Strictly speaking, a memoir is quite different from an autobiography, although the idea is the same. It’s a truthful retelling of past events. However, a memoir may roll several events into one, or condense multiple characters into one, or things like that. Great memoirs, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, can be more powerful and effective than a straight autobiography, which is concerned with getting all the details right. Memoirs are about impressions and memories. That’s what I’m doing with this post. I’m condensing a couple days of time here in Ryazan into a few scenes. It’s all true, but the organization has been shifted in the interest of creating a better narrative. I do hope you like it.
Scene One: Prelude.
It is cold. Extremely cold. I wear long thermal underwear, top and bottom, a sweater, gloves and scarf as well as a warm Russian ushanka hat. Jenia’s sacrificed style, in the form of her snappy Guess jacket, for warmth, wearing a baby blue down jacket she bought ages ago. When we step out the apartment complex’s entrance it’s still so cold that I cringe as the air bites my exposed face. The sky is clear and blue, the day brilliant and bright. We walk together, carefully, trying not to slip and fall on the icy and uneven driveway. Our breaths puff in front of us. It is December 24, Christmas Eve for those in the Western world, and even though it’s after 10:00am and warmer than it was this morning when we rose (a numbing -27c, or -17f), it’s still roughly -21c, or 8 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit.
A few minutes later we’ve arrived at our bus stop. We are accompanying my mother-in-law to the country house and the bus is the first leg of a multi-leg journey. The bus has already gone. It will be some time before the next one. Instead of loitering there, we walk to an Orthodox Church a quarter mile away. The walk is stressful, as we are forced to be mindful of every step, and we all slip and slide at least once, although nobody falls this time. We pose for some pictures in front of the church. At this point, my legs are starting to feel cold. Maybe a second pair of long johns would’ve helped. The cold is invasive. It tries to work its way around the joints of my clothing. My toes, despite woolen socks and heavy boots, start to feel cold by the time we figure we’ve spent enough time snapping photos. Jenia doesn’t like it, but I have a little “soul patch” of facial hair below my lower lip. By the time we’ve returned to the bus stop, it is covered with ice.
Scene Two: Country House.
The village is tiny. How many houses are gathered here, a mile from the train tracks? Maybe 50. It’s hard to tell when you don’t want to linger in the snow-covered road long enough to even guesstimate. And I can’t wait to get indoors. I’m not alone: the ladies have been in an even bigger hurry than me, as we’ve trudged along packed snow paths, through a patch of woods and an expansive meadow, snow squeaking beneath our feet. We’ve come to the village now, and we walk past fences. A German shepherd barks. A man scolds it in Russian. The dog and I have something in common: he doesn’t seem to understand Russian, for his barking goes on unabated.
Indoors, the little house seems warm. My tyosha (mother-in-law; our Russian word for the day) cranks up the furnace. It’s been on, but running very low. Still, it feels wonderfully warm. Only after being here for an hour or more do I realize that it was actually mighty chilly when we arrived–it was just a lot warmer than the negative temps outdoors.
Scene Three: Catching the Train.
There’s a slight whistle blast from beyond the trees. “Oh, no, what time is it?” Says my tyosha. She finds the time, and says to hurry. We hurry. “Run,” says my tyocha from behind me. I’m in the lead. So I begin to jog. I’m carrying a backpack heavy with canned vegetables from the country house’s stores. Jenia jogs behind me. “No, run fast, or we’ll miss the train, and another one doesn’t come for two hours.” So I run. I can go a lot faster than my 5-months pregnant wife. “Go ahead,” she says. “If he sees you trying to make it, he might wait!” I race out of the trees, and hurry up the treacherous steps, gripping the railing lest my feet slide out from under me. A conductor is leaning out of the engine watching me. It’s clear he’s going to wait for us. The ladies catch up in a second and I offer them my hand as we board. We plop down on benches and Jenia gasps as she recovers her breath. An old man across from us watches her with interest–is she okay? What’s the matter with her? Asthma? The car is mostly empty. Men in heavy coats with fur hats sit here and there, most staring blankly out the windows. All are old enough to appear grave and dignified. After it’s clear that my wife is going to make a complete recovery from her rush, I content myself with joining the men in gazing out the dirty windows. Birches rush past. There are elevated pipes–gas lines?–that are here and there. A Lada sits at a crossing waiting for our train to pass.