On our first night in Rome we dined Gulag-style. Cramped in the basement canteen of the hotel with about a hundred strangers we squeezed together on long benches behind tables that ran the length of the hall. In front of us empty metal bowls and glasses reflected fluorescent lights of the low ceiling. As soon as the body heat began to warm an otherwise freezing room, a side door opened and several young Italian men, dressed in black slacks and black shirts, walked in carrying two metal jugs each. They placed them in the middle of each table, spaced just enough to serve a group of six, and left.
We looked at each other. My father reached for one of the jugs, pulled it closer, and peeked inside.
“It’s water,” he said.
“Water?” my mother asked. “Hot water?”
My father touched the jug.
“No,” he responded. “Cold.”
A sharp intake of air followed from a family of three seated across from us.
“Cold water?” They said in unison.
My father nodded and slid the jug back towards the middle of the table.
This was our first supper in the West, which we hadn’t prepared ourselves. The previous three weeks in Vienna we stayed in a hotel that came with a kitchen—the fact that effectively postponed all my hopes of rapid assimilation. Aside from the Latin script on jars of sauerkraut and the sounds of Farsi coming from Iranian refugees applying nail polish in the same kitchen, our meals could have easily been held in Moscow. My mother cooked potatoes, mashed them, and then served them with the canned meat we brought in our suitcases and sauerkraut we purchased at a local supermarket. Tea—the quintessential Russian beverage—accompanied all of our meals.
We never drank water with food. Popular Russian wisdom warned that to accompany a hot meal with water—and especially cold water—meant to invite gastritis, or worse, an ulcer. Aside from Borjomi, sparkling mineral water from Georgia famed to have healing properties, water was an ingredient, not a beverage. We used it to make kompot, a fruit drink so perfected in Russia that even kindergartens known for serving its cohorts oatmeal, which smelled like Moscow subway during rush hour, couldn’t ruin it.
In my family kompot was a joint effort. My grandfather, my mother, and I harvested the fruits that grew in abundance at our dacha and my grandmother made them into kompot. She boiled combinations of gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries, currents, pears, and apples in water and sugar long enough for the liquid to assume the color of the darkest fruit in the mixture. She then served it warm or at room temperature while leaving enough to preserve several five-liter jars for the winter. My grandfather lowered those jars into a podval, a basement he dug under the dacha. When Moscovites put on fur hats and began to gauge the cold by the sight of their breath he took them out one by one. In mid-winter, after our podval supply was gone, freshly brewed black tea—and never water—took kompot’s place at our table.
“They are going to bring some kompot or tea,” my mother said looking toward the doors behind which the men disappeared. “They cannot expect us to drink cold water.”
“Don’t be so sure,” my father responded. “Remember our last three weeks? Cold water with dinner could be the least of our worries.”
He had reasons to be circumspect. Our emigration experience of the last twenty-one days ran contrary to all of our expectations. The morning we landed in Vienna—the first stop on a journey of a 1989 Jewish émigré’s—we thought we’d left the USSR behind. Gone were the days when Politburo dictated the rules, communist bureaucrats held the power, and the value of a citizen measured only in proximity to either. We were now in the West, the land, which according to the Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, and other outlawed stations on our shortwave, was the bastion of freedom and respect for an individual. We descended the plane ready to embrace the dignity we’ve heard so much about.
Corrado Forino CC BY
Then we were directed behind the building, away from other passengers, to wait for the transport to our hotel. For the next five hours we sat on the curb, getting wet under the cold October drizzle and eating the sausages we’d brought in our suitcases. When at dusk the van finally deposited us at the hotel, we dragged our luggage up to our room to discover that we’d be sharing it with a family of complete strangers, dorm-style. My father was ready to turn back then. “Why did we move if we are being treated the same—or perhaps worse—here?” he asked.
He posed the same question when the overnight train transfer to Rome came complete with German-speaking armed guards, sealed carriages, and compartments that were too small for us and our luggage. Packed in like sausages in an émigré’s suitcase, we watched lit up castles in the Austrian countryside pass by our window and I wondered if European Jews saw the same scenery some sixty years earlier when they were shipped to concentration camps in what seemed like almost the same conditions. The next morning, when we pulled up to a small town outside of Rome and were given two minutes to disembark, we evacuated the train as if it had been bombed. We passed children and old people through the windows and flung luggage onto the platform. A few lone Italians at the station stared, amused.
Then, while tending to our bruised bags and our equally bruised sense of self-worth, we heard the shouting. A man in black leather coat and black leather boots approached our group, gesticulating and yelling so loud that he scared the pigeons. The only thing that kept this situation from being a Nazi flashback was that he screamed in Italian. “Again, why are we here?” my father asked. And as much as I hated to admit it, I echoed his sentiment. Perhaps the West reserved dignity and respect only for its own—much like Politburo did with the black caviar and spots at popular vacation resorts—and we were nothing but wannabes.
When the side door opened again, my mother stretched to look if tea was making its way to our tables. But the men walked in balancing large metal pots on their hips, as mothers would hold their toddlers. Exchanging unfamiliar Italian words with each other over our heads, they raced along the aisles, throwing contents of the pots into our bowls. Garlic aroma filled the canteen replacing the body odor ubiquitous among large gatherings of Homo Sovieticus. Five minutes later the men were gone.
We stared at each other and at the concoction they dispensed.
“What is this?” my father asked, picking up the fork and sticking it into his bowl.
“I think it’s pasta,” my mother said.
“Without cheese? And with tomato sauce?” my father responded. “I’d rather have potatoes.”
The pasta looked like mutant macaroni—a shorter, fatter, and hollow version of noodles we used to eat in Moscow. Instead of butter and shredded Sovietski cheese, it came with the sauce the color of the Sovietski flag.
“It’s raw,” an émigré said, a few spaces down to our right.
‘It’s not,” another émigré protested, this time to our left. “It’s Italian style and it’s supposed to be like that.”
I picked up my fork. Perhaps the assimilation I dreamed about was finally happening. Not only was there a complete absence of root vegetables and canned Soviet meat in this dinner, but also the pasta I was about to eat was prepared the Western way. I was leaving behind the domain of a wannabe and entering the domain of someone who belonged. Surely the dignity was to follow?
I took a bite. And then I poured myself some cold water.
Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer and an artist living in Madrid, Spain. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. You can see more of her writing at www.margaritagokunsilver.com or follow her on Twitter: @MGokunSilver.
Pitcher photo by Tadson Bussey CC BY-ND