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Winter Games

There was only one significant Summer Olympiad in my life https://oldladywriting.com/2020/08/09/personal-best/ , if I do not count the 1924 Paris Games, portrayed so gloriously in my favorite movie, “Chariots of Fire”—and, predictably, the occasional gymnastics competition that I caught when spouse (most decidedly not a fan) was not watching.  But, I have tried to see the Winter Olympics every time, and when they suddenly showed up in 1994 after only two years, it was an extra dose of excitement for me.

Coincidentally, the first Winter Olympics also came in 1924, but if there is an awesome movie about that, I am not aware.

I like to watch pretty much every winter sport with, again, a very predictable exception of curling.  Some of it might be going back to the fact that in the limited TV offerings of my Soviet childhood, European and maybe even world championships of figure and speed skating, alpine and Nordic skiing and, of course, hockey took up a lot of viewing time.  If something similar was going on in the summer, I cannot comment—summers were not spent in front of TV. 

The first Winter Olympics I watched were the 1984 Sarajevo Games, they of the incredible Torville and Dean’s Bolero.   Although we had more channels than I was used to, still, this was before cable and all of the other choices we have today, and my parents would not have missed the Olympics.    It was a great time, seeing familiar sports (because to this day I have no concept of American football, and understand that baseball is basically an opportunity to enjoy a hot dog for the price of a steak), and even some of the athletes familiar from the Before Times.  I may or may not have pranced around our living room to my own choreographed Bolero moves, as my love of Christopher Dean momentarily overcame my dislike of Ravel’s music.

And then came Calgary 1988.  I was in college, and in my first wonderful year of solo apartment living. Although there were many highlights, including the Jamaican bobsled team, what I remember best is that, while almost everyone left for winter break, my BFF and I, neither in possession of a TV set, would trudge to our old dorm, watch the games on the TV in the first floor lounge, and bluntly discourage any stray denizen of East Quad from attempting to change the channel.  There was one timid freshman who seemed to cherish a hope that he might glimpse some other program during this, his first big break away from home, but that was not to be in the presence of two brash Russian women.  Eventually, he succumbed and joined us in our ardent and vocal support of Katarina Witt and Alberto Tomba.

That also happened to be the week that we somehow discovered the invention of answering machines, and were making an almost daily drive to the F&M Drug Store, now defunct, to buy, try, and return them in the quest for the perfect one, and then run to the payphone during commercials to check if anyone left us any messages.  If the machine picked up after the first ring, there indeed was a message—in my case, inevitably from that moronic boyfriend who once used up the entire answering machine tape reciting the Gettysburg Address.  Overall, this technology ended up getting used more for evil than for good, especially by my grandmother, who immediately mistrusted it and assumed that recorded message in response to a call is a harbinger of doom and a sure sign that I am dead or at least in peril, for what possible reason could any human have to be away from their landline, at any age or in any circumstance?  In subsequent years, she has also been known to use up the entire tape with messages of escalating fury, usually in a span if some minutes, but in February of 1988, this new toy seemed hopeful and benign.

By 1992, I owned a TV set.  Well, more accurately, my law school boyfriend did, and Alberto Tomba temporarily replaced Matlock in his affections.  I seem to recall an unusual number of figure skating bloopers that year, with women flying out of hands of their partners and crashing into boards, people crashing on their heads, and that one female skater who fell literally every time she stood up and eventually gave up.   Curiously, I cannot find any validation for this after an afternoon of extensive research, so either my memory is terribly flawed, or there is a major decades-long cover up.  If anyone has any information, please comment!

I must add that in Winter Olympics, I do not always root for the Home Team, whatever name it might bear over the years[1].  In speed skating, I cheer for the Dutch, the historic masters and inventors of the sport.  If a Dutch skater wins, I stand and sing “Wilhelmus van Nassouwe”.  OK, sing is not what I actually do—I mostly hum with interjections of “Prinse van Oranje” and “Koning van Hispanje” at random times. And I have a shot of genever in memory of Uncle Art.  I have no idea if he enjoyed speed skating, but he was Dutch and liked genever, and that’s good enough for me.

In hockey, my loyalty is also time-honored.  My grandpa was a huge hockey fan, and a great admirer of Team Canada.  I live in Hockeytown, USA, where all the best players have always been Canadian[2].  I actually know the words to “O Canada” and cry every time I hear it, and pretend to be Canadian whenever I think I can get away with it[3].  And of course, Canadians are masters and inventors of the sport.  Canada is near, and grandpa is always is my heart and never far from my thoughts.  His saying, whenever a match outcome was less desirable was “Friendship won”.  Oh, would that everyone had his generosity of spirit!

In bobsled, I root for Jamaica—who doesn’t?

This year, the Russian Freestyle Skiing team is packed with athletes from my home town.  How cool is that?  I am not entirely sure what this event is, being that it is a newer one, but I am watching, and cheering.  I did hear one commentator acknowledge that a competitor was from Yaroslavl, which filled me with pride and joy.

Final thought:  When I asked my students whether they had any questions (after I just finished talking about regulatory compliance obligation, an understandably riveting topic that kept everyone awake), the only one they had is the only one that was at the forefront of everyone’s minds:  were Nathan Chen’s scores inflated?  Because as a professor I must always take an opportunity to educate, I responded that no, I do not think so, and that he is indeed extremely capable.  Privately, I awarded Nathan Chen extra points for skating to both Charles Aznavour and Elton John. 


[1] Currently, it is Russian Olympic Committee, but throughout the history of the modern Olympics, it competed as the Russian Empire, Soviet Union, Unified Team, Russia, and Olympic Athletes from Russia.  I am not bothered by the absence of the flag, but I miss the anthem. 

[2] Occasionally they are Russian

[3] No, I am not making a false claim to citizenship, this is just in casual conversations—don’t report me to IRCC!

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Murder at the Marsh

It never ceases to amaze me how certain things, activities, even people that seem irreplaceable are, in fact, not.  Along the lines of favorite things that no longer are, https://oldladywriting.com/2019/08/06/a-few-of-whose-favorite-things/ I once kept a list of “Things that I Loved That Got Discontinued”.  When life was less full of stuff, before a certain gazillionnaire made everything magically available for purchase online, finding a substitute for certain beloved items was much, much harder than it is today.  I have to say, though, some of these still have no parallel. 

Shanty Creek Resort, site of the below-mentioned Oktoberfest and many a ski-trip since
Not the actual photo of incomparable deliciousness, but a close approximation.

The items I miss the most are: Celestial Seasonings Irish Cream Tea, Breyer’s Vanilla Chocolate Almond Swirl Ice Cream, Peanut Butter and Jelly Pop Tarts, and Lean Cuisine Linguine with Clam Sauce.  I actually wrote to Lean Cuisine when I could not find my favorite entrée in the frozen section of my local Meijer’s, and they wrote back that it had a “small but loyal following”.  What they meant is, it was not selling well. What I read was, there are others like me, who are they, where are they, can we form a club? To this day, I have not found a more delicious linguine with clam sauce at any restaurant from North America to Italy itself.  As for tea, I visited Celestial Seasonings headquarters—which merits a separate story, because it was a magical experience—and was told roughly the same thing about the Irish Cream tea.  A pity about all these delicious foods.  Tastes are hard to replace.

Amongst the non-edible items, I miss St. Ives Henna Shampoo, although it is quite possible that I just mourn the thick hair of my younger days.  I just searched and saw it on EBay for $80, and died laughing.  That’s nothing, though—the apricot variety, with which I am not familiar, is going for $120.  I don’t know what miracles shampoo would have to perform for such price.  I would probably pay that much for the linguine with clam sauce, though—I have my priorities.

I also listed several experiences that are never to be repeated, such as the Oktoberfest weekend at Shanty Creek resort in Bellaire, Michigan—a magical weekend during which spouse fell in love with spaetzle and won an apple pie in a pumpkin seed spitting contest, and just had fun badly dancing the polka.  This was even before I liked beer!  We attempted to make it an annual tradition, but as soon as we registered for the following year, it was cancelled never to be enjoyed again.  Until we went to the original Oktoberfest in Germany—and again, our luck manifested itself, because the following year, the plague came, and Munich has not held its celebration since…

But there is nothing that I miss more than Murder Mystery Weekends.  Back in the days before all information came from the interwebs, we used to search for fun activities in the magazines.  This seems impossibly quaint now, but I remember vividly perusing the pages of AAA’s Michigan Living and uncovering all sorts of cool stuff, like the aforementioned Oktoberfest. 

Participation in murder mystery weekends required teams of three or four, and spouse and I joined forces with his parents.  This was over 20 years ago, which is shocking in itself, and remain the pinnacle of my relationship with my in-laws.  Oh, this was serious business!  We would show up at the Marsh Ridge resort in Gaylord, Michigan for a Friday night dinner, when the plot was set and the first murder would occur.  Inevitably, we missed it.  No one is that focused after a week’s work and a drive Up North.  Then the real entertainment began.

Certain rooms at the resort were designated as “crime scenes”.  Teams would be allowed to enter for a few minutes at a time.  We could question the suspects—a pointless task that was usually left to my mother in-law, as it yielded little to no results, but kept her occupied while spouse, father in-law, and I searched for clues by lifting and opening everything that could be lifted and opened.  My first move was always to lift the toilet lid.  There was never anything there. I still maintain that it’s a great hiding place.

Murders and searches would continue throughout Saturday, with a break for lunch.  It was intense, alternately frustrating and exhilarating.  At one point, my father in-law said that even when you return to your own room, you just want to tear everything up looking for clues!  Saturday after dinner, after the last desperate rummage and the last exasperated interrogation, we had to prepare and submit our detailed solution.  On Sunday at breakfast, all was revealed, and the team who solved the most crimes and found the clues was awarded the most points and was declared the winner.  I have to add that the young man by name of Jim Russell who masterminded and wrote the intricate scripts and played the chief detective who served as the sort of advisor to us hapless sleuths was an earnest and thorough host whose genuine love of the game prevented the experience from becoming the random unsolvable farce that murder mystery dinners and weekends usually are.  No, this was like the early seasons of Midsomer Murders, convoluted plots full of wacky characters, mild shocks, unexpected laughs, and satisfying conclusions. 

One of the resort rooms in all its ’90s’ glory. Note the jacuzzi tub on the left–not that anyone had time for that during the Murder Mystery weekend!

We progressed steadily up the championship ladder, ransacking hotel rooms and working our little gray cells, and finally won—of course we did!  But as is the way of things, instead of being rewarded with the grand prize of free return the following year, we were informed that the resort will no longer be hosting murder mystery weekends, and were given gift certificates for the pro shop.  We loaded up on sweatshirts, the last of which, barely worn, I just recently donated (it had neither hood nor pouch, and the sewn on logo was scratchy).  It is small wonder, because the cost of the weekend was a bargain, and the additional property damage inevitably caused by overzealous amateur investigators was not sustainable.

A couple of sad mystery-less years followed, during which spouse and in-laws and I in vain searched for a replacement.  Then the weekend was remounted, but with a different cast and crew.  It became unnecessarily challenging, and it didn’t take.  We did win the consolation prize for funniest answer with a hilarious poem which we sadly did not preserve—but the prize itself lives on, my lucky running hat which accompanied me on three half marathons, two marathon relays, and countless races from one to ten miles.  

Then I had another kid, another job, and life became busier.  The more things change, the harder they are to change back.  But I miss the utter escapism of those murder mystery weekends, and I miss the good times with my in-laws.  Both are high on the list of Things that I Loved That Got Discontinued.

Featured

Listen to the Band

I always thought that if I write the story of my life[1], there will be a chapter called “Listen to the Band”.  It would be an homage to the Monkees.  The Monkees brought me out of the haze of nostalgia and helped me refocus on what might yet be instead of what might have been, for a time.  To me, though, they were less about the music, less even about the show, but about how it was possibly the first thing in my American life that was completely mine. 

I saw the show, (in reruns, of course, for it ended in real life not just before I came to the U.S. but before I was even born), I loved it, I heard the songs, I loved them, and I pursued this interest with the methodical devotion that characterized the infatuations of my younger days.  The Monkees introduced me to the world when music was still on MTV (to quote Bowling for Soup’s stunningly accurate “1985”).  Suddenly in the middle of a decade to which I never quite belonged, they appeared like a throwback to something I could not just understand but adore. 

I have long felt that music is the last bastion of cultural appreciation (I will not say adaptation).  When learning a foreign language (brace yourself for the assessment of this non-expert and non-linguist!), first comes the visual (reading followed by writing), then the auditory understanding, then the speaking.  This is why watching TV is easier than listening to music, which has no visual cues.  By the time you can appreciate music in a foreign language for its message, you have arrived.  The Monkees’ were the first songs to which I could sing along in this foreign language, songs that were not just melodious, positive, and lovely, but with clear, understandable lyrics. 

In my actual first apartment

I was pursuing this gentle hobby in my own wholesome way, tinged with the complications of our still new[ish] immersion into the American life.  As the Monkees’ 20th anniversary tour rolled through the country, what I lacked in means and guidance, I made up in determination.  On November 14, 1986, they came to Centennial Hall in Toledo, Ohio.  I marvel now at the decision that led me to take a bus, *twice* to Toledo, first to buy my ticket, then to attend the concert.  I was literally the only person standing in the after-concert crowd, waiting for the cab to take me to the hotel where I would spend the night before heading back to Ann Arbor in the morning[2].  That seems so weird now—but I was just a freshman, and had no friends with cars, or anyone whom I could have asked to go with me.  What was I supposed to do, not go? 

It was, of course, exciting.  I saw their giant tour buses, and caught a glimpse of Micky going in.  Herman’s Hermits minus Peter Noone (loved them, love him more, though it took a few more decades), The Grass Roots (who were a no show on that date because Rob Grill had just gotten married), and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap (not a fan then, not a fan still—every song title does not need to contain a reference to the female gender) opened for the Monkees.  It is always a greater pleasure to attend a concert where you know the words to every song.  I did then, and I still do.  Every.Single.Song. The only other band whose oeuvre I know almost as well is, of course, ABBA.

The following year, Here We Come Again tour stopped in Dallas, where I was, in addition to listening to their albums and watching their show on an endless loop, whiling the time away assembling roast beef sandwiches and cleaning toilets for $3.50 an hour.  My mom took a day off from her real job to attend her first rock-n-roll concert!  It was very exciting, because we not only ran like mad to get the best lawn seats (a feat of which she is still inordinately proud), but waited afterwards to meet Davy Jones get his autograph.  Weird Al opened for them; we had no idea who he was.

This is how it started, this is what it led to https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/23/rocketman/

New music, new interests took over.  I had other things to do in the ‘90s.  And then Davy died, and suddenly, as often happens when we face our own mortality, the next Monkees reunion seemed vital not to miss.  I saw them in 2014 at the Fox Theater in Detroit, a sumptuous venue for any performer, and might have to say it was my favorite Monkees concert.  My then teenaged kid was unsurprisingly the youngest in the audience by decades, but even spouse and I seemed youngish compared to the crowd of what looked to be the “original” fans[3].  We had spectacular third row seats—perks of middle age.  Micky’s voice held up amazingly well through the years.  Peter mocked spouse, who clapped out of sync.  But the real treat was Mike.

I have never seen him before; his absence from the ‘80s tours is well known[4].  I have always preferred the two musician Monkees to the two actor Monkees (there, I’ve said it).  I loved Peter because I thought he was the most handsome and most endearing in the show; I loved Mike because musically, he seemed to march to the beat of a Different Drum (see what I did there?). Hearing Mike sing “The Door Into Summer”, “Tapioca Tundra”, “Papa Gene’s Blues”, “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” was pure magic—not just Monkee magic, but legitimate concert magic[5].  And of course, “Listen to the Band”.  No one could do it like him, and no one will again, now that he has gone on to that great big Circle Sky.  Thank you for the music, Papa Nez!


[1] Stay tuned; it’s coming.

[2] I reported to my diary that the hotel was luxurious and cost $50 and change.  It was an enormous splurge!

[3] This could be wildly inaccurate, because I have some sort of age dysmorphia, perpetually seeing myself as a college girl in my mind’s eye.

[4] I was surprised to read the account of those ‘80s concerts in my diary—apparently I felt Mike’s absence quite keenly.  I had completely forgotten that, from the get go, despite all the exhilaration, I deemed that the group was incomplete.  I was not wrong.

[5] Small complaint, big regret—I wish I could have heard him sing one of my all-time favorite songs, “Don’t Wait for Me” live.

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West End and Beyond

The great Russian writer Konstantin Paustovsky astutely noted, “A sense of nature is one of the foundations of patriotism”.   During the pandemic, while everyone was communing with nature, camping and hiking, I most assuredly was not.  I visited one national park (with mixed success) https://oldladywriting.com/2021/06/11/i-went-up-north-once-once/, did not take down my old lady bicycle from the ceiling of our garage where it has been hanging for about twenty years now, and did not take up “hiking” as a hobby.  I waited and bided my time in a Midwestern suburb until an opportunity to travel to London presented itself.

I saw five plays in seven days, which is my ideal vacation under any circumstances.  Now that the original production of “Les Miserables” has been replaced (not permanently, I fervently pray) by the abomination that is the 25th anniversary version, my London dance card is emptier.  I must clarify that at the West End, I try to see shows that I am unlikely to see anywhere else.  Unless Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen, or the not-yet-knighted David Tennant or John Simm are appearing in “Jersey Boys” or “Book of Mormon”, I am catching those when they come to Detroit.  On this trip, I even wandered out of London, to Bath and Richmond.  The theater scene even outside of the West End was breathtaking.

And here they are, in order of appearance.  Spoiler alert:  all were great.

Number One:  “Only Fools and Horses”—a delightful new[ish] musical to welcome us back to the West End.  I actually researched the current offerings for about five minutes and this one jumped out at me as something that will never make it to the US, being as it is based on what is apparently a cult favorite English sitcom from the 80’s that is not part of the BBC America repertoire.  The fact that I missed many inside show references did not diminish the enjoyment.  The shady dealer older brother, the earnest goofy younger brother, the slightly demented grandad, various other comical yet lovable characters inhabiting their corner of London, catchy tunes, fun choreography, heartwarming story, and the evident delight of the audience made me want to go out and find the original TV show.  This was met with zero success during the trip, but thank God for Brit Box.

Number Two:  “Magic Goes Wrong”—the latest installment in the “Goes Wrong” series by Mischief Theatre company.  We saw “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” at the London Apollo a few years ago (“Magic”’s current home), and it was the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life.  The woman who sat next to spouse actually confessed that she wet herself laughing, which is neither surprising nor shameful given the level of creative absurdity that starts even before the curtain goes up.  The element of surprise is gone once you have seen one of their shows—I mean, you know that everything that can go wrong will—but it is still a hilarious great fun.  Penn and Teller created the magic side of it, so there is some actual legitimate magic alongside the bumbling tomfoolery.  I suppose *that* is the surprise.

Number Three:  “Blue/Orange”—a snapshot of the British mental health system (which seems as woefully deficient as the American one), full of dark humor and unnerving exchanges, with racial tension in the mix.  On a Tuesday evening, the little theater in Bath was packed, which did my heart good.  In this version, the character with the most authority of the three was played by a Black actor, which shifted the power dynamic to an intriguing level.  Like “Art”, this is a play I would want to see again and again to continue to analyze its many nuances.

Number Four:  “Abigail’s Party”—a 70’s comedy of manners.  I saw it once before, in Belfast, and wondered then why such a juicy acting opportunity is not presented in the US.  On second viewing, I have to concede that, while there is tremendous joy in period costumes and set, the play is very British.  It is not just a play set in a specific decade, but in a specific place (I, of course, appreciate every Demis Roussos reference).  But I still think that the crafted written characters can stand well enough on their own, and you do not have to be British or have lived through the decade to appreciate this powerful dark[ish] satire of the middle class pretenses.  It is a bit of a precursor to “The God of Carnage”, to my mind.  (And how many Yasmina Reza can one post contain?)

Number Five:  “Private Lives”—which needs no introduction.  I am well familiar with this play both on its own and through “Moon Over Buffalo”.  Like “Art” (there I go again!), I have seen it in three countries—and like with “Art”, I traveled to England to see Nigel Havers in it.  Of course, he was marvelous as Elyot, as he is in everything he does—and Patricia Hodge as Amanda was an extra treat. 

This time, I was determined to meet him, waited at the stage door, and was shocked when he actually came out—and there was no one to converge on him but me and the trailing spouse.  You would think that I would have used this opportunity to shine with my witty repartee and winning personality.  You would be wrong—I have no such gifts.  Spouse said that I should have prepared and rehearsed a speech.  Son asked if mentioned how much we appreciated his performance in “Art”.  But of course not—I blurted out that I came all the way from Detroit to see him on my birthday (sort of endearing), and went on for a bit about how much I loved him in “Chariots of Fire”.  While I did not mention that I have literally seen the film over fifty times in the theater and can recite it verbatim (which is apparently more annoying than charming, as my family tells me), I inanely informed him that I have a “Chariots of Fire” luggage tag on my suitcase.  https://oldladywriting.com/2021/09/27/adventures-of-a-suitcase/ What a dork!  Having followed Nigel Havers’ career for forty years, having even read his autobiography twice (“Playing with Fire”; highly recommended), that was the best I could do under pressure.  Well, I suppose I could have done worse.  (Someone, please tell me how I could have done worse!)  I am consoling myself that I excel in a more intimate discussion setting.  Next time, next time…

Honorable mention:  Upon returning home, I had the opportunity to see “Pretty Woman” the musical.  My assessment of the show:  the seats at the Fisher Theater in Detroit are the most comfortable ones.

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Adventures of a Suitcase

Whenever I see my suitcase arrive at the luggage carousel, I am genuinely surprised.  No, really, I literally speak to it.  I say something along the lines of “Welcome, you made it!” or “Fancy meeting you here!” or “Thank you for not getting lost” or I might even greet it in the language of the country where we landed and say “Bienvenue” or “Quelle surprise”. 

I never expect my suitcase to arrive at the same time and place as me.  And so, its simultaneous appearance unfailingly brings joy.  You would think that I have experienced significant luggage loss.  You would be wrong.  There were those two times in the late 90s when my suitcase was delivered to my house a day late, full of dirty vacation laundry.  It was still under the Northwest regime.  Funny, everyone who flies always says that whichever airline has the monopoly in their town is notorious for losing luggage, and I, too, used to say, Northwest always loses luggage, even though it only happened twice.  But I digress.

The most recent and most dramatic missing suitcase saga took place when I flew to Budapest to meet my sister.  Yes, I was meeting my one and only sister for the first time ever at age forty, a momentous and exciting and life-changing event, but the fact that my suitcase remained at the transfer location of the world’s if not worst, then the most inconvenient airport[1] threatened to ruin everything.

This fashion bad accompanies my sister and me in all the photos of our first day in Budapest

Like a complete travel neophyte, which I am most assuredly not, I packed all my clothes and personal belonging into my checked luggage, and all the gifts for my sister and her family into the carry on.   We were spending almost an entire week together—toys for my niece could have waited.  My own clean underwear and eye makeup remover could not.  I actually cried all night—a fact of which I am decidedly not proud, but for some incomprehensible reason cannot stop from telling everyone[2].   We got up in the morning, promptly found Marks and Spencer and I purchased some clothes I still wear.  The fact that I managed to not get hurt while shopping there was a bonus. [https://oldladywriting.com/2020/11/02/the-first-spanish-trip/]

I have had more bad luck with luggage literally not completing the trip with me *without* getting lost.  One time, spouse and I were flying to Malta, if memory serves, and at the very start of our journey, right in Detroit Metro airport, were seized with uncontrollable hatred for one of our suitcases.  At that point in time, we possessed one suitcase with wheels.  The other one had no wheels [ https://oldladywriting.com/2021/04/10/meet-me-in-sistine-chapel-or-rome-second-try/%5D.  It suddenly struck us both as an unforgivable deficiency.  We spontaneously purchased a suitcase with wheels and repacked.  I stuffed the now empty wheel-less suitcase into the garbage bin of the ladies room, and worried, until we boarded our plane, that airport security will suspect it of being one of those strategically abandoned bags. 

Another time, we were traveling from London to Paris via the Chunnel.  On the walk to St. Pancras station, one of our suitcases[3], while in possession of all four wheels, unexpectedly lost a handle.  I mean, its handle came off and simply could not be reattached without tools—and who has tools in the early morning on an empty street in London while on vacation?  Spouse gamely hefted the case and carried it.  There is even a saying in Russian, “suitcase without a handle”—awkward to carry, but a pity to abandon.  Well, we were perfectly willing to abandon it by the time we arrived at the train station, after many stops and many more curses.  In fact, we were looking forward to abandoning it—but not so fast.  The replacement model in the station’s store was insanely expensive in pounds, let alone dollars.  The handle-less suitcase made its voyage to the continent.  We had better luck in Paris, and any embarrassment at packing and repacking our stuff in full view of passers-by in the middle of Gare du Nord was mitigated by relief of finally  finding four working wheels AND a handle.  A lovely French saleswoman politely inquired if we would like to take our empty bag with us.  Never have I said “Non!” with greater emphasis (though I did politely add “Merci”).

When my son was going to Austria for a summer exchange, we duly outfitted him with two suitcases.  The American group’s chaperone, a personage who generally inspired less confidence and trust in me than my 13 year old, requested printed photos of the luggage to present to the airline in the event of luggage loss.  I could not convince her that that is not how any of it works[4], and so I printed the photos of two blue suitcases well in advance of the travel date and congratulated myself on not being hostile or passive-aggressive.  Then something made one of the suitcases unavailable to travel, and it had to be replaced.  What would you do?  Exactly what I did, I bet:  put an “X” through one of the images on the photo and write “This one is now black”.

Meanwhile, my very first wheeled suitcase is still alive and relatively well.  The zipper broke, leaving it permanently expanded and unable to fit into the overhead compartment [5]. This is an non-issue, because I check it every time I travel because, as we say back in the Old Country, one who does not take risks does not drink champagne.


[1]  Paris Charles de Gaulle, as if you had to ask.

[2]  See, there I go again.  To be fair, of the three people that regularly read my writing, at least two already know this story. 

[3] Fun fact—it was the self-same suitcase that was purchased in an airport.  It did not last long.

[4] But she was persuaded that a watermelon (1) is neither uniquely American for a cultural show-and-tell in Austria nor (2) can be taken on a plane—and not because it is big and heavy and can break…

[5] See above. Did you notice the luggage tag?

Featured

Just Boil Water

Shortly after our arrival in New York, the refugee resettlement organization—it must have been NYANA, which stands for New York Association for New Americans[1]—held various acclimatization classes for adults.  Sadly, there was nothing for my age group, or for children in general, as the wisdom of the age dictated that children are infinitely adaptable in terms of language, culture, friendships, and any other upheaval to which they might be subjected.  Yet here I am, after forty years of no trauma counseling—but I digress…

My grandmother was enthralled with the woman who led the section which my grandparents attended.  Predictably, my grandfather retained nothing from it, and continued to forge his own path, as was his way in life.  He remained unapologetically unamericanized for the duration of his stay in this country and on this Earth, which was part of his charm and character.  My grandmother, also predictably, took the word of this “real American” woman, whose name is lost to time and memory, as gospel.  This group leader, let’s call her Ms. Porter for convenience’s sake (and because I really think it might have been her name), gave the newly arrived refugees a list of all the best brands of common use products, such as toothpaste, peanut butter (we had no idea what peanut butter was), cereal (shocked that people here mix this snack with milk and pretend it’s a meal), coffee, etc. 

Ms. Porter’s coffee recommendation was separated by caffeine—Folgers with, Brim without[2].  Of course, my grandparents only ever drank instant coffee.  We are not from a coffee-drinking culture, so the instant variety was always good enough and actually quite superior to the viscous chicory drink of my childhood.   My grandmother treated herself and a nine year old me to real coffee at a café a couple of times during our first summer in the Baltics.  After each occasion, we could not sleep, and the white nights did not help, so we concluded that the fancy Western indulgence is not for the likes of us.  For many years thereafter, especially for the duration of my college years, I relied on caffeine to get me through the nights of studying and last-minute paper-writing.  (And even in high school, in pre-VCR days, when a specific episode of “Rumpole of the Bailey” or the sole showing of “Duck Soup” was in the middle of the night—what else could one do but drink some instant coffee and wait?) Then I eventually developed immunity to caffeine, and learned to enjoy coffee for its taste rather than its stimulating powers.  My life has improved at least in this one subtle way.

I had the presence of mind to snap of photo before the remnants of last night’s meal disappeared completely.

If Ms. Porter assumed that none of us would own a coffee maker, at least initially, she was not wrong.  My grandmother does not have one to this day, for why indulge such decadent bourgeois habits when one can simply boil water and mix in some powder?  In fact, at some point she when through a phase of only drinking hot water.  Why, you ask?  Well, it is actually quite simple.  Say you come to someone’s house, they ask if you want something to drink, and the beverage of your choice is not available.  The visit instantly becomes awkward and disappointing.  But, everyone has water, and everyone has the means to boil it.  Voilá—the day is saved, equanimity restored[3].

However, until she came up with this vaguely practical yet somehow grim practice, grandmother maintained fierce loyalty to that list and to Ms. Porter.  For years, I have encountered her passive aggression in my bathroom (“What, you do not use Crest?  It is necessary now to use some other brand?”), but that is nothing to the disdain heaped upon my kitchen.  I actually own a coffee maker, albeit at the insistence of my American-born spouse.  Whenever my grandparents visited, grandmother would arrive with a baggie containing a premeasured amount of Folger’s instant coffee in it.  Spouse would make a pot of coffee.  Grandparents would be invited to partake.  Grandpa would be hopeful that he might.  His hopes would be instantly dashed (if you pardon the pun).  Grandma would coldly inquire if the coffee was (1) Folger’s and (2) instant.  Both requirements had to be met.   We would perpetually fail at least one of them. 

Ms. Porter’s endorsements, however handy they might have been in our first few months of American life, were probably never meant to last a lifetime.  And yet, here we are, with my grandmother still mixing those instantly soluble crystals into the water boiled on the stove top in a teapot with a hunk of silver for better purification, over forty years later.  Plus ça change…


[1] NYANA was founded in 1949 as a local arm of the Jewish United Service for New Americans to assist in the resettlement of refugees from the Holocaust coming to the United States in the aftermath of World War II…After Jews were allowed to leave the USSR in the mid-1970s, it expanded to assist large numbers of Jewish refugees from the former USSR, approximately 250,000 by 2004. 

NYANA sought from its inception to provide one-stop services to refugees, including assistance finding housing, health, mental health and family services, an English as a Second Language school, vocational training, and licensing courses in addition to legal help with immigration and adjustment. It was closed in 2008.  Source: Wikipedia

[2] Does Brim even still exist? (Judging by how hard it was to locate a picture of it, I would guess no…)

[3]Imagine, if you will, an invited guest at your house, for whose arrival you presumably prepared by stocking up on food and drink, responding thus to an offer of a beverage:  “What will you have, Rose?  Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, pop, juice, milk, beer, wine red or white, vodka, gin, any drink I can mix for you?  Just boiled water?  You are being serious right now?  Oh, you don’t want me to go to any trouble?  You don’t want to put me out? OK, boiled water for you, an Irish Coffee for me.  And I am making it a double”.  

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Bad Day in Chicago

Two years ago I had a bad day.  https://oldladywriting.com/2019/08/09/three-worst-fears/ It is not like I am commemorating it, but something got me thinking about another spectacularly bad day I had quite some years ago that had longer-lasting effects.  The peculiarity of that particular day was that the bad and odd things that happened to me were not my worst fears realized but quite the opposite—the series of unfortunate events actually generated brand new anxieties.

I was in Chicago.  I will fight my usual impulse to make a short story long, but to set the stage, I was arriving to a work conference in the Loop from a client visit in the suburbs.  As of this writing, I see that it is a distance of about 35 miles that should take just under an hour—but this writing is taking place well away from rush hour traffic.  The actual trip consisted of a series of missteps (one quite literally) that resulted in trauma both emotional and physical.  If what follows will keep just one person safer from harm, this cautionary tale will have served its purpose.

If this is in your rear view mirror, you might be heading in the wrong direction

First, if you see a bunch of very tall buildings in your rearview mirror AND the lake is on your left, you are driving *away* from Chicago.  This was in the days before GPS, but even so, if the GPS dies and you have a moment of panic, just head toward the very tall buildings.  For reasons now unknowable, I did the opposite, and immediately learned a very valuable lesson—in urban rush hour traffic, getting off at the first exit and reversing your direction is a maneuver that, while technically simple, can take hours to execute.  By the time I turned around and proceeded back on the right course, I chewed off all my nails, got a sore throat from screaming in exasperation, called spouse several times to express my frustration (entirely unproductive, but somewhat therapeutic), and got cramps in my foot from keeping it on the brake and in my hands from gripping the steering wheel. 

You are now going in the right direction

After finally fighting my way through the Chicago gridlock, I was met with another conundrum.  I was supposed to leave the rental car in a designated spot in one of those urban garages that have one long ramp going up, one even longer coming down, and one more leading nowhere just for show (with apologies to Sheldon Harnick).  After driving in and out of the garage and explaining to the attendant that I am not staying, not parking, just trying to find the mysterious location to surrender the car, please do not charge me the minimum fee of $20 per minute, I promise I will not pass this way again, yes I know I keep taking the parking ticket, but how else can I get into the garage and find the spot to leave the car, I lost all reason and did something of which I am not proud (but not ashamed, either, if truth be told).  I left the car on the street, ran into the rental office, threw the keys on the desk and invited the attendant, in no uncertain terms, to deal with the parking debacle on their own time.  The stunned human on the receiving end of my wrath hurriedly assured me that they will handle the situation and even offered me a ride to the hotel.  Which I proudly declined.  Which was my next mistake.

Still have no idea how you end up at the river level.

In the intervening years, I have gotten to know Chicago better, but I still do not quite understand that part of it where you suddenly end up under a bridge.  I find it immensely confusing.  That day, angrily stomping to my hotel, I was so surprised to find myself walking down steps into a river that I missed them (the steps) entirely.  I landed on the pavement, and my suitcase landed on top of me.  By the time I arrived at the Omni (the one near Water Tower Place—a fair distance if you know the area), everything was hurt and I was dying.  Of course, it never crossed my mind to hail a cab, because that is the kind of ridiculous human being that I am. (In the process, I lost my cool reversible magnetic bracelet from Kohl’s, and I am still steamed about that). 

I ran into a colleague in the lobby who asked me if I wanted to go out to dinner.  I wanted nothing less, and instead proceeded to make my next mistake—take a hot bath.  Not feeling the immediate effects of that particular blunder, but starting to feel like the starving dog that is my normal state of being, I reassembled myself and reinserted myself into a dinner with a couple of my work sisters.  By the time I stood up after my meal, my entire body was throbbing with pain.  Today’s me would have immediately hailed that cab back to the hotel and ordered a tub full of ice from room service.  That day’s me, not wanting to miss anything, did her best not to limp as she followed the cool girls to the fortune teller’s. Another fatal error.

Yes, you read that right, for some reason a fortune teller was deemed to be a fun activity to kick off the work conference and/or our first night in the big city.  We took turns having our sessions and I was, of course, last, for no reason other than it took me the longest to hobble nonchalantly across the waiting room.  The psychic read me somewhat correctly—I was buzzing with stress as well as suppressed physical agony.  I was having a very bad day.  She told me, in a nutshell, that no one likes me and that I will probably be divorced very soon.

When I finally made it back to the hotel, I called my unsuspecting spouse to yell at him for plotting to leave me.  As of this writing, I am still married.  I have not visited a fortune teller since that fateful day, and I refused to drive in Chicago for over ten years.

Of course Jimmy does not drive in Chicago. He has someone doing it for him. Be like Jimmy.

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Thank You for Being a Friend

According to my recently unearthed diary (it was not missing or anything, I just do not like to refer to it too often because of the cringe factor), my teen years were full of seemingly perpetual anguish related to various betrayals which I would never recollect but for this traumatizing written record.  I was, at times, surrounded by The Mean Girls—but who wasn’t in their teen years?  But in a period of just three days recently, I interacted with a variety of people who, in various ways, reminded me how incredibly blessed I have been by friendships in this lifetime. 

  • I auditioned for several parts in a show at the local community theater.  I did not get cast for several reasons. 
    • First, for one of the characters, my Russian accent is no longer convincing.  Yes, and I feel slightly stupid even writing this, but I am only identified as vaguely Eastern European to someone with a very good ear.  There were literally women on that stage who sounded authentically foreign-born (and weren’t), while I was doing a desperate impression of Crazy Russian Hacker.  And I am terrible enough with accents that I cannot just summon it.
    • Second, the director decided that the part of a “wanna be lawyer” should be played by a man, because, well, lawyers are men.  Triggering, and certainly nothing I have not heard from every corner over the past three decades, but for reasons passing understanding I always expect more parity from community theater.  What an unlikely source of optimism!  This actually reminds me of a time when I was not cast in another show.  It was a dual part—Eastern European mother in her youth in Act I, and then her daughter, a lawyer, a couple of decades later, in Act II.  The director called me and told me that I was believable as one but not as the other, and for the life of me I cannot remember which one was which.  There is great irony somewhere here, but ultimately, I guess I would prefer to think that I am an implausible lawyer.  Frankly, I usually feel that way anyway…
    • But, my point in all of this is that I ran into two women I know at the audition.  The camaraderie, the emotional support, the cheering each other on and complimenting each other even though we were up for the same couple of parts was absolutely lovely.  I have not known either of these fine humans in my youth, so cannot tell with certainty if we are all improving with age or if I am meeting a better class of people. Perhaps a little bit of both, which is both sensible and hopeful.
  • Not to make it sound like my American youth was misspent in the friendship department, the following day I drove to Hell (a real town; I am not this inventive) for a “Still 50” party of a high school classmate I have never met before.  Well, we met during a series of Zoom calls that were held on the regular during the darkest days of the pandemic, and encompassed a group of pals who all graduated within three years of each and now live all over not just the continental U.S., but as far as Hawaii.  I count myself more than a little lucky to enjoy the company of almost a dozen folks who knew me at my utmost awkward, clueless, and, in my mother’s characterization, gloomy, and who still willingly interact with me going on forty years later. 
  • The following day I had a lunch lasting several hours with a college friend.  We have not seen each other in about a decade, which is a ridiculous and inexplicable gap, but there it is.  The old saying of picking up where you leave off without missing a beat is always true with this friend, and has been for over thirty years.  I often see people question if there can be genuine, non-romantic friendship between men and women, and this long-standing unshakeable bond between an introverted engineer/scientist and a [seemingly] extroverted lawyer/amateur thespian is a testament to the fact that friendship, like love, is a gift that you take where you find it.
  • And finally, there is my childhood BFF.  She is the one whom I met on my first day of school, and who is the closest I have come to having a sister in this world (I have known my actual sister for a fraction of the time, both in quality and quantity—but that is another story for another time).  We have lived world apart for over forty years, and have averaged one in-person meeting per decade during this time.  Right now, she is on a road trip to the Russian Near North.  From each scenic stop, she has been sending me daily videos, narrating the town histories, telling fun local facts, showing scenic views.  They visited Novgorod the Great, Petrozavodsk the capital of Karelia, Murmansk above the Arctic Circle, stopped on the shores of the Barents Sea.  I have felt included in this wonderful adventure.  In return, I send videos of my foster dog.  And beer.  And my office.  And I feel unbelievably fortunate that my first school friend is still my best friend.  She is, and always will be, family.

The wisdom of the years taught me that not all friendships are for always.  Some relationships are for a season, and every season has its ups and downs.  Looking back, there have certainly been some downs.  But, as the song goes, thank you for having been a friend (this is the Russian/Georgian version—not to be confused with the theme to “The Golden Girls”).  The ups have, and continue to, fill this life with meaning, warmth, and laughter. 

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I Went Up North Once. Once.

I do not know Michigan well.  I have lived here intermittently for a total of about 35 years.  While I have made a point of hitting the major museums in the metropolitan Detroit area and even farther afield when my children were young, much of the state still eludes me.  I had a few obligatory encounters with it upon first being brought here when I was in high school.  I think my mother organized get-acquainted trips to Mackinac (if you are not from here, do not bother trying to pronounce it) Island, Traverse City, and Holland.  Only the last one is remembered, because we took pictures of ourselves wearing wooden shoes and standing next to decorative windmills.  Shortly thereafter I learned that Holland, Michigan bears about as much resemblance to the country for which it is named as the Renaissance Festival to the actual life of the period.  The other trips left no impression whatsoever, if they even happened. 

And so, for the first long post-pandemic weekend, I decided to go and look at the Sleeping Bear Dunes, which seem to consistently show up in those “10 Things to See” and “Best of” lists that I usually do not trust.  The closest lodging appeared to be in Traverse City, and so I figured we can hit both landmarks with one trip. 

Of course, no trip involving me goes completely smoothly.  Under the category of “What fresh hell is this”, my car was assaulted by a flock of birds.  Or maybe it was one bird.  It was all so sudden!  One moment we were merrily cruising on a very boring stretch of I-75 at a safe speed of no more than five over the limit, and the next, my entire windshield was covered in a vile substance, reducing visibility in a most dangerous manner.  I am not a fan of birds.  They have never contributed anything positive to my life, whether in a friendly, decorative, or nourishing manner.  This was just a culmination of everything I have always known about them as an unpleasant species.  It was all uphill from there.

Because Michigan has an inhospitable climate with more rainy days than Seattle (I read this factoid somewhere and cannot stop repeating it), a long sunny weekend is rare and treasured.  Memorial Day being the first long weekend after a dreary winter, most of the state’s inhabitants flock “Up North”, ostensibly to enjoy the beautiful nature.  We arrived around the early dinner time.  Strangely enough, the nature areas were sparsely attended.  Everyone was at the restaurants.  Literally every sit down restaurant for miles had a dinner wait list of at least two hours, putting our mealtime somewhere between eight p.m. and next week.  We opted to eat what might have been a pressed rat sandwich at a fast food place.  To be fair, we did not travel Up North for the food.  I am told there are some nice restaurants there, but I remain skeptical.

For dessert, we had gnats.  That was surprising and unintentional.  Apparently they are plentiful around the Grand Traverse Bay, and pursued us in swarms for the duration of our promenade.  While not biting, they were quite aggressive with their intent to enter every orifice.  We have managed to both inhale and ingest more than we wanted, which is to say, any.  Although I do enjoy trying unusual food, the gnats made me feel a little like being in a Monty Python “Crunchy Frog” sketch.

Overall, this was a very successful trip, and the extra layer of confusion and inconvenience actually added that certain Midwestern charm to the experience.  I mean, if everything had been perfect, it would not have been Michigan, but Ontario. 

I have been to that area once in the winter (ask me about the ski trip to which my mother brought more suitcases than there were days), but this was really the first time that I was able to walk, observe, and enjoy.  The town itself remains indefinable, as I have not noticed anything distinguishing it from any other similar small tourism-focused towns in Michigan, outside of the various local festivals which I have never attended, and so far without regret.  I am given to understand that the area wineries are lovely, but again—the Niagara wine region is just as close, and Canada has my heart.

Nonetheless, Grand Traverse Bay is lovely.  It is an objectively beautiful area and, gnats notwithstanding, promenading along its shore was a joy.  While I do not enjoy aquatic activities, or being wet in general, I like bodies of water on sight, and harbor a hope that my Third Thirty (or sooner) includes being near one.  It is not likely to be this particular one, but it sure is picture-perfect.

The main event of the trip, Sleeping Bear Dunes, also did not disappoint.  I did not know Michigan had this much sand!  I was warned in advance that if one goes down the sand mountain to the water, one must climb back up.  As we say back in the Old Country, there are no fools here—of course I did not go down the sand mountain.  I am most assuredly not a climber.  I stayed at the top and took photos with my phone, though I am sorry I read the plaque about the legend of the sleeping bear—it is very sad.  We stopped at the various scenic locations in the national park, enjoyed the views, walked on the trails (I would not call it hiking, which I believe requires a bit more vigor than what we exerted), and returned home.  Despite the fact that on a holiday Monday the four hour drive doubled in time spent due to traffic, the trip was ultimately both worth it and not requiring of a repeat.   Until some gal pal persuades me to explore the Leelanau Peninsula’s wine country.

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Who Tells Your Story?

Although I love theater, I am almost never at the forefront of seeing something before it becomes popular.  A lot of it is because I do not live near where shows start—although I am given to understand that “Fiddler on the Roof” premiered at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre in 1964, that was literally before my time.  The odds of me finding myself, during my travels, near a Broadway or West End show that is not yet big but will be are pretty slim.  While it has happened more than once that I saw a show that I thought was destined for greatness which later went nowhere[1], the opposite never happens.  Probably the biggest missed opportunity, not counting all the shows I regret missing in Stratford over the years, was during a 2015 visit to New York. 

My actor son was living in Brooklyn and about to leave on tour with “Aladdin”[2].  The family was visiting him, and naturally, decided to see a Broadway musical.  Walking past the Richard Rodgers Theatre, I noticed the not-yet-familiar black silhouettes on gold background. 

“What is this all about?” inquired I. 

“It’s a new rap musical about Alexander Hamilton”, replied son, dismissively.

“Hmm, that sounds really stupid”, opined I, disdainfully.

“It does indeed”[3], agreed son, and we moved on, chuckling to ourselves.  This was too much even for this theater-appreciating family.  Spouse, in his low-key way, was noting that “Something Rotten!” “looks good”.  When this man says that something “looks good”, it means that he is super-excited and jumping up and down inside with the mad desire to see whatever this is.  We bought tickets to “Something Rotten!” and enjoyed it immensely, witnessing a standing ovation in the middle of Act I—which, of course, is an incredibly rare occurrence, and a sure indication of potential long-term success[4]

I did not give “Hamilton” another thought until, on a Christmas flight to London, I saw the soundtrack as one of the offerings of Delta in-flight entertainment.  I tried to listen, and it was nice enough, but the flight is an overnight one.  I sleep on overnight flights.  I fell asleep.

And then I woke up with a jolt, because something terrible happened to the Hamilton family (OK, they also turned the lights on and started serving breakfast)!  I am neither proud nor ashamed to say that my knowledge of American history is limited to two years of high school—and the first year, my English was not good enough to fully grasp the goings on.  Alexander Hamilton was covered that year, and I remembered that he was shot in a duel by Aaron Burr, but who knew that his son was also killed?  It was sad!  It was like “Les Miz”!

I landed in London a “Hamilton” fan, and decided to travel to New York in the foreseeable future and see this musical in person.  I mean, how much could it cost, if we fly with miles and grab a hotel room with points?  Couple of hundred bucks for tickets? 

Not so fast, newly-minted-fans!  This brought back memories of “Phantom” in the ‘90s [https://oldladywriting.com/2020/04/25/team-phantom/]—but, times have surely changed, and in the classical dilemma of time versus money, I had a little bit less of the former and a tiny bit more of the latter.  Tickets were procured, and their extortionate cost was somewhat balanced out by the fact that we flew to New York on Spirit Airlines, and with no more than a handbag per person.

Was it worth it?  Yes, yes it was—although spouse did say, after it was all over, “It was great, but not like the first time I saw “Les Miz”.  I will not dispute that, because “Les Misérables” holds an extra-special place in my heart.  I also will not do a review of “Hamilton”, because I doubt that anything is left unwritten about it.  But this is what it means to me.

In theater productions, I live for that one moment when everything shifts and you remember it forever, either because it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard:

            “A handbag?!” in “The Important of Being Earnest”

            “The whole staff was slaughtered” exchange in “Hothouse”

or it breaks your heart:

            “Could you ask as much from any other man?” in “Jesus Christ Superstar” (because you know what happens to him…)

            As soon as the miners appear in “Billy Elliott” and sing “The Stars Look Down” (because you know what happens to them…)

or, in some cases, the entire play is brilliant:  “Art”; “August Osage County”

I will not call it an “aha” moment, because it is not a moment of cerebral discovery, but it is more of an “oh”—or “aww”?—moment, which is purely emotional in nature.  It is the “wait for it” or “catharsis” moment.  It is what live theater does best, that moment of unity of hearts and souls between the characters on stage and the audience.

“Hamilton” both starts and ends on that moment.  The opening number is so big, so smart, so creative, so instantly recognizable, and when we heard, “What’s your name, man?”, and there was that little pause, and Lin-Manuel Miranda appeared and said “Alexander Hamilton”—well, the entire audience of 1,300+ lost their collective minds!  Not to take away from “Something Rotten!”’s standing ovation in Act I, but that was a rock star-caliber moment.  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s presence is electric, and his charisma and enthusiasm on stage cannot be overemphasized.  I would say that I knew, once again, that I was in the presence of greatness [https://oldladywriting.com/2020/07/26/all-my-world-is-a-stage/]—except that by the time I got to see “Hamilton”, live and with the still original cast, that would have been a major understatement. 

And then there is that closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”.  I love a good ending.  I mean, who doesn’t, but I really, *really* love a good ending.  A good ending is worth the price of admission even more than a good beginning, because it stays with you, even after the curtain falls.  “Hamilton” ends like it begins, with the satisfying big number, but with more poignancy.  It’s the combination of “Anatevka”, “Impossible Dream”, and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, these other great finales, because it is both tragic and hopeful, tender and confident, wistful in the loss of a promising life cut short, yet satisfying in the summary of its legacy.  It earns my inarticulate but sincere praise of “I cried and cried”. 

Who tells your story?  Little by little, I am trying to tell mine…


[1] My spouse still laments “Martin Guerre” by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the creators of “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” fame.  You haven’t seen that version of “Martin Guerre”?  No one has.

[2] Small print--not THAT “Aladdin”.

[3] This is why my writing career is still fledgling.  I cannot write dialogue.

[4] This was after “The Musical”, which I still think is one of the most fun and clever numbers of the genre, basically an entire “Forbidden Broadway” in several minutes and on a major stage.  And to be fair, Christian Borle did get a Tony for his part in this, not to mention eight other nominations for the show itself!

It was a magical weekend overall. We also saw “Bright Star”, starring the wonderful Paul Nolan, who deserves an award for every role which he graces with his talent, and stayed at the Algonquin, Harpo Marx’ old stomping ground.  Those are stories for another day!]

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Meet Me in Sistine Chapel or Rome, Second Try

My second trip to Rome was in 1988, during that much-mentioned European summer in college.  There were endless discussions about where everyone will travel after classes end.  I wanted to go to Scandinavia.  Almost everyone wanted to go to Italy.  I went to Scandinavia, by myself—but not before I went to Italy with my roommate Kathy.

This looks like something out of “Rocco and His Brothers”. Milo in 1988

But at the outset, I have to acknowledge that I made a small, but vital error in my first Roman reminiscence when I wrote that I never entered Pensione Milo since 1981. Roman Holiday – Old Lady Writing Apparently I did, during this second visit, and not only that, but Kathy and I even went up to the lobby and loitered there for a bit.  There are photos from this second visit—but, due to lack of funds and related constraints of a 35mm camera, the careful rationing of available resources resulted in zero images of the pensione’s interior.  And then three decades passed, and I completely forgot this ever-critical fact—until I conferred with the old diary.  And there it was.  Never let it be said that I do not acknowledge my mistakes.

As a teenager, I wrote about my life in great detail, which I desperately envy now.  I envy my younger self’s complete and utter self-absorption—but, that is certainly the prerogative of youth.  I would love to recapture that focus in my Third Thirty, and preferably a little before.

And thus present recollection refreshed informs us that on Thursday, July 7, 1988, Kathy, Naomi, and I were the second group to depart the Travelers Hotel in Nimes (the town I missed revisiting due to the plague last year, Pont du Gard and the Plague – Old Lady Writing) on a night train to Paris.  While waiting on the platform, we were rewarded by being kissed by sailors from a Marseille-bound train that stopped in Nimes for a literal minute.  It was a kinder, gentler time.  No judgment.

In my diary, I wrote in puzzling detail about traversing Paris with Naomi from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord with my hateful, incredibly heavy orange Soviet-edition suitcase.  Wheeled suitcases were already a thing then, but out of about 35 people in the group, I was the only one without one.  Being an immigrant, and of the refugee kind to boot, I spent the decade trying, yet never quite succeeding, to fit in.  I would like to think that the orange suitcase was the last vestige of that difficult passage to America. 

In any case, it was a complicated plan in which Kathy (who stored her suitcase at Gare Montparnasse—a detail that never becomes important again in this narrative) and I, after parting ways with Naomi, first headed to the Netherlands, where I left the detested luggage with my erstwhile host family, and then traveled all the way down to Rome, after which we efficiently worked our way back up via North of Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Belgium again, Switzerland again, to finally tearfully part back in Paris.  She mentioned once that she will probably not return to Europe, as she was looking forward to getting married and living the good life in the U.S.  I was instantly shocked, as I envisioned that summer as the beginning of many adventures to come.  We were both right.  And she is still the best roommate I’ve had (present spouses excluded, of course).

But the very first day—after the luggage was sorted and after we spent about two days sitting on various trains (for sleeping wagons are only covered by the Eurail Pass if there is literally no other mode of transportation) and missing various trains (for the Italian rail schedule was an unsolvable mystery in the ‘80s) was Rome.

The hostel where we stayed was either worse than Milo, or I came to expect more.  No, it was clearly the former—as a college student of extremely limited means, my expectations would not rise for at least another decade (remember the First Spanish trip? The First Spanish Trip – Old Lady Writing)  We arrived exhausted and bedraggled at Roma Termini, looking forward to a shower before bed.  I do not recall who went in first—but whoever it was, discovered that only cold water was available (I would guess it had to be me, because had Kathy told me that there was no hot water, why would I have gotten in?  She would have—I would have stayed filthy).  We sat on our respective beds, felt sorry for ourselves, and had a good cry.  I had a fleeting thought that Rome and I just aren’t meant to be.

Our one day in Rome was action-overpacked.  We met several friends from our group—inside the Sistine Chapel, no less, because in those pre-cell phone days you had to pick a landmark, a time, and hope that everyone made it.  It was kind of like a student/buddy moment of Sleepless in Seattle.  Kathy and I walked all the way from the hostel near Termini to the Vatican.  We already know now that it is less than 5k Roman Holiday – Old Lady Writing, but after a long train ride, a traumatic first evening, and on a sweltering, tourist-packed August day it seemed like a manifestation of all the confusion and disorder that I remembered from my previous Rome stay. 

So, I finally saw the Sistine Chapel, and then the Colosseum.  We ate some terrible pasta at a cheap restaurant nearby, cementing my poor opinion of Italian food for the next few decades.  We visited the catacombs.  It was exciting to finally be out and about as a paying, albeit a decidedly not flush, tourist.  But Rome was still overwhelming, in its size, its sights, its sounds, its infinite variety.  If the first trip was one prolonged anxiety attack, the second trip was an assault on the senses.  To be fair, it was only a day, and short on time and money, we made the best of it.  Third time turned out to be the charm.

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So Many Books, So Little Time

I read a lot.  I have always read a lot.  It started one warm sunny summer afternoon when I was five.  My grandmother was reading “The Wizard of the Emerald City” to me (Russian version of “The Wizard of Oz”), but had to set it down because, as usual, household chores beckoned (this was some years before she started enlisting me and came to the swift conclusion that my lack of floor scrubbing and chicken plucking skills will never land me a husband.)  She put the book on a piano stool (a piano in that time and place was mandatory; I was not encouraged to touch it).  I circled it for a bit, unsure of how much trouble I will earn myself for touching a library book, but simply dying to know what happened when Ellie, Totoshka, and the gang encountered the savage сannibal.  I picked up the book and managed to put enough letters together to get through the rest of the chapter.  In my mind’s eye, I still see how the setting sun was streaming through the windows (we had northern exposure in our one room). 

Not a good moment to stop this book

And my most enduring, most comforting, most enriching, most faithful, most influential past time was born.  I have never stopped reading, not through years of university, child-rearing, long hours at work.  Backpacking through Europe at 19, I would go without a meal to spend what seemed like an extraordinary amount of money on English-language paperbacks in non-English speaking countries to read on trains (added bonus—lost weight).  I would choose the most pages for the money, which was not always the best literary value, alas.

My reading practices, however, changed over the decades.  As a child, if I liked a book, I would read and reread it.  I would go back, flip through pages, land on a random passage, read from that point, look for favorite passages, reread those, and so on.  This might explain why occasional quotes from “The Three Musketeers” or “Twelve Chairs” or even Chekhov’s short stories still come to me unbidden, but a book I read a month ago is so thoroughly forgotten that I might not recall either the title, the author, or the plot today (I mean you, “Where the Crawdads Sing”.  No offense).

My actual much-depleted pandemic stash

At some point, quality fell somewhat of a victim to quantity.  You know those Goodreads challenges, to read 50 books a year?  (Well, that’s the challenge I set for myself every year—doesn’t everyone?  A book a week, with a couple of weeks off for binge-watching Netflix seems very reasonable.) But why such a rush?  Is it because a friend said once, “I haven’t even read 1,000 books!” in a self-horrified manner?  But, that was probably about 20 years ago, so I have hit the quasi-magic number by now.  Or is it just because there is an embarrassment of riches out there?  I do not want to miss out on something great, and so gulp books down like Lindor truffles.

But I miss the reflection.  And what I really, really miss is the change in my relationship with books.

When I was a child, I read like a child.  The literary characters were my friends.  They lived in my imagination, and they were my counterlife[1].  I lived in their world, and they lived in mine. 

In my childhood, the counterlife was galloping through the vaguely unimaginable streets of Paris with the musketeers.  It was pure fantasy, as I never expected to walk the streets of Paris any more than I expected to walk on the surface of the moon[2]When Did the Arc de Triomphe Start Leaning? – Old Lady Writing

At some point, and I do not know when exactly that border into adulthood was crossed—and the crossing was, I imagine, inevitable—book characters stopped appearing in my reality.  Or, more accurately, I stopped going into theirs.  A certain detachment occurred where, while I remain entertained, enlightened, educated, and generally touched (and occasionally irritated and even bored) by what I read for pleasure, it is no longer my alternate reality.  It is just that—entertainment, education, etc.  It is enough—of course it is enough, there are so many great books that I have read and have yet to read—but I sometimes miss that untamed fantasyland of my childhood, where every story was examined through the lens of how it could play out in counterlife, and where I tried every character on for size as a potential friend or alter ego. 

It is unavoidable and logical, but it is occasionally sad when I stop and think about it.  That wild inventiveness would be very helpful right now, as the global pandemic still rages, theaters are still closed, and non-fictional friends are still remote.  This might be a good time to work on breathing new life into the counterlife… 


[1] Thank you for introducing this term in “The Glass Hotel”, Emily St. John Mandel.  I have always said “parallel universe”, but that implies, I think, something more impossible rather than improbable.

[2] I might add that the vast majority of my childhood literary heroes were male.  I am of the generation and culture that was not bothered by that.  In the childhood reenactments that I held with my girlfriends, we WERE the musketeers. I even won the top prize at a school New Year’s party, dressed as a musketeer in a costume made by my mom, wielding a plastic rapier, and performing the famous “Song about the sword”. What did I win? Probably an orange. Valor and Glory of the Motorbuilders – Old Lady Writing

“One for All and All for One!” Again, by the author.

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London Calling

With my love of travel, my love of Gilbert and Sullivan, and my love of “Chariots of Fire”, there is one important location that has not yet been mentioned.  It Is a Glorious Thing – Old Lady Writing Did you guess London?  If so, you guessed correctly.  If not, I cannot fathom what you are thinking. 

London was slightly elusive in my younger days.  During my college summer in Europe, the Chunnel train was not yet in existence.  While the British rail system was covered by the Eurail Pass, the passage from the continent to Albion was not.  There was no way I was going if there was an extra charge.

The Royal Family in the “good old days” (At Madame Tussaud’s in London. I love wax museums, and never miss one!)

Around the time of my last college spring break, my mother gifted me with enough free, rapidly expiring airline miles for two tickets to Europe.  I could bring a companion.  No catch.  In what can only be described as a fit of temporary insanity, I invited Grandma.  No, really, I was twenty one years old, and I went to London with my Grandma.  I am expecting to be rewarded for this in my next life…

And so, I flew to New York, and Grandma and I set out on a cross-continental flight together.  Our troubles started immediately when she set off a metal detector.  The year was 1990, a kinder, gentler time when everyone could walk on to the departure gates, and TSA was only a vague concept—except in a case of an elderly, five feet tall woman who was  bringing not only an apple for her long flight, but an accompanying knife wrapped in a handkerchief.  Bizarrely, the TSA agent who confiscated Grandma’s best paring knife agreed to mail it back to her home address in Brooklyn.  The potential loss of the knife caused Grandma considerable distress during our vacation, until we were informed by triumphant Grandpa, upon being picked up from our return flight, that the knife arrived safe and sound.  No “How was your trip? How is London?  Welcome home!”, but “Those bastards did not steal our knife after all!”

The flight itself was an unmitigated nightmare.  Grandma, immeasurably energized by full access to me for the upcoming week, decided to start early on what we call “educating” me, but really the better term is “nagging”.  I was treated to a seven-hour lecture about the various deficiencies of my character, my appearance, my behavior, my friends both male and female, and my overall prognosis for a productive life.  As a graduating university senior heading to an Ivy League law school and holding down two jobs, I naively thought I might have had a right to feel sort of OK about myself.  However, I was also overweight and single, two of the most cardinal of mortal sins in The World According to Grandma.

Holiday Inn London – Kensington Forum Hotel |Best Price Guaranteed |Kensington London Hotel (hikensingtonforumhotel.co.uk)

We were staying at the Forum Hotel, now Holiday Inn Kensington Forum.  This is important, because this hotel is huge—900+ rooms and 27 stories. Upon arrival, after a sleepless night of “education”, I determined that I lost interest in my travel companion.  We had a brief discussion and decided that, in order for each of us to preserve our own mental, emotional, and physical well-being, we will tour the city separately and only share sleeping quarters.  I lived in a dorm—I could do it!  Grandma was married for 45 years at that point—she could definitely do it!  We each had our own money, room key, basics of the English language (some better than others), and I generously gave her one of my maps of London (this was when giant folding paper maps were all the rage).  She stormed off.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

Here is what I did next: (1) Called my mom as I still do during all important times, or really any time at all. She was supportive, as she generally tends to be.  (2) Unpacked my suitcase and staked out my bed.  (3) Took a shower, washed and blow-dried my hair, and changed clothes, because I needed a pick me up.  (4) Opened the minibar and daringly consumed an adult beverage, because I needed a pick me up.  (5) Ate a bar of chocolate, also from the minibar, because, well, isn’t it obvious? (6) Unfolded my giant paper map and determined that the first stop on my tour that day will be Harrod’s, which was the closest landmark to this hotel, and also made the most sense, given how the trip started.

The reason for these boring details is because I want to convey that I was only ready to depart the hotel quite a fair bit of time after Grandma.  I mean, all of these activities took a while.  I am not sure exactly how much, but long enough that when I heard a tentative knock at the door, I logically assumed that the day’s cleaning crew was arriving.  Since this was my first time staying at a place fancy enough to be cleaned (and with a mini-bar—did I mention the minibar?), I grabbed my coat and rushed to the door, on my way toward my adventure in London, yelling encouragingly to whoever was behind the door that I am leaving and they can get down to business.

Behind the door was Grandma.  All this time, she was trying to find her way out of the huge hotel, rode the elevator, stumbled on the underground garage, gift shop, and every other floor, but regrettably, never the lobby.  She was exhausted, defeated, and ready to make peace.

Thus began my love affair with the West End… [The photo is not mine]

The rest of the week actually went reasonably well, all things considered.  We walked a lot (some of it was because Grandma was always a tireless walker her entire life, never having learned how to drive), saw all the main sites, including a day trip to Windsor Castle (where Grandma concluded that the tiny medieval royal beds are far inferior to her Italianate suite back in Brooklyn), and experienced our first (but far from my last) West End musical (“Me and My Girl” at the Adelphi theater).  In those days, London was still boasting its terrible cuisine, though to be fair, the two of us, a college student and a Soviet retiree, were decidedly not “foodies”.  We ate at McDonald’s and were excited.  Once we had pastries at a cafe and felt rather sophisticated.  I bought six decks of cards for my collection. I took only twice as many photos.  Every night, after Grandma fell asleep, I watched British TV and treated myself to a beverage and chocolate from the mini bar. 

It was not my best trip to London, but it was a decent first encounter with an exciting city which I came to know well in subsequent decades.  Later, there came many laughs, many discoveries, and many unforgettable theater experiences.  This was the slightly inauspicious start.

One of the twelve photos I took. Seriously? What is it even?
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Always Nordic, Never Alpine

Pandemic winter is both harder, because there is no place to go, and easier, because there is no compulsion to go places.  I briefly interrupted my hibernation on a Saturday afternoon to engage in some cross-country skiing.  It was more like “cross-yard”—in fact, it was exactly that, because I literally skied out of my backyard and around the subdivision where I live.  Very Old Country.  Driving to a specified and possibly paid location just to ski around seems entirely too bourgeois, unless one is on a holiday.  

This is me, starting out in my actual back yard.

I would not say I was skiing before I was walking, but I certainly do not remember learning to ski.  It was just something children did all winter long, along with sliding down every snow drift and every patch of ice in our path.  All my skis in childhood were the kind that did not require special boots, but the type where you just slide your foot into a rubber band, and another rubber band goes around the heel (and sometimes not even that).  You put your “valenki” onto the rubber piece, because “valenki”, being just felted wool, are very slippery (Although I was always made to wear galoshes over mine.  I come by my indifference to fashionable footwear honestly).  In Russia, I never graduated to the adult skis which came with special boots that attached to the skis with the metal cage-like fastenings that looked complicated and somehow final, leaving no possibility of escape.

Not my actual skis, but a pretty accurate representation.

In my childhood, my main ski route was in the front yard of our house (so that my grandmother could watch me out of our kitchen window).  It was an easy and pleasant morning before going to school during the second shift, until it became less attractive when big garbage bins were installed in my direct path.  Occasionally, I was allowed to ski in the big field behind our house, a site of soccer matches in the summer.  Both of these have since been sacrificed to progress: the field is now home to an auto dealership, and an extremely shocking high rise is getting built right across from the old two- and three-story apartment buildings.  At least the trash bins have disappeared.

These are way fancier than anything we had back in the USSR

Skiing was the gym activity during the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the school year.  As a gym activity, it was terrible for many reasons.  First, the school-provided skis were awful and literally went nowhere, because they were never properly waxed and got stuck in the snow.  Choosing skis in the gym was a predictable pandemonium.  If you were not appropriately aggressive, you could end up with two left skis.  I usually brought my own skis, like some of the children of Soviet privilege, and because my grandmother was convinced that the school skis were unsanitary disease-bearers.  This involved hauling a pair of skis on the crowded trolley #4, an experience similar to riding the NYC subway during rush hour, but with worse smell (some of which was contributed by me, because at one point I had a winter coat with goat fur collar.  Let me tell you, nothing, nothing at all smells worse than goat fur, even after it was aired out AND sprayed with Red Moscow perfume.  This might explain why I have never found goats even remotely adorable).  Guarding my skis against breakage was a nerve-wracking experience for several winters. 

When I was very young, we were not allowed to use poles in school—the temptations of wielding them as swords or trying to poke someone in the eye was too great.  I am ashamed to confess I was not always able to resist either once the pole ban was lifted.

Second, although gym during the ski season was a double lesson to allow us time to change, returning to regular classroom after being outside for an hour and a half, sweaty and soaked, covered in snow, was entirely uninspiring.  In my later school years, I have taken to not returning.  Along with a few pals, we would ski away from the pack on the field where we raced in a long loop, right across the roundabout at October Square (luckily, there were not that many cars in my hometown in those days), grab our backpacks from the school vestibule, and keep going.  Who knows what kind of a delinquent I might have become had we stayed in Russia?  American schools sure scared me straight…

Third, we had to learn downhill skiing.  Now, there are no mountains where I come from.  In my entire life, I have never lived anywhere near a mountain range of any kind.  To me, anything taller than me is a mountain.  If I see an incline, it’s a mountain.  There was not so much as a hill in either our front yard or our back yard.  However, my hometown, like any medieval fortress, is built along a river.  The dramatic and terrifying hill, “Friday Descent” (probably referring to Good Friday, otherwise it is a pretty random name) was the location of our Alpine exercises. 

Although I am not particularly afraid of heights, I am strangely afraid of speed—or, more precisely, of my inability to control myself on runaways skis.  Thus, most my training on Friday Descent ended with practicing safe falling, which is the skill that serves me well to this day whenever I am confronted by any elevation while skiing.  I either fall immediately, or sit on my skis like they are a sled.  Occasionally, tired of rolling over into a snow bank, I would just find an opportune moment while the gym teacher was focused on observing students at the bottom of the hill and ski away on the hilltop, across the roundabout, and you know the rest.

Since I have not attended a gym class since I managed to get an exemption from my last one in the mid-80s, skiing, strictly of the Nordic kind, has been a pleasurable activity. And so, if you see a middle-aged woman gliding across your front yard—or your back yard—one  sunny winter afternoon, it just might be #oldladyskiing.

The Old Country. Front yard: behind the fence on the right is where I used to ski.

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The Road Not Taken

I used to think that nothing of interest happened in 1987.  No, really, when I look back on my life, it seems like the year that was boringly sandwiched between 1986 (graduated from high school, mother moved away never to live anywhere near me again, started college) and 1988 (that exciting summer in Europe, which changed my life and my personality for the better).  But 1987?  In the spirit of reflection, I have occasionally struggled to recall what it offered, and ultimately had to refer to my long-forgotten diary.  And so, here is what 1987 contributed for the good of the order (after removal of 99% of content consisting of petty interactions with frenemies, quasi-romantic interests, and neverending purchases of Monkees paraphenalia; no names changed due to expiration of statute of limitations):

 “Strange: exams are getting closer, but vacation is not.  The most disgusting thing is that now I have Friday classes—studying lions, birds, dinosaurs, and French playwrights”.

“Darlene [dorm roommate] moved out and will never return again.  And she took the rug with her! (but reimbursed me)”.

Don’t let the ivy fool you. A dorm in the ’80s was a miserable place to be.

“Kerri and Susan are planning to pose nude at the art school.  They will get paid $6 per hour for this, which does not seem like great compensation to me.  I might have decided to join them if I weighed 60 pounds less”.

“After poli sci I went by the bookstore, looking for some textbooks (didn’t find any)”.

“I am applying for citizenship, by myself.  To this end, I had to get fingerprints and photos.  I went to the police and took the bus to AAA, because I was too tired to walk.” [I find it ironic that a very shy and relatively busy 18 year old college freshman bravely handled a task for which her adult version gets paid as her day job.]

[Hanging out with dorm neighbors]:  “I drank a bottle of wine cooler.  Robin drank three.” (Thus is destroyed the myth that I never drank in college)

“Today nothing happened, if you do not count that I sang in the choir for almost three hours, and now have a slightly sore throat”.

“Today I signed a rental agreement for next [school] year.  It is a studio apartment with a window facing a brick wall”. [How I loved that apartment!  I lived there for three years]

Apartment building on the right. Brick wall of the neighboring building one the left.

“I was kicked out of class.  Five minutes before the end, zoology professor told me to go out into the hallway because I was talking throughout the entire lecture.  Class was incredibly boring, I have a cold, so perhaps I was talking louder than usual.” [This is still in the top three of the most embarrassing things that have happened to me in my lifetime]

“I have been wearing contact lenses for five days now.  Good thing I do not have three eyes!”

“I think that when I will finish my paper about the League of Nations, life will immediately become better”.

[Five days later] “Although I already finished my paper about the League of Nations, life did not become immediately better”.

“Today I was registering for next term.  I wanted to take American politics, something about “person and the law”. Of course, everyone is attracted to the magical word “law” like bees to honey.  Some of us want to become lawyers…  Class was closed and I ended up 31st on the waitlist.  So I registered for 20th century Russian literature, just in case.  If we will study Bulgakov, that’s OK, but what if it’s Pasternak, Nabokov, or even Solzhenitzyn?!”  [There was neither, or maybe I just forgot]

“Life is flashing, like in a silent movie.  Should I sum up the year?  I got Davy Jones’ autograph, became an American citizen, started working.  A lot happened this year, but overall I am happy that it’s over”.

But not so fast!  Buried in the middle of that year, on July 20 to be precise, is an innocuous paragraph about my grandmother calling, overwhelmed after hearing Sergei Dovlatov on Russian language radio program.  He was reviewing the edition of the almanac of the Russian writers abroad, in which two of my stories were published:  “Supposedly he said that he was utterly stunned by the stories of an 18 year old who not only did not forget her native language but instead perfected it.  To top it all off, he compared my writing to early work of Paustovsky [a particular favorite of mine, a writer of great lyricism and sensitivity, and a Nobel prize nominee, no less].  Funny enough, just the previous year I was lamenting how unlike Paustovsky is my prose.  And then I wrote a story that raised me to these heights, if Dovlatov is to be believed.  And I believe him, because he gains nothing by flattering me.  He does not know me, unlike relatives, who are impressed by my writings simply because it’s me.  Overall, I am awfully pleased.”

Konstantin Paustovsky – Wikipedia

How did it come to pass that this highly complementary review of my work by Dovlatov, one of the most prominent Soviet émigré writers, a friend of Joseph Brodsky, only the second Russian (after Nabokov) to have been published in The New Yorker, was not just the most significant event of that year, but not the turning point in my life?  Why did I not think to contact him, make a connection, ask for advice?  I have always maintained that I am most assuredly not a writer—why was this not the validation I remember desperately needing? 

Sergei Dovlatov – Wikipedia

Dovlatov died in New York City in 1990, right around the time I arrived there to start law school.  I have not written any fiction since then, and I stopped writing in Russian.  This is merely a coincidence.  But now, from the distance of three decades, the poetic injustice just seems so staggering.  I don’t want to make too much out of it, this road not taken, but today I need to take some time to grieve for the person I might have been.

Sergei Dovlatov – Russiapedia Literature Prominent Russians (rt.com)

  • Anticipation of happy days is sometimes much better than those days. (K. Paustovsky)

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Roman Holiday

It took me three visits and over three decades to make peace with the Eternal City. Yes, Rome and I are friends now.  We have finally met as equals.  And frankly, I have fallen in love with it.  Any place seems better when you are (1) not a refugee there and (2) not focusing all your energy on leaving.

There are no photos in existence from that time, but I do have several postcards, depicting the sights I saw live only decades later.

I will never forget the first exciting view of Roma Termini in December of 1980.  In my first outing from the USSR, where train stations were bare, marbled, vaulted, and meant exclusively for tormented and interminable waiting, the bright vitrines of Termini were just spectacular.  There were these display cases the size of small windows, basically shadow boxes, full of various souvenir items and toys, shiny, exotic, and oh-so-Western-European.  They were mesmerizing! 

I have seen many more train stations since then, and they no longer interest me.  Although in Rome things tend to stick around for millennia, the shadow boxes seem to have gone the way of all memories.  Everything else is recognizable, but Termini’s luster has faded.  In contrast, the rest of the city is much improved.  But what a conundrum—in 1980, Rome meant nothing to me beyond the glamorous train station.  I saw so pitifully little of it!  Thirty five years later, the rest of Rome transformed itself into a glorious, romantic, sight- and taste-filled adventure—albeit with a lackluster train station.  What a sleight of hand!

Pensione Milo, which housed many of us former Soviet citizens on our first and one-way trip out of the country of our birth (still united at that time), is now a hotel.  If I live long enough to get back to Rome yet again, I would like to try to dare myself to stay there–provided the scars of memory heal by then.  It is near the Termini, so that makes it convenient.  On my two subsequent visits, I stayed nearby because that was all I knew, but it is actually a fairly charming area.  Milo seems to have been all renovated and fancy, with private bathrooms, no less (according to their website; I have not yet had the nerve to enter).  Well, not exactly fancy, but it is a hotel, no longer a boarding house for refugees.  There must not have been much call for that after a certain point in time.  Back in the day, we had two rooms, because we were two families.  I was made to share with my grandmother, and my mom with my grandfather, because grandma and I caught some terrible illness and were quarantined together.  It was the brighter room, on a lower floor, and it had a sink.  A sink of our own!  The other room was upstairs, with peeling wallpaper, sloping ceiling, and no sink. Occasionally fellow refugee neighbors would use our sink to brush their teeth, as it was such an unexpectedly luxurious feature.    There was a communal dorm-style bathroom and a dining room.  The meals, which included bread rolls of the type that they still serve in Roman hotels for breakfasts, and all manner of pasta dishes with weak tomato sauce, and occasionally tomato pasta soup, were served by a guy named Franco.  I can now pretty much assume that Franco was his name.  At the time, the foreignness of it could have only meant that it was Italian for “waiter”. 

So, for years I thought that Italian food was terrible (both the gobs of boiled spaghetti of the refugee cuisine, and equally the monstrous portions of over-cheesed baked American variety).  It did not compare to the culinary delights of the Austrian prison, where we stayed prior to being transported to Rome.  There was no Italian equivalent of Manner wafers.  But we were free.  Free to do almost nothing but fret about our future. We were pretty confident, I think, that we would be allowed to enter the United States—but when? And what exactly waited for us on the receiving end?  And how do you occupy your time with anything more than survival when you have no money and no language skills?  It is not the lack of money or language.  It is the not belonging.  You are not a tourist, not a guest, not on a business trip.  You are just in a limbo of existence, and you are waiting for your paused life to restart. 

As refugees, we spent most of our time in Rome indoors.  This might have been the only time in my life that my grandmother did not insist that I go outside to play.  What did we even do?  How did we pass the days?  (And how many days were we actually there?  It felt like months, but the calendar does not bear that out).   It seems so strange and unlikely now that we would not have taken the opportunity to explore the city.  I asked my mother about it not long ago, and she really had no answer.  There were plausible explanations—no map, no language, no money—but none of that makes sense if you have the time.  We ate our meals and constantly conferred with the other exiles (“Where are you going, Tevye?” “New York. And you, Lazar Wolf?” “Chicago.” “Good, we will be neighbors”).  This was our version of the last days in Anatevka. 

We stayed within a short walking distance from the Colosseum, which I never saw on that trip.  I walked the entire distance from the near-Termini area to the Vatican on several later occasions.  It is less than a 5k, a distance that I cover on autopilot during my training runs.  Could a merry little band of refugees have walked out of Pensione Milo on Via Principe Amedeo and kept walking?  Not stopping to drink prosecco, not walking into churches, not sitting down to a plate of seafood, but just strolling and staring?  We did at least once, because I remember a group of us, led by one especially fierce female of the species, who kept accosting passers-by with frantic cries of “Dove la posta centrale?”  I remember the terrifying bulk of the Vittorio Emanuele II monument, but not whether we ever reached our destination.

We met the New Year in the lobby of the pensione. One of the dads was presented as an unexpectedly believable Grandpa Frost, with cheeks rouged by someone’s lipstick, and gave out gifts to the kids.  Everyone contributed what they could.  I got a chocolate bunny, which was literally the best gift ever.  In our secular Soviet life, chocolate bunnies had no connection to Easter (nor should they ever or anywhere, in my humble opinion), but were an anytime special treat.  I was thrilled.  No one could afford to buy Italian chocolates, but this was a familiar treasure that someone brought from home and donated.  I have kept the foil wrapper for 40 years.

They say that how you meet the New Year is how it will turn out to be.  “They” are decidedly wrong as often as they are right.  But, that New Year’s Eve set the tone not just for the coming Worst Year of My Life So Far (and I just lived through the pandemic of 2020!), but for my Least Favorite Decade So Far, the 1980s.  It might have been a festive Roman celebration outside, but inside, my small world was bracing for the strange, scary new life on another continent. 

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Wanting All the Cards

I got to play “Two truths and a lie” on a Zoom call at work.  Of course I loved it.  In fact, I think everyone did, because we are lawyers.  And of course I obsessed about it for a couple of weeks leading up to the big day, because I like to think that many interesting and unlikely things happened to me over the years.  I was just a trifle annoyed that most of my colleagues had similarly outrageous and improbable experiences, though somewhat mollified when, after I announced my three “facts”, someone muttered that “they are all lies”[1]

This got me thinking about what, among the many weird, yet non-traumatic, particulars of my life remain obscure, yet interesting?  And I keep coming back to my playing card collection.

Just a small and random sample

For a large part of my life, I have loved playing cards and wanted to possess them.  By this I mean, I do not necessarily love playing card games, but love the cards themselves. It has been a deep and abiding love, a bearer of much joy, a literary and artistic inspiration, and #42 on my list of Favorite Things [A Few of [Whose] Favorite Things – Old Lady Writing][2].

Sadly, this is not my photo, but this is exactly how it was.

I trace the beginnings of this beautiful friendship to the early summers of my life leisurely spent on the Crimean beaches, playing a rousing game of Fool with whatever friends I made hanging out on the wooden sunbeds[3] between dips in the sea.  We also played Witch (Old Maid) and Drunkard (War), but Fool, the most popular Russian card game, was the only one that required some skill[4].

Clockwise from top left, Stella, Ophelia, Violette, Sylvia, and Sylvester. This is the deck she drew from memory.

When I was six, my grandmother, with whom I spent all my summers at the beach, and I were joined by acquaintances from our hometown, a couple of sisters around her age, one of whom had a 10 year old daughter, Irina.  For reasons that are lost to time, there was a joint refusal by the aged relatives to purchase a deck of cards for us, and so Irina simply drew one.  Although no record remains of that deck, I remember it as the crowning achievement of Pre-Raphaelite art.  We even gave the queens the fanciest names we knew, and attempted to name the jacks, but could only come up with one (look, we were just little girls in the USSR).  We so much wanted a real deck of cards! At some point, Irina’s mother relented and bought her one [5].  Searching for a facsimile of that deck became a goal in my adult life. 

Of course I found it!

Arriving in the US, I was absolutely stunned and disappointed to discover that playing cards here are not beautiful, and the face cards in all the decks are the same.  Of all the easy wins, playing cards were such a letdown!  And then, for American Christmas ’84, my mother presented me with a deck surprisingly purchased at Jacobson’s.  Baroque by Piatnik, which started my collection, is still the most beautiful deck I own.

The rules of the collection are simple:  face cards have to be distinct, human, and beautiful.  That means no animals, no cartoons, and no decks that have a weird theme like politicians, posters, quotes, or whatever.  They have to have traditional suits (French is preferred, because that is what I am used to) and traditional court cards.  I include stripped decks, because again, that is what was popular in Russia in my day. The backs are irrelevant.

According to Wikipedia, the largest card collection is over 11,000 decks.  Mine is about 100 times smaller, not counting double decks, but I love [almost] each and every one.  About a third of them are by Piatnik [Piatnik – Company], the greatest and largest card manufacturer in the world.  As a teenager, I vaguely dreamed of working for Piatnik, but literally could not imagine what skills I possess and into what job they would translate. 

My collection was enlarged by stopping in all stores that might carry these “artistic”, for lack of a better word, European-style cards.  In the US, that primarily included fancy stores that might carry gambling paraphernalia (and surprisingly, the store inside Cinderella Castle in Disneyworld, as well as my beloved and dearly missed quirky Peaceable Kingdom in Ann Arbor).  In Europe, it was pretty much any stationery or souvenir store, as well as big department stores like Harrod’s.  My mother has been a very enthusiastic contributor since the beginning, always traveling with the hard copy list of my decks. I stopped collecting almost a decade ago, because Piatnik seems to have run out of ideas, and ordering on the internet is no fun.  I have a very slight and vague regret of not buying a new deck in Dublin last year, but this gives me a reason to return[6].

A word about artistic inspiration.  As a refugee child in Rome with no toys but an extravagant set of markers which my family somehow managed to afford for Christmas, I drew a paper doll and, over the years, a mass of elaborate period dresses, inspired by my own imagination combined with dolls in Italian toy store windows and later, playing cards.  Since queens on playing cards are only portrayed from the waist up, all the skirts are mine.

(Just a few of the dresses; the last one was left unfinished around 30 years ago.)


[1] My big lie was the monkey story from The First Spanish Trip.  The truths were crashing a circus rehearsal (stay tuned!) and being chased by someone wielding a can opener (a singularly unpleasant event not worth retelling).

[2] I specifically did not mention it then, because I knew it will someday deserve its own full entry.

[3] English language fails me here.  The word that we actually use translates as “trestle bed”, but that seems to mean nothing to anyone.  I literally have spent no time on the beach in my English-speaking life, after an entire childhood of sun-drenched salt-water summers.

[4] In later years, during summers at the Baltic Sea, Nines replaced Fool as the rousing card game of choice. My grandfather subsequently demonstrated himself as the most charming cheat in the game of Nines.

[5] Eventually, the seven of clubs was lost, and we drew a card on nothing better than a piece of green blotter paper.  Needless to say, the seven of clubs was extremely conspicuous.

[6] And I never found Piatnik’s King Arthur deck.  I probably could now, but I prefer to leave this slight gap in the collection.  “Nothing in life has any business being perfect”.

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O Fado

Lest anyone should think that all of my trips were comical debacles, I would like to unequivocally say: not exactly.  Has something absurd and ridiculous happened to me on every vacation?  Yes, yes it has.  Has it ruined every vacation?  Not even close (just the one).  Interestingly enough, the most disastrous trip of the past half century was followed by the most lovely, gentle, and perfect one two years later. 

Coincidentally, right around that time my mom saw a documentary about Portugal, and was raving about their tiled streets.  Acknowledging that these alleged tiled streets was the one thing I have been missing in my life was the first step.  The second was to search for locations that were not billed, in the standard timeshare parlance, as those where “a car is needed to enjoy the area”.  (Personally, I do not think a car is ever needed to enjoy “the area”.  It is needed to get you to a different area you may or may not enjoy.) 

In 1999, my knowledge of Portugal was limited to the Age of Explorers.  Its modern history was a non-event.  I have not even heard of the Carnation Revolution of 1974, coming as it did so close on the heels of the death of Georges Pompidou, which made an infinitely greater impression on me at the time.  But, I read that Portugal is warm in March (true!), and that there is a couple of small towns on the direct train line to Lisbon, one of which, Cascais, had a studio available.  And so we went.

Let me get the bad things out of the way.  First, my mother foisted a giant travel guide on us.  Eyewitness Travel Guides, while very colorful and pretty, are pointless for daily travel.  You are basically carrying a brick around.  It also contained the most useless restaurant recommendations, for needlessly overpriced and flavorless food which you would be hard pressed to find in Portugal, but the writers of this book did.  (Good news–Já Sei in Belém, charging more escudos per “gamba” than most other places charge for an entire meal, is closed now.  Feeling vindicated!)

I LOVE MY BRICK – YouTube

Second, getting to Belém from Lisbon by train is strangely complicated.  A couple of times, when we were riding home to Cascais, the train would stop in Belém—but when we actually decided to get out, to see the famous tower, the Jerónimos Monastery, and the monument to the explorers, it would not.  It took several false starts riding past it and finally walking back from the next stop before we finally achieved this goal. 

This is a stock photo.
I took a photo of someone’s beautiful house in Estoril instead.

Finally, I was thrown out of a casino in Estoril.  For some reason, European casinos do not allow cameras.  This is still true—we could not enter a single casino in Monte Carlo, either, when we were there three years ago.  Apparently it is a privacy issue.  So whatever, I had to leave while spouse wandered around inside this famous casino (apparently the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale”[1].  It was too amazing an opportunity for him to join me in disgrace outside, and surprisingly, I hold no grudge against him.  But I was not happy with the casino administration and avenged myself by not taking any photos of it outside either.  So there.

But these are minor hiccups.  The only real regret I have from that trip is that in the pre-digital age, I did not take enough photos.  Two rolls, while impressive for just a week in those days, seem woefully inadequate now.  Chief regret is not having any photographic memory of the magical evenings in the hotel’s restaurant, enjoying “bebida do dia[2]” and the music of Miguel Santos.  I hope he became rich and at least locally famous—he deserved it…

It was warm and sunny and did not rain once.  It was affordable, even to us.  The food, once we went off-book, was delicious, especially to a seafood lover like me, and even a plate full of smoked herring with eyes still staring at me was an adventure.  The architectural monuments were breathtaking.  It was easy to get around, both to the train station in Cascais from where we made our way to Portugal, and further afield, to Sintra.  And my shoes did not try to kill me[3].

This is still the gold standard of vacations for us.  I have subsequently wondered if it was largely being at the right place at the right time, having no expectations and simply enjoying everything that the place offered.  After the disaster that was the First Spanish Trip [The First Spanish Trip – Old Lady Writing], it was almost too much to expect something normal.  But the stars aligned, and it was a treat for every sense.  The view from our window:    The famed tiled streets:   Lisbon, magnificent yet still approachable:   Picturesque Sintra: Fascinating museums, including the jewel that is the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian: .

We fell in love—and stayed away for 17 years for fear of disillusionment, in case lightning does not strike twice[4].

Last but not least: Boca do Inferno, a chasm in the oceanside cliffs near Cascais

[1]From Wikipedia:  Casino Royale was inspired by certain incidents that took place during Fleming’s wartime career at the Naval Intelligence Division (NID), or by events of which he was aware. On a trip to Portugal, en route to the United States, Fleming and the NID Director, Admiral Godfrey, went to the Estoril Casino. Because of Portugal’s neutral status, Estoril’s population had been swelled by spies and agents from the warring regimes.

[2] And none of it was port.  We literally spent a week in Portugal and did not try any port.  That was kind of weird.

[3] There was also the delightful surprise of the European Figure Skating Championship taking place at the same time—and being televised in its entirety on Portuguese TV.  How perfect is that?

[4] Spoiler alert: it does.

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The First Spanish Trip

It was not *my* first trip to Spain, but third.  Unlike my relationship with Paris [https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/09/when-did-the-arc-de-triomphe-start-leaning/], my relationship with Spain devolved over the years, and what we call “The First Spanish Trip” has a lot to do with it.

It started out on a very auspicious note.  I was young (though not as young as I was when I first went to Paris) and poor (though, again, not as poor).  I had not travelled in several years by that point, if you do not count visiting family in Brooklyn (arduous drive-through-the-night weekend car trips) and Tennessee (same).  Why weekends only?  Because I live in a country where you have no expectation of paid time off.  God bless America!

Somehow, a point was reached where a week’s vacation became an attainable goal, and a travel agent was contacted.  Her involvement also seemed promising at first, as she mentioned that the roundtrip flights to Europe, particularly to either London or Madrid, were reasonably priced–$300, to be exact, which even a quarter of a century ago was very affordable.

I vaguely remember sitting in my office and calling my spouse to check if he would prefer London or Madrid.  He had never been to Europe except purportedly some bizarre flight to Germany on a military plane for literally one day.  The story is long on holes and short on details, and is not likely to merit another mention in print.  I have previously been to both London AND Madrid.  He fatefully asked, which one has better food?  Even now, a quarter of a century later, having had many a glorious adventure in London, I would wholeheartedly cheer for Madrid for a superior culinary experience.  Back then, it was a rhetorical question.

And then, in a strange twist of fate, I acquired a week of timeshare.  There are probably more timeshares in Costa del Sol than anywhere else in the world.  They are pretty fabulous resorts, even if you are not young and poor and have not taken a vacation in several years.  Looking at the map, the drive from Madrid to Malaga’s environs is a lot shorter than the above-mentioned ones—in fact, about half the distance.  On paper, it made perfect sense to rent a car and drive South, enjoying both the capital and the coast.  A lot of things make sense on paper…

Again, because this is not a travelogue, I will only mention the mistakes that were made on this, my first adult vacation.  To this day, my spouse has not recovered from some of these.  The Second Spanish Trip, despite having been a perfectly lovely and fulfilling voyage which included many of the things we missed the first time, is largely ignored and forgotten, so large looms the shadow of The First.  We may never pass this way again…

  1. Renting a car.  I actually rented a car twice in Europe within the past year, and drove through Bavaria and Gascony, both possessing of narrow winding rounds through hilly terrain.  But you know why this is no longer a problem?  Because of technology.  It is a lot easier to drive with the GPS telling you where to turn and automatically recalculating for road construction than it is when you are trying to read a many-paged Spanish-language atlas you bought at Borders (but I still miss Borders).  Spouse was driving, since he is the only one who can drive a stick (a terrible European practice that, thankfully, has also gone away.  No need to make life more difficult).  I was frantically flipping through the giant map atlas.  Everyone was screaming.  A couple of peculiarities about Spanish highways: (1) When you see the “exit” sign, you literally have a second to swerve and exit.  There is no 1 mile (or 1.6 km) warning, there are no multiple signs leading up to the exit.  It’s just the exit, and there it went, and you are still driving.  And if you think you can just exit at the next one and return—seriously, you think you can do that in Spain?  Cute.  (2) Sometimes, the highway entrance ramps are closed.  Again, no warning, no construction signs, no yellow tape, just a barrier that someone put up to stop you from getting on the highway—so you need to very carefully reverse back down ramp.  There was a lot of reversing done on that trip.  (This sign would have been very helpful at the time) (3) If there is a detour, there are—you guessed it—no signs guiding you on an alternate path.  If you are driving from Madrid to the coast, and the only road that you can see on the map is out of commission, you might end up going up a mountain and then down the other side to get back on track.  The view was breathtaking, not the least because there are no barriers, not even the flimsy ones, between the narrow road and the side of the mountain, but I have never felt so close to death (except later on this trip; see below).  We did drive through a town called Lanjaron—elevation 2,162 ft—where they make bottled water.  Whenever I saw the bottles thereafter, I shuddered.  And this is how a hypothetical five hour drive became a day-long, white-knuckled affair that pretty much set the tone for the entire vacation.
  2. Flea Market.  I hate flea markets, which is a holdover from the days I spent with my grandparents in Brooklyn.  South of Spain was filled with them.  Maybe it still is, I do not know.  Everyone seemed very keen on recommending them to us, and we put some effort into avoiding them.  Imagine our surprise when we actually encountered one at an amusement park.  Yes, right next to the swinging pirate ship in Tivoli World in Benalmadena Costa, various vendors spread their wares on the ground.  I bought a calculator to help me with currency conversion, and it broke before the end of the vacation.  And by the way, Tivoli World is lame, cannot recommend.  Of course, I live within driving distance of “America’s Roller Coast”, but even so, and even without the flea market all over itself, Tivoli World was not worth visiting. (It might be nicer now)
  3. Clamps.  Parking can be a challenge in Europe, especially if you cannot afford it.  On my last two trips that involved a car, which consequently involved parking, I occasionally paid for it.  Ah, the privilege of middle age—being able to afford to drive your car into a public garage!  It is not even grossly overpriced—you can pay less for an entire day of parking during Oktoberfest in Munich than you would for an hour in Chicago’s Loop, true story!  But back then, either parking was unaffordable, or it simply was not there, or both.  Our most confusing day was in Gibraltar, where we congratulated ourselves on finding a great free spot for our rented Opel Kadett under an innocuous sign “clamps”.  OK, clamps, whatever, and we walked away.  And then we saw it:  all the cars similarly parked had fluorescent orange boots on one wheel.  “Clamps” is literally what we did not think it was—it clamps onto your car to prevent it from moving, because it is in a *no parking* spot!  We ran back so fast (I could still run at that point on vacation—keep reading), and rescued the car from imminent clamping.  Gibraltar is English territory.  Why not just say “no parking”?  A mystery, but one we solved in the nick of time. (This detailed sign and illustration would have been very helpful)
  4. Driving up The Rock.  Again, being poor, but in possession of a car, we could not afford the funicular, and decided to drive up to The Rock of Gibraltar.  The road we took was clearly one way, because it was narrow enough for just one European-sized car, although we were puzzled at the lack of indicators which was the one way heading.  We assumed we missed the direction sign, because going the way we were just felt right—until we turned a sharp corner and were confronted by a bus barreling toward us at what seemed like the speed of light.  It was the one time in my life I was certain I was going to die.  It was, to this day, the scariest thing that has ever happened to me.  We screeched to a stop.  The bus screeched to a stop.  Spouse apologized for going the wrong way on a one-way street. The bus driver replied, nonchalantly, “It is a two-way system, but you are going the wrong way to the rock”.  Apparently, no panic is warranted.  If someone is coming your way, you pull over—onto the sidewalk, hopefully not running over pedestrians—and let them pass.  But this was just not the right street for us.  So we retraced our steps and took another, similarly terrifying, route.
  5. Monkeys.  Gibraltar is home to the only free-roaming monkeys in Europe.  They are cute, but they are not domesticated.  This is their home.  We are mildly unwelcome visitors.  Unless you have something they want.  Some years later, they attacked my grandmother because she pulled out a packet of airline peanuts from her pocket (back when airlines served peanuts)[1].  That day, they mostly entertained themselves by getting into some carelessly unlocked cars, preening in rearview mirrors, and pooping on the seats.  The only thing we did right was lock our car with the windows up.  And then a monkey stole spouse’s glasses, and I painfully twisted my ankle while chasing it.  I managed to get the glasses back, but at great personal cost.  My ankle hurt, the rest of the trip’s itinerary had to be scrapped because I could not walk very much and had to stay close to the resort, but thank God for socialized medicine—at least I got some amazing painkillers for free from the infirmary at the resort[2].(Actual photos I took)
  6. Bat.  Our trip combined the Riviera and Madrid, where we finally parted with the car and thought we might breathe easier for a few days.  That was not to be.  The very first evening out promenading in the city, we were encountered by a protest.  We had no idea what it was about, but it was alarming both because of our reluctance to be a part of an international incident and because its shouting, marching, flag-waving demonstration was led by a bat.  Yes, a real flying creature of the night charged ahead of the humans and toward us.  We ran and hid.  I mean, what else was there to do? 
  7. Hostel.  In Madrid, we stayed in a hostel.  This was before hotels.com, let alone Airbnb.  I literally sent a fax in my very basic [two years of high school] Spanish from the U.S. to reserve a hostel.  It might not have been so bad, even without a TV or any amenities but with a shower, had we not just stayed at a fabulous timeshare.  This was when I said to myself, no more hostels for me.  Never again.  And then…
  8. We missed the flight.  Yes, it happened, and I still do not know who is to blame for this.  We arrived at the airport two hours before the designated flight time, and were told that we were two hours too late.  Apparently, this particular flight has been leaving at a different hour for quite some time.  Our tickets were handwritten by the travel agent—who remembers that crazy practice?—who later claimed that the flight time must have been changed after the tickets were issued.  We had no international calling capabilities, and it was long before the flight apps.  The stressed TWA agents, whose employer was going through one of its final bankruptcies, initially just shrugged, but once I became mildly hysterical, offered to rebook us on the next flight out free of charge.  Of course, that flight was not leaving until the next day—22 hours later, at the correct time.  They booked us into—what else?—a hostel[3] in Barajas, a tiny and unpleasant airport town.  By the time we made it to the hostel, the entire town was closed for a five-hour afternoon siesta.  No matter, we were out of money anyway (this was, of course, before credit cards were widely in use and/or accepted in Europe).  At some point, the town’s only eatery opened for a couple of hours, so we scraped together our remaining pesetas and spent them on an American-style burger (that’s all they had, really!) and a pitcher of sangria.  The next morning, we put on the clothes we hastily previously washed in the hostel sink and dried outside.  And thus ended our first and worst adult and European vacation. [4]

Not my photo, but this is about as exciting as I remember Barajas.

[1] Do not feel bad for grandma.  She was, and is, fine.  It takes more than a pack of wild monkeys to take her down.

[2] I have been telling this story for all these years, but it is a fiction—some might say, a lie, but that is such an ugly word.  What actually happened is that I twisted my ankle in the excitement of getting to the bargain basement of Marks & Spencer’s.  Which is a stupid thing that I do not like to mention, but now you know.

[3] Hostal Viky is still in existence.  I am not going to give it a review, either here or anywhere else, because it may very well be a fine establishment of its kind, but as the final indignity at the end of a comedy of errors, it did not impress.

[4] But you know what was NOT bad about The First Spanish Trip?  My footwear!  [https://oldladywriting.com/2020/07/30/the-wrong-way-to-the-parthenon/] In the photos, I am wearing tennis shoes.  How American!  It was the last time I wore tennis shoes to Europe.  That is also something that has changed over the past quarter of a century, but now I am old, and my running shoes are for running.

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All to the Polls!

One of my most favorite childhood memories is when I served as Honor Guard at an election.  I have forgotten a lot of the particulars about what, how, why, and even when.  Frankly, I do not want to ask for corroboration, because I am almost afraid that my friends’ memories are not as glorious as mine. 

“I’m no expert, but I remember reading somewhere, every time you retrieve a memory, that act of retrieval, it corrupts the memory a little bit.  Maybe changes it a little”[1].  Well, this particular memory has probably been retrieved to the point beyond recognition, for the joy brought by the factual experience of it as well as for the sheer uniqueness of the experience.  Observing an election in the Soviet Union, a state that officially only existed for 70 years (75 if you count from the Revolution)!  From the inside!  Had I known how soon it was going to end, for me AND the country, I would have tried to remember more and better.  But how?

And so, in the year I cannot name with any certainty other than it was in the late ‘70s, our classroom teacher, a particularly unpleasant personage who ostensibly taught us, badly, algebra and geometry, announced that our class was chosen to serve as Honor Guard at an election.  Participation, in the way of the Soviet regime, was mandatory—but we did get to miss class, which was as desirable in that time and place as it has been for schoolchildren since the beginning of time.  The fact that I was excited to be formally excused from class indicates that it must have been before I became a brazen truant, so probably fourth grade.

” A deputy is a servant of the people”–no argument here.

What election could it have been?  Probably for the delegates to the local soviet (which just means “council”—there is really nothing more sinister to this word; it is also the word for “advice”).  Periodically there were leaflets promoting various candidates, with their names and photos and nothing else because (1) their party affiliation was obvious and (2) so were their campaign promises.

The polling place was a school, but not ours–#57, which was in my home district (I went to a school of choice, #37.  It included some children of the intelligentsia, but otherwise had very little to recommend it in the general landscape of the most stagnant decade of the country’s history).  It was my first and last time inside the building past which I frequently walked on my way to and from my school (the shortcut to #37 past #57 lay past wastelands and garages, which is more than symbolic; the long way, predictably, was via Lenin Avenue).

We were supposed to do our civic duty in shifts, and in groups of four.  It was a happy accident of fate that my BFF and I were the last two girls in class in alphabetical order.  We were told to arrive for our shift wearing our Young Pioneers uniform.  We actually had three types of uniform:  brown dress and black apron for everyday, parade uniform of brown dress and white apron (which you are technically not supposed to wear as a Young Pioneer, but occasionally someone screwed up and forgot and showed up at an important event in the wrong uniform, immediately giving rise to speculation that they were kicked out of the Pioneers), and the Pioneer uniform, white shirt and navy skirt.  Of course, denim skirts were not allowed—and of course, my mother sewed a super-cool denim skirt for me.  The odious math teacher would sidle up to me and admonish me for wearing denim, and I would assure her that next time I would wear plain navy wool.  It was our own little détente.

But that day, we were ready to represent, and I am sure that my skirt was wool, my red tie had no soup stains, and there was a giant white bow in my hair.  The entire class was extremely nervous leading up to the big event, because a rumor was floating that we might have to stand stock still and hold the Pioneer salute for the entire time.  Not only did that rumor turn out to be false, but we also were fed on breaks during our 2-4 hour shift: sparkling lemonade and the ever-popular “basket” cakes, though not the really delicious ones from the Volkov Theater. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is pirozhnoe-korzinochka4-360x240-1-1.jpg

https://oldladywriting.com/2020/07/26/all-my-world-is-a-stage/ Despite the fact that one of the two boys in our merry quartet was mine and my BFF’s sworn enemy whom we regularly fought on an off school grounds (in our egalitarian regime, boys and girls regularly engaged in physical combat), we had a grand time during a grand occasion.

The four of us basically just stood in a line on a dais in the school auditorium, trying to convey the motto “Pioneer is always ready” with our eager and helpful demeanors.  We felt like we were entrusted with tremendous responsibility when an old woman approached us and asked for clarification on how to check off the one box on the ballot, and where to put the ballot.  It could not have been her first time voting, but she either needed help because, well, age leads you there, or she wanted to make the young feel included.  She was performing her civic duty.  We were there to help.  We felt the weight of the moment.

Not us, but a fairly accurate representation.

There was a big ballot box sitting in the middle of the room.  There was also one of those polling booths with privacy curtains.  One or two people used it during our shift—but why?  Each ballot had only one candidate’s name on it.  I asked my mother about it afterwards, and she said that it is possible to vote against the one candidate, but then you might have some explaining to do.  Apparently, you also could not abstain from voting—shirking your civic duty was frowned upon, probably earning a reprimand at work from the Soviet HR equivalent.

It is easy now to say that an election with just one candidate is a sham (although I have voted in many a Western Democracy’s election where a candidate also ran unopposed).  It is easy to sneer at a high voter turnout by attributing it to coercion (although if the day of election is a day off work and school ANS you get to eat and sing songs—who wouldn’t? And how is exercising your most important civic duty not a cause for celebration?).    

This memory is my own, and is not an endorsement of any particular political system.  I never voted in that system.  I was an observer, for one brief shining moment, and it left me with a feeling of responsibility that has not left me to this day.  I have seen democracy in action, and I have seen democracy fail.  I remain hopeful—but only just…

“Women enjoy the right to vote and be elected on an equal basis with men.
Long live women, who have equal rights in the USSR!”

[1] Emily St. John Mandel, “The Glass Hotel”.

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Valor and Glory of the Motorbuilders

The municipal autonomous institution of the city of Yaroslavl, Palace of Culture named after A.M. Dobrynin, formerly Palace of Culture of the Motorbuilders, just celebrated its 55th birthday.  In a surprising twist, my first short story (amazingly still unpublished), about a visit to A.M. Dobrynin’s “dacha”, just celebrated its 36th birthday.  Apparently, despite August being a heavy month [https://oldladywriting.com/2019/10/13/sorrow-floats/], it has seen some good times.

This is the best photo of the Palace of Culture of the Motorbuilders, because it is not only from my era, but includes the now defunct “Salut” (firework)–the lamppost much maligned as an eyesore

In the course of my career, I have worked closely with some of the biggest automotive manufacturers in the world, as well as the biggest automotive suppliers.  This is possibly the most boring sentence I have ever written that was not work related.  It is not even a brag.  Everyone who lives in the metropolitan Detroit area is involved in the automotive industry in some way.  So is everyone who lives in Yaroslavl. 

Anatoly Mikhailovich Dobrynin was the General Director of the Yaroslavl Motor Plant from 1961 until 1982, the only one in my lifetime there, and had the longest tenure of any director to date.  I was going to say he was like a Russian Lee Iacocca, but I truly have no idea if there is any comparison. Frankly, Lee Iacocca should have been so lucky.  Comrade Dobrynin was a Hero of Socialist Labor, recipient of Lenin and State Prizes of the USSR, and many other labor medals, prizes, and honors.  And because his entire career and life (the two ended pretty much simultaneously) fit into the several decades of the Soviet Union’s existence, he got to lead an enterprise which, besides its manufacturing prowess, was also a giant benefactor to the city’s workers.  Basically, the big plants subsidized various affiliated ventures.  For example, the Motor Plant contributed to the creation of the Motorbuilders’ Palace of Culture, Motorbuilders’ Park, movie theaters, stadiums, etc.

The interior of this Palace of Culture is a bit elusive for me.  I had few occasions to enter it.  I did not attend any of the children’s classes there.  Despite it being significantly closer to our house than the Young Pioneers Palace, where I spent four tortured years at an art studio [https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/04/run-your-own-race/], I only entered the Palace of the Motorbuilders for the movie theater (which was, again despite its convenient location, somewhat unpopular among the youthful moviegoers, and is now defunct) or to attend the exclusive New Year’s parties.   I strongly suspect that, given that the Motorbuilders were so superior to all the other organizations in our city, I could not possibly qualify for any of their children’s clubs and afterschool activities.  I could only hope to be admitted to the events at the Young Pioneers’, which had to take all young pioneers (and had vastly inferior New Year’s parties), or at the Giant Club, which was loosely affiliated with the other major plant in my town, the Tire Plant.  The Tire Plant was uncool, and its director was entirely unknown.  Giant, however, had a better movie theater—and, I was accepted into the Young Pioneers on the Giant stage.  But I digress.

Not the actual photo of the slide at the Culture Palace.

A word about the New Year’s parties.  They were basically Christmas parties, complete with a Christmas tree (called, naturally, New Year’s tree), Santa Claus (Grandpa Frost), and gifts for all the kids. At the Motorbuilders’, the gift package would include a tangerine.  Tangerines were not as exclusive as bananas, but one did not simply encounter a tangerine in the middle of a Russian winter in the seventies.  The parties would include various activities such as some kind of a fairy tale staging, loud yelling at the tree to “light up”, and presentation of the gifts to the children.  Because the Motorbuilders’ Palace was huge, they also had slides.  I have no idea where they would come from and to where they would retire after the holiday season, but the slides were possibly even more exciting than the tangerines.  Life just does not get better than when hundreds of children are pushing and shoving to go down a giant slide at a Palace of Culture before New Year’s.  As we used to say, thank you for our happy childhood, beloved Motherland.   

Right behind the Palace of Culture was the Motorbuilders’ Park.  Apparently it is officially named the Anniversary Park, as it was created for the town’s 950th anniversary in 1960, but no one calls it that.  The colloquially known Motor Park, Yaroslavl’s answer to Paris’ Luxembourg Gardens and Madrid’s Parque del Buen Retiro, was lush, green, and huge.  When I visited it two years ago, it somehow became small, weird, and scruffy.  I strongly suspect it was because my BFF kind of rushed me through it so that we could go home and eat, and I did not get the full effect.  But, in the glorious 70s the park was home not just to gorgeous alleys for promenading and a very impressive round fountain in the middle as befits European capitals, but also to many exciting rides such as “boats” (those big swings that you see at Renaissance faires), “runner” (a strange contraption of several wheels that lifted kids in attached seats up and down as it also moved in a circle, and was out of commission much more often than it was functioning—to find the “runner” actually running was like finding a unicorn in a Soviet zoo.  I kid; we had no zoo), and “autotrain” (A train that ran through the park. Why auto?  Because it was not on rails).

Actual footage at the park in 1974.  I am not there, but could have been.  Look for the rarely functioning ”runner” at 1:50, a very clear view of the back of the Palace at 3:36, followed by “boats”, and then some “adult” rides, such as the “Devil’s (Ferris)” wheel, which for some reason did not allow children.

Last but not least, the Motor Plant owned a resort, officially known as a “recreation center” (the word “resort” was much too bourgeois), named Forest.  Forest was literally in the forest on the banks of the Volga.  If you worked for the Motor Plant, you could get a “voucher” to spend a summer week at the Forest.  My times at the Forest deserve their own story, if ever one can be written to give full justice to the joys of Soviet childhood on the Volga—and I mean that without even a hint of sarcasm.  It was basically an all inclusive resort, and for its time and place it was just perfect. 

The main building at the Forest. It does not do the place justice.

But wait, it gets better.  Deep in the actual forest that surrounded the Forest, there was one more building—the “dacha” (country house, summer cottage, chalet) of the director of the Motor Plant, Comrade Dobrynin.  It so happened that my grandfather’s friend, Uncle Sasha, was the director of the Forest, which somehow resulted in us being invited, on several incredible occasions, to stay at the Dobrynin dacha.  Of course, we never referred to him as Dobrynin, Comrade Dobrynin, or especially Anatoliy Mikhailovich.  He was “Director”.  Not that we ever met him—I mean, Uncle Sasha must have, but no one in my family has, as far as I know.  It goes without saying that we only stayed at the dacha when Director was not in residence.  And when I say “dacha”, I do not mean the cabins that all of our friends had “za Volgoi” (on the other bank of the Volga, beyond the city walls), without electricity, indoor plumbing, or even water (as a child, I found gathering water from a well very charming).  No, Director’s dacha was a literal mansion.  I mean, it was not even a regular person’s house.  I remember two things most distinctly: a billiard room (which I blame for my lifelong burning desire to possess a pool table.  Which I’ve had for almost 20 years now, and have probably used six times within the first year of getting it and none since) and a dining room which I seem to recall looking exactly like that dining room in the first Batman movie, the one with Michael Keaton (THE Batman).  That movie came out over a decade after we ate pea soup in the Director’s mansion, by the way.  Food for thought.

Why pea soup, you ask?  Well, there was one touch-and-go trip when Uncle Sasha called my grandparents and another couple, the Osipovs, good friends and fellow adventurers, and invited them to the dacha as Director was not going to be in[1].  The five of us started gathering, but I recall some hesitance on someone’s part until Uncle Sasha’s wife, Aunt Lida, enticed us with a promise of delicious pea soup prepared by the Director’s cook, Mrs. Patmore[2]

It was exactly like this.

Somewhere along the way, we got the command to retreat, as Director was coming after all.  But how?  This was before cell phones.  It was barely after regular phones, because, Soviet Russia.  The cavalcade must have been intercepted while the Osipovs’ orange car was picking us up.  We dispersed.  And then—false alarm.  Director was not coming after all.  We were going to taste the pea soup!  He didn’t, and we did.  In the Batman dining room.  It was magnificent.  And I thought to myself, people live like this in the West.  And I was wrong, because no one I know lives like this in the West, because I do not get personally invited to the mansions of the automotive companies’ CEOs.

Rare unpublished manuscript

But the experiences at the Director’s dacha made such an impression on me that when I wrote my first short story, in 1984, it was about one such visit.  I exercised poetic license by replacing grandparents and their friends with a fun gang of kids my own age, who cause mischief and wreak havoc, and they actually get to meet the Director, who turns out to be charming and not intimidating.  Perhaps that is how Comrade Dobrynin really was.  I would not know.  And then everyone eats pea soup.  The end.


The modern day branding of the Palace of Culture.

For more information, current events at the Palace, fun videos, and an occasional retro photo: https://www.facebook.com/groups/dkdobrynina1965/

[1] I lived with my grandparents, so wherever they went, I went.  They were in their mid-fifties then, so like older parents.  Almost all of their friends were at least a few years younger, so this is not a feeble elder crowd, just so you know.

[2] I lie.  No one called her that.  It was Comrade Patmore.

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Personal Best

The unthinkable and the entirely unexpected happened—I won a running award that was not just for showing up!  I actually placed second in my age category in a masked, socially distanced race. And though I have always joked that the only way I will place is if only three women run, I always secretly hoped for just such an eventuality.  Frankly, I thought I might have to wait a couple more decades for the ranks to start thinning.  Turns out I just had to wait for the pandemic that would turn most races virtual.  The point in my favor was that with no more than 100 runners, the competition was not that stiff.  However, I have to clarify that there were seven (7) women that showed up in my age category.  And I still placed second (2nd).  There were five (5) entire women slower than me, which is an amazing improvement since gym class[1]. https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/04/run-your-own-race/

The race itself was actually pretty brutal, and not something in which I would participate under normal circumstances.  I mean, I did not know how crazy it would be because as always, I carefully read the directions about where to park, where to stand to socially isolate at the start, and when to wear the mask.  I blithely overlooked the facts that the race was (1) at night, and (2) in the woods.  Words like “moonlit”, “9 pm”, “trail”, and “forest” did not cause any alarms to go off, so excited I was to just run in an actual race.  And so, I literally stumbled through the dark jungle, leaping (and I use the term loosely) over tree roots, trying not to slip in the mud (as it rained shortly beforehand), alternately praying and swearing.  It was also extremely hilly.  Pure adrenaline moved me forward, based on a desperate desire to not perish in the woods.  This was easily the most exciting thing that happened to me since the plague came to town.

Picture this logo on everything that money can buy in the USSR in 1980. It is more than you would expect.

The real twist in all of this is that this past weekend marked the 40th anniversary of the Moscow Olympics.  I tend to see symbolism and omens in everything.  For me, it seemed auspicious to run—and “medal”!—on such an august (see what I did there?) occasion.

 

The year 1980 was one of the best, if not THE best, year of my life.  It was the last year of my childhood, and my childhood was pretty wonderful.  The Olympics lent the entire year the aura of magic, camaraderie, and celebration.  These were the first Games to come to Eastern Bloc, and are the only Summer Games that took place there to this day.  They were a tremendous big deal for The Soviet Machine.  We all know now how that worked out, sadly, and from then on[2]. But for those of us in close proximity to the Big Event, it was a truly exciting time.

This New Year’s card also lives in my basement.

There were several things that made it so.  First, the merch.  You literally could not buy anything that did not have the Olympic logo on it.  And everything that had the logo cost more, even if it was just a few kopeks. It was a cunning plan to raise money, I suppose.  We normally call such a scheme a “load”, but during that glorious year, people were eager to buy even dinner plates that had the discreet stylized image of the Kremlin with the five rings under it.  I myself was a proud owner of a messenger bad with the logo.  I mean, everyone had one, but I was not usually cool enough to have anything that other kids had.  Yet that year, I did!  And of course, Misha the Olympic Bear was the best mascot, because bears are awesome, and he was the cuddliest of bears.  I dreamed of owning a stuffed toy, but that was an unattainable dream.  I did get a rubbery squeezable one, which we duly brought to the US among our very limited possessions, and which is still lurking somewhere in my house, not having been properly appreciated by my kids.  Fun fact:  the mascot of the sailing regatta, held in Tallinn, was Vigri the Seal.  Since my grandmother and I spent part of the pre-game summer in Tallinn, I am a proud owner of a small wooden Vigri.  He also crossed the Atlantic and lives in my basement.

My mom and I diligently collected every Misha–and some Vigri–pin we could find. Seriously, how cool is this?!
NOT the same brand that we had

Second, the food.  Because of my hometown’s close proximity to Moscow, https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/28/the-three-monuments/ we were getting food.  Not the regular food like meat and potatoes and apples, but tiny portions of packaged food like butter and jam, as well as juice boxes.  These were intended for the athletes, but were siphoned off to the periphery both before their arrival and after their non-arrival.  These were items that you would see outside the Soviet Union in an average, non-fancy diner at breakfast.  To us, they were ambrosia.  I was under strict orders from my grandmother to not tell my friends that we had a supply of this amazing stuff, else we would have an infestation of neighborhood kids in search of mythical juice boxes.  (I received the same orders when we bought a color TV and a car, and whenever we had bananas in the house).

NOT the same brand that we had. There is no image of the incredible juice boxes that I could find. One of the flavors was pineapple–like we even knew what that tasted like!

I still think of Moscow Olympics every time I open a tiny jam container when I have breakfast at a diner.  And I still think of that glorious summer of plenty and exhilaration when I think of the Olympic Games.  And I still say, whenever anyone Russian asks me when I left the Motherland, “After the Olympics”.  And everyone understands.


[1] The plague took my friend who was slower than me in gym class.  I mourn her more than anyone will ever know, and for reasons that have nothing to do with anything that has yet been written…

[2] Five countries have been represented at all Summer Olympic Games – Greece, Great Britain, France, Switzerland, and Australia, but only Greece has participated under its own flag in all modern summer Olympic Games.  Good for Greece, rising above the fray! https://oldladywriting.com/2020/07/30/the-wrong-way-to-the-parthenon/

The cool blue bottle is for winners only!
Featured

The Wrong Way to the Parthenon

I always loved Greece.  To clarify, I always loved Ancient Greece, having grown up on “The Trojan War and Its Heroes” (a masterful retelling of the story old as time for elementary school age children, with delicate silhouette illustrations in which I colored in the hair of every single Achaean), “Adventures of Odysseus” (which always made me uneasy because his 20 year absence from home seemed like a little longer than a lifetime to a seven year old me), and “Legends and Myths of Ancient Greece” (a compilation so complete that I would venture to guess that it contained a story of Zeus turning into almost every creature in Greek fauna to pursue various women—and why that would be more attractive than if he simply appeared to them as a handsome guy is something that I took as Olympian Gospel).

My other source of information about Greece was, of course, my beloved childhood encyclopedia, “What is this, who is that?”  https://oldladywriting.com/2019/11/03/liechtenstein/ It contained not only an article on Greece, but one on “Ancient Greeks” and one on the “Acropolis”.  It stated, quite inarguably, that Parthenon is one of mankind’s most marvelous creations.  But, the article grimly concluded, it exploded in 1687.  Given that this was before the internet, and in the USSR to boot, even imagining the Parthenon’s remnants was beyond the possible.

And so, when the first Big Birthday that we could afford to celebrate with a Big Trip was nigh, we went to Greece. 

These ARE the actual shoes I wore in Greece. And now think, do they look like they would work well on such trip? On any trip, except to the mailbox? I rest my case.

The year was 2007, and it was my last vacation with a non-digital camera.  Because we could afford to splurge for a milestone birthday, I took four rolls of film for a week’s vacation.  Coincidentally, this is the same number of photos I took over an entire summer in Europe almost 20 years earlier.  I also would like to have said that it was my last vacation for wearing uncomfortable shoes.  But, alas, it was not.  I am kind of known (not widely, only within my family) as someone who brings the wrong footwear on vacation.  There have been a few vacations during which a day is dedicated to looking for new shoes for me, because the ones I am wearing are literally trying to kill me.  A useful tip: if you have freakishly giant double extra wide size 42s, do not attempt to shop for ladies boots in Paris. It is an exercise in frustration, and a waste of time.

And so, armed with several useless phrases picked up from a talking parrot of a Greek guy I used to know, lousy shoes, analog camera, but strong knowledge of Greek cuisine (because we live near one of the best Greektowns in the US, if not THE best) as well as strong knowledge of Greek mythology, we arrived.

Our base was a timeshare in Marathon, which is literally marathon distance to Athens.  We never ran or even walked there, because, first, it was long before my running days, and second, it is apparently uphill for half the distance.  It is pretty much the toughest race one can run, which explains a lot about Philippides’ fate upon completing it.  We took a bus every day, which was not physically exhausting, but mentally taxing.  First, it was never quite clear when the bus left Marathon.  There was an hourly schedule, but it was not even loosely followed.  We often had to just meander along the route with the hope that the bus will overtake us as some point during the 26 mile journey, and preferably sooner than later, because Greece is hot in June.  Second, it was completely unclear what bus would take us back to Marathon from Athens.  Every evening, we would wander through the bus park, leaning into every one and yelling “Maratonas?”  Depending on the reaction of the driver, we would board the bus, which took a different route back every.single.time.  And finally, the highlight of the Athens-Marathon trip was when one fine evening, the bus was abruptly stopped in the middle of the road and boarded by heavily armed Greeks in military uniforms who roughly removed an unprotesting and guilty-looking young man.  We recognized him as an employee of the resort where we were staying and from whom we bought sunscreen the previous day.

The resort, aside from apparently employing at least one known shady character, was lovely.  June is not yet a busy time in Europe, so we had it almost entirely to ourselves.  Upon arrival, I promptly invested in a bar card so that I could enjoy local libations every evening.  But, as it was not full tourist season, the bar was sparsely stocked.  So, spouse drank Greek beer while I drank ouzo like it was my job.  Funny thing about ouzo, though—you really cannot drink too much of it.  And so it was two beers and two ouzo[s] every night.  I also bought a box (yes, you read that right) of retsina at the resort shop, along with a small fortune in sunscreen and bandaids.  I have not drank retsina since, as that box did not make much of an impression.  I am not sure I have had ouzo since.  I still sort of associate it with duty rather than pleasure.

The resort had a breakfast buffet which we enjoyed the first morning.  And the second, but less so.  By the third, we thought the scrambled eggs looked familiar, as in they seemed to look literally exactly the same as the day before.  By the fourth day, they were turning green, along with the ham.  We stopped eating there after that.

So, the first day of the vacation we, of course, decided to see the Parthenon.  We arrived at the Acropolis and entered through some gate at the foot of the hill.  From there, we had to choose to turn right or left.  The map we had (for of course this was before GPS as well) did not help with choosing the direction, and being mindful of the fact that most people would go right, we went left. 

The trip up the Acropolis hill was literally a long and winding road.  Along the way, we encountered a couple of Russians loudly arguing in the shrubbery and predictably calling each other “goat”, giant turtles crawling around in a friendly manner, an ancient amphitheater, and many other similar curiosities during a two hour trek in 100 degree heat wearing entirely unsuitable shoes.  Approaching the entrance to the Parthenon, fainting from exhaustion and practically falling on the seller of water and ice cream, we realized that had we turned right when we first arrived, we would have been right around the corner from the ticket booth…

You would think we would have learned something from this experience—and you would be wrong.  A couple of days later we went to Corinth, determined to check out where St. Paul preached to the Corinthians.  We walked and walked, but nothing in town looked like the ancient Corinth of my imagination.  Surprise—we took the wrong turn yet again, as there is New Corinth and Ancient Corinth.  We did eventually find the latter, complete with the exact spot on which St. Paul once stood.  I mean, he must have—the place is not that big.

And finally, the one place where nothing went wrong during our trip was the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.  We spent almost an entire day there.  The highlights included the famous Mask of Agamemnon (quite an ugly mug completely dissimilar from the lovely drawings in my childhood book), kouros statues about which I also learned in childhood (clearly I was a very well-informed kid), and busts of all the Roman emperors in chronological order, which I tried to identify by using my extensive knowledge thereof acquired entirely from the Marcus Didius Falco novels by Lindsey Davis. http://www.lindseydavis.co.uk/

As for the famous Greek Islands, we did not visit them.  We did go to one, Aegina, because it is the closest to Athens, and a fast boat gets you there from the Port of Piraeus in about 40 minutes.  Maybe next time.

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All My World Is a Stage

In my pre-plague life, I never had a spare weekend.  I [used to] see a lot of live theater.  Over the past couple of decades, most other hobbies fell by the wayside as this one escalated.

A few people asked me about the origins of this love.  One was Geraint Wyn Davies[1].  He was just being polite and making small talk, but I launched into some inane monologue of sharing a birthplace with the first professional theater in Russia, the Volkov, named after its founder, Fedor Volkov.  This is factually true, but really, in my day the Volkov was a disaster.  It is a gorgeous classical building of pale yellow, with white columns and ornate façade, second in appearance only to the Bolshoi.  Many famous theaters are so nondescript from the outside.  The House that Moliere Built is simply stunning in its unimpressiveness, despite being home to the largest and deepest stage I have ever seen.  But the Volkov is beautiful, and sits in a strategic location, facing the large round Volkov square containing the statue of Fedor Volkov himself (no surprise),

and one of the oldest historic monuments in town, the 17th century Banner (Znamenskaya) Tower.  It is a spectacle—but a spectacle that used to be entirely external. 

Oh, to be sure, it is also magnificent inside—with its marble red-carpeted stairs, frescoed walls, sculpted ceiling, velvet curtains, and a buffet serving delectable pastries.  Unfortunately, what used to happen on stage in the ‘70s was either stale plays by Ostrovsky (in all fairness, I have never seen or read any of them), stock Communist plays (I have certainly never seen those either), Nutcracker (with substandard local or traveling cast), and an occasional Moliere or other permissible Western classic (performed in a standard static declamatory style).  Before the Young Viewer’s Theater was built (after my time), my class would occasionally troop over to the Volkov on a field trip to see a morality play about the Young Pioneers. 

The pastries were always excellent!

Right before we left the Soviet Union forever, my grandmother and I spent a few days in Moscow.  The family friend with whom we stayed knew someone who worked at the Satire Theatre, and managed to get us in to see “Pippi Longstocking”.  If one was to have such luck as to get into the Satire, or really any Moscow theater in those days, one would be hard pressed to find anything less exciting than “Pippi Longstocking”.  Nonetheless, as proverbial beggars cannot be choosers, it was still thrilling.  There were a couple of actors whom I knew from TV, and that was enough.  I still recall one tune from the musical, for that is indeed what it was, and that is no small measure of an impression it made on me almost 40 years ago.  I never heard this tune again except in my head.  Those were the days when memories were made.

In the US, we were astonished to learn, theater tickets were distributed on a sort of first come, first served basis to those who had the means to pay, rather than on a complicated favoritism scale as a part of a behind the scenes black market economy.  That was an incredible concept, although I did not know the actors and did not want to see them.  Whenever my mother and I found ourselves in New York at the same time, she dragged me to Times Square to stand in line for half price tickets.  The first Broadway play I saw was “Foxfire”, with Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn[2], and Keith Carradine.  We must have already been living in the US for a bit, because I knew who Keith Carradine was[3].  I understood almost nothing, as my English was so poor and certainly not theater-ready at the time, but I did understand that I was in the presence of greatness.  I held on to the memory and still cherish.  I wish I had kept the program…

We saw a few great shows over the years when I was in high school: several G&S productions https://oldladywriting.com/2020/03/29/it-is-a-glorious-thing/, and an amazing production of “As You Like It” in Jackson before Michigan Shakespeare Festival settled there. https://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com/   It is still the gold standard for that play for me.  Each act was done in a different setting.  The city was all shades of gray and furs and muffs, the forest was all pastels, and the rest I do not remember.  Nonetheless, for what was my first encounter with Shakespeare in the language I was still learning, it certainly left a lasting impression.  But the real theater life started in Fort Worth.

When I was in college and my parents (I use the term loosely when it includes my late stepfather) lived in Fort Worth, they discovered a small regional theater called Stage West. https://stagewest.org/  In a tiny space of about 100 seats, they used to put on a fantastic variety of plays—and still do.  My first exposure was to a dysfunctional comedy at Christmas called “Seasons Greetings”—we still laugh about “Pig number one, pig number two”, although I have never seen it performed since.  From then on, every time I visited my parents, we would go to Stage West.  It was always a delight, with an underlying feeling of uncomfortable incredulity about how a troop of local actors in some shed on a rough dockyard-like street would do a better artistic job than the permanent staff of the oldest professional theater in all of Russia, working in a gorgeous building with delicious pastries.

As an aside, I had the great fortune of revisiting Stage West a few years ago during a work conference in Dallas.  My mother joined me, and we saw Stoppard’s “The Real Thing”.  As a purportedly more sophisticated theater goer after the passage of almost three decades, I was still astonished.  It was a world-class production.  And one of those moments when I said to myself, I am the luckiest girl in the world.  Gosh, I just live for those moments!

And then there came Stratford.  https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/  This is a story that has been told often, and at almost every Stratford social event.  It is just a conversation starter—how long have you been coming, what was your first experience?  In my young married life, theater was not a factor, as we had neither time nor money, and never both at the same time.  One fine day in 1996, my college friend suggested a girlfriends’ day to see a play.  So the three of us drove three hours, arrived on a rain-soaked Saturday in August, ate some weird concoction prepared by one of us (not me!) for lunch in the car, and entered the Festival Theatre to behold the great William Hutt as King Lear.  It was unquestionably one of the defining moments of my life. I wish I had kept the program…

Initially it was an annual trip.  Initially it was just Shakespeare.  Then we added other shows that sounded interesting, and once a season became not enough.  Then some years later my friend lost interest and was replaced by my spouse.  Then my kids started coming, and several other friends came along, and I even went by myself once when I could not sell anyone on “Fuenteovejuna”[4].

Along the way, I started to go to the theater everywhere I have traveled for work or leisure, and then planning trips with seeing plays as the goal.  It became my identity— “I go to the theater”.  It is what I do and who I am.  For the time being, I do not and I am not.  It feels like an intermission of my life.  With theaters closed for the foreseeable future, I no longer know who I am and what to do with my after-work life.  As I see it, I have two options:  (1) reinvent and find some new interests, or (2) hunker down with my memories and wait it out.  Or maybe both?  Stay tuned…

The new Tom Patterson theater–as of this writing, it has not yet opened…

[1] I am just name dropping here. J

[2] Is it a coincidence that Hume Cronyn is Canadian?  I think not.

[3] I saw Keith Carradine on a BroadwayCon panel a few years ago, and he actually mentioned “Foxfire” with fondness.  What a full circle!

[4] Anyone who has not seen this Stratford production should be living with regrets.  I am just saying.

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Team Phantom

***Warning this post contains plot spoilers.  I do not want to discourage anyone from reading anything I write, but here it is: I will be divulging the plot of “Love Never Dies” below.  To my three loyal readers—I think you already know this, so please read on!

Last Saturday I woke up to the words “The Phantom of the Opera is here!” thundering through my house.  Being the musical lover that I am, I rolled out of bed, quite literally, and stumbled downstairs toward the source.  Spouse was watching the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber YouTube channel, The Shows Must Go On.

When I moved to New York City, “Phantom” was the hottest ticket in town.  It was not even new by then, but the wait for tickets was two years.  Two years, “Hamilton” fans!  In those pre-internet days, I literally had to call the box office and be told that I can get on the wait list.  I planned to be in NYC for three years, but I was also 21.  Needless to say, I never got on a wait list, and never saw “Phantom” on Broadway.  Instead, I continued to listen to the tape.  I loved the soundtrack, and still do.  

However, something always bothered me about “Phantom”.  Plot is important to me (unless we are talking about “G&S” (https://oldladywriting.com/2020/03/29/it-is-a-glorious-thing/).  The fact that Christine ends up with Raoul always seemed like a copout. Raoul is not that special, but he is handsome, and beautiful girls end up with handsome men and not with disfigured cavern dwellers.  I realize that that’s the original story, but I also think that Sir Andrew can do whatever he wants to do.  And guess what?  A quarter of a century later, he did.  “Love Never Dies” is a vindication of Team Phantom.

Seeing “Love Never Dies” was one of those unexpected transformative experiences that only live theater can give.  We found ourselves in London for a night’s layover, and my only goal was to sleep in a pod.  That was, by the way, absolutely terrible.  You might think it would be cute to sleep in a box where you cannot even comfortably turn, as I did before I experienced this nonsense, but trust me—it is the worst. But I digress.

We had a few evening hours in London, so of course ran to Leicester Square to buy show tickets.  “Love Never Dies”, the sequel to “Phantom”, seemed interesting.  Little did we know, it was selling terribly and was already set to close.  I am still sad about it.  This is not only one of the most beautiful stories and musical works I have seen (“Beneath the Moonless Sky” and “Devil Takes the Hindmost” quartet are alone worth the price of admission), but it has also finally reconciled me to “Phantom” by redeeming (and ultimately martyring—and what can be more redeeming than that?)  the seemingly superficial Christine.

Once I saw “Love Never Dies”, I have not been able to view “Phantom” the same way.  Once you know that Raoul will end up a drunk and a gambler and a total anchor for Christine, their whole courtship in “Phantom” looks doomed.  I kept wanting to tell Christine to just ditch him and stay with Phantom.   

When I saw “Beneath a Moonless Sky” live on stage, it was so unexpected and so heartbreaking.  Christine sang, “I loved you, I’d have followed anywhere you led”, and I just saw her in a completely different light, a woman beaten but unconquered by a bad marriage, full of regrets over a lost love, a woman who was prepared to follow her heart but who was given no choice in the matter and tried to do her best.  And Angel of Music returns too late, because life is complicated…

I understand that a lot of the fans of the original story hated the fact that Christine dies in “Love”.  But I think that no other solution would have worked.  No one would have believed if she and Phantom stayed together and lived happily ever after, and no one would have believed if she stayed with that wastrel Raoul.  Sorry, but she basically had to die—which makes the entire two-parter a great and tragic love story and ultimately elevates the original “Phantom”[*].

Now a word about the failed London production versus the revised Australian one, which was more successful.  If you see “Love Never Dies” on official video, you will see the latter one—and I am sorry.  Aside from the fact that I saw Ramin Karimloo as Phantom and Sierra Boggess in it, the West End version is superior in several subtle but key ways.  First, the set is better—one of those rare instances where computer generated set works (and anyone who knows me knows that I do not love CGI on stage).  The lights of Coney Island in Adelphi Theater were unforgettable!  The entire show is just darker and more mysterious, which is absolutely what it needs to be.

Second, starting the show with Madame Giry and the Phantasma freaks reminiscing is much more intriguing and evocative of the start of “Phantom” (“The Coney Island Waltz/That’s the Place That You Ruined, You Fool!”), while starting the show with Phantom singing “Till I Hear You Sing” [Once More] is just too much foreshadowing.  I am a firm believer that you just do not need to see Phantom in his mask until a few numbers in.  You know he is coming, unless you have never seen or heard of him.  In which case, you are in for an even bigger treat!


[*] Honorary mention goes to the amazing music box monkey that steals the show, according to my youngest son.

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It Is a Glorious Thing

If you do not know that “Chariots of Fire” is my favorite movie, you do not know me.   https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/04/run-your-own-race/ Once I saw it, I became obsessed with everything mentioned in the film, such as

  • Watching PBS, in the hopes of running into any of the actors who appeared in “Chariots”.  This was before BBC America, friends!
  • Watching the Olympics.  OK, I loved the Olympics since Moscow ’80.  “Chariots” didn’t do it singlehandedly, but still.
  • Wanting to go to England.  We had no resources to do that for a very long time.  Eventually I went to London for spring break of my senior year in college.  With my grandmother.  I repeat—with my grandmother.  If you do not know how fraught our relationship is, you do not know me.  But there is a happy end to this particular story—I have visited London many times since then, sans Grandma, and each trip has been an improvement.
  • Wanting to take “Sybil” for my middle name.  Sybil is NOT my middle name, because by the time I could acquire one, I had fallen in love with The Monkees.
  • Wanting to see all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
  • Wanting to have “Jerusalem” sung at my funeral.  I am saving this one for last.  Literally and obviously.

So, one of the many unexpectedly wonderful benefits of this great film is that it introduced me to the world of Gilbert and Sullivan.  And unlike my belated foray into running, this was instant.  In the movie, Harold Abrahams joins Cambridge’s Gilbert and Sullivan society.  Apparently, this is factual.  So snippets of the operettas are part of the soundrack—it is not all Vangelis.  I must confess, although of course—of course!—I bought the record, I am not a huge Vangelis fan.  I am generally not a fan of instrumental music.  Not going to classical music concerts is one of my small rebellions against my upbringing.  But I love musical theater.  I need words and a plot.

Over the past 40 years, I have only seen four of their operettas—the three BIG ones, and “Ruddigore”.[1]  It started with “HMS Pinafore”.  My high school, during a woefully depressed year when our millage did not pass, the school day was cut to five hours, and buses were cancelled (a disaster in rural Midwest), put “Pinafore” on in the choir room.  The set was minimal, if any, but the costumes were great, because all guys were dressed like sailors.  I recognized “He is an Englishman” from “Chariots of Fire” and was pretty excited.  I was also amazed at the vocal and acting talents of my peers.  The fact that I was generally unfazed by the immense inanity of the plot is a commentary on how limited my command of the English language was at the time. 


Literally no idea what’s going on

In short succession, my mother and I managed to see professional touring productions of “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado”.  I had high hopes for the latter because of its special part in “Chariots”—but either my English regressed or the plot is even more bizarre than that of “Pinafore”, because I did not understand it.  I have never seen it again. 

Not necessary

“Pirates”, however, was great!  “Pirates” is (or should it be “are”?) great!  The production we saw in Detroit in the early ‘80s was perfect.  I remember nothing about it except the lead.[2]   I think “Pirates” stands wonderfully well on its own merits.  It is a fun, light, colorful bit of cheery entertainment.  I am generally very open and even eager to see variations on the classical traditions—with certain exceptions.  Directors, please, do not mess with “Pirates”!

“The Pirates of Penzance” also happens to be my husband’s favorite musical.  Strangely, he does not care about the rest of the G&S body of work.  He just loves “Pirates”.  Specifically, he is obsessed with the Major General character. Even more narrowly, the “Modern Major General” song, and how quickly the actor can do it.  Fast-talking Major General equals great “Pirates”.  The Major General who is not fast enough just ruins everything for spouse. 

He also claims that he saw that touring production in Detroit and remembers the young blond lead.  To think that we could have met a decade before we did, at a Gilbert and Sullivan show!  It would have led nowhere, for a whole host of reasons, but it is kind of romantic to think that we might have been at the same theater event.  Happy World Theatre Day! 


[1] This is kind of shameful.  I know I had many other opportunities.  Once the plague is over, I should focus more on G&S…

[2] The actor who played Frederick in the touring production of “The Pirates of Penzance” subsequently returned as the lead in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”.  I like to pretend that I saw Andy Gibb in “Joseph”, but I did not. I saw this guy.  I wish I knew who he was, because he was great.  If anyone knows—please tell me.  This was before I started keeping show programs, unfortunately.

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Pont du Gard and the Plague

In my adult life, I developed a fear of the plague.  I blame two fictional sources for this:

  • The film “Horseman on the Roof”.  Apparently it is based on a novel, which I have not read, and is set during the 1832 cholera epidemic in Provence.  Something must have gotten lost in translation and/or in my memory, as the latter is absolutely convinced that the story is about The Plague.  In all fairness, cholera is pretty nasty, too.  The film was made in 1995, and I would have seen it on video some few years later, so I have been frightened for 20+ years now. 
  • The book “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks. I read it in 2004, and have been *legitimately* frightened for almost 16 years.  It actually is about the plague, though the one from the 1600s, not the Black Death of the 14th century.  Which just goes to show that whatever century or whatever contagion, they are all awful[1]

Until literally three days ago, I assumed that the fear of the plague was the same as some of my other phobias, such as the irrational dread of large statues. (Yes, the Statue of Liberty is pretty much my worst nightmare.  I choose not to read too much into that…)  Turns out, the plague is back. 

Actual toilet paper purchased by me in France for no other reason that it was needed at the time. ‘What an auspicious purchase!

I am not making light of it.  Like everyone else, I am trying to adjust to the ever-changing environment in which the toilet paper is scarce like it was back in the USSR, borders are closing (like they were back in the USSR), and no one trusts the government as a source of correct information (I think I see a pattern…) Unlike many other folks, I spent the last week in France, and gained some unexpected perspective.  Spoiler alert:  I think that cancer or work-stress-induced-heart-attack are still my more realistic foes in this lifetime.

I had three modest goals for this past week in the South of France:

  1. To see the newest D’Artagnan statues.  Until the last decade, there were three in the world; now there are five.  If I had to drive for several hours to a couple of French villages to complete this quest, well, I did.  Of course I did.
  2. To see the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, and hopefully locate the mural of Gerard Philippe nearby.  Done.undefined
  3. To stop by my old stomping grounds in Nîmes.  This did not happen.  We woke up on the day for which we scheduled this visit to the announcement that the US borders were closing the next day.  Supposedly US citizens would still be allowed to enter the country, but tell this to someone with a different family history.  This refugee rallied, got on a train from Perpignan to Paris, and flew out of Paris as soon as Delta would let her on a plane.  Home is where the dogs are.  And a paycheck.

The last official day of vacation, on the way back from Avignon to our timeshare, we stopped at Pont du Gard.  I did not intend to stop there, because I had the most vivid memory of my previous visit there. Yes, it was during “that summer that I spent studying in France” https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/09/when-did-the-arc-de-triomphe-start-leaning/.  It was such a good day!  I mean, I acutely remember it as a *Good Day*.  It was June of ’88[2], the sun was shining, and I was surrounded by friends.  Our summer program included an art class, so some were drawing the bridge.  I took two photos, which in the day of pre-digital cameras was the rough equivalent of the 19 I took this second time.

Pont du Gard then

We went to Pont du Gard this past week because it was on the way, and we had time.  We waffled a little, because it costs $10+ per person to get into the surrounding area.  But if I have learned anything in this life it is that you cannot put a price on regret.  So we paid and started walking.  And there it was, standing since shortly after the death of Christ, towering through millennia over The Plague, my friends and me, my spouse and me, impassively watching people come and go, sun shining, river flowing, and the aqueduct still standing.

Pont du Gard now

It has been almost 32 years.  I have lost touch with all but three of the people in that group.  Yet on the last day of my “Feast During the Plague”, I felt surrounded by their ghosts.  I have never missed KIES Group ’88[3] as much as I did during that time and in that place! 

So, the ghosts of my friends from 1988.  The majestic mass of that huge ancient Roman aqueduct from the first century A.D.  Spouse and I, having a *Good Day*.  And I kept thinking, I’ve had an interesting life.  I was fortunate enough to see and be seen at this site twice in the past two centuries.  And I am still in touch with three of the people who shared that incredible summer with me, and share the memories of that day.  If the plague gets me, I have lived[4].  If the plague gets me, the bridge still stands.  Lalalalala….life goes on!  And that is how Pont du Gard helped me to deal with my fear of the plague. 


[1] Unrelated to this topic, I love Geraldine Brooks’ books except one.  I cannot recommend “The Secret Chord”.  It is shockingly violent.  I would rather read about the plague of any kind.  As of this writing, she has five novels out.  Read four of them in this order: “Year of Wonders”, “People of the Book”, “Caleb’s Crossing”, “March”. 

[2] June 28, 1988, to be precise. I know this, because I had to keep a diary in French for class.  Apparently I did not swim, because I felt fat in a bathing suit.  But it was still a great day!

[3] KIES—Kentucky Institute for European Studies.  Now it’s the Kentucky Institute for International Studies or KIIS (pronounced like “keys”), a consortium of public and private Kentucky colleges and universities which administers a variety of international studies programs in Central America, Europe, South America, and China. It was founded by Murray State University in 1975.  Back then, it was just Europe.  And it was incredible.  That summer changed my life, and unlike many other life-changing events, it changed it for the *better*! 

[4] But I am still betting on cancer or death-by-stressful-job.  Not morbid, just realistic.

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Liechtenstein

That summer that I spent studying in France , https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/09/when-did-the-arc-de-triomphe-start-leaning/ I decided to visit every country in Europe.  The Eurail Pass made it seem like an actual possibility, if not a likelihood.  So how did I do it?  Well, I did not, because a couple of caveats were built into this very vague plan, including:

  • British Isles did not count, because the Eurail Pass did not include them
  • Soviet Bloc did not count, for obvious reasons (it was the ‘80s, friends)
  • Germany and Austria did not count, also for obvious reasons

What did count were the “dwarf states”[1].  I first read about them in my beloved childhood encyclopedia, “What Is This, Who Is That?”  My mom bought it the year I was born, so as of this writing, pretty much all the information in it that does not pertain to fish or ancient history is outdated.  Even the fact that Malta is not included in the article on microstates is pretty telling—it was still part of the United Kingdom.  Yes, I date back to Malta’s pre-independence days!  Plus, it was published in the USSR, so literally, all the post-Renaissance history articles are pretty skewed. 

Liechtenstein is the one with the stamps and teeth. There is a stamp museum there, which we did not visit. I am not sure about the teeth. Unless they are just signifying a welcoming smile?

The original article listed, as anyone who can read Russian can plainly see on the attached, but I will translate for the rest, Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and San-Marino.  Currently in Wikipedia, we currently also have Malta and Vatican, but not Luxembourg.  What happened to Luxembourg?  I suppose since it is bigger by area and population than all the others combined, by all means let’s exclude it.  I *have* been there, and survived a traumatic experience of being [almost] attacked by a knife-wielding maniac at a cemetery—but that is another story for another time! (I might be saving it for my memoirs)  And as for Vatican, it goes without saying that the Soviet version would make no mention of it under any circumstances, because “religion is an opiate of the people” (Karl Marx said this, not I).

And so, during that summer, I already had Vatican under my belt, having lived as a refugee in and around Rome some years before then, and then proceeded to have that encounter in Luxembourg[2].  In the past decade, I travelled to Malta (which is literally the most perfect place in terms of weather, history, food, ease of getting around, and the fact that all the signs are in English even if no one actually speaks it), and Monaco (which is also cool in many ways but is the opposite of easy to get around.  I mean, when there are elevators to get you from one street to another—take them!  Do not, I repeat, do not brave the stairs!)  I still have not been to Andorra or San-Marino, and frankly, they are a bit off the radar for me.  Someday—but not today, as I say. 

So when I planned the vacation to Munich for Oktoberfest this year[3], I noted how close Liechtenstein is.  Driving there was one of my motivating factors for renting a car, because I already learned from that European summer that the train does not stop in Liechtenstein.  It literally does not have an international train station!

I could not find a tour book on Liechtenstein, so spouse and I decided to improvise.  We pretty much just drove into the country and looked for parking.  Everything is right there: a beautiful cathedral, an interesting history museum, and a town square with souvenir shops and cafes.  There is also a medieval castle within a short drive—it is apparently in a different town from the capital, Vaduz, which is basically one street over[4].  The views are breathtaking, since Liechtenstein is ¾ Alps.  The beer is not bad, though not as good as three countries over in Germany.

In short, I would highly recommend a visit to Liechtenstein, if you happen to be in the Alpine neighborhood, and like picturesque towns.  Do I feel like I visited a different country?  Well, not necessarily, but I do have another flag to prove that I did[5]!


[1] I apologize for the use of the term “dwarf” to anyone who might be offended by it.  This is, again, a direct translation from the Russian language, as again can be seen from the attached illustration.

[2] Faux-dwarf!

[3] I travel to Germany now.  My, how the world has changed!…

[4] I did not realize it was a different town until I looked it up just now.

[5] Fun fact—I collect flags from the countries I visit.  Soviet Union and Russia merit their own separate flags, as does the Republic of Texas.

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Sorrow Floats

My former business partner used to say this—“August is a heavy month”.  His father died in August, and he was not able to make it to the funeral.  August also used to be a slow month in our practice, during which we usually made less money than we wanted (and often needed), so it was logically explained away by this “heaviness”.

Other than those five crazy years with him, during which we had a saying, if not an actual solution, for every eventuality, I am not sure I noticed a particular problem with August.  I got married in August—not because of any particular significance, but simply because a hall was available, and friends who introduced me to my husband also got married in August, in the early part of the month, and returned from their honeymoon in the later part of it.  And so there is something to celebrate during this heavy month—as of this writing, I am still married to my first husband.

Translated from the original Russian, though, the word can mean anything from the physical or emotional heaviness to heaviness of sorrow, pain, grief.  August is a sorrowful month.  I am not sure if there are any statistics on what month is the deadliest.  I am not sure I want to know.  If I just search my memory, the only person I can think of who died in August is Joe Dassin, the beautiful French singer of my childhood.  He was 41 in the August of 1980.  Fun fact: when I was in labor with my second child, I, for reasons passing understanding, needed to listen to Joe Dassin’s song “À toi”.[1]  We brought the CD to the hospital, and my husband had to continuously replay it.  Joe’s voice—and that specific song, no other, not “Les Champs-Élysées”, not “Siffler sur la colline”, not “Et si tu n’existais pas”—soothed labor pains. True story![2]

But this past August has been a tough one.  I am glad to see the backside of it.  I suffered three losses, two actual deaths and an emptying of my nest—neither of which I have been able to process yet; a couple of physical injuries—I am going to lose that nail after all ( the real one), plus a fall that can only be called good because there is only a flesh wound, but still, I missed a couple of weeks of running at the height of training season; and of course, there is that ever present, ever looming, ever unendurable—work stress.

Another phrase difficult to translate from Russian is one my mother used to describe this state of being.  It is literally translated as “loss of strength”.  I used Google translate, and it came up as “prostration”.  Prostration?  We do that in church! “Collapse” seems slightly more accurate, but way too dramatic.  I would say there is a certain loss of strength, to be sure, but more of a loss of the mind-heart-body connection.  The mind is going through the motions (especially during the work day).  The heart is hurting.  The body is parked on the couch.  The body is fairly useless when not motivated by the heart. 

But finally, as we also say back in the Old Country, “hope dies last”.  I hear it in the voice of one of our dearly departed from this August.  I heard him say it at a family gathering quite some many years ago, and whenever I say it to myself, I hear him and see him in my mind’s eye.  And that memory-to-mind-to-heart connection is something, is it not?  Yes, Sorrow floats[3] and is a short distance away; and wisdom comes in unexpected ways…


[1] It came out in 1976.  My son was born 25 years later. 

[2] You should have heard me humming Joe’s “Il faut naître à Monaco” when I visited Monaco almost two years ago.  The reference was lost on everyone around me, especially all the poor unfortunate souls that heard me sing, but I enjoyed it! Ah, Joe, you left your mark on this world…

[3] John Irving, “Hotel New Hampshire”


There are almost no images of Sorrow out there. That’s a bummer, because he made the biggest impression on me from this book. THE.BIGGEST