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Night Landscape by Ilya Pyankov

Nineteen years ago, in December of 1991, the Soviet Union was finally, officially dissolved from a conglomeration of republics under a single rule to a commonwealth of independent states, the Baltic States, and Russia. The signing of the Belavezha Accords and the Alma-Ata Protocol would herald the beginning of new socio-economic life for many of the former Soviet Union republics. It would also plunge Russia into a deep recession where it was to languish until the end of the century. Food was being given out on food stamps and delivered in trucks, grocery store shelves were empty, people went to work – but were not getting paid. For the millions of Russians who weathered that difficult winter in expectation of a bright future in the months to come, the following years brought only disappointment. Struggle. Depression. But in the early nineties, when the curtain was just settling down, some felt it was time to flee.

Of course, as a child living in Russia I was not aware that much of this was going on that fateful winter. I just had the feeling that something was about to happen, something which would change my life, fundamentally and permanently. My parents and grandparents made an effort not to publicize the fact, because there was a chance that it would not happen if the wrong people found out. We-the-children were told, and were allowed to tell a few of our friends. It hardly mattered though, nobody believed us anyway. But finally the day arrived. The dream came true.

Nineteen years ago today, we moved to America.

I remember the anticipation, the surreal feeling that we were moving to the Promise Land. In kindergarten in Russia once a month, if we were lucky, we’d get a third of a banana for lunch as a special desert along with the usual buckwheat and hotdogs. But in America, you could go to the store and buy a whole banana! Or even two. America was the country of the fantastical, unattainable future. Moving there was the equivalent of moving to Mars. But one unexpected day my sister and I were told that Dad had been offered a position at the Cancer Research Center in Rochester, NY, and that soon we would pack up our four suitcases and move.

That last night I could not sleep. We had arrived at the grandparents’ house the evening before because they lived much closer to the airport than we did. The flight was early the next morning, and we would have to take off to the airport while it was still dark. This circumstance shrouded the departure in mystery and made it all the more exciting. Some of the parents’ close friends and relatives came in the evening, to celebrate our departure, to say their goodbye’s. Dad’s position was offered for three years, but I suspect everyone knew that the goodbye could be for longer. And so at night, I got up and headed for the bathroomю As I walked down the hall, I could still hear the soft laughter and familiar chatting in the living room. At that precise moment, everyone had gathered together for a last photograph, and I peered in behind them, nobody seeing me but the camera lens as the shutter closed.

A snapshot: family sitting on chairs, standing next to a table full of traditional Russian dishes, hugging, smiling, and behind them, a sleepy, rag-doll, messy-haired, pajamaed child looking straight into the camera from the dark hallway.

Then came the drive. The flight. Incredible meals on the plane. Tea bags. Look mama, it’s a magic bag! You put it in the water and it makes tea! Layover in Germany. Look at that toilet! Arrival in New York City. Everyone speaking in a different language. Trying to find our great-aunt who was supposed to greet us and take us to her apartment in Manhattan. Mama, look at that man, – he’s all brown! Asparagus for dinner. Sleep. Seven bridges seen from the aunt’s 42nd floor suite. New York, New York.

Finally. Train ride. Ham sandwiches on rye bread. Loving the ham, hating the rye. Snow. More snow.

Dad had arrived two weeks prior to find us a place in Rochester and start settling down a bit, so he picked us up from the train station with his boss (on his boss’ car). And we are home! Compared to our apartment in St.Petersburg this is a palace! No, this is a town-home! Two stories AND a basement! Carpet! Playground!

Dad smiles and tells us to take a look in the fridge (which stretches from the floor to the CEILING!). We peek inside.

And inside, there are bananas.

If all goes well, Mr. Fatty Pants and I should be on a plane heading to the Land of Milk and Honey in a few short hours.

So perhaps this is a good time to reflect, reconnect, and take some time to offer you a very subjective and personal portrait of San Diego . And so the story begins…

It was on a most ordinary evening sometime in February of 2001 that we gathered around our table in the living room of our modest apartment in St.Louis. Dad had something he wanted to tell us. We sat down and without due introduction, he announced, “Today I am going to tell you something that will change the rest of your lives.” Well I guess that was his introduction.

He proceeded to tell us that his boss had been offered a new position and a laboratory to head up at the University of California in San Diego . The boss had picked a few lucky scientists and invited them to come along. Dad was one of them. Yes, there were palm trees, yes the tide came in slowly and sang songs of yore on the great Pacific Ocean, yes there were even pelicans and sea lions and snorkeling to be done and perfect weather to be enjoyed. But there was a catch: I had to come along.

Let me explain: I was about to graduate high school, I had already applied and been accepted to several universities (none of them 2000 miles away in California), and now out of the blue…Dad was still talking, “…and there is an actual eucalyptus grove right on campus…great academics, prestigious, we could drive there in the mornings together…Bottom line: you go to the university there – we all go. If you don’t want to go, that’s fine too. We all stay here. It’s up to you. No pressure.”

It would be grossly naïve to think that I actually had a choice.

Loving that sky - so vast...

First impressions: Dad’s driving the Lizard (my sister) and me home from the airport. It is night and as (what later proved) usual, there is a low haze hanging over the city, reflecting the red and orange lights in a stifling sci-fi glow that makes the hilly terrain all the more other-worldly. I do not like it at all. But then there is sleep, and morning – a fresh, salty breeze, bright bright sun, and yes, the puffy clouds a-sailin’.

Sail away!

I cannot describe the loneliness of those great rolling hills, the drives to and from the university that followed, the peaceful conversations with Dad, and more loneliness on campus as all those around me made friends and I was left on the outside as the girl who lived at home. I certainly don’t regret it. Neither can I describe that vast, overpowering sky, the millions of stars at night, the strange glossy plants and the dry season. If you have seen the Truman Show , I am convinced it was filmed in SoCal, in a random suburban neighborhood where the streets are so clean you can walk outside with just socks and no shoes on, not because the streets are swept, but because it never rains and there is no dirt. Just dust and sand and concrete and little pebbles with cacti peeking out. At first it was sad and foreign. But eventually the breeze playing with the blinds, the roses in the garden, and the tangerine trees won me over. Yes, I think it was the tangerines that did it.

Yummilicious in the back yard...

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