Of Grandmothers

It was a sunny summer day after a wedding in the family and a few of us were invited to have lunch at the house of the groom’s grandparents in the countryside. A short drive later we stopped in front of a pretty building and as I got out I saw a smiling old lady with an unmistakably regal posture, despite the cane she was leaning on, waiting in the courtyard. Something jingled at the back of my mind, either a memory or a sense of vague recognition, I couldn’t be sure.

She first embraced the newly married couple, and proudly kissed her grandson, then turned to each of us as we patiently approached her one by one. When my turn came, I looked down from my height into a lined, kind face which was still beautiful. She laughed and asked me to bend down a little, then placed her hands on my cheeks, studying me up close.

As soon as she did that, my heart trembled with the memory of my own beloved grandmother’s hands, and in the space of seconds the residual sadness I had carried with me after she had passed away some two years before disappeared. It was the first time that beyond talking to my mother, my grandmother’s daughter, anyone else had tapped in some way into what I had felt about her. I knew exactly who this woman was, and I remembered my grandmother clearly, but I was somehow reassured of my connection to someone I had loved dearly through the lady in front of me.

We saw each other again several years later for another family event, and I sent a thank you card afterwards for the hospitality I had experienced. In a few weeks I retrieved an envelope from my mailbox with handwriting that was both new and seemed familiar. I opened it, read the first few lines of the message inside and began to cry. It was a thank you card responding to my thank you card, and both the handwriting and the content reminded me of the cards my grandmother used to send me when her eyesight was failing, writing in green and red ink so she could see better, doodling pictures of the potted flowers on her balcony.

I’ve never talked to this other grandmother about my feelings. They are enough for me by themselves, and I am grateful for this gift of sorts that she has given me simply through meeting her. She has her own grandchildren, and for some time now she has been a great-grandmother as well.

My own parents became grandparents, and as a first-time aunt I’ve experienced a particular kind of joy from watching them, because in essence I was getting a peek at what they were like with my siblings and I at that very age before we were able to remember, but already knew we were cared about deeply. It is a bit like going back in time but moving forward in the same moment. And I find it incredibly humbling and inspiring.

In the first months after my grandmother had passed away the loss part of what happened naturally gripped me harder, perhaps because the feeling that she was still close hadn’t left me either, nor has it today. My mind knew what had happened, but all the things that had previously reminded me of her on a daily basis still did, just the same, and they were real. And then I saw other people, both in my family and outside of it, being what she had been to me. They were doing it on their own terms, of their own free will, not asking anything in return.

Of course it’s important and comforting that there are enough people I can ask, on any given day, “Do you remember how Granny…” But I am thankful for those sometimes unexpected moments of connection, reassurance, maybe peace, and I think that my grandmother would have understood.







Stop Telling Me My Name is Complicated

As always I can’t avoid various pop culture references popping (ha) up in my head during a topic of discussion close to my personal experience, unless it’s a Disney quote, but in this case it’s definitely the chorus of Say My Name by Destiny’s Child.

I worked with someone once who, striving to be polite and avoid mispronouncing my name, reverted simply to addressing me with “You” most of the time. Which is fine, and which I classify as sweet, but since he had a sense of humour, after a while I started singing “Say my name/ Say my name” at him whenever he spoke to me. When he actually did use my name, it turned out he was able to pronounce it correctly all along.

I wrote recently about things people ask me once I say I’m from Russia, and as often happens in these cases, I also have a Russian name. Actually, if you dig deeper and have time, I might tell you about the Greek origins of my name, its versions in other European languages, its connection to a few other female and male names, but that’s not the focus of this blog post and I’m already talking enough about myself aren’t I?

The Russian name means that there are combinations of letters in it which might be unfamiliar to some people and which further lead to pronounciation that they haven’t come across before. This leads to several scenarios after my introduction, from saying it wrongly repeatedly and trying to convince me this is how it works, to hopefully asking me if it’s actually another name. Um, no.But the response that I ultimately had a problem with and spent some time analyzing was, preceded by a squinty eye or a bewildered look, “What? Hmm, too complicated”, “Too difficult”, “What? No, I can’t say that.”

Now, I understand that in most cases people were simply being frank and in their anxiety to do well all sorts of chatter slipped out. That has happened to me before as well. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, I’ve never told anyone whose name was new to me that it was “complicated”. I’d simply repeat my hello and then possibly ask during a quiet one-on-one moment how to pronounce the name. And the experience described above has only made me more sensitive, at least I hope so.

My name is not complicated. You just haven’t heard it before. You might not know or remember the existing European versions of my name. Breathe deeply once through your nose and give yourself some time. It’s OK to ask me to repeat it or to let me know you want to get the pronounciation right. In fact, I consider the latter courteous. It’s a polite sort of honesty that is immediately disarming. It also puts anyone at ease, because you are paying attention to your conversation partner. Just don’t force your firm opinions on me.

It might be useful, in general, to stop assuming you’re the first person telling me this. Do you really want to be part of the group who make the same comment over and over? Don’t get me wrong, interest is fine, but it only takes a few seconds to distinguish yourself by making an effort.

Why am I writing about this? Well…Within a few months after I first arrived in my new city I caught myself adding “Yes, it’s a bit complicated” after my introduction as soon as I saw a person pause or ask “Pardon?”, thus cutting off what might have actually been a different interaction, and saying something that I didn’t think was true, essentially lying about myself. I got a nickname which was pronounceable for those around me at the time, but which I ultimately disliked, because it didn’t feel like me. Luckily I shed all of this and met people who simply dealt with new names respectfully and maturely.

I like to stick to simple facts. My name is not complicated. You just might not have heard it before. It doesn’t sound like something that fits in to a paradigm you might have in your mind. But don’t worry, I’ll gladly repeat it to you.

And then we can discuss YOUR name.

Things People Ask You When You Say You Are Russian

A few years back I already partly touched on this subject, since some of the suggestions I made were based on my experiences at parties and any kind of social gatherings with people I didn’t know well. Time has passed and I have collected some more questions that I received as soon as I mentioned my Russian roots. And I’m including the answers to these questions here as well. All is about to be revealed…

Do your parents work in the oil industry?

I understand where this is coming from and if you’re trying to be funny, you might succeed if I like you, but no. The oil industry is not the only industry in the country with available jobs.

Does your dad work in the oil industry?

See above. I notice you’re not asking about my mom. Or my sisters, female cousins, aunts etc. Do you have a problem with women working in the oil industry? Do you feel like an intense discussion about issues with how women are still being viewed in the workplace? Are you trying to put some distance between us right now? Where are you going? Come back!Do you speak Russian?


Do you speak/ understand Polish/ Ukranian/ Czech?

I’m afraid the answer is no on all counts. They are different languages and you have to learn them to be able to understand and speak them.

Is it dark all the time in winter?


But are your days shorter?

Only in winter. Like in Europe.When do you guys celebrate New Year’s Eve?

December 31.

When do you celebrate Christmas?

January 7.

But why?

Because we celebrate the Orthodox Christmas.

Does your name mean something?

Not as a word, but otherwise…how much time do you have?

Wow, how come you don’t have an accent?

Vot do you mean?

So, are you from Moscow?

No. There are many other cities in the country…

What’s a “babUshka”?

“BAbushka” is a lovely word that means “grandmother”. It is used to address your own grandmother or in general to talk about older ladies.

Do you always put jam in your tea?Why don’t you like whistling indoors?

Because we have a deeply-seated, old superstition about whistling your money away if you whistle inside. We might not all be religious, but in general we’re a superstitious nation.

Did you see Russia’s performance during the last FIFA World Cup?

No, I’m afraid not… I was too busy watching Manuel Neuer.


How to Talk to a Woman Reading

No Means No, It Doesn’t Matter How Women Say It by Amna Saleem was immediately familiar to me as soon as I read the article. As she described the persistent attention of a man who approached her  with offers of a drink, despite the fact that she was reading a book and repeatedly declined politely, I was nodding along. I remembered various situations both when I was younger and older, and reading about the mocking responses of the irritating would-be suitor, I also remembered those I had heard myself, among them such as “Don’t you ever smile?” and “So what’s your boyfriend’s name?”

But the article and the author’s mention of some of the nicer Tweets she got from readers got me thinking on another topic. How can a man talk to a woman reading in a public place without seeming like a persistent creep? Or how would the non-creeps do it? Here’s an opinion.

My heartfelt suggestion to men who really want to speak to a woman reading would be to follow this example of what to say to her:

Excuse me/ sorry, hi, sorry to bother you, but I just noticed you are reading * insert name of book here * and I’m thinking of getting it for my father/ mother/ sister/ brother/ cousin/ friend. Could you tell me if it’s good/ what you think of it so far?”

If she answers your question, but doesn’t offer anything else, thank her, wish her pleasant reading and BACK OFF.

If a conversation follows, participate, but don’t overdo it with attention or suggestions, drop a bookshop tip or two, or ask her.

A woman reading in a restaurant, cafe, on a park bench or anywhere else outside of the home that’s sufficiently lit is not looking for a way to mask that she is alone, nor is she self-conscious about sitting by herself. Even if she is, that’s her business. She isn’t begging for persistent, even aggressive attention. She might be waiting for someone, she might have had a long day and just needs an escape for a while. Or she just wants to read, dammit.

The point is, she chose this space, this time and this book by herself, for herself. This needs to be respected.

I love to read and I make a goal out of taking myself somewhere beyond my home to do this. I like to interact with the outside world just as much as I like to withdraw from it sometimes. I need to look up from my book after a while, I most certainly need to eat and drink. Like the author of the article, possibly, I also enjoy looking at something other than my phone to fill my time.

It’s not that a woman reading in a public place, or anyone, can’t be approached at all. But this is a specific situation that merits thinking about.

If she’s reading, she intends to concentrate. The only person who is allowed to break that concentration is the one she might be waiting for. Unless they are both meeting up to read together. The fact that she has a book with her means she’s occupied. She picked something to do.

Anyone being approached by someone deserves politeness and respect, as well as some amount of distance at the beginning of communication, especially when it’s about talking to strangers.

That’s it. And no really does mean no.


Germany: Random Useful Facts

Maybe all of this is only true for the North, which I’ve had the most experience with, but it might serve you well elsewhere in the land of Goethe, Mercedes and the Oktoberfest (NOT representative of the whole country), so here goes with some random useful facts about Germany.

Plans of action are appreciated. If there isn’t one, it’s a handy skill to be able to come up with one on the spot. This is particularly true for a night out with a group you might not know too well or organizing events with friends that involve being out and about. Things you can do to polish this skill and feel prepared regardless of decisions to be made at a moment’s notice: check transportation routes in advance, save map search results in your phone, buddy up with another reliable person, make a LIST. I feel joy simply typing this. Not to give anything away about myself, but you get the idea.

Don’t be fooled when you’re getting together with someone, say on a weekend, and they suggest being “spontaneous” or “spontan” in German. Spontan also entails a plan. First of all, you’re agreeing to proceed this way, and you need to know the translation: someone will need to text or call the other person to ask what’s going on for today and therefore make a plan. It’s unavoidable.

It’s a sure bet that almost every packaged item you buy in Germany either has detailed instructions about opening said packaged item, or a (sometimes cunningly hidden) HIER ÖFFNEN (open here) icon printed on it. Keep looking for it and don’t give up. Opening per procedure is often less messy and more satisfying than trying to tear off a layer of covering on your own. Following HIER ÖFFNEN will change your life and earn approving glances from those you happened to invite to brunch and help avoid frowns from locals.

This is true for many countries, but politeness is greatly admired in Germany and saying someone is “unfreundlich” doesn’t just mean unfriendly or rude, it carries a ton of disapprovement behind it. I think it’s also characteristic of the northern German character. One might not say outright that someone sucked on certain levels or express anger. But unfreundlich is both reserved and layered with subtext at the same time. There’s a range of German phrases, both long and short, that immediately convey consideration and good manners when spoken.

Daydreaming while standing in line is not necessarily frowned upon, but you will get a louder “Hallo” from staff. Saying you were lost in thought (one of the first phrases I learned when I moved and proceeded to use often, again, not to give away too much) with an apologetic smile diffuses this situation of potential minor time wasting.

These useful facts about Germany are as random as the situations life sometimes puts us in, so you’re covered.

Aunt in Progress

Your eyes changed colour some more since the last time we met. The traces of grey-blue were still visible, but they are gradually being replaced by other hues. I wonder if your eyes will be like your grandmother’s and mother’s, if you will share that same unique shade.

One day you were sitting on your mother’s lap at the dining room table and gazing around with wide eyes at us big people talking. Your grandmother stroked your mother’s hair and yours, looked at both of you, smiled and said, “Child of my child.”

At this point in time you and I seem to have established a pattern of moments when you recognize me. You looked around with a curious and questioning expression on your small face when your mother brought you to my side in the mornings, then your mouth turned up in an open, toothless smile when your eyes settled on me, and you bounced a little in your mother’s arms. After that you would always zero in on and reach for the beautiful shawl from your other aunt that I loved to wrap myself in, which is also true for your mother. Clearly we all share the same good taste!

During an outing I gave you my finger to hold while you lay in your pram, and you turned your hand around, so I carefully put my palm against yours. You tried to interlace your fingers with mine, but your hand was still tiny, fitting completely in the palm of mine. We looked at each other and I hoped you could hear my thought that I would always be there for you.

Your energy and increasing awareness of your surroundings remind me of your mother as a baby. When you focus on something, I have to remember your father’s face when he’s figuring out a task. Your vivacity makes me think of your shawl-giving aunt. The way you and your grandfather sometimes look at each other with the same twinkling, satisfied expression is uncanny. When you are quiet and settled, maybe thoughtful, your grandmother’s serene demeaner immediately comes to mind. The way you turn your head to follow your parents’ progress through a room and smile when they near you warms my heart.

There are many more family members walking through my memory as I watch you. You seem to further connect us all in the infinite passage of time.

On the morning before I left you were sitting on my bed, supported a little by your mother and me. I don’t know what you were telling your recently discovered feet, but you were very intent on it. You would turn around and smile when your mother spoke to you or laughed. All I could think was, Kid, I hope you will take as long as you need to figure things (feet) out, and that you will bring the attentiveness, focus, interest and happiness I see growing in you out in to the world.


So Busy

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days

When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out

Stressed Out by 21 Pilots

During one of my jobs I had to sit down with a colleague to discuss a project we had been working on together. I had made careful notes in preparation for our meeting, while handling other tasks and calculating how much longer I would have to work that day to make up for having to leave earlier later in the week. At the same time I might have made a to-do-list for my after-work grocery shopping and worried about a friend who was not doing well.

As I I walked together with my co-worker to our conference room and politely asked how he was doing, he replied with a frustrated sigh, “Oh, it’s been crazy, I’ve just been so busy, just this constant load of things to do. I’m so stressed, I barely have any time.” He looked disgusted, as if someone was personally inconveniencing him. OK, the fact that I already knew him to be not the most reliable colleague and disregarding of efforts made by others contributed to the lightning-speed reaction in my head. What I thought was, Buddy, I’ve been here twice as long as you, and you think I’m NOT busy? Or anyone else?

Maybe it’s all in the wording. Maybe we react stronger to those who repeat something like the above, while not asking us how we are doing. Maybe both my natural state of positivity and my desire to maintain it drives me to say, I need to finish some things first, but I could get back to you * insert suggestion here *.

I have seen this time and time again, both in the workplace and outside of it, people who visibly do not trouble themselves or rush to exhibit involvement, committment, dedication, discipline, who cancel plans at a moment’s notice or simply don’t show up. They are surprisingly eloquent and clear as soon as they start talking about being “stressed”, while those at their desks rarely do. Why? Simple! One group has time to talk and the other doesn’t.

We all feel stressed or tired, we all share about it. We’re all busy most of the time. Sometimes you do have a hard day and end up talking only about your own experience. But the way it seems to work normally is saying, Wow, I’m just so wiped out from today, thanks for understanding, or I did this and that and now this, I just want to put my feet up, have a nice evening. Because the truth is, most of us are regularly stressed, tired or busy. There are rare exceptions, but I can’t think of any. It’s just the way life is, and the broader issue is how to deal with it and make sure you’re alright in the process.

I also think it’s pretty galling for people with less experience and a poor track record, in any context, to confidently tell someone on the opposite end of the spectrum about the tough time they are having. . .dealing with a sudden busy day, especially when half of what they are supposed to do ends up not being done. Again.

Whenever these encounters happen, I always come back to the same passage in one of Mindy Kaling’s books.

“. . . I do not think stress is a legitimate topic of conversation, in public anyway. No one ever wants to hear how stressed out anyone else is, because most of the time everyone is stressed out. Going on and on in detail about how stressed out I am isn’t conversation. It’ll never lead anywhere. No one is going to say, “Wow, Mindy, you really have it especially bad. I have heard some stories of stress, but this just takes the cake.I don’t believe anyone will ever give me a cake just like that, so I will simply bake my own.

As soon as I stop being so damn busy.