In Kishinev two boys came from the hotel to pick us up. They held out a sign with our names on it, nodded privyet, and walked us to a sporty red Fiat. Inside, the familiar rumble of ignition, then a blast of club music that got turned down. From our spot low to the ground I strained to watch the street speeding past, but it was too dark to see anything. Dad sat next to me in the backseat. His visa had cost thirty dollars instead of sixty: he was a native.
When we opened the window shades the next morning we saw roofs, corrugated metal roofs like those atop a charming old farm village. From the third floor, we towered above them. Who lived underneath?, I wondered. Were their faces worn from the sun, were they servants to someone or landowners as old as their homes? Trees heavy with fruit brushed our window; with the hotel breakfast came the reddest, richest tomatoes I’d ever tasted.
We left on foot, heading straight for Dad’s old house. My god, he said, grinning as we walked past low, cozy homes. I remember these houses. They really haven’t changed.
He said, It’s so nice that they kept these cobblestones in the street.
He said, They still paint the bottoms of the trees just like they used to, every summer. Like they are wearing some kind of a skirt. I don’t know why.
But how come you never told me the house was on the corner of Pushkin Street?
Agh. Every stupid Soviet town has an ulitza Pushkin.
When we arrived at the house there was no weeping, no grief—Dad just grinned even wider, like he’d been told a great joke: That’s my old house! Hahaha. I can’t believe it! It’s still there.
The door had been filled in, some new windows cut out, the roof finally canted so that it wouldn’t hold water and leak—the changes you’d expect, Dad called them.
But that’s the window where I used to sit and look out! When I was a little boy. Looks like it might even have the same lace curtains my grandmother sewed. That’s where my mother used to have a little garden, and this used to be all sand…
That was the new building they built that seemed really big. Those people in that house had a TV and we used to stand on the roof and try to see—there would be a ladder we used to climb. There they had a very nice garden, and they used to yell at us when the ball went in. And the couple that lived there was very old. They would pinch our noses and yell, “Little boys!” The outhouses are gone—too bad you can’t see how we had to go to the bathroom, phee, it was disgusting.
There’s the intersection where they put the first stoplight in the whole city. And the policeman who changed the light blew his whistle at me when I was riding my bike—he was sitting in his box, just bored, teasing me, but I got so scared, I dropped my bike and ran home so fast you wouldn’t believe it.
In that house lived some very good friends of my babushka. I remember the husband had a heart attack and this woman went running, she was screaming and screaming for help, because she didn’t know how to use the public phone to call the ambulance. She didn’t know how to pick up the phone. Can you imagine? Just like that, that’s how he died.
You have to imagine. In the summer this street used to be full of bikes. Everyone knew everyone and we would play all day in just our underwear, not even shoes.
Here used to be the mayor’s office and the fire tower where they would sit and watch for fires because nobody had a phone. And we would call from the public phone, saying, “The cat’s house is on fire, the cat’s house is on fire!” We thought it was so funny, we made them so mad.
Yeah. That’s Kishinev. Everybody growing things in their little gardens. So proud that Pushkin lived here when he was in exile. But I thought it was a whole statue of him here, not only the bust. And Lenin is gone. I remember the day Stalin disappeared from the park too, I used to have to change trolleys there for high school.
And we took a carriage with horses for a taxi … I was a very little boy … And here were parades. The government people would stand and wave next to the statue of Lenin and everybody would come … I cannot believe it—every little shit republic has an embassy now.
And here people would come for walks, and walk and walk, back and forth and back and forth. We used to do it in high school, to come with friends and meet girls. And I remember when I was a boy, seeing people walk here and they seemed very old.
But the school is all knocked down—why would they knock down the school? Look at all those cute little chairs.
Here’s where Fanya sold the beads that I sent her—I used to send them Mardi Gras beads, did you know that? She did a good business, people bought them for their weddings.
Here’s where the public phone was—it’s still here! But it’s a different phone now, some kind of a payphone.
I guess you will write a lot today.
This park used to be so nice and fancy, with the squares perfect and this marble so smooth … All these trees I climbed …
The green door my daddy painted.
The peach tree my mommy planted.
The corner where we all used to meet.
When it rained like this my grandmother would open the door and let people stand inside, waiting for it to stop. Strangers, sure, everybody, she let come in. She really was very nice, my babushka.
Here is where my mother used to send me to buy bread.
That’s where my mother was hit by the car; but she was fine.
The folding beds were still out and there was nowhere to step …
She said often that when she was pregnant with Anna she would come to sit here, and cry and cry.
For my sister, yes, of course, because she drowned.
You know she survived the war, right? It’s horrible, it was such a fluke, just a fluke how she died …
Tell me, do you get any fulfillment out of visiting the graves of your ancestors?
Do you want to wash your hands? Am I supposed to say some prayer? Should I say some prayer? But I don’t know any prayer. I thought you might know one … You know, I want to be cremated and scattered in the ocean … I don’t want you to have to take care of me when I’m dead.
So write it down. Write it, that the synagogue was over one hundred twenty years old and once there were more than seventy synagogues in Kishinev. That’s cool, right?
In Kishinev two boys came from the hotel to pick us up.
Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer Alexandru Panoiu