Eva Friedman, ever full of wonder, and I at the birthday of our dear friend Elisabeth.
The look on Eva’s face as she listened to what I had written about my life in Moscow. It was a short enough piece, and her face was alight with all the very same sensations I had felt when I lived there - awe, gratitude, and wonder. When I finished, she breathed a sigh so meaningful it said everything. Then as an afterthought, she asked, ‘Why did you come here?’. In an instant, with her simple question, Eva at once voiced a lifetime of my own doubt and my new feelings of certainty.
Being here is a product of my being there. Being anywhere is a product of being somewhere else.
Each place offering me chances to be different aspects of myself. Life here, in this moment, in quiet, timeless Paradiso, Switzerland is as full of love and magic as life had been in the vast, adventurous Russian Federation. It is here that I experience the gift of her precious friendship and the friendship of others in our special book club. Here I experience marriage, Italy, Italian, one of my greatest earthly teachers, and so much more. Here, I explore aspects of myself that were equally important to be discovered as those I realized in Russia. It is here that I create the time and space to write this story, my story.
When I have someone to write to, I am inspired to share myself for the purpose of creating a union with them. Writing is a chance to recollect, to literally re-collect, myself and the memories that make up my person. When I read myself on a screen, I recollect parts of me that are otherwise left forgotten, lost. Until they are written, they are relegated to a shadow corner of myself, hidden, out of sight.
In my first years in Russia, I felt a sense that people were attempting to forget pieces of themselves. At the time, the USSR seemed to some like a stain on their skin that they wanted to scrub away. As an American I had a certain view of what communism had been and did not question their wish to emerge fresh and clean, unstained.
The 90’s in Russia posed as a simple game of before and after. The complexities, the subtleties of these states of being were yet emerging. The ‘before’ camp wanted to go back to “как это было раньше” (how it was before). In their romantic view, the benevolent state had taken care of them, there were no drugs, no crime, and certainly there was no poverty, no grand problems. As they described it, people did their jobs, and they therefore had all that they needed.
“мы работаем и они делают вид, что платят нам” - We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us, this was the nostalgic cry that crossed the divide between these two camps. Where their shared miseries merged.
Shared misery is an aphrodisiac of sorts. It binds people at their lowest vibration. For a while it nourishes, even sustains, and then it turns to rot. This rot is what reveals itself when systems are exposed, their frailties laid bare. Some lift their heads from this rot, they look around and see opportunity. This describes the ‘after’ camp of the former Soviet Union in the 1990’s. There are countless books, films, and academic papers on this period, and I will not pretend to compete with them. My stories are from my personal vantage point, and they represent my attempt to recollect myself in their telling. They serve as thread in the tapestry of my life. The tapestry which I have committed to piece together in early morning writing sessions.
In my mind’s eye, I enter the memories of my arrival in Russia, in particular my first meeting with my host family. Irina and Katya, blond mother, and Moorish daughter. One full of words and gestures I could barely understand, the other silent, full of awe and excitement which I could feel as if they were my own. Together we bubbled over with glee, certain of our future together.
While we do not see each other often now, thanks to technology we are in contact. For me, they are and always have been, simply, and expressly, my family. An extension of myself in their land, a land which I still feel is part of me (a part of). Toward the end of my second year living in Vladivostok, my father came to visit me. For two weeks he traipsed around Primorski Krai with me, with his baseball cap and his net bag. Fourteen of his sixteen-day visit, we were hosted by friends, everyone wanted to meet ‘Nicole’s father”, all the way from New Jersey, США (USA). No one was prouder and happier than Irina, my host mother.
She behaved as if Питер (Peter), my father was part her husband and part her son. She fussed over him like a Mama Bear, even though she was significantly younger than he was. For my pat, I was determined to show him what life was really like in the Russian Far East (RFE). Accordingly, we arrived to visit my family in Ussurisk by local train. Pop had his rucksack on his back and his baseball cap on his head. Together we marched out of the train station. Irina had organized a lift for us, and she was beaming as if her prodigal son had returned. Thinking about it brings tears to my eyes, I can hear her cooing, and babbling like a hen. Her kinetic energy was contagious, and my father went right along with it all.
That trip was possibly the first time I had ever seen him so joyful and full of life. He pranced around like a rooster in dusty Ussurisk. He was fascinated by the spectacle of it all. Looking back, I think I underestimated the impression this trip had on him. It was nearly two years I was living the reality of this surreal place and I was so far into it, that to me it seemed as normal as New Jersey. When he arrived to his favorite niece in Seattle en route home, she asked me, “What did you do with Uncle Pete? He sat in the bathtub for 2 hours when he got here!”.
Katya turned 36 last this winter and has a son 7 and a daughter 13. Yanna has three children, 2 boys aged 19 and 2, and a girl aged 5. In December Irina will be 70. I have known them for 25 years. It is seven years since my father died, and my chats with Katya reconnects me to them and to him. There is a part of me who falls apart when I think of these times. It seems they are lost, or meaningless as if the past has been forgotten. Then, in a moment, I feel myself at once in my over safe, comfortable home in Paradiso and on the balcony overlooking the dusty parking area convulsing in fits of laugher with Irina, Katya, and Yanna in Ussurisk.
Yanna is an entire story by herself. Peace Corps rules required that the hosted volunteer have their own room. In a 1996 post Soviet home, this was a tall order. The family gave up their only bedroom to me, and Irina said she had just one daughter so there would be no concerns about space. It took all of two days to understand that the tall, blond, 17-year-old ‘cousin’ was actually Katya’s older sister! This was possibly the beginning of our giggle fests.
Left me, upright Yanna the tall blond ‘cousin’, right Katya. Here we are mid giggle fest as we cruise the Amur River in Khabarovsk.