"Did you get a job yet?" asked Mrs. Novakova, the Czech widow from whom I rented a room. My immediate response was to bristle, thinking her question implied I was a no-account lay-about and what was I doing without a job? But how could Mrs. Novakova, a sixty-something former communist, understand? I was a thirty-nine-year-old American woman who had never given birth, never supplied workers or soldiers for the state. I had no job because I was taking a break from teaching; therefore, I was not helping to mold future workers or soldiers. And I was spending money I had not "earned." If I had been a more secure capitalist, I would not have felt guilty about inheriting money, about my father's early heart attack, about his belief that red meat signified success.
When my landlady asked about my employment status, I was living in Northern Moravia in a town with a seventeenth-century clock tower. I liked this town. I liked that it was not completely ruled by the automobile. I liked the historic center with a pedestrian-only street; the green spaces, orchestrated nature; the long, curving park, a former moat, with its promenade of magnificent trees. I liked the fountain circled by petunias. I liked the statue over this fountain—the strong, naked woman, her socialist thigh suspended in forward movement.
This was a perfect place for my late-thirties identity crisis, a career break, a fling of adolescent lounging. It was bargain-basement Eastern Europe after the fall of communism and before entry into the European Union. And it was decked with architecture spurred by classy one-upmanship, the greed and pride of the aristocracy, built by the sweat of unorganized, illiterate, disenfranchised serfs. But that was another story. It was ironic that the only place I could afford to live in Europe was with a woman who had worked all her life.
When Hitler took over her country, Mrs. Novakova was seven years old. Everything was registered—every chicken and every cow, and a designated amount had to go to the state. Ration coupons were exchanged for one liter of milk to last three days, ten deciliters of candy for one month. She lived under Hitler until she was fourteen. At nineteen, she married. Then her life was directed by her husband and communist decree. She worked as a bookkeeper and dispatcher by day, but she spent all of her free time helping to build apartments. She had helped construct this building, fetching materials for workers straddling scaffolding. Then her husband designed their vacation cottage, and she'd helped him build that. By the time her son was in high school, they were ready to build again—this time an apartment for him.
Even Mrs. Novakova's recreational activities were industrious. She showed me dried flowers from a linden tree that she used to make a sweat-inducing tea. "I learned about these things from the cleaning women where I work now. But I never had time for such things before. I was always at the construction site in the evenings." She showed me the soft pearl-gray wool she'd knitted and stretched across an old derby of her husband's, making the hat feminine enough for her to wear. "But I would like to buy myself some new things when I retire," she said.
While she inched her way toward retirement, I had plunged headlong into an economically non-productive life, and I was plagued by guilt and insecurity: guilt over just hanging out in Europe without a job; insecurity about renting in a country that usually charged foreigners much more than the going rate; insecurity about being told by Mrs. Novakova that I should not tell anyone I was living there because she didn't want to pay taxes on my rent; and insecurity in the face of her complaints about how expensive everything was becoming which I heard as overtures to the raising of my rent.
"My, aren't we a fine lady!" she remarked one day as I headed out the door. "You're going to lunch, aren't you?" she asked.
I enjoyed restaurant dining. I enjoyed not having to think about buying groceries, or cutting and cooking and cleaning up afterward. I enjoyed the variety of tastes at my disposal. And eating out was what my father had done to prove he was middle-class. Restaurant dining became the highlight of his once-a-month paycheck-weekend in an upscale steakhouse with a fireplace and bar.
I gave a little laugh at Mrs. Novakova's question, but instead of maintaining my dignity and my distance, I ended up defending myself. "I only eat a salad and a roll."
"I don't cook much meat for myself. You know, I'm afraid to leave the meat leftovers on the balcony. The weather is sometimes not cold enough," I said, turning my defense into a mild attack at her frugality because she did not use her refrigerator in the winter.
It did not bother me that she was privy to personal aspects of my life, how late I slept, how often I ate out, or how many times I flushed the toilet. But what she thought of these things, the censure underlying her reactions, a censure that had been necessary for her to survive her life, was not necessary for me to enjoy mine. And she could not help but compare my residence to those of the college students who had preceded me. They had not stayed in the apartment all day, using the overhead light on cloudy days. They hadn't even been there on the weekends, taxing the water heater, locking and unlocking the door, incrementally wearing and tearing her world that had known only lack and limitation.
When my father died in his sleep, he was fifty-three years old, just two years before his early retirement and the full-time attainment of his dream, which had not been to live in a Central European town, but in a trailer in the foothills of the Uinta Mountains in eastern Utah. After he died, I stayed in that trailer, smelled the dew-slicked cedar trees, felt the heartbeat rush of a buck's hooves pound the ground as he chased the dawn. My father's death taught me the importance of living my dreams as soon as possible. And I had the courage to do that. But did I have the discipline to enjoy them?
When Mrs. Novakova raised my rent, telling me the six dollars a month extra was really a repair fund for the television in my room, I decided to leave. What good was twice the leisure when it was sickled over with the pale cast of anxiety? Although my new rent would be double what I'd been paying, it was still only $94 in 1998, providing a fully furnished apartment with skylights, a fireplace and a balcony. And I had Mrs. Novakova to thank for the tang of my new freedoms. Three months of her increasing censure had primed me to enjoy my first hot soak in the tub, my first gaze into the flames of my fireplace, my first breakfast on a sunny balcony overlooking a ripening field of barley. Until, of course, habit and inurement drained these ecstasies, and the dog downstairs attacked my shopping bag, and my lower back went out. But that was another story.
One day, I passed Mrs. Novakova on the street.
"You should have kept working," she said. "You can do your other things later."
"No," I answered. "There is no later. You wait and wait, and then your life is gone. Now is my later."
"I went shopping," she continued, raising her shopping bag. "I went to the bazaar. I bought a pair of black stretch pants like the kind you wear," she said. And I remembered that one of the things Mrs. Novakova had said she was going to do for herself after she retired was buy some new clothes. I did not think she would be as wracked with guilt over this self-indulgence as I had been over my new life in Europe. She was more disciplined than I was.
After I'd had a chance to live one of my dreams, I joined the Peace Corps. I thought it would be a good way to travel and learn about culture and language. And in the process, I could aid others in the pursuit of their goals—what we call in American English a win-win situation.
When the Kazakhstani Peace Corps staff asked about the type of host family I would like to live with after training, I suggested a widow. It was something I was familiar with. So, in the eastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, Alla was found, this Russian woman, grieving her dead husband only five months before my arrival. Sixty-four-year-old Alla, a retired retail manager of industrial clothing, would be my landlady and cook for half a year, as stipulated by Peace Corps contract.
I knew I could change my host family if the situation became untenable; Alla had grown up with Soviet institutions. She did not realize that if I did not like something about my living conditions, something—or someone—would have to change.
One morning, she placed a bowl filled with brown food in front of me. I recognized pieces of meat amidst kernels of buckwheat, but these pieces were soft and frothy.
"What kind of meat is this?" I asked with trepidation, thinking such a question might be received as a criticism, and I did not want to ignite any tension so early in our obligatory relationship. My fears were unwarranted, however. I underestimated the stubbornness of relationships in a society where people were assigned jobs by the state and had to learn to live with colleagues and neighbors for the rest of their lives, tolerating, loving, hating, ignoring each other. I underestimated my landlady's threshold of disregard.
Her back to me as she stood at the sink, I removed the meat matter from my mouth. "What kind of meat is this?" I repeated.
"But . . . what part of the body?"
"Excuse me, but I am not used to it," I said and pushed the meat to one side, picking out the kernels of wheat.
"We are a poor country. We are used to eating all parts of the body."
I could say nothing to this.
"I suppose you won't eat any of this liver I bought, either?"
"No. Thank you."
And because I did not make it completely clear what foods I liked and disliked, or maybe because I did not repeat myself enough or raise my voice loud enough, or it could be that she did not really listen anyway, Alla continued to prepare food the way she always had, dishing up the amount she thought I should eat, always so assured that she was adding the right amount of lard and salt. I continued to have occasion to reject her offerings—like a pork-and-garlic Jell-O for breakfast, when I had to again announce, "Excuse me, I am not used to it."
She thought she was a good cook. She was proud of her ability not only to nourish, but also to please. During the week, she brought food to a sixty-two-year-old neighbor in the hospital dying of intestinal cancer. On weekends, she cooked for her sixteen-year-old grandson. Then a mouthful of baloney gave me a week of diarrhea, and I could not tell her I was not used to it. I had to tell her the truth. "I am afraid of it."
This baloney was not cheap. It was almost as expensive as cheese, but she told me there was another sausage she could buy for me. I did not have to be afraid. And I ate the mildly spiced sausage dotted with small balls of fat, which I rolled around in my mouth before spitting out. But my aversion became more than I could control, and I eventually asked her not to serve me any more sausage.
And then she really did not know how to please me. She finally asked with an obvious intent to listen. I repeated what I had already told her. I liked porridge for breakfast, and I did not have to eat meat at every meal, but I liked chicken.
A few days later, she placed a plate before me. On it were four pieces of chicken. They were chicken necks. I picked up a slick cylinder and tried to flesh out the spinal bones, the meat sticking to my fingers, which I wiped off into my soup. She told me I was supposed to separate the bones from the meat in my mouth. My mouth. My mouth, a portal of primary importance, was learning a lot, not just the feel of new foods, but also the shape of new sounds. But I still needed to learn how to sharpen sounds in order to cut through Alla's resistance to change.
She eventually learned what I would eat, mostly porridge, soup and bread, and she no longer joked about how afraid I was of everything. I supplemented my diet with vitamins, juice, and yogurt. But even when I liked what was in front of me, I limited my portions. And when I professed a lack of appetite, Alla offered me a shot of vodka as an aperitif. She was doing her best within her frame of reference, within her world, where being overweight and alcoholic were the behaviors she had not only learned to live with, but also perpetuated.
After three months, a new problem arose, and I did not know why I had not noticed it before. Maybe the sounds of traffic coming through my open window drowned it out. Now it was cold, and the window was shut. It wasn't another earthquake, like the few mild jolts back in September that cracked some plaster, hurled a few ceramic tiles, and sent people running out into the streets. No. It was her snoring. Roof-rattling, seismic snoring sawing through the makeshift wall.
So I woke up. And when I woke up, I moved. And when I moved, an iron spring in my bed clanged, and the snoring stopped. This wall between us, a white membrane that separated us visually, was quite permeable auditorially. We could hear each other sigh.
The next morning, Alla was grumpy and accusatory. Why did I wake up so early?
I sipped my coffee and paused. "I could not sleep," I finally said.
"Why do you think?"
She also paused. "Was I snoring?"
She told me her snoring was so bad at one time that she tried tying her jaw to the top of her head to keep her mouth closed, but it did not help.
"Oh, well," she said. "It's only three more months. You'll survive."
My familiar panic in the face of her resistance to solving my problems bubbled to the surface. "How can I survive without sleep?" I asked, "Without sleep, how will I work, how will I think? No. It is not possible. It is not possible to live three months without sleep." I was no longer an American touchy about my consumer affluence, come to rescue the poor and downtrodden of a developing economy, afraid of committing social blunders. Now my voice was as implacable as a Russian face on a public tram.
She grudgingly admitted that she could sleep on the sofa in her living room. Ah! I had won! But no, that night she did not sleep on her sofa. I wore earplugs. When that didn't work, I wore a hat over my earplugs. When that didn't work, I proposed hanging a rug on the wall to muffle the sound. She only said, "No. The rug won't help. It is too small." I proposed moving furniture against the wall. She only said the furniture was too heavy. I removed all the glass and chinaware from the bureau and inched it across the floor, positioning it directly on the spot where I knew her head was. And when that didn't work, I dragged my bedding into the kitchen, shut the door and plopped down on the floor, only to be kept awake by the refrigerator motor.
After she saw me dragging my bedding back into my room the next morning, I reminded her that she had said she could sleep on the sofa, and she agreed. I forced this woman to leave her bed. And I finally slept through the night. But still, the problem had not been completely solved. The next night, the familiar sound again rumbled through the wall, and I got up and went into the living room. The sofa had been made up, but Alla had not gotten that far. Sensing my presence as I stood in her bedroom, she looked up from her bed, disoriented.
"You're not going to sleep on the sofa, are you?" I asked sadly.
"Yes I will! Right now! I will!" she said, as she scrambled to get up.
The next morning she was grumpy, and I doubted the sustainability of this situation. She had as much right to sleep in her own bed as I had to a good night's sleep.
On the third night, she slept on the sofa without my prompting, and in the morning, I asked her what she thought. "Will this be a problem? Will you be able to sleep on the sofa for three months?"
"I'll get used to it," she said, and I wondered if the pride Russians took in their ability to endure suffering was working to my advantage.
"There is another apartment I can go to," I said, finally getting through to her that my contract did not force me to undergo the degree of social contortions she had endured in her life.
"No. There won't be a problem."
That settled, she confessed that on the second night on the sofa, she rolled off onto the floor. "Did you hear me? Did I wake you?" And because she laughed, I laughed. It was the first time in thirteen weeks we laughed together.
After almost four months, our relationship became relatively harmonious. She seemed grateful for this "job" of hers—getting up with me every weekday morning to serve hot porridge and boil two eggs for my sack lunch, which also included a slice of cheese and an apple. After I came home from work, dinner was ready at six o'clock, right after her early evening soap opera was over. Sometimes she sat with me. Our conversations mostly consisted of my checking in on her life—how her eighty-four-year-old aunt was doing, or if her grandson had skipped any more classes. Then I retired to my room where I read or listened to my radio. After I did a cursory reading of the local paper, I gave it to her so she could fill out the crossword puzzles. And she let me know when "The Forbidden Zone" was on TV—a "reality" show from Moscow of hidden-camera shots showing neighbors trying to poison each other's pets and unfaithful spouses taking advantage of empty summer cottages. At the weekend, she would ask me, "Can we sleep in tomorrow?"
I probably should have been amazed that harmony grew between us at all, two women of different generations, from different parts of the world, from systems with very different political, cultural, and dietary beliefs. What I needed to realize was that language was an easy barrier to overcome, a matter of learning new vocabulary and new grammatical constructions. What was much harder was learning how to shape stories to make them relevant across cultures.
During my first few weeks in town, as I was getting to know the city, I wanted to share details of my discoveries. I talked about the free concerts I attended at the Palace of the Metallurgists, or the depiction of the American West in a children's play. But Alla did not seem interested, responding with a gruff grunt, if at all. And when she told me negative stories about the people in her life, their illnesses, their drinking, and their drug use, I heard these as evidence of failure, proof that these people did not know how to live their lives. Weren't people responsible for making their lives successful? Couldn't bad habits be changed, addictions recognized, confessed, and dealt with at twelve-step meetings? Of course, I suspected there were no twelve-step meetings here, and just as little awareness of codependency and enabling behaviors, but consciously suspending judgment when hearing about other peoples' "bad luck" was not the same as being warmed by these tales.
Then I wondered if Alla was sharing points of pain to illicit my sympathies. So I began to tell her more stories about my own pain. Instead of restaurant reviews, I told her of the losses in my life. One night in December, after coming back from a long walk along the dark, early evening streets, I told her that I had been listening to Christmas songs on my Walkman, and as I walked, I wanted to cry. I told her I was thinking about all the Christmases in my life, and that my worst Christmas was eleven years ago. That was when my dog got run over and my brother committed suicide. "That was my worst Christmas. But then my ex-husband drove eight hours to take me out to dinner. I will always be grateful to him for that."
And so, we used our pain to bond, and at her New Year's Eve dinner, during which I drank too much, and she and her daughter reminisced about her dead husband, amidst the food and drink and thoughts of death, I felt a gratitude for simply being alive. "Life is a gift!" I sloppily announced. And my landlady, having drunk past her own limit, echoed my words.
I ended up staying with Alla just two weeks short of a full year. She had long since moved her bed into the living room, and I had long since taken my dietary destiny into my own hands. If some aspects had been different, if car exhaust had not routinely billowed into my room from the increasingly busy street, or if she had been more cooperative about adding an extension to her cable connection so I could watch TV in my room, I might have stayed. And despite the initial conflicts, I knew that if I was ever in dire need, she would have done the best she could to help me.
At least my rent had given her more purchasing options, funded the realization of her own dreams. It gave her two rows of natural-looking front teeth, and the confidence to smile more. It gave her a toilet made in China. And she was able to buy fish for her aunt, feed her grandson on the weekends and offer money to her daughter, whose paycheck was withheld for six months. She also was able to invite ten people to the dinner she prepared on the anniversary of her husband's death. But however accustomed Alla got to receiving my rent, my leaving was probably a relief. She would no longer have to yell at her grandson for getting drunk because now she would have less drinking money to give him. And she could return to her old self, not having to adjust to the living rhythms of a foreigner. She was one of a cadre of steel-willed women who had endured suffering and expected others to do the same. She was a Babushka.
My first attempt to cohabitate with a former communist widow was motivated by thrift. My subsequent attempt was decreed by Peace Corps policy. But all the while, I learned how women engage in this process of modeling, helping, and sometimes thwarting each other—alternately spurred by loving generosity and stumped by fears of scarcity, as we all surged toward the survival of human life, the survival of our dreams.
Copyright © Erin Anderson 2005. Title graphic: "Cross Country" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2005.