This week it is the anniversary of my return to America. We had lived in Russia almost nine years. On Monday, October 24, 2001, a little over a month after 9/11, we were told by the Russian Government it was time to leave. We had until the 28th to get out of town, 4 days.
I spent the next three days frantically sorting through nine years of accumulated stuff. What to take with us, what to leave behind, what to ship later if it was possible. Yes, no, maybe. I boiled it down to six suitcases.
We borrowed money for plane tickets and spent the night of the 28th in Amsterdam. Our favorite city. We ate at Casa di David, and my six year old son fell asleep with his head on the table. We barely noticed. A couple sitting next to us asked us if our son always slept in restaurants. We laughed.
The next day we arrived in Chicago.
That’s what the customs official always says and it sounded good.
My parents met us at a bus stop in Wisconsin and took us to their two bedroom apartment. We were refugees in our own country. No place to go, no job, no money, no belongings.
Life begins again.
As a TCK, I was used to re-inventing myself and starting over. I knew it wasn’t the end of the world.
I spent the first six months in shock on auto pilot just getting through the day. I put my son in first grade since he was six. He had been going to a Russian school and his language was a bit mixed up. They told him he wasn’t ready for first grade. My mother says flunking kindergarten was the best thing that ever happened to him.
I gained about 20 pounds. But I picked myself up and eventually made some serious decisions and got on with my life. After wasting away in a small town in Minnesota for 9 months licking our wounds, we broadened our horizons and looked for work on the coast. My husband found a job in Washington DC and moved immediately. I waited for my son to finish out the school year and then joined him. We arrived in Northern Virginia on the hottest day of the year. Ugh. About six weeks later I had a job of my own.
Every once in a while I think about a book I used to have or a dress I really liked but for the most part the stuff we left behind was quickly forgotten. I chose well when I packed my six suitcases. It was enough.
A few years later, I divorced and became a single parent. I had come to the fork in the road. It was time and it was okay. A couple years later I bought my own home. I have come a long way since that gloomy October day 11 years ago.
You can read more about my story in my book Expat Alien.
When I lived in Moscow in the 1990’s, I relied on the Metro and buses for transportation. Everybody carried their own cloth bags for shopping and I always took my backpack when doing the grocery shopping. One wet snowy day I slogged to the store with my backpack and cloth bags looking for some choice items to feed my dinner guests.
I went on the Metro and I found pretty much everything I was looking for and the store wasn’t too crowded so everything was looking pretty good. I was thinking how great it was that so much stuff fit into the backpack and I only had to carry a couple of light things in my hands. As I approached the entrance to the Metro, I felt the pack shifting as if something was not quite right. I made it into the station, pushed my way through a huge crowd at the turnstiles and decided I should take the pack off and check it before getting onto the escalator. As I was taking off the backpack, it opened up wide and everything fell out onto the muddy wet floor of the station. Did I mention it was winter? I dropped everything and chased a can as it rolled away from me.
I managed to gather everything into a pile and hurriedly crammed my sugar, flour, juice and tomato sauce back into the backpack. The cheese and sour cream had been in a separate plastic bag so I just shoved that into my cloth bag and proceeded to the escalator. Through all of this people were stepping over me and around me and somebody had actually stepped on my sour cream so it was all over the inside of the plastic bag. Nobody had missed a step to even think about offering me any help. All of my bags were filthy from lying in the muck on the floor and my hands were also filthy from gathering everything up off the floor. I was cursing the Metro, the Russian people, the Russian Federation, my husband, and anybody else I could think of and I plotted all the way home that I would just pack my bags and get the next flight out of town. Plus by this time I was sweating from having too many clothes on in the crowded Metro.
When I reached my apartment building and entered the elevator that rarely worked properly, a woman followed me in. She had been out walking her dog.
Woman: Which floor do you need?
Woman: I am on the 8th floor. The lift has been in such poor working order.
Me: I couldn’t agree more. I was stuck in it recently and waited over an hour to get out.
Woman: It is not reliable.
Woman: You should really wear a hat. You might catch the flu in this cold weather.
Me: It really isn’t that cold out.
Woman getting off the lift: Good bye. All the best!
Me: Thank you. Good Bye
Continuing up the elevator all I could think of was what a country filled with contradictions it was!
I managed to salvage everything but the sour cream by transferring things into non-muddy containers. I cleaned my apartment from top to bottom and washed all the floors and I felt much better when I was done. By the time my guests arrived for dinner, I welcomed them with open arms without any thoughts of fleeing the country.
Life as an expat can be challenging anywhere but the people you meet along the way make it worth it.
My son just returned from ten days in Russia. He spent the first six years of his life living in Moscow and this was his pilgrimage back in time with his father. He raced around Moscow with his Russian cousin, Vasya, who drove him all over the city at breakneck speed. “The traffic was scary”. They rode to the top of the Ostankino tower.
And looked down.
They explored Gorky Park and the statue graves of Lenin and Stalin.
Drive by’s of the University
and the famous soviet couple – the worker and the kolkhoz woman – outside the old Russian Exhibition Center.
Of course they spent time at the cemetery to see relatives who have since died and paid their respects to favorite uncles.
It all looks a little dark and dreary to me but he assured me that Moscow is much nicer now than he remembered it. He had been studying Cyrillic before he left and reported that most signs were now in both Russian and Latin text so he could read them easily.
It was fun for me to hear his stories of all the places he visited in the city we called home for so many years. St Basil's certainly looks as beautiful as ever!
I always checked the bulletin board at the US Embassy and one day I saw an ad for a position at the British Embassy. I called them up and went in for an interview. This was 1993 and there were still very few expats in Moscow. The first guy I met used to live in Nigeria so we hit it off. Then he drove me to the Commercial Section, as it was in a different building in a different part of town. I met with three or four people over there. They had just purchased a Windows computer and needed somebody to learn how to use it and to type letters, do formatting and transcribe dictation for them. I could type and I had played around a bit on Windows so they hired me on the spot. I don’t think Nicholas was too thrilled because they didn’t pay much, but I was excited to have a job.
My first pay from the Brits was all in 5 dollar bills! What a wad I came home with! I felt really rich. I was paid in cash so we had money without having to write a check and any extra went to American Express in Moscow.
I enjoyed working with the Brits. In some ways I think I felt more comfortable with them than the Americans as they immediately grasped my humor (or sarcasm). The British Embassy was on the river, directly opposite the Kremlin in an old, beautiful mansion. However, I didn’t work there. The Commercial Department was in a separate building on the other side of town. I would get a ride in the morning from one of Nicholas’ drivers and then I would take the metro home.
Soon after I started, I went to a reception at the British Embassy and met Ann, the Princess Royale and her new husband, Commander Lawrence. We all stood in groups (assigned “clumps”) in a semicircle and the Commander and the Ambassador’s wife (who was an American) started at one side and Princess Ann and the Ambassador started at the other so they spent about 2 or 3 minutes talking to each clump. The Commander seemed a little nervous but he was nice and Ann had on a bright green straight silk skirt and a fuchsia silk top. She carried a black silk purse with matching black shoes and sported long white gloves. She was prettier in person than in her pictures and was very relaxed and charming. We drank Pimms out on the lawn and it was lovely.
Note: photo and story are about the old Embassy. They have since built a new one. Pretty different, eh?
The college I attended in California had an exchange program with several colleges on the East Coast so I decided to take advantage of it and spent my Junior year in Boston.
I arrived in Boston by myself on a hot September day. I was excited. I had no idea where I was going or what I was getting into but I loved Boston right away.
I met this great guy, Mike, at a dance the first week I was there. He owned a Triumph Trident motorcycle (that he swore didn’t perform well under 90 miles per hour) and he offered to show me around the Boston area since I had never been there before. I accepted and we spent most of our time together after that. My ass was sore a lot of the time because of the vibrations on the motorcycle. He literally would go 90 whenever possible. He taught me a lot about America and its history. Or at least his view of it. He also showed me everything there was to see in the Boston area and more. We were always going someplace, doing something.
Simmons College is just down the street from Fenway Park where the Boston Red Sox play baseball, right in the middle of Boston. I could hop on the subway and be anywhere in minutes. We were just down the street from the Harvard Medical School so ambulances with sirens screaming went past our windows day and night. I lived up four flights of stairs – no elevators.
I had some interesting classes and I was amazed to find out that they took attendance and counted it in your grade, so for the first time in my college career I started to attend classes. I couldn’t believe how easy school could be if you actually went to class. It saved all kinds of time making up for missed lectures. I found that I didn’t have to spend my time doing all that reading because they reviewed everything in the classroom and if I took notes I rarely had to study at all. I did a lot better in school that year and when I returned to Mills and attended classes my grades went up considerably. Quite a revelation. I only wish I had discovered it sooner.
Mike was on a work-study program at Northeastern University where he would work for three months and then go to school for three months. He was studying engineering – he started out in electrical, then went to mechanical and ended up in civil. For the three months when he was working we were rich and we had a lot of fun going out all the time. When he was in school we were poor and watched a lot of TV.
Mike’s father and uncle had been sent to America from Germany at the beginning of World War II, with their entire inheritance, to go to the university. Mike’s father had spent all his money getting a PhD.
Mike’s maternal grandparents had fled Belarus and gone to Paris. His mother had grown up in Paris and when she was 19 they had emigrated to the USA. She spoke English with a French accent. Her father had died by the time I met her but I did see her mother on a couple of occasions and she only spoke Russian. Mike grew up in a house where his parents spoke four languages combined and he only spoke English. He wanted to live in Boston the rest of his life.
Of course, being a Third Culture Kid with very itchy feet and an international background, I had trouble relating to that and ultimately it led to the end of our relationship but in the meantime, Boston was great.
On the Fourth of July there was a Boston Pops concert on the Esplanade. This particular summer, 1976, it was the Bi-Centennial of the USA and so I was excited to go and see it live in person. We arrived early in the day and marked out our territory where we could see everything. By the time the concert started, the place was jammed and the police were getting irritable. There were 400,000 of us cheering on Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Luckily there were no major incidents and it was a concert to remember. The concert ended with the 1812 Overture, cannon shooting over the Charles River and an amazing fireworks show. This was also the first time the Fourth of July Pops concert was televised.
The funny thing is, almost 20 years later I saw the 1812 Overture performed at another outdoor concert. This time I was in Red Square, Moscow, Russia. It was winter and the square was jammed with people. We were so smushed together we were all keeping each other warm. A Russian cellist and conductor had been living in exile and this was his first concert after being welcomed back.
“Washington Chorus Society and USA National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, perform the finale of Prokofiev’s Cantata ‘Alexander Nensky’ and Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture with Kremlin Cathedral Bells and Cannon Volleys.”
They were both significant events. However, standing in Red Square on that cold winter day it dawned on me, the 1812 Overture is kind of a strange way to celebrate the Fourth of July. Tchikovsky wrote it to celebrate Russia’s defense of Moscow against Napoleon. I had been to the fields of Borodino where the final battle took place.
I guess when it is such a great piece of music, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.
In the early 90’s my husband went to work in Moscow, Russia as a freelance journalist and decided to stay and live there. After a while, I followed him over there. I arrived in Moscow knowing very little about the country and nothing about the language. The Soviet Union had formally dissolved in 1991 but the city I landed in two years later was still very Soviet. The streets were poorly lit, there were no neon signs, or many signs at all for that matter. People did not generally speak English and were leery of foreigners. It was an adventure for me but not an easy transition.
I determined there was bakery right outside our apartment building because it always smelled so good. Fresh bread in the middle of winter, yum. I went in one day to check it out and it was packed with people. I stood and watched as people went up to the counter, looked around, and then queued up at the cashier’s cage. They told cashier the type of bread they wanted, how many loaves, and what it cost – at least that is what I assumed was going on. Over the next few days I stopped in on my way home and watched this process, trying to catch the names of the bread people were buying. I still could not make out the Cyrillic writing under the loaves.
I finally managed to understand the name of one of the loaves – bolichka – it was a small, fat, French or Italian type bread. I decided to give it a try. I got in line for the cashier and yelled “Adin Bolichka!” into her cage. I had learned how to count to ten and felt confident that “adin” meant “one”. Much later I learned that Russian is more complicated than Latin and there were different ways of saying “one” depending on what you were talking about. I probably should have said Adna instead of Adin.
Of course she didn’t understand me and started to yell at me – “What? What are you saying? What do you want? Speak up!” Yelling at me! I quickly left the building.
A few days later, I waited until there were only a few people in the store. Using a combination of sign language and my rudimentary skills, I pointed to the bread I wanted and asked the woman behind the counter what it was called. “Shto?” What? She told me. I asked her how much it cost. “Skolka?” How much?
She realized I was not catching on too quickly so she kindly wrote it all down for me on a piece of paper. I went to the cashier and handed her the paper. I paid her and returned to the counter with my receipt. I had successfully purchased my first loaf of bread in Russia!! I was so happy! I felt like I should frame it.
But it was delicious.
I went through this process many more times during my years in Russia. Eventually my language improved and my “Babushka” skills were honed enough that I could make transactions without falling apart. The Russian Babushka is a fearsome entity. She is a grandmother who always wears a scarf and feels it is her duty to scold you. It doesn’t matter who you are.
“You should button your coat”,
” You should not sit on marble”,
“You should wear a hat”,
“Your son should put his gloves on”,
“What is wrong with you, why don’t you do what I say?”.
She is everywhere and she is intimidating.
These are the women who manned the cashier stations in the Russian shops.
May 9th is Victory Day or VE Day, it marked the end of World War II in Europe. The Russians celebrate this occasion in a big way. They have military parades on Red Square, civilian parades down city streets, they run old war movies all day on TV, and they gather with family and friends to eat and make many toasts.
The USSR suffered the most casualties of any country during World War II, estimated at 27 million. China comes in a distant second with 10 million.
Indeed they have reason to celebrate.
Any gathering in Russia starts with Zakuski. These are the warm ups, the small plates, the appetizers. They can include beet salads, potato salads, cabbage salads, pickled mushrooms, pickled herring, dried fish, caviar, or any other thing you can think of. Just so there is lots of it. For the toasts, vodka is the staple, followed by cognac for desert. Sometimes champagne precedes the vodka.
Here are a couple of my favorite Zakuski (they are easy to make):
Julienne (Mushrooms in Sour Cream)
1 lb mushrooms
3 Tbsp butter
1 ½ Tbsp flour
1 cup sour cream
½ tsp lemon juice
salt and pepper
Slice the mushrooms. Sauté in butter for 10 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and continue cooking for another 5 minutes, stirring. Add sour cream and lemon juice. Keep the heat low and cook for 15 minutes more. If the sauce seems too thin, sprinkle in a little flour or if too thick add water. The sauce should be like thick cream. Season with salt and pepper.This can be served in individual cups or all together in a large dish.
Cucumbers in Smetana (Sour cream)
The Moscow Metro opened its doors in 1935. The line was 11.6 km.
“Thirteen stations built on the initial section had island platforms long enough to take eight-car trains. They were the first stations in the world to be completely faced with granite and marble and all had unique designs.”
When I arrived in Moscow, it took me a while to get up the guts to tackle the metro on my own. All the signs were in Russian so I would have to sit down and concentrate to figure out what the Cyrillic writing said in order to know which way to go. Once I started riding it regularly, people would always be asking me something I could not understand. I had no idea why they kept asking me questions. Like, were they lost or something? Eventually I figured out that most of them were asking me if I was getting off at the next stop because they wanted to position themselves for the push to exit.
Today there are 12 lines running 305.5 km through 185 stations. On my first visit I was impressed with the Metro. All the stations were different. Some had beautiful chandeliers hanging down the main hallway, some had marble statues and archways, some had mosaics in the ceiling, and one had colorful stained glass windows. By the time I left, the stations were starting to look a little run down and were not very clean. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the number of people who could live in Moscow and use the metro was limited. By the time I left 9 million passengers were using it on a daily basis. It was taking its toll. Today it is one of the busiest metros in the world – 2.3 billion rides per year. Just for comparison, New York City has 1.6 billion rides per year.
The Mexico City Metro opened in 1969, just as we were leaving. It had 16 stations. During construction many important archeological finds were documented and rescued. Today it has eleven lines and 451 km of track with 163 stations. I remember going on it a couple of times when it first opened but I didn’t like riding on it. When I went back in 1989 with my friends Jane and Tina, we decided to take the metro home one day after being out sight-seeing and ended up getting onto a car jammed full of men. Jane and Tina managed to make their way over to the window and somehow, found seats. I stayed nearer to the door because the whole car was so full. The men closed in around me and there were a million hands all over me. I looked around to see who the guilty parties were and everyone I looked at was staring at the ceiling. Finally I decided I had to take some action. I managed to get my elbows perpendicular to my body and I rotated with as much force as I could. They all scattered to the far corners of the car, which made us all laugh. I then managed to make it over to where my friends were. When we got back to the condo where we were staying, we found out that there were separate subway cars for men and women to reduce groping. A little late for that!
Boston is home to the first subway in the United States dating back to 1897 – the Tremont Street Subway (now known as the Green Line). I remember riding on it many times during my year in Boston. It was not air-conditioned and at rush hour was very crowded and hot! Hopefully it has been upgraded since then. The Red Line was brand new when I was there and was quiet and comfortable and never seemed to be too crowded.
The Metro in Washington DC is modeled after BART in San Francisco. I met and became friends with a guy in Moscow whose family built the DC Metro. It is clean and sterile. It is expensive. There is nowhere near enough of it. It opened in 1976 and has five lines with 86 stations and 171.1 km of track. It is the second busiest subway in the USA after New York City. They are currently extending it out to Dullus Airport. What they need is a ring line around the city. But nobody asked me.
I have been seeing Fiat 500’s in my neighborhood lately. I want one. Of course my boyfriend wants the Arbath souped up version. I have a feeling I wouldn’t be driving much if we get that. But they are cool looking. The original “cinquecento” was produced in Italy from 1957 to 1975. I remember it was tiny. We used to squeeze into them hitching rides in Italy. We used to make jokes about them. It was a mere 10 feet long and honestly not very comfortable. The new Fiat 500 sold today is a full foot longer!
When I moved to Russia, I came across the Zhiguli. When I first saw it I immediately thought of the cinquecento. Interestingly enough, in the mid 1960’s the Zhiguli was produced by the Volga Automobile Works (VAZ) in a collaboration between Fiat and the Soviet government. The Zhiguli was modeled after the original Fiat 500 and was exported to the West after 1975 as the Lada.
The Zhiguli is small and boxy. I would sometimes see very large Russian policemen cramming themselves into the Zhiguli four at a time. I wondered what would happen if there was an emergency. Would they be able to extract themselves in time?
The Russian car that I really liked was the Volga. It was the car used most for city government officials and usually came with an official driver. In Moscow there was no taxi service, you just hailed down a passing car and negotiated a price and they took you where you wanted to go. When my son was in pre-school, I would go out every morning and hail a car to take us to school. I was too harried to manage a stroller, a screaming child, and a bus in the middle of the Russian winter. And the cars were usually pretty cheap.
One day I lucked out and managed to flag down a black Volga. Volgas are mid sized sedans with comfortable seats and plenty of room for the child and the stroller. Much better than a Zhiguli!! I was in heaven. The next morning I went out as usual to flag a car, and there was the same Volga sitting at the end of my drive. He was waiting for me! Apparently our schedules were in sync. For the next couple of months, I had a driver every morning waiting for me. I even managed to talk him into taking me other places as well, like the airport, and the vet.