I was a burden. Had nothing to offer. I’d been sleeping in the same clothes for three weeks, sweating through fever dreams and the realization there wasn’t a quick fix to improving my health. I’d started in September as a guest professor in Bălţi, a Moldovan city that had never hosted an American resident. I’d been warmly received, yet in my third month on the job I’d come down with double pneumonia.
I fumbled my way to Elena’s kitchen. Hard afternoon light heated her small table. When there was electricity, Elena liked to make Plov, a mixture of rice, cubed beef and carrots. I found her seated and thumbing through a beat-up copy of Time I’d given her.
It was one of the days everyone under her roof had to speak English, rather than Russian or Romanian. I began to speak but stopped when tinny music came from the speaker of the state radio system wired throughout the building. The electricity was on. Usually, the state played Moldovan folk music. This afternoon was no different.
“I must hurry,” said Elena. Her manner was polite, her English tinged with a gentle BBC-approved accent. “I will make a dinner. We shall have tea.”
I offered to help. She said I must rest. I didn’t argue; I dropped into a chair near a window that overlooked a courtyard three stories below walled in by dirtied limestone block buildings of the same height. An iced-over walking path divided frozen hardpan into quadrants that looked like stippled dough that had failed to rise.
A pair of dogs snarled over a bone. This made me think about the political talk I’d heard in Chisinau where I’d spent the summer before moving north to Bălţi. There had been excitement and anxiety about Moldova’s declaration of independence from Russia, officially passed in August of 1991. The year was 1992 and Moldova was simmering in the aftermath of a civil war over its Trans-Dniester region – a war few in the West had heard about. East of the Dniester River, the city of Tiraspol had held its status as capital of an autonomous Soviet state the U.S. government refused to acknowledge. This state was off-limits to the handful of Yanks residing in Moldova. I couldn’t wait to sneak a visit.
I doubted Elena cared to talk politics. I told myself to heed her advice, shouldn’t pull her away from precious time with electricity. I watched her hurry to the balcony where she kept a pot of Plov among root vegetables and eggs. This was her fridge. She rushed the pot inside, placing it atop one coil of a double hot plate. A slight hum as voltage turned the coils orange. On one coil she boiled tea water in a pot coated with white porcelain-like enamel. Flowers were painted on the pot’s side. I told her the word for such a pot in Romanian, then Russian. Correct on both counts. Despite illness, my language skills were improving.
Much of Elena’s kitchen ware, furniture and clothing weren’t part of a process of throwing out the old and replacing it with the trendy. Like her husband, she respected one of everything, including a pair of shoes expected to last many years. Things needing repair were not discarded. If unable to repurpose them herself, she brought them to her mother’s village about an hour away by a slow diesel-powered train. Her mother, brother or sister-in-law would repair and use them. In return, Elena got onions, potatoes, wine and jars of fruit compote from the dirt cellar of her mother’s house. These monthly trips kept Elena’s family larder at subsistence level. Vova, her husband, spent weeks at a time each spring and fall helping Elena’s mother in her garden.
It was never a guarantee a train would show up. Sometimes, Elena waited three hours in the cold. Other times, no train arrived and she’d resort to bus routes that connected her from Bălţi to any northern village remotely close to Mom’s. She’d walk the difference along mud roads, sometimes twelve miles.
When Elena shared these difficulties, she didn’t show self-pity. She hastily reminded me all over the former USSR it was a battle to survive. By bus or train, seldom a seat, she had to fight her way on, hold her place and keep an eye on her goods, fearing they’d be stolen.
“When I see how we live now,” she told me. “I can’t believe it. I ask how is this possible? We are good people. Why did we allow this to happen?”
The trill in her voice proved her fatigue and frustration. Perhaps by sharing, she helped herself feel better. I seldom felt she expected a clever response that would comfort her.
A voice on state radio announced in Russian they were going to present Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Elena, sighing, grinned enough to show me gold-rimmed molars along one side of her mouth. Like our fellow teacher Gabriella, Elena had a pleasantly disarming smile. Her teeth had been well cared for. Most could not say this; they smiled reluctantly, if at all. All the wayward and gold bicuspids I’d seen – in some cases full jackets, top row and bottom – explained why.
She sighed dreamily. “It’s like old days when I was a student with Vova in Saint Petersburg. We loved the classic music.”
Neither of us said it, but we worried the electricity wouldn’t stay on long enough for the Plov to cook and for us to get through Rimsky-Korsakov’s masterpiece. All we could do was wait. Looking relieved, Elena removed her apron with its splashy floral prints. She draped a gray shawl over her shoulders. At home, she always wore this apron and shawl over her housedress. The same combination each afternoon. The same wool skirt and sweater for work.
As she sat across from me, I asked about the housedress. She explained that in Russian it was called khalat, pronounced with a soft k. In Romanian, halat, no k. The word dated back to Persia and later the Tartars. It meant any robe worn open in the front. In Russian, a doctor’s lab-coat was called a white khalat.
We soaked in winter sun as it bleached lace-like doilies of frost seized to windows. As it inched lower, the apartment grew colder and a khalat made much sense. So did rabbit-fur hats. We lost ourselves in Scheherazade, getting about halfway through when all went quiet. I assumed it was nearly five p.m.
Silence bloomed. We sat over empty tea cups. Elena said nothing. Did she feel disappointed? I did. The tea water was hot enough, but not her Plov – the evening’s meal. She grimaced as she slipped her apron on, leaving it untied. She stepped out to the balcony. A blast of air whistled in that made me quake and sniffle.
I was still weak, hating myself over it. She poured tea. No lemon but some sugar. I stayed far from windows, wishing I could turn back time to the moment when Elena’s face was placidly radiant, her cobalt eyes lit with the serenity she must have felt while listening to Rimsky Korsakov.
Beyond sunshine, a protracted joy had passed between us. I knew one thing. I’d never forget the word for housedress.
Her son and daughter were due home soon. After them, Vova would return from a factory that still wasn’t operating. If he didn’t go to work each day, he’d lose his job. It had been months since he or Elena had been paid.
Maybe Vova would find bread. Maybe not. Once again, Elena hadn’t been able to prepare her family a hot dinner.
“You see this?” She broke into rare stridency as she removed her apron and tossed it aside. She drew her shawl tighter around her neck. “How we live?”
I thought she might weep. This wasn’t an inconvenience. This was her life.
No bread that night – just leftover beet salad by candlelight. Our breath visible as we sat close to each other, sharing bodily warmth.
Gabriella and other university teachers continued their hunt to find me an apartment while I remained a shut-in, recuperating with Elena’s family. I continued to sleep fully dressed. Two months had passed since my only pair of jeans had been washed, but I was still too weak to launder clothes. Elena insisted on helping. Together, when we had electricity long enough (or so we hoped) she boiled water Vova had brought from a city well. She filled a wide plastic pail and soaked my jeans, underwear and shirts. On her knees, Elena scrubbed my shirts by hand, using her knuckles and a dung-colored brick of soap that left no suds. She hung them dripping to dry on her balcony. Three days later they were frozen stiff when she brought them in.
I told Elena I had to get stronger, to test myself. Elena thought this very American of me. I washed my jeans, but the task sent me to bed wiped out. At least I’d done it. They needed a week to dry. In the meantime, I wore pajamas under sweatpants that smelled as mealy as I did.
We talked books whenever possible and this helped me fend off a creeping depression. I could bury myself in a coat and brave an evening walk outdoors with Vova, but I’d suffer a relapse if I rushed back to work. I needed to heal completely and that meant time and patience.
We seldom had water or electricity for more than an hour. The blackouts came unannounced, yet Elena managed to prepare for classes. I never saw her reading student work. I think she awakened at dark and read by window-light as dawn arose. I was asleep during those hours when the apartment and the city were silent as a tomb.
With our schedule of alternating language days, Elena was pleased to see her children acquire some English. These were hard times, but she expressed hope there would be choices for her children she hadn’t imagined possible. After all, her father had disappeared on one of Stalin’s trains. Rode off and was never heard from again. Vova had lost his parents in a similar way.
Like many Moldovan intellectuals I’d met, Elena was realistic. Everything she’d believed in had betrayed her. Hope was what she had and yet hope was for dreamers. Work kept her mind off her struggles. She’d been teaching English for fifteen years at Alecu Russo State University. Before me, she’d met only one native speaker, a missionary from North Carolina. Raised as an atheist, as all teachers were during Soviet times, she’d listened to this man for an hour before finding his sales pitch tiresome. She told me she was saving her patience for breadlines not miracles. She didn’t need a preacher to show her evidence of man’s sinful ways and God’s fury.
Throughout her decades as a professor, she’d had access to only Soviet-approved textbooks that featured such droll essays as Lenin In London. The American novelists she’d read – Jack London, Theodore Dreiser – she knew well. She wanted to know others.
“Of what value,” she asked, “is a professor who is not learning all the time. These were our ideals as Soviets. Yes, our government gave us problems. But our intellectual class, our teachers and scientists, they never stopped learning. It was expected of them.”
She brought out the best in me, as good teachers tend to do. By listening well, I allowed her to refine her already sophisticated English. She asked if I knew Eugene O’Neill. I did. I’d seen Richard Jenkins play Hickey on stage in The Iceman Cometh. I assured her that seeing the play was a different experience than reading it. She reminded me that with Chekov and Gorky it was much the same.
“He’s a better playwright than given credit for,” she said.
“Chekov, you mean.”
“No,” she said. “Gorky. I see that you’re reading My Universities.”
She was right. During periods of clarity, I’d been enjoying a Soviet Raduga translation that Gabriella had borrowed for me from the university library. Gabriella was tutoring me in Russian. I hadn’t seen her in a month and found myself thinking about her constantly.
“Many people forget his plays made his reputation,” said Elena.
“I saw The Lower Depths once,” I said. “A student production.”
Elena shrugged. “I prefer Chekov.”
“I’ve never seen his work on stage.”
“You must. But in Russian. It’s like not seeing Shakespeare in English. I’m sure Gabriella told you.”
It was my turn to shrug. “The last couple of months, there a blur.”
“I saw Gabriella today between classes. She sends a big hello.”
“I miss her.”
Elena’s face lit up. She shared a knowing smile. “I think she misses you, too.”
If I had a crush on Gabriella, I was likely the only one in the city who didn’t know it.
One night, I took from my duffel a paperback essential works of Stephen Crane, and selected poems by Robert Frost, who Elena had sampled while a student. I gave both books to her the next afternoon. As she pored over the pages, delighted by my gift, she struck a note of despair, saying that books, like everything else that was good in Moldova, had become impossible to find. She held the Frost edition against her breast and proudly recited a line from Fire and Ice.
She begged me to read the poem aloud to her. She wanted to hear a native speaker’s intonations. So in my pajamas and smelling like a meal worm, I read Frost aloud by candlelight as the sun went down and the kitchen grew frigid.
I saw in Elena’s eyes just how unforgettable a moment it was.
I told Elena how impressed I was with her knowledge of American literature, especially since so many western writers had been taboo. I agreed with her that in regards to education, the Soviets hadn’t been as close-minded as Americans had been led to believe.
“We had such a system. First class,” she said. “I think, for older generations, this is our disappointment now. We had good teachers. If they were so behind, they didn’t know. But still we learned from them. They were dedicated. Always. This, I think, Americans don’t appreciate.”
I was amazed by how quickly she read in English. Four days after I’d given her the Crane collection, she’d finished Red Badge Of Courage and said it reminded her of the Ukrainian, Ostrovsky, and his How The Steel Was Tempered. She’d been forced to read Ostrovsky’s novel. Like Crane’s, she saw it as a crafty show of patriotic political philosophy rather than an account of what had happened.
I’m paraphrasing much of what we shared. Gleanings often came between lines, through gesture and facial expression, especially on days when I spoke in her native languages. Like all her colleagues, she’d been trained to pursue intellectual discourse. Under the Soviet system, intellectuals were not second-class citizens. What they earned as salaries didn’t define their cultural value. They were respected.
Therefore, I never felt freakish – as I sometimes did in the States – when I rambled on passionately about the importance of literature. I know I was a disaster in broken Russian, trying to explain Dostoevsky’s genius, but Elena listened. She corrected my grammar. She cared.
I was stunned by her ability to explain in English why Crane’s novel hadn’t moved her. Conversely, I was thrilled to learn she’d enjoyed Maggie A Girl Of The Streets. She thought Maggie a powerfully believable woman. Rendered by a man, no less. An honest picture of poverty and despair that spoke to her in the same way Sister Carrie had.
In the same way, I asked her, that Tolstoy had taught me about Moscow under the czars?
Exactly. Crane’s realism, like Tolstoy’s, was, to a degree, doomed to fail. Such big ambitions were impossible to achieve. Yet that was the genius and the charm of Tolstoy.
“When you feel a language,” she said. “That’s when you know a pure joy. How do we help our students to feel it? That’s what we must do. Show them it’s their own, that they’ll always have it, and it takes them places in its own way, anywhere they want to go.”
My mouth went dry. I stared at Elena. Each day, she had shown me a different facet of herself. She hadn’t been paid in over six months. Nor had her husband. Her family barely had enough to eat. Still, her passion for her work glowed from within and she continued to abide by unselfish concerns for the those she’d been entrusted to mentor.
“This is why we’re here,” she said. “Because we love to learn and we want to share.”
Face to face with her in the silence of that kitchen, I was unable to muster a response. I was nothing. I didn’t deserve to be there. Due to my monstrous ego, I had expected to change lives here in Bălţi. What naïve delusions I had been living under: the worst one of all that I had something to offer and just had to find it. These thoughts loomed, making me feel preposterous, unprepared and useless.
Yet for the first time in weeks, I felt a spark of health. I breathed easy. I had connected with another—of a different gender, culture and generation—who shared a similar interest. Learning the terrain of what were once alien shores had to lead, in the long run, to enlightenment rather than fear. Naïve I’d been, no doubt about it, but the bright feline heat in Elena’s eyes told me to trust any philanthropic motives behind my desire to be in Bălţi at that time.
To listen, to learn, to inspire. If I was a burden, it was to myself. That much, at least, I could change.