A communist childhood is a glorious thing. Chernogolovka, a small town in the Moscow region, was a great place for a kid to be growing up in the 1980’s. Crime was virtually nil, since everyone knew everyone else in this close-knit community of chemists and physicists and we were free to roam the streets without supervision, or almost without – any grownup who’d seen you misbehaving would be sure to either take the burden of telling you off themselves or would send word to your parents, who'd be waiting with unhealthy anticipation for you to turn up at home in the evening, when the mothers would start leaning out of the windows of the apartment blocks and hollering for their specific offspring.
My family was situated well, I thought; there were three nine-storey grey apartment buildings on the edge of town, just before you crossed the road that would take you to the fields and the actual village of Chernogolovka; we lived on the seventh floor of the middle one, in apartment no. 64, the same number as the number of squares on a chess board – that’s how I always remembered it. Our main windows and balcony faced The Yard – the playground in the middle with the big swings, the tunnels, the concrete slides, the climbing frame – that was a good place to be in the winter, when the dirt path going to the top of the concrete slide would freeze over and we’d scout the rubbish tips for any piece of material that would allow us to achieve maximum velocity when hurtling down the ice slide, such as a nice bit of cardboard, or some smooth plastic. Or we’d dare each other to try and descend the slide standing up, surfer-style, and on several occasions that resulted in me falling flat on my face and then sitting down, face tipped up with a lump of snow pressed to my hooter, hoping the bleeding would stop.
I rather liked school, especially if we were in the second shift. There were two shifts, and four or five lessons of 45 minutes each; the first shift meant getting up while it was still dark and finishing by lunchtime, and the second shift started after lunch and finished mid-afternoon, so it gave you a chance to finish off any homework in the morning, which happened to me a lot. We were given homework every single day and in the first and second years of school I went in six days a week; the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic were taken very seriously. My mum had worked only part-time since I was born, and spent a lot of time with myself and my younger sister, focusing on our mental and physical development; she was a firm believer in mens sano in corporo sano and I was able to read like a grownup at age five. With maths, as long as you could remember your multiplication tables, you were fine.
The primary school was a rather unassuming three-storey grey building on the imaginatively-named First Street. In the classroom, we’d sit under Comrade Lenin’s impassive gaze, two to a desk, facing the front in silence until Ludmilla Alekseyevna entered the room, at which point we’d all rise.
“Good morning, class.”
“Good morning, Ludmilla Alekseyevna.”
She’d look us over to make sure our brown dresses and black aprons were up to standard, that the boys’ navy jackets and light blue shirts were neat, that everyone had their Octobrist star-shaped badge with Lenin’s image pinned over their heart. By then we’d been checked over by the hall monitor on duty, a fellow student whose job it was to check that we were wearing an indoor change of black leather shoes and had a clean folded handkerchief in our left pocket; infringement of the rules would lead to being disciplined by the dreaded loud-mouthed harpy of a teacher from 7a. We were even expected to be orderly during our five-minute breaks in-between lessons; girls would walk up and down the corridor in pairs but would inevitably run afoul of boys who’d run past and try and lift your skirt, inducing the teacher’s wrath. I was in 7b and we had Ludmilla Alekseyevna for all our lessons except PE and English; our English teacher spoke marginally better English than ourselves and thus our class had two star pupils – myself, since my mom taught me English from age five, and Oleg, whose older brother allegedly spoke English.
Everyone would perk up at the first signs of spring; ice melting and icy water flowing in rivulets into the storm drains, prompting us to dig through our possessions for boats carved out of bark the summer before, so we could stage races. The best time was when it was warm enough to wear T-shirts, get the bikes out of storage and cycle into the forest, where the last remnants of the winter were melting away. May was filled with great anticipation, since on the last day of the month, the ringing of the school bell would release is from our prison for three glorious months.
Boredom is a western concept, I’m sure of it. There never seemed to be any shortage of activity for us Soviet kids. My only regret was not living in the same apartment building as my friends; I envied the kids who lived in either of the two red towers, flanking the sides of The Yard, who could just hop in the elevator and go down to see each other without leaving the building. I hated phoning, partly in case I’d have to speak to adults, and partly because the lines would quite often get crossed, whereby you’d pick up the phone and be forced to eavesdrop on a lengthy conversation between two housewives discussing the price of potatoes.
No one really went on vacation in the summer, although some kids got sent to their grandparents in another city for a few weeks. I was content to roam my home ground, barefoot in the heat that made the tarmac roads melt; to go wandering through the forest, picking wild blueberries and strawberries and fending off battalions of mosquitoes, or swimming in The Pond, as the man-made round little lake was known. By “swimming,” I really mean splashing, since water terrified me. With girls from my apartment building or my school friends, we raided the rubbish heaps outside our buildings for salvageable treasures, or the only grocery store for any loose vegetables that had fallen on the floor, which would promptly get pilfered so that we could go and make a campfire and cook our booty. Nothing compared to the taste of onions, bread and salami grilled over a makeshift fire! Our food pilfering was out of mischief; one time, Masha and I pocketed a bulb of pickled garlic and ate it; there was no way to hide the evidence, as we both reeked, so each told her parents that she had the delectable item at the other person’s house.
Several times during the summer we’d venture up to Moscow, to visit relatives. We stayed in the flat belonging to my maternal grandmother, too spacious since she passed away, with the temperamental, ancient TV that worked sometimes if you hit it in the right place, the collection of colourful scarves that were a required item when playing pirates, the scary Indian masks on the wall with many eyes, the cuckoo clock in the kitchen that my mother restarted each time we came, the armchairs with draping hanging down to the floor — which housed a witch underneath, I was sure of it — and the vast button collection – multicoloured, of different shapes and sizes, they drew me like a little magpie and they, along with the ornate wooden dining room table with the many grooves and squiggles, became my favourite playthings. Moscow itself was exciting, because it was so exotic and cosmopolitan, and full of surprises. Where else could I find a German-speaking neighbourhood, or visit my mom’s old school and see her name engraved on the board of honour as one of the school’s gold medallists? The elusive gold medal was given only to those who were strictly grade-A students throughout their entire school career; I was immensely proud of my mother. Where else could you go to the place where all the foreign diplomats stayed and ogle the foreign cars – the Buicks, the Mercedes, the BMWs… so big and sleek compared to the tins-cans-on-wheels that rattled around the capital, classier even than the then-prestigious Ladas? Where else could I dream of traveling the world but at the Moscow Planetarium, where the constellations in the night sky captivated me and left me speechless; where I learned to spot the belt of Orion and where I promised myself that I would someday see the Southern Cross. Years later, under an Argentinian night sky, that vow was fulfilled.
Food was both a preoccupying concern and a source for celebration. We weren’t exactly forced to subsist on a diet of turnips, but there were constant shortages of many foods, so when people heard that a place was selling something in bulk, there’d be a mad rush to stock up on whatever was going. My mother often made the trip to Moscow with a giant orange rucksack in order to drag home fruit and vegetables; one winter we dragged over thirty cans of green beans home on my sledge, since a random shipment arrived from Hungary and we had to make the most of it; good thing I liked beans, because we ate them all winter. Good food had to be placed on order, and us kids would rush to the only hotel in town to watch the truck pull up to the lower level as some lucky parents made their way down the narrow stairs to collect the long-awaited food packages. My father hardly ever ordered anything, but when he did, it was a real treat – the oily paper, smelling strongly of smoked meat, contained salami, the love of which earned me the nickname “Sausage Soul.” There’d be good cheese, with lots of tiny holes, which was actually edible unlike the cheddar, notoriously used in the construction business in place of bricks. Dumplings and frankfurters were treats which arrived with the aunt or grandmother, since my mother was a firm believer in healthy food, so although Russia produces the world’s most superior and varied breads, we’d only get wholemeal, with white bread being a rare guest, especially delicious when fried in a mixture of egg and milk. Sweets were expressly forbidden, lest they rot our teeth, so my friends would feed me when they had some.
Change was in the air when new food arrived; first, the tinned mango juice, then green bananas at the vegetable store – their first appearance in my hometown one summer. People lined up for hours and waited for days for them to be ripe enough to eat; some didn’t know that bananas were supposed to be yellow; one of my parents’ friends said that she wasn’t impressed: the fruit tasted like grass. Then little tidbits started arriving with my father when he came back from abroad; bits of ham he saved for me from his in-flight meal, kiwi and mango from Switzerland that we’ve never seen before in our lives – I shared a kiwi with Masha and felt like the richest person in the world – sharing foreign food was even more prestigious than having it. At Masha’s, I had my first taste of the foreign land when her father brought back a bottle of Pepsi from the States. It was unnervingly brown in colour, sweet, and overflowing with an abundance of gas bubbles which brought tears to my eyes; to me, it epitomised an unknown and exciting land.
Other strange fruit appeared in my town shortly afterwards: Americans. It was the first time foreigners were allowed in, since the road to Chernogolovka from Moscow lies past Star City, the space project testing grounds. I had very vague notions of what America was; my head was so filled with djinns, hobbits, magic carpets, cavemen, space ships and pirates that, as I told my mother, I was extremely disappointed in the absence of tomahawks, war-paint and feather headgear. In ordinary suits, with ordinary beards, they looked like regular men.
Two weeks before we were due to leave, I told my schoolteacher that we were going to America. I had no idea what that transition would mean, and must have spoken of our departure very matter-of-factly, because she laughed, took me by the hand, and as an aside to the cleaning lady, said: “Can you believe she is going to America and she only just told me?” There was no premonition of leaving for good; when I look back, no anxiety comes to mind, no sad goodbyes to friends, no final parting. Just standing in the dark hall of the airport, dressed in shorts and a new sleeveless sweater, clutching my little green knapsack and the stick of gum that my aunt handed me, then being embraced and looking back at my aunt and grandmother when they could go with us no further.
I have an excellent memory for food. I guess you can call it an abiding passion. I remember exactly what we had on that Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Frankfurt: half a slice of black sourdough bread, with some kind of green spread, followed by a chicken drumstick with rice. The chicken tasted somewhat sweet and I didn’t like it. My mother even let me eat my slice of chocolate cake on the flight from Cincinnati to Minneapolis – an unheard of thing, since she forbade unnatural sweets in our house; I loved the cake, but it increased my sense of bewilderment over our bizarre situation.
The airport in Cincinnati was quiet and still; the queues moved silently and in an orderly fashion. How ironic that the gateway that welcomed us into the US for the first time would turn me away, years later.
The blue lights on the Minneapolis landing strip were mesmerising. Then we hurtled through the dark streets to One Ten Grant; I later told my mother that I never thought America would be so gloomy. The thirteenth floor was missing in the lift; they skipped straight to the number fourteen. It was surreal how we sat around the round wooden table in our lounge and ate and ate and ate. The Schklowskys who picked us up bought bags of food, and there we were, at 3am, eating the unfamiliar bologna, banana yoghurt, peanut butter…
Setting foot inside the little Red Owl supermarket in Minneapolis was akin to a religious experience for me – I stood stupefied, looking ahead at the white, well-lit, gleaming aisles full of food. Exotic. Foreign. Plentiful. Abundant. I lived the dream – for the first few days, I lived on bananas, salami, cheese, cereal; consumed large tubs of vanilla yoghurt – an unheard-of delicacy; and for lunch, my sister and I had my two absolute favourites on the same plate – frankfurters and spaghetti — together! No sauce, no condiments; we hadn’t reached any level of sophistication yet. Rainbow supermarket was akin to a palace. It had grander aisles, and mini pizzas and cookies were given out free at the little taster counters… the lemon-poppyseed muffins still tasted of wonder when I stopped by again a decade later.
The foreign land held new terrors to counter the new wonders. When my mother, fresh to the Unites States, wanted to leave me and my sister in Loring Park in Minneapolis rather than in our apartment at One Ten Grant (since fresh air is good for you!) while she went to buy food, I abandoned any sense of pride and begged for us not to be left alone, with the desperate knowledge that if that’s what she chose to do, there would be nothing I could do to prevent our separation. In the end, she didn’t, which is just as well, really, since she probably would have wound up a couple of children short that way, but for me it was a recurring terror – being left alone with the baggage trolley in Frankfurt airport, vast and busy and filled with scenarios of my family’s abduction in my over-fertile imagination; being left alone, full stop.
I kept some old habits; the shoebox full of treasure, created in Chernogolovka, expanded to accommodate the infinitely more sophisticated Batmobile from Chocolate Chip Cookies cereal, two Micro Machines, Chip‘n’Dale ink stamps and several semi-broken Transformers.
We were only meant to stay for the summer; I don’t recall the specific moment when we were told that we were staying abroad for good; time just went on and on and Chernogolovka became a separate reality. It was May when we arrived, and we were the only kids at Woolworths when my mom went exploring with us. I coveted the exotic Ken dolls in the Barbie section; my sister and I got identical dolls in the end, although her Ken had a cowboy hat and mine didn’t; yet another injustice in a world where my little sibling got all of our mother’s attention and involuntarily became a companion; having no friends, we were forced to spend all our time in each other’s company. I sneaked a pack of Strawberry Extra gum into my pocket when no one was looking. When I eventually confessed to my mother about the contents of my mouth, she berated me as usual and seemed glad that I wasn’t caught at the store. The shame would have destroyed her.
I am numb when I think of Barton School in Highland Park, New Jersey. Much of my memory has been anesthetised or obliterated, but I remember my first episode of being bullied. Schoolwork was much more difficult than that at Webster Open School in Minneapolis, where the classroom was bright and lively, kids chatting to each other while they worked; I shared a table with a boy named Dewey who offered me sweets – during a lesson! We laughed when our teacher, Val, pointed to a chalk mark on her pants (we call her by her first name!), we slapped our P.E. teacher high-fives as we ran past him in the gym, we sang Land of the Silver Birch in music, and a girl named Carrie gave me piggyback rides, making me aware of my first play on words in English: Carrie/carry.
At Barton School, I sat by myself; I was ostracised. I heard Connie tell Tammie that I was picking my nose during Miss Hall’s class; that was the first time I was in the direct line of fire of maliciousness from other girls. Brenda offered to help me carry some books for the teacher, but as soon as we were out of the classroom, she told me I’m ugly. I didn’t share her opinion; in fact, I thought that she, with her very prominent buck teeth and mud-brown hair, strongly resembled a horse, but my spoken English was inadequate to convey that to her, so my rebuttal to being called ugly was simply “no.”
New Jersey had brief sparks of magic; seeing the advertising blimps flying above New York made me believe that the Ninja Turtles were a reality, since they are the only ones who fly on a blimp. I expected them to jump out from under the nearest manhole cover. Still, I was ill a lot of the time in New Jersey, and the illness was mostly faked or self-induced. I could barely face going to school. I was thrilled when we contracted chicken pox, despite the horrendous bouts of itching. Barton School and all it represented was my nemesis; when I made a ‘pilgrimage’ to Minneapolis, ten years on, to see my first foreign residence — the pool where water lost its terror, where the gate was left open and I pondered the possibility of wandering in and taking a commemorative dip — I never once entertained the possibility of a Greyhound detour to New Jersey.
The partial healing of my chicken pox scars signaled our departure for a new destination. My initial impression of Cambridge was unfavourable.
The frozen dog turd on the pavement catches my eye when I nearly step on it and depresses me. It just seems to fit in perfectly with the leaden grey skies, two-storey houses in various shades of grey and the damp, paralysing cold that seeps through my flimsy white jacket. Compared to the spotless streets of my hometown, or the alien towers reaching for the sky in Minneapolis, Cambridge seems untidy, dreary and drab. I have no allies here, and once again I’m filled with the abject terror of entering a new school, grappling with my limited English, and to top it off, I’m newly scarred with chicken pox marks. By rights, everyone should be staring at my disfigured face, and I’m ready to beg my mother to turn around by the time we arrive at the gates.
Someone has scrawled “TOK” in charcoal on the wooden fence near Morley Memorial Primary School, next to a sign showing a stick person getting electrocuted. That’s what makes me wonder whether there are any other Russians living here, “TOK” meaning electric current. I figure that if it’s a Russian kid, he must be taller than me, since Sherlock Holmes commented that one always writes at the same level as one's eyes, and the writing is pretty high on the fence.
Cambridge lacks it all; in spite of all the things that I have grown to covet – Lego and action figures with movable limbs, mountain bikes with multiple gears, foods we only heard of as children, superior cartoons and children’s programs on TV for hours-on-end – I miss the freedom to roam, the company of like-minded peers, a simpler and more wholesome way of life, which I failed to recognise when I lived there. We are confined to our back garden, and large as it may be and initially full of promise, with the little rectangular pond and its cherry, apple and plum trees, it disappoints. With my collection of matchboxes and lighters I found on the ground in Minneapolis and Highland Park, New Jersey, I go out back and attempt to build a small campfire, but the ‘fuel’ is too damp, and so is the ground; burning newspaper scatters brittle ash onto the slice of salami I’m trying to ‘cook’ over my campfire and my enthusiasm dims. I never light a fire again.
Our TV is drab; it’s a tiny, beige, prehistoric, black-and-white model that I later use as a monitor for my Spectrum computer, a proud jumble sale purchase. My sister and I watch reruns of 1960's Batman and I have nightmares of gangsters breaking in through our front door and shooting my mother. She doesn’t die in my dream, but each night after that, before I go to sleep, I ask her “You’re not going anywhere, are you? You’re not going to die, are you?” I think about death a lot. It’s not physical death that scares me; I feel no emotion at the description of the dismembered planter’s wife in Conan Doyle’s “Sign of Four,” the marauding escapades of the corpses that come alive in Russian folk tales, or the blue firefly-like lights that hover above a cemetery, luring a blind woman to her doom in a Japanese tale. I’m no stranger to seeing dead bodies, yellow and peaceful, being carried in open coffins through the streets of my home town, followed by mourners and curious onlookers such as myself and my friends, with branches of evergreen trees marking the apartment building where the deceased had lived. However, death as a complete absence is chilling; I open my mother’s wardrobe when she is out, breathe in the familiar comforting smell of her clothes and imagine her simply ceasing to be and am paralysed by it.
I feel sorry for the English kids; playing with peers is now confined to each other’s homes and organised through parents; they are being babied, I feel, mollycoddled, overprotected, not allowed to do anything. Our parents back home used to brag to each other about how responsible their children are, how they can be left alone at the age of five to look after younger siblings, light a fire safely, hammer in a nail, peel a vegetable. It’s like being reduced to babyhood all over; we ran the world in Chernogolovka — a private world parallel to the adult one, and just as important; English kids, who have never known any other world, do not miss what they cannot conceive of.
The gender lines were not so strictly drawn back home, and they confuse this tomboy; girls here are so… um… girly. Maybe my concept of fashion is stunted because I wore hand-me-downs from our cousins and loved them, but I hate the figure-hugging clothes here. I ask my mother to cut my hair ever shorter and stubbornly stick to wearing my beloved tracksuit and black bumbag. I bring some of my Russian toys to school and am surprised when most people coo over the wooden dolls when in fact it’s my collection of toy soldiers that should command their undivided attention.
I teach Laura how to play the gum wrapper game, placing one wrapper on top of the other and hitting them gently with a slightly cupped palm; if they flip over, you win both. It’s cold and windy — even though we are sheltering in corner of the school yard — and she is bored. Besides, when gum wrappers are so prolific, they are no longer a treasure, and eventually I stop collecting the Spearmint and Juicy Fruit ones, which are worth less than the Bazooka Joe ones and the ones with Disney characters on them, and put them away in a little plastic Ziplock bag, along with the secret code. I fail to understand why Laura seems less-than-impressed with my show of treasures when she comes round, just like she fails to muster sufficient excitement (in my opinion) at the sight of the Lego castle (with working drawbridge) that I get for my birthday. I’m out of my depth; I felt so rich and important when my father brought me a whole pack of Juicy Fruit from the States and I shared the wealth among my friends, Juicy Fruit having far greater prestige value than Soviet gum.
I settle in at Morley School and begin to enjoy the relaxed approach to lessons — so different from the regimental primary school in Chernogolovka, with its prim straight rows of small desks. We run wild in the large playground, throw a tennis ball against the wall and attempt to catch it with one hand, leap off the swings onto the sawdust below, play marbles against each other on the water drains. On weekends we sneak into the school yard to play, to climb up the drain pipe with the headmaster’s son onto the roof to search for treasures that have been flung up there by accident and not retrieved, like little bouncy balls, marbles, pennies and the occasional tennis ball.
My English is improving in leaps and bounds; I am losing the American accent that I managed to acquire during my brief time in the States; I now know that a “trash can” is a “rubbish bin” and that “raft” is pronounced “rahft,” having been corrected by a bewildered Louise in my class. I’m reading again; I started by reading Banana Books with one sentence per page, but a year later I progress to Nancy Drew mysteries. I want to be a detective, but I’m not as close to any of my peers here as I was in Chernogolovka and their games are not the same; my new friends are not as used to spending time outside, and even if they do, they have very little room to roam – only their own gardens or the insides of their houses. The streets of Cambridge are out of bounds, and even the seasons are a letdown; there is no stark contrast between them. Cambridge is just damp, all year round, and there are no rituals here to mark the passing of seasons.
I’m still uncouth and uncool, but accepted as an eccentric foreigner. On my friend Sara’s birthday, other girls give her makeup and cute little bits of stationary with kitties on them, but I presented her with a box of biscuits. She can read the ingredients through the thin wrapping paper. What to me would be the ideal birthday gift, to her is something completely ordinary, a food item she may have with tea every day.
I miss the tastes that conjure up memories of home; Western food is not as flavoursome and can be booby-trapped. Chillies are hot; I discover that when I pick one off the floor of an indoor market and carry it home. I cut it open with my knife and lick one of the seeds. I spend the rest of the mealtime jumping up sporadically and running to the bathroom, running my tongue under the cold tap to quell the burning. My other misadventure with food involves the rhubarb patch at the bottom of our garden on Glebe Road; I discover that the stems are pleasantly sour and end up eating half of our rhubarb supply one summer afternoon. I cannot taste salt for two days afterwards; the rhubarb completely disabled my salt sensor.
I dream of Chernogolovka often. I write to Masha and she writes back. I send my friends my precious possessions – my only Barbie doll and a humanoid that folds into a rock-like entity – another wonderful jumble sale purchase. They love them and Masha writes that they always have the toys with them. We write in code for a bit, the secret code devised by our secret club in our secret hideout, but our correspondence soon dwindles. I abandon thoughts of returning as the prodigal daughter, bearing gifts for all and resign myself to forever walking the line, never quite British, never quite fitting in. A drifter.