Anyway, before I travel down memory lane, I have to give you the latest update on Natasha and her daughter. In Russia the website "VK" is like the Russian version of Facebook. I'm not on Facebook but I am on VK so I can keep up with Natasha and her family. Anyway, yesterday when I checked Natasha's homepage, for her status she had written, "God help me, I can't do this." Then I started reading all the condolences that people had posted. It was a bad idea to read the outpouring of love and support for Natasha because as a rule I try not to cry at work. Then to make things worse, I read the VK page of Natasha's ten-year old daughter and some of her little friends had also written touching messages. Would you like to feel a sharp, knifelike pain in your heart? Read the words of one little girl consoling another, "Don't be afraid. Everything will be OK." Another little girl recounted that her own Papa had died two years ago and and although the pain was terrible it eventually got better. You know, it's easy to become jaded and cynical when you watch or read the news and you see how horribly we humans treat one another (and seemingly always have since the dawn of time). Then you see the the torrent of love and caring we can show when one of our own is hurting and it reminds you that maybe our species does have some redeeming qualities after all.
Before I forget, the mention of tears at work reminded me of this incident from years ago. One time I got a phone call that one of our family dogs had died unexpectedly. I had barely hung up the phone and was crying at my desk when one of our VP's came into my office. He had paperwork that he wanted to give me but the minute he saw my tears he threw the papers on my desk and bolted from my office. His reaction was so unexpected and the look of terror on his face almost made me laugh. It was like, "Oh lord -- a crying woman. Get me the hell out of here." What son-of-a-bitch behavior. Not that I expected him to give me a hug and try to console me. I think a normal person would have said something like, "Are you OK?" and I would have replied, "I just got some bad news but I'll be OK." I am capable of behaving in a professional manner (sometimes). I don't cry very often, but yes, death makes me cry. Call me crazy if you want.
Alright-- back to our story. Alexei's family lived in a communal apartment in Taganrog. In the past I had visited people in communal apartments but this was the first time I had lived in one. By the way, I don't recommend it. Alexei's family had one large room which was a combination dining room/living room and one small bedroom. They had to share one bathroom, one toilet and a kitchen with two other families. I was lucky enough to get to travel to many cities in Russia but Taganrog was the only place I ever stayed that had the water turned off at night. I think the reason for doing so was water conservation. On the first evening of my visit, I didn't understand why suddenly everyone in the apartment started filling up every available container with water. Even the bathtub. If I remember correctly, from 10PM until 7AM all the water was turned off; the residents of the apartment had to be ready in case they needed water in the overnight hours. The next morning all the water was dumped out. It seemed to me like this attempt to conserve water actually achieved the opposite.
I always brought gifts with me whenever I was a guest in someone's home. These following items were always a hit:
I enjoyed my visit to Taganrog. I got to see where Chekhov was born and lived; we took to a trip to the city of Rostov-on-the-Don; we spent a day on a sailboat on the Sea of Azov (where I fell asleep on deck and got horribly burned-- OK, that wasn't necessarily a fun part of the trip). Unfortunately, I had to return to Moscow to continue my studies and leave Natasha behind. Alexei helped me buy a return train ticket (buying train tickets back then was always a huge problem as demand outstripped supply). The train was some kind of new "private" train with nice two-person sleeping compartments. It was non-stop to Moscow, which meant that my return trip was much faster since we didn't have to stop at every city along the way to drop off and pick up passengers. Sounds awesome right? Take a look at the map above. Draw an imaginary straight line from Moscow to Taganrog. Do you notice how the country of Ukraine is in the way? Did you know that as an American traveling in Russia, my visa was only good for the country of Russia? In fact, on my visa, I was only supposed to be visiting cities that were actually LISTED on the visa. However, I brazenly traveled without a care wherever I wanted in Russia because no one had ever asked to see my passport. My female berth-mate was a chatty woman who spent her time complaining that she had to travel to Moscow to buy food and goods, because the most desirable items never made it out of the city. And I know she was right. My husband said that Moscovites were hated throughout the country for being spoiled and having a better standard of living compared to everyone else. When the train stopped unexpectedly, I asked something like, "What's going on? Why are we stopping?" Chatty Cathy told me we were going through Ukraine and their border control would be getting on the train to check passports. If I had lesser bowel control, I probably would have soiled myself. I wasn't supposed to be in Ukraine. I wasn't even supposed to have been in Taganrog. I must have looked terrified but thankfully when the guard came to our compartment, the other lady did all the talking. I nodded my head appropriately and didn't open my mouth. Because even though I can speak Russian I know I have a noticeable accent. It would have been obvious that I wasn't a native. I don't know what my punishment would have been; I imagine I would have ended up in some kind of holding cell somewhere (or worse). The guard didn't even check our passports. We must have seemed pretty harmless. We were just two women on the way to Moscow to go shopping. THANK GOD for Chatty-Cathy-- she saved my ass. Lesson learned-- always be nice to your travel mates even if they are annoying.