While Lyudmila showed the strength of an oak tree, my favorite teacher embodied the genius of a willow tree – youthful, bending with the winds, and remarkably optimistic. She was in her early thirties and was my favorite instructor. It actually pained her to see me struggle with the Russian Language.
One day after class, I pantomimed that I badly needed a haircut and before I knew it, she had whisked me away to a room in the basement. There I was introduced to several other women who worked in various functions at the school.
They proceeded to discuss the fate of my hair in animated voices, each apparently with a strong conviction about how it should be done. Of course, I did not understand a word and only hoped that whoever had the best idea would prevail.
Russian women are dear friends to one another. They often walk down the street hand-in-hand, giggling and sharing secrets into their old age. These relationships far outlast their marriages and there is a strong sense of sisterhood when you’re afforded an occasional peek. I was absolutely ignorant of the content of their conversation but trusted my new friends implicitly.
It is a true act of kindness when a group of new friends who cannot speak your language – nor you theirs – form this unique bond. I was surprised to discover that these teachers were just as eager to learn ‘American English’ as I was to master their language. Soviet education policy had dictated schooling in a foreign language but German was preferred and English, if taught, was the “Queen’s English”. It was entertaining to hear of ‘water closets’, ‘biscuits’, and a lot of ‘brilliants!’.
We laughed even when we weren’t sure that we were laughing about the same thing. I truly believe that people of goodwill can communicate with anyone on earth without a common language. And perhaps the fact that we had turned a room in the school’s basement into a salon opened up that unique and feminine freedom of expression found in the hallowed halls of coiffured perfection.
Everyone was so pleased with my haircut that I didn’t have the heart to register my horror as they handed me the mirror. What the hell, I thought, I’d paid for worse in the States. I decided to simply find a hat .
Irina asked me to go home with her after a lesson and I accepted with enthusiasm. I was touched and honored by the invitation. When we arrived her young and handsome husband introduced himself (Irina translated). I was amazed to learn that he enjoyed early retirement as a Naval Captain of a Pacific Fleet submarine with a panoply of military honors. Even with language difficulties (Irina tried to help while chasing two small children AND cooking dinner), I managed to explain how my Dad was a career officer. We took to each other immediately. He began showing me an album of pictures from his military service and I was stunned to see the Captain and his crew mugging for a camera in front of a sign with the name: ‘Cam Rahn Bay’ in Vietnam . . .