I watched the Russian official interrogate the silver-haired woman ahead of me.
“What do you mean you don’t know?” the young man jeered. His clipped English matched his close-cut hair, thin lips and a thick neck that strained to be freed from a Custom’s starched white shirt.
The elderly woman seemed to shrink. “I can give you the name of our tour agency.” She opened her leather pocketbook and offered him a folded sheet of paper. “There,” she trembled.
Barely glancing at the flyer, he stamped her passport and called out, “Next,” his voice thick with boredom.
I left the lineup of passengers to stand in front of the harshly lit customs booth at Domodedovo International Airport and handed him my passport and visa. Twenty-five years earlier the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Block dissolved, yet I wasn’t sure word had gotten out that the Cold War was over.
The customs officer looked me up and down then flipped through my documents, turning one page back and forth as though something was awry. Annoyed, he asked curtly, “Where is your letter of invitation?”
I felt my knees buckle. “It’s attached to my passport. Isn’t it?” I asked, and in my sleep deprived state I instinctively reached out to show him the page but was blocked by the thick-paned window.
All tourists need a host, or a voucher showing they had secured lodging while in Russia. Knowing I had a copy—somewhere—I unslung my day pack and started digging. In a daze after crossing over two continents and one ocean in less than twenty-four hours, I began to unload my bag on to the floor.
He barked, “Why are you here?”
“I want to see Russia,” I blurted out, then caught myself rolling my eyes at my lame answer.
Satisfied, or exasperated, he handed me stamped papers.
I felt light headed with relief, and gathered my luggage, only to be reminded by the throng of people on the other side of the customs gate that I still had to get to the hotel in a country where I did not speak the language. I scanned the mass of faces, looking for a sign with my name in English. Seeing it with a Welcome to Russia greeting, I fumbled with my cell phone as I rushed over to the grey-haired man wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans and holding the sign. I turned off airplane mode, and hoping my mail-order sim card had been activated for Russia, I pulled up the translator app.
“Hello,” I mouthed into my cell and placed the phone message in front of the taxi-driver’s face. My mobile read the translated greeting aloud to him in Russian.
I’ll shoot you.
He didn’t answer but gave me a wary look; eyes darting back and forth from one side to the other, as though he hadn’t bargained for an American.
I checked the text message, laughed at our awkward beginning, then tried again. This time he nodded after I handed it to him.
He had thinning hair and appeared to be about ten years older than me. Still, I unloaded my luggage on him, then looked left and right in search of an ATM, my neck cracking with each turn. Within minutes of pocketing my rubles, we were in the parking lot. Surprised at the speed of our exit, I glanced back at the terminal. Only then did I realize there had been no fast food vendors or shops with flashy trinkets, inflating the front lobby with unnecessary commercial space.
As he led me through the parking lot I asked, “Do you know any English?”
“A little,” he answered, and in sign language pinched two fingers together showing next to none. Turning to me he asked in heavily accented Russian, “Where you from?”
“California.” I answered, then as an afterthought added “USA,” feeling the exhaustion of trying to catch up with a ten hour time-zone difference and his long strides.
“Ah, I have cousin in Orlando—Orlando, California.” He smiled at our shared connection.
“That’s Florida.” I chuckled, mostly to myself. “The other side of the United States.”
He shrugged, “America. All the same.”
With a tired grin, I opened the dented door, stepped up into the van’s passenger seat, and let my body sink into the ripped artificial leather chair.
Hopping into the driver’s seat, he threw the stick shift into gear, and enthusiastically announced, “I show you fast way.” Before I could object, he spun the driving wheel and headed for the back route.
Through the open window, gusts of spring freshness blew in from wild fields of purple chicory, white yarrow, and yellow buttercups, blanketing the grassland surrounding Moscow’s largest airport. Intermittent splats of rain on the windshield explained the lush landscape and slow speed of the van.
The passenger wheel dipped onto the dirt shoulder every now and then to avoid a head-on collision with an oncoming car. I reached for the armrest but the only thing left was a miniature stereo speaker, so I hung onto the front dash as the van, with its broken windshield and leaking exhaust, slowly bumped along a road barely wide enough for one. I gritted my teeth, casting my fate to the wind, and shifted in my seat. The driver noticed nothing.
Groves of birch trees, fluttering in the breeze, lined the road as we wound along the scenic route. I mumbled to myself, “I hope he knows what he’s doing,” and wondered if the hour drive would end up taking two. Nervous I’d miss the Bolshoi ballet that night, for which I had a $400 ticket waiting for me at the box office, I asked, “If I paid you more could you go faster?”
He gave me a strange look, as if I’d asked him to break the law.
Chill out, I told myself, knowing I had put more in my cultural bucket than two weeks could hold.
After a few silent moments he observed, “You crazy woman. Travel alone. Where husband?”
“I’m divorced. But I have a daughter.”
“I divorced too,” he confided. “Have second wife. One son.”
Our conversation was quickly absorbed by American music from the 80’s on the radio.
Along the side of the road I noticed a sign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup soccer and feeling a caffeine-induced jolt of energy from the last cup of coffee I’d forced down, I restarted my digital conversation. My phone blasted above the motor’s rumble, “I like soccer,” and pointed at the sign.
His lip turned up in disgust. “Sissies,” he spat out in Russian. The phone deciphered it back to me in English. Then his eyes lit up. “Ice hockey!” He smiled and gave me a thumbs up.
I couldn’t help but notice his silver front tooth.
Through the phone’s interpreter I asked, “Have you always been a taxi driver?” This time I checked the input. It said: Will you marry me. I giggled at the difficulty in communicating and finger combed my twenty-hours of airplane tangle, then deleted the message and tried again, pronouncing each word carefully.
He scoffed at being stereotyped as a taxi driver and threw his head back. “Military 25 years. Have pension. Now drive taxi…when I want.”
I wondered how much of that was true as we approached the urban limits. The gravel road turned into a two-lane asphalt highway. Twenty-story-tall, grey monolithic buildings loomed on both sides of the street. Lost to the abandonment of a grueling trip, I asked, “What did you do while you were in the military,” knowing I may be digging too deep—too soon.
With a hearty laugh he took his eyes off the road and pointedly glanced in my direction. “Shoot down American satellites.”
My shock at his candor must have been obvious in my bulging eyes. “Really?” I asked, then knowing I’d never see him again, I chose to follow his honest lead. “When I was in grade school, we would prepare for Russian air raid attacks by having emergency practices. Every Wednesday the sirens started at noon. We would all go under our desks. After the alarms stopped, we knew it was safe to come out. Did you do anything like that in Russia?”
He raised his eyebrows, gave me a look that clearly said, ‘another stupid American,’ and asked, “What good desk if nuclear attack?” Then he surprised me with, “It Germans we worry about. We play Russia under attack by Germans. Like Great War.” He waited as though I should share his anti-Aryan sentiments. When I said nothing, he grumbled. “They kill my father. He wounded by bomb…come home…die of infection.”
“I’m sorry,” I said automatically, while thinking the Cold War ended about twenty-five years ago yet he was reliving WWII, fifty years older than that. But since we were on the topic of warfare, I asked, “Do Russians think of ISIS as the new Germany?” I had heard about the downing of a Russian tourist plane in route to Egypt and a recent suicide bombing in the metro.
He shrugged his shoulders. “No think about terrorists. Not my problem.”
I tried to ask him how he could ignore surprise attacks on innocent civilians. But every time I put the question to my phone, the translation came back garbled. So I stopped and watched traffic.
Russian made cars, Ladas and Volgas, cruised next to Mercedes and Beamers. I did a double take.
“The economy must be good in Russia with so many expensive cars,” I observed, the surprise evident my voice.
“People spend money so look good to others. Buy i-phone, even if cost three times salary.”
I thought about how money was spent to speed things up in the US. Get there sooner. Make it happen faster. Even though convenience cost. In the US, we were willing to pay the price for time, in Russia it was ‘the look’ they wanted.
The open fields gave way to skyscraper apartments intermixed with basswood-canopied parks. Stylishly dressed mothers in feminine flowing dresses, pushed babies in the latest high-tech strollers. Young lovers walked hand in hand. And weaving in and out of the crowds, green and purple-haired skate boarders, sporting tattoos, took advantage of the break in the clouds. It was as though I was back home. I felt unprepared for what I saw and guilty for expecting less. I had expected a society of cabbage, potatoes and busses. I had assumed I’d see a third-world landscape. Instead, the scene outside my window could have been in any upscale US suburb.
“I hear America still like Russia in 1960’s: rationing and empty stores. You have more money, but life no better,” my driver commented, seeming to read my mind about third world countries.
It was clear to me by the bravado in his voice, he ironically saw the US as a floundering country and he had no intention of hiding his opinion of Russia’s superiority. If he was going to lecture me on what a ‘sorry lot’ the US was, I was grateful I’d be out of his taxi in less than an hour.
A little too defensively I answered, “No way is life like it was in our 60’s. It’s better.” In 1960, many middle-age women, like my mother, hadn’t graduated from high school. They stayed at home with the children. “I have an advanced degree, own my house, and travel abroad every year,” I finished.
He glowered at me, looking like he didn’t believe me. “You inherit, no?”
“I wish,” I laughed, remembering the humiliation of wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs. My parents had seven kids—and barely enough money to pay the bills. Ever since I could remember I was determined to change my life. “Inheritance?” I answered. “I bought everything with my own money.”
He nodded his head up and down tolerantly.
On the road ahead of us, dust spouting excavators exerted their authority and forced all vehicles to a stop. Instead of complaining, I took advantage of the log jam to bring down my indignation and get a clearer look at everything around me. Stucco siding on weathered apartments flaked off in chunks. I shivered at thoughts of the winter seeping in. And the pot holes in the street were large enough to swallow a whole truck. It looked like an impossible task to restore in a summer’s time but the workers didn’t appear to notice. It was income.
Funny how the stuffy, smoke spewing bull dozers took me back to working my whole life in a male-dominated field. Being the only woman in the room, getting ignored, persisting, and then seeing second glances of recognition came to mind. Things have changed, and because of that my daughter’s generation expects more from the world than I thought possible. It made me proud to be from a country where pushing the career ceiling was possible. Likewise, on this trip, I declined the cruise route and chose to travel ‘my way.’ Using my cell phone’s translator, I read railroad schedules and purchased on the Russian internet; consequently some purchases resulted in questionable decisions, like the Bolshoi tickets for the night I arrived. Yet I realized it was a privilege to make those mistakes.
I thought of my daughter, bright, beautiful, and charming—everything a parent could want—except I wondered if by giving her everything I didn’t have, I’d taken challenges away from her. Life didn’t hold the same allure for her that it had for me when I had to fight for it. My mind flashed to the many young homeless wandering our streets. Times were tough, but with a little digging, opportunity was out there. Yet some invisible siren’s call held them back.
My driver pointed to a neighborhood park on my side of the street. On a wooden bench a clutch of old women in a wide assortment of peasant skirts and colorful scarves, looking like a scene from an artist’s rendering during the Tsar’s time, sat; shopping bags, spilling over with green and orange vegetables at their feet. Rain was imminent, yet they seemed happy to be together and were in no hurry to leave. In a self-reflective sigh, he scrutinized them, as though seeing more than what met the eye.
“Old ladies remind me when I very little. I go to grandmother’s wooden house in Urals. Have barrels of pickles and fish we store for winter. House heated with wood stove downstairs. All sleep in loft upstairs. At Christmas decorate bush with no leaves. Add little things, like dry flowers. I get tail from rabbit. Poof poof poof.” He imitated brushing his cheek with a furry ball. “I loved that tail.” He looked straight ahead in the distance and I sensed he was embarrassed at showing his emotion to a stranger—especially a woman. Almost apologetically he added, “I just small boy. House very cold. We not have much.”
“But I thought Lenin’s socialism gave everyone opportunities the Tsar had suppressed.”
“Lenin, yes. Stalin no.” He saw me watching the old women. “My mother she think Stalin handsome. My father think he strong.”
“Didn’t Stalin kill millions of people?” I asked but didn’t add, how could anyone see him as anything but a monster?
The driver studied the motionless steering wheel. Immobilized by the crush of heavy equipment, his knee bounced nervously. “Yes. Before Bolshevik Revolution the rich drink out of gold cups. But we go thirsty.” I noticed the creases in his face and wondered how old he was. “Even if Stalin guilty of many deaths, he not all bad. Russia now nation of power.”
The car in front of us lurched forward. My driver shifted the van’s gnashing gears, and we began to creep forward. Off to one side, I noticed a gold-gilded onion-domed church: a hallmark of the Russian landscape. It dwarfed everything on the block. Then without any forewarning, a cluster of white-washed Russian Orthodox churches, some with black, helmet-shaped cupolas, and others with blue or green rounded crowns, seemed to spring up like a symphony of color in every direction. This was the Russia I came to see.
“Russians must be very religious with so many churches,” my phone translated from English.
From his shirt collar, the driver pulled out a gold chain and let the cross dangle. “I wear in secret many years.” His voice cracked and he refused to make eye contact. “Mosques destroyed. Churches torn down.” He held the cross lovingly for a few minutes. “My mother hold service in our home. Many come. Say traditional prayers. Eat special foods. No tell government.”
“Do young people go to church now?” I asked, as I watched a long line of tourists inch closer to the ticket booth at the place of worship with the golden roof, thinking I may soon be one of them.
He shrugged his shoulders, “My son, he say he no need.”
“My daughter’s the same,” I moaned, but did not add, her religion was the holy joint. My stomach clenched at the thought of her lack of interest in a tomorrow and a previous fight we’d had.
She had returned home late, as usual, around three in the morning, loudly shouting goodbye to her friends in our quiet residential neighborhood. I had gotten up and put on my robe. Arms crossed, I waited for her to see me in the dimly lit hallway. “People are sleeping. You shouldn’t make so much noise,” I said, hearing my ‘mothers tone’ in my voice.
“I’ve had a hard day,” she snapped back, throwing her pack on a chair and dropping into the couch.
“It smells like you’ve been out drinking.”
“What of it. I’m old enough.” She pulled off one boot then the other, her honey-brown eyes blood shot and her once peaches and cream skin, blotchy. “Let me live my life my way, like your parents let you live yours.”
What could I say? She was an adult—but that’s what scared me. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “If you don’t go after your dreams now and work hard when you’re young, you’ll suffer the rest of your life.”
She pushed a tangle of curls behind her ear. “It’s my life, not yours,” she said, then tuned out my nagging, treating me as though I was white noise.
My time lost in self-reflection seemed to go unnoticed by the driver until he slapped his hand on the steering wheel and shook his head. “What my son need is money. He move back home when he not have enough for rent and clean clothes. Must keep uniform clean or no job.”
I immediately thought of laundry discussions in my home. They were an ongoing battle. It was as if soap and water would wash away the essence of my daughter’s being and disturb the carefully crafted holes she’d cut in her clothes. I couldn’t count the number of times she’d moved out, came back, left again, and then returned home. Part of the problem was us baby boomers: not retiring and holding up the chain of promotions. My generation complained about the youth’s sense of entitlement, expecting immediate rights to management positions. On the other hand, the young said: Things aren’t like they were when you were young.
The driver interrupted my thoughts again. “My son, he go to America. He know what he want. He make it happen. Buy plane ticket. Cost $80. But no money for hotel. So he work for circus. Travel around country. No make much money. When circus stop, son build houses.” The driver’s pride was palpable.
Having not seen any beggars on the corners, panhandling at stop lights, or huddled under bridges, I asked, “Are there many homeless in Russia?”
As if the word did not exist in Russian, he asked, “Homeless? Communism give everyone education, medicine, and home. Apartment small—in kitchen you can touch sink with elbow, stove with hand, table with foot and door with butt. Still all have home.”
“Many of our homeless in the United States have mental health problems.” I explained and I thought of the young man who lived in a hole beneath the underpass by my house. He’d wait only a day after the police removed his belongings before he’d return. In survival mode, he’d climb over the six-foot-fence seemingly pumping more adrenaline, or some illicit drug, than any Olympic athlete in the final throes of a competition.
The driver stiffened. “If sick, then family responsible.” It was as though abandoning a relative had no place in his mind or heart.
“Yes,” I agreed, but knew families in the US no longer stuck together. They lived independently. Moved away and apart. It was how we got ahead in our careers. Reached our full potential and consequently, created new extended families who thought like us. After some time I added, “It’s hard when a homeless person is on alcohol or drugs and doesn’t want to live by family rules.”
“No drug problem in Russia,” he answered with dictatorial certainty. Or was it blindness, I wondered. Even if drugs weren’t the unsolvable dilemma they were in the US, I was sure alcoholism was a behind closed-doors problem in Russia.
“You’re lucky,” I answered, and looked away, realizing I had not seen druggies on the street nor anyone in wheelchairs. Handicap ramps seemed in short supply and I wondered if they were all trapped indoors. Not wanting to solve the world’s problems while on vacation, I searched the car-choked boulevard for something to say. Seeing a digital billboard that promised a success and beautiful, mini-skirted blonde or a jaguar sedan, I asked, “What do Russian’s think of Putin and Trump?”
Taking my question seriously, he scratched his head and cautiously spoke into the phone. “Putin like grandmother. Never change. If she like you—you like her. Trump—he hare today, gone tomorrow.”
I smirked at his mispronunciation of here. “Well for now it looks like Putin is opening the Kremlin to the US and Trump is inviting Russia to the White House.” I knew relatives back home who adored Trump and his Elvis Presley pompadour and I had friends who were sure the Trump-Putin partnership was going to deepen our involvement in the Middle East.
As though a burning question came to mind, the car swerved before the driver righted his steering then he asked, “Is it true you no take off shoes when you go in house in America?” He rolled his eyes in disbelief. “How not bring in dirt from street?”
My mouth opened but I had nothing to say. It must’ve been the reference to the White House that prompted his urgent query. We’d always worn shoes in my home. Yes, the house got dirty. So we cleaned it. But in recent years, I’d been invited to homes where they gave you slippers when you arrived. It seemed like a good idea but I couldn’t say that one way was better than the other.
Finally, choosing my words carefully, I admitted, “Yes, we wear shoes in our houses,” then thought about it for a moment. I wondered how hard it would be to alter something so intrinsic in our culture. “I like the idea of taking them off, but change is hard.”
He nodded in agreement. “My son say if change needed he must make happen. No wait for others. Must push himself, or there be no change.” A calm came over him. “I learn from him more than he learn from me.”
I thought about my daughter, knowing she would not want change unless it had meaning for her. To find that motive, when she’d never lived a life in-need, was the obstacle I had created for her. She lived in a world with complete freedom. Free to be happy, reach her greatest dream, make her most unforgiving mistake, and live her life ‘her way,’ which was a liberty I had expected from my parents.
Before I knew it, the driver was making final turns on the narrow streets, left then right, to the address I’d sent months earlier when making the reservation online. I looked at my Fitbit. Only an hour had passed since I’d landed. He rolled to a stop and double-parked in front of a hair salon, two doors down from my AirBnB. I stepped out into a light rain and threw my day pack on my back while the driver pulled my carry-on from the van’s rear. The smell of ozone and a crisp mist awakened my tired eyes.
“Thank you.” Spaseeba my phone translated as I gathered my belongings and gave him the obligatory tip. I wondered if the differences created by our governments would continue to hold up the virtual wall between individuals. The driver and I connected for a brief moment in time, but could that bridge the cultural chasm years in the making? I was from a democracy, a world where everyone marches to their own values and his life was built upon socialism, with its interdependent dream.
He looked at me, confused. “Pazhalooysta.” You’re welcome, he answered. “But you’ve already paid on-line.”
“This is for you,” I said, knowing they rarely tipped in his country, but his insights into the soul of Russia led me to my own self-discoveries. And they meant much more to me than a few rubles. I knew I got the better deal.
In broken English he spluttered, “Have a great…,” he hesitated.
A silence stood between us as we looked at each other, his job completed and my worries about getting to the Bolshoi long gone.
Finally I finished the sentence for him, “Life.”