Anna Coates and I met on social media through one of the many FB groups I belong to, We Love Memoirs. It could as easily have been Women Writers, Women’s Books. Both are great if you are a woman memoirist. And Anna is that.
While her memoir is not out yet, I’ve had the privilege of reading sections of it and was drawn to her story of her life in Latvia under Soviet control and through their fight for independence. Though she now lives in France, when I heard she had stories to tell of a past visit to the US when she was 39–just the other day!–I knew I wanted her for this series. And she graciously agreed.
Anna gives us two stories of her visit, which I’ve place here in chronological order. “Toilets and Racism” takes places upon her landing and “Symbols and Smiles” is … well, you’ll see. I was supposed to choose between them but felt each one offers us something special and each will, I know, spur on some good conversation.
I’ll intersperse her stories with her photos of her home town, Riga, Latvia, like these …
Toilets and Racism
My first trip to discover America started on a nice, calm flight to JFK. My only problem was the plane’s toilet. I hate these minute, high tech cubicles as much as I love coffee -– not the best combination for a long flight — so when the plane finally landed, my first and only thought was to find a toilet.
And so I did. Usual bedlam and queues of a big airport, and then finally -– my coveted cubicle! I rushed, opened the door and put on brakes. It was broken! The damned throne was halfway filled with water! Clear water, but Ugghh!
I stepped back in the queue and waited for the next cubicle to open. Sprint and stop. Again -– half way full of water! I was truly desperate by then but I couldn’t, I simply couldn’t relieve myself in that mess!
When I finally entered the third cubicle and found exactly the same setup, I was beyond could and couldn’t. I carefully tried to avoid splash-backs (with not much success) which made me cringe in horror. A few moments later, when my brain was able to accommodate another thought, I started to consider the possibility that all three couldn’t be broken (customer service at JFK couldn’t be THAT bad!) so maybe, just MAYBE this was the way of American toilets.
Deep sight -– I got the feeling that discovering America would not be as easy as my prior shenanigans across Europe had been.
Now it was time for the next step. The border crossing. I wasn’t worried. I had a fresh ten-year visa in my passport, and my conscience was clean. In 20 days I’d be back in my office in Riga. So, light-hearted, I stepped into the line.
As a former Soviet citizen I was used to long lines and the doom and gloom of Soviet offices, but the atmosphere at the border crossing slowly started to creep on my nerves. Due to some construction work, the line led into a long and narrow corridor; it’s low ceiling, dim lights, and bare concrete walls were best suited for some horror movie. The scary looking guards, armed with machine guns, accented the feel, but I still kept my cheerful mode.
And then it happened.
Suddenly I felt scared. It took me a few seconds to register the change and it made me blush. Due to my toilet run I entered the border crossing line as the last from my Scandinavian flight. And now the next flight had landed and the corridor behind me was filling fast with predominantly black people.
I had never before considered myself a racist of any kind and this sudden discovery that black people scared me made me blush in shame. Was I racist? The idea itself scared me.
While standing in the line, I searched for the answers. I’m from as white a country as possible. I grew up in a country with about five mixed race people — who were all born at the beginning of 1958 as a result of the World Festival of Youth and Students, held in Moscow in 1957. I had never before seen more than one black face at a time.
My fear was an instinctive reaction to the otherness, the unfamiliar, not the race. I was able to live with that as something easy to overcome; I just needed to work on it. Now.
So, I turned around and started a conversation with the black man behind me. He was a New Yorker, returning from some conference. In the next ten minutes my “otherness fear” was sorted out and I approached the border guard with an easy smile. I felt ready. Ready for America, it’s otherness, and even its toilets.
Symbols and Smiles
‘I like history,’ I said, when my American host asked what I would like to see in Kansas.
A big mistake, it turned out.
He was full of optimism to show me the best. So we drove, and drove, and drove through the Great Plains to see… a statue of liberty. No, no, not the one in NY — we were still in Kansas — but a much smaller replica installed in some small town square.
It felt… wrong. Out of place. Weird. I politely nodded and took some pictures. Then we drove again and stopped to look at another one -– exactly the same -– followed by another. It started to feel like a scene from Alice in the Wonderland. After the third statue, I suggested that it was time for a coffee break.
I sipped my McDonald’s coffee and tried to understand why little statues of liberty felt so weird. And then it hit me – déjà vu! I was ready to jump up and sing “Back in the USSR.”
It seemed that The Statue of Liberty -– the real one — was a very similar symbol to Americans as the statue of Lenin is for Soviets. In the old Soviet Union, almost every little town had its own statue of Lenin, a cheap replica of the much bigger statue in Lenin Square back in Moscow. I was seeing the same little patriotic replicas.
From that day the similarities started to grow on me.
Americans, like Soviets, believe they have the best country in the world. And while the Cold War seemed to be over, both sides were absolutely sure who was their main enemy.
The people in the rural areas of the Soviet Union were not very advanced in the geography of the West. To my surprise, I found out that world geography wasn’t the forte of Americans either.
At the beginning of my visit, I tried to name my country, Latvia, but soon realized it just caused confusion. It was much easier to use Europe.
“Oh, you are from Europe? Wow! Can I take a selfie? I never met anyone from Europe!”
Later, I saw the 6th grade geography book which belonged to one of my host’s children. The picture at the front of the book showed the globe, but with only one side: the side with North and South America. I turned the book over, looking for the another side of the globe, but it wasn’t there.
Another surprise was the news. Growing up in the Soviet Union, there was always very little news from abroad, and it was always bad (except if they came from countries with pro-Soviet regimes). The channel my American hosts were watching offered a half hour of news which had only one, very short slot with news from abroad like a fire in London or a similar visually entertaining nothing. A longer slot was devoted to the federal news, and the rest was the local news.
Don’t get me wrong, the news was professionally made. And I never felt so excited watching a ten minute news slot about two snow ploughs heroically removing one inch of snow from the local Interstate. But it felt so similar to my childhood’s Soviet TV news about random harvesters heroically battling through the wheat fields.
The next day after my return home I went to the post office to collect a package that had arrived while I was away. The line was slow moving and soon I leaned against the long counter dividing clients and staff.
“Don’t lean against the counter!” The sharp voice cut me out of my daydreaming. “And stop grinning!”
I sighed. Finally, I felt back at home. And found the biggest difference between us and Americans: we do not smile in public.
Anna writes under her pen name, Zenta Brice, and posts her articles to her website at https://zentabrice.com
Thank you, Anna, for sharing your stories here. There’s so much I want to ask you, comment on, and say. But I shall hold off for a bit and let our readers get us started.
How about you? What stood out for you in Anna’s stories? Did one of the stories resonate with you more than the other? How?