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!


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.


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”.  


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.


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.


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!)


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.


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.


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”.


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.


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!