My affection for Lyudmila cannot be overstated – she was, without a doubt, the kindest person I’ve ever met. On the outside, she projected a pragmatic, no-nonsense persona – she didn’t walk anywhere – she stomped – impervious to anything (more accurately, whomever) she encountered. She cleared a wide swath wherever we went. She wasn’t physically intimidating – maybe 5’3”, 130 pounds, but there was no mistaking her attitude. A human bulldozer.
She was a retired engineer (at the age of 40 something) who was hoping to make a little extra money ‘fostering’ a Peace Corps volunteer. The night we met, we were all herded into an auditorium – the kind you remember from elementary school – a wooden stage with a heavy, deep purple velvet curtain in the backdrop.
A distinguished woman began speaking to the Russian audience, all seated in the back of the room. Naturally, I didn’t understand a word spoken – I had been briefed to get packed for one evening with a ‘host’ and show up at the meeting. It became apparent that we were all being ‘paired’ with our host – and much hugging and kissing ensued. It felt like an eternity before I recognized my name called – I was totally embarrassed – like the last kid to be picked for a team. Lyudmila, on the other hand, took the bull by the horns. She checked out my jacket, hat, boots, etc. and clucked some kind of reluctant approval, grabbed my hand, and off we went into the inky dark.
Ascending that 30-degree hill I described earlier was a bear. There were slick steps, perhaps 6 feet wide, that accommodated both foot traffic up and down, covered in slippery ice. It was basically a scrum. As luck would have it, I was attached, however tenuously, to Lyudmila. Huffing and puffing with everyone else, we reached a cul-de-sac where a couple of dozen buses waited – brightly lit and welcoming.
I was swiftly, if not gently, shoved into one of them. The next thirty or so minutes into the heart of Vladivostok was, on many levels, entertaining (in a ‘Twilight Zone” sort of way). The passengers alternated between staring at Lyudmila and then me. She scowled and I pretended to be interested in the totally blackened scenes we passed. We finally pulled into a bus stop and my host ushered (read: pushed) me off onto the street.
We silently (we had no way to communicate) walked for about 10 blocks until we came upon a naked topiary of an elephant. It was stupefying – a leafless homage to culture in front of a row of dilapidated apartments. I mean, really, an elephant in Siberia? I didn’t have any time to drink in the jarring sight. Lyudmila was intent upon getting back to heat and safety and there was no argument there.
Her apartment was spacious by Russian standards – a kitchen, a living area where she slept and a small bedroom. Over the next six weeks, I divined that she was medically retired (her throat was always wrapped in gauze and an M.D. (?) made house calls. It crossed my mind more than once that she might have cancer and I fervently hoped that was not true.
She raised one son – whom I had the misfortune to meet on several occasions. He and his creepy girlfriend considered themselves too cool and took every opportunity to make sport of me. They, of course, thought they were ůber clever – but, let’s face it – even if you don’t understand a language yet – idiots are ubiquitous and transparent.
It drove me insane that I could not shut them down with some ‘bons mots’ but it just redoubled my determination to learn the language.
Lyudmila also appeared single – or, at least, divorced. She tolerated a ‘boyfriend’ (Sergei) who dropped by on the weekends to bring fish from the Bay – they practically glowed. He was obviously crazy about Lyudmila but she did not return his affection – at all. Admittedly, he was on the short puny side, totally bald and scruffy – but he had at least seen part of the world as a merchant marine. He spoke with great fondness of drunken nights in San Francisco. I liked him.
Lyudmila was hardly a Siren but her self-confidence was alluring – the kind of person who appears more attractive as you get to know them.
In any event, they appeared to have an arrangement and every Saturday, Sergei would unload the fish; scale and filet them; and finally get to work washing the kitchen floor. I was fascinated – if nothing else, the relationship was as comfortable as an old sofa. They also went out now and then (thank goodness, my brain needed a rest). Oh, I didn’t mention – neither understood one word in English.
Every week day before the sun rose, I’d sit on a stool with my little dictionary and try to converse with Lyudmila. You’d be amazed at how tangled this process can become and I’m sure she thought that I spoke in a series of nonsequiturs (it’s entirely possible – I do it in English). Nonetheless, she patiently pretended she understood whatever I babbled while cooking mashed potato perogies. Man, they were good. Regrettably, I could not eat a 1,000 of them in 6 weeks . . .