Friday, August 26, 2016

Recent reading

My friend Peg Alford Pursell who runs a luminous reading series, Why There Are Words, in Sausalito, has recently started an independent press. She's been reading submissions to find the first two books, to publish in the next year. (For those of you with manuscripts: The submission period closes September 15, 2016.) Whatever she chooses, will have to serve as the face of the new press, will be seen as its representative work. Then, hopefully, the second year follows, and the new selection process, that will give us a more rounded understanding of what kind of publisher WTAW Press is. A great press, I suppose, is like a great character: always surprising, always engaging.

Peg recently asked me to contribute to her newsletter a list of books that I've been reading. Here's the write-up on some of my favorites.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you haven’t read it yet, do. It’s a funny and poignant page-turner about a popular blogger, Ifemelu, who decided to return to Nigeria after many years in the United States. Commentary on racism, colonialism and globalism, culture shock, family dynamics is held together by a sweet and ultimately satisfying love story.

Gabriel: A Poem by Edward Hirsch. This is a book-length poem published a few years after the sudden death of the poet’s adopted son, Gabriel. The tercets of this poem lead a reader through the journey of the young man’s last hours, through his life’s story, through the story of the father’s bereavement. No platitudes apply. This book does not uplift the reader and doesn’t leave her enlightened; the poet doesn’t get a break from his grief; the son’s neurological and mental health issues are portrayed in all their messiness. This book doesn’t make grief interesting—it puts into words what grief is.

Fair Play by Tove Jansson. In Europe (she lived in Helsinki, Finland and wrote in Swedish) Jansson is best known for her comic strip about the Moomin family that started out as a political cartoon and after WWII turned into wildly successful books for children. Fair Play was published when Jansson was seventy-five, and is a collection of stories about the relationship between a comic book author and her partner, a visual artist. Though Jansson was never publicly out as a lesbian, this book provides a fascinating glimpse into her intense creative and personal relationship with artist Tuulikki Pietilä.
In The Price of Water in Finistère by Bodil Malmsten, fifty-five year old author moves from her home in Sweden to Brittany, in France, the Finistère département. Her descriptions of settling in the new place, fixing her house, breaking a garden are intertwined with her memories of growing up in a remote northern village in Sweden. I particularly enjoyed reading about a happy moment in a woman’s life: she has come into her own and is ready to stake her claim in the world. She proceeds with humor and poetry.

Here is another shout-out to My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. I first heard of this book through this newsletter—thank you, Peg. I read it and I loved it. It was recently nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and I’m rooting for it. It’s a powerful novel about the long-term effects of poverty and violence.

The Door by Magda Szabo. This novel comes to us from Hungary, and is also, in part, autofiction. The author’s relationship with her housekeeper reads as a thriller, in one breath, from the beginning to the horrifying and gruesome end. What makes this book really work is the complexity of characterizations Szabo achieves. The two main women love and care for each other, but somehow in the course of the narrative these feelings turn against them.

The latest review I published in The Common was of Memories by the early twentieth century Russian author Teffi. By the time of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Teffi had nearly a dozen books to her name, and new printings of her story collections sold out instantly. With Lenin at the helm of the government, her fame became a liability. Memories opens with Teffi being talked into going on tour to Ukraine, the trip that became her journey out of Russia.

Last but not least, a shout-out to opera. This September, San Francisco Opera is staging Dream of the Red Chamber—based on the 18th Century Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin, adapted to the stage by Davin Henry Hwang of M. Butterfly fame. The novel is an epic series of tragic love triangles and an education about Chinese culture of the era. In the English translation, it runs 2,339 pages long.That's 2,339 pages of total fascination, people!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

New York

i got to New York City around 7 pm on the same day that I left home, August 23, 1996. acquaintances of my father's, a couple who had helped us find RIT and submit the paperwork, and who had made the arrangements with my host family in Rochester, were supposed to meet me in New York and tell me what to do next, how to get from New York City to Rochester, New York.
I'd made the mistake of falling asleep on the first leg of my trip, from St. Petersburg to Shannon, Ireland, and couldn't sleep a wink on the second flight. (due to a quirk in post-Cold war politics, Aeroflot flights from St. Petersburg to New York stopped in Ireland.) i disembarked groggy and confused. inside the airport was freezing due to airconditioning and teeming with people. a woman ran up to me at the customs exit and said, in Russian, "are you Olya? you must be Olya. come, come, my husband is circling outside. he can't stop!!"
what? what?
she turned around and without waiting for me to pick up my suitcase, the extra duffel, and the guitar, disappeared in the crowd of people. she then reappeared and waved, "come!"
pushing people out of her way, she rushed to the terminal exit. a blast of heat and humidity hit me in the face. new york city seemed to smell of something rotten. i looked around, expecting to see skyscrapers, but couldn't see anything past the lanes of traffic. while we stood there, waiting for i don't know what, the first raindrops landed. suddenly, somebody mad swerved through several lanes to stop right in front of my companion. "there he is! quick," the woman commanded. "he isn't supposed to stop here."
the raindrops were turning into a torrential downpour, of the kind I'd hardly seen before. the husband opened the trunk, and as best I could, I stuffed my luggage inside. the guitar i took to the back seat with me, and sat there, cradling it between my legs. "you're supposed to buckle," the woman said, turning around from the passenger seat. "ah, whatever. here are your tickets."
she handed me a long envelope. "your flight to Rochester is in forty minutes. it's at a different terminal. we'll drive you there. the family's waiting for you; they will pick you up."
inside the car was like a sauna. when i tried to open the window, i couldn't hear any of the instructions the woman was giving. she was speaking Russian, but i didn't understand half of what she was saying anyway. i closed the window.
"anyway, here you are. bye." her husband, who had said not a word through all of this, stopped the car. they were waiting for me to get out.
"but," I said. "but--"
"don't worry about anything. go, go. he isn't supposed to stop here," the woman said. and indeed, a uniformed man with a whistle was coming our way to shoo the driver from his place at the curb. I jumped out onto the street and rushed to collect my luggage.
inside the terminal, it was mercifully cool and I could collect my wits. I looked at the envelope in my hand. there was a ticket inside, New York City--Rochester, New York. I compared the flight numbers to the numbers on the tableau and went to register my luggage.
at the gate, there was a crowd. somebody made an announcement, but I understood not a word. something was clearly happening though. the tableau was blinking, the people seemed agitated. i decided to go up to the counter and ask if everything was okay. the flight was postponed. i don't think the word postponed was in my vocabulary, and so it took a lot of effort for the airline representative to explain to me what was happening. first it was, "later, later," and then, as the evening progressed it turned into, "tomorrow morning, 6 am."
what to do? my host family was apparently waiting for me in Rochester. "the payphones are over there," the airline representative directed.
the payphone instructions were taped to the payphone itself, and carefully studying the little pictures, I tried to dial the number. to place a distance call, i needed several dollars worth of quarters. luckily, quarters were not a problem. a numismatist uncle had given me a bagful of quarters to take on the trip, happy to collect from my father the equivalent in paper currency.
at the Rochester number, somebody picked up the phone. using the words i had just learned from the airline employee (delayed, postponed), I was able to explain my predicament. tomorrow, I said. 8 am! i wasn't sure who i was talking to and whether i was understood. but i dictated my new flight number to the person on the other end of the line, and that was the best i could do. i hung up the phone. should i call my parents? how many quarters would that take?
and what to do next? where could I spend the night? when did the airport close? could i wait outside?
i returned to the help desk.
"hotel rooms are over there," the airline representative pointed to another counter, where a long line had formed. did i need a hotel room? if all those people were waiting for one, they must've known something i didn't. i was conditioned to wait in queues. i hung in the back of the line, considering. how much did hotel rooms cost? i had about $800 with me, which i hoped would last me for six months.
i ended up paying $200 for the room--the hotel representative promised me that was the only one they had left. following the signs and other passengers, i took the shuttle bus to the hotel. i can't remember whether i had my luggage with me or not. i was confused. going from cold to hot and to cold again.
the hotel was finally a skyscraper, and my room on the sixteenth floor. that was exciting. i turned on the TV, but i was tired and couldn't follow a thing. the American words were all running together and lulling me to sleep.
i couldn't afford to fall asleep.
if i fell asleep, i would NOT be able to get up at five o'clock in the morning, when the airport shuttle would be waiting for me. at home, when i was particularly tired, it took my mother or my grandmother shaking me repeatedly to get me up. (and no, i didn't know about the wake up service. i was probably explained it at the check in, but i didn't get it. i did find the alarm clock in the room, but I did not trust my ability to get up with the help of only one alarm clock. grandmother alarm was far more effective.)
i needed to get to Rochester.
the only solution was to not sleep. i had my audio cassettes. besides the tape that Johnnie had made for me, i had Inna's mix of Metallica and the Scorpions ballads. I had my collection of the Beatles. I put on my headphones and spent the next six hours walking in circles around the $200 hotel room, trying not to fall asleep.


on August 23, 1996, my parents drove me to the St. Petersburg International Airport. it was then a small barrack-like building, three kilometers away from the much larger domestic terminal. my father pulled up to the curb and, once we unloaded the luggage, left the car there.
inna and johnnie and olya and misha and sveta and lionya had promised to come and see me off, but i didn't actually count on it. the international airport was poorly served by the city's public transportation system; the bus from the nearest subway station took an hour. what a long way to go, and for what? to then have to say good-bye? how sad, how pointless. i wasn't feeling well. i was still hung over from the party two days before. my face was still puffed up and itching from the mosquito bites. my period had started, and though i didn't believe in pain management, i decided to take an analgesic for the flight. i was nervous. (in therapy, lately, i've observed that i don't use the word "scared." i'm not very good at recognizing the feeling of fear until it becomes anger or sadness. i remember being anxious. i was very, very anxious)
my friends were there, at the airport. some of them had hitchhiked, caught rides, and got there before me. they teased my dad about being so cool as to drive up to the airport door exactly on time. johnnie handed me a tape with an injunction to not listen until i was actually airborne. each friend found a moment to take me aside to share their latest news. each promised to write. and then my flight was being called to registration. it was really good-bye.
though no, not really. the airport building was small and see-through. the queue zigzagged, and after each step of the registration process, i would look toward the entrance, and see everyone, my parents, my friends, still there, waving madly. that went on for what seemed hours. the zigzagging, the processing, the waving. i could not hold back the tears. by the time i got into my airplane seat, i was just bawling.
then followed another small torture. though the international departures were housed in a separate building from the domestic, the two airports shared the same landing strip. so the international flights had to taxi for about fifteen-twenty minutes to get to that strip. we rode through the fields of unmowed wild grasses edging the forest, where sparse birch trees gave way to pines and firs. i could see the tops of the pines waving in the wind. august was mushroom season, and i could practically smell the boletus and the russules growing in that off-limits forest where nobody was picking them.
i fished out my tape deck and put on my headphones. i heard johnnie's voice. instead of making me a mixtape, he'd made his own recording. this was as unexpected as it had been unprecedented. it was a mix of the songs he knew i would like and he knew i wouldn't like and the songs that he was just learning to play. front and back--ninety minutes of music. my neighbor in the airplane, whoever he or she was, must've been pretty scared at that point. i looked like a big girl. how many more tears was i capable of?
finally, the plane took off. i looked and thought i caught a glimpse of an old apartment building where we lived when I first started school. then, mercifully, we entered the cloud cover. exhausted, i fell asleep so soundly i didn't wake up until the plane touched ground in Shannon, Ireland.

the goodbye party

august 21st, 1996. i've got my US visa and am deciding which books and audio tapes to bring with me to America. johnnie has promised to make me a tape--and I have provided him with some clean cassettes to make sure he can. he's coming to otvalnaya, a good-bye party. he, my cousin paul, olya and misha, masha and inna, lena, igor, sveta. each friend, a novel. including those who didn't show up (yura, misha r), my brother
my parents and grandparents are staying away. the apartment is small, and they don't have anywhere else to go, so my grandparents are keeping to their room, and my parents to theirs. kostya is at a math camp, so i have the use of the living room for the night. my girlfriends, Olya, Inna, Masha, come early to help boil and chop vegetables and eggs for the "salads", heavy on mayo: olivie (an egg, potato, and ham thing); the fake crabmeat with canned corn and rice; radishes and onion; some potato dish, something meat. a jar of olives. some store-bought sweets. at seventeen, we're fully capable of putting on a feast to rival our grandmothers.
there's alcohol. beer, champagne. hard liquor from my dad's cabinet. soviet champagne is sweet and cheap, and we can drink a lot of it. the first bottle gets open when we begin to cook, and it goes from there. the boys show up on time, and we all sit down to have a proper meal, during which the conversation is stilted. my friends all know each other, more or less, but they are from different schools, and there's a lot of history between some of them, and none between others. olya and misha have been dating since my birthday party that february, but they don't want anyone to know and have sworn me to secrecy. of course told everyone and by now their dating is no longer that secret. inna and masha had come into my life when sveta dumped me, but now that i'm sort of friends with sveta again, and they are all in the same room, they do their best at being civil with one another. lena, johnnie.
guys go out to the landing to smoke. when they come back, the guitar comes out. i've switched from champagne to beer and now switch back to champagne. the guitar: johnnie. we all crowd around him, and he plays a song after song. the beatles, it's been a hard day's night, one two three four. shcherbakov, okudzhava, vyssotsky. we call out our favorites. i happen to have two guitars. my parents had given me a new one for my seventeenth birthday that february--johnnie plays that one. that's the guitar i will take to rochester with me. igor takes up my old guitar. after two years of watching johnnie entertain the crowds at school, he's picked up some tunes himself. he and johnnie have practiced their duets. they sound amazing. my parents come out from their room. my grandparents, from theirs. everyone has a song or two to request. we all drink more champagne.
those of us who are not in love with johnnie yet, fall in love immediately. my cousin Paul has to trek across the city that night, and so leaves early, but hey, that johnnie, he says. i now know what you see in him. one by one each guest leaves.
i'm not doing well. i've drank more champagne that anyone else, mixing it up and down with the beer and the liquor, and i'm more drunk than i'd ever been before. several chunks of time are missing from my memories. several important chunks, when i think--or have imagined since--important words have been said. i may have kissed johnnie. did i? fuck if i know.
when partying in st. petersburg in the summer, we must be conscious about the subway and then the bridges schedule. first the subway stops running, then the bridges are open to let the oceanliners through, which means the kids who live across town have no way of getting back till the morning. the party either has to have a hard stop before midnight, or it goes all night long. on august 21, the sun is up at 5:30 am. the last of my friends leave around that time.
inna stays. we set up a cot for her in my room, and put on andrew lloyd weber's starlight express. hey, don't judge. andrew lloyd weber was amazingly counter-cultural in st. petersburg at that time, and that aria has a fine tune and lyrics that felt appropriate and simple enough so we could understand. i cried some, then went to the toilet to throw up. finally, we crashed.
it had been a fine night, weather-wise, warm and dry. halfway through the night, we opened the balcony door. all of the boys smoked, and so at some point they moved their smoking from the landing outside of the apartment to the balcony inside. by the time inna and i went to sleep, we'd been too tired to close the balcony door. a small but important detail. in the late morning, when i woke up, my face was covered with mosquito bites. i counted eight big whelps. before the era of screens, we were used to mosquitoes. if i hadn't been so drunk, i would've been able to cover up my face with the blanket or turn away from the direct attack. but I'd passed out, and the mosquitoes feasted.
thirty six hours later, at the airport, i still felt the itch of those bites on my face and the chunks of memories from the night of the party were still missing. my stomach felt shitty. my heart ached, but what did a little heartache matter in the sweep of a lifetime

the goodbyes

today is the 19th of august, and I'm becoming very conscious about my timeline. the Russian internet is filled today with the memories of the 1991 coup, when the conservative wing of the communist party tried to oust Gorbachev, and Yeltsin emerged as the defender of the liberal freedoms. on august 19, 1996, Yeltsin had just stepped in to his second term. he had won the reelection just barely (and by means that we now know were far from honest), having lost positions as a result of Chechen war and the continued economic woes. the first Chechen war was drawing to its close, but it had become clear that conflict was simmering all around Russia and the former Soviet lands. my male friends all had gotten into the universities, but nevertheless, the danger of draft weighed heavily over their decision-making. by entering universities, my female friends and i received the tacit permission to fall in love for reals and to experiment sexually though we were as tacitly aware that our years were numbered and really what we needed to think about was marriage and children. careers too, but since so few of us were going to study the subjects we felt passionately about, careers felt very secondary. love came first.
on the 19th of august 1996 i did not yet have my passport back from the American consulate, but i had a ticket to Rochester for august 23rd, and i called a party, to be held on the 21st. after graduation that june, I had seen my friends only intermittently. this would be the last good-bye. my brother was at a math camp, and my cousins weren't around either, so i didn't get to say a proper good-bye to them. i did not invite the boy i'd been dating that summer, my first boyfriend. none of my other friends knew him, and it would be awkward. i don't remember how i said good-bye to my childhood friend from dacha. i have a feeling we played the last badminton game together and shook hands. during that last year we had gone on what i think now were a couple of dates, but things had been forever awkward between us. we'd known each other too well and loved each other deeply but the relationship between families was weird and we couldn't really handle it. that's how it seems now. there were too many people involved.
i was saying goodbyes that week as though i were leaving home forever, even though my father managed to buy me a ticket with an open return date. unlike Nabokov and Brodsky, and the people of their generations, who had been forced out of Russia without possibility of return, I was free to return. thinking about this now, i see that very freedom as a heavy burden of responsibility weighing on my shoulders. unlike the generations before me, i was supposedly making a free choice, so i better make the good one, the right one, the one that would lead me to everlasting happiness. if i did leave, I was not allowed to come back until i made a success out of my life -- no regrets allowed. i have not since admitted to having any regrets in life. frank sinatra can admit to having a few, but Olga will have her way without any. sorry for this silly reference, i'm drinking wine and trying to put myself in the mind of a seventeen-year old.
in a way, in 1996 I was saying good bye to the world that ceased to exist in 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. i was saying good bye to the opportunity to build something new in its place. my friends and i had read enough realist novels to expect that we would all change and grow apart, and this was the first step toward that. though, talking about novels, I had also read more than enough socialist realist novels, and so i swore loyalty and collected everyone's mailing addresses and promised to never change and hey i did good i actually did hold back the change for a good number of years and hey i am still in touch with so many of my friends and am so much better able to express my feelings toward them due to improvements in emotional vocabulary but hey none of that changed the fact that i was leaving


в 1996 в Рочестере я оказалась одной из первых россиянок из пост-Советской России. были ребята иммигрировашие со своими родителями в Бруклин и несколько лет раньше, были ребята из Казахстана и Узбекистана, но вот так вот что прямо из Питера в Рочестер -- таких не было.
от меня ждали, что я буду представлять россию в буквальном смысле. например, организация международных студентов устраивала костюмированную вечеринку, где всем студентам предлагалось нарядиться в национальные костюмы. у многих студентов из индии были с собой сари, с удовольствием переодевались и студенты из японии, малайзии. а мне что делать? надевать кокошник и сарафан, что ли?? (когда-то в моём счастливом советском дествте мы с мамой сооурдили изумительный кокошник из картона и бисера, но даже вспоминать об этом было как-то неловко). я принялась объяснять всем, что на самом деле, я из еврейской семьи, и вообще в пост-советской россии национальные костюмы это отстой. пироги я тоже не пекла, а борщ хоть и приходилось готовить, но это потому, что особого выбора не было.
на вечеринку национального костюма я не пошла, хотя на красивые сари посмотреть и хотелось, но долго проблему игнорировать тоже не получалось. жизнь в россии интересовала всех поголовно, от парней в общежитии до моих профессоров и начальниц в библиотеке, куда я устроилась работать. а что в россии едят на завтрак ланч и обед? в россии правда все очень умные? ты наверное с детства танцуешь в балете и занимаешься фигурным катанием?
чтобы как можно вежливее объяснить свой отказ одевать кокошник, я быстро научилась при первой же встерче с новым человеком представляться иначе: я не из россии, а из петербурга, балет не люблю, люблю Битлз, и вообще я не русская, а из еврейской семьи, бОльшая часть которой находится в израиле. впрочем, с таким ответом тоже время от времени случались проколы. как, например, при встерче с дейвом, который вырос в еврейской семье под Филадельфии и не понаслышке знал об иудаизме. при разговоре с ним быть еврейкой по паспорту становилось тоже как-то неловко. в питере, в моём окружении, были ребята, которые ездили в сохнутские лагеря и которые занимались в синагоге. я была не из их числа.
не помню, подсказал ли мне кто-то, обсуждалось ли это, скажем, на занятиях международного бизнеса, или я со временем сама догадалась, что стереотипы трудно разрушить, отвечая в лоб на продиктованные ими вопросы. а может быть, это урок из крёстного отца, it's not personal it's just business. вопрос -- признак заинтересованности собеседника, и нечего злиться и раздражаться, когда тебе в очередной раз предлагают водку на вечерине. водку со льдом, т.к. россияне привыкли к холоду.
поиск креативных ответов на продиктованные стереотипами вопросы -- вот, на самом деле, огромный стимул к творчеству

in love

1996. so this part is difficult to write. i fell in love with a guy. i called him A in an earlier installment of this story. he was an international student from India, a sophomore, who helped to organize all the welcoming activities for the 1996 incoming freshmen.
A. had that rare spark of organizational brilliance that made everyone want to follow his lead. he, for example, was the guy, who, as we were all standing out on the athletic fields during the bucket brigade challenge, said, why don't we dance The Macarena? and we did. a computer science student, he could dance and sing and loved theatricals of any kind. when he saw that I had a guitar in my dorm room, he instantly wanted me to play it.
"I'm not very good," I said, by which I meant that I played the guitar as a hobby and was not to be judged on the professional scale. I could play well enough a few Russian songs, and I wanted to play for him the Russian songs that meant the world to me, but first I wanted to establish the premises under which I would play the guitar for him: he had to get ready to be charmed.
"There's a good English expression, practice makes perfect," he said, handing me the guitar. From anyone else, I would have found that kind of response insufferable. Not only was he feeding me a platitude, but he was also refusing to understand me on my terms. He was refusing to say, "I'm sure I will enjoy whatever you play because it's you who's playing it."
I probably banged out a three-chord Vyssotsky song and passed the guitar to him. It turned out that not only did he play beautifully, he could also tune the guitar (which I struggled with). He was a little rusty, and nevertheless picked his way into a moving rendition of Stairway to Heaven. That sealed the deal. I wanted him. "Why don't you borrow the guitar?" I offered.
"Don't you want it? If you want to get better at it, you should really play every day."
"Take it," I said. "You're so good, and I love to hear you play it."
it turned out that he could really use it. there was some kind of party he was invited to or that he was organizing, and he couldn't invite me, because it was mostly for Indian kids, and anyway he invited me to a cricket match later, but warned me that I wouldn't understand anything, and i didn't. what i did understand was that he was brilliant at sports, too.
as a seventeen-year old I fell in love easily and constantly, but i fell in love particularly strongly with people who sent me mixed signals. A. seemed to enjoy my admiration, and he would on occasion invite me to parties and cricket matches and rub my shoulders and pat me on the knee. and then he would try to have a conversation with me about how he wasn't ready for a serious relationship and how in America there was such thing as casual dating and have I heard about it?
i knew the word from the English class and translated it to myself as roughly "seeing somebody you're in love with for a good long while with the purpose of finding out whether you two truly love each other and should get married." my heart overflowed with love and I said, yes, I've heard of dating.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Indian-Soviet friendship

in 1996, the vast majority of the international students at RIT came from the Indian subcontinent. there were some kids from China, Malaysia, Brazil, Turkey, but most people I met right away were from India. Also, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka.
the heyday of the Indian-Soviet friendship had long passed, and I had not met a single Indian person in St. Petersburg growing up, but I did inherit the slogan of that era. "Hindi Russi bhai-bhai," I said to the Hindi speakers, without actually knowing what this means. to my Sri Lankan friend, I must've surely mentioned Prosper Mérimée's novella Colomba that, despite the similarity of its title to the capital city of Sri Lanka, Colombo, is actually set in Corsica. I had been a voracious but not an attentive reader.
luckily, my Indian brothers saw that I was even more confused than they were about finding myself in Rochester, and so for a while took me under their wing. I was invited to join them for meals at the student cafeteria, where Indian kids sat around a long table and discussed the inedible American food, the upcoming winter and how to survive it, the importance of separating lights from darks when doing the laundry, sneaking into Canada without a Canadian visa, etc. for my sake, and for the sake of the other international students who occasionally joined, the Indians stuck to English for a while. eventually, the conversation switched to Hindi, and I was left to ponder all I'd heard so far.
most of my new friends described themselves as being "homesick," and asked me if I were, too. they could not eat, they had trouble sleeping, they missed their mothers, they struggled in their classes where their instructors frequently refused to understand their brand of English. I, on the other hand, couldn't stop eating. having spent much of my childhood growing food, standing in lines for food, cooking food, i was beyond thrilled at finding myself at an all-you-can-eat buffet three times a day. before Rochester, I couldn't have imagined such thing existed. I couldn't get enough of whatever was being served. people didn't understand my English either, but i wasn't complaining. it was a foreign language to me that I had to learn from scratch. my friends had grown up speaking English and now had to conform to the slight but significant differences in usage.
soon enough my friends started to figure out life in America. they found places to buy spices and learned to cook. they treated me to vegetarian dishes that turned each pore of my body into a tear duct (i'd had no experience whatsoever with hot spices). they found the one movie theatre near RIT that once every couple of weeks had showings of Bollywood movies. they joined the Indian student groups and started playing cricket. I went to a couple of Bollywood movies and cricket matches, and then stopped -- but that's another story.
one of my best friends from that era was a kid from Sri Lanka. N. was a few years older, and his thoughtful questions about my parents and friends at home helped to guide me through what I didn't know how to recognize as homesickness and a form of depression. though eventually I figured out that Sri Lanka wasn't Corsica, and that it wasn't India either, I refused to listen when N. tried to describe his background to me. his family was Buddhist, and, armed with the vague second-hand knowledge of scientific Marxism, I insisted that all religion was a complete and total superstition, and so he should stop believing anything and start eating meat. we maintained an uneasy friendship by going out to watch sci fi movies and talking only about hypothetical faraway worlds and planets.

открытый космос

а в 1996 году написать о себе было не то, что трудно, но вообще-таки казалось делом совершенно неприличным. как это так я буду писать о себе? да кто я такая и что о себе возомнила? пусть о себе я помолчу, а если надо будет, другие скажут.
американский университет требовал сочинение "о себе" одним из главных пунктов всупительных документов. что делать? было совершенно непонятно, чего они от меня хотят.
"Наверное, они хотят, чтобы ты похвасталась своими успехами," предположил папа.
никаких особых успехов не было. в феврале, когда работали над этими документами, было уже ясно, что по основным предметам матшколы, математика, физика, я иду на четвёрки. я была третьей в классе по успеваемости, но в школе класс считался плохоньким, и быть третьей в таком классе достижением не казалось. на последнем звонке янина максимовна вручила мне грамоту за успехи в литературе -- когда-нибудь янине максимовне я посвещу поэму роман в стихах эпическую сагу и сборник миниатюр в прозе -- но от этой грамоты веяло тоской. из успехов в русской литературе каши не сваришь. так или иначе, грамота появилась в мае, а в феврале и о русской литературе нечего было сказать.
"напиши, что ты пишешь в сочинениях по английскому. как ты провела свои летние каникулы. как ты помогаешь бабушке в огороде. какие у тебя хобби."
уж не помню, что я там, в результате, написала. вполне вероятно, это был полуфантастический опус о том, сколько килограмов яблок и картошки мы собираем на даче. делиться хотелось только рекордами.
потребовались годы жизни в америке, чтобы понять, чего же американцы добиваются подобными вопросами. дело вовсе не в хвастовстве, желании продать себя подороже, самовлюблённости и пр. дело в нарративе. в повествовании. в америке, где постоянно в одном классе группе компании кампании сталкиваются люди совершенно разных культур стран происхождения вероисповеданий образований убеждений ценностей, жизненно необходимо умение в двух словах быстро объяснить, кто ты такая, откуда вязлась, и что тебе надо от окружающих. чтобы окружающим было понятно, что они для тебя могут сделать. требуется всего лишь умение связать факты, положительные или отрицательные, в некий конкретный рассказ о себе.
меня зовут ольга. родилась и выросла в петербурге, в еврейской семье. училась в английской школе, закончила математическую. на своём пути встретила много трудностей и успела понять, что математика -- это не для меня. учительница литературы янинна максимовна доверила мне провести несколько уроков русской литературы. мои одноклассники так внимательно меня слушали и задавали такие хорошие вопросы, что в результате я мечтаю стать астрономом. если вы меня примете в школу бизнеса, я потом обязательно постраюсь как-нибудь выйти в открытый космос.

Quality Concepts

In the story of my RIT career, a special place will have to be dedicated to my nemesis, one of my business professors, let's call him Mr. P.J. He taught several of the Quality Concepts classes, a series all incoming business students were required to take.

Mr P.J. professed an informal approach to teaching, but decidedly didn't get it when I, trying to learn, reflected back to him the informality that he projected. Note the use of fonts in his assignment and the particular request at the end "to explore hitherto unexplored attributes and traits of your own self." I got in trouble with him (in another paper) for using funny fonts, and I daresay my reference to Voltaire here, in the futile attempt to describe my personality, didn't gain me any points with him.
He gave me a C for this draft, which was not acceptable. If I remember correctly, I got the whole dorm helping me revise this draft. It worked so well that then Mr. P.J. accused me of plagiarism. I was angry. In a personal meeting, I tried to explain to him how much work I put into it. I guess he believed me, though I don't remember him outright saying so. He let me pass the class with a B. This was one of only two Bs in my college career. The rest were As, and I graduated with the highest honors at the top of my class.
Mr. P.J.'s biggest offense though was that he decidedly did not get my sense of humor. I found myself pretty hilarious and made sure to spice each paragraph with a joke or two.

bucket brigade

the international student organization at RIT provided its own orientation and organized events to help us connect with one another. as one of the first activities, we were given team t-shirts and directed to the athletic fields. there, on the green, hundreds of locals already gathered and stood in loose rows, waiting for something to happen.
our "peer advisor leaders" (international sophomores who volunteered to help the freshmen) explained that RIT was trying to break a Guinness world record. the words "bucket brigade" meant nothing to me. I may have conflated the words "bucket" and "basket" and imagined a rounded wicker thing for gathering mushrooms and berries. "brigade" I pictured as a military unit, a small group of horsed riders with sabres.
but nothing at all was happening. we were standing, out in the field, in the full heat of the day, waiting. perhaps we were trying to form the world's longest line. to keep kids from getting bored, somebody turned on a boombox and we all danced the Macarena.
RIT archives explain, "In 1996, as part of the freshman Orientation program, a group interactive activity was held on the athletic fields. RIT students, faculty, staff and alumni attempted to break a Guinness world record for the longest fire bucket brigade. Teaming up with the Henrietta Volunteer Fire Company and Mumford Fire Department along a 2.5 mile course from a fire hydrant on campus, firefighters filled 50 two-gallon buckets from their hoses."
if I saw a fire hydrant, I wouldn't have known what it was. being in the middle of the line, I don't remember seeing either that or the fire department vehicles. at some point somebody handed me a white plastic bucket, very clean, half filled with clean water. I passed it on to the kid next to me. a few more buckets came my way. I remember thinking how bad it was for the grass, all of us trampling on it, spilling water on it in the full heat of the day. the grass was bound to get burned.
(fire hydrants, sprinklers: file as technology new to me)
there's a Russian saying, "to pour from an empty cup into another empty cup," used to describe a repetitive action that adds nothing to nothing (idle talk, for instance). I was so eager to do something! I wanted some action I could write home about.


In August 1996, Rochester was oppressively hot and humid. The heat caused me considerable discomfort the following summer, and during all three summers that I spent in Rochester without air-conditioning, but when I think of my first summer days in Rochester, it's not the heat that comes to mind, but the cold.
I'd never been exposed to air-conditioning before. I'd hardly been aware of the existence of air-conditioning as a practical technology outside of science fiction novels. Not even my father's car had an air-conditioner. For one week a year when the weather in St. Petersburg climbed into the 70s, people took cold showers and made cold soup for dinner.
Every indoor space in Rochester seemed air-conditioned on high (except, later, it turned out, student housing). My host parents took me to Wegmans, K-Mart, Sam's Club, and all I remember is being extremely uncomfortable and wanting to get back outside into the heat. From the store to the back seat of the car, where I was also too cold. I soon learned that I wasn't supposed to open the car window when the air-conditioning was on. They explained that the air-conditioning had levels, and tried to adjust the blowers just right, but I wasn't used to having a blower directed at my face, and so couldn't tell whether the temperature was too hot or too cold. It was just wrong.
When the time came to go to orientation at RIT, I put on my stockings and heels, suffering through the day of being alternatively too cold inside and too hot outside. How did people manage stockings in these conditions? It turned out, they didn't. Most of the students around me, men and women, wore jeans with something that looked like oversized pajamas on top. T-shirt was a new word in my vocabulary. Another new word: sneakers. These were what I considered gym shoes. Few women wore make-up, unless they put it on so carefully that I didn't even notice.
I recalled having a conversation with a friend, back in St. Petersburg, about her aging grandmother, who, though she hadn't left the house in some years, began each day by putting on her powder and mascara and lipstick. "She just doesn't feel like a human being without it," my friend said. We both agreed: her grandmother was a strong old lady who didn't allow old age to get to her. Wearing make-up to one's dying day was the example of womanhood to aspire to.
The college students around me decidedly treated the college as though it was some kind of country village. The whole atmosphere was very country side. People rode their bikes, lay down to rest on the lawn, and, to my amazement, some even took off their shoes in the classrooms. Campus buildings were surrounded by nature: woods on one side of the property, swamp on the other. I saw a squirrel! There was talk of deer! Having spent every summer of my life in the countryside fifty kilometers north of Petersburg, I'd never seen a deer in my life.
My host family had a decently sized back yard, and it was a sign of true luxury that all of the plants they grew were purely decorative. They could've grown tomatoes and cherries and plums, but they didn't need to.
When the sun neared the horizon, the smell of freshly mowed grass stood in the air. The full sky was brightly lit with stars. I heard chirping of a myriad of voices, which from novels about Ukraine, I decided must've been the cicadas. It was a shame to have to sleep behind the closed window, but because of the air-conditioning, the windows were supposed to stay closed. Intimidated by the machinery of the blinds, I kept them shut too.


в штатах частенько слышишь о подростках, которые режут себя. режут, видимо, бритвами или ножиками, по коже на руках, ногах, так, чтобы не слишком заметно или можно было закрыть одеждой. у меня для этого были прыщи и ногти. и ежедневный ритуал, перед сном, когда уже все в доме легли, закрывшись в ванне часа этак на два. прыщей было много, на лбу, носу, на груди и спине, но и их иногда не хватало, и тогда отыскивались ещё невидимые прыщи, которые надо было расковырять. впрочем, со временем прыщей становилось всё больше и больше. раскавыривались они, естественно, до крови, чем больнее, тем лучше
замечательно, что на следующий день кожа успевала подзатянуться и на кровоподтёки от прыщей никто особо не обращал никакого внимания: ну прыщи и прыщи, подростковое дело, пройдут сами. иногда мама или бабушка пыталась завести разговоры, что, наверное, не надо вот так вот уж. иногда в школе кто-нибудь скажет, "а кто это тебя так побил?" ну и потом я сама старалась лицо уж особенно не трогать, а фокусировалась на груди, плечах, даже до спины пыталась добраться. для этого и в ванной не надо было запираться. сидишь над домашним заданием, решаешь задачку, а вот он тут прыщ, сам под ноготь просится -- и вот тут целые пятнадцать минут пролетели, и ещё пятнацать.
в штатах это считается признаком депресии, частенько идёт бок о бок с анорекисей или булимией, проблемами body image. понятно, что в те годы в росссии с слов-то таких мы не знали. как вот, напр, этот body image переводится на русский? меня называли нервной, плаксой, "чрезвычайно эмоциональной девочкой, у которой, если она не научится контролировать себя, будут в жизни большие проблемы." понятно, что чем больше я пыталась себя контролировать, тем больше прыщей у меня находилось на груди.
родные говорили, ты же красивая девочка, что ты с собой делаешь? красивая? до сих пор я не могу слышать это слово, меня так и тянет найти у себя какой-нибудь хоть мало-мальский прыщик, который можно было бы вскрыть. слово красота указывала на мир ценностей, в котором я была телом, которое надо было уметь "подавать." причём подавать с умом, я же ведь была ещё и очень умной девочкой.
грудь у меня выглядела так, что, когда я начала встречаться с бойфрендом летом 1996, перед отъездом в штаты, страшно было представить себе её обнажённой на свету. было слишком стыдно. так что свитер или что-то там я не снимала, лучше пусть считает меня недотрогой.
в штатах, кстати, стало легче потому, что не надо было больше скрываться от родных, ну и вообщена некоторое время желание причинить себе боль поутихло. но прыщи не проходили, так что, когда надо было сделать что-то трудное, написать там сочинение или презентацию, за которые не хотелось браться -- прыщи всегда были под рукой, и можно было как следует поковыряться.
ближе к тридацати годам я решилась-таки сходить к дерматологу, кот прописал мне антибиотики, от которых прыщи, наконец, прошли.
а сейчас, ближе к сорока я решилась-таки пойти к психотерапевту, в результате разговоров с которым я начинаю понимать, что страхам надо учиться глядеть в лицо.
пост этот, думаю, принадлежит в категорию ‪#‎янебоюсьсказать‬ или что-то около, потому что писать его было страшно. опять-таки, подозреваю, что я была далеко не одна такая, и описанное выше -- вполне общий случай. общий случай, когда кажется проще причинить себе боль, чем вслух высказать свои чувства собеседнику, без страха за такую откровенность как-то оказаться наказанной.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

cotton wool

the incident with the cats was fresh in my mind when I made it to Sears at the Marketplace Mall in Henrietta to buy my bedding, the sheets, the pillows, the blanket. i was moving into the dorms, and I needed everything.
what I wanted was a regular blanket, you know, the regular simple plain everyday blanket. I had had one at home. it had been just perfect, not too thin, not too thick, though it was thick enough, and so worked in the winter to keep the cool air out and in the summer to keep the cool air in. just the regular blanket please.
do you need help miss?
(I'm just looking for a blanket. not too thin, not too thick. made of packed cotton wool. "cotton-wool" is not in my vocabulary. slip cover please needs to be separate, so that it could be washed on a regular basis. "slip cover" is not a concept in my vocabulary.)
what we have are quilts throws fleece fleece throws plush throws downs comforters -- what exactly are you looking for?
Sears, according to my host family, was the quintessential American store that would carry anything I may have wanted at a reasonable price.
(the marketplace mall, i loved learning, has a particular distinction of having been the inspiration for Nicholson Baker's novel Mezzanine -- the novel that takes place in its entirety on an escalator ride to the second floor of a mall.)
two hours later, having studied the labels to each type of blanket in the store, having touched the blankets that weren't wrapped in plastic at all the options, i ended up deciding that too thin was much better than two thick. without the slip cover I would need to wash the thing regularly, and the experience of washing that thick comforter in my host parents' bathroom had been far from ideal.
cotton wool. how come it was not a thing in America? during my periods, a length of cotton wool was the only thing that worked at night, to absorb the extra heavy flow. what did American women do? lining up two or three pads always left room for blood to escape. virgins weren't supposed to use tampons. virgin or not, tampons weren't meant to be left in there for upwards twelve hours. i had some stock of rolls of cotton wool with me, but when i ran out, I was a mess.

и то, и то

писателей современной американской прозы учат выстраивать характер героини (или героя, но тут не наш случай) через нарратив её поступков, её действий. пошла в консульство, получила визу, попрощалась с друзьями, села в самолёт, полетела в Америку.
движет развитием сюжета некий конфликт, внутренний или внешний, или серия конфликтов, которые героиня решает. в ходе действия рассказа, а тем более романа, с героиней должно произойти существенное изменение. была неопытной -- приобрела жизненный опыт. или: была неопытной девочкой из города из страны за железным занавесом -- получила шанс посмотреть на себя и свой мир со стороны -- испугалась -- решила забыть о родном городе о стране как о страшном сне. или: не осозновала своей привязанности к дому, друзьям, родным -- оторвавшись ото всех, оказавшись среди непонятных и неблизких людей, осознала глубину своей привязанности к дому. но ни в коем случае не: никак не могла принять решение, всюду казалось интересно и было хорошо и там, и там, делала успехи в понимании незнакомой жизни и одновременно писала письма друзьям и родным, старалась не потерять контакта и общего языка. такой ответ не годится даже как устный рассказ. когда я приезжала в питер и меня спрашивали, а где тебе больше нравится? неужели не скучаешь по дому? (или наоборот, дом, наверное, совсем забыла?) и я отвечала, мне и там, и там хорошо -- собеседники мне не верили, одни решали, что я умираю с тоски, другие -- что я уже стала совсем американкой и далеко оторвалась от питерской жизни.
не устаю радоваться, что жизнь живётся не по правилам литературной мастерской, и что кроме нарративного мышления, т.е. мышления, кот из жизненного опыта конструирует рассказы по принципам популярных литературных жанров, есть и другие. да и кроме романов и рассказов, у нас есть и другие жанры, например, анекдоты Хармса.
среди моих университетских бумаг -- фотокопия каких-то старинных переводов Харма, кот я пыталась зачитывать своим новым американским друзьям. они, хоть убей, не понимали, о чём это и к чему. вот, например, первый из хармсовских анекдотов о Пушкине:
Pushkin was a poet and was always writing something. Once Zhukovsky caught him at his writing and exclaimed loudly: --You're not half a scribbler!
From then on Pushkin was very fond of Zhukovsky and started to call him simply Zhukov out of friendship.
сейчас, честно говоря, и я сама уже с трудом вспоминаю, почему в 1996 вот это казалось самым важным

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

life in suburbia

I don't know if the writing skills I've acquired in these twenty years are quite enough to describe the confusion I felt when in 1996, age seventeen, I was overnight transported from post-Perestroika Petersburg to suburban America.
Directly from the airport, my host family took me to Wegmans. The international news reports had so recently been filled with the lines for bread and milk in Russia, and they wanted to show me the best of what America had to offer. (Wegmans is a Rochester-based supermarket chain that was just coming into its prime.) I saw my host parents' desire to please, to impress, and I was duly impressed, no doubt, and I wanted to be grateful. I was also disturbed. Did they think I came to America for the food?
What I came to America for I couldn't have expressed succinctly if asked, but it had something to do with Mark Twain, Jack London, Mayne Reid, even Jules Verne and Alexander Dumas -- all the adventure literature I'd read as a child.
Food wasn't it, but food certainly overwhelmed. "What do you like to eat for breakfast?" my host parents asked. I didn't know how to answer this question. Whatever was available? "Buckwheat" was not yet in my vocabulary, and I didn't particularly want buckwheat. On Sundays, my father used to make eggs sunny-side-up with "hunters sausage"--but that was my father's specialty, and nobody, not I, not my mother, not either of my grandmothers, could quite replicate it. Anyway, I didn't come to America to eat what I was used to. What I was used to was boring; I wanted to try new things.
The host family set out a couple of boxes of cereal in front of me. Probably something like chex and apple jacks and cinnamon toast crunch. The cinnamon taste I decidedly didn't like; everything else was sweet and delicious. Once they left me alone in the house--eventually, in the two weeks that I stayed with them, they had to go to work--I went through every open box in the pantry and every open container in the fridge, trying and re-trying everything. I knew what I was doing was wrong: I was binging and I couldn't stop myself; I was sneaking in foods I hadn't been specifically offered--and I couldn't stop myself. I had few distractions from the fridge. There was nowhere to go from the house without a car. My host family had given me access to a computer and explained how to use a modem, but I didn't fully get it and, anyway, I had only one email address with me--my father's--and I had already written to him. Once I got some paper, I wrote letters to my friends, trying to turn my recent experiences into funny anecdotes. I browsed through the TV channels and watched a couple of shows without understanding what was going on. There were few books in the house, and, anyway, I didn't think my English was good enough to attempt a serious book. The couple of Russian-language books I'd brought with me seemed too outlandish to read in my present circumstances.
One other detail stands out from those two weeks. There were cats in the house--to me, entirely alien beings. I'd never been around cats before, and these two, I now understand, must've missed the previous inhabitant of my room, my host parents' daughter who'd gone off to college. They came into the room looking for her and climbed onto her bed. Of grief, one of them peed onto the blanket. When I discovered the puddle, I was terrified. Was something wrong with the cats? What did I do wrong? What would my host parents think of me? I couldn't face the idea of greeting them when they came home with, "I'm sorry, dear host parents, I'm loving my time in your house, and thank you for being such lovely hosts, but pardon me for saying so, one of your cats peed on my bed today." I didn't want to embarrass them, I didn't want to create a situation, I didn't want to attract even more attention to myself than they were already giving me, I didn't want to admit to not understanding all the things I didn't understand. They already had a lot to explain to me, a lot that I wasn't getting.
I don't know why I couldn't tell them the truth. I just couldn't. So I did the simplest thing I could do: I lugged the blanket to the bathroom and washed the peed-on part in the sink with hand soap. The blanket was a thick down comforter I'd never before encountered and had no idea of how such a thing could possibly be washed. I don't think my host parents had showed me the dryer yet, and even if they did, I would've been to scared to try using it on my own. Having washed the part of the comforter that got wet, I wrung it by hand as well as I could and then put it back on my bed. It was thick and it didn't dry well. I felt lucky that they didn't notice anything was off when they got home, and the cats seemed fine.
That night, I woke up wet and freezing in the middle of the night. My nightgown had soaked through. The airconditioner (another completely new piece of machinery to me) was on high. I got dressed, sneaked to the fridge for some milk and a piece of cheese, and then slept the rest of the night on the rug next to the bed. It was a comfortable cushy rug, perfectly clean except for some cat hair, and it seemed just the right thing for me. With rugs like that, who needed beds? Come the next day, when the comforter started to dry, the cat came back and peed on it again.
Don't get me wrong. I knew that, with time, I would learn and get used to all that seemed alien and strange at the moment. I knew these were misunderstandings I would eventually laugh about. Nevertheless, I was hugely relieved when the time came to move to the dorms.


выйдя из консульства с американской визой в паспорте (16.8.1996) я прислонилась к какой-то стене, вынула паспорт из пакета и стала смотреть: все ли буковки прописаны, всё ли в порядке? читаю -- и замирает сердце. в графе Sex проставлена буква M. вот же моя фотка с длинными волосами и имя Olga, ан нет, М. что делать?
за полтора года до этого мои родители впервые собрались съездить в Хельсинки. взяли нас с собой. дело к ночи, на таможне огромная очередь. в конце концов, приближаемся к границе. папа отдаёт паспорта пограничнику, и тут выясняется, что никто не подумал о том, что т.к. мне только что исполнилось 16, мне нужна собственная виза. пограничники увели родителей в офис. в моей памяти -- часы ожидания. даже если и совсем непонятно, чего ждать от Хельсинки, за спиной -- проделанная дорога, часы ожидания, и чем дольше тут стоишь, тем больше представляется потеря, если придётся заворачивать обратно. время, силы, надежды, всё напрасно. а почему? только потому, что вот, оказывается май идёт после февраля и почему-то мир так по-дурацки устроен, что после полуночи принцесса превращается в золушку.
так и тут. М ну и М. я и сама о себе частенько думала, как об М. писала стихи от лица М. тем не менее. мне было уже семнадцать лет и за плечами какой-никакой опыт. а как прилечу я в Нью-Йорк, а там посмотрят на мой паспорт и на меня, и как завернут меня обратно? вернулась в консульство, попросилась внутрь без очереди. указала на ошибку. мне сказали, упс, приходите за паспортом на след неделе.
американское консульство находилось в паре кварталов от мат школы, которую я только что закончила. так и не получив паспорт, я пошла проведать школу. вечер в пятницу, двери плотно закрыты. впрочем, в школе мне было нечего делать. уже чуть ли не во время выпускных меня перестали узнавать охранники, не хотели пускать внутрь. не прошло и два месяца, и мат школа снова стала мне казаться неприступной крепостью, как когда-то во время поступления. вообще, в центре петербурга на меня нападало ощущение нелегальности: какое право девочка с окраин имеет на всё это? я не сдавалась, присваивала, снова и снова повторяла, я здесь родилась, я здесь выросла, мой город, моя река, моя школа, мои дворцы музеи сады тротуары серое небо университет большой дом заводы станции метро фонари книжные магазины. потом, в Рочестере я без конца объясняла всем знакомым, делала презентации, писала сочинения на тему, какой петербург замечательный город. заканчивались они примерно так: "не думаю, что вы туда когда-нибудь попадёте, но на всякий случай, имейте в виду. самое лучшее время для посещений -- июнь."
в тот вечер разбираться мой или не мой город не было сил. вообще с родными не прощаются, решила я. надо было на метро, по магазинам, готовить ужин.
американскую визу я, в результате, получила за три дня до отъезда.

Effective Communications

This composition is from winter or spring freshman year. When I write "occasionally" I mean "accidentally," and when I say "set off" I mean "turned off," etc etc.
(This assignment clearly didn't count for very much because I didn't have anyone proofread it.)
Later on, I got a third alarm clock.
Olga Zilberbourg's photo.
Olga Zilberbourg's photo.

calling my father

The reason I moved into the dorms so late, arriving there a full month after classes had started in August 1996, was that, according to the arrangement my father had made with the international student office, I was supposed to stay with a local Rochester family for the first year of my college career.
We had corresponded with the family ahead of time. They picked me up from the airport and drove me around town before showing me to their daughter's room, available after their daughter went off to Cornell in Ithaca just a few days earlier. They introduced me to their son, a high school senior, the grandmother who lived in her own apartment in the same house, and two cats. Two days later, they gently asked me whether I was planning to buy a car. A car? I laughed. My father had just bought his first car a couple of years earlier; buying a car was a major life event that surely came after graduation, marriage, apartment, and children.
How was I going to get to RIT then? The family lived in Penfield; RIT was in Henrietta; to get from one to the other I would need to take a bus to downtown Rochester, and from there to the suburban mall, where RIT's shuttle made a stop every hour. In the best case scenario, the route would take me two and a half hours one way. By car, it would take twenty five minutes, but they were not prepared to drive me, back and forth, for the whole year.
What to do? I was raised on my grandparents' stories of overcoming difficulties. My grandmother who survived the Leningrad blockade told a story about how during the war, when the trams had stopped, she had to walk for over an hour in the snow to get to work and an hour back. That narrative was prescient in my mind, and yet I could not quite fathom spending five hours in the bus each day. With a sinking heart, I asked my host parents if they had the bus schedules.
Why don't you call your father and ask if he would agree for you to move into the dorms? my host father suggested. (My host parents had hosted international high school students before, and they knew to speak slowly and in full clauses.)
The idea of calling my father terrified me. I had only been away from home for three days and placing this international call so soon after my departure felt like a major failure. I knew that the call would instantly alarm my entire household. My grandparents were likely to pick up the receiver and wouldn't let me talk to my father directly until I told them first what was wrong. Once I did, their confusion and fear for me would know no bounds. The whole arrangement of staying with the host family had been made just so I wouldn't have to stay in the dorms. Staying with a family and out of the dorms had been the key point, how my parents could convince themselves and my grandparents to let me go away in the first place. My grandparents had had enough of communal living in their lives, and they were forever marred by the experience. In the American dorms, I would surely be exposed to drugs, sex, AIDs. No dorms for the precious child, never. Clearly, they had been justified in thinking it a mistake to let the girl go to the United States. What a wild place it was turning out to be!How was it possible that a major university in a major city had not a better bus service? Surely, the girl had misunderstood something. Surely she was too young and too clueless to fend for herself. My grandparents would prevail and that would be the end of my American adventure. Next thing I knew, I would be on the plane back to Petersburg. Would they let me stay for at least two full weeks?
My host father gently pushed the telephone receiver into my hand and dialed the international connection. The telephone rang. I don't remember who picked up first. My father got to the phone. As coherently as I could, I explained the situation. I remember hearing my grandparents voices in the background, asking, "How is she? How is she?"
"I don't know what to tell you," my father said. "I'm here, and you're there. Do what you think is best."
The conversation didn't go on much longer after that. International telephony was expensive, and the connections scratchy with static. I hung up the phone and turned to my host parents. The decision was mine to make. "Ok. I'm moving into the dorms."
"We'll help you buy everything you'll need," they said.
The actual move, however, took a month to execute. By the time I showed up in the residential facility office, it turned out that no rooms were immediately available. RIT didn't keep a very good track of the dorm spaces they'd assigned. They had rooms, they just didn't know which ones. At the time, something like 60% of incoming freshman class dropped out in the first quarter. I would have to wait until the administration figured out who was still there and who'd already left.
Freshmen who needed housing were temporarily placed in a hotel just off the property. I spent full two weeks with my host family; then, for the next two weeks, I moved into the hotel, sharing a room with a girl from Jamaica.


о том, насколько нарратив отъездов и возвращений витал в воздухе в 90ых, можно судить, в частности, по опусу "навсегда", который я сочинила в сентябре 1992 г, в возрасте 13 лет.
спустя 20 лет после отъезда, моя героиня возвращается домой и устраивается учительницей астрономии в родную школу. оказывается, её карьера великого ... астронома (?!) не состоялась из-за невнимательности. "Тогда в одной из последних операций ты упустила действие и..."
героиня становится учительницей и отвергает вернувшегося кавалера, таинственного Тера, ради благоприобретённого во время отсутствия равновесия. ("В твоём обществе я становлюсь такой же нервной, как в седьмом классе, а я с таким трудом приобрела равновесие.") О месте, где она провела 20 лет, сказано немного, но достаточно: университет в другом городе.
сюжет вполне себе по оводу и узнику замка иф, не слишком внимательно прочитанным.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

mapping Rochester

in August 1996, on my Russian map of the world, Rochester, NY looked like a big black dot on the shore of lake Ontario: a city with over a million people. as my father was quick to remind me, in the Soviet Union, a city with over a million residents qualified for the construction of the underground metro. (In contemporary Russia, seven cities have at least one-line subways).
My family members tried to locate Rochester in an encyclopedia and in an atlas. Information was scant. My grandmother with the atlas reported that Rochester lay nearly on the same latitude as Yalta, Crimea: I was going far, far South! A good thing, because I had no room for a winter jacket in my luggage.
I couldn't think "Rochester" without picturing Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre: English, noble with major character flaws, blind.
What else did I know? The names of all the five Great Lakes--we'd memorized them for an exam in my English class. The Pathfinder, a much-beloved novel by James Fenimore Cooper, was set on the shore of Lake Ontario. Niagara Falls.
I recall being surprised that "New York" was a name of a state, as well as a city. I recall being confused about the nature of "states" (America is America is America.) I recall hearing rumors that cities in the US were so clean, people wore white socks outdoors.
Adventurers before me had set forth on far less information.
Rochester, however, turned out nearly beside the point. The town I landed in was Henrietta, NY, where Rochester Institute of Technology's campus was located.
Oh, and speaking of James Fenimore Cooper, let's not forget Mark Twain's essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." According to Twain, Cooper commits 114 out of possible 115 offenses against literary art. To summarize, Twain didn't think much of Cooper's attention to detail.

Olga Zilberbourg's photo. 
Olga Zilberbourg's photo.

огни большого города

Отправив меня в Штаты в 1996ом году, моя семья начала заботиться о том, чтобы держать меня в курсе петербургской жизни. Родные слали мне вырезки из местных газет. Вырезок у меня накопилось много, одна чудеснее другой. Вот, например, статья (от, согласно пометке на газете, 24/10/96) о создании памятника фонарям разных эпох у Смольного. Что ж, идея хорошая.


in Dave's portrait circa 1996 one detail that soon fascinated me was the pager. I don't think I noticed it right away -- to notice, one must be aware as I had not been -- but eventually the pager attracted attention to itself. it would beep, Dave would tinker with the device attached to the belt of his jeans, and then reach for the nearest phone.
a junior, Dave was juggling three jobs. his main gig was off campus: he managed computers for a Rochester realtor who worked with low income and veterans housing projects. Dave didn't have a car, and took a bus to work, and, on occasion, his boss would drive him home. Dave's second job was on campus. Ethernet had just been laid to the residential halls, and students who had computers could connect to it. Dave took shifts to answer all the tech support questions that came up. His third job took up most of the floor space in his and Jason's room. He would custom-build computers for people, ordering all the boards and the cases separately and then assembling them all at once. The end result was a lot cheaper than a ready-made computer, and there was a decent profit margin in it for Dave.
(when I visited Dave in that room, the only place to sit was the bed, and to get to the bed, one had to kind of jump over the computer carcasses. I came over, climbed onto Dave's bed, Jason would put on a movie from his side of the room, and we would watch something while Dave half-watched, half-worked.)
"wouldn't your time be better spent studying?" i would ask him, meaning that if he studied hard, did well in school, and got a great job, he would have a greater earning potential down the road.
"i learn more at work that I do at school," Dave said.
i doubted that answer, but the fact was that most of the students at RIT worked, men and women. the food services, the library, the academic and admissions offices, pretty much every office relied on student labor--and kids with cars delighted that they could hold off-campus jobs that paid more.
one of my mentors in the international student program, a sophomore from India -- let's call him A for the purposes of this narrative (I'm working up to writing more about him) -- suggested that I was a spoiled privileged brat because not only had I never worked a day in my life, but I also claimed that none of my classmates in Russia worked. (there had been sordid rumors about a couple of kids who'd started working at the end of high school. nobody talked about this directly, not in 1996. tutoring was one thing, but serving food and even selling computer parts was another. service jobs seemed somehow embarrassing for future mathematicians and engineers.) seventeen, without a job? according to A, it turned out that I and all of my friends must've been not only incredibly rich, but also very lazy. don't even rich kids sometimes want to have their own income?
when I tried to convince A that in the Soviet Union people didn't commonly work until after the university, or at least, until after third or fourth year in the university, he laughed in my face. "You're such a daddy's girl."
that I couldn't deny. And yet, I didn't think his description of me as privileged fit, but in our many, many conversations about this, in person and in email, I could not convince him otherwise. at least I could prove to him that I wasn't lazy. i started thinking about getting a job.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

desire vs decision

хотела ли я или не хотела уехать в Штаты в 1996ом году? мне было семнадцать лет, сама себе я казалась взрослым человеком.
в Рочестере меня с первого дня начали спрашивать Why did you decide to come to the US? меня этот вопрос вгонял в ступор. мои русскоязычные читатели, наверное, легче могут понять, как можно оказаться в Америке, не приняв ни одного решения. когда в феврале 1996г родители подняли вопрос, а не стоит ли попробовать поступить куда-нибудь в одной из англоязычных стран, я согласилась, ну почему бы не попробовать. от такой пробы до отъезда было как до луны. ну попробовали и забыли. а когда за пять дней до отъезда я получила визу, отступать было уже поздно. какие уж тут решения. (если верить дневнику, то создаётся впечатление, что единственным решением, кот я принимала было: брать или не брать с собой . . . дневник)
но вот хотела ли я уехать? с этим тоже далеко не всё так просто. чего может хотеть человек, который верит в то, что хотеть чего-то слишком сильно -- это значит сглазить, а мало хотеть -- проворонить?
в дневнике на этот счёт много всякой всячины.
"Америка -- свободная страна." наверное, хотела?
"я сейчас фантазирую: какие лица будут у моих друзей, когда я скажу, что уезжаю. В этом я вижу как бы вид мщения." скорее всего, не хотела (хотела, чтобы мои друзья не спорили со мной, когда я навязывала им книжки.)
мечтая о развитии отношений с мальчиком, в которого влюблена: "я всё время обрываю сеюя: лучше и не мечтай, не фантазируй, ты всё равно уезжаешь." отъезд -- как конец всего, обрыв.
но тут же и: "я страшно хочу уехать. искательство приключений -- вот, что мною движет и не надо придумывать никаких новых слов и определений. Приключения необходимы человеку, а мой возраст для этого самый подходящий."
"у меня есть новый горизонт -- Америка. Ведь там я не буду заниматься никакой математикой, а стану экономом. Что-нибудь в этом роде. За границей люди другие. Там меня ценят. Оценят." хм.
а накануне первого тура президентских выборов, "от результатов которых зависит моё будущее", я пишу вот что:
"Боюсь чего-нибудь определённого хотеть -- пусть всё будет как будет."
иными словами, Америка -- это открытый космос. а хотение оказывается тяжёлой эмоциональной работой, к которой я не готова. избавьте меня пожалуйста от неё. пусть всё будет как будет.