Editor’s note: The idea for this column, which debuted last Saturday,Â is for people to share their transnational cultural experiences – a past and present involving personal relationships where our sense of belonging, country andÂ background intersect with another, or multiple others, in deeply personal ways that imprint feelings and memories and shape us and change us in some important way. If you’d like to share your own story with us as a guest columnist, please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part II of #GoingGlocal’sÂ “Thank you for your letter,” a five-part series written byÂ German novelistÂ andÂ Leipzig Writer memberÂ Diana Feuerbach,Â depicts the beginning of the accidental pen-pal relationship between Diana growing up in the GDR and a girl growing up in the Soviet Union – the pivot of the whole story. The seriesÂ will continue to run every Saturday for the next four weeks.
“Thank you for your letter,”Â Part II:Â A Cardigan for Lake Baikal
By Diana FeuerbachÂ
Then, one day, I got a letter. Only the city and street address where IÂ lived were written on the envelope. The sender from the Soviet UnionÂ had gone through a magazine listing addresses of East-German childrenÂ looking for penpals. Sheâ€™d picked an address in Karl-Marx-Stadt, maybeÂ because sheâ€™d heard of the town in a song that was popular back thenÂ with Russians. She figured the person advertising in the magazineÂ would be getting lots of mail already, leaving her without a reply, so sheÂ changed the house number and omitted the name.
I donâ€™t know which Saxon mailwoman was on duty on day X,Â delivering letters and postcards to my row of plattenbau tenements on aÂ sloping hillside. Was she a young woman or an older one? Chubby orÂ slender? And how was the weather that day? Did the mailwoman comeÂ plodding through heavy snows or was she sweating in the sun? IÂ imagine her there, standing in my blockâ€™s entrance, in front of theÂ mailboxes, with the mysterious envelope in hand. She studies theÂ elegant handwriting and the stamps showing hammer, sickle, a red star,Â and the imprint CCCP. She wonders which slot to drop the letter into.
Which of the twelve families living here has a child of suitable age? She canâ€™t quite seem to remember. Maybe sheâ€™s only a substitute from aÂ different district, and completely clueless. Maybe sheâ€™s simply annoyedÂ by anonymous letters. A mailwoman supposed to play a kind of RussianÂ mail roulette? A reluctant Lady Luck.
“You got a letter,” my parents would have saidâ€”as usual when IÂ received a piece of mail. I regret not remembering that significantÂ moment. Nor do I recall the contents of that very first contact. Only theÂ fact that someone had written to me in Russian stuck with me, an entireÂ page filled with Cyrillic script. Damn amazing. I guess the girl fromÂ Leningrad simply introduced herself. Her name: Evgenia, shortened toÂ Genia with a very soft G. Her age: one year younger than me. HerÂ accommodation: a bedroom community just like mine, where she shared aÂ flat with her parents and a younger brother, just like me. Her hobby:Â gymnastics.
Genia from Leningradâ€”a city that had been occupied by theÂ Germans for two and a half years during the war. Genia didnâ€™t mentionÂ that atrocity; it happened before our time and now we were supposed toÂ become friends. I sat down to write a reply. With the help of myÂ dictionary, I labored to compose a few statements in Russian, realizingÂ that my school lessons were useless for conveying intelligible ideas orÂ messages. Given these limitations, I couldnâ€™t tell you what news or evenÂ emotions Genia and I shared in our first years of correspondence. But IÂ could swear that every letter started out with the beautifully curvedÂ Cyrillic D for Doragaya Genia/Doragaya Diana (Dear Genia/DearÂ Diana), followed by the standard opening line: “Thank you for your letter.”
Before long, a second penpal entered the scene. Larissa fromÂ Irkutsk; a city in Siberia on the Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lakeÂ on Earth. Simply magical. Sadly, our friendship didnâ€™t last longâ€¦Â although Larissa gave me something I still keep in a trunk full of oldÂ toys and children’ books. Her gift to me was a doll with a pasty-whiteÂ face, clad in a green bonnet and a minidress. A Russian â€ťLittle GreenÂ Riding Hood.â€ś A wispy creature. I didnâ€™t get very excited, preferringÂ dolls of much darker complexion called Negerpuppen (negro dolls)Â without the slightest hint of disrespect. Larissa didnâ€™t know that, ofÂ course. She seemed to have a talent for business. As a return present forÂ the kukla (doll), she asked me for a kofta. Puzzled by her request, myÂ mother pored over the Russian dictionary. Did the girl really want aÂ jacket from us? Was she freezing in the Siberian winter? Was she cryingÂ with her mom in front of empty hangers in the department store ofÂ Irkutsk?
That much was certain: in Karl-Marx-Stadt too, qualityÂ children’s clothes were a scarce commodity. Like just about everythingÂ but bread and cabbage, they were a lucky find. The only way to get yourÂ hands on them was by following your intuition, patiently waiting in theÂ right line at the right hour on the right day. Still, we hated to disappointÂ Larissa. So eventually, my mother organized (whether brand new fromÂ Centrum Warenhaus or handed down from our West-German cousins,Â she doesnâ€™t recall) a fairly nice cardigan for my Russian penpal. WeÂ mailed it offâ€¦ and never again heard a word from Irkutsk.
To this day we speculate about what might have happened. Did aÂ Siberian mailwoman steal the package? Was the cardigan the wrongÂ size? Didnâ€™t Larissa like it? Had she, desperate for something to wear,Â only feigned her friendship with me? Did she fill her wardrobe courtesy ofÂ penpals all over the world? Is the cardigan, thirty years on and manyÂ wearers later, now lying on the bottom of Lake Baikal, its stitches aÂ home for copepods?
We have no idea.
(To be continued in Part III, next Saturday…)