Our Russian guests melt what's left of the cold war

We use "house" a lot as a verb here in southeast Alaska - as in "Will you house this weekend?" The towns are all a boat or plane ride away. So we house visiting high school teams, traveling musicians, and the instructor from Juneau who teaches a gardening class.

When the arts council in my town of Haines, Alaska, announced that the Moscow Chamber Orchestra was coming to town, I volunteered to house.

As we waited for the ferry to dock, the piano teacher had us practice saying "hello" in Russian. It was the first time I'd even imagined that my guests for the next two days might not be able to understand a word I'd say.

Alexei, Stanislav, and Irina came home with me. The guys walked on the beach while I showed Irina pictures of my children. She has one son - she pointed to my boy and held up one finger - and she is 41.

Or maybe she has four daughters and one son?

I made salmon sandwiches and sweet tea for lunch - Russian food, or at least I hoped so, and we ate watching sea lions cruise back and forth in the Chilkat Inlet. Irina said "beautiful" and "silence." The guys said "happy," but it sounded like "heppy." They loved my dogs. We were all smiles.

Irina and I did a lot of charade-style communicating. She managed to tell me that this was the first time in years of touring that the orchestra had ever been in "real American" homes.

There was no way for me to explain that this small town is not very "American," and that our homes, well, they aren't typical either.

My house is fairly traditional, with running water, electricity, a dishwasher, and things most homes in the lower 48 have. We have a guest apartment above the garage where the orchestra members stayed. But the location is definitely not "typically American." I showed them fresh bear tracks in the sand next to our kayaks. They took pictures of the eagles fighting over a salmon, and marveled at the snow-capped mountains on the opposite shore, rising right up from the sea.

Rob and Donna housed their Russians in their handmade home-in-progress. It doubles as an art studio and has a 10-foot fence all around to keep the moose from eating their fruit trees. Their power comes from a windmill atop a spruce tree, and they have an outhouse. Rob and his musicians took a wood-fired sauna with the neighbors. He says they "melted what was left of the cold war."

Byrne gave his Russian the extra bed in the Quonset hut behind the lumberyard that he calls home. The walls are lined with videocassettes of foreign films and an extensive vinyl record collection.

Fred and Madeline entertained their musician in the early-20th-century house they are restoring. Madeline baked apple pie. Fred, a jeweler who has spent time in the Russian Far East, stayed up late speaking Russian.

Maisie, an elderly English widow, housed Victor, a viola player, in her modern hillside home. They sat on her chintz sofa and watched a video of Richard Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde."

Maisie told me he kissed her hand. "Victor is such fun," she exclaimed. She said she never understood how the people she had called friends when she was young became the enemy for most of her life.

Paul and Annie, our town's volunteer undertakers, said their houseguest was small enough not to mind ducking under the low eaves of the attic guest room in their garden cottage next door to the Salvation Army. He borrowed an old bike and pedaled around town.

"I tried to tell Dmitry he might get lost," Paul said, "but he smiled and waved me off. And you know? He found his way back just fine. He is really something. We just love him."

Of course the concert got rave reviews, too. The standing-room-only crowd did clap between some movements (we are not used classical music performances), but the orchestra was so good it was a reflexive response.

After the ovations - and the hoots and hollers -our new friends came back for an encore. They played a lonely Russian folk tune so well that I heard heartache and true love, despair and hope, even war followed by peace.

I was suddenly very sad that I grew up believing the people making this music were the bad guys. But at the same time, I was so happy that they weren't anymore - that I could hardly breathe.

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