Cream Cheese and Other Mysteries

My neighbor on the Aeroflot flight to Washington, D.C. warned me, between sips of Stolichnaya, that I would never find a teaching job in the U.S.  He was a former professor of Russian literature, bitter and disillusioned, and he dismissed my American future with a single wave of his hand.  I should have told him that no one ever sips vodka, but I was a docile ex-Young-Pioneer who only three hours earlier had escaped the Soviet Union, a ravaged suitcase on the KGB inspector’s table with twenty kilograms of what used to be my life.

I was supposed to fly from Moscow to JFK, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 prohibited Aeroflot from landing in New York.  My new American husband was now forced to find me in the sterile maze of Dulles airport and we drove to Lawrenceville, New Jersey, on a five-lane highway, wider than any canal branching off the Neva, where in the 1960s I would watch the water rise before an autumn flood and hope that my school would cancel classes.   It was strangely cool and quiet inside the car, and I looked with dismay at my only pair of shoes – thick rubber soles and scuffed leather – perfect for April in Leningrad but useless for August in New Jersey.  How did I end up in this noiseless car speeding along an interminable foreign road?  All inside me was still numb, but the feeling of unreality mercifully lifted a bit, enough to yield a little room for the returning senses.

When we stopped at a rest area by a green sign that read “Cherry Hill,” I realized what was wrong with the air: there were no smells.  Russia assaults you in your nostrils: milk always on the verge of turning sour, the wet wool of winter coats we wear every day for five months, rubber phone booth tiles buckled with urine, exhaust from trucks that run on leaded gasoline, mothballs, yesterday’s soup.  In New Jersey it was 34 degrees Centigrade – a temperature I knew only from books on the Soviet Republics of Central Asia – and yet it smelled of nothing.   Passer-bys didn’t trail a wake of unwashed clothes; the cafeteria didn’t reek of old potato salad and burned oil; even the public bathroom was antiseptic as a shrine.  I thought of the rusty toilets at Leningrad Pulkovo International Airport, of their corroded pipes and sad hanging pull chains that never released enough water to wash away the lowly feeling of barely being human.  Here the floor gleamed; the hand dryers whirred; the faucets sparkled.  A word I’d just learned, “restroom,” was a perfect fit for this vast oasis of luxury that seemed to emerge straight from the spotless future of science fiction.

The next sense to capitulate – taste – was ambushed by ubiquitous foods, not only plentiful but puzzling.  My first trip to the supermarket dwarfed the opulence of the NJ Turnpike restroom.  How was I supposed to choose one kind of chocolate, or frozen pizza, or cream cheese out of the dozen different brands parading in neat rows on endless shelves that climbed all the way to the ceiling?  And what was cream cheese, anyway?

I found a package of cream cheese in my new mother-in-law’s refrigerator and scooped out a sample.  It was smooth, tasteless and definitely in need of spicing up.  A bottle of ketchup stared at me from the kitchen counter, standing casually among other alien bottles, unaware of its rarity in all the Russian kitchens.  I poured ketchup over the bar of cream cheese and ate it with a spoon.

A month later I had trouble zipping up my skirt.  There were simply too many new foods to try.  In October, when the Bacchanalia of eating had reached its peak, my husband and I drove past a sign that read “Coming soon: Beefsteak Charlie’s.”  By now it had become clear that if I wanted to buy next size clothes, I had to find a job.

Beefsteak Charlie’s hired me only because they needed an entire staff for their new operation.  I should have felt happy getting the job, but I didn’t: for a college graduate raised in the “classless” Soviet society, the prospect of waitressing sounded humiliating.  Back in Russia there was order: waiters waited and teachers taught.  No one would think of crossing the social class border to make extra money waiting on tables.  Besides, we didn’t have many restaurants in the Soviet Union and their patrons, in true communist fashion, never left tips.

The first ten days of training were fun: some of us pretended to be waiters as the rest sat at the checkered-cloth tables and ordered from the menu.  I did well with the ordering and eating part, thanks to compassionate Melissa who explained the bewildering words “patron,” “pasta,” and “gratuity,” so that later I could attempt to play the waitress role with minimal disgrace.  We all wore red aprons with a large white button; mine said “My name is Elena.  I’m gonna spoil you.”  Every time I pretended to take an order the manager’s face would stiffen, so I was sure they would fire me before the restaurant opened.  The manager, Karen, was fast-paced and efficient, and her sharp gaze could silence even my most exuberant colleagues with years of waiting experience.

“What are you doing here with a Master’s degree?” she asked as we finished the training, making me suspect the ubiquity of social class walls.  I wanted to tell her that the professor on the plane was right; that I’d made a colossal mistake to leave behind everything I knew; that the dawn of my American life seemed as dim and compromised as the bright future of my former Motherland.  Instead I said, “I need the money to buy a bigger skirt.”

By opening day, I had memorized the menu and learned the gradations of steak readiness, from blue rare to burnt.  I could preach the superiority of Jersey tomatoes and the sweetness of Jersey corn.  I was as prepared to be a waitress as I would be to teach a class in English grammar.

In real life, however, in addition to the food I knew so well, customers ordered drinks I didn’t know at all.  What was I to make of orders for screwdrivers and slow gin fizz?  Of blue whales or white Russians?  And what was a black Russian, for heaven’s sake?  I darted to the bar with incomprehensible orders spinning in my head and the bartender, Samantha – harried and raspy-voiced – listened patiently as she tried to decipher the drink from my mangled pronunciation.  “Man, hat, and,” I would spit out, the three words I kept twirling in my mind as I raced from table to bar.  “Manhattan,” Sam would say, with a drop of motherly guidance, as if she tried to teach me a parental lesson.

In real waitressing, where timing and speed trumped the knowledge of linguistics, I was getting consistent F’s.  My orders of baby back ribs sat cold on the kitchen counter; my customers got their chicken and baked potatoes before they could even peel the shrimp from the salad bar.  Other waiters routinely picked up after me, as if I were a slow child who’d wandered into a grown-up function.  Black-eyed Melissa, a student of photography at Trenton State College who could have been a model, would rush the abandoned order of ribs to my table and set it down with elegance and a disarming smile, making it appear that it had all been planned in advance.  Forgotten side orders of stuffed clams and minestrone soup inexplicably found their way to my tables.  To further my humiliation, the tips were pooled, so every night I left, unjustly, with as much as everyone else.

One evening, when Melissa had a test and I was on my own, a balding man with a heavy face and a thick gold bracelet, presiding over what looked like a family celebration, ordered salad and asked for dressing on the side.  On whose side, I wondered frantically.  Sweating under the gaze of the noisy, festive table, not knowing the expression, I imagined a splash of oil and vinegar dripping down the side of the man’s expensive suit.  I imagined being stripped of my apron and my button and deported for waitress failure.  Then, almost magically, Karen materialized at my table, her presence never more timely and welcome.  “Elena has just arrived from Russia,” she said, and the man laughed a humid laugh of a smoker and raised his glass in a “na zdorovye” toast.

In the next few weeks it became clear I wasn’t going to spoil anyone.  Balancing a tray on my hand – as I waited for Karen to announce that they were no longer willing to put up with my ineptitude – I thought of the time when I was eleven and kicked out of the district pool for my lack of swimming ability.  I thought of the nauseating feeling of shame when my ninth grade literature teacher tore apart my essay in front of the whole class because I made a non-critical reference to life in the U.S.  Filled with self-loathing and doubt, I stared at the “All-you-can-eat-shrimp” sign as if it could reveal my future, as if it could instantly change me into Melissa and grant me confidence and comfort.

Karen never fired me, as she should have.  I left Beefsteak Charlie’s on my own, two months later, to join my graduate-student husband in Texas. I wish she’d asked me the same question then, the question of what I was doing waitressing when I had a perfectly good teaching degree.  If she had, I wouldn’t have conjured up the bitter professor on an Aeroflot plane.  I wouldn’t have allowed him to defeat me.  Now, from the vantage point of almost thirty years teaching in New Jersey, I see my first job here as a higher learning field trip complete with lessons in graciousness, humility, and the human heart.  I see my first American friends – Melissa, Karen, Sam – watching over me, like the eyes of my Leningrad courtyard when I was growing up and stumbling through the turmoil of adolescence and youth, which is the same on both sides of the Atlantic.  To all of you, my Beefsteak Charlie’s customers and comrades, I raise a Stoli toast and drink it to the bottom, no sipping.

Spasibo, Britain!

I’m thrilled and honored to have A Mountain of Crumbs reviewed by the Daily Telegraph (full review) and by the Guardian (full review).

I also feel privileged and delighted to have my essay Living with my Russian Mother published by the Daily Telegraph’s Stella Magazine (read the essay).

Many thanks to my British readers and reviewers!

A Week in St. Petersburg

For two decades, during my summer visits to St. Petersburg’s white nights, I would stay in a friend’s apartment, three long Metro stops from the lace ironwork, gold spires and tsarist grandeur of the City center, on the other side of the Neva River from where I grew up.  We would sit on her balcony, drink Chilean wine from a supermarket called Okay and talk through two hours of twilight until the sunrise melted away translucent dusk thin enough to let us read without light.

This summer, when my daughter and my niece decided to tag along, I felt ambivalent.  Of course, I wanted them to see all that history, architecture and art I had so often trumpeted at family gatherings; yet I knew I would have to sacrifice my Russian time of balcony talks and nightly wine with friends.  While I was trying  to decide which was winning – my pride of St. Petersburg or my ungenerous desire to keep it to myself – my daughter and my niece booked their non-refundable tickets to Russia.

On our arrival to Pulkovo International Airport – eight gates for the city of 5,5 million – we found out that, in addition to St. Petersburg’s school graduation festival, the week we chose welcomed the International Economic Forum when heads of state, including Leningrad’s native son Vladimir Putin, descended from all over the world, closing roads and clogging the remaining streets with police-escorted motorcades.  Granted, it was the prime week of white nights and for the graduation fireworks and laser show Mr. Putin had guaranteed a clear sky: clouds not complying with the no rain order would be immediately shot with storm-dispersing chemicals.  I knew I was home.

It took us two and a half hours to get through the city center.  We inched forward in maddening traffic, jammed amid creaky Volgas, gleaming BMWs, and trolley buses wired to electric lines overhead, with a Mercedes SUV in the right lane, in utter desperation, veering onto the sidewalk for a shortcut and honking at pedestrians to get out of the way.

Our hotel turned out to be a four-room St. Petersburg apartment that made me instantly homesick.  It had a faint smell of wool coats and warm tea, the smell of my apartment where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when the city was called Leningrad.  The two connected rooms looked out into a courtyard of cracked asphalt and an island of rickety trees amid unmowed grass – one of the myriad courtyards in Petersburg imprinted in the memory of everyone who was born here.  I thought of my own courtyard, its eyes of windows always protecting me, as the girls made shopping lists from their guidebooks.

They agreed to see the Hermitage, but first we had to stop for lunch at Crocodile, a restaurant my vegan daughter found in her city guide.  Our young waitress seemed to have stepped out of my Soviet youth: adverse to smiling, she sighed and rolled her eyes when we inconvenienced her with questions about the menu.  On the way from the Hermitage, walking back along the Moika Embankment, where in the 1960s I would watch the water rise before an autumn flood and, like every Young Pioneer, hope that my school would cancel classes, we stopped at one of the city’s many Coffee Shops, the only place that served a soy milk latte ($ 8,5 for a medium-sized cup).

The next few days saw us criss-crossing courtyards in search of the guidebook boutiques and the Army and Navy store, purportedly offering an array of the Red Army hats, T-shirts and pins.  All those artifacts were locked along the walls under glass, and it was impossible for the store’s only clerk ensconced behind a counter to understand which of the thousands of badges on display we wanted to see.  My daughter took quick pictures with her Blackberry and, after a five-minute search through inventory, the clerk found a few pins that looked similar and, as we later discovered, had defective clasps.  “And what if we wanted to buy a T-shirt and try it on?” asked my daughter, a Western challenge in her voice.  “Why couldn’t she open the glass for us to see?”  “It’s Russia,” I said gloomily, the words I said more than once since we arrived here.

When we approached the box office to buy hydrofoil tickets ($ 17 one-way) to go to the palaces and fountains of Peterhoff, the cashier refused to sell us a return trip.  “Why?” I asked, forgetting where I was.  “Why?” asked my daughter and niece when I translated what was happening.  “With the Economic Forum we don’t know anything,” said the cashier and shrugged.  In Peterhoff, we joined the line to a closed window where another cashier sat silently and stared into space.  Here they didn’t know anything, either.

Yet, despite the old Leningrad lurking behind the windows of box offices, store counters and restaurants, there is St. Petersburg, old and new, in the freshly painted curved facades overlooking the Neva, stately bridges that open every night to let big ships pass through the city center, and the 12-foot ceilings of old apartments turned into small hotels.  Those windows saw the city’s history: characters from Gogol and Dostoyevsky hurrying along the streets and wars and revolutions that happen here with eerie regularity.  They saw tsars and princesses, crinolined ladies in chestnut curls and counts in horse-drawn carriages, as well as clerks, students and bookkeepers of St. Petersburg, who inhabited its dignified buildings and walked along its streets past the facades marinated for two centuries in the city’s wet, salty air – those who breathed life into stone and gave St. Petersburg its soul.

The day before we left for the U.S., I took my daughter and my niece to where I grew up when the city was called Leningrad.  The courtyard with a new playground was empty: most children were in their dachas, tending reluctantly to their mothers’ patches of cucumbers, shivering on the windy beaches of the Gulf of Finland between the watering and weeding.  My old nursery school with its smells of mothballs and yesterday’s soup is no longer there, but hopscotch squares were still chalked on the asphalt, just as when this used to be my courtyard.  Five poplars, tall and creaky, rose around the playground, tufts of fuzzy seeds floating through the air in a blizzard of summer snow.

Silently, we sat on a bench and looked at the windows of my apartment.  It was, of course, no longer my apartment, or my courtyard, or my city, but I felt its eyes still watching over me.  I thought my girls could feel it, too.  For a week it became their city, just as for a quarter century it had been mine.  I hoped they could sense the soul of those places we had visited – the soul of St. Petersburg – without the residue of the city’s Soviet past.

A Medal for My Mother

I thought that A Mountain of Crumbs was my memoir.  I didn’t know that it was my mother who would become the core of the story, the “rock-solid mother,” as theDaily Beastcalled her in celebration of Mother’s Day.

Almost seventy years ago, in the spring of 1942, a woman carried an unconscious nine-year-old boy into the make-shift hospital where my mother was a surgeon, one kilometer away from the front.  It was April, and when the ice on the Volga turned porous and frail, mines frozen into the river began to explode, touched off by the slightest shift, sending flocks of birds into the air and schools of fish to the water surface, belly up.  Locals with buckets, driven by wartime hunger, waded into the river to collect the unexpected harvest floating among chunks of ice, setting off more mines.

It was prohibited to treat civilians in a military hospital, but my mother unbuttoned the boy’s quilted jacket and muddy pants and carefully pulled them away from his perforated flesh, revealing blind belly wounds: entrances of shells with no exists.  She lifted a scalpel out of the boiling water, made an incision, and pulled apart flaps of skin, exposing multiple intestinal wounds, big and tiny holes in the coils of the boy’s belly.  Then she removed each piece of shrapnel, rinsed the boy’s intestines with antiseptic, and sewed up the holes, one by one.

Every day the soldiers came in trucks from the front and although she scooped the lice out of the wounds with a teacup and cleaned the flaps of torn tissue as diligently as she could, lice festered in layers of dirty bandages, keeping the wounded awake and screaming through the night.  They were younger than she was, those wounded boys – her brother’s age – and she peered into their dusty faces, clinging to a shred of hope that in some miraculous way her brother, stationed on the border with Poland when German tanks crossed into Russia on June 22, 1941, would be brought into her hospital for her to heal from seven hundred kilometers away.  She hoped her brother was not among the thousands of bodies she knew had been plowed into the warm summer earth of western Russia.  She hoped for a quick victory in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is still known in her old country.

Her brother never came home, and the Victory took five long, excruciating years.

May 9, 2010, was the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, a holiday that is visceral to every Russian.  A Fedex package from the Russian Consulate in New York addressed to my mother arrived at my house in New Jersey, where she has been living with me for 22 years.  In it was a letter from the Consul to all living veterans of the Great Patriotic War, a certificate issued in my mother’s name, and a medal.  It was her third medal; she received her first one during the war and her second – for the 50th anniversary of the Victory.  My mother put on her best dress, pinned the medal to her chest, and offered to help me make pirozhki for our celebration.  We rolled the dough and chopped eggs and scallions side by side in our kitchen.  Here in America, it was also Mother’s Day.