On stories, kolbasa, and jumping the great pond.

This is an adult’s reflection on hazy childhood memories.

I was raised in Moscow, in the mid 90s. The horrors of communism, horrible though they were, are not things young girls in their girlishness notice- all ribbons, bows and bloomers, skirts and witty ditties, baked apples and brown sugar, life is a dream in very tender years, even in the foreign place that is Mother Russia.

At that age, its hard to perceive the privileged place you hold in society growing up the way you do. I loved ballet and rhythmic gymnastics, yearly vacations to Spain in the winter time, sneaking chocolate truffles at dinner parties though my mom told me I was allergic- the sugar was bad for me. I loved climbing the apple trees on a boulevard I only vaguely remember, and picking strawberries at my grandmother’s dacha– learning to crochet on her floor when she would watch me for a few days- going to see all the animals at the circus. I loved red caviar on my pancakes (blinchiki- like crepes, but more buttery), seeing my school yard playmates at English school on Saturdays, New Year’s celebrations at midnight on January 1st. We would get dressed up, and sing karaoke, and hug Father Frost and tell him about our dreams for the year. Life was a dream.

English school on Saturdays should have been an omen. On New Year’s day in the early 2000’s, my parents broke the news- we would be leaving behind the comforts of our two bedroom apartment in the heart of Moscow, and starting a new life in Canada, on the outskirts of Toronto.

My first reaction was one of uncertain shock. As a young child- think early elementary school age- its hard to conceptualize the magnitude of leaving home to start a life in a new and completely different country. I was at a formative age, still new to the flow of the school system in Russia. The thought of beginning again before I really started- in a country with not only a different system but without my known cohort- was overwhelming. Leaving behind our well developed circle- of friends, family, support networks- felt like an unparalleled tragedy. It was impossible to imagine how else life would change.

I was a curious, upbeat little foal, and accepted the news fairly quickly. It was sad to break it to my playmates- being a social little girl, I had the seeds of a vibrant network at school and the various activities I was a part of, and was upset to be missing the next chapters in our collective story.

Winter passed quickly. Our little family arrived at Pearson airport one stormy April in the early 2000’s. Spring was a time for new beginnings.

A skip across the pond is a challenge in the best circumstances. Gone is the familiar corner store, your favorite window sill in your babushka’s comfortably cramped apartment; gone are the familiar geometric letters, your cherished school yard play mates, the ballet class you take on Wednesdays and your best friend with the jungle gym that lives across the hall. Finding a close match for the familiar brand of kolbasa is an arduous process of trial and error; there is a bigger selection of cheese in the new supermarket but it all tastes strange; the cartoons don’t look quite right; you miss the starchy sweet taste of the shredded beets you once faked an allergy to get out of eating. In adult terms, the customs are unfamiliar- even if you grasp the language you don’t understand the humor, social norms are foreign. You can’t hear the music everyone else is dancing to, and are stuck stumbling through steps to a dance you already know.

After arriving in Toronto, we stayed with fellow ex-pats we had met on vacation. They had a large house, and kids our age, and we spent countless hours playing games their family had left behind in Moscow. We learned new games they played in Canada. They agreed that the new games were not as fun. I learned to love a good book, in Russian at the time, because it took me back home.

Though the language came easy, the rest of it- friendships, adjusting to the new school and rhythms of life- was hard to handle. Immigrating to a new country is hard on adults, and my parents- hard working, amazing human beings they were- were suddenly far busier adjusting to a new world. It wasn’t any easier on me; not many children can relate to the major adjustment of a trans-Atlantic move, and the experience was an isolating one on account of the sudden and conspicuous absence of the adult half of our nuclear family.

Though I did slowly integrate into my new life, I will always be a transplant. I matured in parallel to peers, but always as an observer as opposed to a no-holds-barred participant in our joint world. We had little common ground- they didn’t know the cartoons I loved dearly, I didn’t understand the appeal of Pokemon. I would relate by asking questions and drawing conclusions- I was a field scientist in the school yard. I grew up cautious and reserved, very private to the point of developing an aura of mystery- analytical and detached, un-engaged in the little dramas of our world except for as interesting case studies. Always a little too serious, a little too worldly, and by turns well behaved and wild- someone who knew the rules, but only respected them when I thought it worthwhile.

A tree needs the wind to grow strong. Without resistance and adversity, growing things grow wildly but without integrity in their structures; in many ways, I feel like the sudden disassembly of my idyllic childhood world forced me to grow up faster. It gave way to quieter habits- taught me to become observant and conscientious; to listen before speaking; to mind where I step; to adapt. I became a person contained in herself- someone who makes a home wherever I go, someone at ease anywhere. Ultimately, that early uprooting let me grow into an anti-fragile woman- someone who feeds on change, and thrives on adversity. As painful as it was to leave my childhood paradise behind, I would not trade my skip across the ocean for the world.

Our family eventually made our way back to a similar lifestyle we had grown accustomed to in Moscow, and by this time I was no stranger to hard work- pushing for the sky both academically and athletically, thanks to that early life experience I understood that the only way to live well is to put your soul into whatever you choose to do. Though still no stranger to creating intrigue, I’ve grown far less reserved- and perhaps developed an understanding of the human condition hard to get without some introspection.

I had also developed a great appreciation for the art of story telling. In those early years, stories brought me comfort and company, soothed my worries and staved off my boredom, let me dream of bigger adventures than I thought I’d be able to handle. Stories gave me something to relate to; an idea that the alienation I struggled with was at one point something someone else had felt, and dealt with, and come out better for. They are a medium for sharing an experience, for touching someone else across time and space, for putting yourself out in the world in the hopes that someone who needs your story hears it. Stories are a precious, powerful thing, to be treasured, protected, and told to whoever needs their lessons at any cost. I hope to tell more stories, especially more stories that people need to hear.

Compared to the stories of many immigrants that come to Canada yearly, our family had it very easy. We were well off and educated, and all of us spoke a great deal of English well before the jump. The endeavor was well researched, as my parents had the resources to visit the area we would be moving to, pick out a neighborhood and a school well before our arrival, and the network to ask questions about the process of naturalization. Though by heritage I am half Latina, my entire family passes easily as white, and while some hostility was experienced as Russia is still seen as a backwards totalitarian unknown, it was not as bad as it would be for many people of colour in a similar situation.

It was still hard. Both my parents had to be re-educated to conform to the requirements imposed by the regulatory bodies of their respective professions, but the resources were readily available for them to do so. Life was very busy, and the cohesion of our family unit suffered. Being so far away from your support network- family, old friends- can make things that were once easy to come by inaccessible. Child care, for instance, once provided by loving grandparents, friendly neighbors and friends with young children of their own, is an expensive necessity that can’t be readily outsourced to the friendly people on the block you met only recently. Be kind to the recent transplants in your world; putting down new roots is harder than most people know.

It took me time to find a home that feels like home. A new favourite type of sausage. Cheese that tastes fine.  The elusive rhythm of the music everyone else is dancing to. But the secret to feeling at home is to package home with you, in that secret place inside your soul. Unpack your story with anyone who has open ears and a kind, open heart- preferably over the smells and flavours of your past, to the sounds of your music.

Once you get settled, the new country often means a better life; there is probably a reason you left the old one. In the meanwhile, pull together with your loved ones, because isolation is painful and tends to make things worse than they are. If all else fails, find a story to keep you comfort; maybe your favourite book from childhood, maybe an inventive fantasy (you can ask me for recommendations- heaven knows I have them), maybe memoirs, maybe even this one.

Thanks for listening,
Talia

Double Digest

Fall is my favourite season.

The ruthless tyranny of summer heat in the Ottawa valley nothing but a distant memory, fall greets me with a cold chill when my bare feet step out on to the balcony with a mug of hot, sweet, creamy coffee. Fiery leaves add brightness and contrast to the grey days that make the same cool weather in early spring depressing. Warm, earthy food- the root vegetables I grew up on- comes back in season, and stews and heavier fare sit well on dark evenings. Heavier fabrics, layers, scarves, tights, sweaters- all the things I love about fashion- are again weather-appropriate.

With everyone back indoors, concert venues and art galleries fill back up after being empty for summer. Friends come back to town and back from vacation, back from the cottage, back to school- it feels like life starts moving faster after summer’s sluggish pace.

Fall is a time to fall in love.

Though summer leaves us all lusting after the bare skin and shapely bodies on eager display around us, fall is a time to snuggle up. Out of the rain, out of the cold, in front of the fireplace, with a good movie and a blanket, maybe a cheeky joint or a drink or warm mug of tea, and another warm figure nestled against your chest. You can smell her hair and feel how velvety her skin is, and all of a sudden that summer-toned body is within grasp- all you have to do is put on the moves. You brush her hair behind her ear, and pull her closer by the hips, and before you know it the two of you are on top of one another acting as the second heat source in the room.

It helps that this is the time of year all the good movies come out. After a summer of nothing but adventure, action, and cookie cutter super hero flicks, fall brings all things dramatic and terrifying, classic takes on the things that go bump in the night. Its primal, but a properly frightening thriller has me ready to jump into the nearest strong set of arms.

Fall is a time to explore man’s love affair with terror.

We’ve been chasing the thrill of the darkness, the haunted, the unknown, since the first day we told a story. We are so deeply in love with mystery and fright that we’ve created a holiday around the tradition of being terrified out of our wits. Halloween as a holiday originated with old pagan harvest festivals- its roots can be traced back to Samhain, the most important day in the Gaelic calendar (with three others at each of the year’s quarters).

This is the day that marked the beginning of the year’s dark half; a time where the boundaries between the worlds thinned, and fairies and weakened ancient gods could come wreak havoc on those in this realm. Food and drink was offered to appease these gods, and to welcome the souls of the dead back to the homes from where they departed. Then, festivities would begin. People would take part in games and divination rituals, taking advantage of the night’s tenuous connection to the Otherworld to predict the future about their death or marriage. Costuming originated as a tradition to impersonate the degraded gods and protect oneself from them through disguise; Jack-o-lanterns as dead souls, or objects to ward them off.

Halloween is a personal, annual favourite. Though I’ve graduated from trick-or-treating, through nights with a good horror movie (or Burton’s the Nightmare before Christmas- that’s an annual favourite), on to drunken costume parties in dance clubs and now fundraiser events, the spirit is still strong. This year the revelry took place at the Ottawa Independent Companions launch and fundraiser- featuring burlesque and musical performance (thank you Capital Tease), fabulous door prizes for ladies and gents, and everyone’s favourite indy ladies in costume. Suffice to say, we partied hard enough to keep the old Gaelic fairies pacified- hopefully the first of many parties to come.

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This year I went as Veronica Lodge. Don’t come for me. 

Pictured: At the OIC (@OICompanions) fundraiser, with two amazing Ottawa ladies. Photocredit: NW Studios, http://www.nwstudios.ca

 

Raspberry tea, a china doll, and the art of falling gently.

I’m a woman born to fall in love.

As a sweet young girl, my ability and readiness to fall in love was one of my defining characteristics- every new person, place, and major change in my little world was met with an unconditional, unreserved sort of passion and enthusiasm only children are capable of. I would pick flowers for the neighbors and ride on my father’s shoulders in crowds to catch a better glimpse of the throng of people, make close friends out of strangers, make tea with just the right amount of raspberry jam for my babushka when the sun set on her balcony-turn-makeshift-greenhouse. We would laugh and tell stories and I would roll her yarn into a ball while she crafted a hat for this friend or the other with nimble hands and a crochet hook.

This little thing- an odd desire to give entirely of myself- followed me over the Atlantic. I remained a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, a sweet young colt with just the right word, a smile, a gentle nuzzle, a pair of hands to bring breakfast in bed on a particularly chilly morning. I loved by serving and caring for loved ones, friends, acquaintances- anything to help someone else. I didn’t understand that no person is an island, no person is bullet proof, that investing in every relationship you come across would leave you with nothing in the emotional war chest when trouble comes.

Falling in love is a dangerous thing- whether for people, places or things, love is a beautiful emotion that can give you the strength to do things you never would otherwise, the patience to care for the world around you both in spirit and in action, the compassion to overlook the biggest slights. The power of love is that it can make overlooking your needs as a person bearable and even unnoticeable. You can make your self so busy caring for the people and things around you that you completely forget to take care of yourself first, to take the time to think about whether you can do the things you’d love to.

Last summer, I fell.

Hard.

Not in love, again, with a place, a girl, a boy, a song- but off a bike.

It was a hot summer day, and I was coming off a long shift at a cafe. My overtired self, in a bid to meet an acquaintance, flew head over handlebars into a curb and shattered like a china doll. Broken wrist, broken teeth, broken girl- I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but this little colt was starved for the sort of emotional investment I had been putting into my relationships. A few of those relationships ended the second the unthinkable happened- and that was a painful thing to bear. The realization that people you cared for deeply wanted you around only when it was convenient and pleasant is more than a little heart breaking. I heard often that when tragic things happen, it can often be a blessing in disguise- you find out who your real friends are, because they are the ones still around when the smoke clears, happy to support you in rebuilding what was lost. Well, that little tumble was a blessing.

Something magical happened. Many of the connections I had spent so much time nurturing made a point to care for me when it was badly needed. Friends came to see me in the hospital; brought food; family lifted my spirits; my community brought me much needed support. What’s more, some new connections surprised me. People I had met only recently took the time to check in with me, see if I needed anything- even a kind ear was appreciated. I remember looking forward to the little things a little too much. Tea with a new friend was the highlight of a couple of days, an outing to a local shisha bar easily the best part of a week. I was finally learning to acknowledge my own needs, and allow others to help fill them. I talked to friends about pain and frustration, about how upset I was that my once perfect cursive was marred heavily by a break in the hand I use to write, how self conscious a break in my front teeth made me when I smiled, how unfair it was that I had gone through years of braces for this.  Talking made things better.

Recovery went slowly but steadily. I wasn’t ready to slow down, but I learned to find pleasure in it. I took the winter to pursue cooking more passionately because I didn’t feel safe snowboarding with a wrist that was just healing. I read a lot of books, decorated my apartment, took pleasure in things being less painful than they were some weeks ago. Slowly life went back to normal. I found a niche in the industry I once left, and started to connect with people I once only knew of.

A year later, I’m doing much better. My wrist can give that massage with just the right amount of pressure, and my smile is well on the way to a full recovery. My relationships have become more reciprocal- not only do I still love the people around me, but I feel loved in return. I learned the importance of nurturing, supportive relationships and of community. The naive, selfless approach I used to have to my relationships was replaced with a more conscious selection and cultivation of friendships that would be mutually nurturing. I now know what it is to be treated with appreciation and respect, and honestly, I couldn’t be happier.

Falling in love is a dangerous thing. You need to be careful who you fall in love with- a person, place or thing needs to be ready to catch you. You need to honour your needs and boundaries, and make sure you are treated as the precious human being you are. And you need to learn to let go- of places you’ve out grown, of people who don’t nurture you, of things that don’t serve you as they once did. Trimming the dead weight in your life makes space for better things to fall in love with.

As adults, it can be hard to remember how to love simply. That sometimes, a kind ear, a short phone call, or a warm cup of tea with just the right amount of raspberry jam can be a small gesture to remind someone else that they are cared about. Showing appreciation for the people you want in your life- your family, your friends, your favourite companions- cultivates those relationships we care to build. You never know who might need a reminder that they are just as loved and cherished as everyone else in this little world of ours, and when it might make the biggest difference.

Thanks for listening.

Kisses,
Talia