I lived in Moscow, Russia for 2 years because of my father's job. I was 6 and 7 years old. There, I spent my life either in the American Embassy or at the Anglo- American School. We rode an embassy bus to school in the morning and back through the tall red walls of the compound in the afternoon. Although I had lived in two other different countries before Russia, I was always surrounded by Americans and American things. I ate Cheerios for breakfast. And, somehow, I had the vague feeling that being American, I was somehow different from everyone else. I didn't quite think of others as having quite the same abilities to laugh, to cry, to feel.
In the compound, there was a bowling alley and a restaurant that sold burgers and fries. But outside, it seemed to me that there was only sleet and mud and noise and smells. When we went on rare expeditions to the bread shop down the street the old women, the "babushkas," would exclaim over my boyish short hair. They made me uncomfortable with their stares and their rapid bursts of foreign chatter. Their bulky full skirts and shawls made of browns and blacks rustled alarmingly. So my friends and I invented plays based on the rare movie or two we received from relatives in the United States, rehearsing on the grassy lawn in the center of the compound. I soon learned to ignore the people of the alien outside world altogether.
That changed one slightly overcast, crisp spring day. My family mother, father, and younger sister were tourists for the day in the midst of the city, the Red Square in the Kremlin. We were surrounded by people with clothes of grey and brown contrasting against the intricate mosaics and spires of the cathedrals rising above. I was overwhelmed and rather surprised at this busy world, so far removed from the quiet of the compound. The red bricks of the square stretched away from me across to the far away trees.
I kneeled over to knot the pink laces of my sneakers as my parents halted to discuss something. Suddenly, I felt a soft touch on my shoulder. Turning around, I saw a young Russian girl my age or perhaps a little older. She had a lacy blue ribbon in her blonde hair, the kind that all Russian girls wore. With a smile, she proffered a simply trimmed, rolled up brown canvas. With my parents looking on, I opened it.
A scene of blue and clouds and trees arid birds spilled out. I had seen this! I had been to Kolomenskoyoe Park, with it's rolling hills and had sledded and picnicked and picked dandelions there. They grew wildly over the green there, and if I ran through them petals clung to my socks like scraps of yellow silk. In winter we'd whistle down those same slopes, powdery crystals crusting the sled's red runners and melting to slide icily down my back. In that moment, hundreds of images flashed through my mind, reflecting on the simple frayed canvas of primary colors. We shared this place.
I looked up. She had painted it herself: I could tell. We had never laid eyes on each other. We didn't even speak the same language. Yet she had made a gift of one of my favorite scenes.
With childish lack of courtesy, I rolled it up, smiled, and turned away, back to my mother. The girl left. But inside, I was very busy sorting things out. I concluded this: In that city, there was another small girl who shared something with me. Whether it was a basic kindness and love of friendship or simply a basic enjoyment of clouds in a brilliant blue sky did not matter at the time.
That afternoon we went to the bread shop. Inside, it was warm and smelled of dough and oven. I smiled at the old woman behind the counter.