Irkutsk, Siberia, -40 degrees, January 1977
When people ask me why I decided to change my life drastically and emigrate, I answer, “I dreamt of trying oysters”.
Bright, Sunday morning sun breaks through the window painted with frost curlicues. My mom cautiously wakes me up at 7 am. “Nina, our turn is coming, we should go.” My professor mother took a place in the line at the dairy store a few hours ago. She shows me a two-digit number crookedly written on her hand in permanent ink. It is very cold and silent on the deserted streets.
Black crows sit still in the trees that are fluffy with snow. Their contrast is as stark as black stencils cut out of white paper. I throw a snowball at them and they fly into the sky with loud, nasty croaks.
The sparkling snow crunches under our felt boots. The handles of the aluminum water can clang in rhythm with our steps. “Last night we made a bonfire in front of the store and we were able to warm ourselves,” mom tells me on our way to the store. A white puff of air escapes her mouth. I try to ask her, “A bonfire? How it is possible?”, but she strictly forbids me. “Don’t talk! You will catch a sore throat.”
When we get to the store, only weakly glowing embers remain on the dirty, trampled snow. Mute, homeless and hungry dogs lie side-by-side on the snow … miserable, shaggy lumps warming their noses in their tangled hair. Occasionally, they gaze into the eyes of the waiting people, hoping that someone will throw them a piece of bread.
The line is long, grey and solemn; people are half asleep. Sad women in bulky fur coats hold frozen children swaddled to their eyebrows in scarves. Grandmothers in grey, downy shawls, and gloomy men, smoke cigarette after cigarette. Mom shows the number on her hand and reluctant people recede, freeing a place in the queue.
Then, all at once, we are cheered as the narrow door of the tiny store finally opens. There is only about an hour to wait and we will buy milk.
“Milk, we now have milk for the entire week!” my always cheerful mother exclaimed with glee, putting the cans in the half-empty fridge when we came home. “I will make you your favorite pancakes for breakfast!”
Escape from harsh reality
I slip into the room filled from floor to ceiling with bookshelves. It is my world, my territory, and my escape from reality. I lovingly run my fingers along the spines of books like the keys of a grand piano, selecting Her. The novel will take me to another world today, it will give me hope and strength, will reassure, console, comfort and surprise me. It answers many of my important questions. It will also leave me perplexed, making me laugh and cry. More than that, it will carry me to a beautiful, imaginary place where I, a Soviet teenager, can dream.
I begin to read.
“Please, put in my basket a dozen oysters and a bottle of chilled white wine. I have a date! The money is there at the bottom,” shouts the handsome hero to the Parisian street vendor. He hangs a rope from the balcony, suspending an empty straw basket. “Ooo la la! I envy you,” the vendor playfully answers, as he fulfills the hero’s request.
“Oysters, oysters — what are they? How do they look? How do they taste?” I keep asking myself. I love this word so much; it sounds so coolly cryptic and otherworldly to me. I have read so much about these mysterious mollusks, but there is no one around me who has ever tried them.
I wondered if I would ever be able to taste them here in Siberia. If not — then what? And I solemnly swore to myself that no matter what, I would try these mystical oysters.
This was my first small step on the road to a new life. The oyster of my teenage years became, for me, a symbol of hope and change.
Now, if I want, I can eat oysters every day. But, every time I put an oyster into my mouth, I remember Siberia — the icy winter and myself on the couch with a book, passionately dreaming of a different life and new opportunities.
Many times we desperately want to make a change but we don’t because we are afraid of the unknown. We lose ourselves in our everyday chores and keep forgetting our desires and goals.
To start your journey, answer these questions:
Did you have a dream in your childhood?
Where did it lead you?
What was and is your “oyster” that pushes you towards your goal?
Has your life changed?