and that a few feeble snow flakes had landed on the railing of her balcony: a clear boding that the world order was almost repaired, a sign that everything undertaken that day would end successfully. Closing the curtains, Frau Mommsen felt unusually confident, she turned the heat in the oven down and hurried to get dressed and to prepare herself for what she believed to be the most important venture of the year: the procurement of the Christmas tree.

Indeed, finding a Christmas tree that could fill Frau Mommsen’s living room with enough dignity was a task almost impossible to fulfill: with four windows along its’ northern wall and fifteen feet in hight, the room was so big a guest could easily overlook a grand piano nestled in the niche by the fireplace. But it was not the size alone which made one gasp at the threshold – it was mainly the density of room’s decoration and furnishing that made it into a triumph of good housekeeping over transient life.  Displayed in glass cases, arranged on coffee tables, hanging on the walls and protruding from the shelves were fossils of various eras Frau Mommsen’s life had gone through. The cabinet between two central windows featured the remnants of the Pottery Age, the eastern wall displayed a few items remaining from the Silkscreening Period, the sofa cushions were manufactured during the Epoch of Crocheting and a few precious objects on the fireplace appeared to be products of a brief Sculpting Era. A Christmas tree could not be simply perched in the middle of a room exhibiting the achievements of such great a civilization; instead, serene and stately, dressed in hundreds of shiny balls, it was meant to remind that all things were perishable and transitory, but a home hearth guarded by an observant housewife. But, alas, either the Nature itself failed to produce a pine noble enough, or Heidenau garden centers were short of supply, but procuring a tree capable of fulfilling a mission envisaged for it constituted a difficulty of such considerable scale that Frau Mommsen never seemed to quite let go of it; it was an iceberg drifting across her consciousness without rest all year round. In summer it melted almost completely, with only a small tip emerging on the surface of her thoughts every time she climbed the ladder to hoover a spider net off the ceiling. However, with every yellow leaf landing on the balcony the iceberg seemed to gain in weight and size so that by the middle of November it occupied Frau Mommsen’s imagination almost fully. And how forlorn and helpless did she feel at the face of a matter she had to resolve! No one seemed to understand her. ‚Just don’t get yourself too hyped about the tree, mother‘ , her younger son Lucas begged her on the phone every winter, and Martin, her other son, was even worse. Two or three years ago a parcel from Martin arrived just a few weeks before Christmas. It was a tall and heavy box, and having spent at least twenty minutes unpacking it Frau Mommsen froze still at the sight of its contents: it was an artificial tree with a telescopic trunk one could expand up to twelve feet high. Watching plastic branches and cones scattered on the carpet, Frau Mommsen cried till her husband crammed the tree back into the box and drove it to the post office on the back of his car, on a seat where his mother would usually throne when picked up from the nursing home for a weekly coffee-and-cake.

That year, finding a right tree was of a special importance: for the first time since he had left to college, Lucas was bringing home a girlfriend. Frau Mommsen saw her on a photograph he had sent a few days ago; it was a tiny, dark haired young woman and on the picture she held a bunch of lilies with an expression of a heavy-weight lifter pressing a bar-bell. Her name was Annie, she was American, and as it had turned out from a telephone conversation she had never celebrated Christmas before.

– What do you mean, she had never celebrated Christmas? – Frau Mommsen asked, baffled. – What does she do on the twenty-fourth of December then? Didn’t you say she grew up in Boston?

– She did, – Lucas said, – But she is Jewish. You know what Jewish Americans do for Christmas? They take out Chinese food and go out for movies, like, they sit in the cinema, eat dim sum and watch old thrillers all night long.

– You mean, they do not even decorate the tree? – Frau Mommsen asked, trying to be specific about things which were really important.

– No, they don’t- Lucas said, and Frau Mommsen heard envy in his voice. Indeed, to him Annie was clearly marked with a distinction no one else possessed, a privilege nothing could tantamount to. Since the moment he got past the age of chocolate Santas, Lucas was dreaming of spending the Christmas Eve  as far from home as only possible – but having no other alternative, year after year he returned to his mother’s living room to chant carols with his father and to listen to his brothers’ reprimands about futility of studying philosophy in a world regulated by global market. An empty cinema where he could hide in a plush chair with a box of noodles, an XXL-size coke in one hand and his girlfriend’s knee on the other, sounded sublime. ‚Let’s do it the Jewish way‘, he begged Annie since November, but she had already made up her mind.

– I am fed up of having it Jewish way! – she kept saying, – Jewish, Jewish, Jewish! Every year its the same, Aunt Ruth comes over and sits with my parents in front of the TV, and I and my cousins, we have to go out even if it is minus five hundred outside, eat Chinese trash and watch some crappy films. Everyone knows it is miserable, everyone would just love to sit home by the Christmas tree and stuff themselves with turkey, but no, because we are Jews we just cant be like everyone else. Can you spare me this nonsense just this time? Can I celebrate a normal German Christmas, like everyone else?

– But its a Christian holiday! – Lucas cried, trying to bring her back to reason.

– You are just like my mother! – Annie shouted back, – So what its Christian?! I am not going to pray in the church, I just want to watch. Its beautiful! And even if I would have to cross myself ten times an hour who cares? On Trobrian Islands Malinowski had do worse things, you know. – She lifted her hand and made a gesture meant to resemble a blessing, but got confused in the middle and froze still.

– Anyways, – she continued after a pause, – Just stop being so boring! Don’t tell me what to do just because I am Jewish! Either you take me to your parents, or I will go to Lisa’s place, – she concluded, and it was a blow Lucas had nothing to counter with. Being called boring and suspected of treating a Jew without due respect was only half of the horror, but having to spend Christmas without Annie was even worse – and Lucas gave in.

– She really wants to see a proper German Christmas, – he told to his mother on the phone, – With Plätzchen and everything.

– I’ll see to it, – Frau Mommsen said and hung off feeling a mixture anxiety and pride overwhelming her at once. Deep in her heart she knew that if there was once place on Earth where a novice could imbue the splendor of Christmas at its most – it was her home. But precisely because no one else equaled her in giving Christmas the celestial touch it deserved, she had to do everything alone: even if she would like to entrust at least a part of the matter to someone else, there simply wasn’t anyone around. Herr Mommsen was certainly a great mathematical mind – but when it came to household, he was useless. The last weekend before Christmas he insisted he goes and buys the tree himself. He was so persistent, it was impossible to argue with this foolish suggestion, and Frau Mommsen let him out of the house with a bad feeling. Indeed, nothing good came out of it. The hight of his own living room’s ceiling seemed to be the only numerical that did not hold in Herr Mommsen’s mind, and while his wife was dusting the shelves in the living room, he called home seven times just to be told whether it was fifteen or seventeen feet and making her climb up and down the ladder again and again. By some co-incidence the tree he picked turned out to be of a right hight. But what a tree it was! Sold with a fifty per cent discount, it missed a crown and was  almost as bold and thin as Herr Mommsen himself, suggesting that he purchased it out of brotherly sympathy rather than of any reasonable aesthetic and practical considerations. He dragged it upstairs alone, a manly man who does need to waste money on a porter, and needless to say, the moment he discharged the tree on the carpet a pang of smarting pain hit his spine and he could no longer unbend himself. Poor Frau Mommsen was left with two handicaps at once – a mangy tree and a rheumatic husband. Discouraged and disabled by his endeavors, Herr Mommsen spent the next two  days in his study with a back warmer around his waist, hardly daring to talk to his wife and burying himself in papers scattered with incomprehensible signs. As for the crownless pine, Frau Mommsen tipped a post man – a young muscly man – to remove it. Another tree had to be procured, and a day before Christmas, having filled every tin in her house with freshly baked Plätzchen, Sabine Mommsen ventured out into town. Luckily enough, she found the right tree after two or three hours. It was a perfectly composed, immaculate and stately item, raising over the other pines like a triumphal column. Without bargaining a minute, she parted with an amount money she preferred not to mention to her husband, and watched a group of men in moon boots appearing from the depths of thicket like a pack of wolves, wrapping her prey in several layers of plastic and stowing it into a delivery car. She followed the cargo from the back, watching the tree tied to the roof and swinging its crown in agreement of its fate. The pine seemed to know what was bestowed upon it, and Frau Mommsen’s heart filled with sympathy and compassion: after all, it was a pity such a beauty was cut and ripped away from its roots, but at the same time, let’s face it, being placed in a living room like hers was quite worth a sacrifice. This pine tree, Frau Mommsen thought proudly, will get the best treatment in town. And indeed, no sooner had the porters brought the tree upstairs and unpacked it than Frau Mommsen was already there, with a holder full of warm water and a pile of cardboard boxes filled with garlands, balls, stars and golden angels.

– Here, – she pointed to a spot in the middle of the room she knew to be the one and only admissible position.

– You sure, lady? – One of the men asked, showing a missing tooth. The others did not move, – We won’t lift it ten times.

– Here, – Frau Mommsen repeated louder and pointed to the same spot again, to the blue squiggle between a yellow flower and a burgundy leaf on the carpet they stood on.

– If you say so, – the man with the missing tooth said and moved the tree holder to where Frau Mommsen’s finger was showing. He made a sign, and his mates leaned to the tree. ‚One, two, three‘, they counted in chorus like a group of ambulance doctors defibrillating an accident victim; the tree boggled and sprung up reaching to the ceiling with its crown just perfectly. „Where am I?“ it seemed to ask, slightly trembling, and Frau Mommsen petted its branches. She had to admit, it was a true masterpiece, a solid cone of pine green smelling of a faraway forest. She couldn’t wait to enmesh it in soft lights top to bottom, to release angels on its’ branches, to scatter stars on its twigs, to sprinkle it with snowflakes and to make golden and silver balls grow on it like magic fruit – but shutting the door behind the porters she felt how great tiredness settled upon her and sensed a dull and sickening pain in her temples. The blood in her veins was raising to her nape – it felt thick and swollen – like tidal water. Hypertension, a curse that took Frau Mommsen’s mother and her aunt to grave, was now choking her with nausea and strapping her knees; she knew she had just enough time to fetch a glass of water, to swallow a pill of Indapamide, to draw the bedroom curtains and crawl between the sheets praying to be on her feet tomorrow.

-2-

From his window upstairs, Herr Mommsen saw the arrival of the new Christmas tree, he watched his wife rushing to open the front door, the porters unloading the pine and pushing it into the house, and then, several minutes later, leaving through the same door empty-handed. He stood up from his desk and made a few steps across the room. He was feeling better today, and even though he could not unbend fully yet, he could turn left and right without feeling a spear turning inside of his spine. But his calculations, they were not moving anywhere and the paper he had to submit in two weeks was rubbish. It was unconceivable: he knew all the bits of the equation – it was their sequence that he could not establish. The most important thing – the system – was missing, was slipping from him, and every time he thought he had it, it turned out he had made some silly, almost juvenile error. There was no point in buggering on any longer that day, and once there was nothing else to do, he thought he should go downstairs and help Sabine dress the tree. They did not really quarrel but her bad vibe  reached him from the downstairs like a reek of burnt lunch.  It would be a good moment to make up for his flip; they would turn on some nice music, open the boxes with all the stars and angels, he would pass her the decoration and there would be no need to say anything. Herr Mommsen threw a last glance on battered papers scattered across his desk, shut the lights off and walked out of the study.

Downstairs was dark and the Christmas tree stood in the middle of the living room naked and unattended. ‚Sabine!‘ Herr Mommsen called but no one answered. He called again but she did not respond. He peeked in the kitchen and in the library, turning the light switches on and off in every room – but she was not there. Herr Mommsen felt irritated; he must have overlooked her leaving the house together with the porters, she must have gone to fetch some bread for dinner and got stuck at the supermarket, as ever. Perhaps, he thought, he should take another try at this equation, after all. For a moment he stood in the corridor, contemplating – and then he heard a sigh from the bedroom. It was a sigh of a person who was certain they were not heard by anyone; the sadness and pain it was full of were of a kind one can only admit to themselves; it was a sigh about all the pounds gained and all the hair lost, about wasted afternoons and rushed mornings, about children growing up and parents growing old – and it was his wife who breathed it. Then, the bed squeaked, and Herr Mommsen heard a gulp. ‚Blood pressure‘, he realized, tiptoeing away. Regret and guilt overwhelmed him at once. She was right when she said he could not do anything properly from the beginning to the end! Why did he have to buy that silly tree the other day? Why could not he spend more time looking for something better? He would now go to the living room and would dress the new tree alone, top to bottom, he decided. And if his back was going to kill him, it would be only himself to blame.

Herr Mommsen hurried into the living room. Boxes with decoration were mounted on the carpet, and he approached them in big steps. ‚There you go‘, he murmured to himself pulling a first silver ball out of the top box, ‚There you go!‘. He arranged it carefully on a twig touching his shoulder, and pulled the next ball out. This one was red; Herr Mommsen placed it a few inches to the right, on the exactly same hight – and the work started.  At first it felt somewhat strange and disconcerting to be there all alone, without Sabine picking stars and garlands from his hands and arranging them in a manner she alone knew. It occurred to him, he missed her chatter about where this star came from and whether he remembered the market they bought that angel from – the chatter that usually irritated him so much and seemed so distracting.  A feeling of regret filled his heart again, and willing to make up for all his mischiefs, Herr Mommsen hung one ball after the other and soon grew fully absorbed by what his hands were doing. Each ball seemed to be destined for its own hole, and placing it onto precisely the place it was meant to occupy made Herr Mommsen‘s heart boggle.  When the first box of decoration was finished, he stepped back to take a look at the tree and saw a huge matrix of red and silver in front of him. He stood and mazed at the clear and elegant pattern, at the grid of color swaddling the tree‘s green, –  till the noise behind his back made him jolt. Martin, his older son, was standing in the doors with a suitcase. ,Evening, Dad’, he said pulling a wet woolen hat off  and looking around himself anxiously, ‚Is Christmas off?“.

-3-

Although Martin had been living away from Heidenau for more than seven years already, he always carried the keys from his parents’ home on the bottom of his briefcase and when coming to visit he usually opened the front door himself. This time, wiping his boots on a straw mat reading ‚Hotel Mama‘ he sensed something wrong about the house but could not quite make out what it was. As always, the floors were polished and the lights were bright, but there was something strange and disconcerting in the air, a kind of void in place of a familiar substance. He looked around and sniffed the air: there was no smell of dinner being cooked, he realized – the smell that would usually envelope him the moment he turned the door knob. There were no pork loins roasted, no onions fried and no dumplings steamed; no risotto al porcini was puffing on the hob, no salmon was slow-cooking in the oven, no lemon sorbet was resting in the fridge. Worse, Martin’s nose apprehended that there was not even any bread cut and not a single slice of cheese awaiting him on the kitchen table. Even on a regular day all that would be enough to suggest something at home was gravely wrong. But no food on Christmas Eve meant a disaster of a scale Martin did not want to imagine.

– Is Christmas off? – he repeated again watching his father almost dropping a silver ball on the floor.

– Weren’t you supposed to come tomorrow? – Herr Mommsen asked, finally, staring at his son like he was a kind of aberration, – Didn’t you write you would come on the twenty-fourth?

  • Of course, – Martin said unwrapping his scarf, – I did. But, Papa, it is the twenty-fourth today! Check your calendar! It’s Christmas!

– Rubbish! – Herr Mommsen exclaimed, still not moving from the spot, -It is the twenty-third. I know for sure. Yesterday the research committee was sitting and it was the twenty-second. Frau Schmitz was ill, I protocoled, so I remember.

– That can’t be true, Papa! – Martin replied from the doorway, – It simply can’t. I am not mad, I know when Christmas is. And besides, how would they have let me on a plane if my ticket were for a wrong date?

– That’s right! – Herr Mommsen called, – Check your ticket.

– Fine, – Martin said and shrugged shoulders. From a pocket of his coat he produced a wrinkled piece of paper and stretched it to his father. Herr Mommsen carefully put the ball down into the box and finally crossed the room.

– Of course, – he said, taking a brief glance at the ticket and then lifting his eyes to Martin, a mixture of concern, marvel and relief crossing his face, – Just as I thought, the time difference. It is twenty-fourth in Japan now, but in Heidenau it is still the twenty-thrid. We are a bit behind the developed world here, you know.

– Oh shit! – Martin said. For a moment he stood still; then he fell on a chair that happened to stand nearest to him.

– Shit! – He repeated and buried his face in his palms. Herr Mommsen looked around in search for a surface to drop the ticket he was still holding, but having found none at his arm’s length, turned back to Martin and petted him on the shoulder in a manner a housewife touches a piping pot.

– Come, Martin, come, –  He said and opened his arms in an embrace, the crumpled paper still clasped in his left hand –  Come, good you are home!

Martin raised from the chair and for a moment let himself be pressed to his father’s chest.

– I just can’t imagine how I could have made such a stupid mistake! – He howled  and pulled himself out of the embrace, curling back onto his chair, – I am just tired, tired, tired! Tired like hell! I have no idea where I am, I don’t  even know when Christmas is!

Herr Mommsen waited silently.

– I’ve had four intercontinental flights in two weeks, father, – Martin said and lifted his face to his father; there were dark circles around his eyes and his skin looked flaky, – I am exhausted. I have not slept for days!

– Come, Martin, come! – Herr Mommsen repeated and helped his son off the chair, – You go to bed now, and I’ll bring you a sandwich or something. Mother is unwell with blood pressure, – he explained, catching Martin’s stunned expression, –  We all go lie down now, – he concluded in a tone he otherwise used to finalize a theorem, – and in the morning we shall all have a nice breakfast together.

Half an hour later Martin crawled into his old bed and stretched on the sheets he remembered from the days he did moon walk at school discos, took a deep breath, closed his eyes – and sat straight up the next second, almost toppling with his head a bookshelf with the ‚Lord of the Rings‘. He was irreversibly and definitely awake, and nothing in the world could make him sleep now, not for another six or seven hours till the sun would start raising  in Singapore or setting down  in New York. He was in between of everywhere, and it felt like he was still on an endless flight, neither here nor there, tired but not asleep, hungry but with an aftertaste of a ham-and-cheese sandwich in his mouth. For a moment, Martin stared into the darkness. Then he bent down to the trousers crumpled on the floor and pulled his smartphone out of the pocket; the screen lit the mole under his left eye and his receding hairline. There was not much happening out in the world. The stock quotes haven’t changed since he checked them on airport express – in Europe the Christmas lethargy was settling in, and Asia was in bed. At ten o’clock in the evening in Heidenau it did not matter to the world whether Martin was now asleep or awake, whether he was healthy or sick, whether he had anything to sell or anything to buy. It did not even seem to matter whether his plane landed in Frankfurt International or perished somewhere in Mongolia. For the first time in many weeks, Martin Mommsen was on his own.

„Bugger!“ he whispered and hit the bed with a fist. Then he put his feet down, found his slippers and walked out of the room. The corridor was dark, but in the living room the lights on the Christmas tree were twinkling. His brother was not there, his parents were asleep, and the tree waited for him to make a move like a pretty girl in a crowded bar. Martin looked around and making sure there was, indeed, no light coming from anywhere, tiptoed forward; he shut the door behind him without making noise and turned the lights on. For a moment he stood still, musing at the tree: the project his father started was ambitious, but unaccomplished; the top and the bottom branches were hardly touched, and a dozen of boxes stood closed. What was the last time he dressed a Christmas tree? He no longer remembered. Not surprising, he thought, he did not even know when Christmas was. What was he thinking of, buying presents in Tokyo’s duty free shop: for his mother, a perfume he did not even have time to smell; for his father a tie that hung closest to the cashier; and for his brother, a set of chopsticks meant for a sort of rice one could not buy in Europe. What happened to him, to Martin Mommsen who wrote a poem about Christmas star that won his elementary school competition? Slowly and without taking his gaze off the tree, he started singing in a voice so low one would not hear him from two steps away. „Sti-i-lle Na-acht, he-eilige Nacht“ he murmured, clenching and opening his fists again and again. He only remembered the first verse, but that was enough to make him feel better; he opened the top box, pulled a golden angel out of it and tossed it in his palms. The angel took its place between two red balls with dignity and grace; a divine intervention in the perfect particle pattern arranged by Herr Mommsen a few hours before. ‚One‘, Martin counted and fetched another figure, equally celestial. He hung it a few inches lower and counted ‚two‘. Soon Martin’s hands moved in a quick and precise manner; the work gave him pleasure: it was mindless, but meaningful; simple, but rewarding, and with every angel mounted on the tree, his sense of accomplishment was growing and his hands were dusted with golden glitter. He made a break at about midnight and sneaked into the kitchen for a cup of tea. The smell of chamomile, the darkness outside and the silence of the house made him feel tired, his eyes were itching and he yawned, but he knew he wouldn’t sleep yet. In the two last weeks, having spent many nights rolling in beds of Hiltons and Holiday Inns scattered at the distance of ten flying hours from each other, he learnt that the minute he would pull the blanket to his chin, he would be awake, lines of stock charts blazing under his eyelids like lightings of a thunderstorm, his skin burning and his hair feeling greasy. Simply being tired was not enough to sleep; it had to be exhaustion of a Biblical scale – blind, merciless and excruciating – a point he still had to reach that night. Martin rinsed his cup in the sink and went back into the living room; there were six or seven more boxes to unpack. He picked up the ladder and started dressing the upper branches with stars, wreaths and snowflakes, whispering numbers to himself. He made two breaks wrapping more electric lights around the tree’s bottom and having more tea, and by the time the tree was dressed with two hundred and twenty one figures, it was half past four in the morning. Martin’s hands were trembling, and his shoulders were aching badly. Now, he felt, was the time, now and not a minute later. Empty boxes, glitter, pieces of rope and old bulbs were scattered all over the carpet, and the big golden star had yet to be fixed on the the crown, but Martin no longer cared. Nothing in the world mattered now, and even if the floor would open and the earth would swallow the tree that minute, he would not be bothered. He wiped his hands off his pajama trousers, turned off the lights and went into his room, unable to stand upright. No one had seen him; he slipped into his room and fell on the bed. He was asleep before his nape touched the cold surface of the pillow case; he slept vigorously, stretching on the bottom of a black and silent pit, breathing with gusto. It was a deep sleep; a primordial sleep, a sleep tantamount to a shut-down nuclear plant. A sleep that lasted forty six minutes, the eternity before an earthquake kicked Martin from the ocean trench he was resting in. His mother, wrapped in a yellow bathrobe was shaking his shoulder and shouting into his face:

– Wake up, Martin, it is not good to give in to jet lag, you might get insomnia from it. Do you want your eggs sunny side up or scrambled? Get up! Get up!

  • 4 –

Unlike his brother, Lucas did not have to work till Christmas day. The university was empty, the library closed on the twenty-second and there was nothing to do. Still, Lucas preferred to loom around his flat alone, hungry and bored, picking on Lebkuchen left by his roommate on a shelf. He told Annie that if he could not avoid going home that year, at least he would make sure they wouldn’t stay too long. On the twenty-fourth of December the train from Cologne to Heidenau was so full they had to sit on the floor between the wagons, but the ride, he had to admit, was beautiful.

– It can’t be real! – Annie kept exclaiming, pressing her face to the window where Rhein was flowing pass tile-roofed houses half covered with snow, pass cliffs and rocks each marked either by a suicide of a poet or a wedding of a prince, pass wine hills, pass churches drowning in lights. Lucas took her hand and she squeezed his fingers in response. He closed his eyes, smiling; if that was what it took to make her love him, he was happy to oblige.

– It can’t be real! – Annie cried one more time, when Frau Mommsen took her by the shoulder and threw the door of the living room open in front of her. A magnificent Christmas tree, tall and enmeshed in light floated in the afternoon dusk, touching the ceiling with a golden star on the top of its crown; the red and silver balls were tingling gently, the angels blew their trumpets and the snowflakes whispered promises as sweet as sugar. Frau Mommsen spent half a day re-dressing the tree – it was unbelievable what kind of a mess her husband managed to make by simply sticking the balls and the angels wherever he pleased, but thankfully, she had a bit of time between smearing the duck in herbs and oil and whisking the eggs for a gateau. Even though she only managed to re-do the front of the tree, she had to admit, it looked majestic. For a minute the three of them – Lucas, Annie and Frau Mommsen – stood still, and the foretaste of miracle to come upon them was so strong that each of them blinked a few times.

– Oh, – Annie exclaimed and freed her hand from Lucas’s, – I almost forgot I have a present for you!

She started rummaging through her backpack while Frau Mommsen stared at her,  shaken out of her sweet stupor.

– There! – Annie said and produced a pretty but slightly crumpled box, – It is for you!

Somewhat uncertain, Frau Mommsen took the box from Annie’s hands. It was not the time to exchange presents – the Bescherung was to take place between the main course and the dessert, at least five hours later – but Annie was a novice, and slips like that were to be expected and forgiven.

– Thank you very much, – Frau Mommsen said and started unwrapping the present. – How beautiful! – She exclaimed in a moment.

– What is it? – Lucas asked, stretching his neck.

– A set of Christmas balls, – Frau Mommsen said and showed him the box, – Four pieces. Very lovely!

– Would you mind if I hang them myself now? – Annie asked, – Please, please! – She cried, – I have never decorated a Christmas tree myself before!

An expression of perplex crossed Frau Mommsen’s face. Just now, when she had finally managed to make it all look more or less acceptable, she could not let a dilettante destroy her work. Besides, the balls were pretty, but only a blindman would not see they did not fit with everything else.

– Come on, Mama, – Lucas said and pulled the box from Frau Mommsen’s hands, – Annie’s been dreaming of it for weeks.

Frau Mommsen tried making a smile. ‚Go ahead‘ she said and stepped back.

With the box in her hands Annie walked to the tree and moved the twigs apart; the stars tingled gently.  Carefully, she hung her first ball. Her fingers were trembling, and she felt goosebumps on her back. If only her mother and aunt Ruth would see her now. This year she did everything she promised to herself; she read Heidegger, she’d been to a Wagner opera and got as far as she could – decorating a Christmas tree in her German boyfriend’s home. Annie hung the second ball. ‚It was Hitler who did not want Jews to live in Germany!‘, she almost shouted into the pine-smelling darkness, as if she was talking on the phone with her mother. ‚I live where I want to live and if I want to celebrate Christmas, I will! Jesus was a Jew!‘. Annie’s heart was now pounding in her throat, and for a moment she had to hide her face in the green, fixing the third ball somewhere close to the trunk. A great feeling she could not explain overwhelmed her – the same feeling that swept over her in Jerusalem last year when she pushed a note with a wish between the bricks of the Wailing Wall; just like a year ago, pushing her way through a crowd of men and women scribbling their dreams on backs of old boarding passes and on pieces of Kleenex, she felt that she was a drop in the sea, perhaps, a meaningless drop – but a drop with her own will, a drop that refused to dissolve. ‚I love Lucas‘, she decided and hung the last ball right in front of her face; the reflection in the gleaming gold blinked with four eyes.

– 5 –

At half past seven in the evening Frau Mommsen placed three bottles of champagne in the fridge, took two blood pressure pills – just to go sure – and rushed to the library where she had left Martin half an hour ago with a task of choosing a few score sheets for Christmas carols. Just as she expected, she found him dozing in a chair, his head resting against the shelf, his mouth open and a pile of sheets resting on his knees.  She shook him strongly, and having sent him to take a shower, hasted to the living room. By seven forty-five, the table was set. She took the last glance at the plates and the silver,  shut the door and ran to the bedroom where a sequined tunica hung by the opened window and a pair of lacquered ballerinas rested in the box by the bed – and while her husband was fighting with his tie, she put her shoes and her dress on, touched her lips with red, brushed her hair and sprayed herself with perfume, filling the air with a smell of hyacinths. At five to eight, she fixed Herr Mommsen’s cufflinks and re-made his tie, ran to Martin’s room to make sure he was almost dressed and then rushed back to the living room. The air was still and it smelled of pine; a dozen of beautifully wrapped boxes were resting under the tree. Frau Mommsen opened the piano, – and as the oven timer started beeping eight, the anthem to the Tannenbaum rolled through the house, its’ doors opened one after the other, and dressed in their best suits, freshly shaved and feeling the stiffness of pressed collars against their throats, the three Mommsen men spilled out their rooms. The oldest of them forgot to change into his festive shoes, and his trouser legs were now resting on a pair of Birkenstocks – and as for Martin, his face was puffy; in the living room he slipped into an armchair tucked into the darkest corner and closed his eyes at once. Lucas, instead, gleamed like a lit-up match, tall, narrow and dark-headed. He loomed by the tree looking around restlessly with his arms folded, and Frau Mommsen thought she could hear his heartbeat from her place behind the piano. Finally, there were steps in the corridor – surprisingly heavy for a girl weighting no more than hundred pounds – and in a second Annie emerged in the door. The skirt of her green dress was almost touching the floor; she looked intense like a fresh lime.

Frau Mommsen nodded and put her hands on the keys.  „O du fröliche, o du selige, gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit!“, she stroke up the first verse, and the next second her husband’s voice joined in:

Welt ging verloren, Christ ist geboren:
Freue, freue dich, Christenheit!

They sang, their faces lit by the light of twelve chandeliers, solemn and dreamy – and Lucas could not take his eyes off Annie. He knew she did not understand most of the words – but nevertheless, she was fully absorbed by something she alone heard now, oblivious to his mother’s yowling, to his father’s lisping and to the fact that his brother was only moving his lips silently, his eyes half-closed. Annie’s eyes were fixed on the star crowning the tree, her face was earnest and tender, and a pang of jealousy ran down Lucas’s back: if only she would ever gaze at him alone like that! ‚Freue, freue dich, Christenheit!‘ he joined in, and for a second Annie turned to him at the sound of his voice. Their eyes met, joy filled his lungs, and he sang louder and louder; every word that came out his mouth had a meaning now; his own voice seemed to attain an unknown clarity and strength, and he felt that his whole life was now heading towards some wonderful curve. ‚Freue, freue dich, Christenheit!‘ he sang for the last time, and when his mother took her hands off the keys, a feeling of regret overwhelmed him for a minute. He glanced at Annie again: she stood still and did not even seem to notice the music stop; she only woke up when an enormous silver plate crowned with a glass lid protruded into the door, Frau Mommsen’s figure hardly visible behind it. The plate descended into the very middle of the table, the duck inside of it pressing its wings to its roasted body and concealing its’ absence of a head under a heap of Rotkohl.

– Dinner! – Frau Mommsen called and plucked the lid into the air.

And as heads started turning to the table, as the duck breathed a cloud of cranberry-scented steam into the air, as Annie’s eyes glided over a mole on Lucas’s nape, as Herr Mommsen’s hand touched the back of an oak chair – something cracked inside of a Christmas tree. It sighed, and with a sound of thousand stars hitting the icy Earth, of angels breaking their wings, of planets walloping from their orbits, and all the rain and the snow pouring down, – with all this roar and brattle the tree crashed on the dinner table, raising a firework of broken glass and smashing the silver plate on a carpet, on a blue squiggle weaved between burgundy leaves and yellow flowers.

-6-

– Ho-ly shit, – Lucas said without moving, and Frau Mommsen made a short, choking sound. One could think she was chortling at a pun, wouldn’t her face be so bulged. Tears burst out of her eyes and she fell on a chair studded with pine needles and splitters of glass she did not seem to notice.

– I’ll get the hoover, – Herr Mommsen said and made a step to the door; there he stopped for a second, shifted his feet and looked around the room one more time. Annie and Lucas kneeled down; rummaging through the dust of apocalypses meshed on the floor, they tried to not look at each other. Frau Mommsen was sobbing.

– Put what’s not broken on the table. I’ll be right back, – Herr Mommsen said and stepped into the corridor.

The hoover, he assumed, had to be in the larder by the kitchen, a small dark room where his wife kept her aprons, her brooms and her dusters. He opened the door, and the smell of chemicals filled his nostrils, dozens of  sprays, liquids and soap bars were sitting on the shelves waiting to be put to use, promising to make every surface shiny and to eliminate every undesignated life that dared to spring under a sink or in a bathtub. There were piles of terry cloths and wipers, there were sponges packed in dozens, there were rubber gloves hanging off a nail in the wall; there was a force cup and a brand new toilet brush packed in crumpled plastic. There was everything – but a hoover. Herr Mommsen stepped out with the feeling of regret; it was almost sad to leave a place so neat.

– Sabine!  – He called across the corridor, – Where did you put the hoover?

He waited for a moment, but no one replied; instead, he heard his wive’s ululation becoming louder.

– Damn, -Herr Mommsen said to himself and scratched his chin. Given that his was a situations of uncertainty,  the regression method was to be applied, he decided. In that sense, the living room and the bedroom could be discarded immediately; he had just been to both and remembered seeing no hoover in either of them. It occurred to him that the hoover’s dimensions needed to be taken into considerations as a key condition. A standard hoover, he reckoned, was about one and a half foot long, with a wand of, lets say, three feet high, hence, Herr Mommsen concluded, it was highly unlikely that someone would leave an object of such size simply standing in the middle of their room. Thus, Martin’s and Lucas’s rooms, as well as the library, could be eliminated from calculations, too. With a great probability, same could be said  about the kitchen where a hoover would be on the way and interfere with the cooking process.  Therefore, there were only two possible places left:  a closet under the staircase, or the cellar laundry. Herr Mommsen hurried down the corridor. Plunging between sleeves and scarves in a dark corner under the steps, he thought he almost saw the hoover’s red plastic shining from the dusk – but he was wrong. He stuck his head out, feeling baffled. In fact, he was no longer sure whether the hoover was, indeed, red. Something was vaguely reminding him that the one he had in his mind had been replaced with a different model one last year – a new model, he now realized, he had never seen.

– Damn, – Herr Mommsen said again and pushed the cellar door, and climbed the narrow wooden steps. The laundry door was open; hills of clothes were covering its floor and there were full baskets with socks, stockings and shirts everywhere. He could not see the hoover, but it could be hiding anywhere. Herr Mommsen picked a few shirts from the floor and moved a box with the detergent aside; by the sink he noticed a belt his wife must have pulled out of his trousers before washing them. He was about to pick it up, when something suddenly caught his eye and he threw the belt back on the floor. A thin white book, stained with water and very dusty, was tucked under the heel of the washing machine; someone must have pushed it there to prevent it from shaking on the uneven floor. ‚International Journal of Computational Science and Mathematics‘, Issue 3,  2004, the cover was reading.

– Damn! – Herr Mommsen shouted for the third time in last half hour and fell on his knees, his suit trousers immediately turning white with the detergent dust. With a roar, he pulled the book to himself, but it was stuck.

– Come, – Herr Mommsen growled, – Come!

He spent the next few minutes crawling on the floor, trying to find the best angle to pull the book from under a ton of iron. His tie and his shirt were now grey, and his glasses hung on the tip of his nose. Oblivious to pain in his back, he jumped on his feet and pulled his coat off; he bent down again and budged the corner of the washing machine with a groan, finally, managing to kick the journal from under it with his foot. Purple and choking, he sunk in a pile of sweatshirts on the floor and leafed through the book looking for something he knew was there. ‚A Numerical Approximation for Wood’s Equation‘, he read loud and laughed. ‚I’ve got it, I’ve got it‘, he cried, holding the book above his head and shaking it in his fist, ‚I’ve got it!‘.

With a book open in front of his eyes, his trousers draggled in something sticky and white and his shirt hanging loosely around his aching waist, Herr Mommsen climbed the stairs. Shutting the cellar door, he listened to the sounds in the house: it was quiet now. ‚They’ll get on without me‘, he thought, ‚And if she can’t even put the bloody hoover where it belongs, what can I do‘. He turned on his heels and hurried upstairs; he knew that unless he starts writing now, the equation will disperse again, making a quite ‚pop‘ of a soap bubble. He broke into his study and shut the door. ,This paper gives an approximation of Wood’s Equation based on Variational Method’, he typed hastily in a new file and breathed out. The real work was now to begin.

– 7 –

– Its all your father’s doing! – Frau Mommsen howled in the living room, – First he buys a lousy tree, and who is to take care of it? Me, of course! I have to dump it, I have to pay for it, I have to do everything! And on the top of  I have to scour the whole town to find something decent instead! And when I find it, and I lie down for a moment, the one time in a year, what does he do? He goes and spoils everything! He hangs everything the way he pleases, so that in the end the tree falls!

– Where is your father, by the way? – Annie asked, turning her head to Lucas. He shrugged shoulders without lifting his head and keeping on picking glass splitters from the carpet.

– Exactly! – Frau Mommsen cried, – Thats exactly like your father! It’s at least quarter of an hour since he left! It was a hoover he wanted to bring, wasn’t it?Very well, – she shouted and hit the table with a fist, – I’ll go and find him. I won’t not talk to him, I just want to look into his eyes! I just want the bloody hoover.

Breathing heavily, her face red and swollen, Frau Mommsen got up from the chair, and Lucas sprung on his feet:

– Please, Mama! – he said, – Please, sit down.

– Now you are telling me what to do! – She cried so loudly, Martin stirred in his chair and blinked briefly, – Who do you think you are? I run this house, I do! I cook, I clean, I sort his socks! And I decide where I go and what I tell him! You hear me?

– Mama, – Lucas repeated, – Calm down.

  • Calm down! Stop fussing! It is all I hear from you, all my life, all my bloody life! – Frau Mommsen shouted back, – Like, you are ashamed of me! And you can’t even wipe your nose without me! Just like your father!

Something rustled grumpily in the other end of the room, and for a second everyone turned their heads to Martin.

– Does it always have to be like you are about kill each other? – He asked, getting up from the chair, – Every time I come here, you two are fighting. Can’t you just be a but nicer, that’s all?

– But he has no respect for me! He.. – Frau Mommsen started again, but Lucas interrupted her.

– You! – he was screaming at his brother now, – What have you to say here, of all people? You think you are such a smart ass, you never say what you think, you just nod, yes sir, no sir! – Lucas took a breath and made a grimace made to portrait someone extremely unpleasant and very servile, – All your life, you just do what you are told, of course, you are fucking paid for it. If your boss tells you to fire seven thousand people somewhere in China tomorrow, you will! All your life you just keep quiet, you Mummy’s little boy!

He breathed out, and there was silence for a moment.

– All I wanted to say is that we should probably have something to eat in the kitchen, and we can clean here tomorrow, – Martin said turning to his mother, – But it does not look like a good idea to me now. I think I’ll better go sleep then. And you, – he nodded to his brother, – Are a little sucker. I told you before, if you want to spend your life reading Immanuel Kant while living off social welfare paid from my taxes, its fine with me, but I just feel like I should remind you, – He made a little pause, contemplating, his face acquiring a concentrated look of an accountant summarizing the balance  – I can’t see what she found in you, – he, finally, said and pointed to Annie.

They were now standing in front of each other, two brothers, thin, tall and angry, clenching their fists. Frau Mommsen was howling on her chair.

– Both of you, stop! – Annie cried, sprung forward, and pulled Lucas aside, grabbing him on the sleeve, – Now! – She shouted, hanging on him like a pincher.

– Get lost! – Lucas cried back and pushed her slightly, but she was holding firmly.

Martin snorted and stepped to the door.

– Good night, – he said while his brother was trying to free himself from Annie’s grasp and left the room.

After a minute of silent fighting, finally shaking himself out of the crumpled coat clenched in Annie’s hands, Lucas slammed the door after himself, too. There were now only Frau Mommsen and Annie left in the room – not counting the tree stretched on the floor.

– What a shame, – Frau Mommsen uttered, her face buried in her palms, – A shame!

– Its ok, – Annie said and threw Lucas’s coat on the chair, – I think you need to drink something, – she added, looking at Frau Mommsen’s wincing shoulders. She looked around to find some water, but there was none in the room; the crystal decanter lay on the floor broken, and the carpet around it was soaked.

– We’ll have champagne then, – she said and picked the bottle from the bucket on the table. Peeling off the foil and trying to make Frau Mommsen look at her, she continued, – I’m quite good in opening champagne, can you believe it? I’m actually better than my Dad. You know what he did at my nephew’s Brit Milah? He shook the bottle so bad, the cork almost picked the mohel’s eye!

Frau Mommsen’s shoulders continued wincing.

– Never mind, – Annie said and started untwisting the wire, – Let’s just have a drink.

She wrapped the corner of the table cloth around the bottle neck, her fingers made a slight move – and the cork popped out with a gentle sound.

– There, – she said, stretching Frau Mommsen a full glass, – Drink it. Please.

Finally, Frau Mommsen put her hands down. Her face was almost purple.

– Thank you, – she whispered and took the glass.

Annie filled another glass and lifted it in the air:

– To the ladies! And Merry Christmas! – she said and made a loud gulp.

– Merry Christmas, – Frau Mommsen whispered and touched the glass with her lips. The wine was delightful – it was her special Christmas spoil, slightly dryish, but with a wonderful fruity note in the end. She closed her eyes and made another drink. Suddenly, she hiccuped, and the glass shook in her hand. ‚To stop hiccup, drink in little gulps‘, she remembered reading somewhere and put the glass to her lips again. The tingling bubbles ran down her throat and filled her chest with a long-forgotten lightness. She gulped again, and again, feeling like she was picked into the air and pulled up, higher and higher.

– Can I have some more? – She asked Annie in a weak voice and stretched her glass.

– But of course! – Annie said and poured another glass.

They drank the other two glasses in silence, staring at the tree spread on the floor like a dismembered corpse, and watching the candle lights on the piano tremble. It was the third glass when Frau Mommsen felt something was wrong. Suddenly, her knees shook, and her head became very heavy:

– I think I might need to lie down, – she muttered plunking the glass on the table, – I am feeling  a bit groggy, – she said and made her way to the sofa, surprised at how long and slow her own legs had become.

– Are you all right? – Annie cried, but Frau Mommsen did not feel like opening her mouth: the tongue was too heavy to bother, and she only made a sign with her hand meaning that she wanted to be left in peace for another day or two, at least.

But Annie would not let go:

– I’ll call the doctor, – she said leaning over the sofa, and Frau Mommsen’s sleepy brain spluttered a figure of a big-eyed nurse screaming ‚We are losing him!‘ to a crowd of relatives, a picture her mind stored from some American TV-series she watched last year.

  • I am fine,  – she murmured, feeling Annie’s hand on her shoulder and pulling her knees to her chest, – I took two Indapamide pills tonight. And then, – she yawned like a cat, – I had all this bubbly with you. Ughhu, – she breathed out, stretched her legs and closed her eyes, – Just let me sleep, – she whispered so gently that Annie put her hand down and made a step back. A piece of glass crunched under her heel, but Frau Mommsen did not move.

Annie filled her glass again and walked to the window where other living rooms, full of light and fragrant steam, were twinkling in the darkness. She stood and stared, watching the shadows of other people’s lives flickering behind the curtains of  houses so pretty that they seemed to be made of gingerbread. There were more songs sung in these houses, and there were beautiful trees in each of them. People were laughing there, and little boys were clasping their hands over new Lego sets and railway models, and wives were cutting the best pieces for their husbands, and sons were blushing when their fathers were filling their girlfriends’ glasses.

A sound of a hoover rolling on the floor made her turn her head; Lucas was standing in the door, dressed in a pair of old jeans and a sweatshirt.

– Your mother is asleep, – Annie said, and turned back to the window.

– I see, – Lucas whispered and nodded.

There was silence for a moment.

– I’ll get her a blanket, – Lucas said, finally letting go of the hoover, and walked out of the room.

When he came back Annie was still by the window and her back looked a bit too straight. With a corner of her wet eye she saw Lucas swaddling his mother in a patchwork blanket – Frau Mommsen snorted without waking up – and walking to a pile of boxes scattered between the broken twigs.

– I am going to open my presents now, – He said addressing no one in particular, and Annie did not stir.

– I’ll start with Martin’s, – Lucas continued picking up a small narrow box wrapped into golden paper, – Let’s see what this mother fucker has got for me this year. You know, – he kept talking, tearing the paper, – He’s not a bad guy. He just thinks he is the smartest ass on Earth. But he really is clever. And down here, – Lucas pointed to his chest, noticing that Annie has turned to him slightly, – He is ok. I think he is just envious of me, that’s all. All the freedom I have, and everything. By the way, I told you he was gay? Oh Jesus, look at that! – He cried, and Annie, finally, turned her swollen face to him, – Chopsticks! Marti gave me chopsticks!

  • I am hungry, – Annie said, and with the tip of her shoe she tipped something soft and brown. It was the duck – pierced by a pine twig and crusted with broken glass, a sacrifice for the Spirit of Christmas.

– 8-

There was only deep-frozen Chinese vegetable rice on the bottom of the freezer left, and Annie still had a bottle of coke in her backpack. They filled their plates and turned on the kitchen TV. On the first channel Joseph, Jesus and Mary were trying to pull George Bailey off the bridge; on the other Holly Golightly was pressing a cat to her chest and on the third, a man in a silly hat was shouting ‚Merry Christmas!‘.

– Merry Christmas,  – Lucas said spitting a few rice corns out of his mouth.

– Merry Christmas, – Annie replied and poured a spoonful of soy sauce into her plate, – L’chaim!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Chicken is not quite a bird, Poland is not quite abroad

In 1990 a colleague of my mother got a nose job done. It was the very first cosmetic rhinoplasty conducted in Leningrad, ever. Of course, plastic surgeries had been carried out before, however, up until that memorable day they were only done to people with severe medical conditions or to intelligence officers under cover. Whose nose was to be modified and whose had to remain as is was decided by the Soviet government, and no one could stick their snoot into the matter. Grisha Rabinovich was the first person to be rolled out of the surgery, his face stitched up, just because he wanted so, – and paid for it. Grisha’s face became the face of a new era – the era of liberalized market and private enterprise, Soviet-style, it was that very re-vamped ‘human face’ Gorbachev wanted socialism to wear. It must be mentioned, though, that Grisha’s was not just some common, unassuming nose, freckled and potato-shaped, widely represented across the Russian Federation. No, it was a distinguished, prominent Semitic beak, and like the USSR occupied five sixths of the Earth, the nose occupied the most space on Grisha’s face, –  a feature, which caused great disconcert in his fellow citizens. The nose looked unmistakably Jewish and cast dark shadow on Grisha’s whole life. Although he managed to bribe someone and get ‚Russian‘ entered into the ‚Ethnicity‘ graph of his Soviet passport, – the famous ‚fifth paragraph‘, as non-negotiable as the original sin, – no one trusted him. ‚It’s the snout which gets thwacked, not the passport‘, Grisha complained and sighed, wiping blood off his upper lip: the working-class congregation at his favorite beer stall disclosed him as a zionist plotter at least once a week. Besides, with the exception of middle-aged divorcees willing to emigrate to Israel by marrying a Jew, women avoided Grisha; the young and pretty girls he courted, feared that the nose signified scary disproportions elsewhere. And finally, because no one wanted to give Grisha his dream job of a TV football commentator, for years he survived from odd freelance editorials on history of Soviet chess. Perhaps, a man of a different scale, –  lets say, Julius Caesar, – would find enough strength to stay above those discomforts and to nurture his profile in ascetic solitude, but Grisha considered himself an average Soviet man, and all he wanted was a pint of Zhigulevskoe after work, a girlfriend to shag and a salary to spend. All his life, he dreamt of nothing but circumcising his olfactory organ, – and as soon as private medical services were declared legal, Grisha had set out on becoming rich and paying for a rhinoplasty.

To fulfill his dream Grisha needed a lot of money, – a chimeric, unattainable amount of a thousand dollars,  – money  that certainly could not be made by chess, unless you were Bobby Fisher. And thus, Grisha Rabinovich, a PhD in Applied Mathematics, had undergone a professional retraining and became a smuggler from zagranitsa. As soon as the Iron Curtain had crumbled on its’ Eastern European perimeter, Grisha established an enterprise in Poland. Every two weeks he would spring on a train to Warsaw,  a huge pink-and-blue zippered plastic bag full of moonshine, cigarettes and matreshkas hanging off his stooped shoulders. Having crossed the border, Grisha got off at every station and sold his wares to the local population already queuing on the platform in anticipation of supply. Then, he would exchange a half of his hard-earned zlotys into dollars, spend the other half on goods offered by the brotherly Polish vendors, – and rush back to Motherland. In Petersburg Grisha was picked up from the station by his business partners who courteously took him by the elbows the moment he stepped of the train, and pressing a short-gun to his thigh assisted him in carrying his bags with cash, counterfeit watch, Chinese tape-recorders and bananas into a tinted-glass Landrover. Although there was high human resources rotation in Grisha’s enterprise, with many employees deceasing prematurely from what demographers call ‚external causes‘, the profits were worth it:  half a year of tireless smuggling, – and there he was, with a nose cute as a daisy and a briefcase full of hard currency. This, at least, what he looked like on a winter day when he almost run my father over with his BMW.

Unlike Grisha, my father was not doing so well. His factory stopped paying salaries to engineers the moment the USSR had collapsed and we survived from jars of pink slime sent from China as an exchange for exported turbine parts. The day Grisha’s BMW drove into my father’s life like a chariot of glory, he was returning home musing over an insolvable problem.  Just a few hours before he had found out that as a labor union Chairman of Sports and Recreation Committee he had been chosen to accompany a group of teenage boys to a judo tournament in Poland, in a few months. The news were truly exciting: my father had never been to zagranitsa before, and he felt that the luck bestowed upon him was inconceivable. But, alas, the factory did not have money to cover his travel expenses. It was my father’s own business of how he would pay for the trip; he marched along the dark street and pondered, painfully, until Grisha’s headlights illuminated the way and kicked him out of stupor.

Shaking my half-dead parent from snow, Grisha explained that although he had already bought the driving license, there had been no time to take all the necessary classes yet. To celebrate the lucky outcome of his automobile maneuver, Grisha pulled a bottle of Amaretto from a pocket of his Italian sheepskin coat,  and after a shot or two, lulled with warmth and almond sweetness of a foreign drink, my father poured his soul to him. ‚Fear not, Jakov‘, Grisha said, and taking a cyanic-smelling piss into a snow pit, made my father an offer he could not refuse. The plan was simple and lucid, – Grisha’s mathematical logic remained in place even when the Jewish nose was removed. Because Grisha’s new face no longer corresponded with the photograph in his travel passport, he could not undertake the export sales himself, and needed a temporary partner. ‚But I do not know what to do! It will be my first time in zagranitsa!‘, my father protested, but Grisha stayed firm. ‚Chicken is not quite a bird, Poland is not quite abroad‘, he quoted a famous Soviet saying and slapped my father on the shoulder, ‚I will help you‘. It was agreed that Grisha would introduce my parents into the intricacies of international trade and provide them with a few valuable goods to release on the market, so that my father could afford his trip and even make a bit of money. In case this first try went well, my father would be appointed as Grisha’s right hand later. ‚I think it is a beginning of a beautiful friendship‘, Rabinovich concluded and thrust the door of his BMW open.

For days to come, my father’s anxiety increased drop by drop, like tidal water threatening to sink the whole venture. In spite of Grisha’s assurances, he believed he was utterly unable to make business, in particular, in a foreign country. There was no way back, however: one could not miss a chance of seeing the zagranitsa, even though it was only Poland. Moreover, one had to be an absolute idiot to come back empty-handed. Watching her husband’s torments, my mother decided to go to Poland, too: my Dad would, thus, supervise thirty judo boys, and she would supervise him, like a kind of a Black Belt master. With a Japanese calculator Grisha leased my parents as means of production, they were spending hours converting zlotys into dollars and dollars into rubles. Finally, my father declared, all expenses and profits taken together, as a result of the venture we would be able to afford ourselves a German VCR – a luxury I had only seen in a house of a classmate who was accompanied to school by two bodyguards,  – and who bought a few streets in Chelsea a few years later. Inspired by the prospect, my parents started rummaging their stocks in order to raise funds for the road. The first thing my mother ever sold in her life was a stunning tracksuit of Chinese manufacture: made of glassy synthetic fabric, with green and red hieroglyphs on the chest and with broad trouser piping. Hundreds of these tracksuits were sent to my father’s factory along with the meat preserves, as a part of the barter program. ‚Eat well and exercise, Russian turbine builders‘, the Chinese comrades seemed to say, – but my parents remained deaf to their call, and the track suit was sitting on a shelf in its‘ original package for many months. At the same time, many a man and a woman in Leningrad were ready to part with their money for this product of Asian consumer industry: track suits were worn to the theater premieres and romantic dates, they symbolized the unattainable and cool world of zagranitsa. My mother exchanged it in a clothes kiosk at the nearest tube station for three hundred fifty rubles, a sum otherwise enough to purchase five dozens of eggs. The next investment into zagranitsa was a six-kilo Hermitage catalogue which was sold for a price of two and a half track suits to some foreign tourist.

With cash in their hands, my parents, finally bought themselves train tickets to Krakow. More than two months remained till the day of the departure, but the entrance to the free market had to be prepared minutely. Bottles of liquor, jars of preserves and staples of cigarette blocks were growing on our cupboard, and with maps of Poland stretched on the dinner table our kitchen looked like headquarters of the next Intervention. ‚Poles are crazy about Russian sprats in oil‘, Grisha instructed my parents while pouring Amaretto into shot glasses. ‚Also, bring manicure sets, dolls, band-aids and chocolates‘. ‚But how come they have no canned sprats in oil?‘, my father mused over the inconceivable. ‚Because they are about to enter the European Union‘, Grisha explained, ‚And no longer produce anything of their own, poor things. Not even apples‘. For a minute, Russia seemed like a supreme power: even under most bleak circumstances, every Russian citizen could always count on a jar of canned sprats as a New Year’s treat. During the era of Grisha’s visits, washing sprats down with Amaretto had become my idea of supreme luxury.

Finally, a few weeks later, my parents got on a train. I told them to not come back without real ‚Fanta‘, and the fear of failure darkened their faces. Each of them carried two bottles of vodka, two blocks of cigarettes, a set of nail clippers, a few matreshkas – and, of course, countless jars of sprat preserves. Besides, ten minutes before departure, Grisha pushed a Russian floral shawl into my mother’s hands: apparently, foreign women were heels over head about feverish roses weaved on black wool and were ready to pay hard currency for them. A separate bag with food my father was pressing to his chest, – boiled eggs, chicken schnitzel, cucumber sandwiches, cookies and chocolates, – was meant to prevent from unnecessary expenses on the road. In Krakow, the judo delegation was picked up from the station by a mustached man from the local administration. He glanced briefly at the thirty boys, and having established they were not Japanese, lost interest to them immediately. Instead, he pointed to my father’s luggage and inquired whether he had anything to sell. ‚Have you got sprats? Your wonderful, tasty Soviet sprats?‘, the man asked, and his mustache moved in foretaste of a treat. ‚Twenty jars!‘, my father replied proudly, like a worker reporting on the over-fulfillment of a five-year-plan. ‚Very well‘, the man said, ‚And how about vodka and cigarettes?‘. ‚No problem‘, my father said and thrust his suitcase open. Immediately, a plastic bag with bills was pressed into his hands, and in a few minutes upon arrival to zagranitsa, my parents became millionaires, – or even billionaires. They stood on the platform, watching the Polish mafioso walking away with their bags, stunned and confused. Making calculations  in American dollars, Grisha forgot to tell them that zlotys were to be counted in five-digit numbers. Staring at the mountain of money in front of him, my father could not quite tell whether he made a profit or a loss: he could just as well be given a waste bin with candy wraps. Besides, what was he to do with the rest of the wares: matreshkas, nail clippers and the shawl? Was he to send his thirty judoists ahead and settle the matter Jacky Chan style? Or was he to carry on like a civilized European? ‚Find out where the bloody market is! And don’t buy anything there, just sell! You’ll buy everything in Warsaw‘, Grisha shouted when my father called him from the hotel, ‚And hang off now! Do you know what a long distance call costs? You’ll waste all your “Fanta” budget on it!‘.

Having brought the judo boys into the gym, the next morning my parents set out into the streets in search of a marketplace. The expedition turned into a costly undertaking: given that one of the boiled eggs my father ate on the train turned out to be less fresh than expected, he had to familiarize himself with every public toilet in town, parting with 300 or 500 zlotys each time.  They would have spent everything, but luckily, by late afternoon my parents found what they were looking for: a dark hall crammed with Russian sellers and bursting with dolls and nail clippers. It was a competitive niche of economy they were about to enter, but there was no alternative, – they could not return from zagranitsa without ‘Fanta’, and it had to be earned. That evening my father spread all the remaining zlotys on the hotel bed and made new calculations. The money had melted,  – or rather, drained down Krakow’s sewage system, – so that the  VCR was no longer affordable.  ‚We must keep our expectations realistic‘, father concluded and swallowed a charcoal pill with a gulp of coke, ‚If we make a good profit at the market, we will get a double decker tape recorder, instead‘. And thus, having gathered all her strength, the next day my mother ventured into free trade and spread her goods on the market stall. It was her very first time in the free merchandise: the Chinese track suit, the Hermitage catalogue and even the vodka did not count, their short life on the consumer market did not involve advertisement, customer service or bargaining, instead, they were simply exchanged for money the buyer was willing to offer. And now, it was suddenly up for my mother to compete with other nail-clipper-mongers, to set her price and to ensure the flow of steady sales. A features writer and a linguistics graduate, five feet tall, she was the worst person for the job. Unlike in the Wild Capitalist West, where even the most refined intellectuals are taught to get more bang for their buck, in the USSR, making money by trade or barganining was often considered below the dignity of educated class. In my family, ‚vendor‘  – torgovka – was a swearing word, implying ruthlessness, egoism and disrespect to other people. Soviet intelligentsia survived by saving, not be earning, – and standing at her stall, with matreshkas grinning at her, my mother wished the ground would swallow her silently. But she was lucky. ‚Don’t fuss‘, Grisha told her before the departure, ‚The Poles will buy everything themselves‘, –  and, indeed, although she stood as still as she could and hardly opened her mouth, matreshkas and manicure sets were sold in no time, and soon she was left with another plastic bag full of zlotys. It was only the shawl that did not want to go, – the shawl that was worth three bottles of ‘Fanta’ at least. A few minutes before the closing time, it was almost sold to a lady who took it for a table cloth, but desperate to get rid of that artifact of Russian country life, my mother destroyed the deal in a bout of customer service: as the woman opened her wallet, she sprung from behind the stall and arranged it lovingly around the the buyer’s neck. The Polish lady ran away, frightened, leaving the crumpled shawl behind.

My mother returned to the hotel late in the evening a few billions richer, – but instead of celebrating her profits, she found herself in the middle of a gang war. One thirteen-year old judoist had broken the other thirteen-year-old judoist’s wrist, and both were whining on a leather sofa in the hotel reception room, while my father was giving them a good bashing. Although initially both sportsmen attempted attributing the injury to tireless exercise in the face of coming competition, soon it had become apparent that neither of them had been to the gym that day. Instead, both Yellow Belts had spent a day rummaging Krakow’s trash bins in search for empty coke and beer cans, – which, even my father had to admit, was a sufficient reason to skip the training. Indeed, in Russia empty pop tins from zagranitsa were sought after collectors’ items. Young men lined them up proudly on the shelves, thus demonstrating their familiarity with the temptations of foreign life and the refinement of their taste. A glance at such collection, and a simpleton of a visitor would realize that his host would not descend to a bottle of Soviet ‚Buratino‘ or ‚Baikal‘ they brought along. No, the owner of the tins was the man who knew the taste of nectar, and all the girls were giving him his hearts.  Thus, my father concluded, the can hunt itself was a respectable business, – if only carried out in a civilized manner. That last condition, however, was not met. Although initially the two judoists dug through the Polish trash as partners, soon a conflict about a Minute Maid tin arose. The tin, my father reported later, was indeed, quite sublime: it was intact, almost un-squashed and, most importantly, it had a silhouette of a naked woman on it. It glistened from the bottom of a trash bin, and both boys dived in at the same time, their hands meeting on the woman’s breasts. A crisis of leadership arose. Petya Sergeev considered that as an almost-Orange Belt, he had the legal right to posses the Maid and bed her as his own – and in a deadly fight he twisted his comrade’s wrist until it broke. Let alone the pedagogical side of this incident and its’ effect on the sportsmen’s spirits, my father had to carry other significant losses. First, one of his best judoists was no longer fit for the competitions, and no adequate substitute could be provided. Second, the victim had to be given first aid urgently, – and, needless to say, the doctor’s bill was covered from the plastic bag my parents received at the train station from a mustached Pole. Stirred and shaken, my father was pacing the room up and down, – thirty boys in white girted gowns staring at him, – wheezing and purple in face: does not matter how well my mother traded, the mythical German VCR, first reduced to a double-decker recorder, was now a mere single-cassette player. Hopes of impressing Grisha the Godfather were fading.

Although the judo tournament which took place the next day was supposed to be the purpose and the pinnacle of the whole trip, neither of my parents seemed to remember anything of it by the time they came back. Perhaps, this loss of memory was due to the unspectacular performance of the Russian team and its defeat due to Petya Sergeev’s treachery. But most likely, in their minds, the choreographic gallantry of martial arts was superseded by the unbound merchandise at the Warsaw street market where they spent their zlotys a few hours before leaving the zagranitsa. The items purchased there will never be forgotten in my family, moreover, my mother still keeps a few of them for their sentimental value, like a hunter caresses the horns of the very first deer he shot. It was a shopping spree comparable only to Julia Roberts’ victorious march through LA boutiques in the ‚Pretty Woman‘: a feast of indulgence where all sartorial temptations were satisfied to the upmost. My father got himself a pair of sunglasses and a black T-Shirt with letters ‚GUZZI‘ embroidered across the chest in different colors, eventually, acquiring the appearance of a dyslexic mafioso. To fulfill the team look, my mother got a similar piece with the word ‚PARIZ‘ on it, and, – she really went the limit, – a pair of red clip-ons. For me, a bright pink sweatshirt with Minnie Mouse, a plastic fuchsia hairband and a set of striped socks was bought. The climax of consumerism, however, was marked by a purchase of a single-deck tape recorder and two bottles of orange limo which was not ‘Fanta’, but looked similarly dangerous. Although it was nothing comparable to Grisha’s scale of enterprise, and although the VCR had to wait, both of my parents returned to the train station feeling deeply satisfied. They sat on the bench and waited for the train, composed and dignified, free people in the free world, able to buy everything they needed and a bit more, surrounded by the buzz of the can exchange house hastily established on the platform by the judo boys .

Although my parents’ trip to Poland lasted only a week, it had long-drawn effects on lives of everyone involved. A month after her first appearance as a merchant, my mother became sales and advertisement manager in the publishing house which up until then printed nothing but propaganda. With her contained, but confident and creative approach to media marketing, the house made good money in the years to come and even managed to maintain the unprofitable children’s weekly. My father, instead, left the factory and joined Petya Sergeev’s mother in a lingerie trade business, where he made no money, but developed his understanding of women’s various shapes. As for Petya himself, after being almost killed by a shelf with tins crashing on his bed in the middle of the night, he re-considered his life, took up programming classes and later emigrated to the Silicon Valley. And finally, Grisha Rabinovich left the business very soon. Having found no partner in my father, whose trade skills Grisha compared to ability of an axe to float, he retired from smuggling and became one of the most influential Russian porn producers. His best piece is, apparently, based on an episode from Russian medieval history widely known as ‚Scrimmage on Ice‘, with the Novgorod count trapping an army of German Teutons on a frozen lake and letting them sink under their own weight. Grisha’s version of the event is called ‚Screwage on Ice‘ and features German troops of a different kind, rescued from water by naked Russian peasant women. Rumor has it that one of the German blonds, – the one with a tiny freckled nose and very thick lips, – is Grisha himself, acting on the behalf of the main sponsor, a plastic surgery clinic called ‚Medici‘.

And as for the orange limo, I never got to try its taste. Having got out of the train, my mother saw the very same bottles in a platform kiosk, sold for an amount of money she otherwise made in a week. Having moved me aside with a firm gesture, she walked to the kiosk and offered the vendor her catch. For two days I cried, and my birthday catering featured the usual apple compote. But for a week or two, there were fresh eggs for breakfast every day, and I was allowed to have as many sprats as I wanted.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hello, America!

Imagine your child coming home from school and telling you that a classmate of theirs is going to spend the winter break on Mars, – flying Millennium Falcon both ways, – and demanding increase in pocket money to do the same next vacation. This, my mother always says, was exactly how she felt when I returned from school one day in 1995 and told her that my friend Tanya Goncharova had won a scholarship to go and spend a school year in the United States of America, and that the next year I was going to do the same. ‚She will live with a real American family! In a real American house! And they will buy her plane tickets and will pay her a hundred dollars per month!‘ I was shouting while taking my coat off and trying to unzip my  boots. I could see my mother was not convinced. Everything, – absolutely everything, – about this piece of information was implausible and simply mad. First, just where exactly was America – and where exactly were we? Second, who on Earth would possibly come up with an idea to pay a total stranger, a fifteen-year old child, a return flight to get there plus a hundred dollars per month, – follow me, a hundred American dollars in four weeks, – pocket money for the time of their year-long sojourn? Third, why would some American family volunteer to have a Russian teenager hanging about their house picking their zits? And what kind of people were these so-called ‚host families‘? Who could guarantee they were not going to lock me in the basement and make me supervise their seven American children and their drooling dog? And, finally, last but not least, how did I expect to be permitted to come any close to taking part in a competition for such outlandish privilege? Not only my grades were rather average, I was hopelessly Jewish and came from a household which at that moment was struggling with covering monthly electricity bills, – a combination of factors which wasn’t, exactly, a recipe for success. Even if Millennium Falcon was carrying children to Mars, those were children of other breed. ‚I don’t think it is even worth trying‘, my mother concluded, thinking the topic was closed, for good.

My grandmother, however, set her teeth for America immediately. ‚Our girl is not worse than some Tanya Whoever‘, she said, put on her glasses and opened her telephone book. In about an hour or two she managed to have spoken to the culture attache of the American Consulate in St.Petersburg. Indeed, they told her, an organization called American Association of Teachers of Russian Language was awarding scholarships to high school students aged fifteen to seventeen, the competition was absolutely free and took place annually. ‚We are a democratic country‘. If your girl is smart enough to pass the test next year, she’ll have all the chances to go to America‘, –  the attache said and hung off, – and from that moment there was no way back. The ancient Jewish scenario of sending your only child abroad in search for the ultimate Knowledge besotted the Aronson house. The three hundred and sixty-five nights before the next competition round, my family spent rolling in their beds. My grandmother dreamt that like innumerable Shlomos and Moishes before me, I was to cross the seas with nothing but a stack of books and a set of underwear, to sleep on strange people’s sheets, to eat their meals, to sing their songs, – and come back enlightened. My mother, probably, grind her teeth forcing herself to imagine I might never come back while my father must had been wondering about what the dollar to ruble course could be in a year. And myself, with my bedside light on, I kept re-reading all the letters Tanya Goncharova kept sending from Sunnyville, MI. ‚I really like it here‘, she was writing, ‚America is cool, people are cool and every weekend I go to a  shopping mall. My host mother’s name is Heather, and my host father is Josh. At school everything is great, you can chose your own subjects and I am the best in math here. I must go now because Heather is calling for dinner from downstairs‘. Often, there were polaroid pictures attached: Tanya on the top of a skyscraper – with more skyscrapers behind her back, Tanya cutting the lawn in front of a pretty white house, Tanya with an American flag, – she was always smiling and her clothes were always new: bright pullovers, navy jeans, white sneakers. I turned off the light, and lulled myself to sleep with visions of all the rare ‚Nirvana‘ records and all the Levi’s I would buy with my pocket money.

In December, finally, the scholarship competition was announced anew. The place and date of the first round was printed in the main Petersburg newspaper, next to a personal of a traditional healer who specialized in treating stammering and casting love spells. The proximity of the two ads produced an unexpected result: at least a thousand teenagers showed up on the test date accompanied by their mothers, half of them frantically repeating the conjugation of ‚to be‘ and another half blabbering incomprehensibly in search for mysterious Mirabella. ‚I don’t need to go to America‘, a plump woman was shouting at the frightened American woman with a badge reading ‚Melissa‘ attached to her chest, ‚I need that son of a bitch to marry me! Melissa or Mirabella, I don’t give a fuck!‘. At last, after some two hours of running around, a huge horde of teenagers was pushed into an unheated lecture hall and handed out a basic English test I finished in half hour. A month later, when the results were announced, I was astonished to find out that of everyone who showed up on that day, only less than a quarter managed to pass that first hurdle – apparently, the others did not even know how to spell their name in Latin letters. Perhaps, those were Mirabella’s clients who had obediently filled in the papers thinking they were addressed in some esoteric language and were now awaiting for miraculous cure to be bestowed upon them.

With about two hundred people sieved as potential winners, the second tour was announced: we were now the selected few who would compete for thirty scholarships. An induction was held in the fanciest of the city’s public libraries, and there was free coke for everyone. A woman in corduroy dress and sneakers, – an amber necklace on her neck was heavy enough to anchor a torpedo boat in the Neva delta, – announced that now that we have proved our knowledge of the English language, it was time to demonstrate we were also ‚independent, assertive and adult individuals‘. To that end, each of us was required to fill in an application of hundred pages, – a  venture which occupied me fully in the course of the next two months.

It occurs to me now that the application form, – a thick book of A4 size with a bunch of laughing teenagers on the glossy cover, – was an outstanding document of its time, a document of America’s march through post-communist Eastern Europe and a document of our longing for zagranitsa. Set out to win at every price, I filled it with my heart’s blood. Now, seventeen years later I wish I could have that application back, – but in all likelihood, it is either destroyed or locked in some faraway archives, and only Mirabella’s magic could possibly conjure it up. The application started off with a few formal questions about my name, age and school year, but the core of it consisted of essays meant to be entered into blank pages in block letters and black ink. Each of them had to be about a thousand words long, and they were titled cryptically and vaguely: ‚About myself‘, ‚My hobbies‘, ‚How I imagine America‘, and so on. For days, I sat over a blank page, wondering. What did these American people have to know about Polina Aronson? Was I to tell them that on winter days I dreamt of skating in the Central Park with Holden Caulfield, hand in hand? That because my father read too much Mark Twain, I was conventionally addressed in the family as ‚Aunt Polly‘, – a homage to Tom Sawyer’s nasty chaperone? That my grandmother did not know a single Russian folk song beyond the first verse, but could whistle a full album of Gershwin while washing the dishes? That ‚Voice of America‘ hissing from a portable radio was her most reliable sleeping aid? Was it also appropriate to mention that I never tried a burger in my life because after an hour and a half of queuing in front of the single Russia’s McDonald’s, – in Moscow, during the autumn break, – my father got so cold that he, in fact, sent America v zhopu (to hell, or, – to be precise, – into anus) and dragged me to have shashlik in a Georgian eatery he knew from his student times? With a pile of Tanya Goncharova’s letters on my desk, I was trying to make out of what I imagined my American life to be, – and hoped that my host parents would be just like Josh and Heather from Sunnyville, MI: that they would buy me new clothes every week, take me to the movies, drive me around in car and allow me stay for sleep-overs at other people’s places. In one of her letters, Tanya attached a page ripped off from a teenage girlie magazine called ‚Seventeen‘. It was a comprehensive article about the pill and its beneficial effects on just about everything meaningful in life: it wiped off zits, attracted boyfriends and comforted parents. With a black-ink pen in my hand, I sat over that application form and dreamt that there, in a different country, I will turn into someone beautiful, someone boys turn their heads for, – and that I will need this kind of a pill, too. What could an American boyfriend  be like, I wondered and mused. How wonderful will it feel to be kissed by someone, whose mother was not befriended with mine for the previous forty years!

Although my grandmother could not understand a word of English, she was supervising the progress closely: I was to draft every essay in a separate sheet of paper, translate it into Russian and only with her approval granted, could I, finally, enter it into the questionnaire in my best hand-writing. Soon, our family dinners turned into literary readings. Having finished my borsch, I would push the plate aside and produce another draft on the table. ‚About my Family“, I read, and everyone sat alert, fishing for details which could disconcert an American reader. ‚My family is not big. I have a mother, a father and a grandmother. We live in a one-bedroom apartment in St. Petersburg. My father used to be an engineer, but now he is selling women’s underwear because his plant was shut down. My mother is a journalist.‘ ‚Stop, stop!‘, grandmother shouted, ‚I don’t like it! What will they think of your father? They might decide he is a sexual maniac or something of the kind. Let’s just write, he is a businessman. Americans like businessmen! And as for the mother being a journalist, that’s also no good. Specify that she is not a communist, or they decide she is a propaganda worker’. Grandmother was giving orders, and as the evening went on, I kept re-touching my family until it looked as innocent and respectable, as a bunch of elderly Quackers making a holiday on Cape Cod.

At last, when the application was filled with essays, a cover photo had to be made. Staring at the mirror, I could not decide what I should wear to look suitable for America. If I still had my Mickey Mouse ears, I would, probably, be inclined to wear them, – but at the absence of such  option, I had to make compromises, and eventually had myself photographed in a black turtleneck, my long nose protruding out of the picture and a hippie sign a size of a XXL bagel hanging off my neck. Deep in my heart, I probably hoped that would ship me off straight to Haight-Ashbury. Or, more likely, this is what I believed an average American family to be: Jewish peace fighters with neurotic tendencies. Pity, Woody Allen was not adopting that year.

I submitted the application in February, and sometime in late March the answer came: congratulations, you are almost a winner! There were only about fifty people and only one hurdle in the competition left: the interview. A morning appointment in two weeks time was scheduled,  – and, of course, overcome by half a month of insomnia, my mother and me overslept on that very day. We got out of the beds forty minutes before the interview was to start, and after we had brushed our teeth and rolled into the street, my mother did the impossible. She caught a cab: a decision she knew would cost her a third of her monthly salary. Does not matter how many times I took the taxi afterwards in my life, every time I fasten my seatbelt and give the address, I must think of my mother’s small, curvy figure in a grey merino coat and a beige beret, bravely stretching her hand across Nevsky Prospect, – a river of melting mud roaring between XIXth century palaces. She waved and jumped like a shaman summoning a spirit, and, indeed,  in less than a minute a yellow car emerged in front of us, and we got in. It took off unusually silently, and as I smelled my mother’s perfume mixing with petrol and leather in the air, everything had suddenly become lucid and clear. Whatever there was to be asked in the interview – I could not lose, I was already in New York, picked by someone’s hand and planted into the stream of cabs running through Times Square. A week later, I was told I won.

The few months between the interview and the departure seemed to be filled with nothing but America. Every day there was something to do to get a step closer,  – in particular, I was busy upgrading my imperfect Russian body to American standards. I needed to make six different vaccinations, get a TB screening and have all cavities in my teeth filled. ‚You must eliminate caries‘, program coordinator told us at the second induction, bending under the weight of her ambers ‚Caries is a dangerous condition which must be wiped off before you arrive to the United States of America‘. A few years later I recognized that intonation in George W. Bush’s speech on the War on Terror: it was the same patriotic fervor which filled his voice. And finally, informed consent forms were to be signed.  Referred to as ‚biological parents‘ and  ‚biological child‘ me and my parents had to sign our agreement with all terms and conditions of the scholarship, and it was at that point when the whole venture almost shuttered. It is not that my father disagreed with any of the clauses, – it seemed all right that we agreed on my being placed into a family of different ‚racial or religious origin‘, – instead, for a week or so he simply refused to be addressed to as ‚Biological parent N2 (if available)‘ and wouldn’t put his signature in the line provided.

Finally, in August 1996, my teeth filled with new amalgam, my suitcase heavy with with six volumes of Dostoevsky and several equally unwearable pieces of clothing, I was ready to depart from my biological parents. Everyone came to say good-bye: my girl friends, with done up hair, manicure and adult smiles; my aunts with tons of chocolates and even one school teacher came. They stood on the platform of the train station from where I was to be taken to Moscow first, held hands and sang the only Russian song about America they knew, a hit by a band called Nautilus: ‚Good bye, America‘, they shouted as the train was taking off slowly, and I pressed my nose against the dusty glass, ‚America, farewell forever, I’ve spent my life chasing your forbidden fruits’. And as the station building and their figures disappeared from the sight, I did bid farewell to that one only America I knew, the America of my dreams I had been chasing – and never found on a continent which happens to be called by the same name.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Anglichanka

The very fact that I know a bit of English results from an odd event in October 1990 when a temperamental classmate knocked one of my upper teeth out. It is not that as a result of this disfigurement I suddenly mastered interdental consonants, – an Anglo-Saxon quirk most people socialized in Slavic phonetic setting struggle with till the end of their lives. Instead, a trace of blood spits I left in school corridor brought my grandmother to the grandmother of my offender, – and further to an English teacher whose telephone number was offered as a courtesy for the loss I suffered. No sooner had the sore in my gum healed than I was standing in front of a plywood door in a brown Leningrad concrete block, my grandmother firmly holding me by the elbow with one hand and ringing the doorbell with the other. She was in a celebratory mood: it was an unworthy milk tooth, anyways, and swapping it for a whole English teacher was a luck of unconceivable size.

The woman who opened the door had changed my life forever, – in fact, it is probably she who I owe everything I have: the collection of living permits in my passport, my address book which lists places from Estonia to Uganda, my marriage to an eternal expat, my PhD from a British university, – in short, everything that is dear to me. Her name was Natalia Lvovna Utevskaya, and back then she was, probably, the most famous and most sought after English teacher in Leningrad. I spent four years sitting on a yellow couch in her tiny living room, – lined up with books on all four walls, – ungrateful, but gifted child who never learnt all the irregular verbs properly but could weep over Robert Burns. All the English I know comes from Natalia Lvovna: it seems that the years spent in the US and then in England only brought to the surface everything that she had already put, so persistently and so confidently, into my head.

It is, in fact, inappropriate to refer to Natalia Lvovna as ‚an English teacher‘, even though this is what was entered into the ‚Occupation‘ field of her workplace record. Instead, in everyday chit-chat she was denominated as ‚anglichanka‘, – an Englishwoman, – just like German teachers was called ,nemki’ or ‚German ladies‘, and my great-uncle who taught Spanish was referred to as ‚Spaniard‘. Indeed, language teachers were half-inostrantsy (half foreigners),they emanated the spirit of zagranitsa, they breathed outlandish dreams and promised something unreachable. They did not just teach language, – instead they were messangers of countries which no one could ever dream of visiting, – in the first place, not even the teachers themselves. It was, perhaps, the most stunning fact about Natalia Lvovna that having written at least a dozen of wonderful textbooks on English grammar and having raised several generations of pupils capable of reading Chaucer in original, she had never set a foot neither on the British Isles, nor on the American continent. Natalia Lvovna was confined within the borders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, – however, it was clear that she did not really live there, and her small apartment on the south of Leningrad looked like a temporary dwelling, a place from where she would, one day, transcend to the green pastures of England. Everything was kept in decent order, but with the exception of books, nothing was loved. Having met other anglichanki and nemki in Russia, I would not say it was unusual. Like pious Catholics who believe that they might be raptured to Heaven any moment and, hence, need to be alert and prepared at all times, Soviet language teachers also seemed to be suspended in permanent and desperate hope of being taken home one day. And like monks waiting for the Second Coming pursue resemblance to Christ, so did anglichanki, nemki and other ‚foreigners‘ become iconic embodiments of Dreamlands they longed for. Having spent a few years in Britain, I can now decidedly say that Natalia Lvovna Utevskaya is the most English person I have ever met. At a younger age, she could have easily posed for Gainsborough, and I can imagine her taking five-o’-clock tea with Jane Austin. Everything about her was unmistakably British Empire, – her composed posture, her slightly protruding lower jaw, her plaid skirts, her light grey hair tucked in a beautiful bun. Even her self-made pullovers looked like they were of supreme Shetland wool, possibly clipped off her own sheep. She could play an English lady in any blockbuster, – from M in ‘James Bond’ to Mrs Hudson in ‘Sherlock Holmes’, – and would  win an Oscar without any effort involved.  And needless to say, she spoke better English than most members of House of Lords do nowadays. The only person I can think of who comes anywhere close to Natalia Lvovna’s pronunciation standards, is Jeeves in Stephen Fry’s performance, – and, probably, Charles Dickens, when it comes to writing. ‚Repeeeeaaat after me‘, she would announce, her hands folded on her knees, and her legs gently crossed, like legs of those ladies from ‚Home and Gardens‘ magazine, photographed sitting in newly re-furbished Queen’s Bedrooms of their country estates. ‚When you speak English you must lower your voice at the end of the sentence‘, she explained, ‚Otherwise you sound shrill and unconvincing‘. The years I spent on Natalia Lvovna’s sofa, it was raining heavily in Spain.

Unlike some other, less pious English teachers who fed their pupils surrogate, Orwellian language only good enough to describe a group of Communist kolkhosniks fulfilling the pyatiletka, – a reality which was neither Russian, nor English, – Natalia Lvovna was a purist. There were no Russian protagonists in her textbooks, her English was, indeed, about the English. She rather had me reading Louisa Alcott than a Soviet English-language newspaper ‚Moscow News‘. To my surprise, most girls in her books lived just like me, – they had margarine for butter, dreamt of having a set of color pencils and had only two dresses. In this manner, the British concept of austerity entered my bones the moment I opened the first page of Natalia Lvovna’s textbooks. They were Thatcheresquely no-nonsense, and the best praise one could get for a well-done homework, was a nod of a head, and those nods I learnt to appreciate more than a list of excellent grades I received year after year in my school.

With her metropolitan gaze, Natalia Lvovna politely despised the United States of America, – or, at least, the United States of America after Lincoln. Americans were people who systematically engaged and took visible pleasure in disfiguring and devouring the English language. Whenever I said ‚upple‘ rather than ‚Ä – pple‘ a painful expression crossed her face: ‚Who taught you that?‘, she asked, raising her brow, ‚This is an American pronunciation‘, and it would become apparent to me that I committed a sin difficult to atone for. I do not remember her mentioning a single American writer or poet to me, although I am certain that she was well familiar with works of Faulkner or Hemingway, like every member of the Soviet intelligentsia was. Perhaps, the only American she could put up with was Henry James, – together, they would be trying to get a grip of that Old World which slipped between their fingers.

It was 1992 when, finally, some very senior angels blew their trumpets, and ‚British Airways‘ brought Natalia Lvovna to Heathrow. It was a part of the school exchange established immediately after collapse of the USSR, and she was supervising a group of young brats, – sons and daughters of influential parents, children who learnt English either to marry a foreigner if they were female, or to become a consulate attache if they were male. It was her job to make sure they did not spend all their money on a pair of ‚Doctor Martin’s‘ on the very first day, and that they would not perish on Brick Lane. Two days before she was supposed to leave, we had our regular class, and nothing in her expression suggested anxiety or inappropriate excitement. It is only when my grandmother came to pick me up and wished her a very good trip, when suddenly a touch of astonishment crossed Natalia Lvovna’s face, as if she herself was not certain of what was expecting her. Three weeks later, she returned a different woman. On my first class after her absence, I found her in a state of shock; she resembled a person who went to Madame Tussaud’s museum and, having their photograph taken with Roman Pope, suddenly found out that instead of a wax figure, they were leaning on a real Pius or Benedict . ‚You will not believe it‘, she exclaimed to my grandmother in a voice I had never heard from her before, ‚I was in a department store there, and there were sets of ladies underwear, packed in dozens! Dozens! In different colors, lying around just like this, all over the shop! White, red, yellow! Underpants, can you believe this? And no one was buying them!‘. I could not believe what I was hearing: in my world view Natalia Lvovna was not supposed to even know about such mundane things as underpants: all the time I knew her, I never quite realized my anglichanka was human, too. Moreover, it occurs to me now, that prior to her first trip to London, she herself doubted that, as well. Packing her suitcases, she was prepared to enter Dickensian dining rooms and fit herself in them the way one fits a painting into a frame, – but she was clearly, obviously not ready for Sainsbury’s. Having spent half a month stretching on sling chairs in Hyde Park, and watching Indian women pushing their prams along Japanese tourists feeding ducks, Natalia Lvovna lost the sense of belonging and became, at least for some time, like everyone else, – disoriented and stirred.

Soon it has become clear that it was no longer Natalia Lvovna who needed English-speaking angels to give her asylum, but, instead, it was Britain itself which needed Natalia Lvovna’s assertive protection. The times were changing. New teachers were coming, ready to sing something from the ‚Beatles‘ and to disseminate the difference between Guinness and stout as a class assignment. Worse, there were teachers who considered Britain done, and taught their pupils New York accent. Myself, I was also not without guilt: a friend’s uncle went for a monthly training to Texas oil refinery, and returned with an exercise book filled with wonderful expressions such as ‚you bloody cindy-fucking-rella‘ and ‚stick your motherfucking balls up your ass‘. The uncle, who must had been in his early thirties back then, seemed to have spent the time meant for engineering seminars sitting in the nearest diner and taking notes until his fingers went numb. The exercise-book was passed around for some half a year, and by the time I had got it, it was already quite ragged. Nevertheless, I fought with the peculiarities of uncle’s handwriting, – it is highly likely that he remained severely drunk throughout his participant observation , – and soon I had enough material to prematurely send Natalia Lvovna to grave. For hours, I lingered on her sofa, hoping to thrust in a word or two, – but there seemed to be no fitting moment. I felt like a Dude Lebowski mistakenly summoned to high tea in Buckingham palace. Every time I was ready to open my mouth and announce something like ‚I’ve already been through too much shit this morning over this bloody homework to repeat it after your dumb ass‘, Natalia Lvovna raised her finger and said something like, ‚I suggest we proceed to a next poem, which is quite splendid, indeed‘. And then, ashamed at myself, I blushed and read: ‚My lady’s eyes are nothing like the sun‘, and Natalia Lvovna nodded in the end of every line.

We were done with the eight-year long school program in four years. ‚There is not much I can do any longer‘, Natalia Lvovna told my grandmother, like a surgeon facing a desperate relative. Does not matter how much grandmother begged and how much she suggested to pay for further classes, my teacher refused. The only remedy against me forgetting everything she had taught me, was to send me to the school with extensive learning of English, – and then, possibly, abroad. I followed her orders as closely as I could, – but the more English I learnt after Natalia Lvovna, the further away I was drifting from the foggy Albion of her dreams. At the age of sixteen, knowledge of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Chaucer’s tales won me a scholarship in America and brought me to an abandoned coal mining town in West Virginia where people spoke a language Natalia Lvovna would never identify as English and where no normal human being could live without a suitcase of anti-depressants. However, it is Natalia Lvovna’s lessons of persistence which helped me to survive that year: I took a copy of ‚The Catcher in the Rye‘ from the local library and learnt it by heart, word after word. Soon, I no longer lived in a ragged town of madly religious, jobless people. Instead, I quietly moved to Holden Caulfield’s New York apartment and spent the remaining ten months there. Later, when I settled in London, I searched for traces of that magic world populated by ladies and gentlemen in tweeds, – and the only place I found it, was National Portrait gallery. Unlike Natalia Lvovna, I had soon got used to colorful underpants in ten-packs, to Oyster cards and Soho square. But whenever a feeling of sadness or disorientation came upon me, – a feeling so common to a foreigner in London, – I went to see those Gainsboroughs and Reynolds. ‚Remember to always lower your voice in the end of the sentence‘, the men and women on the paintings seemed to say, ‚Repeeeeeeaaaat after us‘ – and the world seemed to be all right again.

As I am writing this, Natalia Lvovna is, probably, finishing another book on the English grammar: according to a Russian book selling web-site Ozon, she is publishing steadily, which makes me hope she is in best health. Would not it be capital, indeed, if only she could check this essay for misused articles?

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Keeping Up With The Krauses

As a child, I believed that everything about me, – my behavior, my looks, my family, – was different from everyone else’s in some profound and unsettling way. I could not explain the reason I felt so, – but there was simply something wrong in being picked up from school by a grandmother dressed in jeans and leather jacket, while all other babushkas wore identical padded coats with fur collars. I dreamt of waking up in a different body and in a different home one day: to open my eyes in the morning one day and discover that my hair turned blond like the hair of most Russian kids, that my name was Natasha or Olga and that instead of books my room was full of dolls. Somewhere, I believed, there was a tidy, lucid world where all bits and pieces belonged where they were meant to belong, where fathers smoked pipes and mothers cooked borsch instead of going on journalistic assignments to the Polar Circle. This orderly world existed just around the corner from ours, one just had to try hard and one would get there, – however, no one but myself seemed willing to make an effort. At the dinner table I often stared at my family’s faces and boggled at the prospect of having to leave them in order to transcend into that place where things and people were what they were supposed to be. The thought of having to swap my loud grandmother for a plump old woman in an armchair hurt me so much that I was about to cry, – and unprepared for the sacrifice, I found myself neither here, nor there.

For a long time I could not quite imagine the details of that proper and tidy life I aspired to, – I simply had no example to draw upon. It was the German language textbook which I first opened in September 1989 which illuminated that other world from the inside: just looking at the pictures alone was like looking at the map of a terrain I previously travelled through in darkness and without any guidance. The population of that terrain was very small, – it was limited to an exemplary GDR family – Familie Krause  – consisting of a set of communist parents, a grandmother in apron and, finally, Monica, a sporty schoolgirl and a member of the pioneer organization. My first and brightest memory of Monica’s reality is a dialogue she holds with her mother over a breakfast table:

‚ – Monica, eat your breakfast slowly.

– But I want to be at school on time, Mama.

– According to the schedule, the bus will only arrive in eleven minutes. You have time to finish your meal.

– Thank you, Mama’.

Now, this was a sketch from a life of an alien, and I could not comprehend how my classmates could cram it without freezing in astonishment. To me, a bus arriving in eleven minutes strictly according to the schedule was not dissimilar to a space rocket landing in my backyard. I had to take a bus to school, too, – but the times of its appearance were whimsical and unpredictable, sometimes, two in a row would come, and sometimes there would be none for three quarters of an hour.  On Monday I would just make it to the 8.30 class, on Tuesday I would appear too early, and on Friday I would be so late I had to skip the whole first period and kill the remaining time by chatting to the school’s cloakroom attendant, – an old Jewish lady who spent hours convincing me that Yiddish was a much better language than German.

The secret to Krauses’ lives was that they did only what the season and the time of the day suggested as appropriate, – in strict contrast to my own family. For example, Monica’s parents always went on holidays in summer, staying in a hotel and bathing twice a day in warm water. Instead of engaging in such reasonable pastimes, my family spent the whole rainy summer at a dacha in Leningrad swamps, – whereas on frosty winter weekends they hopped on a train to Moscow to loot a friends’ apartment on Taganka square, to play guitars, eat pilaf and watch three movies a day. What would the Krause grandma with her tray of Advent cookies say to that?

The dictatorship of schedule which the Krauses eagerly accepted was duly rewarded by the abundance they enjoyed. On a picture featuring Monica doing her morning exercise, – wearing an undershirt and a matching pair of panties, she was stretching her arms above the head, and the sun was shining brightly into a large, tidy room, – on this picture I spotted a tape recorder on the window seal. While making her squats, she was clearly playing something cool, like Michael Jackson or Pet Shop Boys. To a life like that I would spring out of the bed in no time, too, sparing my mother the forty minutes of trying to pull me from under the blanket, – but in Petersburg the sun does not come out before lunchtime, and even if my parents would allow me to use their LP player, I would have to stretch while listening to Adriano Celentano, an Italian communist singer, in voice and appearance resembling a sugar-coated version of Jean-Paul Belmondo. The breakfast served in the Krause dining room after the bout of morning physical activity was over, was also by far more compelling than mine: they started their day with  Marmeladebrötchen, – wheat rolls generously covered with jam. In my family white bread, let alone white bread with marmalade, was never, ever, under no circumstances eaten in the morning. It was considered an unhealthy overindulgence, and my breakfast consisted of soaked oatmeal flakes and a handful of raisins. My mother was not a new age groupie, but the Soviet ladies’ magazine ‚Working Woman‘ suggested it was good for you, – and she stuck to it, although as a journalist she should have known that every claim appearing in Soviet print needed to be taken for its opposite. And so, while I was swallowing my porridge, each member of the Krause household managed at least seven Marmeladebrötchen, – or so the pictures suggested.

All in all, the German textbook did not just teach me the basics of Plusquamperfekt. It was also a powerful introduction to Platonic realism and Neoplatonism. Comparing my life to Monica’s I could see clearly that my reality was perceptible, but not the least intelligible, – whereas hers, in contrast, was perfectly intelligible, but, alas, imperceptible. Unknowingly following Plotinus, I believed, however, that I could achieve union with Monica through virtue and meditation, – that is through cramming of German verbs and embracing the schedule of Krause household. Those two months when I vowed myself to becoming Monica are still remembered in my family as dark times, and, indeed, I must have been hateful, getting up at 6.30 to do a set of morning exercises and always answering in full sentences. I went as far as moving the furniture in my room so as to resemble Monica’s, – a burst of activity which sent my father outside for half a day, speechless and shaken. There was one person, however, who seemed to fully support my transformation pursuit – it was my German teacher, Tatiana Borisovna. Impressed by my progress in grammar, she often praised me in front of the class, and very soon she started giving me special assignments such as drawing a poster on the annual volume of steel and coal produced in the GDR or learning a German pioneer song by heart.

There was one remarkable thing about Tatiana Borisovna: she was absolutely square. Her permed hair stood up from her head at right angles, she was wearing checkered jackets, her skirts looked like cubic monoliths and her shoes had rectangular toes. During classes she was usually mounted at the desk to the left from the blackboard, and above her head a plywood emblem of the GDR  featuring a corn wreath encircling a hammer and a compass was nailed to the wall. On the very first lesson she explained us that the German Democratic Republic was a big and very important socialist country, a great friend of the USSR, and that the emblem symbolized the collective labor of peasants, workers and engineers. Tatiana Borisovna spent five years in the GDR as a wife of a military man, and whenever she spoke of her time there, her eyes lit up and a dreamy expression settled on her face.  In her interpretation, it was a country where rivers of milk and honey flowed, where everyone was treated equally and no one suffered. Although by that time I was already immune against such fairy tales about my own country, I could not resist the temptation of believing that when it came to the GDR, everything Tatiana Borisovna said, was true: Monica’s world had to be absolutely, impeccably perfect, and Tatiana Borosovna’s testaments were comforting. She was not lying: no, just like myself she was besotted by that zagranitsa she was once admitted to and was now expelled from. In fact, she probably had never really been to the GDR: as a wife of a high-ranking Soviet official, she spent her days in a comfortable ghetto and only saw East Germany on guided tours organized by the USSR Embassy. She was staring at the same textbook world I did, but armed with a magnifying glass. Although she came closer, she never got inside, too. Like me, she lived in a pursuit for the unattainable, – it is just that her appetites were stronger: whereas I only wanted to be Monica, she dreamt of possessing German-ness itself. On most days she was wearing a black-red-and-yellow jacket, looking like a concrete pillar wrapped in pieces GDR flag, and twice a week she climbed on a stool to dust the plywood wreath. Me and her, we made a liaison of aspiring trespassers, – aware and suspicious of each other’s plots. Sometimes, as I sat in class painting another propaganda poster with five-digit numbers, I felt her slow and testing gaze on my neck, as if she was considering whether I was, indeed,  a good enough candidate for a sprint to the better world, – a world where the verb is always at the end of the sentence, and the bus does always come on time.

It was November 1989 when everything veered off the course, forever, leaving me, Monica and Tatiana Borisovna to flounder in opposite streams. It was dark and cold, and Monica was getting ready for a yearly Laternenfest – an old German tradition of children lining up in the streets with hand-made paper lanterns and singing ‚da oben leuchten die Sterne, da unten leuchten wir’. These words still make my heart sink: they mean ‚up above the stars are shining, down here we are shining, too‘. I can easily imagine young Immanuel Kant murmuring these verses on a Königsberg street. As we sang along with Tatiana Borisovna, I also dreamt of joining some procession, of carrying a circle of trembling light through the darkness, but because there is no Laternenfest tradition in Russia, I had to look for a suitable substitute. For a week, I was trying to persuade my father to take me to the annual November Demonstration, – a procession meant to commemorate the Revolution of the 1917, – and failed. It is not that father was a fervent dissident, no, it is rather the fact that even the stretch from the sofa to the fridge was a distance he covered only very unwillingly, and forcing him to get out of the house on an early November morning when cold Baltic wind was ripping skin off your face was absolutely out of question. As I was sulking in my room on November 9th, I missed the news that Monica’s Laternenfest was cancelled, too. Instead of groups of singing children, thousands of chanting adults filled Berlin streets and brought the textbook world to an end.

The next day, – the day when Herr und Frau Krause, possibly, woke up in a strange apartment in West Berlin, banana peels and smashed Marlboros in their pockets, – was Friday and German was the first period. Still unaware of what had happened, I entered the class and stumbled at the door: there was a TV set mounted in the middle of the room, and it seemed like the whole school gathered in front of it, with principle in the first row. On the screen, men and women were frantically climbing a concrete fence and a voice, spluttering with tension, was explaining something in German. Behind the TV, Tatiana Borisovna stood and translated, – her hands were shaking, and she looked like a tower about to collapse. Every sentence that came out of her mouth was followed with a deep gasp in the audience, and most unbelievable suggestions were made every minute. USSR will declare a war on Germany. There will be no USSR in two weeks. GDR will close the border again, and everything will be like always. All population of East Germany will be re-settled to the West, and the territory will be occupied by the Cossacks. In the midst of this havoc, no one thought of Monica. No one cared whether she would still get her Marmeladebrötchen for breakfast and whether the bus will make it on time through this crowd. I pressed the textbook to my chest, stared at the TV, and could not make anything out of what Tatiana Borisovna was saying.

Up until Christmas holidays our German classes were a mess. Tatiana Borisovna continued wiping up the plywood wreath, but when she spoke or explained a rule, my classmates were shouting and throwing things at each other. With the collapse of the GDR her authority over the German language was abolished, too. No one wanted to do exercises about Monica Krause, – because the GDR was gone, as Gosha Kuzmin put it, there was no need to dig into all that nonsense. His father came to school in person and insisted that we throw the textbooks into trash and start watching news on Deutsche Welle, instead. ‚This communist weirdo, your Tatiana Whatever is filling your heads with bullshit‘, he announced as we flocked around him in the school vestibule, ‚I will be insisting on a new teacher sent to you next semester‘. In the chaos and whims of the last autumn weeks, I suddenly felt like one with every one else, – they were now drifting without direction, too, and, finally, it was a blessing to have a grandmother who lulled herself to sleep with ‚Voice of America‘. I no longer needed Monica’s perfect world, –  my own life was good enough as long as every day I could appear at school with a political briefing, ready to illuminate my classmates on the future of Europe. There was a sense of euphoria in the air, and breathing it day in and day out I did not notice how Tatiana Borisovna was shrinking into an old woman. It was the last day before the winter break when she told us she was quitting, and suddenly I saw that she no longer was filling her black-red-and-yellow jacket, as if having merged with the Bundesrepublik, the former GDR took along a half of Tatiana Borisovna’s body. As we left the class, one by one, I wanted to turn around and look at her, one last time, – but instead, I walked out staring straight ahead of me. She was an ambassador of an extinct tribe, and the powerful instinct of cowardice was leading me away from her contagious handshake.

There were no German classes up until spring. In April a very pretty young woman came and occupied Tatiana Borisovna’s class. First thing she did was ripping off my posters of the walls and dumping the plywood wreath into the bin. ‚We will learn in a new, experimental way‘, she explained to us. ‚There will be no textbooks, there will be only conversation and listening exercises‘. Besides, we were supposed to call her by first name, – Lena, – a liberty unheard of in Russian schools. For about a month we were muddling with a poem about a flower blossoming on a sunny day, and then the summer break came, so that by the time the new school year started, I have forgotten everything. For the very fist German class in September 1990, Lena brought a German postal order catalogue featuring everything from socks to dishwashers. Whereas Tatiana Borisovna was trying to seduce us with coal and steel, the new teacher preferred to focus on achievements of consumer industry. As my turn to leaf through the pages came, I opened the catalogue in the Home Appliances section and shuddered: there they were, the Krauses, grinning at the shiny coffee machine, gathered in the living room of their new home. They moved houses, but nothing had changed. The Grandma was, as always, holding a tray of cookies in front of her, the father was reading a newspaper in the armchair, and Frau Krause put her arm around Monica’s shoulders. They looked fresh and pretty, and their house was tidier than ever. It was clear that while I was away, they mastered the art of punctuality even further: the round clock on the wall behind Grandma’s back was showing five o’clock precisely, and the plates on the table were arranged at perfectly equal intervals. The Krauses were simply sublime. ‚Look at us‘, their faces were saying, ‚We have never left our world of perfection. In contrast, it has only become better after a few quakes. And as for yourself, try harder next time‘.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The Mickey Mouse Intervention

For many years my mother was a journalist in one of the main Leningrad’s newspapers. Although she herself was never sent on foreign assignments, she knew a few people who did go around quite a bit, – and brought delightful souvenirs from zagrnitsa. It was probably 1988  or 1989 when a colleague of hers somehow ended up in Disneyland and returned home with a Mickey Mouse cap: a kind of a kippah with large plastic mouse-looking ears. And because the cap turned out to be too small for the colleague’s eleven-year old, it was passed on me.

The cap was sublime. The mouse ears stood upright and the black kippah-like base to which they were attached sat beautifully on my dark hair.  On the front, between the ears, there was a white circle with a Mickey figure in it and the word ‚Disneyland‘ was written across it in red letters. On a silky piece of cloth inside of the cap there were even more words ending with a bold statement ‚Made in USA’. Although back then I had not started my English classes yet, I knew exactly what it meant: it meant that I was the coolest kid in school and, probably, in the whole town.

There was only one unresolved issue about the cap: where could I wear it to to make as many people as possible watch and envy me? It was winter with the regular Leningrad minus fifteen, and outdoors it could only be worn on the top of my normal  fur hat. The combination looked awful: it resembled an oversized mouse sticking out of a rabbit’s corpse. I also could not take the cap to school: back then we were still wearing uniform, and although some kids were upgrading it with with badges or colorful ribbons, my mother was strict about observing the rules. Under such unfortunate circumstances, I managed only one public appearance as Mickey Mouse in the course of three weeks. It was an adult birthday party attended by an infinite number of my aunts, and compared to a new apple pie recipe and a pack of contraband ‚Marlboro‘ they were passing around in the kitchen, my cap caused only mild astonishment. Sitting in the subway with the Mickey’s ears in a plastic bag, I felt how disappointment was sweeping over me. I knew the cap was worth more than that. It could make me famous. It could be my triumph.

The right occasion presented itself just before the winter break. Two weeks before the school vacations were to start, our school principal, – a woman who walked and talked like a duck, – suggested that to wrap up the year, we should hold a drama competition between the primary school classes. Each class was to decide upon their own piece to stage, and our teacher picked ‚The Turnip‘, a folk tale about a peasant family collectively pulling a giant turnip out of its earth bed. In Russia, everybody knows this tale. It is told in kindergartens and nurseries, it is staged in every children’s theater and there is no book shop where you would not be able to buy its illustrated version. The story goes like this. A grandpa plants a turnip which grows very, very big. When the harvest time comes, the grandpa tries to pull it out,  – and fails.  After a few unsuccessful attempts, he calls for grandma’s help. They start pulling the turnip together, but in vain, – the root is simply too big. Suspense increases as other members of the household are summoned one by one, – first the granddaughter comes, then the dog, then the cat, – but does not matter how hard they try, the turnip just does not give in. Finally, the exhausted cat calls for the mouse, – and as it, finally, arranges itself at the very end of the chain and pulls, – the turnip succumbs and pops out. The moral of the tale is clear: nothing significant can be achieved by individual effort, and in a collective the input of the weakest link is crucial. If this is how everything would function in the USSR for real, we would have already lived in communism, having left other countries behind. It is because of people like myself, – ego-trippers, caressing their own profit more than the collective good, – that the project failed, not unlike our competitive staging of ‚Turnip‘.

Along with clear and didactic moral, the attractiveness of the ‚Turnip‘ for educational institutions lies in the simplicity of its dramaturgy and its casting requirements. In every group of children it is fairly easy to find a fat kid for a turnip, a tall boy for a grandpa, three mid-sized girls slightly varying in size from a bit taller to a bit shorter (grandma, granddaughter and the cat), a shorty for a dog, and, finally, a skinny kid who can do the mouse. Given that ‚Turnip‘ is a so-called cumulative tale, it is based on consequent repetition of the same words and actions by all participants, – hence, the risk of some little boy or little girl forgetting their part is close to zero. Still, even in a  straightforward drama like ‚Turnip‘ there is a clear hierarchy of more desired  and less desired roles. I have yet to meet a person who would volunteer to be a turnip itself. The job is awful. First, being picked for the role clearly signals to everyone that it is time to put on you on diet. The whole school will simply know who is the fatso of the year. Second, in most cases you will be sitting in the middle of a huge yellow cotton-padded ball with green ribbons on your head, – which means you will be getting sweaty and scratchy in no time. And finally, as a turnip you will be pushed and dragged around mercilessly, which could be particularly unfortunate if you were not on good terms with the grandpa boy who had to come in direct body contact with you, – and because the grandpa had to be the tallest and, hence, the most popular boy in class, you, – fat turnip, – could not be on good terms with him by definition. Thus, the turnip role was never taken voluntary, – it was appointed from the above, like death sentence. Then, the role of grandpa was usually assigned to the most athletic boy in the class, and begging for it was useless. The roles of grandma, granddaughter, the dog and the cat are a grey zone. They are impersonal and repetitive, only necessary to build up the tension: they are the ‚Turnip’s‘ core-de-ballet, its Greek choir. They have to be performed smoothly, but you can not become famous by being the best grandma or the best cat actress. Still, unlike the role of turnip, they are not horrible, – you get to wear a pretty dress or, may be, a tail.  These roles were usually taken by quiet, well-behaved girls with good, but not so excellent grades. The mouse, however, is a totally different matter. Its entrance is the climax of the drama, its pinnacle. The mouse, to borrow a term from Levi-Strauss, is a trickster: it breaks the rule of nature and brings the resolution. From the point of view of the humans and animals involved in turnip harvesting, a rodent is a creature unwelcome under normal circumstances, – however, in a situation of crisis, its intervention becomes necessary: the mouse is a messenger delivering the ultimate truth on the end of its’ tail, while everyone else is simply waiting. Unlike all other roles which are rather un-individual, – they just got to pull and breathe heavily, – the mouse can have a distinct personality. It can be capricious or ready to help, it can be fearful or brave, it can be anything: its’ part is a cliff-hanger, it should leave the audience with sweaty palms. All in all, the role of the mouse is the only one to aspire to. And with with the stunning Micky-Mouse ears in my possession, I stepped forward and declared my intentions.

The casting battle, however, was more difficult to win than I thought. Apparently, no one wanted to acknowledge that an American eared cap was a reason good enough to make me a mouse. Moreover, insulting remarks and suggestions were made. ‚I don’t think you can make a good mouse, Polina‘, our class teacher said, ‚Look at you, you are the biggest girl in the class‘. ‚The fattest, even!‘, a boy at the front desk shouted, – and I realized I was a split hair away from being buried alive in the yellow cotton-padded ball. ‚That’s not true. Polina is not fat, she is just a bit…‘, –  the teacher replied and stopped in search for a word, thus starting a painful gap in my identity, a gap which lasted for about eight years, up until I moved to the US and discovered a word ‚curvy‘ in ‚Victoria’s Secret‘ catalogue.  ‚Anyways,‘ she continued after a pause, ‚Kolya Vorontsov is the fattest‘. Everybody turned their heads to a very large boy at the rear end of the room who carried on picking his nose. ‚Kolya can do the turnip‘, the teacher concluded, and I felt like a man who just saw the Death passing by his own house and leaving a chalk cross on the neighbor’s door. Still, however, the danger was not quite out of the way. ‚And you, Polina, why don’t you just give that cap to Masha Dolgova? She is small and thin, and can do a perfect mouse‘, the teacher continued, and my heart sunk. There was not much I could set against such brutal distributism, – I had no lobby of Mickey-Mouse hat owners behind my back, only the faith in the righteousness of my cause. I stared in front of me and shook my head in a firm no. Generally, I am not an unpleasant person, but I have principles. One of them is about never lending clothes to girls prettier than myself.  I was not going to give the American cap to Masha Dolgova, I would not give it to anyone in the first place, but Masha Dolgova, with her figure skating classes, blond hair and lace collars would not get even the dust from behind the cap’s ears. ‚No‘, I said, and added cunningly, ‚My mother does not allow me to lend my headwear to other people‘. That winter, half of the kids in our school had lice, and such cap-sharing embargo was a plausible excuse. Still, the repertoire of our teacher’s imagination was larger than I expected, and for a moment the reference to maternal authority seemed almost doomed: ‚But Masha can put a plastic bag under the cap‘, the teacher suggested, ‚I can talk it over with your Mom‘. ‚I am not going to wear any plastic bags under any stupid mouse caps!‘, Masha Dolgova cried from her desk, ‚Class 3-B is doing the „Sleeping Beauty“. I want to wear something beautiful, too!‘, she shouted and burst into tears. Two other girls threw themselves to her, and embraced each other like graces reconciling themselves with their own brutal fates. Indeed, someone’s Mom in 3-B knew the right people in Kirov Ballet costume shop, and all the girls in the class were going to be dressed like little princesses for the performance. With us, however, no one had access to resources like that, – it was only me, the blessed child with a Disneyland cap. ‚Oh, to the hell with you‘, the teacher said, ‚If you want to make fools out of yourselves, do what you want. Polina can be a goddamn mouse. But if we don’t win this theatrical competition, we will know whose fault it is‘. Thus, for the first, but not for the last time in my life, I celebrated a victory without knowing yet it was doomed.

That evening, I spent a a few hours thinking of a kind of mouse I wanted to be. Because of the Mickey Mouse cap, it had to be an American mouse, – but what did that mean? In that respect my imagination was equally affected by the dissident grandmother, Soviet school and bits of old westerns that were shown on late-night TV. I knew that Americans were supreme in everything: they were rich, dangerous and dashing. And hence, my mouse could not be your modest, – if not servile, – grey Russian rodent, appearing on the stage only to do its job and disappear. No, it was to be an alpha-beast, a supernatural creature which had to move with an air of raffishness and swagger. The entrance of a Mickey-capped mouse was an entrance of a cowboy into a saloon: everyone one gasps in awe, and the frightened turnip simply pops out of its bed. This mouse does not peep: it roars.

With other roles distributed, the rehearsals started the next day. Masha Dolgova let everyone persuade she had to be the cat, and her two best friends took the roles of Grandmother and Granddaughter.  We lined the desks along the walls, and Kolya Vorontsov hunkered down in the center of the emptied class, his face radiating vegetational serenity. One by one, the Grandpa, the Grandma, the Granddaughter, the Dog and the Cat were trying to move him off the spot, – but Kolya could not be shaken. It was up to me to bring the radical resolution into their lives, – and with the Mickey Mouse cap on the top of my head, I felt how some new, unknown energy was filling me. I bent on my four to race for glory, but my, – let’s say it in ‚Victoria’s Secret‘ terms, – curves, did not want to swoosh along. ‚Lower your bum!‘, the teacher shouted, ‚Are you a mouse or an elephant?‘. I tried sinking my bottom closer to the floor, but my knees would not hold the weight, and instead of hopping easily, I stamped and fell. Everyone laughed. ‚I told you!‘ the teacher said, watching me to raise from that pit, ‚Look at you! What kind of mouse it is? Give the cap to Dolgova, please!‘. Like hell I will, I thought with my new American stubbornness. ‚It is my cap‘, I said in a Clint Eastwood voice, ‚And I will be a mouse‘. ‚Very stupid, indeed‘, the teacher said and shrugged her shoulders. I could see she was baffled, and it pleased me. ‚Over again!‘, she shouted and the whole turnip pulling effort was repeated, – this time with me reaching the cat without adversities, and with Kolya Vorontsov, finally, raising on his feet.

The rehearsals went on for another few days, and by the time we were to perform, I thought I managed to do a fairly convincing part, – although in reality, I probably resembled a rabies-sick rat stronger, than a good-natured mouse. At home, I exercised by putting on my Mickey hat and attacking my parents from the doorways. Our cat,  – a fat and asthmatic old thing, – hid under the bed and lost more hair than ever. The children in the class were also behaving strangely: the wouldn’t talk to me or lend a pen, and no one, not a single person, ever begged me to try on my sublime cap. Instead, it sat on my desk like a scalp of some innocent victim murdered in the arms race, radiating hatred and fear. Clearly, nothing good was to come out of Mickey Mouse’s intervention into the Russian fairy world, – but I had to learn it hard way.

On the day of the drama competition the school gym was transformed into a sort of a theater. Rows of chairs were lined along the walls, the windows were decorated with colorful paper streamers and balloons, and to the left from the entrance, a tall Christmas tree was mounted. Every elementary school kid seemed to have brought at least two sets of parents and ten siblings on that day: the gym was terribly crowded, and there was not enough seating place for everyone. It was hot, the air smelled of tangerine peels and everyone was shouting. Finally, as the audience seemed to have arranged itself in one way or another, the principle announced the competition open, – it sounded like quack-quack, – and took her place in the middle of the first row. We were the second to present, and ridden by the anxiety about our own performance, I hardly followed the first piece, an ambitious attempt at ‚Peter and Wolf‘ initiated by a mother of a music wunderkind who pounded the piano with a force of a rock-drill. As the piece was over and the applause was wearing out, we were already lining up behind the gym door in our costumes. Masha Dolgova had nothing to boast but a long stripe of rabbit fur swinging between her legs and imitating a cat’s tail. ‚Next year I will be in the skating competition‘, she announced, ‚And will wear a pink tutu with sequins‘. ‚How wonderful!‘, the Grandmother sighed. ‚I don’t care anyways‘, Kolya Vorontsov mumbled from his cotton-padded ball, ‚It is not even a real prize in the end, just some stupid honor certificate‘. ‚But it is about the performance, not the certificate!‘ I shouted, but nobody replied. ‚Class 2-A, The Turnip‘, I heard the principle announce, and Kolya Vorontsov rolled himself into the gym. ‚Once upon a time,‘ our teacher started reading, ‚A grandpa planted a Turnip, and it grew very, very big‘. Off the Grandpa went to start his fruitless struggle. From outside the gym, we could see how he was bashing about the root, but Kolya sat in his ball firmly. ‚Then, he called the grandma‘, the teacher went on, and having hugged Masha Dolgova good-bye, a tall girl rushed into the gym. Then, the Granddaughter’s and the Dog’s time came, and, finally, the catwoman sprang in, too. It was now me, all alone, about to end the struggle with the Turnip in one, smooth zig. ‚The cat called the mouse‘, the teacher read on, and I could hear a touch of disapproval in her voice. With the Mickey Mouse cap on my head, I leaned down like an Olympic runner at the start line, – and swooshed in, making a menacing and loud peep. Surrounded by what seemed like thousands of eyes, I made my leap to glory, holding my head high enough for everyone to see the Mickey Mouse portrait in between the ears, and trying to prevent my bottom from pulling me down. Ecstatically, I pulled Masha Dolgova from the back, forgiving her all her sins and loving her like a sister, – but nothing happened. She did not move, and the turnip was still there. I pulled again, stronger, – but again, Masha and all of them seemed to have planted themselves into that floor. ‚Move!‘ I cried in whisper, sweat running from under the Disneyland cap, and grabbed Masha with a vigor of a kidnapper, – but the chain did not move. They were on strike, I realized. A good Russian peasant family was refusing the intervention of an American mouse. They played along while the teacher was watching at rehearsals, but given that none of them really wanted to win, they simply decided to flunk the whole thing by refusing to co-operate. I was a maverick, a lone warrior, – and I was sinking. ‚MOVE!‘ I shouted loud now, and the audience laughed, their insulting giggling making me pull at Masha’s back with the strength I did not know to possess, – finally, kicking Masha off her feet and  making her fall on the top of me, along with the Dog and the Grandmother. The audience roared in laughter, so that our teacher’s sheepish ‚And so they pulled out the Turnip!‘ could hardly be heard.

We retreated the stage like a leftover of a beaten army, and needless to say, we did not get any prize, not even an honor certificate. Upstairs in our class, the Dog’s mother was cutting a cake meant to celebrate our victory, and the sight of it I burst into tears and rushed into the girl’s loo. I sat on the window seal and took off my cap. As if everything else was not enough, one of it’s ear’s was broken, forever. Even an American product can not stand against the atrocities of Russian rage.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Burda From Abroad

In 1989 my grandmother retired from her job as a turbine engineer at the Leningrad Metalworks Plant and bought herself a sewing machine. Surely, there is nothing uncommon in an old lady taking up some pleasant handicraft, particularly in a place like Soviet Union where every children’s book featured a plump grandma with her hair in a bun and wearing an apron, sitting in the armchair with a pair of steel needles and a ball of wool. Indeed, such grandma was indispensable to every Soviet household:  in case no one in your family could do a bit of needlework, you were doomed to wear the same pullover till the completion of the current five-year plan and hope that the next one would, by some miracle, comprise production of knit items in your size. However, Frida Solomonovna Bedcher, – my father’s mother who everyone in the family called Fridochka, –  had nothing in common with the apocryphal grandma. She was very lean and tall, – a colleague told her once to ‚bend down and shut the window‘, – wore her hair closely cropped and I do not remember her wearing an apron. She did sit in an armchair quite often, though, – either checking the proofs of her latest article on steel resistance, or with a translation of ‚Ulysses‘ on her knees. Her purchase of the sewing machine was an extravagance no one in the family could comprehend. What could she possibly produce with it? A stuffed, actual-size model of a hydraulic turbine in floral calico? Just wait, my grandmother replied. If I got a PhD in physics, I’ll figure this one, too.

Indeed, Fridochka’s approach to her new hobby was the one of a scientist. First, she made sure she had got all the latest equipment, – it was not just some sewing machine, it was the most expensive German model, fully automatic and able to embroider and overlock. Compared to my mother’s pre-war machine which had to be operated by exhausting spinning of a hand wheel, this one was like hadron collider against an electric bulb. Then, with her lab sat up, Fridochka proceeded to experimental phase. In her systematic worldview, however, there was no possibility of simply taking a piece of random cloth and making a few crooked stitches. No, first a solid knowledge base had to be gathered, – and thus, in a possession of a FRG-made sewing machine, Fridochka succumbed to another product of German civilization: by investing her whole pension into the venture, she subscribed to a women’s DIY magazine called ‚Burda Moden’. At that time it was a luxury of an unheard of scale. Unlike Soviet sewing and knitting manuals which featured solemn women wrapped in dark shawls, respectable men in woolen vests and pale children in capes, ‚Burda‘ was a breakthrough into a world where clothes was meant to make you pretty, not just to keep you warm. Never mind that it took Soviet post at least four months to deliver each subsequent issue of ‚Burda‘ so that that by November you would duly receive an issue with bikini sewing patterns, and on summer evenings you could master the art of Christmas tree decoration, – all these minor deficits aside, at that time ‚Burda‘ was the most sought after item in every Soviet public library, leaving the freshly published Solzhenitsyn far beyond. Women of all ages and occupations queued in front of the libraries from six in the morning to borrow a last-year’s issue, and places in these queues were meticulously counted. Whoever managed to get the magazine, was obliged to inform all their girlfriends at once and summon them for an urgent dress-pattern copying party: ‚Burda‘ was only lent for one day, and I would not be surprised if tardy return resulted in capital punishment. Whole factories would stop production for a day whenever a female employee appeared at work with an issue of ‚Burda‘. And now, Fridochka appropriated it all for herself! Relatives, friends, acquaintances and total strangers were calling, with a mixture of awe and veneration: ‚Is that true that your grandma has all issues of ‚Burda‘ from1989? Could she probably send the February issue to Novosibirsk, just for two days? We will mail it back in a registered parcel with a jar of home-made raspberry jam!‘. The only person in my family who refused to participate in the frenzy was my father. If a female colleague asked for ‚Burda‘, he did not enter her in the waiting list like he was instructed to, – he just picked up a random issue from a pile on the sewing table and took it along. Father had no respect to the magazine and called it ‚Burd-a‘: with a stress put on a last syllable, the mysterious German title became transformed into a Russian word meaning disgusting food of incomprehensible origins. 

‚Burda‘, certainly, shook my life: its pages were a source of endless insights into worlds beyond my own, mockingly visible but out of reach. ‚Burda‘ started arriving at our house at a crucial moment when I was entering adult reality, but still needed tokens of magic to accommodate myself in it. With nine years old I knew surely enough that fairies and princesses did not exist, and there was no point in hoping to turn into one some day. The models in ‚Burda‘  were, in contrast, unmistakably real, – and this is what the zest of the magazine’s appeal was. Like young Emma Bovary whose hands trembled in excitement as she leafed through pictures of ladies in straw hats and muslin dresses, I also had my greatest spiritual and esthetic revelations by looking at photographs of women whose life was, –  yet, – unattainable, but could, possibly, be mine one day. There is one picture I remember clearly till now. A tall and slender blond girl, wearing 3/4 white trousers, a cropped striped pullover and beige desert boots was laughing and stretching her arms above her head, trying to reach a teddy-bear some invisible hand was holding for her in the upper right corner of the picture. Now when I am writing this, my adult self frowns at the vulgarity of this image, – or, to use a Russian word, its poshlost, – a concept which Nabokov defined as ‚corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases‘. But back then I was a nine-year old child from a part of the world where white trousers were simply not worn by anyone but ballet dancers and circus actors. For everyone else they were an unconceivable piece of clothing. Of course, life in the USSR did not consist only of activities unsuitable for white trousers: it was not just about queueing for potatoes or storming rusty buses,  – like everyone else, Soviet people went out, danced and drank wine. However, even on such occasions the fashion was more solemn, women wore dresses and men would put on dark suits (unless they were bohemians). No, by all means white trousers signified something extraordinary, – they existed beyond the border of normal day-to-day experience, – in short, they were zagranitsa. One of the greatest characters in Soviet literature, Ostap Bender,  – a swindler with a notorious and whimsical sense of humor, – famously says that all he dreams of in life, is to become rich enough to afford sailing to Rio-de-Janeiro and descending on its promenade in white trousers. Hence, the German girl on the ‚Burda‘ picture embodied everything one could possibly crave: in her white outfit elegance mingled with prosperity, while teddy-bear (‚corny trash‘) suggested that all of it was achieved effortlessly, in an act of childish spontaneity.  It was that light-heartedness, that carelessness about her which were so striking, so astonishing and so not like what I knew. My own ‚fancy‘ outfit consisted of a plaid woolen skirt and a burgundy jumper, – a combination suitable for attending a convent school, but not for a trip to Rio-de-Janeiro. Every time I wore it, I was reminded to watch out for stains and be very careful. Where I grew up, elegance was not effortless or easily afforded, and it was tempting to imagine that the whole zagranitsa lived like the girl in white trousers. Even though this place and life were beyond my reach yet, the thought of them was comforting, – it was simply good to know that there is a place on earth where, if I make it, I will not have to wear a plaid skirt and a burgundy jumper again. It was a state of deep shock which can upon me when, twenty years later, visiting my husband’s family in South Germany, I opened his wardrobe and faced the very same jumper, – in a larger size and, at a closer look, in a boyish cut. ‚It is excellent cashmere quality‘, his mother used to tell him when, as a teenager, he refused to put it on, ‚Such a jumper is worth a lot of money!“. Could it be that back then, sweating in his cashmeres, my husband to-be closed his eyes and dreamt secretly of a dark Siberian forest where he could march clad in deer-skins? Everyone has there own zagranitsa

To an American, Brit or French it might seem bizarre that of all places, it was Germany where lightness and carefree elegance was imported from,  – the West holds Deutschland for a sinister place where men in grey waterproof coats and sinewy women with square haircuts sit in badly lit restaurants, eat Sauerkraut and talk about money. Moreover, this is an impression Germans hold about themselves: does not matter how many daringly and elegantly dressed young people saunter Berlin’s streets, every German celebrity complains about the dullness of national taste. For many Soviet people, however, West Germany was simply a part of longed for zagranitsa. Although it is hard to find in the former USSR a family which has not lost a member, – or several members, – in the second world war, most people seemed to distinguish clearly between the Nazi Germany and the FRG. Whereas the former was condemned for its crimes, the latter was a place where sublime civilization prospered. ‚Burda‘ was a catalogue of this civilization’s artifacts: by teasing and provoking desires in Soviet women it shook the pillars of the Soviet economy and morals, leading to their ultimate collapse, along with Chernobyl disaster and Afghan war. Viktor Shklovsky, a well-known Soviet intellectual and writer, wrote once that having taken a bath and changed into fresh clothes, a woman also completely changes her mind about just everything. ‚Having slipped into a new dress, women even manage to forget their own gestures‘, he concluded. If Shklovsky is right, than with a huge proportion of urban Soviet women changing into ‚Burda‘ blazers and trousers, nothing in the country could continue the way it went before.  Clad in their new outfits, women glanced around and realized that it was now time to transform their homes. Those wrap dresses and denim shirts were crying for spacious rooms with white leather sofas, polished floors, colorful vases and stereo systems murmuring something jazzy, – everything that the ‚Burda‘ Home Improvement section was suggesting. We were not just to change ourselves, – we had to turn our whole world into zagranitsa; our communal apartments (six families per one bath tub)  into domestic heaven. And like many others, step by step I was giving my soul to the German Housewife Almighty: her call for potted plants and shiny sink was stronger than the call for collective life I heard in the school. An insight came to me on a summer day as I was sitting on the wooden balcony our our old dacha and studying ‚Burda’ Home Improvement section, admiring a country house in Provence style. Suddenly it occurred to me that the downstairs bedroom I shared with my parents could be transformed into an equally elegant interior. I would paint the glass jars my mother kept for pickling cucumbers white and put them everywhere like cute little vases. I would hang new blue-and-white curtains instead of the old lace ones. I would scrub the floor till it shines. I dropped the magazine and ran downstairs, ready to start that very moment. The house was to become a ‚Burda‘ home before the parents were back from work. I crawled on my knees shoveling the sand away, I beat the carpets out, I wiped the dust. A few hours passed unnoticed, but when I finally unbent myself to appreciate the fruits of my labour, a sad picture emerged in front of my eyes. All this work was unnecessary, perhaps even destructive. Stripped of a protective layer of dust, piles of Inostrannaya Literatura magazines lined up in the shelves were now striking one’s eye from a mile’s distance. The linoleum floor usually covered with sand, – the dacha was on the Baltic shore, – was now lying bare and worn out: does not matter how much I scrubbed it, the beautiful wooden boards of a ‚Burda‘ country house never exuded from its bottom. My father’s old sneakers and my mother’s half-broken flip-flops (‚it is a dacha, not a palace‘) also could not be hidden anywhere. The bare threads of our old carpets were now exposed more than ever. A bouquet of wild flowers I picked behind the house and placed in the glass jar, like ‚Burda‘ recommended, looked pitiful, and the checkered curtain I hastily made from a table-cloth featured a sauce stain through which the sun was shining mercilessly. I sat on the bed and cried. This house, this life, – all these things around me did not want to turn into zagranitsa, did not want to play along, did not want to hear the spell a German Housewife was shouting into their ears with my lips. Was it my fault, was I just a  beginner, whose aspirations had to be limited to folding paper napkins into roses? Or was zagranitsa simply unattainable from where I was, does not matter how hard I tried? I sat, and cried, until my mother came home and fell on the bed next to me, astonished. ‚To the hell with zagranitsa and with this burda‘, she said when I told her of everything that happened earlier that day, ‚Dad called me to say he is bringing a real Uzbek honey melon tonight. I bet your  ladies from „Burda“ have never tried anything like that‘. My mother was right. It is already four years that I rummage through Berlin fruit stalls to find that kind of Uzbek melon, – imagine honey and butter mashed together and turning into wine on your tongue, – but all in vain. These melons, in Russian referred to as ‚torpedos‘ for their size and shape, have remained beyond the German border, – in a faraway zagranitsa of my Russian childhood.  They certainly can not be compared to burda sold in the local supermarkets.

 
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments