Our family left Japan when I was 6 years old. We first took a ship–the only cruise our family has ever taken together. We’re actually campers–from tent to pop-up to trailer. Our final destination would be Norfolk, VA–a naval port. Later I would associate the metallic smells and loud metallic clangs on board this ship with the navy, rather than a luxury liner.
People threw rolls of streamers from ship to shore. They spooled them out until finally, they broke. Straining. Then snapping back. Floating. Festive. Finally slowly water-logged.
The cramped bunks secured to the walls with heavy nuts and bolts, would be the first of many adventuresome places we would sleep. This scene morphs in memory to the bunks on the Trans-Siberian railroad car that we took, chugging toward Moscow. I believe our mom packed lots of canned goods to feed us along the way, but now that seems implausible due to the weight. Yet, the Vienna sausages from tiny little peel-away tins are inseparable from the soot that settled into our pores from the coal engine that powered the train.
I don’t remember our mother serving us Vienna sausages before or since that trip. But the most vivid food memory involves our dad, our heroic dad, disembarking from the train at random stops to secure ice cream cones for us in the raging heat. It was summer and the burning coal was also a factor.
My sister and I would peer out the train window, intent that if we kept our dad in sight and if he could hear our cries to “Hurry,” we could keep the train from leaving him behind. Of having to sacrifice him for his desire to get us ice cream. Vanilla. Soft serve. I don’t even like it that much.
When we reached Red Square, covered in soot from top to bottom, we all dreamed of the scrubbing our hotel room would offer. Even us kids. But when we got to our room and turned on the tap, the water was not clear. A disturbing rusty transparency. We ran the faucet until the realization set in that the impurity was not going to dissipate. When we attempted to rinse the soot from our skin and hair, it took more than once until the soot-stained water returned to its original tint.
We ate in a spacious dining hall that seemed out of time and space. Chandeliers. Muffled voices. Our parents let us drink all the soda we wanted, as we were not to drink the water. The Russian version of Sprite, was more like a Ginger Ale, but not quite. I have yet to replicate it. It remains specifically Russian.
On a subsequent day, we visited a palace. We walked on a stone path, where we seemed to trigger an underground water fountain when we landed on certain stones. Magical. Or did a timed sprinkler turn on, just as we reached this path? Unknown.
Later our dad would be scolded for taking pictures inside the marbled hallways hung with rich, heavy tapestry.
One night, my sister and I fell asleep at the Ballet where after the traditional tutus, the dance turned into a re-enactment of some kind of war.
In first grade at my new American school, I drew a picture of the changing of the guard at Lenin’s tomb in Red Square. The soldiers marching so precisely. Their legs in perfect unison. Stiff. Choreographed. Like a ballet.