Last week was May Day and it made me think of the three lovely young Russian women who stayed in our home several weeks ago. Funded by the U.S. Department of State, they were part of a group of 10 Russians studying advocacy issues with the Center for Independent Living, the Center of Accessible Technology, World Institute on Disability, Whirlwind Wheelchair International and several other Bay Area organizations that work on disability issues.
Irina Gubareva, Marina Grinuk and Anna Naumovo live in Novosibirsk, a large city located in central Siberia, closer to Mongolia than to Moscow. They showed me photographs of their families, friends and school: pictures of stout grandmothers, lanky fathers, handsome boyfriends, smiling young women and huge gray buildings. Through lots of grunting, shouting and body language we were able to communicate on a very basic level. Marina, who is deaf, used sign language to talk with Anna and Irina, who then pantomimed or pointed to a Russian-English dictionary in order to get their point across.
Although it was confusing, I think I was able to take care of most of their needs. I discovered that they liked coffee, soft white bread, jam and yogurt for breakfast. I figured out when they needed their clothes washed, when they wanted to borrow a hair dryer, when they had to go shopping. “Ross” they said and pointed to their skintight polyester Russian jeans.
I took them to Ross Dress for Less on Shattuck Avenue where they poured themselves into the tightest pants imaginable. Anna bought clog-like sneakers and Marina purchased sky blue high heels that looked fit for a “working woman.” Irina wound up with a blue jean skirt far too short and all three bought socks. The prude in me wanted to cover their attractive bodies in sack-like, ankle-length dresses, but there was no deterring them. They were on a mission to purchase American clothing, and they had no trouble finding what they wanted.
We went to Point Reyes where I got a map from the Visitors Center, positioned them at the Bear Valley trailhead and pointed westward. I showed them my watch and indicated that I’d be back in four hours to retrieve them. They were there when I returned, tired, sunburned and smiling.
One night they heard African music coming from the house next door. Irina went outside, swayed her hips and giggled. I thought they might like to meet my neighbor, Githingi Mbire, a Kenyan artist. I shouted over the fence to his open window and told him my Russian guests requested his presence. He came over.
His native language is Swahili and he was more successful at communication than I was. Or perhaps he was more interesting. With very little effort Marina let him know that she and her comrades wanted to see his painting studio. At 1 a.m. I went to bed. I left the back door unlocked for them.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, all Russians were my enemy. I vividly remember crawling under my 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade school desks, sticking my head between my knees and praying that the Commies wouldn’t drop the big one. I recall curling up in my mother’s arms, allowing her to comfort me after a bad nightmare in which a fat little Nikita Kruschev beat me over the head with his shiny black shoes.
How remarkable it is that now, while the United States fights a war with a country I hadn’t realized was our enemy, I am host to the children of the people I’d always thought were out to get me.
I hope that it doesn’t take me another 40 years before I get to share a homestay with three young Iraqis. By then we’ll probably be at war with someone else. But maybe, if every American takes the time to meet the people we are told to fear, we can prevent another war from happening. Sign me up. They can buy whatever they want at Ross Dress for Less and I won’t complain.
Susan Parker lives in Oakland near the Berkeley border. She is the author of the book “Tumbling After,” a memoir published last year by Crown Publishing.