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)


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.