Love & Mozart

It was the cliché post-college, going-off-to-Europe-to-discover-oneself trip. But I would have only two weeks to do so.

The year of the new millennium.

And though traveling alone, I wouldn’t be completely alone. I would be visiting a various scattered friends and distant relatives. Considering I had stayed home for college, this was only fitting and my general lack of risk taking.

The future not only lay ahead of me. It lay ahead for the entire planet. And with the anticlimactic arrival ofY2K safely behind us, it was time to turn a new leaf.

To start anew.

To become the best version of ourselves.

If it wasn’t going to happen in this millennium, it would never happen at all.

I now look back on that trip the way one might think of an indie coming-of-age film that aimlessly drifts from once scene to the next. Not heavy on plot. But deep on character, theme, and resonance. The trip even adhered to conventional plot structure – a Hero’s Journey, complete with a perfectly-placed climax. No explosions or heavy battle scenes … but just as powerful and life-changing.

The exposition of my journey began with my graduation from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the day before I was to depart for my journey. With my newly-minted English degree in hand and a PR job at Ford Motor Company already lined up, my future was bright (at least on the surface. Inside, I knew that until my writing dream came into fruition, I could never be fully content).

In some ways, having a job already waiting in the wings wore off a bit of the free-spirit luster that a trip like this should include.

The sense of being truly “free”.

But for two weeks, I would have to pretend otherwise. Besides, having a job doesn’t mean one can’t keep one eye open for opportunity.

Despite my degree and job, my future was by no means close to clear.

Should I go back to school to earn a teaching degree?

Or, do I go to film school in full pursuit of my Hollywood dream?

I was convinced I could make it without film school and in my home state of Michigan (if there’s anything that comes close to having a regret in my life, it was my decision not to follow my passion directly to Hollywood).

At the very least, it was my hope that this trip would somehow bring my future into better focus – and that I could perhaps have this epiphany while walking the very streets Mozart once called home.

And, maybe if I were lucky (or, better yet, played my cards right), I would find some European romance along the way. But I wasn’t going to get ahead of myself, considering my track record here at home.

I never played my cards right.

Following my graduation ceremony, my family took me out for dinner. Later that evening, I found myself overcome with a strong wave of unexplained melancholy – the depths of which I hadn’t quite felt before. Perhaps it was the steady cold rain (which became a steady motif throughout my trip). But it was more like the realization that a big chapter of my life was over. The end of one of life’s chapters is always a sad occasion, no matter how much we look forward to the next one.

The sudden realization that something was gone. Forever gone. Life is made up of an endless parade of moments such as this.

Every time we say goodbye to something – or someone – we’re really saying goodbye to a piece of ourselves.

Perhaps it was the realization that I was about to embark on what could turn out be the most memorable experience of my life. I have a tendency to get overpowered by the sad reality that any memorable experience is going to end at some point and become just a memory.

A ghost.

The moments that I believe you get to re-live in your afterlife over and over as though it were the first time. So it was only fitting that as I sat on the cusp of one goodbye, I knew another profound would be lurking just around the corner when my trip was all said and done. I tried to channel my energy into the here and now, but it’s never any use. The only way to avoid it to make yourself numb to all experience. In my experience, that is truly the only way to “live in the moment”.

While sitting on the plane before take-off, I realized that this would be this exact moment I would return to the most following my trip. Because it was the exact moment before any of the memories took place.

At the starting gate.

Before any pictures were snapped.

Before any memories were made.

When the magic of the entire trip lay ahead.

Of course, “in the moment”, you never know what those memories will even be. So it’s hard to appreciate something that doesn’t even exist yet. But once it’s all said and done, it’s all you can think about.

It’s the moment that if granted the ability to back in time to re-live the whole experience, you would rewind to that exact moment. When an unwritten adventure awaited me – one that could never be replicated. Nothing in life can be replicated, but this holds especially true for our most cherished, precious memories.

As I waited for take-off, I plugged my headphones into the armrest and tuned into the plane’s radio, stumbling across Samuel Barber’s sorrowful Adagio for Strings, which accompanied my take-off. Literally the most depressing song ever composed. A song that can turn any moment into a funeral.

As the song — mixed with the cacophony of the plane’s ascent — flooded my ears, memories of the last five years of my life all flooded my soul, as I began to wonder what the future had in store as this transitional chapter began. Then I drifted off to sleep, in search of all the answers I was seeking. When I woke up, there was only a blank canvas. The one thing I needed most.

My agenda for the next two weeks was as follows: Frankfurt and Aachen, Germany followed by Salzburg and Vienna, Austria. Arriving in Frankfurt, I was picked up by the daughter of my Grandmother’s first cousin, Ulls. Despite our common language ability (I could speak only ein bissen Deutcsh and she could speak only a little English), she provided a whirlwind tour of downtown Frankfurt (a memory best described as a jet-lagged lucid dream). Through my hazy consciousness, my initial impression was:

This isn’t Germany. It’s any Big City, USA city, filled with modern, glass skyscrapers. Where were the lederhosen, giant pretzels, and beer wenches?!

When we got into her car to head, I fell asleep within minutes (with visions of pretzels and wenches dancing in my head). When I woke up, we were driving through the German countryside.

This is the Germany I had imagined.

Ulla and her parents lived a couple of hours outside of Frankfurt. A quaint, quiet little town that one usually only experiences in cinema. But still missing were lederhosen, giant pretzels, and beer wenches.

We finally arrived at their countryside home, where I was enthusiastically greeted by my grandma’s cousin Peti and his wife Susan. Once again, neither spoke English, so I tried to utilized the little German I could muster.

And it wasn’t pretty.

Thank God for non-verbal communication – and for language dictionaries. For the most part, the dictionaries did the trick, especially on a day trip when Peti took me on a boat on the River Rhine, punctuated by grey clouds, a light drizzle and mangled language.

That evening, Peti’s son Ehrhardt arranged for me to hang out with his girlfriend’s 17-year-old daughter, Anya. She was not only super cute, but spoke halfway-super English! Anya and her friend, Eva, took me to a discotheque located in a German strip mall.

Here I was, driving around with two cute girls that I didn’t know existed until that night. The kind of night that becomes encased in the museum of your memory, no matter how insignificant the events played out. The kind you hope to carry with you to the great beyond, where it could be re-lived for eternity. It’s even more rare when you are fully aware of the magnitude of a memory such as this that will live in your soul for the remainder of your days as though it had just happened yesterday.

When we arrived at the club, any fantasy I had of cozying up with either one of these girls was quickly dashed when they quickly proceeded to meet up with their boyfriends. Suddenly, I was a fifth wheel in a foreign land – enveloped in German existentialism as I danced by myself to Snoop Dog’s “Smoke Weed Everyday,” as the Germans sang along:

“Dr. Dre, mother fucker!” (enunciating in place of the more accurate “muthafucka”).

Though I much would have preferred to get some sweet strudel from the schoen fraulein, I was totally content just sitting back and just observing this whole new world play out before my eyes. Besides, this was nothing new for me. Third or fifth wheel was my natural habitat. In fact, had things gone to the contrary, my brain might not have been able to handle it. And it certainly did nothing to tarnish the moment. If I were to find romance in Europe, I still had plenty of time for that. And besides, I figured if such a thing were to happen, it wouldn’t have been in Frankfurt visiting relatives in Frankfurt.

After the club, we drove back to the Anya’s mother’s house, where Eva and I were to stay for the night. We looked through photo albums of Anya’s childhood, as jamming to shitty German pop pouring out of a boombox. Eva expressed how she hoped to come visit the U.S. sometime, and taking this as an opportunity, I extended an open invitation to visit me back home. She seemed thrilled by the prospect (not so much of seeing me again, but of being invited to stay in America). I never saw her again after that night – nor did I ever attempt to contact her. A reminder that, some relationships are shooting stars, destined to last only a split second in the wide canvas our life. However brief, it is sometimes in those seconds that make all the other minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years worth living. Nonetheless, I will never forget Anya and Eva. They are firmly embedded into the fabric of my memory – one square of an enormous, beautiful memory quilt devoted entirely to that trip – attached to an even larger canvas of my life in its entirety.

The next morning, it was time to depart for the next leg of my adventure. Peti took me to the train station, where I set off for the northwestern town of Aachen to visit my friend Janet, who I met through a friend back home. We hung out as a group back at home on numerous occasions and I developed a bit of a crush on her. Well, let’s just a say, a big crush. And though I didn’t expect the crush to be anything but one sided, it was enough of a crush to inspire me to purchase her a silver bracelet.

While on the train, I looked at her bracelet, while listening to listening to Moby’s Play album on my Discman – the de facto soundtrack of my trip that I purchased just before my trip, where it was predestined to become the official soundtrack of my trip. To this day, if I want to fully absorb myself into the memories of this trip, all I have to do is put this album on and memories otherwise forgotten become enhanced or unlocked in my mind. In fact, it’s interesting how many different Moby albums have coincided with such key moments from my life. He is my Danny Elfman to my Tim Burton, or the John Williams to my Spielberg, in my soundtrack of life. Two years later, a trip t Ukraine would be accompanied by his 18 album.

Janet greeted mat the train station, then me back to her house to meet her parents and two brothers. After a satisfying meal, then headed out to meet up with some friends at an Irish pub, where we proceeded to drink Guinness like any Germans in an Irish pub should. We all had a good time, save for Janet’s friend Dirk – an odd duck who kept whispering to me in English:

“I’m going to kill myself tonight.”

I really didn’t know how to deal with this. Perhaps he was confusing words and was trying to come on to me. The good news is, I did him again later during my visit and not only was he still alive, but was in jovial spirits. And better yet, no sweet nothings whispered into my ear.

Late that night, when we got back to Janet’s house, we rolled into our respective beds (or, in my case, on an air mattress on the floor next to Janet’s bed like a dog). Though it was late, I was wide awake, in a tipsy state of consciousness. After much internal debate, I decided no time was better than now to give her my gift. So I reached into my bag and located the silver amulet that accompanied me on my journey.

“Janet?” I said, not even entirely sure she were awake.

“Yeah?”

I leaned into her and handed her the box (in hindsight, probably freaking her out in the process).

“What’s this?” she said, clearly half asleep.

“A present! Open it,” I said, realizing that opening a present in the dark probably not the best idea.

Fortunately, as she lifted the silver chain out of its box, it caught a brief sliver of silver moonlight, before she accidentally dropped it back into the darkness. After a fair amount of scrambling, she finally found it amidst her tangled sheets – my gift taking a part in an unassuming lover’s tryst.

“Thank you! But why did you get me such a nice gift?”

I jumped right in:

“Because I like you. A lot.”

She was very touched, but sensing my intention, she quickly made it abundantly clear that we were “just friends” – the universal language of rejection. A language I understood fully well.

I immediately regretted giving her this present – but not because of the money I spent on it. Why didn’t I at least wait until right before I left so I could avoid spending the rest of our time together in a state of awkwardness? After all, I should have seen this coming. Then again, if I waited until the end, it might have been too late. So I took a gamble. And lost. Fortunately, there was nothing awkward between us. And at least the pressure was off now. In fact, it made us closer – just no closer to romance. I still had plenty of time to find that. It just wasn’t going to be in Aachen.

The next day, Janet arranged for us to go to Köln (aka Cologne) for a couple of days, to visit some of her university friends. More specifically, I would be sleeping in an apartment filled with six college girls – European college girls. Since I stayed home for college, it felt like I was being granted an opportunity to make up for lost time. The only action to be gotten, however, would come in the form of sex acts with Bert and Ernie puppets (clarification: between the puppets – not me and the puppets).

The first night in Köln turned out to be a night of drunken revelry highlighted by bar hopping, dancing, and literally chasing after the last trolley at 3 a.m. down a cobble-stoned street, singing a huge European hit that never quite made it across the pond: Tom Jone’s “Sex Bomb”, which Janet and her friends enjoyed translating into “Sex Bob”. For the record, he U.S. truly missed out on this gem.

Upon our return to Aachen, where the first of two defining moments of my journey took place. I was lying on my air mattress, once again listening to Moby (as I am doing while writing this, 18 years later) while Janet getting dressed in the adjoining bathroom. While listening to the aptly-titled track “Why Does my Heart Feel So Bad,” I was overcome with a torrential downpour of emotion I never felt before that day and haven’t felt since. Although no amount of descriptive prose could ever fully describe what I felt that night, I can at least attempt to. It felt as though every fiber of my being was ripped open and flushed out with tears from the deepest recesses of my heart, mind and soul, while at the same time, absorbing my every tear like a sponge, before releasing them in a soul-cleaning downpour of emotion, as my entire life played out before my eyes, allowing me to see through a brief window of clarity of my past, present, and future. I cried so hard, it hurt. It was, perhaps, the most utterly human I have ever felt. I have never felt this way again.

Looking back, the experience feels paradoxically detached from real life – much in the manner that a good film might tough the deepest recesses of our soul, even though we are simultaneously aware that it isn’t real. I often think back to that moment with a tinge of embarrassment, wondering what was going through Janet’s mind as I wept like a baby on her bedroom floor. Though I tried to hide it from her, it was impossible to hide a soul ripped wide open like that. She discovered me halfway through my jag and held me close to her like a mother comforting a child.

Without a single hint of judgment.

And I never wanted that moment to end.

And it hasn’t.

And much like the earlier bracelet incident, this episode didn’t put an awkward strain on our friendship, either. Once again, it only strengthened it. In the larger context of my life, I look back at that moment now as not only one of the most profound, powerful experiences of my life, but a key turning point – the dawn of an new chapter – a transition into a vast unknown that would only reveal itself in time. I was also aware in that small window of clarity that one day, even that chapter would close. Like all chapters do, in their own unique way.

On my final day with Janet, we headed to the Netherlands, a hop, skip, and a jump away. In fact, it was literally in such close proximity to Aachen, that I sometimes forget to include that country on my list of travels. It didn’t look any different from Germany, with the exception of the cannabis paraphernalia on display in storefronts.

Once again, experience turned cinematic:

A man and a woman.

A quaint town, lined with cobble-stoned streets.

Sidewalk cafes.

Light rain.

Again, right out of a movie.

We stopped for a drink in a café across from a small church. It felt like being inside Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night

She had a coffee.

I had a cocktail.

And we just talked.

And sipped.

As the rain fell.

It couldn’t have been more perfect.

And then suddenly, it was time to move on. It was time to flip the page to the next chapter, as life forces us to whether we want to or not.

I never saw Janet again.

As the years pass, the odds are, I will never see her again. It’s hard to grasp in the midst of moments such as that that there was no ellipses. No next time.

The memory is nothing more than a relic from my collective past – not a forgotten one. But buried.

 

Like so many people we encounter in life, there is tomorrow. There is only the present. And yet that present lives longer in our memories than the more permanent fixtures in our lives.

Janet and I are at least connected on FB, but she doesn’t have much of a presence, but just enough to know she is now living in Australia.

The next day, it was time to depart Aachen and prepare for the next leg of my journey:

Berlin.

In the spirit of a young romantic drifting aimlessly in Europe, I purposely didn’t book any hotels ahead of time. So even though I always knew where I was heading next, not having hotels booked at least created the illusion I was drifting my way across Europe. After all, it’s not in my character to take a risk without some form of training wheels.

I knew no one in Berlin, so it was the first time on my trip I would be totally alone. I attempted to persuade Janet to join me, but she had to go back to work.

Thus began my experiment in isolation. But following my breakdown/epiphany in Aachen, perhaps being alone was exactly what I needed.

If one truly wants to feel alone, than a city as vast and strange as Berlin is the place to be.

It was there that I came to realize that traveling alone is something I cannot recommend enough. You never feel more connected to yourself. This is especially true when you are surrounded by a foreign language, making you feel even more disconnected from the outside world and more in tune with yourself. It also lets you really focus in on every experience, free from distractions that cloud moments spend with others. It is a deeply spiritual experience that cannot be replicated with traveling with companions.

With Moby’s melancholy symphonies filling my ears once again, I was overcome with a wave of existential loneliness I had never felt before. So utterly small. And insignificant. Yet somehow, in that loneliness, I never felt more…alive.

After all, most of life is spent in a numb, zombie – or robotic – state of mind. We are drones, living without feeling. We’re just there. And when and if we feel something, as much as we want it to last forever, we know deep down it’s only temporary. We know that we eventually have to return to our emotional cubicles that make up the days of this thing we call life.

Despite this alienation I felt in Berlin, I knew I was feeling something real. And raw. In fact, Berlin was the perfect city for such a lost state of mind. But that was precisely the problem. I wanted to crawl into my shell. Perhaps a smaller city might have helped matters. But looking back, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Having spent my entire life up until that point playing by the rules, it felt good to be lost for once.

My original plan for my stay in Berlin was to scope out the city’s famous nightlife. Being an avid techno fan, I was quite aware of the role Berlin played during the origins of Detroit techno. Largely ignored in Detroit, the DJs from there made their names known in Berlin and elsewhere throughout Europe. Regretfully, my plan to scout out the clubs where techno was put on the map quickly fizzled out when I realized I would be forced to navigate through Berlin’s underground metro system. Subways were something I had zero experience with. And it stayed that way as fear and loneliness won out. Being directionally impotent is especially challenging when you find yourself in a foreign city. Although, if I learned anything on this trip, it’s that I could actually read a map if I truly put my mind to it.

The navigational equivalent of having a gun held to my head.

In attempt to cure the empty loneliness and general sense of homesickness Berlin was instilling in me, I treated myself to the comfort and familiarity of McDonald’s. It didn’t necessarily make me feel less lonely, but I did discover that their apple pies were still fried like they used to be back home, before they became baked.

The highlight of my anticlimactic trip to Berlin was the surreal experience of staying in a hostel for the first time in my life. It was located in what used to be East Berlin, not far from the largest existing portion of the Berlin Wall. And although I had never been to the former Soviet Union (little did I know lay in store for me a little over a year later), the drab, gray architecture certainly gave me the impression that I had been.

The hostel wasn’t without its challenges. For instance, lacking an elevator, I had to drag my heavy suitcase up several flights of steps. And since I couldn’t figure out how to use the shower, I ended up spraining my foot trying to wash myself under a faucet.

So in lieu of the Berlin nightlife I had hoped to experience, I got a taste of Berlin youth hostel life. From the mentally challenged German rapper in the courtyard, to the underground bunker bar, the cinematic feel to my trip suddenly became overtly Lynchian.

Accessing the bunker bar required one to climb down a rusty ladder through jagged concrete, which dumped you into the bar, which was roughly the size of a closet in width, and a crawl space in height. Although climbing down was challenging enough, the climb back up after a few German brews is a challenge of a different sort. Unless, of course, you are an Irish lothario who left the bunker repeatedly through the night to bang a different foreign chicks, only to return fifteen minutes for his next conquest. Meanwhile, I remained in my natural state – a wallflower and soaked in my surroundings until I could no longer stay awake, temporarily living my life vicariously through the Irish Don Juan the Leprechaun.

The next day, I took a walking tour of the city, which was fascinating from a historical standpoint, passing the site where Hitler’s bunker once stood, as well as the site of the infamous Nazi book burning.

Looking back, my days in Berlin reminded me of my brief tour of Frankfurt upon my arrival – an impressionistic blur of dreams standing in for reality.

The next leg of my journey was one-day stay in the southern Germany town of Passau, where I was to meet Katrin – a friend of my German co-worker Mark, who was doing an internship in the U.S.

This was the same town that my grandmother passed through during the war. It was here where my grandmother, her sister and mother ducked beneath a bridge as a train carrying ammunition exploded just yards away from them. And just yards away from that very bridge was my hostel. It was impossible to fathom what my grandmother endured.

I had a chance to correspond with Katrin a couple of times prior to my trip (handwritten letters at that!) so we could get to know one another a little bit – at least, on the surface.

And perhaps, if I played my cards right, I would be leaving my heart in Passau? After all, as Mark so eloquently described her, “she will suck you both day and night.” It sure sounded tempting, but I quickly ruled out any prospects of this happening when she all but blew me off in an entirely different way.

After Katrina helped check me into a hostel, she escorted me to a beer garden, where I was left to my own devices for the next several hours – something about having to attend a dance class, if I understood correctly. While she was gone, I consumed the two largest beers I ever had in my life, still holding out hope for Das Suck. At some point after my first beer, I got up to use the restroom and nearly toppled over from the numbing buzz I was feeling.

When Katrin returned, she retrieved me and literally had to help me out of the garden. She then explained that she had a bad headache and that she would be unable to entertain me that evening. We said goodbye and that was the last I ever saw or heard of her. I then took myself to an empty dance club, where I sat alone in a corner, munching on pretzels and feeling sorry for myself. At least nothing exploded yards away from me. The only discomfort I was forced to deal with was the claustrophobia of my hostel room, which literally consisted of nothing more than a bed tightly wedged in between the walls. If the bed were half an inch larger, it wouldn’t have fit. Hell, if it were a millimeter larger it wouldn’t have fit.

The next day, I boarded a train and left Germany behind for Austria. With my trip now past the halfway mark, I began to wonder if my trip reached a premature climax in Aachen, completely throwing conventional plot structure out of whack, while still desperately hoping that a truly magical experience was waiting for me around a cobblestone corner that would match the intensity of the earlier experiences. Perhaps a new country would bring better luck.

My next destination was Salzburg, Austria.

From the moment I stepped off the train, I fell in love with the town at first sight before any memories were actually formed there It was pure magic. Quaint, narrow cobblestone streets too narrow for cars. A medieval fortress hovering above the whole city from up above, which was somehow always in view.

And the music.

Music everywhere.

Street musicians, mostly. Add it all up, and it was like a something out of a fairy tale or Disney movie!

Whereas most of my fellow Americans equated Salzburg with Julie Andrews and her brood of happy, singing children, I had always equated Salzburg as the hometown of Mozart.

This was my Graceland!

After my hostel experience in Berlin, I decided I would treat myself to a halfway decent hotel. In other words, a place that left at least two inches of space between the bed and walls. And preferably with a private shower. Of course, in Europe, there were no guarantees.

I stumbled upon a hotel called Hotel am Dom, tucked inside one of Salzburg’s famed cobblestone streets, just outside the city square — the centerpiece of which is the horse head fountain Julie Andrews pranced around in The Sound of Music.

The lobby had a cozy, welcoming feel to it, featuring a desk with carved, dark brown oak lending to a warm and inviting atmosphere. My room was narrow with two twin beds running along side a wall, but in comparison to the hostel in Passau, it was the lap of luxury! Even so, the beds were so small, an elf would barely fit. Then again, I was in a fairy tale world, so it only made sense. I opened up the windows, and instantly, a soothing breeze poured in, along with soothing mash-up of classical music, punctuated by the enormous Glockenspiel overlooking the square. Then came the bagpipes playing “Scotland the Brave”, a played during the procession at my graduation just a couple of weeks prior. On one hand, it was a small and insignificant coincidence. On the other hand, I smiled back at fate and soaked it all in, lying peacefully in my dwarf-sized bed.

After a short nap, I headed out to explore the town. First on the list were Mozart’s cribs: Mozart Gerburstshaus (birth house) and Mozartwohnhaus (the house he lived in as an infantile adult). Although heavily renovated over the years, especially from the damage inflicted by the ravages of World War II, it was still awe-inspiring to be in the same geographic space that Mozart himself not only lived in, loved in, laughed in, cried in, shit in, but most importantly – composed his wonderful art in.

In the middle of the main room of his the Wohnhaus, there were several listening booths. I sat at one and listened to my favorite Mozart composition: “Concert No. 21 in C Major.” This composition perfectly captures every aspect of Mozart’s personality, shifting from playful and light to sadly reflective.

The absolute embodiment of bittersweet.

As its soothing melody washed over my entire being, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was perhaps composed in this very same space. It was a truly spiritual experience – not wholly unlike my previous Moby moment, but more spiritually cleansing, rather than the existential crisis that was.

 

those rare instances where you feel truly at peace. At that exact moment, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Just me and the music.

At that moment, nothing else existed.

Nothing else mattered.

The song ended.

And I was part of the world again.

When I finished the tour, I passed through a gift shop and bought a myself a little bust of Mozart, of which I made the cut clerk crack up when I approached the register with my souvenir butchered the German language with “Ich wolle einem kleine Mozart Kopf, bitte.” (A butchered attempt at “I would like a little Mozart head, please.”).

Well rested, I headed up the funicular train to the top of the medieval castle to take in a spectacular view of the city and beyond. Out in the distance, dotting the were charming little Bavarian homes with flowerpots lining each window peppered the countryside, set against a backdrop that gave one little choice but to belt out “The hills are alive!”

While wandering through the fortress, I fancied myself a medieval minstrel. And then lo and behold, a voice screamed: “Help!” from somewhere up above. But this was no damsel in distress. It was a man about my age just happened to be a fellow metro Detroiter. Apparently, he wandered into a tower and a door locked behind him. I told him not to fear and searched for help. He was released from the tower by a custodian-in-shining-armor and I headed back to my hotel, where I booked a tour for the following day, setting in motion the magic I was desperately seeking.

Her name was Julia.

She was my tour guide, but also a college student who had lived in Salzburg her whole life. She was cute, in the plain-Jane sort of way that I was generally attracted to. She greeted me in the lobby of my hotel, leading me to her empty tour van with a Salzburg Sightseeing Tour decal affixed to it.

“Hop in,” she said.

“Will it just be me?” I asked.

“If you’re lucky,” she said with a wry smile.

Turned out, I was only her first pick-up, but ultimately not her only customer. She was impressed that I was one of the few Americans who opted not to take the Sound of Music too. She was also impressed by our mutual adoration for Mozart. Soon, the entire van was filled and we headed off to see the sights. When it was over, I thanked her, shook her hand and headed back to my room to get ready for the dinner-concert I was attending, which consisted of a fancy dinner by candlelight, accompanied by opera performers singing Mozart. The whole time, I wished I had someone to share this experience with.

Somebody like Julia.

When it was over, I drifted out for the Salzburgian nightlife, in a Holden Caulfield frame of mind.

I crossed one of the many bridges over the Salzach River over to the left bank, where a tidy row of pubs, clubs and sidewalk cafes overlook the river. I wandered into a couple of establishments, was dressed up and confident I would work up the courage to converse with a stranger from the opposite sex. Of course, it wasn’t long before I remembered who I was and reverted to my usual shy self.

My final stop was yet another Irish pub, which turned out to be less low-key than I would have guessed, as evident by the packed house and live raucous Irish music.

I made my way through the crowded pub toward the bar and grabbed a Guinness, scanning the room for a spot to sit among the wooden tables with wooden stools made of tree stumps. (Once again, fit for an elf). Unfortunately, all the stumps were taken, so I had to stand against a wooden post, forced to endure the heavy foot traffic walking back and forth in the tight space I was able to position myself.

I was giving serious thought to quickly downing my beer, then heading back to my hotel to watch The Simpsons auf Deutsch.

And then I spotted her.

Julia.

Sitting on a stump with a group of friends, wearing a blue sundress and make-up, instantly elevating her from plain cute to very cute. She was alternating cautious sips of Guinness with long drags of a cigarette, with a resigned sadness on her face. Or perhaps, it was only boredom. In any event, I couldn’t help but ponder the sheer coincidence of what was taking place before me.

As I stood against my post, nervously nursing my beer, I tried to muster the courage to approach her. I knew I couldn’t pass this opportunity up, but in typical Bobby fashion, I was frozen in terror at the mere thought of approaching a female — even one who I already met. Fortunately, she hadn’t spotted me yet. Nor, did I necessarily expect her to recognize me.

This afforded me more time to hatch a plan.

Write out my dialogue.

Choreograph my every move.

Or, just plain escape

And there was always the possibility that before I could do any of those things, she could have spotted me. And then hopefully approach me. It would have certainly made things easier. That would save me a lot of agony, especially with the nagging thought playing in the back of my mind that she wouldn’t recognize me if I approached her. Perhaps that’s why she hadn’t noticed me yet.

After a long and protracted debate in my mind —combined with the half pint of Guinness flowing through my veins — I decided that the time had come. I would take the plunge. I didn’t come this far to be my usual self. Not after my Moby epiphany back in Aachen.

This was a new chapter.

A new life.

I was born again.

And with that in mind, I headed toward her table, awkwardly standing next to her for several minutes, unnoticed. I finally tapped her on the shoulder. Startled, she turned around. Instant recognition washed over her face in the form of an inviting smile and a friendly “Hello.”

“Hi,” I responded back. Or, at least a guttural sound that closely resembled “hi”.

So what next? Smoothly, I offered my hand. She shook it.

“Bob, right?”

She remembered my name!

“Yeah. Julia, right?”

She nodded, then invited me to sit down, then introduced me to her friends – a group of three other girls. They asked me questions about America. We played movie charades. They laughed at my lame attempts at German. I admired their mastery of the English language.

And at about 1:30, it was time to part.

Outside the pub, Julia said goodbye to her friends and then headed over to her bicycle, locked to a rack. It was one of those old-fashioned bikes, complete with basket and bell. All that was missing was a puppy! Like right out of a foreign film.

I naturally assumed that this was where we would part. But then:

“Would you like to take a walk?” she offered.

I didn’t hesitate. Nor did I care that I had an early morning train to catch to Vienna.

As we wandered across the Mozart Bridge over the Salzach River, walking her bike by her side, we talked.

And talked.

And talked.

Like old pals — not new acquaintances – separated by a lifetime across the Atlantic.

We talked about life in Salzburg.

And life in Michigan.

And of dreams and aspirations, disappointments and triumphs, as the ancient cobblestones beneath our feet welcomed us every step of the way. And before we knew it, we were in the city square. And we were completely alone. We were on a stage, built entirely for us — a stage upon which a love story would be performed.

And the church bells chimed two.

Like me, Julia was at a crossroads in her life, not sure what her next step would be. She felt stuck in her job as a tour guide (taking people around, but never going anywhere herself) and stuck in Salzburg as a whole. I asked her how anyone could grow sick of a place as magical as this. And that’s when I realized that no matter where you grow up, home is home and away is away. Apparently even if home is a place as magical as Salzburg! And sometimes, we all have to go away to remind us of what there is to appreciate about home. Sometimes, we never return home at all. We move on. We outgrow. We spread our wings. And fly. While those we leave behind bid us adieu out of the window where our next chapter awaits.

We entered the empty square – like a movie set built for just us. She lead me to the horse-head fountain’s ledge in the center of the square, saying nothing, but speaking volumes as we stared up into the starry sky instead. Every star in the universe was on full display – a sky that normally only exists in an artist’s imagination. We played a game to see how who could locate the most constellations. She won. The only one I could recognize was Orion.

I told her about my Austrian-born grandmother. She laughed in astonishment when I told her one of my grandmother’s stock phrases was: “Gehen hund sei arse.” Translation: “Go up a dog’s butt.” Something she would say when something was said didn’t like or agree with. Usually in jest. But not always. And she would say this to us as children. I never thought about how utterly strange this was until that moment. And Julia continued to laugh, as did I.

I suddenly found myself acting upon a compulsion to take Julia’s bike for a spin around the fountain, ringing the bell like a sugar-rich toddler. And she watched. And she laughed, as I went around and around and around. And she laughed when I wiped out on the gravel, scraping my legs a bit. But it was worth it just to make someone laugh like that.

Voices echoed somewhere in the distance. How dare somebody intrude upon our performance? A drunk couple entered, stage right, staggering across our proscenium until they disappeared down an empty, cozy street.

And we were alone once again.

But then again, we weren’t entirely alone. Waiting for us across the square was our mutual friend Mozart, standing guard over the city square. Making sure we utilized every prop on our stage, we headed across the square across to pay him a visit. By then, an evening chill demanded us to take notice, so I took this as my cue to put my arm around her.

There was no thinking about it.

I just did it.

Of course, the chilly night temperature certainly helped make it easier for me to make my move.

We remained that way in a comfortable silence, soaking it all in until next thing I knew, our lips were locked. It was one of those kisses that came out of nowhere and no matter how many times your mind tries to replay it, you never can quite replicate it in the recesses of your memory.

The magical, fairy-tale setting surrounding us only deepened the magic of the moment, tarnished only by the cold, faint taste of a stale cigarette.

How as this real life? My life?

 

I was convinced that it was one of those dreams you wake up from and feel instant regret that it was only a dream. But there was no waking up from this. In fact, I had never been more awake and in tune with life than I was in that moment. Looking back at it, all these years later, it feels more like the memory of well-made romantic drama than a memory I actually experienced in reality.

We continued to kiss and as I leaned into her in the throes of passion, this budding romantic drama turned into a romantic comedy as my body pressing into hers caused her to slip off the two-foot tall railing and into the landscaping beneath Mozart’s statue.

Mozart, the merry prankster, certainly appreciated it, smiling down at us with approval. However, before I could appreciate the humor of the moment, I had to first make sure Julia’s skull wasn’t cracked open, spilling blood onto the flowers below, turning our romantic drama-turned comedy into a murder mystery.

Fortunately, the only victims were the flowers, crushed beneath her body as she quivered with hysterical, uncontrollable laughter over what just transpired. In fact, she was laughing so hard, she struggled to get up, despite my best efforts to help her up. When she finally regained her composure, I lifted her off the ground, then brushed the foliage off her dress, before we resumed kissing.

And kissed some more.

And more.

And more.

And when the clock struck three, she said these dreaded words:

“I should really get going.”

I tried to play it cool.

“It is pretty late,” I said.

“But don’t think it’s because I want to,” she said, sensing my sadness. “I just have to work tomorrow.”

“I totally understand.”

I had the sudden urge to invite her back to my room, but didn’t want to get too overzealous and risk ruining the magic and beauty of this night.

She kissed me, as though to reassure me not to worry.

Before she left, we exchanged contact info, then snapped a picture of each other in front of Mozart’s likeness, preserving the moment in a happily ever after.

We kissed again, fully aware that it was the last time. That we would likely never cross paths again, making the moment even more perfectly bittersweet. And then she hopped onto her bike, smiled and rode away stage left down a faintly lit cobbled-stoned street. And then, she was gone, leaving me alone on stage with Mozart, who offered me a congratulatory nod and wink.

I decided to keep Mozart company for a little while longer, soaking in the tranquil stillness of the empty square, realizing that I was living a moment that could never be replicated, yet would be carried forever in the scrapbook of my mind.

As I sat alone, beneath the likeness of Herr Mozart, I saw through his eyes exactly what he sees day after day, night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year and decade after each passing decade. Sitting there, I pondered just how truly alone I was at that moment and the moments that just preceded it. How many people before me shared a similar experience as I just had in that same spot? How many have yet to experience it, having no idea as to what magical fate awaited them? I wanted to tell each and every one of them to cherish that they have not yet shared in my experience and to appreciate every moment leading up to it. Because at some undetermined point in the future, the moment would be over. And in its place, a faded memory, a yellowed photograph torn at the edges.

A former reality turned into memory.

Trapped in time.

The actual, physical moment forever out of reach.

Resigned to live on forever in abstract memory.

And it was upon that realization that I floated back to my hotel, never more awake and alive – yet so utterly exhausted – and starry-eyed. Never more free. And so full of potential and hopes and dreams.

I snuggled into my fairy-tale bed, in a fairy-tale hotel in a fairy-tale city, regretting that I didn’t ask her to come back with me, but also glad I didn’t.

What if?

Unable to sleep, so I flipped on the television. And lo and behold was The Sound of Music, just as Julie Andrews skipped around the horse fountain singing “Do-Re-Mi.”

The next morning, I headed to the train station for the final leg of my journey. Vienna – Mozart’s place of death. As I made my final pass through the square, I grew hopeful that I would see her one last time, perhaps leading a group of Americans on a Sound of Music tour, with one eye looking out for me. I kept searching all the way to the train station. But it wasn’t meant to be. And as much I was hoping to spot her one last time, I knew deep down that it was better off this way. That somehow, seeing her again – in the light of day – would have taken away some of the magic of the night before, weakening the memory as it was preserved. No doubt, it would have been awkward. What would I say? What would she say? Besides, she would be working, so the moment would have felt awkward and detached.

Besides, I had a train to catch to Vienna.

But what if I didn’t catch the train? What if I decided to remain in Salzburg, if not for the remainder of my trip, but forever? What did I have to lose? Farfetched, sure. But possible. Anything’s possible. Life has not tied me down yet. I did not have to let life tie me down.

I became suddenly aware of how easy it is to alter the entire course of your life with just one decision. And how much easier it is to simply stay the course.

But then I remembered who I was. And as I looked behind me, I saw that the training wheels were still on after all.

As we wander through life, people come in and out of our lives, like characters in a play, protagonists and antagonists alike. Some stay for a scene. Some stay for an act. And some stay forever after. But they all have a purpose. Sometimes, it’s the minor characters we remember the most and that have far more lasting impact than the characters in our everyday lives.

Shooting stars. Brief encounters that are not only as deep and impactful as the ones we have with the leading characters in our lives, but at times – even more so. An isolated memory oasis, free from the constraints and strains of lasting relationships. As I’ve grown older, I no longer look back and wonder “what if.” I simply regard moments such as these as “what was.” And it was at that moment that I first began to realize this.

Content with this realization, I boarded my train, not taking my eye off the window, until Salzburg was behind me.

Six years later, I returned to Salzburg with my (now ex) wife, Olya – also from a land far-far-away and also somebody I met through magical fate – a chance meeting that turned out to be much more than one magical night in a fairy-tale world. Not to mention the subject of my first book.

We traveled in reverse order from my previous trip to Vienna and then Salzburg, before heading to Ukraine to visit her family. And six years later, nothing had changed. It was then, just as it was six years before and just like it was when Mozart roamed the cobble stoned streets and his ancestors before him. The only thing that had changed since my previous trip was me.

Gone was the free-spirited, what-do-I-do-next-with-my-life version of myself. In its place was a far more grounded, secure and content self. And, in perhaps a fitting symbolic tribute to how utterly full and complete my life was in that moment, the once empty square was filled with bleachers, tents, and thousands of soccer fans watching the World Cup championship game between Italy vs. Germany on an enormous projection screen. And even then, just as I had done six years earlier, I kept an eye out, wondering … hoping … but then realizing that once the doors to the past are closed, we can never re-enter them no matter how hard we try.

And as crowded as that square was, there he stood.

The maestro.

Alone.

With both eyes open.

Quietly taking it all in, as always.

Whether others care to join him or not.

 

NPR Review of LOVE & VODKA by Zinta Aistars

“Worthy of Several Toasts”(***** out of 5)

by Zinta Aistars

Love, science reveals, is really just another form of madness. The brain undergoes similar changes, from the rational into the irrational, and the resulting pheromone chemical soup tastes like insanity.

Dearborn-native (Michigan) and author R.J. Fox would probably not debate any of that. It took all of twenty minutes for him to fall in love with a foreign exchange student he spotted in a line for an amusement park ride. When she returned to her native Ukraine, he followed her, engagement ring in his pocket. And more madness ensued.

In his memoir, Love and Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine (Fish Out of Water Books, October 2015), Fox recounts that initial meeting with Katya and the trip he took to Ukraine a year later to bring her back to the States again—as his wife. His adventures on foreign soil as he works up the nerve toward a marriage proposal and earn the blessing of Katya’s family are both outrageous and hilarious.

Babushka-wearing old women curse him, snarl and chase him, threaten to splatter him with bleach. Well-meaning hosts force vodka on him in toast after toast that he finds he cannot deny, resulting in drunken stupors, cold outdoor showers, and barefoot walks across sharp-edged rocks in his underwear. And so the story unfolds as Fox learns about a culture and a world far different than his own. Within its traditions and people, he finds himself in comical situations, but he also learns lessons about himself, love, and home.

What has remained with him from that mad and maddening journey these many years later, Fox says, “is the immersive experience of being in a whole other world than the one I know. Out in general public, people had a distrust toward me because I was not from Ukraine. This was in 2001, so not too far removed from the Soviet years when Ukraine was the center of missile-building during the Cold War. The distrust—it was the closest to feeling discriminated against that I’d ever known in my lifetime.”

In inner circles of what would increasingly become family, however, Fox found warmth, love, and family connection, not unlike what one would find in any family anywhere, and all liberally christened with yet more vodka. Although the resulting marriage would last only eight years—Fox is now remarried and has two children—he holds his memories of his Ukraine adventure close to his heart.

The memoir is the first publication of a new Ann Arbor-based publisher, Fish Out of Water, run by Jon and Laurie Wilson.

The Sobering Method

Mockup1Following yet another vodka-soaked, Ukrainian feast, I sat at the table and stared blankly ahead at the kitchen wall in Uncle Vladimir’s farmhouse. I was grinning like the village idiot, which was fitting since we were in a village.

Katya tried to get me to drink from a glass of water, to no avail.

“Bobby, drink this!” she commanded, putting the glass of mineral water up to my lips. I refused.

“Drink it!” she said, sternly.

“I have to go to sleep,” I said.

“No sleep. Drink.”

“I already drank too much.”

“This is water!”

I finally gave in and took a sip, dribbling most of it onto my chin and down the front of my shirt.

“This is all your fault!” Katya said, angrily pointing to her uncle and father.

“It’s not our fault that he can’t drink,” Uncle Vladimir retorted.

“We’d better get him to bed,” Elena said, concerned.

Katya’s worry deepened as I continued to stare at the wall, grinning.

“Maybe we should we take him to the hospital?” Katya suggested.

“No. I have a better idea,” Sergei said. “Remove his shoes.”

Katya knew immediately what Sergei was going to do next, and began removing my shoes.

“What are you doing?” I mumbled incoherently.

“We’re helping you,” Katya replied, as Sergei and Uncle Vladimir lifted me out of my seat.

“Where are we going?” I asked, as we headed for the door.

“For a walk.”

“A walk?”

“Yes, a walk.”

“Where?”

“Outside.”

“Outside?”

“Yes, outside.”

“For what?”

“For your own good.”

As we headed down the porch steps, I lost my balance, almost taking Uncle Vladimir and Sergei down with me.

“Yeah … I’m floating,” I said, as Uncle Vladimir and Sergei struggled to help me regain my balance.

“That was fun,” I said “But where are my shoes? I can’t go for a walk without my shoes!”

“You’ll get your shoes back later,” Katya promised.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked, a small amount of concern and apprehension now starting to register in my vodka-addled brain.

“Siberia,” Katya replied.

“I don’t want to go to Siberia. What are you going to do to me?”

“Sober you up,” Katya said.

“Am I drunk?”

Elena, Aunt Nina, and Karina followed us outside into the chilly night, as Uncle Vladimir and Sergei dragged me by the heels to the outdoor shower stall.

“Is that a gas chamber?” I asked in terror.

“Yes. Now take off your clothes,” Katya commanded.

Sergei opened the door and turned the shower on.

“I don’t want anyone to see me naked,” I pleaded. ”Too skinny,” I added, echoing Babushka’s earlier refrain.

“Then at least take off your shirt,” Katya demanded.

“Nyet!” I said, like a petulant little schoolboy.

“Fine,” Katya said, before helping Sergei shove me inside the stall, and slamming the door shut.

I screamed as the frigid water pierced through my clothing. So much for waiting until we returned to the apartment to shower.

I tried to escape, but Sergei and Uncle Vladimir held the door closed. This was waterboarding, Ukrainian-style. I pounded on the door, begging to be let out, but it was no use. I was completely at their mercy.

“Katya! Please! Let me out!” I pleaded, but to no avail.

After a few minutes, Sergei opened the door. I stumbled out, shivering like a wet dog, already starting to feel more sober. Aunt Nina handed me a towel.

And just when I assumed that the worst was over, little did I know that the worst was actually about to begin.

Still dripping wet from my arctic shower, Sergei and Katya proceeded to frogmarch me, barefoot, along the rocky, pothole-laden gravel driveway— beginning my own personal Bataan death march, Gulag-style, as the rest of the family watched along the sidelines.

Sergei counted in broken English: “One! Two! One! Two!” keeping me in step, as we marched back and forth along the broken path.

Hearing all of the commotion, a nosy neighbor approached, muttering: “Ah, to be young again.”

“One! Two! One! Two!” commanded Sergei, trying to keep my drunken march in rhythm. “One! Two! One! Two!” he barked, leaving me yearning for an occasional “Three! Four!”

As I struggled to keep tempo, Katya joined in on the count. Before long, even I joined in, in a desperate attempt to distract myself from my sore, sure-to-be bleeding feet.

Fifteen minutes into this drunken parade, I demanded to know how much longer I would have to endure this.

“Until you’re sober,” Katya responded.

“I am sober. I’m fine,” I said.

“You wouldn’t be going through this if you were fine.”

“I want my shoes back.”

“When we’re done,” Katya replied.

“Why?”

“Just trust us. We’re professionals”

“I don’t understand why I can’t wear my shoes.”

“Because a little pain will help sober you up.”

“But I’m not drunk, any more” I pleaded.

Katya proceeded to kick off her own shoes in a show of solidarity.

“Look, now we’re in this together.”

“Put your shoes back on!”

“Don’t worry about me.”

“Just do as we say … or else,” Katya said, in a thick, exaggerated accent.

Minutes later, Sergei brought us to a halt. My feet were throbbing.

“Are we done?” I asked, hopeful that my torture was now at an end.

“Not quite,” Katya replied.

And before Katya had finished answering, Sergei pushed down on my shoulders from behind.

“Up! Down Up! Down!” Sergei commanded.

Previous to that night, I may have done squats once in my lifetime. And certainly not drunk.

“Up! Down Up! Down!” Sergei continued.

Up and down I went. This went on for quite a while.

The worst was yet to come.

Sergei demonstrated the next step in his patented Ukrainian style sobering program, by pretending to stick his fingers down his throat.

I looked at Katya in desperation, who was now standing over by Elena.

“You gotta vomit now, Bobby,” Katya stated, ever so matter-of-factly.

“What?! No way!” I exclaimed.

You have to! If you don’t, you’re going to waste our last few days together with the worst hangover of your life.”

Realizing that Katya was probably right, I attempted to stick a finger down my throat. All I produced was a dry heave. Sergei grabbed my hand and proceeded to “help” me stick two of my fingers further down my throat. Still nothing.

“This is inhumane,” I pleaded, almost in tears. “Nobody should have to endure this.”

“You’ll thank us later,” Katya said. “Trust me.”

Sergei decided that he needed to lead me up and down the driveway of destruction one more time.

“One! Two! One! Two!”

“I gotta pee!” I said, grasping for any excuse to end this torture.

At Katya’s request, Sergei led me behind a tree and held me up so I could pee. When I was done, Sergei forced me to do more squats. When my knees felt like they were about to burst open, Sergei held up three fingers and aimed them towards his mouth. I shook my head in protest. My refusal prompted him to grab me by the wrist, prying open three of my fingers from my fist. As he began to cram them down my throat, I shouted for Katya.

“I’m over here, Bobby” Katya yelled back. “You’re doing great!”

“Your dad is trying to kill me!” I exclaimed.

“No, he’s not trying to kill you. He’s trying to help you.”

I was no longer convinced. No longer able to resist, Sergei finally succeeded in shoving my fingers down my throat. You have not truly lived until you have had a grown man jam your own fingers down your throat in an attempt to sober you up.

I dry-heaved a couple more times before spitting up a tiny bit of vomit.

“There! I threw up!” I proudly proclaimed.

“That wasn’t throw up!” Katya exclaimed.

“What do you mean it wasn’t throw up? Something was thrown up. Didn’t you see it?” I argued.

“Keep trying,” Katya demanded.

“No! I refuse to be tortured any longer.”

But my pleas went ignored, as Sergei once again began to march me back and forth.

“Be thankful you’re drunk. And remember; you’re in good hands,” Katya continued.

I wasn’t convinced.

“This is torture!” I exclaimed.

“It’s not torture,” Katya replied.

“Sometimes!” Sergei blurted out.

“I’m walking barefoot on this stone driveway and your dad is forcing my fingers down my throat. How is that not torture?”

“Okay, okay,” Katya said, heading inside.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“One! Two! One! Two!”

“Katya! … Katya!!!” I shouted.

Moments later, Katya returned—with my shoes.

“I’m here. And so are your shoes,” she said, bringing them over.

“My shoes!”

I reached for them, but Katya pulled back.

“Not until you vomit,” she insisted.

And so I did.

The Fish are Swimming! (excerpted from “Love & Vodka”)

Mockup2-1Uncle Vladimir poured three shots—one for me, one for Sergei, and one for himself. He raised his glass for a toast: “Here’s to food. May we eat to live, not live to eat.”

After clinking our glasses, Sergei and Uncle Vladimir downed their shots, then immediately sniffed their sleeves.

“What’s that all about?” I asked, confused.

“Just a tradition,” Katya replied, “to help soften the harshness. Sometimes, people choose to eat a pickle instead.” Sure … why not?!

I took a baby sip from my shot glass. Uncle Vladimir noticed this and laughed, saying something in Russian to Sergei.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Katya replied. “Don’t worry about it. He’s an alcoholic.”

“You not finish?” Uncle Vladimir asked, pointing to my glass.

“Da! Of course!” I replied, forcing myself to finish it off in two more sips, in a feeble attempt to impress. Involuntary gagging, however, ruined any chance for redemption. Uncle Vladimir immediately attempted to pour me another shot.

Nyet! Spasibo!” I begged. But judging from the look on his face—not to mention Sergei’s—something told me this was going to be a long night.

“A man who drinks too much, he has nothing to say,” Uncle Vladimir proclaimed. “But a man who drinks too little, he also has nothing to say. So … I say chut-chut!

I played along, flicking my neck.

“Bobby … please don’t,” Katya warned as Uncle Vladimir eagerly filled up my glass. She tried to stop him at half, but it was no use.

Uncle Vladimir raised his glass for another toast.

“To Bobby! Control toast!”

We clinked glasses.

“What’s a control toast?” I asked.

“It means to the bottom in one go,” Katya replied.

“No … I can’t,” I said, nervously.

“Time to prove that you are a man,” Sergei said.

With all eyes on me, I realized that it was now or never. It was time to take off the training wheels and knock back my first full shot of vodka. I looked over at Sergei, who saluted me in encouragement with his own glass, and slowly raised the glass to my lips.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Katya said.

I took a deep breath, tilted my head back and let the vodka slide down my throat, before sniffing my sleeve. It went down surprisingly smooth. I was becoming accustomed to vodka consumption, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing—but not necessarily a bad thing, either—especially if I were to marry into this family.

Everyone applauded. I pumped my fist in triumph. Sergei and Uncle Vladimir issued congratulatory handshakes. Even Katya applauded, despite her growing concern for my well-being.

I was surprised at how quickly I became buzzed. Uncle Vladimir poured another round of shots, finishing off the bottle.

Aunt Nina tried to stop him, but Uncle Vladimir barked at her in Russian. How dare a woman interfere with this manly ritual!

“I think I’ve had enough vodka for now,” I said, holding my ground. But it was already too late. I stared down at the full shot glass in front of me on the table. “How about some wine instead?” I suggested, eyeing an unopened bottle of wine sitting on the table.

“Normally, wine is saved for women,” Uncle Vladimir said, handing me the wine bottle and corkscrew. “But let’s see how well you can handle a cork.”

Never having used a traditional corkscrew before, I might as well have been handed the controls of a Soviet space shuttle.

I struggled mightily, causing several fragments of cork to fall into the bottle. When he could bare it no longer, Uncle Vladimir grabbed the bottle out of my hand and effortlessly removed the cork, before pouring a glass of wine for Elena, Katya, Aunt Nina … and lastly, me.

“Bobby, you should eat,” Elena wisely suggested.

“Here. Have some chicken,” Katya said, putting a roasted leg down on my plate. As I filled my plate with chicken and took a large helping of borscht, I could feel the effects of the vodka going to work on my system; my vision became a little blurry and my motor functions became slightly impaired. I started to feel detached.

I took a few bites of food, noticing how the rest of the family ravenously devoured their chicken legs until there was nothing left but bone, which they then gnawed on down to the nub. First lemons; now chicken bones.

Uncle Vladimir raised his glass for yet another toast.

“Here we go again,” Katya said.

This time, both Uncle Vladimir and Sergei stood up.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“The third toast always goes to the women,” Katya explained.

Sergei tipped his glass toward me.

“For women,” Uncle Vladimir said in his thick Russian accent, tipping his glass toward me , winking, and chuckling. Was he calling me a woman? I quickly stood up with my glass of wine to join my fellow comrades.

“To women. And all their beauty. Like vodka, may it never run out,” proclaimed Uncle Vladimir with great gusto.

Sergei and Uncle Vladimir downed their shots. Uncle Vladimir then reached over and took my shot glass, poured my vodka into his empty glass, and downed it in the blink of an eye.

“To women,” I said, with not quite as much gusto as Uncle Vladimir, before taking a sip of wine.

After we had continued eating dinner for a while longer, Uncle Vladimir pulled a brand new bottle of vodka out from underneath the table, and passed it over for me to examine.

Ukrains’ka Horilka z pertsem,” Vladimir said in Russian, referring to the popular Nemiroff honey and pepper-flavored vodka—which is made by steeping hot red peppers in vodka.

No way, I thought to myself. I smiled, and passed the bottle back to Uncle Vladimir, trying to look enthusiastic..

“Bobby … I love honey!” Sergei added, as Uncle Vladimir quickly opened the bottle and began pouring a new round.

“No Bobby … don’t,” Katya said with dread in her eyes.

Aunt Nina and Elena both shook their heads in disapproval, but said nothing. Uncle Vladimir and Sergei were firmly in control of the proceedings at this point.

“I’ll just try a sip,” I said, realizing that I had no choice if I wanted to prove myself to be a real man. “I ate a lot of chicken. It’s fine.”

Katya glanced down at the three discarded chicken bones on my plate.

“You only ate half the meat off of them,” she observed. “And you didn’t touch the bone.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Bobby! You are now ready to give a toast of your own, yes?” Sergei said, raising the stakes.

“Compared to your toasts, I’ll only embarrass myself,” I replied, echoing my response from my first evening in Ukraine.

“Not if you drink this,” Uncle Vladimir said, raising his glass.

“To vodka!” I proclaimed. “Control toast.”

I raised the glass to my lips, determined to down my shot in one gulp, thanks to the liquid courage I had already consumed.

“Always remember,” Uncle Vladimir added. “A good, warmed vodka makes a carnation bloom inside your stomach.”

Uncle Vladimir and Sergei downed their shots. I tried … but my body said no. And without warning, I immediately, involuntarily spat my pepper vodka out, all over the spread of food. No carnation for me.

“Ach! It tastes like varnish!” I exclaimed, quickly grabbing my wine and taking a big gulp in an effort to wash the burning sensation off my tongue.

Uncle Vladimir shook his head and once again poured the remainder of my shot into his glass.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let good vodka go to waste,” he said, slamming the empty glass back down in front of me.

Katya pushed it away. “No more, Uncle” she warned.

I grabbed it back. I hadn’t quite given up on being a real man just yet.

I could sense Uncle Vladimir staring at me, but didn’t look at him. And then, form out of nowhere, he asked me: “So, Bobby… how do you like Ukraine?”

“I’ve never been here before,” I replied. I was kind of aware that my answer didn’t make much sense. However, at this point, I was beginning to feel beyond buzzed … and beyond caring.

Everyone waited for Katya’s translation. Katya simply shrugged.

Uncle Vladimir looked puzzled.

“And … I am very happy that I don’t live here,” I continued, slurring my words.

I felt Katya kick my shin under the table.

All eyes were on Katya, awaiting her translation.

“Bobby said that he loves Ukraine and that he loves the food,” Katya said in Russian. “Especially the chicken.”

“Spasibo!” Aunt Nina said, smiling.

“Bobby … let me tell you what I think of America,” Uncle Vladimir began. “America’s imperialist days are numbered. It’s time for a new superpower to emerge in its place.”

“Vladimir! Enough!” Aunt Nina demanded.

Uncle Vladimir actually seemed to take notice of Aunt Nina this time. We continued eating, in silence.

And that’s when I noticed the plate of pickled herring, swimming in their own juice.

It is important at this juncture to point out that the course of events that transpired over the remainder of the evening are foggy and fragmented in my mind. I am simply piecing everything together based on descriptions given by eyewitness accounts and from my own brief flashbacks.

As I continued to stare transfixed at the herring, I began to grin from ear-to-ear like a fool, before mumbling to Katya:

“Look, the fish are swimming.”

“No, Bobby. They’re not.”

“Yes! Look! They’re swimming in their own fish juice,” I insisted, poking at the fish.

Katya—realizing that she had no other choice, given that everyone wanted to know what I was saying—translated.

Sergei and Uncle Vladimir burst out in uncontrolled laughter.

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The First Supper

Mockup1Katya and I were seated on the couch side of the table. At first glance, the couch appeared comfortable, but in reality, it was far from it. It wasn’t the couch itself, which was rather stiff, but rather, its low height and overall proximity to the table. This put an enormous strain on my back. I couldn’t help but feel like a child in desperate need of a booster seat. No matter how I shifted my position, I could never get comfortable. Not wanting to come across as a weakling, I didn’t make an issue of it. I simply chose to eat uncomfortably for the duration of my trip. When my back began to ache too much, I would sit all the way back on the couch for a few moments until I had finished chewing. I learned to take full advantage of this back-and-forth strategy by taking a big bite of the slightly stale, dry bread, which afforded me more time to rest my back before I needed to reach for my plate again.

Seated with us at the table was Katya’s Babushka, her grandmother on her mother’s side. To describe Babushka succinctly, she was a brawnier version of the apple-offering witch from Snow White … only less pleasant. Her once strong, stocky frame had been diminished through illness, but her inner strength overshadowed everything. From the moment we met, Babushka didn’t take too kindly to me. Being that I was a foreigner didn’t help matters. She stared at me with suspicion as though I were a spy sent to report on her every move.

As Babushka watched me fill up my plate with what I carefully considered to be helpings that were neither too little, nor too large, she shook her head, saying something in Russian that I was pretty sure translated into “asshole.”

“What did she say?” I asked.

“Let’s eat,” Katya interpreted.

I wasn’t convinced.

Katya advised me not to take anything she said to heart. It was “her illness talking.” But I couldn’t help but feel judged; despised; inferior.

Sergei lined up the glasses and poured out hearty shots of vodka. Considering my low tolerance to alcohol—especially straight shots—I initially considered politely refusing it. But in another effort not to appear weak or ungrateful, I decided to “give it a shot.” This was my first mistake.

I noticed that everyone had a shot glass except for Elena. “Your mom doesn’t drink?” I asked.

“Somebody has to stay sane,” Elena replied after Katya’s translation.

I sniffed my drink, as though I expected it to smell like something other than alcohol. Sergei stood up, regally holding his glass aloft. His presence, even his most jovial moments, filled the room with shadows, demanding to be listened to.

Everyone else followed suit by raising their glasses, with me being the last to join in.

“This might take a while,” Katya sighed.

Sergei began his toast, with Katya translating:

“Today, we celebrate the arrival of a visitor from the United States—our former enemy—into our home. Fifteen years ago, this occasion wouldn’t have been possible. But if there’s one thing life promises more than anything, it is change. Bobby, if you need anything at all, please let me know and your wish will be our command.”

“Thank you,” I said gratefully.

“Say ‘Spasibo,’” Katya said.

“Placebo?” I asked, confused.

“Spasibo! Thank you.”

Pozhaluysta,” Sergei replied.

“My dad says ‘You’re welcome,’” said Katya.

Sergei continued his toast in Russian as Katya rolled her eyes, signaling with her hands for her father to hurry up, seemingly already tired of having to translate, or, rather, knowing from past experience how long-winded he could be.

“Bobby, I wish you a great trip, great health, great memories and a great learning experience.”

“Sergei! Let the poor boy eat,” Elena retorted.

Sergei gave in, offering his glass for me to clink.

Za vashe zdorovie,” he said (“to your health”).

Everyone joined in, then downed their shot.

I held the glass up to my mouth. I wasn’t quite ready.

In an instant, however, all eyes turned toward me. I had no choice. With the pressure building, I lifted the glass up to my mouth, downing less than half the shot, trying to remain calm and collected, but making a face like a baby taking medicine. Babushka rolled her eyes in disgust, helping herself to another shot as though trying to show me up. My eyes immediately watered as the vodka burned my throat, then my chest. My face turned as red as the borscht in my bowl.

Babushka glared, presumably putting a curse on me. Sergei tried his best to hide what I was pretty convinced was disapproval for the shame I had caused, as I sat back down, wiping the tears away from my eyes.

“Are you okay?” Katya asked, concerned.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, barely able to get the words out.

Katya poured me a glass of mineral water. I raised it to my mouth, choking on the effervescence. At this point, I was struggling to down even a glass of water.

“I’m just not used to drinking it straight,” I said.

“Cock?” Sergei asked, staring directly into my eyes.

I froze. Perhaps, I heard it wrong. I hoped I had heard it wrong.

“Why did your dad just look into my eyes and say ‘cock’?” I asked.

“Not ‘cock,’” Katya said, laughing. “‘Kak’. It’s Russian for ‘why.’”

“Oh!” I said. Now it made sense. Sergei was equally confused by my odd reaction to his innocent question. I finally answered “Well, in the U.S., most people mix their vodka with something else. Like juice.”

“Like for child?” Sergei asked.

I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t.

“Well … the more practice you get, the better you become,” Sergei added.

“At what … being an alcoholic?!”

“A Ukrainian!” Katya said. “Can you handle it?”

“Bobby, you don’t have to finish it,” said a concerned Elena.

“No, that’s okay,” I replied “I have to finish what I started.”

Feeling the full weight of Ukrainian expectation and honor firmly on my shoulder, I grabbed the remainder of my shot … and took a baby sip. Then another. And another. And finally it was all gone. My first shot! Everyone—with the exception of Babushka who simply rolled her eyes—applauded as though I were a toddler who had just used the toilet for the first time. I took a bow. With everyone else’s attention directed at me, I noticed Babushka eagerly helping herself to yet another shot, for good measure.

Sergei promptly held the bottle up to my glass, simultaneously flicking his neck with his forefinger, adding, “Bobby, chut-chut?”

“Papa, no,” said Katya.

“What’s a chut-chut?” I asked.

“He’s asking if you want more,” Katya replied.

Wanting to redeem myself and restore what was left of my manhood on the heels of my shower, I flicked my neck in return, proudly proclaiming, “chut-chut!”

I then lifted up my shot glass for Sergei to pour more vodka into it, but he rather forcefully demanded that I put the glass down.

“You’re supposed to keep the glass down when pouring a shot,” Katya explained. “And you’re also not supposed to pour a shot for just yourself. It indicates you’re an alcoholic,” Katya explained to me.

“That’s too many rules for something involving alcohol.”

“It’s our culture,” Katya further explained.

Smiling with pride, Sergei poured another shot for him and me both. Not wanting to be left out, Babushka thrust her shot glass in front of her son-in-law.

“Papa!” begged Katya, who turned to me and pleaded: “Bobby, please don’t.”

Boastfully, I replied, “When in Rome …,” defiantly flicking my neck.

“This isn’t Rome. This is Ukraine,” reminded Katya.

“One more can’t hurt,” I said.

“Don’t do it. You’re not Ukrainian.”

As wise as it would have been to follow Katya’s advice, I knew there was no turning back. I may have already won Katya over, but I knew my greater mission was to win over her parents—especially her father, who held the keys to my possible future with his daughter. So rather than helping my cause by demonstrating the ability to stand by my convictions—I gave in, staring into my shot glass as though preparing to dive off the edge of a cliff.

“I’m warning you,” Katya said. “This stuff has a way of taking over you when you least expect it. And trust me, you don’t want to know what my father would do to sober you up.”

I looked at Katya, then at Sergei, who raised his glass in my honor, proclaiming, “To Bobby!”

Realizing there was no turning back, I raised my glass to his, before managing to down at least two-thirds of the shot this time around. Once the burning subsided and my tears were dried, I polished off the remainder of my shot, a mini-buzz already taking hold of me.

“I’m going to need a new liver if this keeps up,” I said.

“I’m not translating that,” Katya said, one of many times she felt the need to censor me—a key advantage when translation is necessary, albeit against the code of translator ethics.

Sergei then said something excitedly to Katya and turned toward me, nodding and smiling, gesturing toward the now half-empty vodka bottle. Katya turned to me and in an exasperated tone, said “he says perhaps you would like to give a toast’?”

“Sergei Andreovich, compared to your toasts, it would only be a disappointment,” I said, hoping to dodge a bullet.

“Well, a man must first know how to drink a toast before he gives a toast,” Sergei joked in reply. Bullet dodged.

“Bobby! Eat!” commanded Elena. “We’re not expecting any more guests.”

As I began to eat, I could feel Babushka’s eyes watching over me. She bluntly declared in Russian and with great disgust: “Too skinny.” She then slammed another shot for good measure. Surely this had to be an illusion, or some sort of parlor trick.

The thing was, she was right. I had lost a lot of weight in the months leading up to my trip as a result of the combination of my hefty class load and the anticipation of this trip.

Although I was already full, I filled my plate back up with seconds, carefully avoiding the pickled herring at all costs.

Elena offered me what looked like a giant cube of fatty bacon.

“It looks like a big chunk of fat,” I said.

“That’s why it’s called “fatback” or salo,” Katya said.

That sounds healthy, I thought to myself.

“Eat!” Elena said. “Tastes good!”

I reluctantly gave in, then reached for another helping of potatoes for good measure.

Katya pointed to a plate of what looked like sliced pieces of ham.

“What is it?” I asked hesitantly.

“Cow tongue,” Katya replied.

“Oh … no thanks.”

“I’m joking, Bobby. It’s ham.”

I grabbed a slice with my fork and immediately took a bite.

“Good?”

I nodded.

“Moo!” Katya said with a sly grin.

“Are you serious?!” I exclaimed, my mouth still full of the sinewy meat.

“You said you like it, right?”

I spit it out into my napkin. Babushka rolled her eyes.

“You eat steak, don’t you?” Katya asked.

“Yeah.”

“You have no problem eating cow’s butt?”

Katya had me there.

She reached over with her fork and stabbed a slice of tongue before dipping it into the salt bowl, flipping it this way and that until it was completely covered in salt. Unlike a relatively sanitary salt shaker, Katya’s family preferred a communal salt dipping dish, similar to a large sugar bowl. Double and triple dipping was apparently no cause for concern. And, apparently, neither was high blood pressure.

Sergei offered me more vodka. This time, I politely refused, to the relief of both Katya and Elena. I took a bite of bread and leaned back against the couch to relieve my aching back.

After presenting the family with the gifts that I brought from Michigan and sharing family photos, it was time for dessert, adding at least another hour to our total couch time. In Ukrainian culture, meals are not intended to be eaten quickly. They are to be savored. And at the centerpiece of every dessert is tea. An average Ukrainian consumes five cups of tea a day.

As Sergei poured honey into his tea, he looked me squarely in the eyes and proudly—and loudly—proclaimed, in broken English:

“Bobby, I love honey!

I nodded, smiling awkwardly, trying to make sense of what he was telling me. I turned to Katya, “Did he just say he loves honey?”

“Sure! He might not know English very well, but he definitely knows how to say his favorite treat,” Katya replied.

“Honey is his favorite treat?” I asked.

I love honey, Bobby! Sometimes! Yesterday! Today and tomorrow! I love honey! I love the United States! I love Ukraine!” confirmed Sergei in a heavy Russian accent.

“My dad just demonstrated the full extent of his English vocabulary,” Katya said, laughing.

“Very good!” I said, as Sergei popped an entire lemon wedge into his mouth, which he proceeded to suck dry before swallowing it whole. Nothing about the process seemed to faze him.

“Did he just eat a lemon?” I asked Katya.

Katya responded by eating her own lemon wedge just as Sergei had. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.

“We have a saying in Ukraine. Only when you eat a lemon do you appreciate what sugar is,” Katya said. “Try one.”

“Oh, no thanks,” I said, adding “So how do I say ‘I love honey’ in Russian?” I asked.

Ya lyublyu—I love—myod–honey. Ya lyublyu myod,” Katya explained.

I decided to give it a shot, totally butchering it. “Ya lyublyu myod! Ya lyublyu Ukraine! Ya lyublyu Dnipropetrovsk!

Everyone burst out laughing at my Russian hatchet job, particularly the way I pronounced—or rather mispronounced—Dnipropetrovsk.

Katya corrected me. “Knee-prop-e-trovsk, remember? Knee…prop…e…trovsk!”

I repeated it after her, improving slightly. Katya kept coaching me through it, along with Sergei and Elena’s assistance. Sergei moved his hands like a conductor— “Knee…prop…e…trovsk! Knee…prop…e…trovsk!”—until I proudly exclaimed, in a strong Russian accent, “Dnipropetrovsk!”

Sergei, Elena, and Katya burst out in applause. Babushka gave me what I quickly surmised to be her patented glare.

“There you go!” said Katya. “Easy! Now you have truly arrived!”

Molodetz, Bobby!” Sergei proclaimed (“Well done!”).

“Dnipropetrovsk! Dnipropetrovsk!” I chanted over and over again like a delirious fool.

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Goats & Milk (excerpted from “Love & Vodka”)

Mockup1Before we went to get the milk, my finance Katya and her mother, Elena, decided that it was best for me to wait outside as they entered the small, village grocery shop outside of Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. We were in search of edible meat and cheese. While I waited, I noticed a goat chained to a fence. I decided that I had to take its picture. As I began snapping, an elderly man with a long, white beard came waddling up, angrily waving his finger at me, shouting something in Russian.

“Nyet, Russkiy,” I said, pleading my case, but the man continued shouting at me. Moments later, Katya came running out of the shop, coming to my defense, while Elena finished up the grocery purchase.

“Is this your foreigner?” the man asked Katya in Russian.

Da,” Katya admitted nervously. “Did he do something wrong?”

“Get him the hell out of here! That cheap son of a bitch owes me!”

“What did you do?!” Katya asked me.

“No idea! All I did was take a picture of this goat,” I explained, gesturing toward the bearded animal. The man continued to yell.

“What is he saying?” I asked.

“He said if you want to photograph his goat, then you have to pay the price.”

“As in literally pay money … or is he threatening me?” I asked, equally amused and bemused by the whole situation.

“He wants you to pay him money.”

“I’ll butcher you like a cow if you take another picture of my goat, you hear me you son of a bitch?” the man shouted.

Katya apologized, took me by the hand, as though I were a small child in trouble, and escorted me back toward the shop, leaving the old man grumbling to himself.

“Never do that again!” Katya scolded.

“Do what again?” I asked, exasperated.

“You can’t just take pictures of another man’s goat.”

“Why? What’s the big deal?” I said in disbelief.

“Stop asking ‘why’ Bobby! That’s just the way it is,” Katya said, clearly annoyed.

“That doesn’t really answer my question,” I replied, standing my ground.

“You’ll scare people, that’s why!” Katya shouted, as everyone within earshot watched the drama unfold.

I’ll scare people?!” I said, losing my cool. “Look! This country scares me! Nothing works right. Nothing’s logical. Nothing’s rational!”

“If you’re looking for rational,” Katya snapped back “you’re in the wrong country. It might not be perfect like America, but it’s my country. This is how it is. If you can’t handle it, no one’s forcing you to stay.”

“I’m sorry … but it’s becoming more and more obvious that I don’t belong here,” I said, struggling to hold back my frustration.

“Bobby! Stop it! Stop talking like that!” Katya begged. “I’m supposed to come with you, remember?”

That helped settle me down.

We survived our first squabble, just in time for Elena to come out of the shop. We walked down the road in silence until we saw a middle-aged woman selling milk on the side of the road, her face worn and haggard.

Vechernee moloko?” (“Evening milk”?) asked Elena.

Utrennee” (“Morning”), the vendor replied sullenly.

Elena frowned, then carried on walking. Katya and I followed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“They don’t have evening milk.”

“What the hell’s evening milk?” I asked.

“Milk that’s milked in the evening,” Katya succinctly explained as we headed towards the dark and dingy apartment building, in search of the elusive “evening milk.” From the outside, one could easily assume that the building was not only abandoned, but inhabitable. Yet here we were, about to enter.

“So where are we going now? The black market?” I asked, as we crept around to the back of the building.

“Shh. Don’t ask questions,” Katya warned.

Of course not. Why would I question us entering what I was pretty sure was Ukraine’s own Amityville?

As we entered, the stairwell was completely dark, making the dimly-lit stairwell of the family apartment in Dnipropetrovsk look like a sunroom.

We made our way up several flights, trusting that each step was evenly spaced since they were impossible to see in the darkness. When we finally reached our destination, Katya reminded me again: “No English.” Clearly, we were on a top-secret reconnaissance mission.

Elena called out. Moments later, another haggard, middle-aged woman appeared through a bead curtain hanging from the doorframe.

Vechernee moloko?” Elena asked the woman. The woman nodded and took the jugs from Elena before disappearing through the curtain, leaving us waiting in the dark hallway. Everything about this felt like a drug deal.

Moments later, the woman reappeared with the two jugs filled with warm, fresh milk. Elena handed over some money and we very carefully began our descent into darkness—a feat far more frightening than the way up. Each step felt as though we were about to stumble off a cliff into an abyss.

“Did she just milk a cow in there?” I asked, assuming it was now safe to speak.

“Don’t speak!” Katya retorted. I guess we were still in danger after all. It wasn’t until we were back on the village road leading to the dacha that my speaking moratorium (moo-ratorium?) was lifted.

After we returned to the dacha, Elena took out some glasses and began pouring milk, as everyone eagerly awaited a straight-from-the-teat treat.

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