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How Mom and I Invaded Russia

By Susan Amelia Ball / September 18, 1997



Russia began as a little Bolshoi Ballet seed that burrowed into my mother's thought and sprang up in a forest of balalaika music on the radio, a Russian cab driver in Denver, a revived romance with Rachmaninoff, and a bevy of new acquaintances with Russian roots. This reforestation bloomed when she spotted an ad for a classical-music tour that was right up our mutual alley.

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I had my vacation sights set on someplace tropical with lots of sand, surf, and downtime. But my mother was insistent. "Grab your passport," she said, "we have a plane to catch."

It wasn't that easy. There were visas to obtain, flights to book, and who will feed the cats? But once we'd arrived, Mom's excitement mounted as we turned each corner. First, she wanted a samovar, and then some amber jewelry would be nice, and a shawl was very typical of Russia, and nesting matrioshka dolls make lovely gifts.

I chided her for turning an eye-opening cultural experience into a shopping spree. Would we even see the museums for the gift shops?

Mom and I had never traveled together without the rest of the family. I was "daddy's girl," sometimes accompanying him on business trips and once on a legendary road trip from Denver to Washington, D.C. Since he passed on, Mom gradually has became more adventurous on her own. She's realized she can make her own travel plans and carry her own passport, two activities formerly in Dad's domain.

I was happy when she started setting out on her own, but I never imagined myself following her to a country where our passports would be scrutinized a dozen times on both entrance and exit.

We realized early that she, being left-handed, should walk to my left when we carried our baggage. Wrecking-ball bruises were kept to a minimum this way. We never did figure out the trick of not running over each other with the luggage cart. As soon as we'd gotten the knack of pushing an empty cart, we'd load it up with suitcases and change its dynamics. Our airport dialogue consisted of "Ow. Quit it." (Repeat.) Our Laurel and Hardy travel techniques amused our fellow passengers, especially after they had a chance to watch us on the cruise ship between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

We have a tendency to finish one another's sentences, or to simply not use them. Without conversation at the breakfast table, I'd pass her my cream and four lumps of sugar. She would feign dismay at the enormous quantity of sugar, make a little squeak that translated as "Well, seems a shame to waste it," and drop all four into her cup. Likewise, anything pickled or spicy made its silent way to my side plate.

From the moment we set foot in Moscow to the teary goodbyes in St. Petersburg, we were on a nonstop music frenzy. We heard monks chanting in churches all the way up the Volga. We heard concerts from bell towers, trumpeters in Red Square playing "God Save the Queen," and chamber music in palaces and makeshift concert halls.

Between ports, we'd listen to our own private four-person abridged version of Tschaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." We were so busy, I had to reconstruct the trip in my travel diary on the return flight, as most of my entries said things like: "Thursday. My Russian language skills do not seem to be improving. I am, however, getting much more agile with the hand-held shower."

We scurried from sight to sight, with barely time to buy a postcard along the way. Russian youths have gotten the knack of capitalism, however, and were showing great entrepreneurial spirit at all the tour-bus stops, selling postcards and wooden pecking chickens. I bought one packet of postcards, which the little boy said were in English. I don't know if this is true, since I can't decipher the Cyrillic characters.

FORTUNATELY, I have a few souvenirs to aid the reconstruction. There's the Yeltsin matrioshka doll I bought in the pouring rain one night in Red Square; the samovar from the antique dealer in Uglich; a lovely scarf handmade in Irma; a watercolor of Yaroslavl painted by a local art student; a Red Army ice-hockey jersey from St. Petersburg (where I learned their national hero, Sergei Fedorov, had helped the Detroit Red Wings win the 1996-97 Stanley Cup); a pocketful of kopecks given to me by Russian children, and a coffee-table book on the Hermitage. I got the book from a nice young man on the Hermitage steps who ran away before I could give him my money. The police were coming, and he wasn't licensed to be there.

And there may be more souvenirs. It seems that every time I turn around, I see something written by a Russian author in the bookstore, or I overhear a conversation about the spread of home computers in Moscow. And I have all these nice new Russian friends who've invited me for a visit. Perhaps I'll take Mom.