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Living in Russia

By Carol V. Davis


In some ways, living in Russia, particularly our first year there, 1996-97, was good training for what life is like now in Los Angeles. While there were no food shortages then, like there were after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, not everything was easy to find. I got used to deciding how important something was. Did I want to spend the time traipsing all over St. Petersburg by public transportation (in not-always-conducive weather) to look for an item? Or could I make do without it or figure out how to use something I already had? And since you asked, unless one bought imported toilet paper (not easily available then and only in fancy stores), the Russian kind at that time was closer to brown butcher paper in texture. But one could always buy it!

Having a health condition (asthma), I can’t do my own grocery shopping now. This too reminds me of Russia. Before living there, I never considered myself particularly American. I learned how wrong I was. One of the hardest things for me there was needing to ask for help.  I had various computer and printer problems. Since I was on a Fulbright, teaching at the Jewish University, it was crucial that these devices work properly. Here (in normal times), what do we do when we have these problems? We bring our computers to a repair shop or hire someone. There? We ask a friend for help, who asks a friend, who knows someone. People were more than willing to help. I was the one with the problem. I found it very difficult to ask. I came to understand that this independent streak is an American trait.  Now, needing help with grocery shopping, again I have to ask for help. And again, people have been so wonderful, helping.

Last, I would like to tell of a Pesach experience in 1997. There were no liberal congregations in St. Pete at that time, so we celebrated holidays in the big Choral Synagogue with its New York-born Lubavitcher rabbi, my boys down on the ground floor, and Hannah and I on the third floor, up in the women’s balcony. But come Pesach, everyone went to the synagogue to pick up matzoh. I don’t remember if we ordered it according to kilograms or centimeters (both measurements challenged me) but I think the former. On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, I went to the shul. A man took matzoh from an unmarked cardboard carton, weighed it and put the stack on a piece of butcher paper. He folded the paper carefully over the matzoh, then tied the parcel with twine. I paid for it and started for home, walking through snow slush, over a canal footbridge by the Mariinsky Theater, then took two metro lines, carrying this precious bundle which we ate during Pesach. Every year since, when I easily open a box of matzo (though this year it was bit more difficult to find), I remember that experience and the treasured package I took back to our Russian apartment.



Mon, August 3 2020 13 Av 5780