Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Looking for the Mountain

When I moved to Connecticut three years ago, I explored the area around my town and described some of my travels to new acquaintances. When I told one neighbor that I had gone to the town of Avon, she said, “So you drove over the mountain.” Puzzled, I replied that I didn’t recall seeing any mountain. “I love mountains,” I told her. “I’ll be sure to look for it next time.” She gave me a quizzical look.

Several weeks later, I was talking to another acquaintance about how to get somewhere in Canton, and she told me to “drive over Avon Mountain.” I asked her how I would do that, and she told me to take Route 44, which was the route I had previously taken to Avon. So again I got in my car and drove to Avon and then to Canton—and I still didn’t see any mountain.

Finally, when “the mountain” came up in a conversation a third time, I didn’t let it pass. I asked my interlocutor where, precisely, this mountain was. “You go right over it on Route 44,” she told me. “No,” I told her. “I’ve driven on Route 44, and I didn’t see any mountain.” Then she began to describe the grade going up over a rise, the runaway truck ramp on the downhill side, the treacherousness of the road, and I realized that our definitions of “mountain” were severely misaligned.

“That,” I maintained, “is no mountain.”

Later, I learned that the area referred to as Avon Mountain where Route 44 connects Avon and West Hartford is actually part of another mountain, Talcott Mountain, which at under 1,000 feet also doesn’t qualify as a mountain in my lexicon.

Last week, I was talking with a woman in the library while the kids played in the toy kitchen area. My friend described to me her trip to the town where I grew up in Southern California. She once flew out there from Connecticut to attend her cousin’s wedding. When she arrived, she was in awe of the mountains. She remarked to her cousin that the mountains where so tall. “Those aren’t mountains,” her cousin replied. “Those are hills.”

For several days, she kept looking at and remarking on the mountains, and her cousin kept correcting her. “Those are hills,” her cousin kept saying. “You just wait and see.” The mountains that my friend was seeing were covered in brown grasses and chaparral, and they looked tall to her. In fact, the tallest peak in the hills near my childhood home is over 3,000 feet.

Finally, one day the smog cleared out, revealing the true mountains—the blue snow-capped splendors on the horizon. “Those,” her cousin told her, “are mountains.” And my friend was in awe. “Those,” she repeated to me, “are mountains.”

“I know them well,” I said. “Both the mountains and the hills.” And then I told her my story about driving all over Avon Mountain looking for the mountain and being unable to see it. She laughed, and we began to talk about how our internalized landscapes—our very definitions of words like mountain and forest and river—affect our ability to see and name new landscapes. But then the children ran up with wooden pizza and pretend tea for us to enjoy, and we never finished our conversation.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about how our intimacy with the landscapes of our childhood sometimes makes us blind to new landscapes, or at least unwilling to see the wonder in a place that we do not yet call home. Since then, I’ve been thinking about our personal definitions of words related to landscape and how those meanings are formed. Since then, I’ve been thinking about mountains.

What does your mountain look like?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

547 Letters

She sits alone in the night in the miniscule kitchen of a cramped Soviet apartment, taking a break from her dissertation, from pacing the floor with her infant daughter, to write a letter to him. She writes of the weather and the baby's routine. She writes of her work and her fatigue. While her parents and sister and daughter sleep in the other rooms, she sits in a dim pool of light and remembers the 79 days they spent together as husband and wife. She remembers the 136 days of their acquaintance before that. She goes over the days, the hours, the minutes they were together. She writes:

I remember vividly our May 1st together. You were very tired after the demonstration, probably because we didn’t sleep much the night before, and then we crossed half the city on foot. I remember a great number of unimportant details from that day. I read somewhere that when a person is very happy or very unhappy, then at the most decisive or simply most important moments of his life he remembers not that which is important and fundamental, but the opposite: in the consciousness of a person the enormity of the events are overshadowed by the minuteness of detail—the details which help him to endure something incommensurably large. I think that we (and not only on that day) were too happy and too unhappy due to our impending separation to remember anything important. Forgive me this analysis—it’s just that it’s possible that this will help you to understand why we remember such insignificant events from that day. A thought just came into my head—we absolutely must protect our memories, even the most insignificant, because they are all that we have, and therefore they need to become shared between us—right? It was a sunny but windy day. We got up late, but we managed to catch up with the university column. Then we met a few people from our dormitory—Germans and Finns, I think. Then, after we had already crossed Dvortsovaya Ploshchad, onto the waterfront and then across the bridge, we were talking about how if I had put on beautiful shoes, you would have to carry me on your shoulders. And in Peterhof in the forest I washed my hands in a cold stream, and of course they began to freeze, and you warmed them. Lena’s bicycle was endlessly breaking down. Also we saw a rabbit—do you remember? Lena’s companion was named Svetlana, and you photographed them both on the stone head. But maybe it’s just that at the time we considered our life average, we simply lived, without attaching special meaning to the details, but now we see the importance and that’s why these details have etched into our memory?

He sits alone in the big house on the five acres his parents own in Riverside, California, working on his own dissertation, listening to classical music on vinyl, taking out books from shelves and putting them back, staring at the blank sheet of notebook paper as he tries to summon the words. Finally, he writes to her about the package he has sent her and his asthma, about playing basketball with his brothers and taking long walks with his German shepherd. He writes about his correspondence with the Soviet Consulate. He worries over what his life will be like when—and if—he is granted permission to return to the Soviet Union to be with her and the daughter he has never met. He writes:

Now I know that to see you I must break my ties with my family here and lose hope of ever seeing my homeland again. But if I don’t submit the application, we will lose all hope for a normal and happy life. That is why on Wednesday I came to the firm decision to submit the application for Soviet citizenship. Now I am trying to look very deeply into myself in order to know myself better. But sometimes it seems that you know me better than I know my own self and that’s why I want to appeal to you for advice. If I become a Soviet citizen, will I be a useful citizen? Will I be able to make some contribution to Soviet society in light of the fact that my Russian is so poor? Will I miss my homeland and my family? Will I be able to become reconciled to the fact that I will never see them? I don’t know how I will feel about my decision in 5-10 years—will I regret my decision or not? Now I am being guided only by my heart and not my mind—my heart tells me that I need to act recklessly and to accept this brave and irrevocable decision, but my mind tells me that I am acting against the advice of all the people surrounding me, that my decision will have very bad consequences. But for me only your opinion and advice are important—you know me and the Soviet Union well—can I play some useful role there? What do you think? Do I have enough strength to overcome the obstacles that lie ahead of me?

They continue to make plans for their reunion, hopeful that their married life will soon resume. She works to complete her graduate studies and to launch an academic career in the Soviet Union. He appeals to Soviet authorities, seeking clear guidelines on how to return to his family. Slowly, 1974 and 1975 slip away. Then 1976. Authorities at the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco seem to contradict the advice of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, DC. Soviet authorities in the U.S. seem to contradict what authorities in the Soviet Union are telling her. Yes, it’s possible for him to return and live as a permanent resident in the Soviet Union. No, he must revoke his American citizenship and take Soviet citizenship. No, it won’t be possible at all. Yes, but first there are mountains of documents that need to be submitted. First, he must secure employment in the Soviet Union.

For four years they live apart, with just one brief reunion in 1976 when she brings their 18-month-old daughter to visit him in America. Upon parting, they resume their efforts. Additional complications arise: there are roadblocks in defending her dissertation, delays that seem to stretch on and on. Finally, she is told that she will never be permitted to defend her dissertation. By marrying an American she has sabotaged her career. Still, though she is not granted her doctorate, she is permitted to hold a university teaching position. But the time apart wears away at them both, and as the months pass, they lose hope that he will ever be granted permission to return to her. Finally, she makes her decision: she will leave Russia and move to the U.S. to be with him. She will give up everything for him. She comes to Riverside, California, with suitcases full of books and letters and a three-year-old daughter.

I am that daughter, and now, the hundreds of yellowing sheets that they mailed back and forth for four years rest in a black case inside of my desk. The first letter is dated June 6, 1974, and the last is dated June 24, 1978. The letters have been in my possession for a dozen years now; my mother gave them to me shortly after I got married. I read them all then, and now I am slowly working to render the letters in one language, transcribing the English parts, translating the Russian parts, creating enormous Word files that contain the narrative of this love story. The year 1974, though it begins in June, is over 75,000 words. In 1975, they wrote a combined 120,000 words. I recently began on 1976.

And as I read and reread and transcribe and translate, the words seem to become my own, and more than that, I seem to be writing my own current reality into my understanding of the text. The letters become a palimpsest, and each time I take them up again, I am writing over them my own experiences. When I first read the letters I was childless and younger than my letter-writing parents, but now I am older than my parents and my children are older than I ever was in the letters. And I see that everything that happened to our family, to me, is somehow in the letters, or at least it is all nascent, possible, even likely. From the letters I have already pieced together much. I have written some, but there is more. There is a book here, if only I can mine the materials, if only I can pull it from the thousands upon thousands of words, if only I can interlay my own words among my parents’ words.

This month, my parents celebrate their thirty-ninth wedding anniversary. Here is the beginning of their story.

Leningrad, U.S.S.R. / November 4, 1973

They met on a cold, wet day, the temperature holding at an even freezing. A slushy mixture of snow and rain fell from the leaden gray sky; the streets looked like slicked black ribbons and the leafless trees monochrome sticks in the dim light of a northern autumn.

Irina dressed early for the party. She wore a long dress that she had knitted herself, beige with white stripes. She slipped her feet, which she considered much too large and wide, into black shoes with square toes. The three-inch heels made her stand nearly six feet tall. As she dressed she may have thought about the books she had read in the library that day, or about her feeling that her dissertation was burning her life away. Every day she took a bus to the library where she spent ten hours, reading an average of six books, many in French. She considered sleep a waste of time and slept only four hours a night. It made her angry that she had to sleep at all; she had so much to do. Maybe as she stood combing her hair, she thought about the writer Romain Rolland, the man of her work and of her dreams, the only man who understood her, though he was a Frenchman and had died of tuberculosis the year before she was born.

Paul did not go to the national archives because it was Sunday. Six days a week he made the hour-long walk from the island across Dvortsovii Bridge to the mainland, where Peter the Great in the guise of the Bronze Horseman marked his destination and greeted him; the czar, frozen in a posture of conquest atop his rearing stallion, kept watch over his capital. In the archives, Paul pored over ornately lettered manuscripts of the Petrine era and wrote notes on index cards, which he later filed into cardboard boxes decorated in paper made to look like green marble. Every evening he walked back in the chilly dusk, stopping for a cup of black coffee at the confectioner’s. He walked everywhere he went, because he disliked the stuffiness and close contact of public transportation.

(In several weeks he would learn that he was known on the island as the crazy American, because he wore only thin trousers and a flannel shirt on his long treks across the city, while the Russians bundled themselves in scarves, raincoats, hats, and gloves.)

In the afternoon Paul walked to the cafeteria, a block away, where he ordered his favorite soup, solyanka, made of pickles, potatoes, meat, tomatoes, and sausages, served with a slab of crusty black bread. The soup tasted salty and sour from the pickles, and big blotches of orange-tinted fat floated on its claret surface. Paul found it filling and satisfying on a cold day, and the matronly woman who governed the colossal steel soup pot always ladled him a double serving. She wore a kerchief on her head and a wide apron stretched across her vast chest and stomach. Her cheeks glowed red in the steamy heat of the kitchen.

(Months later, Irina would learn that the woman, a Ukrainian, lavished the extra attention on Paul because she believed him to be a boy from her beloved Ukraine; she would be dismayed to learn that he was an American.)

They lived in a white five-story dormitory on Shevchenko, a quiet side street, on Vasilievsky Island, which lies in the crook formed where the Neva River splinters into two. Peter had built his city in a wet northern wilderness; from above the land appears crazed with waterways, like cracked glass. Three hundred graduate students lived in their dorm. Each room housed one or two foreigners and a Russian. Irina lived on the second floor in room #17, with a Canadian, Sarah, and Colette, who was French. Paul lived on the third floor in room #37, with a Russian, Petya. For three months they lived one floor apart and didn’t meet.

Their windows both faced north, and they looked out over the same view, but his room, one floor up, and not directly over hers, offered a slightly different perspective on the scene: a field with two or three poplar trees, patches of dying grass, and the roof of the movie theater Baltika just visible on the horizon. (Later, after Paul left, the field would be turned into a muddy construction site and would remain that way for the rest of Irina’s stay.) Perhaps Paul stood looking out of the window that afternoon, thinking about the endless days of early August, when dusk didn’t begin until after ten and it was dawn by four. Then, in September, the darkness of night began to stretch longer and longer; he now saw that the days of summer and winter were like photographic negatives of one another, dark replacing light, light replacing dark. It had snowed for the first time on September 26th, and through all of October white flurries swirled in the sky, but they melted on contact with the ground; the streets, long and straight, meeting at right angles or in the knots of traffic circles, and perpetually wet, glistened like a black fisherman’s net ensnaring the city. He thought of the lush evergreen citrus groves of his California hometown, and of cash registers; hardly a sliver of green could now be found in this grand, spacious city where glum store clerks impatiently cracked out sums on the hard blond and black beads of an abacus. He felt very alone, and the remaining seven months of his ten-month stay stretched out before him, a series of drab, wet, gray days and long walks back and forth over the bridge.

Life in room #17 orbited a sturdy, round wooden table: six feet in diameter, draped in a burgundy tablecloth and covered in cup rings, crumbs, books, pens, a stray soup pot, sugar granules, teaspoons, cards from a scattered deck. Every night half a dozen to a dozen students of different nationalities—Russian, English, French, German, American, Finnish—gathered at the table to drink tea and talk from ten until two or three in the morning. Irina always said that you could seat any number of people at a round table, and it proved true, night after night. On her twenty-eighth birthday in October, fifteen French students gathered in the room for the celebration. When the five or six mismatched chairs filled, people piled onto the beds. A haze of cigarette smoke cloaked the room, curling in a delicate white filigree, collecting in a dense blanket on the ceiling. Irina did not smoke and often opened the small hinged window to diffuse the thick clouds.

Room #37, the same size as 17, had two beds instead of three. Paul’s bed stood to the left of the window. Paul and Petya studied quietly at the square table in the center of the room. Petya was studying political economy. Occasionally he asked Paul how much something cost in America. Otherwise, he tended to be quiet. Coming from the warm, southern republic of Kazakhstan, he sometimes complained of the cold and kept a thermometer in the room that he monitored regularly. Paul, despite his California roots, seemed impervious to the cold.

(Later, when the temperature in room #37 would fall to 11 degrees Celsius, Petya would buy a space heater to supplement the feeble heat put out by the radiator under the window.)

Irina and her friend Galya served as the cultural directors in the dormitory. Galya, from Tomsk, had ivory hair that she wore in a thick twisted rope falling down her back nearly to her knees. She and her husband, Valera, lived across the hall and a few doors down from room #17. As cultural directors, Irina and Galya organized the series of evening parties hosted in turn by every nation represented in the dorm. The inaugural party, the Russian samovar, always fell on the Sunday closest to November 7th, the day of the October Revolution.

(In February, the French would decide to celebrate their cultural evening by preparing French onion soup, and Irina would lead them around Leningrad, collecting six enormous soup pots from the cafeteria, 100 bottles of white wine, sixty pounds of cheese, and two mountains of onions.)

Irina and Galya walked down the stairs together to the spacious room on the first floor. The study tables, pushed together to form one large U-shaped table, were draped in satin tablecloths, the bright red of the flag. Irina and Galya arranged trays and plates of pastries, pryaniki, and candy, and they placed cups and teapots at regular intervals along the table. The teapots, gathered from all the rooms, formed a motley collection. The two teapots from room #17 had made their way down here: a green enamel one and a porcelain one decorated in a spray of blossoms on a milky background. A record player piped out Russian folk ballads and revolutionary songs in the corner. Irina set out the last teapots with great haste, maybe splattering the tablecloths with hot water droplets, clinking the porcelain cups together; her manner, brusque and impatient, suggested that there wasn’t enough time in her one life to get everything done. She was forever racing time: especially since the doctors had taken an entire year from her. Five months previous they released her from the sanatorium with good news: she was cured of tuberculosis. But already she had lost so much time. 

While Irina and Galya were making a final check of the tables, in room #37 Petya broke the long evening silence by announcing: “It’s time to drink tea.” Paul put on the only suit he’d ever owned (bought for his high school graduation thirteen years before) and followed Petya down the two flights of stairs. They found two seats together. Paul poured his tea: first splashing bitter black zavarka in the bottom of his cup, then filling it to the brim with hot water.

About 120 people were at the party. Paul and Petya, two of the quietest people there, sat side by side drinking tea and not speaking. Maybe Paul looked at the bank of wide windows along the wall and studied the reflection of yellow light and red tablecloth, the shimmering opaque blackness of the world beyond. Maybe he sampled a pryanik and found it too hard and sweet. Maybe he picked up a piece of candy and studied the ornate label, reading the name of the factory and city in Russian: Fabrika Rossiya, Kuybyshev.

Irina noticed him first. She became aware that there was a very quiet man sitting beside her who had no one to talk to. She waited five minutes, and then out of politeness, she spoke to him. She asked him questions about his work: what was he studying? what was his dissertation on? And he told her, in correct but slightly accented Russian, that he was studying Stefan Yavorskii, the Acting Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church during the Petrine era. Yavorskii had gone to Jesuit College in Poland and knew Latin, Greek, Polish, Ukrainian, Church Slavonic, and Old Russian, but he wrote primarily in a combination of the Polish alphabet and the Church Slavonic language. Irina was impressed that he knew so much about Old Russian. They spoke politely to one another and used the formal form of you: vi.

At first, Irina thought that he looked Russian. After she heard him speak, she decided that his accent sounded Ukrainian. He certainly looked Ukrainian: bright blue eyes, round cheeks, dark brown hair, balding. She noticed that he wore a very outdated black suit with narrow trouser legs. She was surprised when she asked him where he was from and he told her America. Sometime during the conversation they told one another their first names: Irina, Paul.

He looked into the face of the woman talking to him—at her widely spaced, intelligent gray eyes, her long, straight nose, her broad face with a cleft in the chin, her strong, square jaw—and he saw that she was very beautiful. He felt bashful and inarticulate.         

At the end of the conversation, she said to him: “If you ever want to have tea, come to room 17. Remember: room 17.” And he remembered. But that night he was not among those at the round table, nor was he there the following night, and Irina thought that he would never come, because in her experience people came on the first or second night or not at all.

(Four days later, on November 8th, he would knock on the door of room #17 for the first time. A week later, on November 11th, the snow would accumulate, the city would turn a soft luminous white, and she would take him shopping for a winter hat made of black rabbit with flaps that came over the ears. Irina would cut the eight-foot-long blue scarf given her by an old student exactly in half; she would give half to Paul and keep half herself, and they would wear matching scarves all winter. On March 20th, they would marry. On June 5th, he would return to America, alone.)

During that first meeting, they talked for no more than three minutes. He thought she was very beautiful. She thought he seemed very lonely. The party continued. Neither of them had any sense that something remarkable had happened. At nine or ten they all went back to their rooms. Outside the icy rain churned out of the sky and fell steadily in the darkness.

(The above excerpt dated November 4, 1973, comes from my essay, “Translation: Perevod,” which appeared in Witness in 2009.)