I always assumed that if I made it to Vienna, I would have to add a day for Bratislava. Fun fact: Vienna and Bratislava are two closest European capitals in terms of distance, so I understand that it is a common side trip, but that was never my reasoning. I generally do not like to “gallop through Europe”, as the saying goes. I learned to not overplan from experience (although my consequential plunge into underplanning has resulted in some unintended and occasionally hilarious jams—but that is another story for another time). I like to take in the sights and go at my own pace, and I dislike leaving a place without exploring it fully. So short story long, if I am going somewhere, I am not also going somewhere else. However, what led me to Bratislava was not its proximity to Vienna, but that Trip That Never Happened 42 years ago.
To be fair, Bratislava was never going to be more than a train connection on our original journey. We always knew that we were not going to see the town. It was an almost unimaginably different world back then. Europe was still divided into East and West, and getting from East to West was complicated even with a passport. A moot point, in any case, because we had no passports. We no longer had passports because we no longer had citizenship of any country, none at all. We were put on a train heading out of the USSR, and the first stop was Bratislava. Czechoslovakia was still united, and Bratislava was not a national capital of anything.
We disembarked in Bratislava and waited for the train to take us into the *real* West, to Vienna. On that cold and lonely platform in December of 1980, I do not remember any other passengers. It was just the four of us, my mom and grandparents and I, and we stood there with our two suitcases per person for what seemed like hours. This might be an invented memory, but I remember going into the train station itself and seeing chewing gum for sale (if you ever heard how prized it was in the Soviet Union—it’s all true!). Could we have just walked into the city? Were there any guards who would have stopped us? It is impossible to know now, because the only tangible goal was to get on that train heading to Vienna. These days, the hour-long trip between the two cities is almost akin to a suburban commuter ride. Back then, one travelled from the Eastern Block to the Capitalist West in a fancy sleeper compartment, and I remember it taking hours—probably because of border control. My mother remembers red velvet upholstery; I do not.
And so Bratislava remained something I never even pictured, just a footnote to a trip to Vienna. The only part of a this visit I could envision was arriving at that train station and walking past that kiosk selling gum and sundries out into an unimaginable town. Medieval? Baroque? Modern? The important part was the station, the kiosk, the sunlit town square. None of them turned out to be real in 2022.
My persistence in going to Bratislava in the face of my mother’s mild opposition; my brisk realization that in this century, trains to and from Vienna connect to Bratislava via a suburban station and not the main one, preventing the recreation of that long ago voyage; brief panic about having to also get on a bus to get to city center—none of these are worth recounting. Well, maybe the briefest of mentions—repeatedly seeing the words “Bratislava Petrzalka” instead of “Bratislava Central” or “Bratislava Hlavna” led this sophisticated traveler and polyglot to feverishly search the interwebs for a route into the city (get on the bus in this area, alarmingly advised the web, never take the taxi). Otherwise, we would be walking out of the train station into a somewhat grim peripheral disappointment and then right back to Vienna, as per tradition.
Ultimately, I feel like I gave Bratislava a short shrift. We walked around a bit, enjoyed the most lavish meat feast I could ever imagine (allegedly for two people, but there were six meat servings), encountered another Christmas market (again, mostly meat), saw some charming medieval sites, and hightailed it back to Vienna before dark. But I think Bratislava deserves more than just a couple of hours. It seemed like a lovely town I would like to get to know better. I would have liked to visit its castle high above the city, its churches and museums, taste the local wine at a very cool cellar by which I walked, and learn more about the effect the decoupling from Czechia had on Slovakia. I could have researched and planned prior to going, but I think the existence of this town was simply too fantastic to contemplate. Now that I know that it is real, we need to be properly introduced.
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.
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).
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).
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. I lived in their world, and they lived in mine.
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…
 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.
 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”. 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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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).
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
 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.
 I lie. No one called her that. It was Comrade Patmore.