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Posts Tagged ‘Venezuela’

Barra de tumbar cocos

Barra de tumbar cocos. That is how they called Ludmila, because she was tallest one. She is at the left first on the line.

Life seemed so simple and peaceful back then; anyone who went through the war would say that. But everything in my life has had a short term from beginning to end. Now mama decided that was time for me to have a little education; she did not know I would read every magazine I put my hands on, studying  etiquette, fashion and good manners and reading every sign in the street. I did my own education and since my sister was pregnant again, I had to be good company to her. Her blue blood husband could teach me good manners, I thought, and in those days that was the most important thing for a girl: good breeding so she could marry well. The perfect mate for a European man was one with good manners; that was more desirable than beauty7!   (The world has changed indeed.). So off I went to finishing school!

Next thing I knew, they were putting me on a plane; I wasn’t afraid, just sad to leave my mama. I was worried about how father would treat her with me gone. When my papa drank, he was very scary and hurtful to all of us. I would just hid, and sometimes I would drag mama by the arm and take her to a closet or bedroom; anything not to hear his madness. Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder what my new family would be like.

Soon the excitement took over, to be away from home, and go to a peaceful house with Galina, Valery and Vera and the coming baby; I was to discover that this family was worse in some ways than the one I was coming from. So away I went to Porlamar, La Isla Margarita!  That ‘s what it said on the plane:I am about to fly and become airborne. Mamochka dear tried to calm me down, telling me about her first experience on a plane long ago in Russia when Fedor Ivanovich and Mama were just married and had already Gala and Tola. They all went to a little airport and rented a plane for an hour just to feel how it is to be up in the air!,
With that story, she put me in my seat and said “go with God Ludochka!”  How sweet my diminutive name sounded, I loved it). “ See you soon don’t worry, and be a good girl and as always let me be proud of you my dear Ludochka” But I wasn’t worried; we had lived in so many place, never really owning any property or putting roots down anywhere. With not having anything came no responsibilities either! We all lived for the day– making plans for the future was a luxury for the rich.
My  sisters big belly was almost ready, but she and her very tall husband Valery were there at the gate, waiting at the door on the landing strip next to the plane. Porlamar was the largest port of the island at that time, but everybody knew each other and there were no customs to go through or other formalities,  because they were all friends. Somehow that gave me a wrong idea of my own superiority, so that I never had any patience for police officers, soldiers or any authority figures.

Their house was like something in the movies, a very strange two story villa with a tower and beachfront! I just loved it, and soon my sister gave birth to the most beautiful little girl, so very gentle and sweet.  I would walk to school every day at “Nuestra Senora de la Consolacion”, where they gave me a uniform and put on shows and a little boina for my head. But first I had to
get in the turquoise water that it look so like a painting, and now I am touching it and walking on that white sand every chance I could get. After school I would do my homework and then maybe if Valery decided that I deserved it, I could go with them to a movie on Friday night, or maybe to a matinee Sunday to see the original Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, with his fabulous yell as he swung through the branches in the jungle.  Also the movie of  Fantasma or Superman, it was all I could do to behave all week so I could go to the movies.

But behaving perfectly never came easy to me. Valery was very critical of my posture, telling me to sit with my back straight and head up or I would get demerits. After 3 corrections, it was no movies for me!  When I ate dinner, if my little pinky was pointing it up, it was a no no it had to be under  showing only the fingers to are using the knife and fork ext. Then  he would hit it with his fork or knife or whatever he had in his hand; that kind of table manners was”low people’s manners, peasant-like.” And that slap on the wrist was nothing; the punishments grew more severe and more painful. He would pour rows of rock salt on the floor, put me on my knees and tell me that if I moved I was in big trouble. First it was five minutes, then when I could do that, he made it ten minutes– That really was uncomfortable to say the least!

However,  this Sunday I would not be punished! No,because the whole school was marching in the procession of the “Virgen de la Consolacion’  from the city Cathedral,  wearing  our best most elegant uniforms for the first time! That was  going to be great!

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Visiting with my sister Galina and her baby, Vera.

We ended up in the outskirts of Caracas, in a home of a family with whom we’d been friends since Austria, by the name of Isbarenko. There were two sisters and a brother; the old man and my father had a good time together drinking and singing, and the old man played the accordion. The lady of the house was a typical Russian matuchka, a country farm woman. Theirs was a happy home, but somehow they were different from us; the girls and the boy were older and they didn’t exactly want a younger girl like me hanging around them.

They rented a piece of land not far from their home and were farming tomatoes. I loved those vegetables, the sun and open space, so I went with them to help with the crop. But Anatoly went back to the gold and diamond mines, and Galina went back to her husband on the Isle of Pearls, as it is known in Spanish (La Isla de Las Perlas, Margarita), so I felt very alone and insecure.

We were broke, so father sold the truck and dismissed the chauffeur, and we finally rented a small one-room place with a bathroom and kitchen. Father turned the countertop and refrigerator into a butcher shop in the morning, at night we slept in the floor in the same room. Poor Father could only drink down his disappointments in life, and the alcohol was beginning to take its toll on him. Somehow he found animals to buy, a place to slaughter them, and meat to sell. Mama would work hard right next to Papa, and I would walk for miles down the highway to a store that sold the spices we needed to make the homemade kielbasa sausages. When I think back on how I watched a great strong man like my father turn into a beat-up, broken old man, my heart still aches and a painful feeling comes over me.

The Isbarenko girls were not too far away from our new home, so once in a while I went with them to the movies, I suppose when they felt sorry for me and would tolerate my presence. Their reluctance to hang out with me didn’t stop me from having fun, because I was always happy with very little. Some Sundays we would all go down to the river, but it had a big rushing current and since I did not swim, I just hung on to a tree branch and dangled my legs in.

The days ran on and on; I was growing up—in fact, I looked older and more developed than I really was. One day, I heard the Isbarenko girls were going dancing the weekend after Easter. I wanted desperately to go along, so I begged Papa to let me go. Mama had nothing to say against it, so we girls went to a night club and I got my first glimpse of another world. How incredibly fantastic it was to me–twinkling lights, music playing, people laughing and dancing and drinking. Everyone was so happy and gay; I don’t remember what we ordered to drink, but it made me happy to just be there. Then the band was playing “Siboney”! Oh what a romantic sound, moving just like the waves and wind by the sea. We were sitting across from a table with five guys and, naturally, the flirting started. One of them, a tall, handsome young man, asked me to dance, and it felt so natural to me–I just melted away in his arms!

Soon they were all making plans to meet up at the beach the next day, and I just knew I had to go too! The girls had brought me home and dropped me off on time, so father had no objection–after all it was just the beach. The next morning we all left at 9 am, and on the way we were singing and talking about the night before. I was dreaming about seeing that same young man (who was really much older than me) as I walked alone down the beach and played with the waves and water, but the group of guys from the night before, including the handsome prince who had danced with me, never showed up.

That was probably my first disappointment from trusting a man, but the real lesson of love’s disillusionment only came much later in life.

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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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This is a more recent photo of Merida, Venezuela's Principal Market, but it looks very similar to how I remember it as a girl. Source: members.virtualtourist.com

“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.

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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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My brother Anatoly, at about the age he was when we arrived in Venezuela

The skies were just starting to show the first rays of the brilliant morning sun; bright blue skies and puffy clouds hanging above our eager hearts. We were anxious to see this land of honey and money and exotic fruits and birds, all the things that we had heard about, and now we had arrived in port. There was dead silence aboard the ship as the speakers sounded “All Aboard!” and the American flag was hoisted higher and the Venezuelan flag was added. Suddenly the silence was broken and  big black men with no shirts  screamed from the dock, “American cigarettes for Mangos!” Having never seen a black man, I thought at first that the black men on the dock were painted for a special greeting party to welcome us, but they were just hard-working braceros, and as they started throwing mangos onto the ship in trade for American cigarettes, I suddenly realized with wonder that their skin was really that color!

How strange everything was! How nice and warm I felt–I just loved (and still love) that tropical breeze, the hot air—it must have been over 100 degrees, but to me, after years of freezing in war-torn Europe, it felt just right. This was Puerto Macuto, where it was always hot, and behind this long horizontal port city spread across the water stood towering, dark green mountains and a tropical jungle (we were nearly on the equator).

We sat there in port almost the whole day, waiting for I knew not what, but I didn’t mind: I was drinking it all in, feeling the wondrous warmth and vibrant life—how marvelous that feeling was, it is totally impossible for me to describe it. By nightfall we were finally allowed to disembark, saying farewell to all our fellow passengers who were moved to different locations and other places, but happy and free: no concentration camps, no war, no massacres. Some headed off to small hotels and some to houses similar to the barracks we’d lived in in the refugee camp, but we were directed to a private residence in Caracas.

My brother Anatoly was nowhere to be found, but finally we found him kissing goodbye his ship girlfriend of one month. Poor Tolya—his girlfriend had just told him she would not marry a poor man, so his arrival in paradise was tempered by a broken heart. Father led us, looking handsome, confident and strong, like he knew everything,  mother was humble, sweet, and quiet, Galina was with Micha helping to get everything in order, and I was just happy, curious, soaking in all the new experiences and hungry for more as we boarded the mini buses to be shuttled to our destination.

It was July of 1947. There was still no proper road from the port to Caracas, and it took over 2 hours to go a few miles over falling rocks and past dirt slides, packed like sardines in the tiny bus (which I now know is typical of Latin American countries). I was shoved off in a corner without a window, and as the bus made its way up the winding mountain road, I began to be nervous, afraid of the unknown, but ready to face whatever danger might be ahead.

Finally we arrived at our new home, a big mansion with windows down to the floor, with iron grillwork protecting them.  The many private bedrooms were clustered around the big courtyard, a square, open air plaza decorated with palm trees in pots and a water fountain, the beautiful sky overhead. By now I was tall and skinny, and so happy I began to dance and skip and fly around the courtyard like the Matylok/butterfly that was my nickname. Inside, the brilliant shining tile floors reflected big mahogany built-in armoires. It was so exciting to me—so grand!  I explored the kitchen in front of the back garden, and we ate in the huge, high-ceilinged dining room, so Spanish—we had a feast of arroz con pollo, platanos, shredded pork, and a delicious flan for dessert. I was in heaven.

Naturally, we had to come back down to earth! Three months later, the government informed us that we had to move out, find work and start taking care of ourselves. I didn’t understand why we were being thrown out—did we misbehave?  Was it something I had done? I didn’t want to leave our beautiful mansion with fountains and flowers and statues! I sat in my room, rocking in my rocking chair, listening to the rain that was falling and pouring out of the mouths of the cement gargoyles on each corner of ‘our’ mansion, wondering what was going to become of us now.  I heard my parents say that Anatoly was heading off somewhere, supposedly to make a lot of money; Micha was going off to a good job in construction, and we girls were going with Mama and Papa to a place called Los Andes.

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An American refugee program based in Vienna was helping to relocate the suffering survivors of the war and escape from Russia.   I don’t remember how long we waited in the refugee camp, but eventually we were offered a couple of choices for relocation:  to the US or to Venezuela?  We had all heard that America was where money grows on trees, but the next ship sailing was to Venezuela, so my father Fedor Ivanovich chose Venezuela–he did not want to wait even one more day to leave the hell that was Europe at that time.

Where did we embark on the big troop transport ship called the USS General Sturgis?  Was it Italy?  France?  Or even Northern Germany?  I can’t remember—but I do know that it took almost a month of sailing to get to our destination. Being on board a ship for the first time in my life was exciting for me—I ran up and down, all around, as everyone else was lying down in the covered upper deck. There was no more fear, no more hunger or pain, and it was on the General Sturgis that I sampled my very first ice cream–a Neapolitan sandwich with strawberry, vanilla and chocolate—so sweet and astonishing to me that I can still taste it when I close my eyes and remember. And there was peanut butter, something my grandma used to make fresh for us, so getting to eat that smooth, sweet treat again brought back lovely memories of home.

For once, there was no shortage of food. Papa was working down in the ship’s galley, helping to cook the meals that came like clockwork every day. Gala and Mama were lying down for much of the trip, feeling seasick and vomiting with most of the other ladies.  I don’t remember what Anatoly was doing, maybe working, too, as the men could earn a minimum wage for their labor. After a time, things became more pleasant for everyone, especially for me.  I was so very happy, perfectly contented just watching the dolphins that followed the ship and jumped out of the water as if welcoming us to our brighter future and the happiest sunrises of our lives.

On “Captain’s Night,” we all dressed up to put our best foot forward and assembled for a big celebration. To show our gratitude to the Captain and his rescue ship, and all the Americans, we put on a little theatrical show with singing and dancing.  I participated in a traditional  Russian story about two geese, one white and one gray, a story all Russian children knew.  It was a big party, especially for the children.  There was a big tub full of apples floating in water, and for the first time I was introduced to the American children’s game of bobbing for apples.  Ice cream, candies, so many exciting new treats we had never seen before—what a feast we had!

That evening, as the sun was setting and God Bless America was playing, suddenly someone yelled “Land! Land! Land in sight!” And sure enough, there it was, off in the distance; I will never forget all the men and women on deck with tears in their eyes. I still get goosebumps whenever I hear that stirring song, which played as we stood gazing intently at the horizon.  Gala, Mama (who was holding me), Papa and Tola were all crying with joy as  we had our first glimpse, through the last rays of the evening sun, of the beautiful land of our freedom.

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