For seven days my husband, my daughter and her two children (age 14 and 11), and I crisscrossed the Mediterranean Sea. We walked on the red carpet in Cannes, admired the night view of Palma de Mallorca, visited a turtle sanctuary in Ajaccio, tasted freshly made pesto in Genova, marveled at the still leaning tower of Pisa, and learned basic steps of Flamenco in Barcelona (FYI, the most important element of it is passion!) . Our cruise ended near Rome, where we stayed for several more days.
Rome was hot, humid, and overrun with tourists. Still, I reserved excursions there, too — a tour of the city, the Colosseum, and the Roman Forum. The Vatican was our last organized destination and I was looking forward to it.
“Tomorrow we are going to the Vatican,” I said to my family the night before. “Don’t forget to cover your knees and shoulders.”
“OK,” My daughter and my husband said in unison, while my grandchildren looked at me gloomily.
“I can’t cover my knees.” My grandson said. “All I have is shorts.”
The thing about my grandson is that when he doesn’t feel like doing something but doesn’t want to admit that, he comes up with a variety of dubious excuses. Once in London (my daughter’s family lives in England), when I wanted to take him to a public library, he said, looking at me very sincerely:
“In our country, Grandma, they don’t allow children to public libraries.”
That was such an obvious fabrication that I burst into laughter. A librarian myself, I knew that although the case can be made that the Brits like their dogs more than they like their children, they surely build public libraries with children in mind.
“You’ll be OK,” my daughter said to her son. “I have your track pants.”
Here my granddaughter chimed in.
“My ankle hurts,” she said. (She was jumping all over the rented apartment five minutes earlier).
Yet, to her utter disappointment, I reached into my extensive first aid kit and pulled out a muscle relaxer, so a visit to the Vatican became inevitable.
“Your tickets don’t include any museums.” Our tour guide said, looking at our reservation, and my grandchildren’s faces lit up, while their mother’s expression soured.
“What does that mean? I said. “Are you saying that we won’t be able to see the Sistine Chapel?!
“That’s right. Unless you buy additional tickets.”
“Sure,” my husband muttered under his breath. “Let’s fleece the tourists.”
Yet we paid extra and — with 30 other sightseers – headed to our destination.
At first, the tour guide showed us around the Vatican’s grounds, and then she herded us to the additionally-paid-for museums. Of course, these were not the kind of museums I was used to — with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. These were ostentatious displays of unqualified power and wealth: gold-leaf ceilings, sumptuous decorations, luxurious carriages and pope-mobiles and, of course, famous paintings and sculptures. It was overwhelming and I fully expected my husband to comment on that or to say something inappropriate. Like the time when we were in Florence, walking around Michelangelo’s statue of David, and our tour guide said, “Does anybody see anything unusual about this sculpture?”
“He’s not circumcised,” My husband said immediately.
At that point, I quickly withdrew my hand from his and pretended that I had never seen him before, while our female guide raised her eyebrows and — not waiting for my husband’s other insights — quickly informed the group that one of David’s legs is shorter than the other, and if he were standing up straight, we would clearly see it.
This is time, thought, a body part comment came out of the mouth of my 14-year-old grandson.
“Why did they tell us to cover our knees and shoulders?” He said looking around. “There are naked pictures all over!”
That was a very good question, but while I tried to come up with an appropriate answer, the dense crowd of visitors picked us up, pushed us through several galleries and flights of stairs, and deposited us into the Vatican’s Jewel – the Sistine Chapel.
With every inch of its surface covered with frescoes, the Chapel did look like a jewel box — or rather a jewel box filled with ants, as the visitors stood there shoulder to shoulder. My pulse quickening with anticipation, I lifted my gaze to the ceiling, fully expecting to be struck by another Michelangelo masterpiece — “The Creation of Adam.” Yet from where we entered, the famous fresco appeared backwards and I couldn’t make much sense of it. I spent some time craning my neck and twisting my body, so I could see both God and Adam the way I was used to from observing numerous reproductions, but the collective noise and heat emanating from the crowd made me feel lightheaded and I switched my attention to the walls.
Unfortunately, the number of people pressing on me from all sides did not allow for much maneuvering. Besides, to my horror, I suddenly realized that not only did I lose sight of our tour guide, but I also lost sight of my daughter and, worse, my grandchildren! The only familiar figure I could spot in the distance was my husband’s.
The loss of my daughter in a strange city was somewhat distressing but clearly, I wasn’t in a position to save every member of my family. Therefore, I stopped looking at the frescoes and began scanning the crowd for the kids. Thank goodness! They were only twenty yards away, so I desperately pushed my way through the overheated bodies, grabbed my granddaughter’s hand with one hand and my grandson’s with the other and pulled them to the exit, toward the pennant carried by our tour guide, which loomed far ahead.
Before we exited the chapel, I glanced at the ceiling for the last time. From this direction both God and Adam looked right, and feeling relieved that I finally solved the puzzle of the creation and my grandchildren were safely in my hands, I left the building.
On our last evening in Rome my husband and I went to the Trevi Fountain. The night was starless, and by the time we reached the famous fountain, set against a baroque palazzo and brightly lit from all sides, it looked like a turquoise oasis in the dark desert of the night. People crowded all around it — talking, taking selfies, or just enjoying the view. So many people, in fact, that we couldn’t get close to the sparkling water — even less to toss a coin without landing it on someone’s head. Instead, we kissed. And it was a nice moment.
When we turned to leave, I noticed a young couple with two little girls just behind us. The man looked Middle-Eastern and the woman wore a headscarf. They, too, were trying to take a selfie, but the girls, who were too young to recognize the uniqueness of the moment, kept twisting and turning, making it difficult for their parents.
Had I met that family somewhere else, I would never have approach them. Had I met that man in any other crowded place, I would have put a distance between us. Yet here, by this fairytale fountain that spoke of romance, hope and goodwill, I looked at the pretty woman and the cute girls, and said:
“Would you like me to take a photo of you?”
I took several pictures, handed them their phone, and we left.
“Too bad we couldn’t toss a coin,” I said to my husband on our way back.
“Do you want to return to Rome?” He said.
“Sure …” I started. But then I stopped.
The one way I would enjoy that — I realized — would be returning here all together, hopefully when my grandchildren are older and can appreciate it better. As for me, my happiness does not depend on this city or this fountain. In fact, it doesn’t depend on any patch of earth. For me, a Jewish Russian immigrant to America who lost her roots a long time ago, whose parents passed away, and whose daughter no longer lives in the same country, happiness is defined by being needed, being able to help and also being able to create memories that will live after I’m gone.
It also depends on relationships – between me and my family, among my friends, and, ultimately, among all of us humans — no matter where we came from or where we’ll go next. Or, to put it simply, on everybody following the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
I was working on my computer when my husband walked into my study and said, “Something terrible has happened.”
“In Israel or in London?” I said, my breathing stopping, for my sister’s family lives in Israel and my daughter’s in London.
“No,” he said, “in Pittsburg.”
The details emerged quickly. An armed gunman burst into a Synagogue, killed 11 people and wounded several more. Six minutes before the act, the man who branded Jews as “the children of Satan,” posted on his Facebook, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered… I’m going in.”
“You know,” I said to my husband, “I’m starting to feel as if we’re reliving 1932 in Germany all over again. The Kristallnacht has not happened, yet, but it is coming.
He just hugged me. “I’m so sorry.”
Next day, we went to a vigil in honor of the victims. Before we left, I said to my non-Jewish husband, “Maybe I should go alone. You never know what may happen. You have children and grandchildren. You have responsibilities to them, too. I don’t want to put you in harm’s way.” “Nonsense,” he said, and we went together.
The crowd, assembled on the lawn of a small city park, wasn’t very big – mostly Jews of our Midwestern college town, but others as well. The ceremony was emotional and sad. People spoke of their feelings, the need for all good people to unite in the face of evil, about the Holocaust, and all the other things people say every time a mass shooting takes place. Then a rabbi read Psalm 23:
1 The Lord is my shepherd
4 Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,[a]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.”
His words struck me. Was he talking about a different event? Did he even notice how ill-suited his words were? The slaughtered were in the Lord’s temple named the Tree of Life, of all things!
“They comfort me?” When? At the moment of death? As they comforted those six million Jews killed during the Holocaust? What comfort…
Of course, nothing was the rabbi’s fault. He did what he was taught to do – pray and read passages, which, hopefully, gave solace to some. To me, they triggered anger. “I fear no evil”? Really? I do. And I’m sure I am not the only one! He would have done better to just read the names and the ages of the victims, which ranged from 54 to 97–people who could be no threat to anyone. But, again, that was my anger talking.
Many said that what’s been happening in the last two years is Trump’s fault–that he created this ugly and hateful wave. Yet I also heard another voice. Trump didn’t create the wave. He’s just riding it.
I agree with that. Like Pandora who released evil spirits into the world, Trump didn’t create greed, hatred and other human ugliness. They have been smoldering for a long time. He just released them, he gave them a voice. The scary part is that now that they are out, it will be very hard to reverse this evil wave. (In fact, this wave may, one day, crush Trump himself. But, as a Russian colloquial expression has it, “A person who behaves like a dog deserves to die like a dog.”)
And if we fail to stop the wave, it may crush us, too. Look at the people at Trump’s rallies. Don’t they look – and sound – like German Nazis? Look at their youth. Don’t they remind you of Hitlerjugend? And their women? Can you picture them as capos in a concentration camp? Think I’m exaggerating? Take another look! Listen to how angry they are!
Oh, I see, you think you’re not in danger because you’re not a black or a Jew, or a Mexican or gay. Don’t kid yourself. Today it’s not about you. But tomorrow it could be. Tomorrow, they may come after the old (Republicans have been talking about getting rid of social security for some time now), the Muslims, the mentally ill, the intellectuals, and other minorities. It will happen! Unless we stop them today.
And so, don’t just pray or turn off the news. Vote!
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
~~ Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
“Are you feeling blue this morning? Want to go for a bike ride?” my husband said, looking up from his computer and smiling.
“We’ll see,” I said, tersely. My husband always gets up early, and by the time I drag myself out of bed, splash my face with cold water, and walk into his study, he already looks like a man who just won the lottery or was given a free sample of some useless product that is supposed to change his life.
Of course, I’m feeling blue! I’m not a morning person, so that’s how I feel every morning. Not to mention that I just looked at my Fitbit and read, “Went to bed too late!” What’s that about?! I didn’t buy it to admonish me! I just wanted to know if I got enough deep sleep (which I didn’t), so stick to that!
Fitbit aside, unbeknown to my husband, the American expression “feeling blue” means something very different to me. In my native Russia it doesn’t refer to being sad but to being homosexual, which in my mother country is still very bad news indeed. I’m not saying that everybody in Russia is a homophobe. In fact, when my daughter was young, she loved a cartoon called “The Blue Puppy.” In it, the cutest puppy you ever saw was rejected by everyone because of his color. I even remember the song the other puppies sang when he tried to approach them: “Goluboy, goluboy, nechotim igrat s toboy” (You are blue! You are blue! We will not play with you!) Amazingly, that story ended well for the blue puppy, and they all became friends in the end. (Even now, I cannot believe that Russian censors allowed it!)
As for the American meaning, I know people who, when feeling unhappy, eat or drink a lot. I also know a man who, when he got divorced, shaved his head and drove from Missouri to Alaska. That happened long before being bald became a fashion statement, and also before Americans traveling to Canada had to show their passports. So, when the guy arrived at the North Dakota-Canadian border at 5am in the morning with his head freshly sheared and a huge supply of canned goods (he was also short on money), the border patrol searched his car five times! First, because they had nothing else to do at that hour and second, because they believed that anyone like that must be smuggling drugs or firearms
In any case, eating or drinking won’t help me. For one thing, I watch my weight. For another, being from Russia, I’ve seen too many drunks lying on the street, so I don’t feel like emulating them in the US. As for shaving my head, my hair is one of the few features that still makes me presentable. Shaving it without any medical reason would make me look like that man in the Russian proverb: “I’ll poke my eye out so my mother-in-law will have an one-eyed son-in-law!”
My husband doesn’t know much about the intricacies of the Russian language. Besides, he believes that physical exercise cures life’s ups and downs, and bicycling is one of the things he prescribes for me freely. He’s not wrong about that. Since I no longer jog or play tennis (my knees gave out on me), bicycling is as good as anything (actually, there’s only one “other thing” left — walking). And so, an hour later, we found ourselves on the nearest biking trail, pedaling as quickly as we could in our age and watching young people effortlessly pass us.
Trump supporters aside, there’re only two kinds of people I hate with a passion: people who cut me off on the highway and immediately head for the exit, and young people who outdo me on the trail. How can I enjoy my retirement when I’m left literally in the dust? Where’s respect for old age?
Of course, old age is a major reason for feeling blue in the morning. As soon as I open my eyes, a stream of things that are wrong with me floods my mind. Vision, for example. It’s bad enough to have to wear glasses to see what I eat (I know they say that it’s the smell we react to, but from my experience, you still have to see what you’re putting in your mouth or you may deeply regret it!)
Worse, more and more often, I find myself leaving the house in at least one item of my clothing worn inside out. When that happened to me for the first time, I was still working, and when I finally noticed a label of my jacket informing me that it was made in China and consisted of 100% polyester, my first reaction was to blame my colleagues. Why didn’t they tell me? Do they hate me that much? Do they think I’m an old hippy or an Alzheimer’s sufferer? Now that I’m retired, there’s only one person to blame — my husband, who, no matter how I look or what I wear, always says, taking off his glasses, “You look ravishing!”
Speaking about that, looking good used to be very important to me. In Moscow where I grew up nobody would take her trash outside without putting on a decent dress (and possibly makeup!) and carefully combing her hair. Nowadays, I can go the whole day without even glancing in the mirror. And not because I took an oath to look like hell for the rest of Trump’s term, but because I just forget!
Then, there is hearing – so far not mine but my husband’s. Conversations like, “What would you like for dinner?” often trigger responses like: “Who did you say got thinner?”
Bicycling is good for me, though. It makes me feel content, although competitive, which is strange, because I’m not competitive in my regular life. Yet on the trail, my wounded pride gets the better of me. Of course, not every passerby gets me. The majority of bicyclists on our trail are nice. Some say, “Good morning!” till about 5pm. Some comment on the weather. And many ask if you need help when they see you carefully examining your bike with no tools in hand. Once, when I got flat tire two miles away from our house and had to walk my bike home, people stopped so often, that I now carry a little sign in my bag, “Thank you for asking! My bike and I are beyond help”
Some people even ask personal questions. Just recently, while my husband and I were resting on a bench, one lady slowed down, looked at us very thoughtfully and said, “How are you?!” And as long as she was in our line of vision, she kept turning her head towards us. I felt just fine before she asked, but watching her riding with her head backwards, I began worrying that her neck would snap or bicyclists coming from the opposite direction would run her over.
“Do you know her?” I said when she melted into the distance.
“No,” he said. “Do you?”
“No. What’s wrong with her?!”
But, I immediately felt ashamed of saying that. It was a nice gesture. Besides, it’s been a while since I looked at myself in the mirror and I examine my husband’s appearance only when we go to classical concerts. It’s conceivable that we both look so old and decrepit, that the woman was contemplating calling 911! Surely, she wasn’t a Trump supporter, so I could’ve said something nice to her, too, and not just stared at her as if she had offered me her no-good husband in exchange for mine.
By the way, that’s another thing that is wrong with me. I’m not quick on my feet. I can never say anything smart and witty on the spur of the moment, and I spend a long time afterwards mulling over the things I should have said but didn’t.
No, I take it back. Sometimes, not being able to express myself is a good thing. Like that time when the Westboro Baptist Church decided to descend on our synagogue during a Jewish holiday. Not being very religious myself, I wasn’t planning to go to the synagogue that day. Instead, I decided that I would drive there, stop my car in front of those ugly people and give them a piece of my mind using all taboo vocabulary I had mastered during my life in America (something I never did even in Russia where curses were much more intricate and the opportunities were more plentiful).
I carefully rehearsed everything I was going to say in my head, but on the appointed day, I blanked out. As luck would have it, my husband and I found ourselves driving in the direction of the synagogue at the same time the group was due to be there, and everything came back to me.
“Drive slowly,” I said to my husband. At first, he obeyed, but as we began approaching a small group of people standing on the corner and I began lowering the car’s window, he said: “What are you going to do?”
“You’ll see,” I said with so much feeling in my voice, that instead of slowing down, he accelerated, taking me and my anger away.
I didn’t talk to him for the rest of that day. Yet next morning, I read in the newspaper that the Westboro group never showed up and the people I saw on the corner came there to protest against the haters. In short, I was this close to insulting really good people!
Going back to bicycling. Besides its mostly wholesome atmosphere and the fitness aspect, you can run into interesting people that way. Since the trail we usually bike on is some 200 miles long and it connects the St. Louis area to the Kansas City area, people come from all over. You can always spot long-distance riders by the packs strapped to their bicycles. When they stop, it’s usually to replenish their water supply, take a breather, and look at the map. Most of them don’t linger but some do. They ask questions about the local area or make short conversation, and although the interactions don’t last long, there’s enough time to get a sense of what kind of people they are. In fact, it’s a game I play in my head.
Would I want to see this couple again? Or that guy with a sign “Waco Riders” on his jersey? Is he a NRA member, too? What about the group of young people playing Oldies?
That particular morning was hot and humid, and when we stopped at a trailside gazebo, I wasn’t feeling much better than I did in the morning.
“We should’ve stayed at home,” I started, wiping sweat from my forehead, but at that moment a middle-aged couple stopped at the gazebo, too.
“Are you local?” They asked.
The man wore a jersey that read, “Ride for Mental Health!” and the woman “Vote!” and in no time, the conversation switched to the state of mental health in America and, especially, youth suicide. Nothing was entertaining, but I began feeling better. The strangers were my kind of people, smart and caring, and I was already regretting that we’d never see them again.
Just as they were getting ready to leave, a large butterfly landed on of my husband’s blue jersey, and both the woman and I began snapping pictures of it with our phones. The butterfly didn’t seem to mind. It sat still on the blue fabric as if posing for a butterfly lovers’ magazine.
“I think it likes the color.” The woman said.
“Yes,” I joked, ““It must be “feeling blue.””
Everybody smiled and then they left.
Riding back, I didn’t pay attention to other bicyclists, even those who left me behind. I thought about the young people ending their lives and their parents. About our grandchildren and the difficult world we’re leaving them. And, at the end, about myself. Here I am, 66 years old, complaining about minor aches and pains, and constantly misplacing things. Do I have the right to “feel blue” about that? My grandfather never made it to 66! In fact, he never made it even to 62! As for me, I’ve lived a life. I’ve experienced things. I’ve traveled. And what is that “feeling blue” nonsense about anyway? Why do we attach feelings or stereotypes to words? After all, it might be just that – liking the color.
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
If you’d like to see more of my photos, click here.
It was the fifth day of our grandparents-connect-with-their-grandchildren vacation. The day started as usual – the grandchildren needed “five more minutes” to finish their electronic games; their mother, my daughter, needed more sleep; and I needed to get all of them out of the apartment to continue our exploration of Lisbon.
The reason that we found ourselves in Lisbon was simple. It was the final destination of my husband’s and my “Classic Portugal” tour, and it was also the place where my daughter, who settled in England 15 years ago, could bring her children — ages 10 and 13 — in a mere two hours, so the kids could bond with their US grandparents.
This was the first time we assembled in a country foreign to all of us. Our previous vacations mostly took place in English sea towns where, no matter the month, the quaintness of the place was inevitably dampened by rain and darkened by gray skies. Portugal was chosen for its weather and also its food – the latter based on my husband’s recollection of his 1965 American-on-the cusp-of-being-drafted-in-the army-and-possibly-sent-to-Vietnam tour of Europe.
In general, I found his recollections correct. Portuguese food, with its abundance of fish, sangria and good bread was great! However, in 1965, my husband’s traveling companion was a guidebook “Europe on $5 a Day,” but in 2018, $5 couldn’t even buy gelato for my grandchildren.
Well, it wasn’t the money that bothered me. It was my firm belief that we needed to get our money’s worth. Therefore, I packed our days with various tours and activities, and lingering in the rented apartment wasn’t one of them.
The grandchildren, on the other hand, happily spent time playing their electronic games or talking to each other (you would think that siblings living in the same London flat wouldn’t have much to talk about!). And they had tremendous fun riding around the apartment on a coffee table, which was too low for food or drink but featured four large wheels.
Still, I persevered. I endured the pleas and arguments of the children. I reasoned with my daughter who, exhausted from the hustle and bustle of London, wanted to sleep till … I never actually found out till when, because, by the time a small volcano threatened to erupt in my chest, she usually got up.
In any case, we had already taken two walking tours of the city — both very successful, especially from the point of view of gelato sellers. We had visited the Castle of St. George, from which Portuguese Kings ruled the country for four centuries — also very successfully, particularly when the kids discovered several peacocks who, true to the manners of the former castle occupants, cried loudly and fanned themselves with their luxurious tails. And we had ridden a Hippo Bus, an amphibian vehicle that first rode around the city center and then splashed into the Tagus River.
That tour was fun, although somewhat noisy. First of all, as we splashed into water, everybody (me included) screamed bloody murder. Only my grandchildren sat quietly, demonstrating the proverbial British “stiff upper lip” and looking at me with pity.
Secondly, our tour guide said,
“Let’s show everybody around how much fun we’re having! When I say, “Hey, Paul!” I want you to shout, “Hoo-rah!” And she raised her clutched fist the way one does celebrating a major sports victory.
That surely was overboard. Back in the USSR, which I left at the age of 39, we raised our fists only to demand the end of “rotten capitalism.” So, when my husband began bellowing and raising his fist, I felt embarrassed. Besides, to whom was she referring? Did I miss some explanations? I turned to my husband,
“Who is Paul?”
He looked at me blankly,
“I don’t know.”
You just cheered him! I wanted to say. But, I didn’t. Being married for 21 years does it to you. You learn that your spouse can be deaf to your needs. And even more so as his hearing goes. Yet since everybody kept greeting the mysterious Paul every few minutes, I said again,
Another blank look and my husband turned his attention to the monument to Vasco Da Gama we were floating by. That was really ridiculous! But, I didn’t want to make a scene in public, so I let it go.
Later, when we were eating pizza (the kids’ choice), I repeated my question — this time addressing it to my daughter. She didn’t know either.
What a dim family I have, I thought, and slowly began describing the situation to all of them.
“Grandma, she never said, “Hey, Paul.” My grandson said. She said, “Hippo, Hippo!”
“Yes, she did! I heard it!” I insisted.
Several minutes of silence went by, and then my husband said,
“I think I know what your heard. In her Portuguese accent it sounded like
“Hee-po, Hee-po!” Sort of like “Hey, Paul,” I guess. And my daughter doubled over in stitches.
That was embarrassing. Of course, English being my second language, I occasionally, mishear things. Once in London, while watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, I got puzzled by our tour guide’s description of the guards’ hats, which, according to him, were made of “beah skins.” Since I knew no animal by that name and had no idea of its whereabouts, I asked my husband if the “beahs” lived in England or were brought from abroad – only to endure five minutes of blankness and then to learn that the guide had said, “bears,” and that the Brits habitually drop the “r” sound.
Still, “Hey, Paul!” surely took the cake. Today, I needed to rehabilitate myself. I just had to get everybody out to visit the Oceanarium, where I already reserved tickets for both their permanent collection and their temporary one: “Forests Underwater by Takashi Amano.”
By the time we finished with the permanent collection, my grandchildren wanted nothing but ice cream and my daughter and my husband wanted a “quiet place with no activities.” As grand as the Oceanarium was, the sheer number of tourists, local students, and the parents with strollers was overwhelming.
With my tired legs trembling and my voice breaking from shouting over the noise of the crowds, I made a weak attempt,
“Let’s see the temporary exhibit, too. I already paid for it.”
To my surprise, they agreed, and we walked to a different floor, crossed another threshold, and, suddenly, the noise ceased and time slowed.
The large room with a raised platform in the middle was dark, with its only lights coming from the glass walls on three sides of the room. Behind the walls appeared the ocean floor, where underwater plants swayed their willowy limbs, and small fish swam unhurriedly, seemingly in rhythm with the soft contemplative music. There were no interpretive signs, no crowds, and the dark silhouettes of visitors moved around quietly. Some took selfies and left, and some stayed there for a long time, watching.
Bewildered, I stopped and inhaled the air, as one would beside the sea or after a thunderstorm. Then I sat down and gave myself fully to the fluidly changing images, the haunting sounds of music, and the unpretentious artistry and harmony of the place. From the corner of my eye, I noticed that so did my husband and my daughter.
What do you do when faced with perfection? Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you cry that nothing lasts forever? Do you analyze your life trying to find the missing element that could make it beautiful?
I don’t know the right answer, as I don’t know how long I sat there, relishing the moment and also longing for something I could not describe in words. Periodically, I glanced at the kids, making sure that they didn’t wander out or start a fight. They did not. Yet after they walked around once and took several pictures, their attention wavered, and they began crawling on the raised platform and quietly chatting.
“Look how beautiful!” I tried. But the grandchildren just nodded and went back to their game.
After we left, I kept contemplating the kids’ lack of interest. Were they not susceptible to beauty or was it too early for them? True, they had not yet accumulated regrets, disappointments, and unfulfilled promises. They had no need to heal their broken hearts. And yet, I felt disappointed. Not with the waste of money but with the wasted opportunity. The kids saw true magic, but they didn’t recognize it.
At night, when I kissed my grandson good-night, he said, with his eyes closed, “It was pretty, Grandma,” and I stopped, surprised. I was wrong after all. Nothing was wasted. The seed took, and no matter how long it might remain dormant, some day it will sprout. Maybe not soon enough for me to witness it, but it will. And that’s all that matters.
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
If you’d like to see more of my photos, look here.
At our last Staff Day, I received a certificate marking my 25 years with the same library. My first reaction was, “OMG, I’ve worked here longer than I did in Russia!” My second thought was, “How old does that make me?!” (A silly reaction: it’s not as if I hadn’t noticed how much I have aged!). And my third thought was, “Things have definitely changed since I came to this country…”
I won’t lie and tell you that I became a librarian because of my humanitarian nature. You’d be hard pressed to find many Russians who give a hoot about humanity. That’s how we were brought up. We come from a country where everything was about “us” versus “them,” where “us” was our never-wrong-Russia and “them” was the rest of the world, hated and envied at the same time.
I didn’t become a librarian because of my love for books either. This is not to say that I don’t like reading. I do, but that wasn’t my motivation. Librarianship just happened to me.
When I arrived in the USA, I was 39 years old and spoke no English, so my first job here was as a nurse’s aide at a nursing home. I worked the night shift. This was good, because very few residents felt talkative at night. But it was also bad, because I couldn’t sleep during the day. After four months of chronic sleep deprivation, I felt like a zombie. When a friend told me that our local public library was looking for a shelver, I applied immediately. (Had he told me that someone was looking for a non-English-speaking-woman to send to Mars, I’d have applied for that, too, so miserable was I.) That’s how my library career began.
In the beginning, I was terrified of everything: library patrons who tried to talk to me and my colleagues who mostly pitied me. I was especially afraid of getting fired — because the little money I earned was my only source of income. Yet, gradually, I learned English, went back to school, got a Master’s degree in Library Science, and, eventually, became a full-fledged librarian – all while working at the same library.
I never regretted my choices. While librarians are not seen as glamorous creatures but rather as homely women of an uncertain age who wear square glasses, working at the library gave me a chance to learn about my new country. It also gave me a chance to work with like-minded people in an environment where camaraderie is valued above competition and where knowledge is more important than showing off.
Every day, I met lots of people – men and women, old and young. Most of them were patient with me, even when I made mistakes – and I made many mistakes when I first started. I confused whales with Wales, deer with dear, awful with awefull, sweet with suite, corps (as in Corps of engineers) with corpse, etc. And then there were idiomatic expressions and sports metaphors that made no sense to me.
Of course, it wasn’t just at work that I met people. There were people who, seeing me walk in 95-degree weather, stopped their cars and asked if I needed a ride (at the beginning, I had no car). There were sales clerks at grocery stores who – after realizing that I was a foreigner – said, smiling, “Welcome to this country!” And there were neighbors who, when a tornado hit our town, came to our door to take me and my daughter to the basement. (We never had tornadoes in Moscow, so during my first tornado, I actually went shopping!)
I remember writing a letter to my parents describing Midwesterners as friendly and nice, although somewhat reserved. (The latter I experienced first-hand when I married a Midwesterner whose natural inclination is to suffer in silence, while mine is to complain openly :)).
It’s all behind me now. Having lived here for 25 years, I know not to look for animals falling from the sky when I hear, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” I don’t consider putting stamps on someone’s clothes when they say, “Keep me posted,” and I don’t worry about people’s limbs when they buy things that cost “an arm and a leg.” My ignorance and my Russian suspicion were cured long ago by experience and by the incorrigible Midwestern niceness.
Yet lately things have changed. These days, America seems to be catching up with Russia in racism and animosity toward the rest of the world. It’s as though Pandora ’s Box has suddenly opened, and ugly thoughts and behavior, usually hidden, have came out in the open. Vulgarity, misogyny and xenophobia have become a new norm, propagated not just by neo-Nazis but even by the man who hopes to become our next president.
It hurts me to watch this new America, since my many years spent among nice people stripped me of the protective shield I had developed in Russia, where open anti-Semitism was the norm, and where total strangers insulted me – and others like me — by calling us “kikes” and telling us to “get out” of the country of our birth.
Of course, most of this does not happen to me personally. After all, I work at a library, and I live in a college town. So I was unprepared for the day when an older, respectable-looking man approached our reference desk with a question, and, on hearing my accent, said, “Where did you come from?”
I looked up from my computer – I was already working on his request – and said, “I’m from Russia.”
“I see,” He said, accentuating each word. “When I lived in Chicago, I dealt with your kind a lot!”
My heart began racing. “What kind is that?” I wanted to say. But I did not. I knew exactly what he meant. In his eyes, I, as an immigrant, did not deserve to be treated as an individual but as a part of some dirty mass. A pest to be rid of.
“Are you worried about me taking someone’s job?” I said, blood rushing to my face. “Don’t be. There wasn’t much competition for my position 25 years ago.”
There were lots of other things I wanted to tell him. But, my professional ethics kicked in, and I took a deep breath and continued helping him.
When the man left, I felt deflated. Nothing was new about the way he addressed me. Degrading human beings was a tactic used by Joseph Goebbels to dehumanize German Jews. At first they were called rats and vermin, and then, when everyone got used to that, they were sent to concentration camps and gassed.
When I came home, my husband, whose American roots go back more than 200 years and to whom I’ve been married for 18 years, said, “I apologize to you for that man, honey.”
That episode happened two weeks ago, but still, I cannot forget it. In the larger scheme of things, it may not seem important. But it is. Because every horror starts small. And if we let it go, if we tell ourselves that, after all, it’s not directed at us – we are not immigrants or Mexicans; we are not disabled or Muslims– a little story told by Martin Niemöller may easily repeat itself:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
P.S. If anybody’s interested, here’s a link to my interview with our local PBS station, where I talk about my book, “The Education of Traitor:”
“Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.” ~ Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016)
When, in 1990, at the age of 39, I emigrated from the USSR to the United States, I did not know about Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank and other victims — or survivors — of the Holocaust. In fact, I didn’t even know the term “Holocaust.” And not because I was a bad student who failed to learn it in school, but because the anti-Semitic politics of the Third Reich were not covered in our school curriculum and our mass media — not before nor during WWII, nor afterwards. As a result, the atrocities that were well known in the West were hardly mentioned in the East. There, coverage of WWII was dedicated to the bravery and suffering of Soviet troops, and, until 1956, to Stalin’s military genius. So the mass killings of Jews – in Europe and Ukraine — did not qualify.
(Reproduction of the photo depicting Babi Yar ravine near Kiev, Ukraine, the place where 100,000 people, overwhelmingly Jews, were murdered in September 1941.)
This is not to say that the Russian population had it easy. The war was devastating for the USSR. Overall, more than 26 million Russian citizens died during the war, not to mention those who came back as invalids and hopeless alcoholics. Still, the fact that the Jews were systematically exterminated was not revealed in Russia (where casual anti-Semitism was the norm) for a very long time. Well, we knew about concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Treblinka and Buchenwald. In fact, there was a popular song written about the latter, which went like this:
“People of the world stand up a moment
Listen, listen. It buzzes from all sides
It can be heard in Buchenwald ringing off the bells
It’s innocent blood reborn and strengthened in a brazen roar.
Victims are resurrected from the ashes …”
Yet again, we were never told that the main goal of a camp like Auschwitz was the implementation of “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” Historians estimate that among the people sent to Auschwitz there were at least 1,100,000 Jews from all the countries of occupied Europe, over 140,000 Poles, approximately 20,000 Gypsies from several European countries, over 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and over 10,000 prisoners of other nationalities.
When I found myself in Columbia, MO, and I had learned enough English to start reading, books about the Holocaust were not high on my list. First, I needed to learn about my adoptive country, its history, culture and customs. So, when one day (I was already working at the Reference Desk of the Columbia Public Library) a teenage girl came to me and asked about “The Diary of a Young Girl,” I had no idea what that book was about. I just looked it up in the library catalog. And later, when another patron was looking for “Night” by Elie Wiesel, I didn’t know anything about that book either. In fact, I had trouble spelling “Wiesel.”
Time went by and I learned about the Holocaust, about Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel and others. I saw a collection of victims shoes in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (the Nazis confiscated their victims’ belongings and sent valuables back to Germany; the shoes were to be repaired by the camps’ prisoners and reused).
And I heard a reading of names of the Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust (1.5 million names in all) in the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial in Jerusalem, which is housed in an underground cave and lit by candles that, reflected in a system of mirrors, create the impression of millions of little stars. (The complex was built with donations from a family whose two-and-a-half old son was killed in Auschwitz.) And when I was read “Night,” I could hardly keep from screaming; for the way I felt, it all could have happened to me, my parents and my daughter.
(Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial, Jerusalem, Israel)
There are some events so cruel and traumatic that people don’t want to talk about them, even less read about them. In fact, when Wiesel’s “Night” first appeared in print (in Yiddish) in 1954, its publication was hardly noticed. In America, when the book was published in 1960, it wasn’t an overnight success either. Gradually, though, it began attracting more attention, and when, in 2006, Oprah Winfrey presented “Night” to her book club, it became a New York Times bestseller.
Wiesel went on to write many more books and to become a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Above all, he remained a voice for Holocaust victims and survivors – the mission he considered the most important in his life.
“If I survived,” Wiesel said in 1981, “It must be for some reason. I must do something with my life… because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person.”
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
April 10-16 is observed in the United States and Canada as National Volunteer Week.
“Volunteer: a person who willingly does work without getting paid to do it”
Where I came from (Moscow, Russia), we never volunteered — at least not in the American way. The thing was that we didn’t have to — authorities “volunteered” us when and where they desired. The “without getting paid” part (see definition above) worked the same way as it does in America. As for the willingness, nobody ever cared to ask.
The most common cases of Russian “volunteering” during my time there included sending citizens to express their (fake) enthusiasm at state parades, and sending city dwellers to collective farms to help with harvesting.
I still remember spending long weeks (even months) picking cabbages and potatoes, hours away from my home in Moscow — living in military-style barracks, wearing oversized black rain boots and ugly telogreikas (black, shapeless quilted jackets), and drinking vodka — the only entertainment available in the provinces.
I also remember “voluntarily” greeting foreign dignitaries, including Gerald Ford, who visited Russia (then The Soviet Union) in November 1974. My whole college was positioned along Moscow’s wide Leninsky Prospect (Lenin’s Avenue) for about 2 hours, bored and cold, waiting for the black limousines and leather-clad motorcyclists to drive quickly past us, while we waved at them and smiled forced smiles under the command of our superiors.
This is not to say that nobody in Russia would take to the streets voluntarily. There were a few — some protesting against the injustice of the regime and some trying to force the authorities to allow them to leave the country. Yet they were called “dissidents,” and the country had appropriate places for them — mostly the state prisons. All in all, “altruism” was not a common word in our vocabulary – “mandate” was.
Of course, I haven’t been in the country of my birth for a very long time, and things are different there now. These days Russia, too, has volunteers. One example is Russian soldiers — sorry, I meant to say “volunteers” — who fought against the Ukranian Army in 2014-15 (in Ukrainian territory, mind you). Unlike my days of digging in the mud in Russian potato/cabbage/carrots/ etc. fields, those guys weren’t wearing telograikas and rain boots, but military style clothing. They were better equipped, too. Instead of sacks for gathering veggies, they carried automatic rifles, drove tanks, and used Russian-made rockets. Yet small differences aside, it’s clear that volunteering has finally made its way to Russia. In fact, some Russian volunteers are fighting in Syria right now.
Coming to America in 1990 was disorienting for me in a number of ways — mentally, linguistically and culturally; and one of things that amazed me was this American “volunteering streak.” I remember asking people, “Do you mean that nobody forces (or pays) volunteers to travel to different states to help victims of natural disasters or to support a cause?! That some people would spend their time and money to feed the poor or organize and attend fundraisers?” And when I heard, “yes,” I just shook my head in disbelief.
I’m not saying everybody in this country is an altruist. Of course not. I am saying, though, that I know many people here who have done – and will do again – all of the above and more. And let me tell you, volunteering is contagious. These days, I volunteer, too. I’ve participated in a number of fundraisers, and I’ve donated things to my congregation and my library. It’s not much, but it’s a beginning. For I finally understood that John Donne’s famous quote is not just poetic. It is a truth of the human condition:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
As you know, I’ve been “Freshly Pressed” recently. This has been my closest brush with fame so far :), and the result of it surprised and amazed me. The surprise lasted for about a day. (Longer than Isaac Bashevis Singer’s when he received the announcement that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
His phone rang off the hook and everybody asked, “Are you surprised?” At first, Singer said, “Yes!” But soon, his response changed: “How long does surprise last? I heard the news 15 minutes ago!).
Yet I am still experiencing the amazement. Some 2000 people read my post Dreams (BTW, those who liked that post, may also like A Wrinkle in Time and Of Soil and Feathers), the number of my followers tripled (!), I received almost 150 comments, and 10 people bought my book. ( FYI, until October 4, a digital copy of my book is available from smashwords.com for $0.99 with a coupon CB32K.)
I am very grateful to everybody who took the time to read my humble ramblings. As for your comments, if I haven’t answered them yet, I definitely will. (Well, someone asked if I like Windows 10; that I won’t answer – it’s between me and Microsoft :)). One thing, though — with many people “following” me now, I feel the pressure of being worthy of so much attention, and I fear that I won’t be. For one thing, my posts are all different – sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous, and sometimes reflective. So forgive me if I disappoint you. I am who I am, and I write about my feelings and experiences — which, this time, concern my recent vacation in Oregon.
If not Now, When?
The first thing my husband and I noticed while landing in Portland was how smoggy the city was. With the hottest summer on record and wild fires raging in Oregon, Washington, and California, that was hardly surprising. Yet we had no time to dwell on it. We rented a car and drove to Multnomah Falls, located about 30 miles away from Portland.
We humans are hardwired to be drawn to water, but waterfalls seem especially magical. Is it the sheer force of falling water? The cool glimmering beads that gently spray your face? The fresh smells and the haunting monotony of the sound? Who knows? All I know is that no picture can do justice to Multnomah Falls (at least not my picture:)). The falls are immense –the drop from the upper falls is 542 feet and from the lower 69 feet – and they attracts two million people visitors every year.
We spent hours admiring the scenery, had lunch at the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge, and headed to our next destination — Mt. Hood.
To my disappointment, the Historic Columbia River Highway appeared hazy — the smoke of nearby fires washed out the dark greenery of Douglas firs and the rocky cliffs on the other side of the river. Even a bigger disappointment awaited us at Mt. Hood. The mountain, so photogenic on a clear day, was obscured by smoke. I gave up my idea of taking pictures, and we headed to Timberline Lodge, set at the tree line of the mountain.
If Mt. Hood is a monument to nature, then the lodge (built in the 1930s as a WPA project),with its carved railings, wrought iron fireplace, and an enormous chimney, is a monument to the past times.
The only thing that reminds visitors about the 21st century is an overpriced restaurant where every dish is made of multiple ingredients and sorbet is served between courses to “clear your palette.” (Tip: if you ever visit there, eat at the bar, where you can have a great view of the mountains, good food, and reasonable prices:)).
Next day, though, the wind changed, and, as if in a theater, the smoke receded, the sky turned velvety blue, and the mountain appeared in all its glory. Well, in as much glory as the diminished amount of snow on its top allowed. To give you an idea, the first time we visited Mt. Hood together was April, 2010. Deep snow lay on the ground when we arrived, and when we woke up next morning, 33” (!) of fresh snow puffed up the already wintry scene, deep snowdrifts reached the windows of the third floor, and the chairlift (we came to ski) was hardly visible in the whiteout of falling snow.
This time, we spent our days admiring distant views of Mt. Jefferson and Three Sisters, hiking on Mt. Hood, and walking in the deep Northern woods, where stately Douglas firs stand guard over cool mountain lakes that provide fun for kayakers, fishermen and sunbathers. Then we continued to Bagby Hot Springs, recommended to me by a library friend.
After an hour of driving, we stopped at a Forest Service office and asked for directions. A female staff member gave us a funny look and said, “Who told you about Bagby?”
“A colleague of mine,” I answered. “He said it’s a great place to visit.”
“If you’re into that kind of things, yes.” The woman said. “Where are you from?”
“Missouri,” I said, feeling somewhat uneasy.
“Missouri?!” The woman said. Then she hollered to someone in the other side of the office,
“Look, Mary, people from Missouri are asking about Bagby!”
Another woman got up and looked us up and down.
“Nudity is limited these days,” She finally said and sat down.
“Nudity!? He didn’t say anything about nudity!” I started, but the first woman interrupted me.
“And you’ll have to bring several buckets of water from the creek to cool off the spring water.”
“We’re renting a car,” I said. “It didn’t come with a bucket!”
“Exactly,” the second woman said. “And the baths aren’t in good shape. They’re made of wood. Deteriorated.”
At that point, I pulled my husband to the exit, and we headed to Silver Falls State Park instead. The park, a nine-mile-loop that begins with the 177-foot-high South Falls and snakes through a densely wooded landscape connecting 10 waterfalls, is an example of park-design-ingenuity. Of course, the unusually dry summer affected it, too, turning several waterfalls into trickles. Yet we enjoyed the park anyway, especially since two waterfalls allowed visitors to walk behind the cascading water and see the other side of the fluid curtain.
Next day we drove to the Oregon coast. The famous Pacific Northwest coastline was smoggy, and, once again, I put away my camera and waited for a food stop. The small town of Tillamook proved to be just that. A busy restaurant /gift shop offered local cheeses and wine/dips/spices-and-you-name-it tasting, while a next-door art gallery provided food for the visual sense.
Having fulfilled our tourist duties, we continued to the town of Seaside. A fancier place to stay would’ve been Canon Beach, but a librarian (me) and a retired professor (my husband) cannot afford to be fancy:). We had no regrets, though. Seaside is a cute town with a grand, 1.5 mile-long promenade, wide sandy beaches, an aquarium, and the best pancake restaurant I’ve encountered — Pig ‘N Pancake (Tip: sourdough pancakes are to die for!).
Unfortunately, the town was veiled in smoke, too, but our luck held — the wind soon changed and the Pacific Ocean appeared before our eyes, mighty and austere. We spent our time walking along the promenade, hiking in the woods, and watching windsurfers at Ecola State Park (surfing there is not for the faint of heart — the peak temperature is 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit).
Even if you don’t stay in Canon Beach, you owe it to yourself to see its shoreline. The 235-foot-high Haystack Rock rises from the bottom of the ocean as a reminder of prehistoric times. (At low tide, visitors can walk up to it and see starfish and other tide-pool creatures.) Several other large monoliths next to Haystack courageously defy the crashing of ocean waves. And wide beaches offer enough space for sunbathers (swimmers are rare, but they can be easily pinpointed by their loud screams when they splash in the cold water), sandcastle builders, windsurfers, tricyclists, dog walkers, and kite runners. (Tip: bring some warm clothes, preferably a hoodie — the wind there is strong and cool).
Time flew, and soon we were driving back to Portland to take a plane home. The return, always anticlimactic, was also marked by low visibility, and I began to pay more attention to the scenery close to the highway: small, rundown houses and glaring spots in the forests covered the nearby rocky landscape – a result of merciless logging. On the radio, the announcers were talking about the alarming air quality in Portland.
In the airport, while waiting for our flight, I scrolled through my photos – a barely-covered-with-snow Mt. Hood, hazy landscapes along the Columbia River, diminished waterfalls, and my thoughts turned to the environment. We, the older generation, are lucky to have seen amazing landscapes and jungle-like forests, to have skied in deep snow and enjoyed clear horizons. But what about our grandchildren? Will they ski on Mt. Hood, walk in the deep woods or swim in the lakes and rivers? Will they inhale clean air and observe clear views?
It’s about time we understood that we cannot afford to be careless and oblivious to the changes that are happening in our time. Otherwise, we’ll go the way of Easter Islanders who deforested their island, ruined its ecosystem, and, eventually, caused their civilization to collapse. Let’s do something to prevent this, and do it soon — despite the inertia and political squabbles that poison our souls and our environment.
If not now, when?
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
I just received very exciting news: I’ve been “Freshly Pressed!” If you’re not a wordpress.com blogger yourself, you may think that I’ve gone mad, so let me explain. Being “freshly pressed” has nothing to do with any industrial process or making juice (at my age, I may not have much juice left in me anyway :)). All it means is that the WordPress.com editors chose one of my posts to be featured in their daily collection of most interesting posts. This is an honor, and it also means that many more people will “discover” me and my blog.
When I first began blogging, I really wanted this to happen – and fast, too. I talked to other bloggers and I looked at the wordpress.com recommendations, which were all like this: write often, preferably every day. Yet I quickly realized that I’m just not cut out for that. For one thing, what would I write about every day? My life is not that exciting, and I don’t have any special skills the world is waiting for me to reveal. Besides, the Internet is already filled with posts (including pictures) about dirty dishes sitting in a sink waiting to be washed, cups of coffee waiting to be drunk, and other mundane objects and events from bloggers’ everyday lives.
Things like that may be inspirational for certain people, and some of these posts are actually very good. But for me to get inspired, something unusual has to happen, like birds crashing into our windows, strange dreams invading my subconsciousness, a letter from Michelle Obama (are you intrigued? — a post about that is coming, stay tuned :)), traveling — that kind of thing. So, early on, I realized that blogging fame is not achievable for me, and therefore, I proceeded at my own pace – writing mostly once a month and mostly about things that give me pleasure or cause me distress.
And what do you know–two years later, it came! Which I found very surprising. Do not take me wrong. I am happy to be recognized (who wouldn’t be?), but I did not do – or write — anything differently. So, why now? Why at all?
When I was very young, I believed that life must be fair. Well, that didn’t last long, as life taught its lessons. Later I believed that one can control the future merely by planning for it. That, of course, had to be corrected, too. Now, I believe that life is unpredictable, and if you stick it out, you may actually get rewarded. Or not. You never know. The safest bet is to do what brings you joy — or solace. And that is a reward in itself.
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
Before you read my new post, take a look at this YouTube video — my interview with Paul Pepper (a KBIA show “Radio Friends with Paul Pepper“).
A digital-only version of my memoir, The Education of a Traitor, will be also released at smashwords.com (it’s already at Amazon) on July 19 — for Apple iBooks, iTunes, Kobo, Kindle, Nook, Sony, and PDF. It is available to pre-order at Barnes and Noble, and it will be free at smashwords.com July 19-25th with a coupon PZ85H.
“Nature Red in Tooth and Claw”
“It’s raining cats and dogs,” my husband said.
“It sure is,” I said, still – after all my 25 years in America — trying to envision what raining animals would look like.
Pouring rain is common in Missouri, and some years, mowing a lawn once a week no longer cuts it (excuse my pun :)). Yet this summer the grass hasn’t seemed to grow like crazy, while the rest of our plants have.
One day, after work, I walked around the house and realized that our property has turned into a jungle: the trees have spread their branches as if trying to swallow our house, the plants beside our walk have oozed onto it for about a foot, and our deck appears much shadier than I ever remembered it.
The result looks spooky, reminding me of a book I read some time ago–The World Without Us–which postulates that plants could cover all traces of human existence within about a hundred years or so. Continue reading
I am honored that Caroline Leavitt, an American novelist and the New York Times bestselling author, interviewed me for her blog. Here is her entry:
THURSDAY, JUNE 25, 2015
I love discovering great small presses. Musings Publishing is based in Missouri, and they sent me a book with the provocative title, THE EDUCATION OF A TRAITOR, complete with a haunting cover photo. Kirkus Reviews calls this “an intimate look at a young woman’s struggle to find her own truth in a repressive society.” Midwest Book Review calls the memoir, “Hard-hitting and involving.” I’pm honored to have Svetlana, who grew up in Moscow during the Cold War, on my blog. Thank you, Svetlana.
I always want to know what sparked a book. Why write a memoir now?
It was my American husband who “sparked” my book. It happened five years ago. At the time, I was working on a book describing my coming to Columbia, Missouri, which for me, then a 39-year-old Jewish immigrant with no English and no knowledge of American life, was as disorienting as if I had landed on the Moon. I had a good time writing that book, because the most difficult period of my immigration was already over, and I could have fun describing my learning English — mixing up words “desert” and “dessert,” “hair” and “hare,” and getting puzzled by expressions like “keep me posted” when no postage stamps were in sight.
My husband, however, thought that my life in Russia was a more important subject to write about, and, eventually, I agreed with him — not because I believed my past life to be exceptional, but because it was representative of other lives spent under an oppressive regime.
Why now? For one thing, it took me a long time to improve my English, and it took me even longer to feel strong enough to relive my past. This does not mean that everything in my Russian life was painful. Some things were so absurd that they were actually funny. Continue reading
“I am not supposed to look like your mama. It’s your mama who is supposed to look like me …” I started but realized that my joke would be lost on a seven-year old, so I quickly corrected myself, “What do you mean, darling?”
“Mama doesn’t have so many wrinkles,” Amelia said with the cruel sincerity of a child.
I think I look pretty good for my age! — I wanted to say, feeling suddenly defensive — the subject of my ever increasing (and deepening) wrinkles has been on my mind for some time now even without my granddaughter’s reminder. In fact, just before we left our Missouri home, I looked at my passport picture — the one I considered to be my worst picture in the last nine years — and I realized that I’d love to look like that today. Yet I didn’t want to discuss the subject of aging with my granddaughter, so I said, “Your mother’s face is less wrinkly because she’s my daughter. Daughters look younger than their mothers. You look younger than yours, and I looked younger than mine. The longer we live the more wrinkles we have.”
“Your mama died,” Amelia said with the superiority of an insider.
“Yes, she did.” I said, momentarily choking from the acute pain that these three little words caused me. “Do you remember her, darling?”
“Yes. She had lo-o-o-ts of wrinkles.” Amelia said, not willing to change the subject.
Amelia is funny that way. Every time my husband and I come to London for our yearly visits, Amelia and I have long conversations about things. They started when she turned three and she began to learn about her family relations, which are more confusing than I’d would like them to be for her sake. Continue reading
Unfortunately, I haven’t written much for a while:(. The only things I’ve done are several book talks and interviews. If you’re interested in any of that, take a look:)
If you’re not interested, wait till my life becomes somewhat normal:)
For Vox magazine article — click here
Book talk at the Columbia Public Library
Here’s my first radio interview!
See (or hear, rather:)) for yourself :).
Since my book came out, everybody I know says, “How exciting!”
This, of course, is a very typical American reaction. You tell somebody that you’re going for a bike ride on the weekend, and they say, “How exciting!” Or you ask someone how they feel about starting a new job, and they tell you, “I’m excited!”
When I first came to this country, I thought that Americans must be the most excitable people on earth. Even now, after having lived in the country for twenty-four years, this inexplicable American enthusiasm never ceases to amaze me. You see, I’m from Russia. We never got excited. We got drunk. Or, when we felt something “exciting” come over us, we got into fights. That was it.
Of course, I personally don’t drink much, and I don’t fight either (well, only rarely, usually with my husband:)). But every time I hear “How exciting!” I feel like saying: “Exciting? What are you talking about? I’m stressed out and anxious!”
And the publication of my book is no exception. In fact, it has made me even more anxious than I usually am. Why? Because there are so many things that first-time-authors have to do when their books come out – publicity, marketing (when you spend five years of your life writing a book, you do want people to read it!), begging friends and colleagues to “please, if you like my book, submit a short review of it to Amazon.com!,” asking established authors to read your book (those, of course, never respond), and waking up at night because there was something you should’ve done but you haven’t, or because you’re obsessing about something that you have done.
This last one really got me last night. The thing is that even without my book project, I rarely have restful nights. One reason for that is insomnia, which, as I age, bothers me more and more, another — intense dreams that fill my nights when I finally fall asleep. Sometimes these dreams are continuation of the daily events — so realistic that I have a hard time in the morning discerning what was and what wasn’t a dream. Sometimes they are nightmares, and often, they are reminders of the things I could’ve done better. And that was what my dream was about last night.
In it, I was reading reviews of my book at Amazon.com (I’m told that I should have at least twenty of them, but I have only nine so far), trying to figure out whom else I could to ask for one, when I noticed a new review that I hadn’t seen before:
“It’s a good book, daughter. Thank you for writing it. Mom.”
This is strange. Mom doesn’t write — or read! — in English, — was my first dreamy thought.
She must’ve asked somebody for help — was my second.
No, wait! This must be a mistake! Mom is dead!
This last thought woke me up and I mentally went over the calendar. Mom died exactly two years ago. Two years before my book was published. Two years before anybody could write a review of it. And yet, the message seemed real; seemed like something Mom could say. Something I’d love to hear from her but never will.
I couldn’t go back to sleep after that, and I couldn’t get up either. In this twilight state, in my mind’s eye, I began turning pages of my book, one by one. She was there – if not on every page then in every story. She was a young doctor carrying a bag with a stethoscope, injection bottles, and other shiny medical things. She was there exclaiming “Look how blew the sky is! And the air, it’s so fresh!” She was the one who, when I tried to skip school on account of being sick, told me that “only dead people have no ailments.” And she was the woman crying over the burial of her own mother, my grandmother, the way I cried over hers.
I tossed and turned, and tried to go back to sleep, but finally, I got up, grabbed my book, and opened it. Under the title and other required information, it read: “To Alex and Amelia.”
Even before I finished my book, I knew that I would dedicate it to my grandchildren. To my wonderful grandchildren whom I love so much but see so rarely. It just seemed logical to do that, to pass a so-called “torch” to the next generation. But, was that the right thing to do?
Alex and Amelia, who are now 10 and 6 respectively, may never read my book. Hopefully, they will take a look at the pictures of their forebears, but being so young, they’re unlikely to be interested. Of course, there is a chance of them finding my book later in their lives and, if I’m very lucky, reading it. But will they even notice the dedication? Should I have dedicated my book to my mother instead? Or does it even matter?
She’s gone, and nothing I do will ever reverse that. Of course, I have my memories of her, some of which I put in this very book. Many of those memories are good, some funny, but some are regrettable. For, as Mom aged, it was easy to get upset with her for saying things that were not “politically correct,” for being not as sharp in her 80s as we, her middle-aged daughters were in our fifties, for her extreme candor — undoubtedly a result of life spent in the country where everything was black and white, with no half-tones allowed. It was easy and it was understandable. And yet, for two years now, I have been ashamed of those memories.
Well, too late now. Mom will never know about my regrets,as she’ll never know about my book. All I can do is to open a page with her picture and say, “Forgive me, Mom. The way you always did. As for this book, even though it’s not dedicated to you, it is as much about you as it is about me.”
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
My dream of publishing my first book — my memoir — has come true! This book covers the first fifteen years of my life, but I spent five years writing it. Why so long? For one thing, I had to learn to write in English, for I came to this country knowing only Russian (and a little German:)). For another, my childhood was not happy. In fact, some of the things that happened to me then haunt me even now, and it hasn’t been easy to relive them. Yet that’s all in the past. My book, The Education of a Traitor: A Memoir of Growing Up in Cold War Russia, is, finally, available from Amazon.com. I hope readers will like it:)
We got married on Valentine’s Day. My husband thought that it was romantic. (Well, he also figured that it would help him remember our future anniversaries). I thought it was cute and also special, since there was no Valentine’s in my home country, Russia. Yet whatever our ideas about the joys and responsibilities of marriage were, our Valentine’s wedding turned out to be a true commitment.
I’m not talking about the everyday challenges of married life: suppressing your true feelings about endless football, basketball, and what-ever-ball games, picking up things lying around the house (like his size-large gloves on our dining table), suffering through Chinese meals he loves so much, and patiently repeating questions that he cannot hear because he’s watching some bloody thriller on TV. You expect these things after you say, “I do.” I’m talking about difficulties that are outside our control, like every year we want to celebrate our anniversary, we have to beat a whole slew of people who go out on Valentine’s Day just for fun. Continue reading
There are several things about Missouri that are quite predictable: for one, politics — almost always conservative — for another, brilliant fall colors. As for the weather around here, it is as unpredictable as life itself. Take me, for example. Who would predict that a timid girl from Moscow would land in the American Midwest? Or that I — a person whose ancestry goes back to the Diaspora Jews and, more recently, to the Ukrainian small farmers who were sent to exile by the Stalin regime and died of hunger — would marry an American man whose great-great-great uncle was Henry Clay, a US senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State who ran for president four times? (No, my husband is not in politics, he’s in linguistics; no family can withstand the tide of time :). Continue reading
Jonathan Swift is credited with saying (among many other things:)) that “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” If that is true, I surely have it! – vision, that is. I started my last post with a cover page for my forthcoming book. And this week’s theme for the WordPress Photo Challenge is — what do you know! — “Cover Art.” (Those of you who’ve been following me for a while know that I sometimes participate in photo challenges.) Since I’ve already posted my cover art, this time, I’ll post some of the pictures that will appear in my book.
By the way, I’m still trying to decide if I should release it in December, a month known for its festivities and impulsive buying:), or in January, which is symbolic of everything new. What do you think? In any case, here’s my new entry.
What can be more adventurous than venturing into the world of magic? My first introduction to this world took place when my parents gave me a book “Starik Hottabych” (Old Man Hottabych). This book (also made into a movie) featured a twelve-year old Soviet Pioneer Volka who accidentally found an ancient bottle at the bottom of a river. Being an energetic and curious boy, Volka opened the bottle, and a genie named Hassan Abdul-rahman ibn Khattab emerged, loudly proclaiming that he was ready to fulfill Volka’s every wish.
It was a great and funny story, since the Young Pioneer, who suddenly found himself empowered by the old genie, kept getting into all kinds of trouble — mostly because of differences between the life style and the morals of the ancient world and those of Soviet Russia. It was also a variation on the tale of Aladdin and his magical lamp (a fact I discovered much later, when I got my hands on a copy of The Arabian Nights). Not only did the story entertain me, but it also motivated me to learn how to swim — for I, too, wanted to find an ancient vessel on the bottom of a river. (Regrettably, that never happened, although not for lack of trying:).) Continue reading
Both birthdays took place on Saturday: one in the afternoon and one at night. Both were birthdays of our friends: one Russian and one American. The former was celebrated in a park, in an outdoor shelter. The temperature was about 85 degrees, and when my husband and I joined the party, the guests, red-faced from the heat, were already enjoying themselves, eating home-made food, drinking wine, and talking and joking in Russian. This, of course, is the way it should be. Russian is their native language, so why would they speak anything else? Yet we were here — my American husband and I–and people began switching to English.
It always makes me feel uncomfortable that our arrival forces people to abandon their comfort zone. Some do it willingly, because they want to talk to my husband, and some begrudgingly–or that is how I perceive it, anyway. And there are always some who don’t care for “foreigners,” unless they are at work, in grocery or department stores, etc., so they ignore my husband altogether. Which also makes me feel uncomfortable. Continue reading
Our photo challenge this week is “threshold,” a concept that, according to the dictionary, can have several meanings:
1. the sill of a doorway.
2. the entrance to a house or building.
3. any place or point of entering or beginning
We all encounter thresholds in our lives, and we all have stories about how we passed (or didn’t pass) them. Here’s mine:
Library –Threshold of Learning
“Two books per visit per week,” said the unsmiling librarian as she handed me a library card. Neither the limits nor her demeanor surprised me, a 9-year-old Jewish girl growing up in Moscow in the 1950s – a city where everything was strictly regulated and rationed. I read the two books in two days and impatiently waited for the next visit. Continue reading
I am not an adventurous person. I have never been on safari or even to Alaska. Despite the fact that I immigrated to America from Russia, I do not like changes. Yet, moving beyond the city limits was my idea.
Our new house sat on the edge of a woody bluff, and a creek ran below our property, dividing us from the city where we had lived before. As soon as we finished arranging furniture, I turned my energy to the yard. I started by reading gardening books, then I attended a short landscape design course, and soon after that a strange metamorphosis took place in my life. The only subject that interested me now was gardening, and I spent most of my free time in the yard – digging, mulching, and watering.
A new photo challenge read: “Threes” — a photo story in three pictures: a broad photo of a subject, several elements from it interacting with one another, and a close-up.”
I went through my pictures. Some of them could work, but, I recently used them, so I needed something new. Mentally, I assessed my options: the day was a typical Missouri winter day – gray, cool, and windy, with no recreational (or photo) values of any kind. There was nothing special going on in town, either. Where would I go?
“Let’s drive to Eagle Bluffs, I said to my husband while we were eating our Sunday breakfast – I my usual cereal and he the leftovers from a dinner party we held the night before.
“Sure,” he said and reached for his binoculars.
Those who’ve been reading my posts know that my husband is a wildlife lover, and since Eagle Bluffs is a state conservation area about 10 miles away from us, it is one of the places he’s always ready to go. Over the years, I came to like that area, too, although the first time my husband took me there, I was disappointed.
Those who’ve been following me for a while may have noticed that I have another blog, too – Svetlana’s Photography. (Don’t take me wrong. I have no illusion about my ability as a photographer. I just enjoy taking pictures:). Here’s how it works. Every week, WordPress announces a theme, and people like me (as well as some professional photographers) post their photos to illustrate it. The theme for this week is “Treasure,” and the example we’re given is a heart-shaped stone, a keepsake that the photographer has kept in her possession for 25 years and three house moves. This, of course, made me think about my keepsakes, but I quickly realized that I no longer have them in my life, and I want to tell you to why.
When I left my former “Motherland,” I was allowed to take anything I wanted – as long as I could pack it into two suitcases per person (actually, diamonds were not allowed, but I never had them; as for gold, the limit was one item per person, so my wedding ring qualified). For a family of three, this translated into six suitcases of bare necessities, and I cried packing 39 years of my life into them. I kept putting things in and taking them out, rearranging, pushing and pressing, but, in the end, all the treasures (or keepsakes) that made it into my suitcases were pictures: my parents’ and grandparents’, my sister’s and me, and my daughter’s as a baby and a toddler – one small album in all. The rest I gave out to friends and family who stayed behind. (Many of them left later, too, leaving their treasures to somebody else or throwing them away.) Continue reading
When we got married, I was already 45 and my husband was 53. Between us, we had two houses (mine tiny and his much larger but dark and cold), three children, and one grandchild. Behind us, we had two divorces (one for each of us), two different backgrounds (mine Russian and his Oregonian by way of Wisconsin), two advanced degrees (mine Masters and his Ph.D.), and plenty of experiences – mine mostly unhappy and his both happy and not so much.
Contrary to what you may think, I wasn’t sure that matrimony was a good idea for me. I had already had one bad experience and that with a person from a similar background. How could tying the knot with someone completely different be any better? Besides, I had no external motivations: I was already a U.S. citizen, I had a decent job, and I was used to being alone. In fact, because of this line of thinking, I didn’t finalize the dissolution of my first marriage for more than three years after my ex and I split up. This led to an embarrassing admission at the courthouse, where I had to declare that I got divorced in September (the scene took place in October), and I was already planning on getting married again. But, statistically speaking, people who were married before are likely to marry again, and so we did – “For better or worse for richer or poorer.”
Well, so far, it hasn’t been either rich or poor, although it has been turbulent at times. But whose marriage hasn’t had turbulent moments? The way I see it, turbulence is just part of the deal, like when you are on an airplane and they suddenly tell you to fasten your seat belt, because “We’re going through turbulence!” You aren’t surprised by that, just a little scared, right? Also, even under the best circumstances, life can be stressful, and it’s hard not to bring your negative emotions into your relationship. That said, there has been one long-lasting relationship that I came to admire – the relationship between my new husband’s parents. Continue reading
“Slow down!” I screamed at my husband when a gust of wind threw another clump of snow at our front window, obscuring the world outside our car. We were driving through a blizzard, and my rhetorical question “Are we there, yet?” no longer reflected boredom but acquired a true urgency. Yet – finally! – our Subaru, loaded with ski clothes and equipment, and electronic gadgets (just the number of chargers is unbelievable!) reached Rabbit Ears Pass and began descending to Yampa Valley — the town of Steamboat Springs within it.
The last year of her life, my American mother-in-law wrote 153 Christmas cards. I don’t know how many she received, but I do know that after my in-laws died ten years ago (they lived with us for 4.5 years at the end of their lives), we continued to receive cards, letters, and even boxes (!) with fruit that were addressed to them for at least two years. Most of their correspondence was conducted by my husband’s mother. (She was also interested in genealogy, and she compiled her family genealogical tree, although I’ve never checked whether I, a relatively recent addition to the family, am included there.)
My father-in-law, an emeritus professor of physiology, who was less sociable than his spouse, also received cards and letters, mostly from his former students, for, sadly, he outlived all of his colleagues. Yet the thing that added significantly to the volume of my in-laws’ mail was requests for donations. They donated to a variety of causes – he Republican Party being one of them (nobody is perfect!). So, during an election after their death, a Republican campaigner called us and gave my husband a speech about how horrible it would be if Nancy Pelosi became the House majority leader. The caller went on and on with his scripted spiel, until my husband shouted into the receiver: “I think Nancy Pelosi would make a great majority leader!” and hung up.
My first Thanksgiving in this country wasn’t a great experience (click here to see my story about it). Formerly an engineer, I worked nights at a retirement home making the minimum wage. I rented a small apartment and drove a rusty car. I had no friends, and my daughter was my only family. I couldn’t even speak English, so I thought I had little to celebrate.
Since then, I’ve had all kinds of Thanksgivings: most of them good and tasty. Yet there was one — during my divorced state – when I almost set my house on fire while making my first Thanksgiving dinner for myself; and also one after which my whole family got violently sick (this is after I remarried).
On the whole, though, I like Thanksgiving. I like its food, I like the fact that it is a family holiday, I like that afterwards we always have leftovers. In fact, I don’t understand people who complain about eating leftover turkey for too long. I don’t mind that. To me, turkey meat is tasty, lean, and healthy (vegetarians, skip this). Also, did you know that that great pragmatist, Benjamin Franklin, wanted a turkey to be the symbol of America and not a bald eagle? Continue reading