Monday, November 12, 2007

My Host Family


Realizing I preferred not to live alone even for 10 days before my English/Russian speaking roommate arrives, I arranged with my sculpture teacher to stay with her old friend. After weeks of nudging her, she finally called Katya in Saint Petersburg during a break in class and after 10 minutes told me it was all set. I had a place for sure in her son’s old room. She knew just when my flight was arriving and would be waiting for me with hot borsht. Also she told me not to bother speaking with Katya directly as everything was decided. When I did decide to call and first spoke to Katya from NYC a few days before I arrived she said immediately upon realizing who I was “Are you here?! Now?! No? Oh good, when will you come? Really? This Friday! Hmm. . . This may be problem, but Don’t worry”

When I arrived wearing only jeans and a tee-shirt of the first Russian astronaut (I know Matt I just couldn’t return it) she was not only horrified at my late arrival from the airport but at my miniscule attire. “You will die of cold and sick!” Whisking me inside she introduced me to 2 men from Serbia who were staying until Monday(in the her son’s old room). As it turns out one of the men was searching for the grave of his grandfather who’s name I didn’t catch. He was born in the late 1800’s and was a naval officer who chose the colors of the Russian flag. This Serbian man had met with a number of biographers of his grandfather, but none could agree on where or even when he died. It struck a chord in me though as part of this relocation is about finding my own roots. At any rate until Monday I would be sleeping in Katya’s art studio. I also met her husband Misha who warned me with a laugh at my clothing that “Best to sleep with 2 shirts. You will wake very cold.”

Katya is an embroiderer and her studio is near her apartment. After eating delicious borsht as promised I was taken to the studio a few blocks away and given 4 keys: a magnetic one for the downstairs that looks like a round watch battery on a piece of plastic and 3 others that look like keys looked a hundred years ago. Saint Petersburg is always it seems this mix of ancient and modern. Every house has at least two doors to keep out the draft and often a pad lock for good measure. She showed me to my bed past various wooden looms, wondrous strips of gold and silver ribbons, and hundreds of multicolored threads spooled from cotton, wool, and silk. Arabesque designs and posters of Persian patterns hung scattered across the room yellowed into a camouflage with the dingy walls. I loved it. She led me to a wall covered by a large Persian rug, which folded down covering the bed. It was surprisingly comfortable. If anyone has been to my mother’s apartment you know I felt right at home.

Katya has an interesting background. Half Jewish/ half “Russian” which means Christian. Her parents are both artists. Her mother’s painted ceramic tiles adorn every room in her house and are very reminiscent of Chagall with jesters and horned animals flying about in each frame. Her father was a figurative sculptor and her grand father was one Perez Markish a very well known Yiddish poet, contemporary and close friend of Chagall himself and Picasso as it turns out. Unfortunately Stalin murdered him in 1952 along with a number of other Jewish intellectuals in a well-known massacre.

Tomorrow is Sukkot a time when Jews build the Sukka a roofless dwelling to remind them of the makeshift homes Jews lived in during the Exodus story. Like most Jewish holidays it is an amalgamation of customs layered over the years and has come to include an invitation to ones ancestors to reside in the dwelling. I have spent many hours talking with Katya about her past and she told me of a symbol made by a monk a few centuries past. It is a menorah with a cross growing from its central branch. This it seems is Katya’s image of herself and as such she worries that she will not be accepted in the Jewish community with a Christian parent. However she did three years ago find a red haired Rabbi at the Orthodox Synagogue only blocks from her studio who agreed to help her find a Hebrew text to embroider on a triptych she has been working on for years. This Rabbi knew of her grandfather and promised to pray for him every year. I’m determined to go back and find the red haired Rabbi. I thought I’d try to entice her to Sukkot as a way to invite her grandfather into the dwelling but she demurred. My new plan is to introduce her to Anna the Hebrew calligraphist I met at the reform Synagogue and have them both go find the red haired Rabbi to see if he wouldn’t make an exception to the rules and teach Anna to develop her considerable talents. I think the do gooder in Katya will bite. Both she and Misha her husband are involved in an alternative political party and have just voted Kasparov the chess master of all people as their candidate to run against Putin. Misha told me he met him 2 days ago – Kasparov that is.

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