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

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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

Elections 2012


Thank you everybody who read/liked/commented on my Halloween story!  It’s so encouraging (and inspiring) for a writer to be appreciated.  You, guys, are great!  Now, I was not going to publish anything until November 15, but since we’re all waiting for the results of this election, I thought you may like my other older story, too.  Enjoy!  (I hope :))

Thank goodness for democracy!

I sighed. “Another sweepstakes.”

“Did you sign up for that no-call-no-mail-no-contact-under-any-circumstances list?” My husband asked.

“Yes, I did,” I said, opening the envelope.

Ms. Svetlana Grobman, you’ve been selected for a Presidential Campaign Survey.”

“It’s not a sweepstakes,” I informed my husband, wondering how my adopted country managed to survive without me during the years I lived in the Soviet Union.  The USA obviously needed me. For example, since I became an American citizen in 1995, I’ve been called for jury duty four times! I work with people who’d love to serve, but had never been called, including my mother-and father-in-law, who were seventh-generation Americans. Even my husband, now retired, has been called only once.

Similarly, when strangers telephone our house, they always ask for me, although nobody can pronounce my name. Only rarely do they want my husband with his conventional English name, Charles.

“Did anybody else receive a presidential campaign survey?” I asked my colleagues the next day. None had.

That night, I told my husband, “I have to answer that survey. It’s signed by a presidential candidate. He’s asking me to participate in the democratic process.”

“Did he also ask you for a donation?” my husband asked.

I disregarded this remark. Nobody had asked him to participate in the democratic process. Besides, he was used to democratic elections, with a choice among candidates; whereas, during my 39 years in Moscow, I never experienced such a thing.

My first Soviet election of the 1970s was a grand affair. Bravura patriotic music poured out of loudspeakers. Dressed-up people filled the sidewalks. Yet the polling place looked like my idea of purgatory – with many people going in and very few coming out. I walked inside. Several unsmiling officials crowded at the counter, busily checking voters’ passports, putting check marks by their names, and handing out ballots. Behind the counter perched an unused voting booth. The only things spoiling the bureaucratic orderliness of the voting process were the scents of seafood and noises oozing from the adjacent room, where crowds of people blocked the doorway.

“Masha, lend me some money!” I heard somebody shout.

“How much?” the invisible Masha hollered back.

Clearly, the next room was a happening place, and everybody around me thought so, too. As soon as they got their ballots, they quickly deposited their votes, and dived into the mass of bodies and tempting aromas on the other side.

While waiting to deposit my ballot, I absent-mindedly read its contents, which did not surprise anybody in the country. For every election, there was only one name on the ballot for each office, and the Soviet people were always unanimously united behind that person.

The best thing about this system was its simplicity. We weren’t bothered with phone calls or mail, we never researched our candidates (the names on the ballots rarely changed anyway), and we never had any doubt about the results – 99.9 percent of the population happily embraced their only choice.

The excitement in the next room was triggered by a buffet set up there for the election. It was covered with delicacies one wouldn’t find on any other day. Cans of caviar stood there like Kremlin turrets, packs of smoked salmon emitted mouth-watering scents, and piles of cured sausages rose like revolutionary-era barricades. In short, it was a celebration of the Soviet regime at its best.

This happened year after year, until, in the late 1980s, the Soviet economy plummeted and the assortment of election goodies dwindled. I lost my “election” enthusiasm long before that. One year, I walked into the voting booth, shut the curtain, and crossed out the only name on my ballot. The next time, I tore the ballot up. Finally, I just stopped going.

Yet, the election result was always the same – 99.9 percent approved. Actually, not voting caused me more trouble, since, inevitably, a portable ballot box appeared at my door, brought in by a grumpy bureaucrat, eager to put a check mark by my name.

My first American election took place in 1996. It was a casual affair. The polling station was in a nearby church, and the atmosphere lacked the excitement I was used to. One gray-haired volunteer checked my voter registration card, and another handed me a ballot – a document with several columns of little ovals and names. At the end, I was given an “I voted” sticker and a doughnut instead of caviar.

In recent years, I’ve voted at a school, where there are no doughnuts, coffee, or music. And yet, I do not miss the Soviet-style elections, for whatever the weaknesses of American elections, they have something I didn’t dream I’d ever see – choices.

No, I’m not naive. I know my single vote doesn’t count for much. But together with the votes of others, it has power – the collective power we pass on to our candidates, hoping that they’ll use it wisely. As for the torrent of dinnertime phone calls, campaign materials, and donation requests – I’m annoyed with them at times, but, I tell myself, “Thank goodness for democracy!” And, sometimes, I even reach for my checkbook.

©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!
©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

Welcome to my blog!


I never thought that I would start my own blog, and yet, that is exactly what I’m doing.  Why?  Not because I believe that I am a profound thinker and the world cannot live without my opinions, and not because I am a vain person.  Why then?  Well, I’ll be honest with you.  Because I just finished writing my first book “The Education of a Traitor” (I have published essays and articles before), and now I need to build “my platform,” or, to put it plainly, I need to prove to the publishing world that there are people out there who will read what I write; that I have something to say to them –even if they are very different from me.  Can I do it? I don’t know.  I just have to try, for there is nothing more important for a writer than readership.  And now, let me introduce myself.

I am a foreigner.  I was born in Moscow, Russia (which in those days was called the Soviet Union) and I lived there for 39 years.  When I immigrated to the U.S., I didn’t speak English, and despite many years of studying, I speak with an accent.  This may take time to get used to, although people usually say, – oh those polite Americans! – “What a charming accent you have!   Where are you from?”  (Just between you and me, I HATE my “charming” accent.  So if you ever meet me in person, don’t ever say that! :))  In any case, I usually reply, “I’m from Russia,” to which many say something like this:  “I’ve been in Moscow/St. Petersburg/etc.  Great country!   Great people, too!  Do you go back often?”

Well (this, again, is between you and me), I haven’t been back since the day I left my crying relatives at Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport (none of us knew whether we would ever see each other again) and, accompanied by the hateful glances of the Russian border patrol, boarded a plane.  Why don’t I go back?  As I already said, I lived in Russia for 39 years — which was a very “interesting” experience in itself, but to make matters worse, I was born into a Jewish family.  I did not know then that that wasn’t a good idea, but neither I nor my parents could do anything about it anyway, since in Russia being Jewish is very different from being Jewish in any other place on Earth.  It doesn’t mean that you go to religious services and celebrate Sabbath every Friday (sorry to say, I still don’t even now).  In fact, the Soviet Union was an atheist haven where nobody believed in anything, but everyone cited Karl Marx: “Religion is opium for the masses.”

To tell the truth, very few of us knew what opium actually was, but we all understood that it must be something very bad, like rotten capitalism, wars, exploitation of the working class, or writing curse words on the wall.  Our knowledge of religion was mostly gastronomical.  For me and the Jews of my generation being Jewish meant eating gefilte fish and matzah for Passover (if you don’t know what matzah and gefilte fish are, google them!), and for my Russian counterpars, the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church narrowed down to painting eggs and baking cakes for Easter.  Also, a week before Lent, we all religiously ate blini (small pancakes) with sour cream, and those who had “connections” (and you absolutely had to have some kind of connections if you were to survive in the Soviet Union) ate them with caviar – nobody giving a hoot what Easter was all about.  Which was actually good, because outside our stomachs, religion could mean serious trouble – expulsion from college, difficulties at work, and possibly, even worse.

So, what made me and others like me Jewish?  Our ethnicity, of course!  Well, they called it “nationality,” and as such it was recorded in all our documents: from our maternity wards to day care centers, schools, colleges, places of work, and in the most important places of them all – in our passports, which every Soviet citizen received at the age of sixteen.  Whatever the document, it read (always on the fifth line): “Nationality — Jewish.”  Of course, it didn’t help that, as popular saying had it, our Jewishness was “written on our faces” — meaning that in the sea of the light-headed and light-eyed Russian majority, we, dark-headed and dark-eyed, with tanned complexion, stood out.  This might not have applied to everyone, but it surely applied to me.

The most revealing thing about me was my nose. It was long and protruding (still is, in fact :)) — a typical Jewish nose that I inherited from my father. My mother’s nose, on the other hand, appeared almost normal. In fact, her nose appeared so normal that she didn’t look Jewish at all, so her patients (she was an overworked and underpaid district doctor) told her anti-Semitic jokes and complained about the global domination of Jews: “Those kikes took over all the good places, so true Russians don’t have anywhere to go!” To which Mother, whose low salary was often less than the salaries of her “true” Russian patients, only nodded and said, “Take these pills twice a day and get a lot of rest …”

Well, see how far talking about my accent got me?  I think I’d rather stop now.  Talk to you later! 🙂