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Posts Tagged ‘immigrants’

Loading the truck at the ranch, me with my little niece, Vera

Somewhere back in Austria, I had heard a song that went “Oh my Augustin, everything is lost and gone.” Father started laughing when he heard me singing this song as we packed the big red truck with all our belongings at 2 in the morning, getting ready to go back to Caracas. We were leaving, or escaping, the ranch, and I was a little sad to say goodbye to my pretty river, my beehives, the mangoes, the orange trees –it was goodbye to all our dreams.

But now where where were we going? It really did not make much difference to me, since I was curious and happy to have new things to see and do in the capital. I don’t remember if I mourned the fact that I would no longer get to see my little old lady friend on her ranch, to help her pass the time and drink her coffee (a luxury we did not have in our home).

On the road, we passed many beautiful places and stopped for refreshments when the heat of the day came; I tasted my first Pepsi cola, and found it delicious: it wasn’t like the chicha drink of the Andes, but the bubbles tickled my nose. I was so excited and eager to have another soda at the next roadside stand (maybe this time it would be a different flavor!) that I jumped out of the truck, fell, and landed on the empty broken soda bottles the chauffeur had put aside for the deposit. I almost poked my eye out, and still carry the scar!

A few more miles down the road, the next stand had a sign that said “Pinas,” and when we approached the fruit stand, we saw a fruit my mama called Ananas–as it was called in Europe–bunches of bananas hanging all around the stand . How sweet and delicious were all these exotic, tropical fruit scents–eating the fresh bananas and pineapples was like eating a piece of heaven. There was so much for my eyes to see and my soul to take in, and my heart rejoiced at all the wondrous things God had made- this was probably the first time I felt real gratitude.

Our travels always brought many adventures with new stories to tell, but first we had to climb over the mountains, where it quickly became very cold.  Down inside the truck cabin were Mama, Gala, Vera , and Fedor Ivanovich, Anatoly and I were on top along with our belongings. Under the pretext of keeping me warm, father hugged me tight so I wouldn’t feel cold, and said jokingly, “Let me suffer!” My father was not a demonstrative man, but I knew that he, too, was warmed by the embrace and did care for me and all of us. This was the only time I ever remembered feeling the embrace of fatherly love, an emotion that he so rarely showed any of us. This warm feeling stays in my memory to this day.

Finally we started to come down from the mountains into the big city of Caracas. I really think that was when I fell in love with the city lights, they just fascinated me with so many different brilliant colors and shapes. I thought it was fantastically gorgeous the way the lights of the big city were spread out below us –the city that seemed even larger than I had remembered it. My eyes were wide open and tears were running down my cheeks-I don’t know if they were tears of joy or just from the wind blowing against my face, but for the first time in my life, I felt truly happy , content, and satisfied. I wished that time would just stand still for us.  But of course, it never does.

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My sister Galina on the far left, frolicking in "our" river.

The river on our land was like one from a familiar scene you sometimes see in the movies, with a tree leaning over the bank from which I used to swing from the branches and fall into the water. Since I was busy helping at home, I did not go to school, and my free time was spent playing. We were all excitedly waiting for the weekly bus from Caracas, which would be bringing my sister Gala and her new daughter for a holiday visit. On the expected day, Mama waited outside while I splished and splashed in the river. Suddenly, I heard the bus horn. I hurriedly slipped into my panties and ran as fast as I could. At that age, I had no shame about nudity and anyway, all the local kids were naked in the hot summer weather, due either to the heat or that perhaps some of them did not have clothes. Mother had made dresses for me, of course, but I wore them or I didn’t, it made no difference to me.

I rushed up wet and almost naked to embrace my sister and her new baby, named Vera, which in Russian means “fate.” Fate was already in my mother’s arms, while Papa was all smiles and Anatoly stood there, shy but polite. Then Papa went out of the house, and I put some clothes on to get ready for dinner. I was amazed at all the good food Mama had prepared for the homecoming feast, many delicious roast chickens…but then a thought occurred to me and I became suspicious. I went running down to the little coop I had lovingly tended and, as I feared, my chickens were gone. I went over to the beehives to hide my tears and let go of my pain. I never even said anything to Mama, but when Vera was in my arms and I walked around the house, I made sure to inform her that she was responsible for the death of my pet chickens..She was just a baby and didn’t understand what I said, but I felt better. Of course, I got over it and life goes on. It seemed like only a few days, but Galina and her baby stayed a couple of months before returning to their home in Porlamar.

The end of the year came and our tomatoes were gigantic and deep pink, so Papa said, “This Monday we’ll start picking them!” By now it was Christmas weekend, and we were all asleep in the house. I went to the big windows and sat down to look up at the stars; across the road was a big hacienda, where the owners of our little ranch lived. I spoke to Santa and told him it was okay, I understood that I would not get any presents for the Catholic Christmas; I would have to wait for the Orthodox Christmas, which came later on the old calendar.

The next morning I went down the road as always to see my old lady friend and wish her well. I had nothing to give her, just a flower or two from Mama’s garden, but passing by the gate of the owners’ hacienda I saw their children playing with all kinds of new Christmas toys. Papa and Mama forbade me to disturb the owners, so I just went closer and peeked in, saying to myself, “One day….”

Monday came and very early, we all went down to the tomato field–Papa, mama, and Anatoly, while I went to wake up the chauffeur and his wife, who were to help us pick tomatoes. When I approached the sleeping pair, the man sat up, grabbed my arm and tried to kiss me on the mouth! I broke away from him in disgust and went running back, not saying a word because we needed his help picking the tomatoes. Still, I could not help but spit out the taste for a long while, as we crossed the grove of oranges and mangoes, which were long since harvested and sold. As we passed the beehive, I saw a little snake cross the flower path and screamed to Anatoly, “Kill it!” But nobody made a fuss about the snake- we were on our way to make a fortune with our tomato crop—they were like gold to us!

“My God!” my mother cried out. Papa also yelled in anger!, for the flimsy pole and wire fences had been knocked down, and a huge herd of cows was walking through our field and eating all our tomatoes! We all went crazy and tears ran down our cheeks. Our dreams of a rich harvest, a gold mine, were all gone–kaput!

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My brother Anatoly was a fully-grown man when I was still a child. He helped our father in Maracay.

On the road again, like a band of gypsies! Our next home, Maracay, was a small colonial city with wide streets and lots of parks with statues of heroes of the revolution at the battle of Carabobo. We drove through the city, so clean and free compared to others, and traveled about twenty minutes down a dirt road to a large ranch with orange groves, mango trees and lots of land ready for planting. Papa’s plan was to put us to work as ranchers or farmers!

Anatoly arrived a few days later, but by now my sister was married to a pure blooded Russian exile who carried his German aristocratic name and title with pride. Anatoly was put to work on a big tractor tilling the soil, mama was down in the rows with me pulling weeds, but there was still not enough money for my schoolbooks. I would have to walk to school, until one day a good looking young man came by the ranch to talk to papa and offered to give me a ride to school.

I remember bouncing along down the road in his big 8 wheel truck, and that night dreaming of being his wife and living with this wealthy young man in a big hacienda with lots of servants and many children! I was growing into a woman, and for the first time I felt something for a man, different from my feelings for my brother or schoolmates. He was tall, with a gentle and seductive voice, strong and sweet and protective, and perhaps he did not even notice I was staring at him strangely. This was my first girlish crush on a man, and I had no idea what I was feeling.

Well, we had a name for  a foolish child–a “mocosa,” meaning “A snot-nosed kid who needs to dry its eyes and grow up!” Of course, I never saw that young man again, but by the next day I had forgotten all about him: My sister was coming to visit us with her newborn baby, so we had to get the house ready to accommodate them!

Our strange house in Maracay

The house was very big and strange to me: one room ran into the next, and out of the kitchen there was a brick path leading to a flower garden and an outhouse. Mama planted flowers along the pathway, and papa and Tola made me a little fence corral for my chickens. An old woman they called a witch had given me a bunch of chicks; she lived in a cardboard box house down the road, and I thought she was so sweet that I didn’t want her to be lonesome, so I visited her every day.

She would make me coffee, a royal treat for a young lady, and I spent long hours down there, helping her get clean water from the river, washing her only two teacups, listening to the roosters crow and the hens cluck. After I was gone too long, my poor overworked mother would come looking for me- I didn’t realize that to her, I had gone missing from chores, wandering the countryside and maybe getting into trouble.

At school I played baseball, since my legs had grown very fast and I could hit a home run like the boys. At the school festival, a boy sang a hit song from America, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons, and what do you get, Another day older and deeper in debt!” I did not understood the words but I would dance to it; I had never seen the record and only heard a tape, but I loved the melody and the rhythm and most of all that deep voice, the baritone that I loved so much, (even those I heard in the church choir), singing so meaningfully, “St. Peter don’t you call me, cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”  I invented my own meaning of these words, since no one around me spoke English–I simply felt it, and it wasn’t until I began to understand English that I knew what the song meant.  Another English-language song that affected me deeply was one I heard  for the first time many years later, when I was in Los Angeles.  I wondered if Willie Nelson had written “On the Road Again” about us, as my family and I had lived such unsettled lives, traveling through the world like vagabonds.  This was to become one of my favorite songs.

Father brought home some beehives and began teaching me how to care for them. I thought the bees were so beautiful, the way they buzzed and talked to each other, with the big queen getting all the honey and the worker bees slaving away. Papa explained that we had to separate and get rid of the drones that did not produce honey: “Ludachka you just sit here and get as many you can and I will bring you a present from my next business trip, is that understood?” “Da, papa, da!” (“Yes, Papa!)
The strange thing was the bees never stung or bothered me, although if anyone else came to the hives they had to wear a mask and gloves.

Now we had honey, mangoes and oranges to sell. Father and his driver would ride into town and sell at the market, and at home we were growing tomatoes in the long summer. Anatoly would dig open a little hole, prepare the soil, and I would follow behind him and plant a little tomato seedling that Mama had grown in boxes in the house. At the end of the day, Tola would open the pump that carried water from the river into the irrigation channels, so our baby tomatoes would be watered from the bottom and not the top.

I was so young, and I thought I had all the time in the world!

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I have no photos of my red en pointe ballet shoes, but these are similar. Source: everyaustraliancounts.com.au

Once again we were on the go!  Every time we moved, we came to a new and different world, and I was already getting hooked on traveling– at least it was never boring! The Andes mountains were so beautiful- the air was fresh and cool, the skies bright blue, the mountain and hills brilliant green. Where we were was not a forest, nor a desert, but an alpine plateau with short vegetation and multicolored little flowers. My body felt heavier due to the altitude and the cold mountain air, but at least it wasn’t the bitter icy cold of European winter, more like a crisp clean cold.

We were driving to San Cristobal, which is even closer to the Colombian border. The people there were shorter and darker than in Caracas or even Merida—they were Indio Puro, pure Indian, unlike the mixture of Spanish, Italian, Russian and Mestizo that I’d seen in Caracas. Later I realized that the women of Venezuela are some of the most beautiful in the world, winning Miss Universe or Miss World titles almost every other year, and for a good reason: they are gorgeous!

San Cristobal had a Teatro Municipal (Municipal Theater), four stories high and the biggest building in town, and I began taking ballet lessons there. There was an older Russian woman teaching ballet, a real ballerina, and she became good friends with my mother. As my training progressed, I got into better condition and moved into first or second ballerina in the little company.

Up to this point, I had only used little ballet slippers, but now it was time to get real ballet shoes, the kind you can stand up in en point, held up by the toes and the shoe tips. It was my idea to get red shoes, not the usual beige or pink, and I got what I wanted. After my one and only performance, however, the director of the ballet came looking for me because I hadn’t paid for them yet! I hid under a big conference table, but he finally found me after a long search, up on the top floor. I clutched my precious zapatillas rojas to my chest and refused to let go, but finally they wrested them away. Oh, how I cried! My poor mama was so sad because she had tried hard to get the money to pay for the shoes, but things in our family had started to deteriorate and every financial transaction had to go first through father.  She soothed me and tried to tell me that it would be all right, that somehow we would find the money to get my red shoes back, but in the end, we soon moved again and I never did.  Although I was upset, I wasn’t angry with father or mother, nor did I act like a brat like some spoiled children might have done–I think my life experiences as a refugee and immigrant had conditioned me to understand that this was just the way things were.  You either had money for red shoes or you didn’t, ni modo.

By this time, my Spanish was getting very good, and I heard mama say, “Ludmila reminds me of Maria Mijalovna,” who was a translator to the Czar in the old days. I hadn’t heard of her, of course, so I asked my mama, who explained that this famous woman spoke 22 languages!  I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s a lot!” I only spoke Russian, a little German and, most useful of all in my new life, Spanish.

I had learned the value of languages, since I now served as translator on the business trips papa made to sell Embotidos in Colombia. We would drive over the mountain roads with our red truck full of sausages and meats, through the cool mountain air. Meanwhile, Galina went to work in Caracas, since like Anatoly she could not get along with father, who was beginning to drink too often and lost his temper frequently (I did not know then that it was his alcoholic buzz causing that).

Without my siblings, I was scared and lonely, and looking forward to a new chapter in my life. Little did I know what the future held….

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I don't have photos of my father's butchering operation, but this photo, reprinted from http://kiscrapbook.knottsislandonline.com/hogbutchering.html, is very close to how hog butchering day looked

The Andes Mountains are the cordillera that runs north to south down the spine of the western South American continent. The great Liberator Simon Bolivar famously said, as he crossed the snowy peaks on a white horse, “If God is against me, then I will defy God.”

In Venezuela, which extends far south and west from the tropical coast, over to the western peaks of the Andes and down into the rain forest, my father entered into partnership with a man who owned a large tract of land in Merida near the border of Colombia with many trees that he used as a lumber forest. We went to live with this wealthy Jewish man and his hefty wife, who did not have any children, didn’t want any, and didn’t like other people’s children, either (which I sensed immediately). I remember their typical big mountain home with corrals, servants quarters in back, and a large garden with pomegranate trees heavy with this new-to-me, exotic fruit that was bigger than an orange and filled with juicy red seeds. I could not resist stealing a few and eating them eagerly, the sweet and sour flavor I can still vividly recall. The lady of the house, of course, complained to my mother that I took her pomegranates, and I was punished—an important lesson after my first incident of intentional theft.

The windows in typical Andes houses did not touch the floor from the inside, but were at knee height, while the outside of the window was from the floor almost to the roof. Late in the afternoon and on into the evening after dinner you could see the young women of the town sitting in their windows watching the world go by. The young local men would go walking around the block to admire and serenade the local beauty he loved as she sat in her window gazing down at him. How wonderful this beautiful, courtly custom was to me, how romantic. The front of our house had big wooden doors like the mansion in Caracas, but the local population was a mix of Indians, whites, blacks, and those of mixed race who were then called “mulattos” and mestizos, and there were also a number of albinos. Life in the Andes was a very different world from the big city.

I had not yet been to school, so my parents enrolled me in the local Catholic school run by French nuns; it was not proper Orthodox upbringing, but after all it was Christian. Then, after a few weeks, my older sister Galina was called to the school and told I was using bad words and was being sent home. I do not recall what the bad words were and I certainly didn’t understand what they meant, perhaps curses I heard from the workers in the sawmill and the slaughterhouse, but I suspect the real reason I was expelled was that we were unable to pay for my schooling– we had no money and no home of our own yet.

Papa went into business with the landowner; My father’s dream was to start a successful meatpacking operation and slaughterhouse along with a deli (as there was no other similar business at that time in all of Venezuela). He raised the livestock, then butchered it. Although Micha had left in search of his own destiny, Anatoly was still with us for a number of months, helping to build a smokehouse to smoke and age the hanging meat–big hams and links of homemade sausages, particularly kielbasa and salami. Anatoly, Galina, and mother were put to work cutting and grinding the meat, and cutting the fat off the pigs, dicing it up, and mixing it together with the ground meat. They would mix this in big bowls, then clean out the intestines (tripe) and stuff the meat into it. All the various meat products were hung up in the smoke house and then taken to market the next day. All this tiring manual work meant the whole family was exhausted by the end of the day, but even so Mama would be up cleaning the tools, knives, etc. and of course the house until the early morning. Sometimes, at two or three in the morning I would wake up and go find her still slaving away. I would sleepily watch her until she was finished, and then we would lie down together and pray, even just the simple Our Father, happy just to be alive together in our new world. While our magical money tree hadn’t flourished yet, Father’s new business seemed promising and we all hoped we had at least planted the seeds for a successful future.

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