I’ve been Freshly Pressed!


I just 1-IMG_1657-002received 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 :)). _MG_5287All 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.IMG_5045 3

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 subconsciousnessa 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._MG_6613

©Svetlana Grobman.                           All Rights Reserved

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Adventure!


IMG_1657-003What 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

Weekly Photo Challenge: Threes or Life is Like a Box of Chocolates


IMG_1657-003A 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.

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Valentine’s Day


ValentineWhen 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), IMG_1879and 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

Christmas Letters and Other Matters


IMG_1657-003The 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 photocalled 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.

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Let’s Talk Turkey


IMG_1657-003My 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

The City of Love


IMG_1657-003There is a picture on my desk – my husband, in white shirt and dark suit, stands next to August Rodin’s statue depicting young lovers locked in a passionate embrace. That picture was taken in Paris seventeen years ago. Just recently, I put another one next to it, a picture of my grandchildren looking out from the Eiffel Tower.

The first time my husband and I went out, he wore a bright blue raincoat and Russian-Army-style high boots.  He offered no excuse for the flashy raincoat, but the boots, I soon found out, were supposed to show me how much he admired my culture, and so, I decided to give him another chance.

Things did work out between us, and half a year later, I found myself planning our honeymoon in Paris.  The first thing on my agenda was letting him know that the boots were not going with us, nor would they be welcomed in our house afterwards.  As for the raincoat, there was no time to find a substitute for it, and since the weather forecast for Paris was rainy, I had to put up with it.

I know what you think — a honeymoon in Paris sounds both indulgent and clichéd.  Well, the only excuse I can offer is that I was already forty-five, and that trip to France was going to be my second overseas adventure – the first being my immigration from Moscow, Russia, to Columbia, MO.

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Nature Has No Bad Weather


IMG_1657-003At the beginning was the word. Or, rather, a paragraph I read in a blog — about Scott Kelby Worldwide Photo Walk.  For those who don’t know about Scott Kelby, he is a photographer and an author, whom I discovered when I was still a library selector. Don’t know what that means? Well, it used to be that librarians ordered books for their libraries — each for her selection area. Mine was the arts, and photography was included there.

I said “used to be” because I no longer do that. These days, selecting materials in my library is done by just four people, and I am not one of them. So, I now do de-selecting or “weeding.” Not a garden variety, mind you, but important nevertheless.  I discard books that have been chewed by dogs or torn by toddlers, history that nobody wants to remember, classics that are no longer revered, that kind of stuff.

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Scott Kelby

Anyway, in the golden days of selecting, I came across Kelby’s works, and they literally changed my life. The thing is I’m obsessive. Every time I develop a new passion, I throw all my time and energy into it — until I find something else to obsess about. Anyway, the first thing I did when I entered my Scott-Kelby-inspired photography stage was to buy a camera. For most of my life, I knew little about cameras, lenses, flashes, and things like that. But when I opened Kelby’s books, I began craving expensive equipment as if my life depended on it. Of course, being a librarian married to an academic, I couldn’t really afford it. I had to settle for reading. So, today, if you let me, I’ll tell you everything I know about full-frame and cropped sensor cameras,  good glass (that’s how photographers refer to good – and very expensive — lenses), flashes, task-sharp images (something I am still working on), and other things like that.

Unfortunately, none of my loved ones understands the importance of photography in my life. When I ask my husband to pose for me (I like taking pictures with a “human” element), he immediately assumes an expression described by a Russian proverb as,IMG_0358-001 “Virazhaet to lizo chem sadyatsa on krilzo” or “He wears an expression that makes his face look like his butt.” As for my grandchildren, one of them begins rubbing his eyes with his fists and the other rolls her eyes or sticks out her tongue.

I persevere anyway, and the reason that I am still unknown to the world of photography is that I don’t have a high-end camera/lenses/etc. Another thing that holds me back is that I’m self-taught. I’ve never taken any photography classes, and, in fact, I don’t have anybody in my life with whom I could discuss f-stops, shutter speed, HDR photography, and other fascinating subjects like that. This is why I got excited about the Scott Kelby Photography Walk. It was going to be a turning point in my photographic career.

The walk was set for October 6, which was great, since October is the best time of the year in our area. Yet when I woke up that morning, monotonous streaks of rain were hitting our bedroom windows, and the outside world appeared depressingly gray. For fifteen minutes or so, I debated with myself whether I should go. Who takes pictures in the rain? IMG_4124-001My camera will get wet. Of course, I can carry an umbrella, but how am I going to hold my camera steady with one hand? Then it occurred to me that somebody else may want to take my place but I couldn’t think of anybody. Finally, I got myself together and drove along damp and empty streets to the gathering place.

A crowd of 15 or so people huddling underneath their umbrellas2013-group-s-150x150 in the middle of a small park looked somewhat misplaced. Several of them were young, several had gray hair, and all carried bulky cameras. The leader gave us his last instructions and a map of our photo walk, and let us loose on the town. In two-and-a-half hours we would meet for lunch.

The park and its surroundings appeared dull and lifeless. The only bright spots were umbrellas of my fellow photographers, many of whom had already sprung into action – some snapping pictures of a nearby creek and the bridge over it, and some bending over wet bushes.

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What’s the point? – I thought to myself. — On a day like this, nothing is going to look pretty. Then I lowered my gaze and, as things came into focus, I suddenly spotted little red berries on the bushes growing along the creek, drops of rain glistening on the leaves, and the freshly green blades of grass. I was wrong. Even in the rain, the world was full of colors. In fact, they became as vivid as ever, and even simple objects, like benches, bikes chained to a rack, and the railing of a bridge looked interesting. And the air! It was fresh and energizing. I wasn’t wasting my time by coming here. I was encountering a different world. And I turned my camera on and began taking pictures.

True, operating a camera in the rain was … let’s say, challenging. But I welcomed the challenge, for it made me look, really look, and notice things I usually miss: patterns of puddles on the street, sidewalk paintings, reflections in shops’ windows, and, of course, people, some of whom hurried along hidden under their umbrellas, and some paid no attention to the rain. I couldn’t stop pressing the shutter, as if I could see better through the small opening of my lens than I could with my eyes.

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Time speeded up, and soon, I found myself at the end of our route. Now I needed to hook up with the rest of the group.

“I’m not going to lunch with them. I don’t feel comfortable with strangers.” I had said to my husband before I left home. But there I was, at the table with people talking passionately about resolution (without referring to the American government shutdownJ), lenses (What’s the sweet spot for this one?), and flashes (“You need one master and, at least, two slaves”). I was participating, too—if not by talking then by listening. I was learning about the art of photography, but, most importantly, I was learning about how differently we see the world. For we all walked the same streets, squares, and alleys. We saw the same people and buildings. Yet what we documented with our cameras was different. None of us caught everything, but together, we could compile a picture of our town – things that were beautiful about it but also things that were mundane and ugly.

As I was driving back home, I kept going over my morning. Did it improve my technical proficiency?  Not by much. That would require more time and effort. But, it improved my understanding of how we – if we want to — can fit our individual pieces into a larger whole. As for the rain, as one Russian song goes, “There is no bad weather in nature. Whatever happens has its time and purpose. And we should be grateful for all of it.”

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

In Search of Paradise


IMG_1657-003“Where would you like to go this summer?” I asked my husband while we were finishing our weekend breakfast.

“To Paradise,” He answered without hesitation. “Paradise Inn at Mt. Rainier!”

I put down my cup of hot tea (being from Russia, I always drink hot tea, and on a plane, I ask for juice with no ice) and looked at my American husband holding his mug of iced tea.

“Why don’t we go, then? A few years from now we might not be able to enjoy it. We’ll be too old.”

And so, the plan was born. To be honest, I like making plans. In fact, I get much more pleasure from planning things than from living them. For one thing, making plans gives me a chance to learn about new places. For another, as long as I am at it, I have full control over everything: drives and flights, hotels and motels, as well as things to do and to see. In the real world, we all know, cars break down, flights get delayed, luggage gets lost, and people (including those I travel with) have different tastes and opinions — which they usually share with me. Still, every time I start anew, my heart pounds, my eyes peer into the unknown with a new luster, and my mood improves. In short, I live from one plan to another, with a few disappointments in between.

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That said, three months, two flights, a desperate run through Dallas Airport, and a two-hour drive later, we spotted a snow-covered mountain rising ghost-like above the dark greenery of Mt. Rainier National Park’s Douglas fir trees, and forty-five minutes later, we pulled our rental car into a Paradise Inn parking lot.IMG_3060

The lodge, withered by many decades of heavy snow, strong winds, and Northwestern mist, didn’t look like the grand old palace I had previously imagined but more like an elderly housekeeper weary of her years and a constant stream of guests. Yet the lobby, furnished with old-fashioned wooden chairs and benches and softened by the orange light of table lamps and light fixtures, felt warm and welcoming – until we announced our arrival, that is. ne zhTwo young receptionists looked at us with the expression that is best conveyed in a classic Russian painting of the 19th century “The Unexpected Visitors” — “Ne Zhdali” (by famous Russian artist Ilya Repin, if anybody cares to know) — which shows a political prisoner unexpectedly returning to his family home from a forced settlement in Siberia.

Despite having a reservation (from three month ago!) we were not expected either — at least not before another couple, who was put in our room because they felt claustrophobic in theirs, returned from their day hike.

IMG_2993“And what if they come back tomorrow?!” I said, since from my Russian experience things usually go from bad to worse. Yet the receptionists just gave me a blank look.

Nothing of the sort happened, though. While we were having dinner, the claustrophobic hikers, apparently, came back — or another unlucky couple got shuffled around — and we finally moved into the room, the size of which gave me pause, for if this was a bigger room, what size was the room our invaders escaped from? Before I fell asleep, I made a mental note for myself – never trust my husband’s affinity for historic lodges.

When we opened the curtains next morning, the sun was already up, the sky was silky blue, and people with cameras, water bottles, and backpacks were hurrying toward Mt. Rainier, towering formidably in front of the lodge. We quickly finished our breakfast, grabbed our cameras and water bottles, and joined the steady stream of mountain pilgrims.IMG_2210

At first, we walked on a blacktop trail, then the trail turned into a gravel path, later yet, the gravel was replaced by stones, which gradually became bigger and the incline steeper, and, in about two hours, we found ourselves well above the timberline, jumping from one rock to another, crossing mountain streams, and sliding in the snow.

Back in Russia, we had an expression, “A smart person wouldn’t go to the mountain – he would go around it.” Yet there I was, panting and puffing, on my way to … Where exactly? We had no intention to climb Mt. Rainier. That would take much more vigor and adventurousness then we, two late-middle-aged people possess. Besides, the ascent is dangerous. It starts at the Paradise trail head and leads to Camp Muir, where mountaineers spend the night in tents and huts before continuing their journey through fields of ice and snow — 9000 excruciating vertical feet in all. IMG_2764And if this isn’t difficult enough, heavy snow storms blanket the slopes without warning, blinding white outs make people disoriented and vertiginous, and plunging temperatures hit them with hypothermia.

Still, a sudden thought flashed through my mind — Wouldn’t it be cool to say, “I have climbed Mt. Rainier”? Oh, well, we were long past the age when looking cool is more important than being safe. We came here in search of paradise – a place where existence is positive, harmonious and eternal – according to a dictionary definition that is.

In real life, though, the only eternal thing is death. As for “positive existence,” high altitudes are not suitable for human life. Mere walking requires a lot of effort, not to mention carrying backpacks or suffering from slashing rain or burning sunlight. Hikers get tired, sweaty (or cold!), and dehydrated. They slip on wet rocks and fall in the snow. And yet, people of all ages, including children, keep moving up — maybe not to the peak, like those with heavy mountain packs and mountaineer boots, but as high as they can go.IMG_2961

Why? Because there is so much heart-stopping beauty there: the glimmering glaciers, the rugged silhouettes of the Tatoosh Range, and the dream-like shapes of Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood floating far away. Also, all around, impatient waterfalls hurry noisily to the mountain base, blooming meadows set off snow-covered fields and exposed rocks, and meandering streams whisper melodically into hikers ears. Even the thundering boom of an avalanche doesn’t break the spell of the scenery but added an ominous mystery to its allure.

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As we kept moving up, something new was appearing in our view: stretches of forest interrupted by patches of snow, whimsical peaks across the valley, a marmot playing in the snow, and hues of wildflowers, fragile and hardy at the same time. And if that wasn’t heavenly enough, there were “scenic outlooks” there, too: Pinnacle Point, Panorama Point, and others. There, some sat quietly soaking the view, while others talked, took pictures, and exchanged tips with complete strangers — for the mountain brings out the best in people, even as it tires them out.

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We spent three days in Paradise Inn – hiking during the day, watching the pastel colors of a dying day during the night, or taking pictures of Mt. Rainier reflected in a lake. We didn’t do anything special and didn’t set any records – 1-3105cour longest hike was only five miles long (don’t sneer at this, half of it was uphill :)). Yet, as we drove back to the airport, it occurred to me — The old Russian proverb is wrong. Really smart people don’t go around the mountain, they go up – to test their abilities or to look at the desolate world about them and the familiar one beneath their feet and put things in perspective, or to contemplate their lives and losses.

And although I’ll never be able to say that I’ve climbed Mt. Rainier, I can say that I’ve been to paradise. Not the one with large and luxurious rooms, however perfect they can be, and not the realm of the blessed some hope to enter after death, but a place where natural beauty, harmony, and good spirits combine to calm, console, and uplift us while we are alive.

P.S. Paradise Inn is a historic hotel built in 1916 at 5,400 feet (1,645 m) on the south slope of Mount Rainier in Mount Rainier National Park in WashingtonUnited States.

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©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

Imagine


IMG_1657-003I’m not imaginative. Never have been. So when I learn that the library where I work as a librarian would host a workshop “Unleash Your Imagination,” I decided that this was exactly what I needed.

On the appointed day, I joined twenty some women of different ages who crowded around a large table with a workshop leader at its head. The first thing the leader, a well-into-middle-age woman, told us to do was to relax. This made a lot of sense to me, for how can you unleash anything if you are tense? Except, I have never managed to relax successfully. As soon as I hear somebody telling me to close my eyes, I immediately feel as if something got into them, so I open my eyes wide and wink energetically. Then, something else gets into my nose and I begin sneezing. IMG_3116-001Then, usually by the time I am supposed to relax my lower body, my back starts itching between my shoulder blades and…  You get the idea.

This time was no different, so I soon gave up my attempt at relaxation and began looking around. Everybody else sat with their eyes closed and their bodies limp, and two women even had their mouths open–kind of like people who had died without anyone around to push their chins up.

Then, the workshop leader said,“Imagine yourself in a place where you feel peaceful and free. Smell the smells, enjoy the taste, admire colors, and caress the surfaces.”

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Here, everybody’s expression turned even more serene and the two women with their mouths open began making little chewing movements.

Being tense myself, I had a hard time finding a beautiful place to imagine myself in, so instead, I recalled the village of Williams Bay on Geneva Lake, which my daughter, my two grandchildren, my husband and I visited a month earlier. On account of having allergies, I couldn’t really smell anything, and the only sound I remembered was the annoying cry of seagulls. As for colors, it was already dusk when we got there, so everything looked kind of gray and yellowish. Still, the grandchildren liked the beach, so it was nice any  anyway.

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By the time I got really comfortable with my memories, our leader commanded, “Now, open your eyes and draw the scene you just imagined.” Immediately, everybody sprang to action and began drawing rather complex scenes with trees, waterfalls, and butterflies, while all I could manage was two lines: IMG_9372-001one, wavy, for the lake, and another one, straight, for the beach. Behind the straight line, I put several small blots for seagulls and several bigger blots–with sticks indicating arms and legs–for my family. I was about to start coloring my granddaughter’s hair, when the workshop leader stopped our artistic endeavors and asked the participants to tell the group about their drawings and what they represented.

To my humiliation, everybody began sharing a paradise-like vision of herself sitting, lying, or walking in a garden with singing fountains, in mountains covered with light puffy clouds, IMG_1742or on a boat lit by the setting sun. There was only one lady there whose imagination took her to a twisted Dali-esque landscape she had once hallucinated in a morphine-induced state while recovering from surgery.

After all the other participants had spoken, the leader’s gaze turned to me, prompting me to begin. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, but … no sound came out, for instead of a warm and fuzzy, dream-like vision, I pictured my grandchildren running by the water’s edge, shouting, scaring seagulls, and spattering us with wet sand. Then I heard myself telling them a joke I heard earlier that day, “Do you know why seagulls fly over the sea? Because if they flew over the bay, they’d be called bagels!”

Then I saw my seven-year-old grandson turn to his younger sister, point to the seagulls flying over Williams Bay, and say, “Look at those bagels, Mary!” IMG_3209And my four-year-old granddaughter, who must have decided that “bagels” was the proper thing to call these birds, ran in the direction of their flight shouting, “Bagels, bagels!”

Here, my daughter said, “She can’t understand that joke. You shouldn’t have told it,” and I said, “Well, it’s about time for her to learn about humor,” and my husband said, “I don’t think so. She’s too young,” and I said, “Not really. I told her about Winnie the Pooh and she laughed,” and the three of us began arguing about stages in child development …

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“Would you like to share your vision with us?”  The leader said, smiling encouragingly.

I looked at her through the cloud of my memories and, to my surprise, a sudden pain pierced through my chest, halted my breathing, and lodged somewhere between my shoulder blades. And as if I were reading the story of my life, I suddenly knew that that casual evening when everybody was healthy and good-natured, although it lacked beautiful colors, enticing sounds, or profound words, that evening was better than anything I could ever imagine. It was simple and it was precious, and it will never be repeated again…

“Sorry,” I said, shrinking under the gazes directed at me from all sides. “I have no vision to share. I couldn’t unleash my imagination. I only unleashed my memories.”

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 ©Svetlana Grobman (and Dale Chihuly — kind of :)). All Rights Reserved

Diary of a Russian Immigrant


IMG_1657-003It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been living in this country for 23 years. For some time now, I’ve been thinking about commemorating this fact. Yet, so far, nothing original has come to my mind but publishing a brief chronicle of my years here. After all, Marco Polo wrote about his travels, Thoreau wrote about his pond, and I my (illustrated) diary. I hope you like it 🙂

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July 19, 1990

Arrived in Columbia, Missouri.  A group of people in shorts 1-small__537921148met us at the local airport — presumably, our sponsors.  They don’t speak Russian and I don’t speak English, so it’s hard to know for sure.

July 4, 1990

1-IMG_2021Americans are celebrating their independence.  I’ve never studied American history, so I’m not quite sure from whom.  The temperature is 41 degrees Celsius.  They measure everything in Fahrenheit, and my thermometer reads 105 – which makes me feel even worse.

August 18, 1990

A small tornado hit the town.  Nobody got killed,1-IMG_6871-001 but several houses lost their roofs.  Some people say that we may have an earthquake here soon, too.  Reconsidering my coming here.  As bad as it was in Russia, we never had either one!

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September 6, 1990

No Russian-speaking engineers needed.  Had two choices: going to work for Merry Maids or a nursing home.  Chose the latter.  Now, I’m a nurse’s aide working the third shift.  Which is good — the residents sleep and nobody speaks English.

October 31, 1990

1-DSC00833small-001A neighbor with two children dressed in black cloaks came to the door looking for candy.  They didn’t look hungry, so I’m very suspicious.  After they left, I looked outside – the street was full of children searching for sweets.  Apparently, they have shortages in America, too.

November 22, 1990

Got invited to a Thanksgiving dinner.  The food was baked turkey and red potatoes.  Even in Russia, where 1-IMG_7248red was very popular, potatoes were white!  I skipped the potatoes and ate the turkey that was stuffed with bread.  That way, I suppose, they can feed more people.

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December 25, 1990

American Christmas comes before New Year’s. IMG_1004In Russia, it came after, and nobody celebrated it.IMG_9757

February, 1991

Learned some English phrases, quit the nursing home, and got a job at a public library shelving books – that way I do not have to talk to anybody, although one young woman did ask me where the restroom was.  It was just around the corner, but I panicked and gestured towards the reference desk.

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September, 1991

What a language!  Half of the words have multiple meanings, while the other half sound 1-matreshkathe same but mean different things.  Besides, no matter how I twist my tongue, I can’t roar the American “r,” or hiss their “the.”  My “think” comes out as “sink,” and even when I say “Hi,” people ask where I’m from.

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October, 1991

American expressions are weird, too.  When did they ever see “raining cats and dogs”?   And what about “give a leg up.”  Why would I lift my leg if somebody needs a ride home?   1-IMG_1466Also, “it costs an arm and a leg.”  We never paid with our limbs! Yesterday somebody said, “I dropped the ball.”  I looked.  No ball.  What did she drop?  Where?

December 1991

Got promoted to the Front Desk.  Understand about 25%.  Today, a patron asked about groundhogs.  I knew “ground” and also “hogs,” so I sent him to a grocery store.  Expect to be fired every day.

October 1992

Started reading books in English.  1-2009_0106gooddrbkdisplay0001 Also, made my first “Library will close in fifteen minutes” announcement.   Everybody left immediately — including some staff.  They said that it “sounded scary.”

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December 1993

Decided to go back to school and get a Library Science degree.  Went to the local University and filled out an application.  Spelled “Library” just fine but not “Sience.”  Got a funny look from the admission staff.

December 1994

Took the GRE.  Scored 95% on Math and 15% on English — confused “hair” with “hare,” “tale” with “tail,” “wonder” with “wander,” “desert” with “dessert,” and “whipping” with “weeping.”  Passed anyway — they counted the average.

January 1994

Going to school part time, working at the library full-time – 1-IMG_6736now at the reference desk.  Yesterday, a nice-looking gray-haired lady asked me about whales.  I took her to the animal section. IMG_0549 Who knew she was going to Wales?  No time to eat.  Lost five pounds.

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December 1995

Became a naturalized American citizen.  At work, a patron asked how to “dress” a deer.IMG_1076 I said, “Do you mean clothes or stuffing?”  Another patron wanted pictures of a stagecoach.  I knew “stage” and “coach” (like coaches in sports) but couldn’t imagine them together and had to ask for help.   Lost another five pounds.

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September 1996

Last semester.  Preparing for the Comprehensive Exam and dating an American.  Ran out of “I was sick” excuses and told my professor that my paper was late because I was getting married.  He understood.  Not sure what I’ll tell him next time.  Maybe, “I’m getting divorced”?   Lost five more pounds.

December 1996

Got my Master’s degree! clinton Voted for Clinton and he won.  Also, received a marriage proposal.  I don’t know about that, but it felt good.

Fall 1997

Was promoted to a reference librarian – doubled the salary and the fear of being fired. Married the American, too!  Now I speak English 24/7.  Gained five pounds.

Fall 1998

My husband does a great job of correcting my English — 1-IMG_0006 sharpespecially when we argue.  Also, dreamt in English for the first time.  Is that what happens when you marry an American citizen?  Gained five more pounds.

Fall 1999

A guy wearing a “lion” cloth tried to enter the library today. 1-IMG_7485As soon as I got home, I described the event to my husband.  He was very surprised — not with the guy, but with the cloth.  Then he said, “Did you mean “loin?”  Gained five more pounds.

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Spring 2000

We moved to a house by the edge of the woods [see a story about that later].  1-IMG_1229Now, I’m spending all my free time landscaping our yard.  Lost five pounds.

Fall 2000

Deer ate everything I planted.  We voted for Al Gore, but he lost.

Summer 2001 Tried new plants, and so did the deer.  The plants are gone; the deer are still around.1-IMG_1322_1

Summer 2002

Found one kind of bush that the deer don’t like.  Planted them everywhere.

Spring 2004

Went bird watching with my husband.  IMG_1268Saw 3 ducks, 5 geese, and one woodpecker – all of which live in our neighborhood, too.  Put up a bird feeder in the back yard, so we don’t have to drive anywhere.

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November 2004

No bird feeder survives.  We keep losing them to the deer, 1-SCopier - C13042615261raccoons, and squirrels. Voted for John Kerry and he lost, too.

Summer 2005

Deer destroyed everything, again, so no landscaping is needed. 1-IMG_1550 Used my free time to write about the deer eating my “lushes” plants and sent it to the local newspaper.  The story got published, although they replaced “lushes” with “lush.”

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Spring 2007

Now, we are having moles and “aunts” problems.  Wrote about that, too.  My husband read my story and said, “I think you meant ‘ants.’”

Summer 2008

Continue writing.  IMG_1879This time, I wrote how my husband and I “tied the nut” eleven years ago, and how “exiting” that was.  Showed it to my husband.  After he stopped laughing, he suggested replacing “nut” with “knot” and “exiting” with “exciting.”

Summer 2010

1-IMG_1676Wrote an essay about what life was like in Russia, especially for Jews.  The essay got published in The Christian Science Monitor, and I got my first fan letter.  Opened it with shaking hands … and read that the only thing missing in my life now was “converting to Christianity.”

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Spring 2013

Spend all my free time writing.  No time for working in the yard, watching movies, and even weighing myself.  Is that what it means to be a writer?1-nikita Here you have it: twenty-three years in 1250 words 🙂

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

SONNET 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

~William Shakespeare

Lost In the Details


Nature in Details

IMG_2521-001It was our third weekend in a row to go cross-country skiing! This time, we decided to drive to Eagle Bluffs, a state conservation area about 10 miles away from our home. First of all, the snow there would be untouched, and also, just before the storm, we had seen white pelicans there.

Pelicans used to be unheard of in Missouri. Yet about 20 years ago, the Missouri Department of Conservation built a wetlands area with a series of ponds at Eagle Bluffs, and over the years all kinds of birds began – no pun intended –flocking there. Some of them stay permanently, while others, including the pelicans, stop there on their migration north.Pelicans on Shadow Mountain Lake

I must admit that I never cared for birds when I lived in Moscow. There, if we had creatures with wings, they were mostly flies, mosquitoes, sparrows, or pigeons. If you wanted to see anything else, you went to a zoo, where you could observe parrots, flamingos, whatever! The best thing about this arrangement was that everybody knew exactly where they stood: people strolled along the asphalt paths outside the metal bars, and the winged inmates flittered – or swam — inside their cages. Not till I found myself in the United States, did I encounter people who willingly go into the wilderness (my analog to being sent to Siberia!), armed only with binoculars and field guides with the sole purpose of watching birds. Even worse, I managed to marry one of these people.

This fact, of course, didn’t come out before our wedding, so when I first spotted a pair of binoculars in my new husband’s possessions, I took them for a vestige of his military past — in his twenties, he spent two years in the army. But then, several months into our marriage, I caught him standing by the rear view window looking fixedly through the binoculars. What was he looking at? There was no beautiful woman undressing in front of her window across the street, nor even people having sex! In fact, there was nothing behind our house but the woods! Yet there he was – watching a couple of woodpeckers hammering away on a tree behind our deck.1-img_6173

Later, my husband invited me to walk in the nearby woods and told me names of everything that flew by. And shortly afterwards, he drove me to one of those bird infested areas that the state of Missouri is so proud of.

For a while, I kept humoring him, hoping that time would weaken his obsession. But when a pair of binoculars and “The Birds of North America Field Guide” found their permanent location next to my husband’s place mat, I got ready for a fight. Not with the birds of North America, of course, but with the place they took in my husband’s heart and, especially, on my dining table.1-IMG_5179

The thing about me is that I’m neat. I’m the kind of person who goes around picking up things and making sure that everything on the surface is arranged symmetrically. In my world, binoculars do not belong on the dining table, neither as tableware nor as decorations. This nonsense had to be stopped!

At first, I decided to buy a bird feeder, so instead of us driving around looking for birds, they would look for our feeder, and we’d save time and gas. Unfortunately, the bird feeder idea didn’t work (more of that later), and neither did other solutions I learned about while researching obsessive-compulsive disorders. I considered marriage counseling, too.  Yet in the end, I gave up.  What did it matter that I used to be a sophisticated Muscovite who frequented the Bolshoi Theater and the Moscow Conservatorium, and read a magazine called “Foreign Literature”? Things change, and, as those of us who have lived long enough know, they rarely change for better. And truthfully, worse things could’ve happened to me.  I could’ve married a bigamist or a serial killer, or even a Republican!

Today, some years later, I recognize quite a few birds, 2-12-IMG_6455and I find white pelicans — so clumsy and weird-looking in the Moscow Zoo — beautiful. And since the pelicans graced our area with their presence, we headed there, too.  I also had another goal in mind.  Ever since I caught photography fever and started participating in wordpress photo challenges, I’ve been on the lookout for things that go with their current themes, which this time is “Lost in the details.” It’s actually not about getting lost, but about getting closer and noticing small detail, and Eagle Bluffs was as good place as any to do it.

We drove until the road became impassible, put on our skis, and I hung my camera over my neck.  The heavy snow of an earlier storm was covered with fresh powder, and our skis glided easily over its sparkling surface.  We passed by several ponds spotting only Canada geese, who protested our invasion by honking loudly and flapping their wings.

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Feeling disappointed, I began taking pictures of snow-covered bushes, animal tracks, and hawk’s feathers lying on the ground. But as we approached yet another pond, we suddenly saw royal-white silhouettes on the cold-gray surface of water.

IMG_9876 The pelicans swam aimlessly around the pond, back and forth. Every so often, they dived, so that all we could see was their snow-white rears, but they quickly appeared on the surface with their large yellow beaks up and their necks stretched, and then their shuttle-like floating continued. They moved in perfect unison with their bodies touching each other and their beaks pointing in the same direction, and their motions looked like a mysterious ritual or a perfectly choreographed dance.IMG_9874

Careful not to scare the birds, I skied to the water’s edge and began taking pictures. When my camera’s memory card ran out of space, I looked at my husband and said, “What are they doing?”

“I think they are feeding,” my husband said. “Look, they’re herding the fish!”

“What do they lift their beaks for?”

“They swallow the fish, don’t you see?”

He was right; it wasn’t a dance or a ritual, and the birds weren’t swimming for pleasure. They were working, preparing themselves for the long journey still ahead of them.

“Still, why are they moving in unison?” I said, puzzled.IMG_9885

“It must be more efficient that way,” my husband said. “You’d think that every one of them could have more fish on her own, but that’s not the case. Like us, they do better together.”

We watched the pelicans a little longer, but then we left them to their business and headed for the car.

“At our age we’re still learning about nature,” my husband said contemplatively on our way home.

“Sure,” I said. “There is a Russian proverb about that, too,

‘Live to be a hundred and IMG_1004learn as long as you live.'”

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

Forward


Forward: an Essay in  Pictures.

1-SKMBT_50112051409450

I don’t know about you, but when I was young, I was very smart.  I also had a great vocabulary (Russian, of course) and I was going “to make a difference.”  The strange thing is that now, many years later, I no longer feel very smart, the differences I make are mostly culinary (so the only person who notices them – or not — is my husband), and my English vocabulary could still use some improvement.  Just today I told my husband that, due to a winter storm that struck our area the day before, two Midwestern airports had to close, leaving a lot of passengers strangled there.  Naturally, I meant to say “stranded,” but despite that, my husband burst into laughter and, after he stopped laughing, said, “Don’t you hate it when that happens?!”

How and when my decline began I cannot say, since for a long time I believed that I was moving forward, the way one is supposed to.  cover for The Education of a TraitorYet in fact, I apparently have been regressing for most of my adult life.  Some of it I can blame on my Soviet past.  It’s hard to keep your sanity when strangers on the street shout at you, “You dirty kike go to your Israel!”  It’s even harder when, after you had finally decided to move to America, gone through an interview in the American embassy, and – lucky you! – received an entrance permit to the United States, you found out from your local authorities that you had “no right” to leave the country where everybody hates you.  Talk about catch 22!   It’s amazing that I escaped with most of my faculties intact!

Also, my regression might be a result of aging.  For example, I used to remember everything.  Now my only means of staying on top of things is my Google calendar.  And if there is something that cannot be entered there – random names for one thing — I’ll never be able to come up with it.  Well, this is not exactly my fault. Some people’s names are way too complicated, like that actor’s — you know … … the one who played Abraham Lincoln … Something Month-Lewis.  Besides, it’s not like I forget the name of my ex-husband.  He’s name is …  Well, what do I need his name for?  I’m no longer married to him anyway.

Actually, the worst thing about this age related backsliding is that things and objects around you suddenly take a life on their own.  For example, you take off your bra and panties and climb into your bathtub, thinking that afterwards you’ll take your stuff to the laundry.  Yet by the time you shower, dry your hair, and apply night cream to your face, both the bra and the panties are nowhere to be found.  You then spend the next 30 minutes turning everything in your bathroom (and your bedroom) upside down and interrogating your husband — all to no avail.  But in the morning, your husband finds your panties on top of his shaving kit and your bra in his chest of drawers, and nobody seems to know how they got there.

But the way, speaking of underwear, I never drop my clothes on the floor; I have a moral conviction against that. When I watch movies where lovers, in the moment of passion, rip clothes off each other and strew them around the floor, I always feel like screaming, “Pick up your clothes!  Didn’t your mother teach you anything?”

IMG_2505Going back to the winter storm I mentioned at the beginning.  Until recently, we had  no winter at all, not even for a day.  But at the end of February, a blizzard fell on us like a gigantic white pillow, smothering everything in its way and completely stopping life in our town.  Even the library where I work closed – it lost both power and, most importantly, the Internet.  So with nothing much to do at home, my husband and I decided to go cross-country skiing, which is not very popular around here.  Actually, since we get snow once in a very blue moon, none of the winter sports is, and we must be the only household in town that owns cross-country skis.

With 10 inches of snow on the ground, we started our run from our porch IMG_2536(we live some 300 yards away from a city recreation trail).  For a while, we struggled to get our muscle memory back, but soon, we found our rhythm and began moving forward.  It was a slow going — the snow was deep and we were the first to break its puffy surface.  Yet gradually my breathing relaxed and my mind, no longer needing to supervise my feet, began wandering.  I was moving faster now, enjoying the fresh snow and admiring the silky blue sky, and there it suddenly struck me.  Skiing is just like life!  When you’re young, your parents put you on your skis and teach you how to move, and for a while, you follow their tracks.  Then, by the time you become strong yourself and leave your family behind, someone else comes along and slides beside you.  And later yet, you have your children, and they begin following your tracks – until you move aside and they continue on their own.  And while we, the skiers, change, the run continues, for a long time for some and for others not, but always in the same direction – forward. IMG_9842

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

A Sense of Snow


IMG_1657-003Every time winter comes around and my colleagues begin complaining about the cold, I find myself longing for snow. Not for six months, mind you, the way I experienced it in Moscow. Just for a couple of weeks or so. This, unfortunately, never happens in Mid-Missouri. Our usual pattern is this: it snows heavily for a day and the roads become slick and dangerous for driving, but as soon as the city takes care of that, the temperature rises and the snow melts.

The only way I can get my snow fix is by going to Colorado. Well, once my husband and I found a small place for skiing near St. Louis, and we immediately decided to check it out.  The name of the place is Hidden Valley, and it turns out to be so well hidden, that about a mile or so from our destination, we found ourselves utterly lost. It was an unusually nice February day; the sky was silky blue and the temperature was 50 degrees Fahrenheit. So when my husband suggested that I should go to a nearby gas station and ask for directions, I refused to do so, for, clearly, a foreign woman asking about a “ski resort” under these conditions was going to be directed to a mental hospital — if not farther. Yet shortly after we left the gas station, a large snow hill appeared in front of us like a mirage — the main difference being the entry fee we had to pay. The snow, of course, was man-made, but who cares?  It was just over two hours of driving from our house!

It also turned out to be the most dangerous ski place we had ever visited — which is rather surprising considering its small size. Of course, it wasn’t the hill itself; it was the skiers on it that made it so. The thing is that in regular ski resorts, you mostly see experienced skiers. But in Hidden Valley, MO, the majority of the skiers were not experienced. Worse even, they didn’t think that experience was required. So soon as I came down the hill, a skier behind me made a spectacular cartwheel, and while I obliviously continued my descent, my terrified husband watched the guy’s skis and poles catapult every which way and his four-pound ski boot come off his foot and land two yards in front of me – missing my head by an inch or so. After that, we just looked at each other and headed toward the exit.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all skiers from 1-IMG_2344Missouri are bad and those in Colorado are all great. When we were learning downhill skiing in Steamboat Springs, CO, we met another unpredictable skier. By the way, what’s wrong with the English language? Why do we say “downhill skiing”? Did anybody ever ski uphill? Another vivid example of peculiarities of English is the expression “horseback riding.” What do we need the “horseback” for? What other part of the horse would you ride on?

In any case, it was a middle-aged woman whom we met on a chairlift while taking a ski lesson. Unlike us, she had skied for years, and not just in the USA but all over the world. In the Swiss Alps she met a famous slalom skier.  In Italy, she took a lesson from a local ski legend. And in Chamonix, her French instructor put a rubber band around her ankles to force her to keep her skis closer together.IMG_2428

By the time we got off the chairlift, I felt so intimidated that I asked our instructor to transfer us to a lower level. He gave me a grumpy look and said that he would watch us ski and then make his decision. My husband and I skied first. I almost ran into a tree, and he lost his balance and slid down the slope on his back. The Chamonix woman was last. She carefully adjusted her ski boots, brought her ankles together, and headed straight down the slope with a speed unimpeded by even a perfunctory attempt to turn. Had this been a race, she would have been the first to cross the finish line. As it was, though, she ran directly into our instructor and knocked him down (!), severely dislocating his shoulder. We never saw that woman again (neither did we see the instructor — he was taken down on a stretcher), but I still remember her run. As they say, “Never trust the French!”

1-SKMBT_50112051409450Going back to the snow, it is impossible to break completely from your past. No matter how many years go by, your past still haunts you — with smells of food your mother used to cook for you, with flowers you enjoyed in your youth, or, as it is in my case, with snow. Not because I regret leaving my home country. I never do, and I never have any nostalgia for it. And yet, there are some memories that make my heart ache: lullabies I heard as a child, a large Moscow park where I got lost once, and light sparkling snow – things that remind me about the little girl I used to be.

P.S. Some of you may think that skiing is a rather expensive hobby to have. All I can say about that is that after one turns 70, her chairlift tickets are free!  And if this is not an incentive to live longer, than I don’t know what is :).

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

 

Sounds of Music


 A Concert in Kansas City

I didn’t want to go to that concert.  True, I was the one who bought the tickets, but the only reason I got them was that buying five performances at once cost me less than the three I actually wanted to attend.  Still, my husband wanted to go, and so we did.  After two hours of driving, we finally entered the state-of-the-art Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. If you haven’t been to Kansas City’s Kauffman Center, you should definitely put it on your list of things to do. For one thing, the building looks similar to the famous Sydney Opera House (trust me, I’ve been there!).  Actually, on second thought, the interior of the Kauffman Center is even better.  You may not know the story, so I’ll tell you.  IMG_2478The architect who designed the Sydney Opera House spent so much money and took so much time that he and the city authorities began having “irreconcilable differences,” and when they finally got “divorced,” the shell of the building was completed, but the inside was not even started.  To finish the project, the city hired several local architects, who did their best with the money they had left – which, sorry to say, does show. (Forgive me, my Australian followers :).)

We parked our car and walked upstairs to our seats, past an elderly lady with an oxygen tank and several groups of people with gray hair, canes, and other attributes of old age – all waiting for the elevator.  By the way, I’m really worried about the future of classical music.  It’s rare that we see young people in the audience.  Most of our fellow concert goers are our age and up, which makes me wonder, what’s going to happen to classical music when we die out?  Is it going to disappear like the Dodo bird?

It took some time for the concert to get going: at first the symphony director talked about their new season, then the conductor introduced new members of the orchestra, and finally, the orchestra began playing the National Anthem, and everybody got up and sang.  As surprising as that was – I am a person who never goes to any sports events where that kind of thing is common – I liked it, for we naturalized citizens often feel aroused by the sounds of the American National Anthem.  Eventually, though, the concert started — most of it Russian music.  Familiar sounds filled the large hall at the conductor’s will, reminding me of my youth and also of the concerts I attended in Moscow.

Back there, I often went to the Moscow Conservatorium, especially to the concerts conducted by one man.  He was a wonderful musician, and it cost me an arm and a leg to go see him.  The thing was that in the Russia of my day you couldn’t just buy tickets for a good performance (or anything good, for that matter) — you had to have “connections,” or you had to pay “under the table.”  I never had any connections, so I did the latter, spending more money than I should have.  But, what can you do if you’re in love?  And I definitely was in love with this man.  Well, not with the whole man, just with his back and his hands, for that is how you usually see a conductor – from the back, right?  In fact, since I left Moscow, I’ve never met anybody who was as sexy from the back as this guy.  His hands flew in the air, enticing and promising carnal pleasures, and with a slight movement of his wrist, he sent thunder and lightning into his audience. small_6911531738 When at the end of the concert he turned to face the applause (and the applause was thunderous, I tell you!), all you could see was a middle-aged balding man.  Yet while he was conducting, goose bumps crawled up my spine, my legs trembled, and my heart beat like a caged bird.  He could have taken me anywhere and done anything he wanted with me, and I wouldn’t have said a word or put up a fight — as long as all I saw was his back and his hands.

The concert in Kansas City was also very good, and so was the conductor.  Like that man from my past, he unleashed musical thunder onto his listeners with his raised hands and a flick of his wrist.  And when he opened his palms at the end, the final sounds whooshed to the ceiling like released birds. We all experience the power of music one time or another.  We know that it can energize or make us sad or angry, but only classical music has the power to make us feel we are better people.  It can force our breath to stop and our hearts to ache for no discernible reason, and it can lift our spirit to the heights of beauty and humanity.

It took us some time to leave the building full of people who, instead of hurrying to return to their regular lives, paused at every turn, some to look out the full glass walls of the building at the city below and some to prolong that special feeling one gets when one witnesses true art.  We did not hurry either.  When we finally got back to our car, I felt exalted but also slightly sad — as if I had left someone very dear to me in a country I would never return to.  Or, maybe, that country itself was the object of my longing, for, in the end, the world of music is its own country, a place that has no official language and no boundaries, but beautiful melodies and loyal citizens. IMG_2488©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

P.S.  In case you’re wondering, I wasn’t having any erotic fantasies during this concert.  First of all, I am much older now.  Secondly, our seats were to the left of the conductor, which allowed me to see his profile but not his back :). P.P.S.  Click “like” if you like music! P.P.S.  What kind of music do you like?  Please tell me! photo credit: Dr. RawheaD via photopinHaags Uitburo via photopin cc

Mark Twain and I


Before I read Sholem Aleichem, I read Mark Twain.  I was eight years old then, and I read it in Russian.  I didn’t know that Mark Twain was a famous American humorist, and in fact, I didn’t even know what humor was – until one day I opened that book and read:

“Tom!”

No answer.

“Tom!”

No answer.

“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder?  You Tom!”

And even as I type these lines, I smile thinking about the many adventures of Tom Saywer and Huckleberry Finn, who taught me, among other things, that children, too, can be free spirited and enterprising.

My next brush with Mark Twain took place when I turned 39, shortly after we left Moscow for Vienna, Austria.  We didn’t really choose Vienna.  It was chosen for us by the Hebrew Immigrant Aide Society (HIAS) that helps the world’s Jewry to resettle.  There must have been thousands of Russian immigrants there already – some waiting for permission to stay in Europe, some to go to Australia and New Zealand, and many more to enter the United States.

My family arrived in Vienna from snowy and aloof Moscow at the end of February.  Somebody met us, dazed and disoriented, at the airport, and drove us to the place that HIAS rented for the waves of new Russian immigrants.  There was no snow anywhere, the air was filled with early spring dampness and uncertainty, and the gray sky was reflected in the windows of residential buildings and shopping malls.  The city was beautiful, though, with soaring cathedrals, imposing buildings, and museums, spoiled only by numerous dachshunds mincing on their short legs next to their orderly owners along the city streets — the same streets that, in 1938, saw the proudly marching columns of Nazis and the terrified crowds of Jews, who were driven from their homes to, first, clean Vienna’s pavement with forks, spoons, and even their tongues, and, later, transported to the Dachau concentration camp.  Of course, we were not desperate like them, but you could not help wondering about the ironies and unpredictability of life.

We stayed there for four months, which wasn’t too bad for a family with no friends or relatives to sponsor its move to America (and you had to have a sponsor to do that), and whose only hope was that HIAS would find somebody willing to sponsor us.  It was a strange, shadow-like existence.  We were free at last, or, maybe, in a free fall — only time would tell which one it would be.  If we had died there, the city wouldn’t have noticed.  For one thing, nobody knew us there.  For another, no Russian immigrant was allowed to work – at least not legally, and the only source of income we had was the little money that HIAS gave us each month and even the smaller amount we earned ourselves by selling  our camera, cotton bedding, and matrioshkis — as well as other Russian souvenirs –at the flea market.  And yet, life went on and my daughter even attended school, or what passed for school in that ephemeral existence: a room in the Jewish Resettlement Center, where children of all ages studied together with the teachers who were also in transit — one day the school had a math teacher and the next day she was gone.

And then, one day, somebody called from the American Embassy:  “Congratulations!  You’ve received an entrance permit.  You’re going to Columbia, Missouri.”  “Where is it?”  “Between St. Louis and Kansas City.”

We hung up the phone and ran to the nearest library.  There we found a map of the United States, in the middle of which we spotted a tiny dot for St. Louis and, close to it, another one for Kansas City.  Columbia was nowhere on the map, yet the word “Missouri” rang familiar.  Wasn’t that the birthplace of Mark Twain?  I grabbed a large dictionary.  Yes, Samuel Clemens was born and raised in Missouri, and since he went on to become a major American writer, we couldn’t go wrong there, either.

Fast-forward another ten years.  This time, I am on vacation in dry and beautiful Santa Fe.  We — my American husband, my daughter and her future husband, and I — are walking along the streets edged by blue and yellow adobe houses, admiring their bright colors and front yards landscaped with rocks and cactuses, and stopping at every art gallery.  At one intersection, I turn around the corner and, suddenly, come nose to nose with Mark Twain.  The great man sits on a bench surrounded by bronze horses, statues of children, and other art objects.  His left hand rests on the back of the bench, and his right hand holds an open book.  What in the world is he doing in New Mexico of all places?

Well, I never found the answer to that.  But that day in Santa Fe, I found an answer to something much more important to me.  Some time earlier, I began to venture into writing.  Yet to my surprise, it turned out to be very hard, and not only because English was my second language (although that was a big part of it!).  There was something else missing in my prose, vital and elusive.  I spent hours on my computer.  I poured my soul into every phrase (I came from the Russian tradition where “soul” was very important!), yet everything came out dead and full of self-pity.  What was wrong?  But as I stared at the familiar face framed with a mass of wavy bronze hair, it suddenly came to me.  The thing I was missing was humor.  Life has many facets, and humor is one of them.  It enlivens our life when we perform everyday chores, and it makes our life bearable when we suffer.

It would be wrong of me to say that the sudden encounter with the statue of Mark Twain miraculously improved my writing (in fact, it would take me another five years to publish my first piece), but it definitely helped me find my “voice.”

P.S.  Before we left the gallery, I asked my husband to sit next to Mark Twain and took a picture of both of them together.  Here they are – two great men in my life!

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, Florida, Missouri.  Happy Birthday, Samuel Clemens!

Please click “like” if you like my picture :).  Also, tell me about your “role models,” would you?

 P.P.S. This is a long post, but if you’re still reading, I’ll confess to you that, originally, I wrote:  “Life has many faucets, and humor is one of them,” which my husband had a good laugh about.  Now, if you’re chuckling, too, I must tell you, humor—like God—works in a miraculous way! 
©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

What Was That Holiday in November?


Dear friends,

This is a story I wrote some time ago for the Christian Science Monitor.”  I hope you like it 🙂

“I’m not celebrating Thanksgiving.”

“Why?”

“It’s their holiday. I don’t know what it’s about. Besides, what’s there to celebrate?”

I looked at the middle-aged Russian woman. She had settled in our town recently, and I hardly knew her. Yet, I knew her very well, for, reflected in her tired eyes, I saw myself many Thanksgivings ago.

Every time I heard the phone ring, I felt like dashing to the bedroom, covering my head with a pillow, and pretending that I was still in Moscow. 

The honeymoon phase of immigration had passed – when the never-before-seen abundance of food sent me into a trance, and aisles of Wal-Mart clothes thrilled me as much as a field trip to Lenin’s Mausoleum. But a new reality had set in – a nagging fear that I’d never make it in America and that bringing my young daughter here was the most irresponsible thing I had ever done.

The phone kept ringing. I picked it up, muttered, “I don’t speak English,” and immediately hung up. At night, it rang again, and my daughter, who knew some English, answered it.

“The Hermanns are inviting us over for Thanksgiving dinner,” she translated.

“Thanksgiving? What’s that?”

“A holiday.”

“What’s it about?”

“I’m not sure.”

Americans had invited us to meals before, and I appreciated their effort, although not the food. One family cooked us a Mexican dinner. The only thing I knew about Mexican culture was that they wore sombreros. As for the food, I had no idea what it consisted of, so when I bit into a jalapeño pepper, I was surprised and unprepared for the spicy aftereffect. The alarmed hosts rushed to me with a glass of ice water, the only drink they had at that meal. Where I came from, nobody served tap water to guests.

Another time, we were invited to a Chinese restaurant. I wasn’t familiar with Chinese food either. Also, we weren’t given knives and forks, and I couldn’t eat with the chopsticks they gave me. So I left that feast hungry.

On Thanksgiving, I timidly opened the door of a two-story brick house from which came wonderful aromas of food. What were we celebrating?

Back in Russia, we celebrated the anniversary of the Great Socialist Revolution in the fall. A large military parade took place in Moscow’s Red Square. Rocket launchers, nuclear missiles, and tanks shook the square’s cobblestones, thousands of troops goose-stepped, and “volunteer” factory workers paraded past Lenin’s red-granite mausoleum, where high government officials waved and smiled to shouts of “Slava!” (glory) from the crowd.

None of it seemed relevant now. No tanks rolled through our Midwestern town, and no military marches were heard.

Could Thanksgiving be a religious holiday? I had vague recollections of Thanksgiving prayers in the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet, there wasn’t a single onion-shaped dome in our town.

What holiday was it, then?

The house was decorated with carved pumpkins and mums. On the table rested a large brown turkey, a gravy boat, a bowl of cranberry sauce, carrots, beans, sweet potatoes, and pies.

I wasn’t used to turkeys – chickens and ducks were more common back home – but I liked the taste. I didn’t touch the cranberry sauce, though. (Who eats poultry with jam?) Sweet potatoes looked weird (aren’t potatoes supposed to be white and salty?), so I skipped them, too.

I also skipped the pumpkin pie. My mother used pumpkins to make kasha (porridge), not a dessert! There was some kasha-looking dish on the table called “dressing.” To me, “dressing” implied putting on clothes, so I didn’t try it.

When the dinner ended, I asked my daughter to inquire about Thanksgiving. “Oh, Thanksgiving started at the time of the Pilgrims. They celebrated their first harvest and good fortune. And we, like them, express gratitude for everything we have,” she was told.

I had never studied American history, and the only pilgrims I’d heard about were people traveling to holy sites in the Middle East, not in America. As for gratitude, I mentally reviewed my situation. Formerly an engineer, I now worked nights at a retirement home making 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. I had little to celebrate, I thought.

Many things have happened since then. Gradually, I learned English. Later I met and married a wonderful man, and, in time, my daughter became a mother herself. My life was similar to the lives of others who came here before and after me – with work and worries, sadness and happiness.

As for Thanksgiving, it became mine, too, because who are we immigrants, if not pilgrims? Like them, we come to a place we don’t know much about. Like them, we rely on the kindness of strangers. Like them, we go through hard times. And like them, we come to appreciate our good fortune.

I looked at the Russian woman. “You’ll celebrate Thanksgiving,” I said. “You’ll see. Just remember our Russian saying: ‘Without effort, one cannot pull even a small fish from the pond.’ ”

Thanksgiving turkey by antonellomusina
©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

Choices


I hate having choices! Where I grew up (in the former Soviet Union) we usually had one choice. For everything. In fact we were happy to have that one choice, because most of the time we had none at all. For example, if you saw a line for winter boots, you wouldn’t be picky about the size they had left by the time you reached the counter. You’d try to make them fit (if nothing else, that was a good exercise in building your character), or, in the case of absolutely irreconcilable differences between your feet and the size of the boots, you’d pass them on to somebody else – a family member or a friend.  The same went for jeans, bras, and any other essentials.  Most of the time, when we saw a line, we wouldn’t even ask what it was for – we knew we needed it.

The upside of that life style was that we had no confusion.  Here in America, you can’t order a sandwich without being showered with multiple choices of ingredients, condiments, breads, etc.  And that is not to mention that at the end, the sales clerk will ask, “For here or to go?”  When I heard that for the first time, I – fresh off the plane – said, “Is there a particular place I need to go to with my sandwich?”  (Just kidding, I couldn’t have said that.  I spoke no English then :).)   I was also asked if I wanted a “bottomless cup,” which left me almost in a state of paralysis, for how could a bottomless cup hold any coffee?!

Another thing that is wrong with having several choices is that as soon as you make your choice, you are responsible for the outcome of your decision. This is exactly why my husband avoids making decisions altogether: where we should go on vacation, where we should stay when we get there, etc. In fact, he doesn’t even choose the movies we see! Which means that I am the one who makes all these decisions and who suffers the consequences (well, I usually let him know that I’m suffering, so he’s not completely oblivious).

And you know what his indecision does to me? I’ve become really and truly neurotic. When a waitress walks me to a table, I am never happy with that table, so I ask her if we could sit at a different table – which inevitably turns out to be even worse than the first one, and I have to start all over from the beginning. Actually, my problems start even before my husband and I walk into the restaurant – at the moment when he asks me where I’d like to go for dinner.  This usually happens on a Friday night – when my decision-making ability is depleted by working 5 days in the library and dealing with whatever that may entail. (Did I tell you that the last time I was the librarian-in-charge somebody jumped off the second floor balcony, and I had to call the police and the ambulance, and then talk to three traumatized bystanders who tried to prevent the guy from falling and killing himself? — Don’t worry. The jumper landed on his feet.) In any case, the last thing I want to do on Friday night is to make another decision. So, I say, where do you want to go? And my husband says, where do you want to go? And after several rounds of that, he finally names a place – which is never the one I want to go to. You’d think that after 15 years together he’d know better! Yet he never does. Even worse, as soon as I convey that fact to him, he says, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” And I say, “Because before I didn’t know that I wouldn’t like it!”

Jokes aside, we make choices every day, and even the smallest of them change us in some ways – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and at other times both. Yet we rarely know in advance which one it will be. The most important choice I’ve ever made was to leave my home country. Was it a good choice?  Yes, it was, and I am glad to have made it. But I am separated from my sister and my parents, who now live in Israel, and my daughter decided to spread our family even further – she, as well as my two adorable grandchildren, lives in London. These are the consequences of my decision. Did I see them coming? Of course, not. As Kahlil Gibran said, “We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them.”

Going back to choices, a week ago, we all made our choice. Let’s hope it is a good one!

P.S. Do share your stories with me, would you?


©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

Happy Halloween!


It’s been two weeks since my last post, so let me tell you what’s happened during that time.  First of all, I received a comment that my “How I met my husband” post sounded kind of familiar.  In fact, it sounded so familiar that the commentator even pinpointed its source — “My Fair Lady.”  This I really liked a lot, since I admire Audrey Hepburn and I always dream of being dressed as elegantly as she was :).  (By the way, the source for “My Fair Lady” is Barnard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” which means that my own story  should be traced to it, too!)

I also got a message that went like this: “Mr. X liked your post.  Check out his post and see what he’s up to!”  I, of course, immediately did that, and I found out that Mr. X. enjoys a Facebook application called Dooba.  This cool app analyzes your newsfeed, and it finds people you might want to date among the friends of your friends.  Well, I personally will stick to my current husband (although I found him accidentally and not as a result of a sophisticated analysis), but those still on the dating scene should definitely check it out!  (And please, please, please, send me your dating story, too!)

Now about where I left off last time — I’ll take a rain check on that.  Since we’re approaching Halloween, I thought I’d offer you my Halloween story, which I first published in the Christian Science Monitor in 2006.  I hope you like it :).

A Sweet Welcome to America

I cautiously opened the door and there they were – a smiling blue-eyed woman in worn-out jeans and a bulky sweat shirt, and a little girl dressed in a long red gown and a black star-speckled cloak. A tall peaked hat crowned her curly blond hair.

“Hi,” the woman said amicably, and her smile widened until it couldn’t get any bigger or more sincere. Her eyes seemed to fix on me conspiratorially.

“Hi,” I echoed apprehensively.

Suddenly, the girl stepped forward and blurted out something short and rhythmical. I stepped backward. She spoke English, but I had no way of deciphering her words. My only translator, my teenage daughter, was not at home.

“Do you need help?” I asked, carefully pronouncing one of the few phrases I, a former Russian engineer, had learned in the Midwestern retirement home where I currently worked as a nurse’s aide.

The shape of the woman’s mouth changed from a crescent to a straight line. The girl turned to her mother and then again to me. She gave me a demanding look and forcefully repeated her mysterious chant.

A knot of panic formed in my stomach. The visitors did not look like criminals, although you never know.

There were beggars in Moscow who went from house to house asking for money, carrying their crying children dressed in rags.  Also, Gypsies occasionally came and offered palm reading. In fact, when I was a teenager, a friend of mine had her palm read by a Gypsy who told her that she would embark on a long trip overseas in about 20 years. Of course, the last I heard of that friend, she was still in Moscow. It was I who found herself overseas anxiously gawking at two strangers.

Well, everything here in my new home was strange. The temperature fluctuated between 85 and 105 degrees F. for the first two months after we arrived in July. Accustomed to Moscow’s mild summers, we found the heat unbearable.  Then, in September, we experienced our first tornado. Tornadoes were unheard-of back in Moscow, and, at the time, I never listened to the radio (What would be the point for me? It’s all in English). So, despite the screaming of sirens, I headed for a grocery store. It was about 1 p.m., but as soon as I got into my beat-up Buick, the sky darkened as though it was night, and the wind started wailing so ominously that only a clueless foreigner such as I would venture outside.  Fortunately, the traffic lights saved me. Blinking yellow in all directions, they confused me – a driver with only two weeks’ experience – so I turned back home. There a good-hearted neighbor dragged me into our apartment building’s basement while I tried to persuade her in my broken English that I had better things to do.

Two weeks later, the town started preparing for an earthquake, and I was seriously reconsidering the wisdom of my decision to emigrate to the United States. We had plenty of problems back in Russia, but we never had earthquakes!  The disaster was expected to strike in 10 days, so people and businesses prepared for the worst – storing canned food, bottled water, and other imperishable necessities. Because we lived in a small apartment, I stocked things under the kitchen table – where they stayed for a month after the anticipated date had passed and, to my relief, no earthquake struck.  And now this unexpected visit.

Slowly, I tried to close the door, but the girl’s lips started to twist and the mother burst into a long tirade in which I recognized “give” and “candy.”

Did they want candy? I eyed the visitors and noticed a small basket in the girl’s hand – half full of candy.  If this was a robbery, it was a “sweet” kind, although this might have been just the beginning.  Suddenly, a warning penetrated my brain: “If you’re being robbed, never argue, just give them what they want.”

Nervously, I rushed to the pantry, snatched two bags of Hershey’s Kisses and a bag of peanut clusters, and handed everything to the robbers.  This time, the girl stepped back, and the mother fanned the air with her hand in a rejecting motion.

“Candy, no?” I asked warily.

The woman gave me a look overflowing with pity and grabbed one of the bags. She tore it open, and then turned to her daughter and whispered something encouraging.  Immediately, the girl’s fingers dived into the open bag and came out with three pieces of chocolate. The mother shoved the rest of the bag into my hands, smiled brightly, and said, “Welcome to this country!”

Several minutes after they left, I was still in the doorway, vacantly watching chocolates spilling from the open bag.

That was my first American Halloween – as new to me as garbage disposals, garage-door openers, and all the other American conveniences.  Since then, Halloween has become a mark of my immigrant’s progress. On my fourth Halloween, I moved into my first house; on my seventh Halloween I got engaged to an American man; and on my 14th my grown-up daughter had her first child – my first grandson.

When little Alex is old enough, I hope we’ll go out together on Halloween night. He’ll say “trick or treat!” while I stand behind him, smiling.  And if someone answers the door who knows nothing about Halloween, we, too, can say, “Welcome to this country!”

P.S.  Picture courtesy of  Transguyjay

Happy Halloween!
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