“Enbotidos Los Andes” was the name of Fedor Ivanovich’s proud new enterprise; his very first company, a grand beginning in the New World. His meatpacking business was a complete operation from beginning to end, from birthing and animal husbandry to feeding and butchering, to selling direct to stores, shops, and families in the region. In the big outdoor public market, we had to slice thin samples of our salamis, kilvasha (which is the Russian word for “kielbasa”), and hams so that the people could taste it or else they would not buy it—there had never been that kind of deli and it was new and a curious novelty to the indigenous locals of Venezuela. Of course, the expatriated Europeans knew about delis and welcomed us; as a result, our business quickly grew.
Everyone was happy, Father was beginning to prosper. When I worked and helped father, I got to ask for a few pennies or a dime to buy chicha, a milky, creamy, delicious drink that I loved that was made from fermented corn. Some chichas had alcohol in them–in Chile they make chicha of fermented grapes, which is the drink of the gauchos, or horsemen–but then I did not yet know the difference and of course they sold me the chichas without alcohol (or perhaps they did have alcohol, which might have made them even more delicious to me). They cost the equivalent of 2 pennies of that time or maybe one because it was a quarter of one Bolivar, which was Venezuela’s currency.
When carnival time arrived, our little town of Merida went crazy, with everybody singing and dancing in the streets, fireworks and of course there were great feasts requiring our sausages and hams. The firecrackers and fireworks were frightening to me at first, but I soon realized these were not the gunshots and bombs of the Old World, with their ugly sounds of death and destruction. This was a happy sound, of the fiesta, and even at home we could hear the wild celebrations in the plaza while we gathered around the long table cutting meat by hand–manos a la obra as they say in Spanish.
Anatoly went to town to buy black pepper for the kalvasha and of course he couldn’t resist getting some firecrackers to frighten us. When he came back home, he snuck into the workroom, lit and threw one right behind Gala, who cried out in shock and whirled around knife still in hand–and accidentally sliced his wrist open, sending blood gushing everywhere! When we went with him to the big hospital, I was the only one who could speak Spanish, which gave me a new sense of responsibility and belonging in my adopted country. But the hospital was scary!
Soon afterward, Mother had a terrible pain under her ribs and after we had been to many doctors, none of whom could figure out what was wrong with her, we decided to try another method. Living in a place where witch doctors were more respected than medical doctors, My sister Galina and I went to a curandero (shaman) who lived far away in the mountains, to ask him to make some medicine to heal mama. It was against our religion, of course, but we were desperate. I accompanied Galina alone into the countryside, we left as the sun rose and didn’t return home until after seeing the sun go down. We passed winding rivers, big plantations and rising hills, until finally we got to this old man in a hut. There were other villagers waiting there for his “voodoo” medicine, so we waited until it was finally our turn. We entered the darkened hut with candles and incense burning, not knowing what to expect. After we explained why we had come, the curandero did his “mumbo jumbo” and chanted some prayers that we did not understand, then he sent us away. As we descended the hills to return home, we picked oranges and were singing again, happy to bringing mama the curandero’s medicine and the gift of fresh oranges.
By now I was back in class, public school this time, and going to my first ballet classes against my father’s wishes; he certainly did not want me to be an artist, much less a ballerina or anything like that because in the old world only loose women put on shows! Mother had to sneak me to my classes and hide my little costumes, until finally the day came when I had to perform in the little theater and we forgot the undergarments for my costume. We sent home for them, and it was Father who came back with the clothes and sat there watching silently; we were both scared stiff, but he didn’t say a word, and at the end he even applauded!
After that I was free to dance! I was happy in my soul and mind and my body, flying through the air as I breathed deeply and moved my arms. How could it be bad when it was so pure and clean? Every chance I had, with the slightest provocation, I would dance along with the wind or breeze, or when I heard any musical sound–my body could not stay still. There was a little movie house that was outdoors at the plaza. Before the show I would go behind the screen and dance so my silhouette showed for the people sitting waiting for the film to start. I am one with God when I dance, and there is no evil or pain or tears or fears, only love in my face and heart.
Father needed a truck to transport his animals, and so far I did not yet have a proper doll. One day he said to me, “Come with me to the bank and if you do a good translation and get the banker to give us a loan for the truck, I’ll buy you a big doll with eyes that close to go to sleep!” Of course I went (like I had any choice in the matter?) and to tell the truth, I don’t remember if I did well or not. But I do know that he left the bank and bought a bright red Ford truck with a wooden truckbed for his livestock, and I received my beautiful doll! Life could not get any better, it seemed to me! The embotida business was making good money, and soon we had a maid and a chauffeur, and lots of grapes that father made into wine for the table.
One day Fedor Ivanovich had to go out to the valley of the Andes with the chauffeur (of course he did not know how to drive), and by now Anatoly had gone far away because he could not smoke in front of father and they did not get along so well. Palina Vasilivna was in the market selling meat and so Gala and I were home for the holidays. By now it was more interesting to me to play with my pet, a live squirrel, than my longed-for doll! The big wooden barrel of wine had already fermented and were almost ready to drink, so Gala said to me, “Ludmila, let’s try it and see if it’s good!” She already knew about liquor, since she and Tola had tried it before, but I had not yet tasted alcohol. I was ready for any new adventure, so I answered, “Yes, yes!” I guess I liked the grapes’ taste at first; “One more?” Gala asked. Yes! And one and two and three! Soon I was sick, vomiting and calling to my father for help, but luckily mama arrived first and put me to bed.
Oh, the room was spinning around and I was swearing, never, never again, mama! Then I passed out, also for the first time. This was my first experience with the booze–little did I know at the time that alcohol would come to be my perdition, condemnation, and, more than half a century later, the salvation of my soul.