Tuesday, August 16, 2016


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.

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