My first job was to keep an eye on several monitors. They were attached to elderly woman who meandered between life and death while her children meandered between her and their father who insisted to finish his days at home. So for the mother they had hired two nurses from new arrivals, with the sole purpose someone to be there continuously to monitor whether the official medical personnel treats Mom with due respect and competence. The pay was minimal, but there was no work either, except every few minutes to check the numbers on the little screens. I read a library before the green line went straight and all children aged around sixty lined up to shake my hand and thank me. To this day I keep in my prayers these dear people. For every parent is commendable to have such children, even when one cannot feel it any more. Or maybe just then it is most important.
You Scream in Your First Language, or the Knowledge of the Mother Tongue
Children, those flowers of life that like a greater dodder have caught us tight and do not let us breathe - they are such an easy way to overcome the primordial isolation of immigration. The little one is sitting grimly at the windowsill and is watching her little neighbours happily splashing in something that in other countries and among other peoples would have passed for a medium-sized tub. In the eyes of the little solitude the tub is growing and growing, its plastic fish are almost real whales of natural size, the water basin is roughly as big as the Mediterranean, although the three young men and the older sister of two of them can fit in it only in shifts. It is summer which according to the local concepts is blistering hot (where the little observer comes from, this is winter temperature). On the horizon appears a cake! With candles! There are hats, triangular-clown hats that come in sets with some loud whistles! The young maiden is sitting at the window on the first floor just across! She does not notice some whispers among elder neighbors at the fire escape, does not hear someone ringing the front door bell and discussing something with her parents in a language she does not know yet. But mom is ironing her best dress, although what she would do in this dress in the pool; tomorrow they will go for swimsuit and for now the shorts shall do. And the cake is guaranteed kosher, halal, no peanuts, no nuts, no gluten , what is actually in this cake, and why it seems the most delicious cake ever? Mom translation is something lame, and how it would not be lame, when the other moms also interact mainly with gestures as they actually do not have a common language. Well, here comes one father and in Spanish-English-French enlightens the group that the Québécois pure laine from the second floor has managed to convince the Pakistani auntie from the third floor to not meddle with the children having fun.
Such friendships are the most reliable. When a month later the young lady starts school, she has no problems with escort - two gentlemen are ready to fight tooth and nail with anyone who tries to lift a finger on the maiden of few words. Several times it is required. The owls are not what they once were, and also are not the same the immigrant schools. The kiddo got his first interpreter’s job few days after his sixth birthday. Of the only three Bulgarians from our school only he actually spoke Bulgarian in a way for the newcomer compatriot in grade Three-A to understand and stop crying.
Some time has lapsed. The maiden of few words from the opposite window has remained a maiden of few words but perfectly synchronises with my incessantly chatting heir. These two little ones are going back home from the park walking in front of me and the mother of the young lady. The two of us are dragging little buckets, little shovels and little vans, and are exchanging some girly gossip is her absolutely fabulous and my absolutely terrible French. Suddenly the two little creatures run from upstart position, holding hands. We the parents start with a high start because around the corner there is a boulevard and the little ones cannot be seen behind the parked cars. The two fugitives dutifully stop before the pedestrian crossing to wait for the breathless moms and watch innocent and somewhat uncomprehendingly. In fact, it is logical to not understand somewhat. One mom is yelling in pure Bulgarian, the other in pure Arabic, completely forgotten all French politesse. And those little ones, still holding hands, identically lift their little shoulders, look at each other, then burst out laughing. They still do it!
A single child is not a good idea. Especially if the child is a little immigrant and has no other relatives nearby. So the ambitious plans to conquer the country are postponed and I am doing the mandatory inspection of the local hospital a month before the onset of the second heir. Single person delivery rooms, teams on shifts, inscriptions "Only up to four adult companions may attend the birth and the children need to have a separate adult companion to supervise them at all times!". Unadulterated horror is written on my face at the prospect the midwife to need to elbow the five adults and unlimited number of children who can make the mother company. A kind nurse registers it as dissatisfaction with what I see and begins to apologize, "Oh, you are from Europe and you're probably accustomed to way more comfort, I understand you, but our hospital as scheduled next year for some repairs. It will be great when come to give birth next time with us, you will be blown away!" I clench my teeth behind my smiling lips and just nod, because I have just counted six different types of gloves - one box of each, and before my eyes had just passed the Plovdiv State Hospital, where the kind young nurse rolls single use gloves in gauze for sterilization. Of course, we from Europe are used to so much, dear child, just do not make me tell you, you will probably start to stutter. It will not take you much, just quotes from the letter from the head of gynecology, who writes to the chief of supply why the ophthalmic sutures that were sent to the ob-gyn emergency are not good. Nevermind that they have been torn off from the heart of his peer the head of ophthalmology, for the gynecology he needs the ones that are torn from different live spieces. The selection of non-traumatic needles only on this mobile table that you have just mindlessly pushed aside would cause spirited enthusiasm of the whole department. Of course, all this is because it is August and there are no such winds to blow me away.
Some more time has lapsed. The family of the maiden of few words is expecting addition. We are still fresh from the experience and answer any questions. However. There is always a however. The young lady is also a child of parents who have no other relatives nearby. Her father is a well-read, intelligent man who appreciates the great opportunity to spend with his wife the hours immediately before and during birth. It will just not happen. Well, I say, I will go with her, our dad will keep both our ones and yours at home, you will be at the door of the delivery room just in case, the two of us will be inside. Deal. Two false alarms, even my boss is alert and knows that if the call is for me personally, probably I get about three minutes to drop the ball. Luckily Mother Nature decides that the sacramental things are better at nighttime and we show at the hospital late in the evening. The doctor is gone. She is at a wake, because due to some incomprehensible reason these things are also in the late evening hours. The doctor arrives as is, in her mourning clothes and in her outstretched hand there is a apple brought directly from the small gathering to honor the deceased. To sustain the woman, she is right about to give birth! A week or so ago, this same woman has refused to discuss a deal to buy a house, because the house, yes, you guessed it right, overlooks a cemetery. And here a cemetery apple is shoved in her face! I do lion jump out from behind the bed and grab the forbidden fruit, behold, I will put it here on the nightstand, perhaps after a while, she just ate, she may feel overloaded. My pal carefully monitores the outgoing doctor, I get out on her trail and throw the apple in the bucket outside. I come back, wipe nightstand.
The labor is fast progressing, the doctor is still asleep downstairs. I've gone from polite insistence to direct threats to the intern on duty on the floor. Save your strength, my sweet, and breathe, I can curse for both of us in our country’s two official languages. My fingers are already blue and I do not feel them, but certainly I feel the doctor is looking for trouble. Finally the Aesclepian servant comes barely in time to catch the little beauty. Would you like to cut the umbilical cord? No, ma'am, thank you, that's your job. The doctor wraps the young lady in a blanket and hands it to me, probably a survival instinct but a fleeting one. Give me the girl! I will not give her to you, you take care of her mother first! Doctor’s self-preservation instinct activates for a second time, probably propulsed by the fact that I am a head taller. God, what a beauty, an exact replica of her father, why did you suffer so much with her, I tease her mother while adjusting the little morsel to start breakfast. The doctor finishes and leaves. I go as well for Daddy to came in to his two charming ladies. I put my jacket and walk home for at least some part of the events to ventilate out of my head. Our Dad opens sleepily and stares at me.
- So you walked like this through the city?
- Why? - I follow his gaze. My sterile white blouse is stained with blood and mucus. No wonder the early passersbys were jumping away startled along my way.
It is dawn, I wake up the newly minted older sister and bring her to see her little sis. The little one is even more beautiful than I remember her. Their father craddles her and says: you cannot imagine what I experienced outside the door. I could hear only my wife praying to Allah, and you arguing to bring the doctor and saying something in Bulgarian. You're lucky, I tell him, that you do not know what I was saying in Bulgarian. And the doctor is lucky that your wife held me by the hand.
- And what is my sister’s name?
This question we have already exhausted, my dear, your parents had chosen for her a great name, filled with multiple meanings and blessings, and also containing at least three sounds nonexistent in either English or French, and spelled by one full row of letters. Your sister would not be able to write it herself until third grade, and the probability for her teachers to remember and pronounce it is somewhere around the freezing point of water in percentages. If your parents were Christians, I would have been the little cute’s godmother, but even without the honour I so long and earnestly pleaded for something sweetly short, simple, clearly pronounceble in the three languages with which she will begin her life. Now this beauty bears a name of three letters and three sounds also filled with multiple meanings and blessings, and one more - every time she will fill a form she will remember me and how much she was loved even before she was met by the woman who first held her in her arms. For home use we can still call the sweetee that long name, especially if you play hide and seek. She can ran from the fourth floor, go through the schoolyard and get back to home base before the one who seeks is able to say it all! Let's go to school, darling, to let your parents nap in shifts; the night was long.
It has been many years. The little sister is the school spelling champion. Probably she could spell to me that that long name letter by letter backwards. The young lady of the few words is learning a trade. Spokeswoman. At the television. I may finally crack and buy a TV.
The Bird Sirin in a Cream Sauce
What a nice day! Wonderful time for a walk, though a bit on the cold side. Kiddo and I bundle up and decide to go to ask a friend of mine if she and kiddos want to come with us. We talked two days ago when her youngest had begun cutting a tooth, one of the last in line. The boy is a classicist with the whole range from vomiting to temperature and the emotional variations to go with it.
The door is opened by his middle brother, almost a first-grader. Mom is in the kitchen with my brother, go talk to her. Good idea! I leave the two young men engrossed in a discussion over a car and I head on a search. The tiny kitchen is a stampede of dishes, something bubbling on the stove, washing machine rattling and a year-old lad aimed at smearing food on as many surfaces as he can reach. Against all the chaos my girlfriend stands determinedly and her eyes are wide open.
- Stay where you are, do not sit on the chair, it is wet, I'll make some coffee as I drunk this pitcher already.
- Darling, which number is this pitcher?
- I think it's a third, but I'm not sure.
- You slept last when?
- I think on Monday. The little one was sick, and before that his brother.
The calender says Wednesday. The day is circled in red as the head of the family has a birthday and is coming from a lont truck trip.
- To the bed right now, I'll feed him!
- But the laundry!
- I know how the washing machine operates, you will be surprised.
- The big one will come in an hour from school and will help me.
- In bed!
- Borscht is not ready! And the cake is not ready. Besides, my vacuum cleaner broke last night.
- In bed!
- In the bathroom there is more laundry.
- You will go to bed by yourself or shall I drag you by the feet?
- I will only take five minutes! Wake me up! Did I tell you, our dad is comming particularly early!
A thud from a body falling onto the bed follows. The cuckoo clock insists that the joyous return is expected in about five hours. Clearly, I will not manage alone. I call a common buddy, the good luck is with me as immigrants settle close, like mushrooms circles.
- I am evening shift, I am sleeping! - says my other girlfriend.
- Okay, okay, I only need your vacuum cleaner, three eggs, no, three cartons of eggs, milk, if you have apples, oh yes, and your card for the dryer machines downstairs. - Behind me an angry baby howl sounds, because the porrige is over and there is nothing to smear.
- Where are you actually calling from? – The voice is considerably awakened.
- Come down and see! - Mysteriously I put the handset on the apparatus.
So. Laundry goes in the washing machine. Take out the overcooked meat, chop it. The two little ones collect two-day harvest of toys. The smallest is confined to his high chair, given a piece of banana. He perfectly understands that some fresh forces have arrived and gets silent. Potatoes are not enough, the hell, to wash more I need the sink, I'm sure it is still there, just have to dig it out. This laundry goes in the dryer, be careful not to close the door to the hallway or you cannot go back. Laundry in the washing machine. Yeah, one dry chair is freed. In the middle of the banana the little guy falls asleep, I carry him to the big bed next to his mother. Put a blanket on them both and get back to the cook in the kitchen. I wash, she slices salad.
What was that, didn’t this idiotic cuckoo just cuckooed? This is not from the cuckoo clock, it's the parrot. Gorgeous large bird with colorful feathers, almost a family member. She wants her little peanuts. Yeah, yeah, she is the only thing I miss right now! Something flies within a shaving distance over my head. Why is she not in her cage? What cage, she never had one! Her stand is in the corner of the living room, she is one happy bird! Get these peanuts, bird Sirin, and stop spitting around! God, the vacuum cleaner is needed again! I'm going to see if the second dryer has become free.
So, the two of you, today we are not going for a walk, we are going to sort the laundry. No whining! Heck, the apple pie smells baked going towards burnt. Do you know where the mayonnaise is? Who put it with the wine glasses you also have no idea? Laundry in the washing machine, hurray, I have already spied the bathroom floor in one corner! This avant-guarde piece of art by toothpaste on the mirror - do you think we will be able to sell it at Sotheby? So I thought I, it would have to be cleaned upt!
No whining, sort the third dryer! I promise chocolate with ketchup! Who said this word behind my back? The bird Sirin? Maybe she did, otherwise why would she stand on the curtain rod where I can not get my hands on her because of the rubber plant! Damn, guys, one of you to water the rubber plant, the other - the three begonias! Aha, the big brother has come home, run, baby, to the store, accidentally we beat all the cream with sugar for the cake, and the eleventh deadly sin is a borscht without cream! Buy also three chocolate for bribery and one for grating, four altogether, you will remember, right?! Fast, one foot here and the other foot there! Laundry in the washing machine, the neighbor grandmother frowns that all the three dryers are occupied, I nod sympathetically.
The bird Sirin has just shitted on the freshly polished coffee table. I start earnestly thinking about a recipe for chicken in cream, who cares that the chicken can talk for now! (The big brother brought four boxes of cream, I do not know whether the fourth is for grating!) Last washing machine! In the kitchen we have to open a window because the steam does not allow to see much. Was this the parrot? No, this was cuckoo from the cuckoo clock and my pal the cook has to go to work. Blessed are the hands that made out of nothing a soup, a salad and a cake. Of course, I will finish the decoration and the cream sauce, run!
Boys, listen to big brother and carry laundry to the cabinets, fuck ironing today. What does it mean "will not wash bathroom"? But it was no problem to wash your palette of watercolors in the shower, right? I will withdraw the chocolate! Or at least the ketchup! If I see one splash of color I will! Oh, who is awake, hello, little, what is this fever about? Teeth, nothing, will pass and when it goes, you can bite them all! Here is kefir in a bottle and be quiet! Cuddling later! Did I cuddle last dryer? No, no need to pour water all over the floor in the hallway to show me that the bathroom is being washed, otherwise the neighbors’ chandelier at the floor below will drop again! Is the living room cleared? The bird Sirin has shitted again and has boarded the curtain rod again? Hell, that was the last roll of paper towels, take toilet paper and wipe. You will handle that yourself or else the caramel for cream brulle would burn to charcoal!
Coo-coo-coo-coo-coo! Heck, it was not a bird from the cream but the cuckoo from the clock! Almost simultaneously, the phone rings.
- Hello! What are you doing at home?
- Well, we passed by to see how you are doing.
- Ugh, these ladies’ tea times of yours! Where's my wife?
- In the bathroom, makes herself beautiful for your birthday! I am supervising the youngest while she is in the shower and then I will go!
- Well, no problem, because I'm hungry and I'm in traffic, maybe twenty more minutes will not be able to get home. I so wish to celebrate with my family!
Fine, I get the hint and the countdown begins. Get up, darling, and in the bathroom! I know you said only five minutes, of which three have not lapsed, but the head of the family will be here after nineteen minutes and thirty seconds, he keeps his man’s word. Last runs, the last dryer is distributed from the living room by the two younger ones, the big brother sets the table, I arrange the strawberries on the strawberry cake. Change the youngest, iron the party dress of his mother, who already is drying her hair and trying to make up the circles under her eyes. It is a waste of foundation, you need base coats, mortar and plaster. So do not forget that champagne is in the freezer, and crème brulle in the stove! And smile, say that you tried a new recipe for the borscht. Return to the friend her dryer’s card, bye, you have about two minutes remaining, damn, guys lined up at the door, singing in unison with all your strength "Happy Birthday, Daddy!" We will leave by the fire escape, you will lock it later! Birthday is a family holiday!
The bird Sirin managed to mark my jacket also. I do consider in earnest a new, fast recipe, maybe without cream. Perhaps we can discuss it at next ladies' tea.
Catholic Class, or the Importance of Hereditary Religion
Ignorance about curricula poses tasks of increasing difficulty to parents. We sit for a glass of mint tea and pancakes with honey and discuss whether our little children will go to the class of moral education, whether they will attend the Protestant class or shall they be oriented towards the Catholic grade. These are our three choices, currently no others are available. The program is a new in process, our children got the luck to be guinea pigs until it is known whether and what should be done in these school hours. As it is customary among modern parents, both dads sit at the computer and start seeking reviews on the matter. While waiting for the results, we the moms discuss whether katmi is traditionally Bulgarian or purely Moroccan specialty.
What does moral education mean? They will teach them not to pick up their noses or not to piss in the building entries? What is moral in the fifth grade? To give away the friend who is marking the lockers with chalk or foist under the table a wet towel to wipe his fingers before the teacher tells everyone to lift their arms? Oh no, it is not that; in Alberta it is the hour during which non-traditional couples and other formations are discussed. And they give the children relevant books to read them at home with their parents. My girlfriend politely wants to know whether at least we will be spared the need to practice at home – in the class they and we are the last non-divorced parents in a first marriage.
Protestant program is equally unclearly described as moral training. There is a mixture of religion, morality, holidays and suffering, and as always - a lot depends on the individual interpretation of the teacher. If you fall on a nice guy - great, but we can luck with the aunt, who taught them to relax in a bathtub with candles around. It was in third grade; she was sure she had seen too tense children at mathematics, and had recommended a bath with candles and a glass of wine. It will not work either.
And off they go to the Catholic class a young buddist of Vietnamese-Romanian origin, one Christian Orthodox grandchild of his Jewish grandfather and one little Muslim. Padre turns to be a cheerful young man who is at ease with his failure to explain the whole Bible and supporting theological literature within two hours per week. The little gamins like him because of the merry tall tales he tells them (the tales include talking animals, probably visualised as kind of teletubies because none of them had seen a live donkey), and because he does not give homework. I am not sure exactly who of the leading gods heard our hot prayers about repealing homework, see above about Alberta.
Along with talking animals and other wonders Padre speaks in good faith about the importance of an extended family for the children, about the hard lot of parents left alone under unfortunate circumstances, about the great honor and responsibility to raise an adopted child. Because the class has practically all these examples live, the children understand and questions discussed at home are meaningful. Albums are taken out, photographs and family trees are perused.
- This one here is you as a baby.
- And who is this old woman next to you?
- This is your great-grandmother, the mother of your grandfather.
- Where is my grandfather? Why is he not in the picture?
- He had already died when you were born.
- How has he died if his mother was alive? And where is his dad?
- Here is his dad on this photo with his uncle.
- Oh, he looks like the portrait in the living room.
- Of course he looks like, the one on the protrait above the fireplace is your grandfather's grandfather, their father.
- Wow! So I have a great-great-grandfather?
- Everyone has great-great-grandparents, this is Daddy’s grandfather with his dad and brother, your uncle!
- Show me more, who is this one here?
- Well, this is my grandmother's uncle, I knew him.
- He must have been very old.
- No, he was not, he had been born while his brother had been at a war, do you remember those medals - they are his. They belong to the dad of your great-grandmother, my mother's mother.
- You remember them, all of them? Ha, the bell, this is for me! Can I go play?
The question about remembrance remains unanswered. I really do still remember them. But I am the last to remember them here. Perhaps the last at all. Maybe I do not remember them all. Surely one day I will not remember them anymore. I take out a pencil and start writing on the photos’ back sides. "Aunt Minka and uncle Tancho’s wedding, best man and matron of honour Genkov family." "Grandma Genka and grandma Stoyka in front of the old house," "Uncle Peyo Atanasov, at Dad’s baptism," "Grandfather Christo and his son before departure to the war fronts," "Cousin Gosho’s mom"," Grandpa Stavry, grandfather to Boris and Svetlio”. Some memory will remain somehow. "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; Isaac begat Jacob; Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; Judas begat Phares and Zerah of Tamar; and Perez begat Hezron; and Hezron begat Ram…".
The Italian neighborhood, the Six Vassilises and the Seventh Son
In Montreal there is Greco-Italian neighborhood where one can comfortably chat in Greek and/or Italian with the elderly people in the small restorants and cafes. As a colleague of mine from this district says, I'm functionally semi-literate in both official languages, but Greek and Italian are my native ones. The young man is playing modest, of course, but one or another relative, friend and neighbor have left a lasting imprint on him. There the doors are still being opened for the ladies, the young men go up the stairs first making path, and this is done as naturally as breathing, even in our current feminist world. Other traditions are strictly guarded, oh, sure they are!
It is a fine day when we are having jovial lunch in the college canteen at a long table because our study group is well amalgamated in learning and partying. The conversation dances around the eternal topic of parents and children; about how half of my colleagues are already married and the other half is about to follow into the matrimonial bliss, but parents continue to give them unsolicited advices.
- And I tell to my father this morning, listen, what do you know about it, you, my poor Sicilian immigrant who all your life have been making sidewalks since you moved here from that island of yours?! - One of my colleagues is waving hands animatedly. Above the table an awkward silence hangs - I am the only immigrant and all hold their breath how I would react.
- I did not mean to sound insulting! – the colleague starts apologising, already covered with red adrenaline spots.
- It did not sound insulting, - I smile - but will you allow me to guess what your father ‘s answer was? He laughed at it heartily!
- How do you know, we were only the two of us! - The colleague’s eyes are very-round.
- Well, I come from over there, I know from what poverty your father comes by your last name after his Sicilian village located right after the end of the Boot, and I can appreciate exactly like him, what a blessing it is to have a job to make sidewalks, and with this money to put you three children through their studies!
- He said the same about the blessing, practically word for word! Sure you do not know my father?
How can I not know your father, we all from "Mayflower" know each other and we have rehearsed together our speeches for when we start explaining you things you do not believe us about, and we are insanely happy, truly happy that you think these stories of ours are the result of rather vivid imagination. You will be disoriented tourists at the places of our first youth and this will be our reward for pouring sidewalks, carrying furniture, packaging socks, washing stairs. You all will have been spared it, otherwise why we did we do it?!
We are sitting in a small tavern with a couple of friends whose immigrant roots are ripped off from a small island somewhere in the Aegean Sea. Both spouses are not immigrants, they are second generation, who speak Greek at home and go to the Greek church, just like their parents. And their parents are from that adamant type for whom the traditions of the old country are like carved in stone. If the great-grandfather's name was Stavros, and the grandfather is Stavros, there is no chance the first grandson will be named Krasyumir, figuratively speaking. And there is no way he will not speak and write Greek, because one has to know his roots! There is a Greek school, not Sunday one but a regular school, which teaches Modern Greek language.
So the grandfather, let us name him Vassilis, was a man from this old school and had seven sons. Grandmother Vassilissa raised them properly, in deep respect to the father, who really worked bloody to put them all through university although he himself had completed only a few classes. And he and his wife married them these sons of theirs to good girls also brought up in respect for the senior generation. And the first six wives without hesitation named their firstborn sons Vassilis in honour of their father-in-law. As you have rightly guessed, the six first cousins had not only the same first name, but same family name as well. When the seventh daughter-in-law gave birth to her firstborn son, six Vassilises were already going to the same kindergarten and only St. Vassilis knew what their teachers said on that occasion. So the seventh grandson was named after an alternate grandfather, to which the mother-in-law made quite a face, but grandpa Vassilis was staunchly "for" as there was someone to inherit his name. Six times at least! Oh, you in Bulgaria, you also have such tradition? Yes, I say, I'm walking proof of it. Cheers to that. Cheers, our friends say, we will soon marry the very first Vassilis of the sextet, wonderfully nice couple with his fiancee, of course, at the Greek church, come and you will meet with all of them. Quite simple, informal, from our side there will hardly be three hundred people! Also the Retsina will be from the old land; better than this vintage here.
As a Pythia over the wine vapors in my glass I see how the six Vassilises have six sons each, may God bless them with even more, and their sons also have sons, and each one honors the sacred tradition the first male offspring to bear his paternal grandfather’s name, and all they have the same name, and go to the same school. There are enought for at least two classes annually, in health and happiness, and their teachers need nerves like steel ship cables, till they unravel who exactly is son of whom. And grandpa Vassilis is alive and well, he sits on St. Vassilis’s day at the helm of a long table, informally, and he counts them, all his great-great-grandchildren and grandchildren, and he knows that his name will not die with him.
Perhaps the visions are due to the Retsina. Do not overindulge in it. Still…
Black Sheep, or Keep Your Windows Open
- Ha, he is the one to say that I am black sheep! I'm black, doubt no, but if he is a ram, why attribut his qualities to me! Of course he signed, what is the question?!
My neighbor is a cheerful retired lady who has just explained in detail and colorfully to the city employee why she does not agree with his decision on our condominium. The lady is a nurse by profession and a gardener by vocation. Never has the garden strip in front of our building been so beautiful as under her expert guidance. Because her schedule is free, she is usual volunteer to bring letters, to storm offices and to get stamps on documents. She has retired as head nurse in emergency surgery, she does not even recognize the concept of closed doors and "Your man is not here now, you shall come tomorrow!"
In addition to flowers and city clercs it is interesting to talk with her on hundreds of other topics. How she had found time for reading so much and watching movies can be explained only by the steel discipline set by her Catholic school somewhere in her native Antilles. Her calligraphic handwriting on cards and inscriptions is a pleasure in itself. We regularly exchange a few bottles of wine over holidays and some cakes without particular reason, and even more regularly we gather for women's party in the neighborhood, her guests’ age ranging from three to eighty.
One day we are talking about summer vacations and how she is going to go to her native country where her island can be reached by that, what was the name of it, not steamship, smaller, she cannot find the word. Ferry? Yeah, right, ferry, boy am I an absentminded one?! The plans about the journey start crumbling, my neighbor complains of seasonal weakness, so therefore she postpones the next party. In fact, she is telling it to me for a third time and a vague suspicion begins to crawl in. I am trying to convince her to see a doctor, she swears she will call an old friend, a doctor, of course, why should she be examined by a proctor! She waves goodbye and I think the word is selected no for its meaning but for the sound of it.
A few days later the doorbell rings and tall old man asks if I have keys to the apartment of my neighbor the gardener. He introduces himself as her doctor, as well as family friend from the islands. She had called him earlier that she was feeling ill, promised to open the door and the conversation interrupted in the middle. The phone does not answer, nobody has keys of the flat in question as our neighbor lives alone and is truly independent person. I call the emergency and plead to send someone with a chainsaw - our condominium is famous with pre-war oak doors. Rescuers arrive, debate begins on how to open the door. If the neighbor has headed to open and fell right behind the door, the chances to harm exceed the chances to help. Through the external fire escape, I suggest, there is also solid door, but at least through the window we can see if she is not in front of it. A rescuers grabs a bag of tools and draggs me to the fire escape, for him not to break and enter at someone else and scare the wits of them. The adjacent window to the kitchen is semi-open, my emergency hero performs some acrobatics at the third floor level, manages to sneak in. Naturally, once inside he completely forgets about me. I speed back down and up the stairs.
It was a wise decision not to crash the main door - my neighbor had almost gotten to the treshold. Fortunately the doctor is really a medical doctor and takes the matters into his own hands. I return the bag with tools to break and enter and go to work.
Few days later the neighbor is the previous cheerful old lady who jokes about eating sweets and expresses gratitude that we have saved her door. She promises to give key to her nephew, just in case, also promises to be careful. But of course, everything is fine, what is the question?! Do not forget that autumn bushes must be ordered, or perhaps we may leave them for spring? My bleeding heart does not allow me to tell her that we actually have planted them months ago. Under her supervison.
The summer comes, she goes out to water the garden less and less, the meetings become shorter and more silent as she misses more and more words. I've become an old bag, left to go to the store, decided that I had not taken the shopping list, and it has been in my pocket all the time, she says one day when everything seemes fine. Her purse is new, big and black, which is strange because my neighbor loves small dainty ladies’ bags. That same bag will be saving grace in a snowy January day when the police will find her shivering in her underwear on a side street in the downtown, with no idea who she is and how she got there looking like that. The Good Samaritan who had found her, points to the officers at the convulsively clenched bag. Her purse and a note who to call in case of need will be found intact in it.
From there on she will not recognize anyone, not even herself, and will not speak. Her doctors politely ask not to visit her at the hospital because she is startled by everything and everyone. The person is gone, a shell has remained which painfully dies down. Hopefully at least in her medicated sleep she sees those islands in green, the garden of her childhood and that ferry.
One of her nephews will tell me about the islands. Sounds like tear-jerker novels in paperback - how the young and vivacious lady went to work abroad ostensibly for a short time to be able to send money home, how her two sisters died young and she took over to elevate their children, how she worked all shifts she could, how she never ever had time for herself, how each year she was about to go home, but one by one the relatives there died and she dedicated her life to the children who immigrated after her. How when it was clear she should not be alone anymore, she stubbornly rejected their demands to move to live with whoever she chooses among them, because she did not want to burden anyone. Unique, says the young man, like her light pear cake with rum sauce. Who once tried it, had never forgotten it. I totally agree with the young man, because I have tried this cake. Even got the recipe. As his aunt said, the trick is the hand which pours the rum to be generous! Or was it the heart?
Ode to Toilet Paper
New immigrants are like new toys. At the beginning they are insanely interesting, then one gets used to them and they do not make such an impression, unless something extraordinary happens. Sometimes if the team is undilutedly nonimmigrant, it treats the sole immigrant as a porcelain figurine – people are careful with every word, every gesture, out of best intentions. Sometimes curiosity prevails and if it is determined that the man is normal he is asked questions. Or inconsistencies may be pointed gently.
A man comes to work for the first day. The lines of his pressed pants will cut a fly in motion. From his white shirt the light of neon lights reflects. The colleagues welcome him, present him chair, pen and notepad, organise a tour for him at the departments with which he will work. The next day our man goes to work again with pressed trousers and shirt. Oh, say the colleagues, you will probably celebrate with your wife something and you will not have time to go home and get changed. On the third day a colleague - himself a recent immigrant - pulls our man by the ironed sleeve and says, look, we work here in jeans and T-shirts, no matter that we are big shots. The newly appointed specialist phones his wife and sais, my love, come to pick me up aftwer work, we should go shopping, I do not have appropriate work clothing, I need jeans.
On Friday night the team regularly passes a glass or two of good beer at the nearest pub to oil the work relationship mechanism. Beer tends to untie tongues and a colleague gathers all his courage.
- Look, if you want you may not answer, of course, but purely out of curiosity, what was your salary at the previous location, how much the head of a laboratory costs there?
- It is not embarrassing! - The figure is thrown on the table.
- Hmm, I do not want to upset you, but I think you are in for disappointment. In our company, only the bosses on the seventeenth floor and up get that much; until that you have a lot of climbing. Nobody will pay you that much per hour here!
- Why per hour? Per month!
- Waiter, round of beer to everyone! My treat! I was closest to the amount, but I thought it was per diem!
Emigration from big city to small towns is secondary. The metropolis is more open to new people, there is usually more work and it is easier to come across a friendly group of former compatriots for consolation purposes. Some of the immigrants remain in the city, some decide to take it easy and take the route towards slow-moving waters. These waters are steeped with unexpected pleasantness and troubles, new meetings, new challenges.
A group of parent have gatheres on Saturday to spring clean the old children's camp. The female team brushess out cobwebs, washes the survived windows, makes a list of necessary minor repairs. The men force cuts grass, replaces tiles and repaires the bathroom and kitchen. At certain time it turns out that we have ran out of all detergents and we organize an expedition for coffee and soap. Because the ladies’s group is ahead of schedule a whole car of us go. The soap is purchased in several forms and while I put the supplies in the trunk, a fierce, albeit hushed dispute reaches my ears.
- We may!
- Maybe not, she might be offended!
- She won’t, she is one of us!
- What if not?
- What if and when it will be a good time?
I sit and ask what is the dilema that bothers my girlfirends and whetehr I can help.
- Oh, well, darn, fine, we know that it is not standard, but if do not find it offensive, we wanted to ask why you emigrated - two people with professions, clearly some status as well, and just like that to get up and come to our village? I mean even to the country!
- No offense at all, but before I answer, tell me what you think when you are going into a public toilet?
- Hmmm, if it is fairly urgent, we don’t think at all!
- And whether there is toilet paper in the booth, you don’t think?
- No, why, if it is finished in one booth you can always go into the next. (Short stony silence) You mean that toilet paper is not found just like that? That all may be gone? Not even been put there? (Grave silence stretches.) God, we never thought about something we always have. Basic comfort, actually.
- In fact, that is why I emigrated. I wanted to not think about the basics.
- And you were right! Let's go for coffee! Just do not say that coffee and donuts are not found on every corner either!
- They are not. At least not at every one. But there are boza with banichka.
- Oh, tell us about what are these boza with banichka?
- Girls, they are not worth emigration, though I had that idea in Skopje over a boza with a ball of ice cream in the glass!
- The lass-behind-the-counter, please give me four large coffees and drop inside each a ball of ice cream, here my pal tells some salivating stories! And four donuts, them with no ice cream, please!
The Cossack Cemetery and the Italian Gravediggers
Have you seen a cemetery with a program? And I have! Each year, the cemetery next door, represented by its Board, sends advertising leaflet in which carefully describes what remarkable activities can be experienced out in the park. Besides the main activity there you can watch rare birds, can visit the monuments of prominent citizens in different sectors of the different confessions, study the exhibition of funerary artifacts, or simply picnic in summer or ski in winter (the cemetery is on a hill). The management also cordially apologizes if this message finds you in a period of mourning and sincerely sympathizes with you. Because to me personally slalom between gravestones does not seem especially attractive alternative for leisure time in winter, the brochure automatically goes to the basket for recycling.
Easter is approaching, this year it is too early, we will probably need to grow lentils for some green background for colored eggs. My colleagues take pity and let me on week-long vacation for the Orthodox Easter, although there is a lot of work. Over the phome we arrange with my girlfriend when, who, what and how; we have not seen each other for a long time as we no longer live next door. For Christmas we failed because of some ilnesses, then there were impassable snows, then children's vacation, now there are no excuses.
- This time you are coming for sure, right?
- Coming of course, I told you that I have taken a vacation! Good time to bring you back the book as well!
- Oh, wait, I have prepared a new one for you! Remember you recommended me the author, now his second one is out, I bought you a copy! We'll talk later! Call me Saturday, I am working on something urgent.
We will not talk on Saturday because on Friday her husband will call me and say, get a piece of paper and write that down as you may forget. On Monday, the funeral mass is at ten at the Russian church, at twelve the burial is at the Cossack cemetery. It is sixty kilometers to there, but snowstorm is promised for later in the afternoon.
I am standing in front of the door I know perfectly well and cannot gether my courage to ring the bell. Until the door is closed, I can still try to fool myself that all this is a childish cruel joke, that the door will open like during all the last ten years, my girlfriend will laugh and say, oh waw, people always say that they have no time and here they suddenly found some, come in, we will have tea! The doors opens, a woman who I know from some photos stands at the treshold and says, you are probably frozen solid, come in, I will make you a tea!
"It looks so much like Russia yet Russia it is not..." In Rawdon once upon a time Cossacks came and they are still there. What wind had blown them so far away, I do not know. There is a small cemetery chapel with a bulbous dome and Orthodox cemetery. The gravestones read like a history of Russian emigration and with the birches among the pines it really looks like Russia. Having taken the wrong higway exit and driving madly after it a few of us find ourselves at the cemetery before the hearse. Rawdon is higher in the mountains, the city is dry, here the snow is knee deep. Despite the promise of more snow, a biting winter sun is shining. Tiny birds are jumping and telling their little stories to each other through the undergrowth. We are exchanging memories and standing.
The priest has read all prayers. The funeral agents have lowered the coffin into the grave, along with few rose bouquets, and had stepped back delicately at enough distance to be seen without their presence to feel intruding. And we stand. And they stand. And we stand. And they stand. Waiting for something. Their profession requires endless patience and compassion which go together with the dark overcoats and black ties. The gray clouds above us, however, promise snow and quickly. Something must be done.
- Sorry to bother you, can you tell us when you will close the grave?
- Well, customary, after the family leaves, to not traumatize the people unnecessarily. When they leave, please give us a sign.
- Our custom is to arrage the flowers on the hill and put the cross, only then we can leave.
- Lord, well, glad you said something, as we were waiting and waiting and did not understand. Obviously we have a lot more to learn about different traditions.
- So do we ...
The wet clods of earth fall, the gravediggers sweat like in August, the sun descends lower and lower; the shadows get longer and lilac. The priest explains in a low voice how when the weather warms up, the management will plant flowers again. I should buy lily of the valley, they finish quickly in spring, pink lily of the valley, lilac too, no, lilac will not be permitted at the very cemetery, but next to the fence it is fine. The first snowflakes start spinning like cherry blossoms that bloom already there, where my pal came from.
I arrive at the bus station. The crowded intercity coach is about to go right under my nose. Its driver starts closing the door, his eyes glide donw from the face red and puffy from crying, through the black kerchief and black coat to the boots plastered with mud up to my ankles. The uniformed man shakes his head and removes his bag from the reserve seat for the second driver. He takes out a water bottle and hands it to me.
- Get in! Will there be someone waiting for you?
I nod. The door closes.
- Dear passengers, we thank you for choosing ...