Editor’s note: The idea for this column, which debuted four Saturdays ago, is for people to share their transnational cultural experiences – a past and present involving personal relationships where our sense of belonging, country and 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 email@example.com.
The column has started with a five-part series by writer Diana Feuerbach, about her longtime friendship with a Russian penpal – first as a child growing up in the GDR and grappling with images of and feeling towards the Soviet Union, and then as an adult doing quite a bit of mind-expanding travel and relocation. Today, in the fifth and final part of “Thank you for your letter,” Diana narrates what it has been like for her to finally meet and enter the “real life” of her penpal Genia, and also to see Russia for herself.
“Thank you for your letter,” Part V: The Lost Daughter
A couple of running gags have stuck around since our first meeting. They are only funny to Genia and me. For example the excited cry, ”Oh, London! I hear there are some really great job opportunities there—in catering!”
When we first met face to face, I was renting a tiny room in Earl’s Court. My flatmate was a British-Indian medical student whose father owned the place. Three weeks after moving in, a water pipe burst on the floor above, flooding my room and forcing me to camp in the living room, without a wardrobe or a suitable bed. It was in this state that Genia found me.
She arrived in the evening. I had just come home from my catering job at the London tourism fair. Hearing the buzzer, I pressed the button on the intercom. The camera shows my penpal, in rainy black and white. I hesitate all of a sudden. Will we like each other? Isn’t it way risky to mix real life with a correspondence that has stood the test of time? Too late now. Genia enters the apartment. I’m surprised that she is petite like me. I take it as a good sign. Genia realizes my unfortunate situation right away. But instead of pitying me, she starts cracking jokes in her deep, warm voice. I don’t mind it. For the first time, I too am able to laugh about my horrible luck in the UK. I make pasta for us and open the bottle of champagne I’ve swiped from the fair stand. The champagne is delicious, and Genia and I really get on well with each other. It’s a wonderful stroke of luck. Maybe it was the only one in those days, since Genia’s love affair with her Australian boyfriend eventually fell through, as did my plans for making London my home.
Genia went back to St. Petersburg; I moved to the city of Leipzig, Germany. Since then, we have met regularly: in Leipzig, Dresden, Chemnitz, in Munich, Basel, Rome, in Kiev and Paris… and, of course, in Piter, as the locals of St. Petersburg affectionately call their city in honor of its founder. In Piter, I got to know many things I consider treasures, from the perfect remake of the famous Amber Room once given to a Russian tsar by a Prussian king, to the banya (Russian sauna) in Genia’s dacha. It was good to finally visit the country I’d felt so ambivalent about in my childhood and youth. I was able to draw aside the curtain of propaganda and prejucide, experiencing Russia, its people and their way of life with my own eyes.
I could tell many stories. But maybe a short anecdote will do.
On my first trip to St. Petersburg back in 2003 (it was during the White Nights in June), Genia was so busy with tourist groups she couldn’t pick me up at the airport. Instead, she booked a transfer for me. A reticent gentleman in a dark suit chauffeured me in his black limousine from the airport to a dreary-looking plattenbau neighborhood. I started to worry. There were car wrecks and huge puddles lining the streets, and all the buildings seemed dilapidated.
The chauffeur stops in front of a high-rise. Is this the right address? No way, I think, remembering that Genia doesn’t live in a rented flat but actually owns one.
I get out of the car, feeling dropped in the middle of nowhere. Genia has instructed me to ring her neighbor’s bell. The neighbor is supposed to let me into the building and into Genia’s apartment. I have no idea how my friend has described me to her neighbor and whether that lady is even at home. Convinced I’ve come to the wrong place, I press the button with the number Genia has given me. Someone picks up on the other end of the intercom. Before I can utter a word, the neighbor woman cries, ”Dianichka!!!“ through the speaker, as though I were her long lost daughter.
Genia and I still write emails to each other. We also talk on the phone. Spassiba sa tvayo pismo (thank you for your letter) has turned into ”Thank you for your news“. Yet I know much more Russian these days than I used to—thanks to my genuine interest, my travels and my friendship with Genia as well as a number of expatriates from post-Soviet countries living in Leipzig. I like the pop music written by Igor Krutoy. I wear a dublyonka (a Russian sheepskin coat) in winter, and besides Dostoyevsky I have also read Dovlatov. In Leipzig, I’m friends with Ukrainians and Russians, a fact that has only recently begun to sound like a contradiction, due to the despicable machtpolitik of all the parties involved in the current war in Eastern Ukraine.
With Genia, I would never argue about politics. I’m much more interested in hearing how her family is doing. They are neither oligarchs nor destitutes, belonging neither to one extreme nor to the other, but to the colorful Russian middle class plying their trade, helping the poor and—at least in the big cities—enjoying a good standard of living. As this friendship is precious to me on a personal level, it also sets an example in a much broader sense: individuals can, of their own and free will, achieve what governments cannot force them to do. Regimes come and go. What remains is each individual’s capacity for friendship with the other, be it for a moment or for a lifetime.
For more about Diana, visit: