The love of words in any language.

“There must be a Russian word to describe what has happened
between us, like ostyt, which can be used
for a cup of tea that is too hot, but after you walk to the next room,
and return, it is too cool; or perekhotet,
which is to want something so much over months
and even years that when you get it, you have lost
the desire. ” – Barbara Hamby

Maybe it’s because I’m a Russian-Latvian that I find this beautiful. I love the Russian soul. It’s part of my blood; my history. It’s in my DNA. I have always had a love for words. I love Woolf, Greene, Austen, Eliot, Plath, du Maurier, Brooke, Flaubert, the Brontë sisters. So many.

But then there are the words written down by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Pushkin, Pasternak, Akhmatova. A man once told me that Tolstoy was the mind of the Russian people. Dostoyevsky, the soul. I almost fell in love with him then and there. Almost.

We can also look at the compositions that came out of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Scriabin. Music felt in the chest. Resonating. We fear our hearts will explode. We cry to relieve emotions suddenly resurrected; uninvited.

And maybe it’s just the simple fact that I love the idea… the tepidness that comes from waiting.

 

 

 

http://www.barbarahamby.com/

 

When One Door Locks, Another Brightens With Promise

You Hear Colors * Raining Patterns
(CFCF)

I was eleven when I went to Saint Petersburg, Russia, and I vaguely remember walking through the rooms of the Hermitage with my parents and a private guide; however, there are moments that stand out in my mind, like the way in which we entered the museum. We walked through the palace backwards. Not physically, with our heads turned as not to walk into anyone, but from the exit to the entrance; leaving with the grand staircase as our final descent out of the palace.

The Hermitage is so large that, after a few hours, your eyes start to glaze over and you grow tired; however, you’ve only seen a fraction of what is hung throughout the palace. There are three million pieces in the museum; however, underneath the rooms in which the public wander lies another museum with the artwork kept in boxes and protected from the elements. Very few see this part of the museum; only people like my father have been invited.

I remember tapestries and artwork hung throughout, but, above all, I remember the rooms. As a child, I was fascinated with rooms; where the decor had been staged to reflect an era of a ruler, like Catherine the Great of Imperial Russia. As we walked through this section of the palace, I looked above me at the high ceilings and around me at the decadence, which was overwhelming: large windows; rooms filled with beautifully handcrafted furniture; and precious pieces of artwork placed upon the walls.

We walked through wide doors that nearly reached the ceiling and down hallways that took your breathe away. I imagined Catherine the Great – perhaps my favorite along with Peter the Great – magnificently sweeping across the floor in her gown; gracefully marching through the rooms with dozens of people hanging on her every word. In a way, I want to walk with the determination of the Tzarina. Wasn’t she a timid Prussian when she came to Russia to marry Peter III? And didn’t she wage a coup d’etat to take the power away from him?

And I am forcefully making this life for myself. What are we really, but uncomfortably thrust into our futures? We are never given promotions (or positions) without feeling like we are in over our heads. In a way, I stepped through the door when I boarded the plane to Paris. I realize that I just haven’t shut the door behind me. I can see it across the hall from where I stand in this gilded room. And the last room is not as beautiful; or warm; or inviting. I say to myself, as I gracefully march to the door, “Shut and lock it! Close it and carry on your new life!

And the door is closed and locked. I turn the key and it disappears in my hand. It is gone. I then turn and, like Catherine, gracefully march down this path; a path that has been revealing itself to me since I arrived in Paris. It generously illuminates the way; beckoning me. I do not question my place in Paris for I belong here. I just have to remember: when one door locks, another brightens with promise.

Paris. In May.

I cannot recall the moment the plane landed on US soil. Nor can I remember the experience of disembarking with crystal clear clarity; however, I do remember the feeling that came over me. I remember the feeling of wanting to kiss the ground when I realized that I would never have to live in Russia again. Perhaps I may have gently lowered myself down to my knees and kissed my driveway when we reached the house. I will never forget the feeling of being home. I had been away for two years. But it was a feeling that I soon learned was not necessarily what I was to find.

I was thirteen years old when I moved back to the United States in August of 1992. We moved back into the house my parents had built in Portsmouth, Rhode Island in 1989. It had been a year since the Soviet Union had fallen, Mikhail Gorbachev had been ousted by the August 1991 coup, and Boris Yeltsin had become the president of Russia. I was a thirteen-year-old who had watched the lines of tanks slowly make their way down Leninsky Prospekt. I was a thirteen-year-old who learned the name of guns from my perch on a balcony. I was a thirteen-year-old familiar with car bomb sweeps and the reality of kidnappings and assassinations.

In early-90s Russia, our childhoods consisted of hitchhiking around Moscow with packs of cigarettes as a bartering tool; running around the Kremlin and GUM; dodging Gypsy kids, who tried to rob you with knives on the Arbat; alcohol and cigarettes on rooftops at ten-years-old; bitterly cold White Nights; skating in Gorky Park; a lack of heat in your apartments and schools; food shortages and the famous bread lines. One vivid memory is sitting at my desk in my 6th grade classroom. We all wore our winter jackets, gloves, hats and scarves inside while we did our schoolwork. With each breath exhaled, we saw our breath fill the air in front of us while every table took a five-minute break to warm up at a space heater.

In the USSR and Russia, the KGB had bugged our apartment. Occasionally, my parents would sit me down at the dining room table and ask me to tell them about my day at school. As I told them about my grade on my newest paper or how I felt about a test I took that day, my parents wrote notes to each other in order to not be overheard by the KGB. I do not know what they would write to each other, but I simply knew that I was to keep talking until they were done. Our telephones also were bugged and I am sure some poor KGB officer had been bored to death by my pre-teen conversations.

Life was difficult. Besides the food shortages and political upheaval, one’s spirit was truly tried in a country that was both beautiful and full of history, but was also freezing cold and hostile. There were times when my father would leave the apartment after curfew and come home having been “warned” by the KGB to stop doing something. There were times I found myself in a car with my father when he wanted to loose a car that had been following us. I was a child whose neighbors was the KGB, who had offices on the third floor of our apartment building where we had our apartment on the top fourteenth floor. It was a life that only a few people understood; people who lived in the era of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War; kids that did not live in the comfort of the West.

Life in Moscow was different than the American – or Western – childhood. When I moved back to Rhode Island, I found myself shutting down around my classmates. Kids that I had gone to school with several years before I left. A million reasons run through my head, but perhaps I thought I was too different  – foreign – to relate to them. They also did not seem to want to know me. Nor did I have anything in common with them. There was an innocence in my classmates that perhaps I did not have when I returned.

I have heard the description Foreigner frequently throughout my life. Classmates have used this word, as if my birth had taken place on some foreign soil and not in the smallest state. Even today, some of my closest friends are still under the impression that I was born in Russia or in Latvia, like my father. As a child, until the age of fourteen, I had been repeatedly told that I did not have an American accent. Over the years, I have lost count of how many times I have been asked if I was English. When I was fourteen, a British woman asked me where I was from in England. Once an Australian classmate of mine asked me if I was British, Canadian and then Australian before her words fell upon American.

I am an American. But I do feel like a foreigner in my own country sometimes; or that I do not completely fit in here. It’s as if I am always looking to the East, pulled by some unknown energy that radiates across the Atlantic. How does one define the feeling that a place is home? Is it a place that you simply rent or buy? Is it somewhere that you were born, lived and died? Or is it a place that your soul feels peace and rest in? Since I returned to America in 1992, I have honestly felt like I lost a part of myself. Along with any foreign accent I had. As if part of my soul was left in Europe during my layover in Germany. It was like a child – my twin sister – sitting beside me at the terminal gate. For a moment, I turned and looked off to the side. Long enough for her to get up and walk away from me.

And so I am moving to Paris. In May. Perhaps the belief that this will work out is found in my past. At the rip old age of 30-something, I have already had a pretty remarkable life and while the world has been harsh and cold around me, it has also been filled with people that have inspired me to believe that there is a life that is romantic. A life that was beyond my own definition of mediocre. A life that is there to pursue. Perhaps my youth spoiled me. Perhaps the intensity of the USSR and then Russia infused me with an adventurer’s addiction. Perhaps the exotic nature of Malaysia has made me fascinated and obsessed with color and visual beauty. Perhaps my family has been too exceptional for my own good.

Perhaps I am betting on a pony that is a long shot, but I believe in her stamina and speed. She is me, myself and I; the only thing that will take me home. I am tired of trying to make Los Angeles – and America – feel like home. I want to live a romantic existence; a life that poets and writers put pen to paper in an attempt to express; to capture. I want to experience the romance of life; a life that painters and filmmakers express on a canvas or screen. My family and friends have told me to follow my bliss. Even as a child. They have told me time and time again that only I am the author of my life. Even if given a harsh blow, it is defined by how we react to it and what actions follow. Dreams do come true if you want them. They also say to follow your gut when you pick your pony.

trains, planes and backpacking through europe

A partial re-printing of “trains, planes and backpacking through europe” (SATURDAY, AUGUST 18, 2007)

When I was eleven, my parents took me to Switzerland to go skiing while we lived in Moscow. Our train wound around the side of the mountain slowly, which gave us time to take in the scene outside our window. Having stopped writing in my notebook, I looked out at fresh, white snow covering everything outside. The tree branches hung low, weighed down by the snow, and the train plowed its way around every corner. I thought to myself that this was one of the most perfect moments in my young life. Right there, I said to my Mother, that I had to return to Switzerland, perhaps live there one day, and ride the train as a respected and established writer.

Soon after the Switzerland trip, I went to St. Petersburg with my parents. As the train sped along, I sat next to the window and wrote in my notebook. I would periodically look out my window at the passing night and would occasionally see the lights of a small town train station go by. We always took the night train whenever we went to St. Petersburg or to Finland. When we went to bed, I was rocked to sleep in the top bunk while my parents slept in the lower two bunks. In the morning, we would be greeted with glasses of hot tea (chai) and again I would find myself seated next to the window and looking out at the passing countryside, now visible in the early morning light.

Living In Moscow…

A re-printing of “Living In Moscow…” (THURSDAY, AUGUST 23, 2007)

I had a magnificent view of Moscow from my kitchen window. In the mornings, before I headed off to school, I would eat breakfast at our tiny kitchen table and look out over the city. In the distance stood one of “Stalin’s Seven Ugly Sisters,” the Moscow State University, which was surrounded by thousands of old Russian apartment buildings.

The city was always awake and you felt like you were constantly struggling to move around it. Pushing your way through the millions of people that called the city their home. Fighting your way onto buses or into packed trains, through crowds of people when you were on foot or through the endless heavy traffic that took up entire boulevards.

It was scorching hot in the summer and freezing in the winter, but nothing changed about the city’s people as dirt – not sand – was put on the roads to melt the snow. People kept moving forward with their lives. When you walked down the sidewalk, you kept your eyes focused in front of you. People rarely smiled and, when you smiled at them, a look of confusion usually spread across their face. It was not the friendliest city. The people were just as hard as their buildings. Walls were built up around them as high as the University. But you didn’t have to wonder why. You understood their apprehension.

There are places that I have been that I desire to return to, but Moscow is not high on that list. I am sure that I will go back one day, but the memories of living there are of painfully cold winter days, dirty city streets and attempting to master a difficult language. There was a darkness to the city. A depression that blanketed everything and everyone. Some mornings you went to school or work before the sun rose and you left after it had set. Other times Russia’s “White Nights” forced you to use your black out curtains in order to sleep, but as you laid in bed as the clock ticked by, you would push the curtain aside and see a brightly lit sky at 2 in the morning.

But there were moments in Moscow that were magical. Near my apartment, at 83 Leninsky Prospect, there was a bakery that I would regularly walk to in order to buy a loaf of Russian black bread and two loaves of white and, by the time I returned to the apartment, one loaf of white would already be half-consumed.

The open air markets of Moscow – Рынок (pronounced renok) – were filled with fruits, vegetables, flowers and other foods. I would go with either my Mother or my nanny – Katherine or Maureen – to the market to get fresh produce and along the way were tables filled with flowers. Young girls that were my age spent weekends selling flowers and other goods along with their fathers, mothers or grandmothers sitting beside them.

There is magic in most places you go. For me, it’s found in the little moments. In my memories. The last day I was in Moscow I spent with my friend, Carrie, and we traveled all over the city. After going to the Kremlin – so I could see St. Basil’s before I left – we went to the Arbat, which was one of Moscow’s most famous streets. It was also a place where gypsy children hung out and tried to steal your wallets and bags. As you walked down the Arbat, the children would come up to you in a group and you would spend your time watching your bag, handing out kopeks and trying to get away.

In 1991, Communism fell with the August coup d’etat. After three days, the Soviet Union no longer existed and three men had died on the streets of Moscow. From inside the American Embassy Compound’s walls, I sat looking out at the Government of Russia Building and took photographs of the people walking the streets.

Government of Russia Building taken from the Embassy

American Embassy Compound

Streets of Moscow

People don’t realize how close these two buildings were – they were across the street from one another – and you can see from these photographs that the protests over the three nights were very close to the Embassy. People had to be moved from the Government building side of the Embassy and into the gym, because of stray bullets and fighting on the street.

After the coup ended, the people of Moscow took the streets and paid their respects to these three young men by putting flowers at the places they died, as well as in the buses that had been set on fire. Here are some photographs from the day my Mother and I walked the streets…