Category Archives: Portraits

Two strangers, two smiles, two unforgettable memories

Algiers Airport,

Summer 1981

One bench. Many people. Among them two mothers and two girls. Mothers speak different languages. Each girl can understand the language of her own mother. Not of the other.

One girl is me. The other is blond with big blue eyes.

She looks at me. She shrugs. And smiles.

I smile back.

She shows me what she has in her hands. It’s a small toy.

I look down at my hands and see small unused stickers of animals with moving eyes. I show them to her.

We exchange the objects in our hands. We examine them and make playful movements with them. We exchange glances. We smile.

An announcement. My mother stands up and gathers our bags.

Another announcement. My friend’s mother stands up and gathers their bags.

The blue-eyed girl and I give back our toys to each other.

We smile. We wave. We go away.

I still remember you and your smile, my dear friend of several minutes.

Copenhagen Airport,

Spring 2009

I walk through the busy hall. Small, colorful shops at my left. I pass a stall with soft drinks and snacks at my right.

Someone looks at me.

I raise my head and see a woman with dark long hair in red sari.

A friend or a relative of hers in green sari is busy searching for money in her bag.

The woman in red looks at me. And smiles.

I am confused. I feel my forehead unfolding and corners of my mouth widen into a smile.

I walk by. Still smiling.

The woman in red sari accompanies me the whole day. I see her eyes and her smile, every time she appears in my thoughts.

She still appears time to time in most unexpected moments. And then I smile.


Two strangers. Two smiles. Two unforgettable memories. They warm my heart through the years. Every time they appear. And they always appear when my smile makes other people smile.

Picture: My sweet little stranger I discover every day. “Mama, make a picture of me, when I look the other way.”


Every year on April the 12th

I love languages. I think they are like various sides of a diamond, all letting very special light and glitter to shine through them. But I always wondered what my favorite was. My father was in love with French. My mother is devoted to our mother tongue, Romanian. My sister, my niece and I grew up with Romanian and Russian. Nowadays, I poke my nose in about thirteen languages, of which in five I can understand and be understood.

A few weeks ago, I finally admitted to myself: English is my favorite. My wish to write in it makes it pretty obvious. And I guess, one of the reasons for the love of it was my English teacher. Valentin Ignatievich Jeleapov was my all times favorite teacher. He was a good friend of my father and after my father died, he became a father figure to me.

He used to give me his salami sandwiches. He engaged me into the work on our school museum. I gave guided tours in this museum. It was my first school of speech. I spent a lot of afternoons at school after the lessons and remember fondly those days.

The teachers in Soviet schools didn’t have much possibility to improvise, because the school program and material were prescribed. The text books were not very exciting. Foreign languages were not an exception. Most of us thought we wouldn’t have a chance to use them.

Only after finishing school and after Perestroika years, I learned how much passion Valentin Ignatievich had for English. I started teaching English to adult beginners, and upon advice from my mother, I brought him all the material I gathered and received at the University and from English friends I was lucky to make in Moldova during my years of study.

But there was one special “English” lesson we had with Valentin Ignatievich, and which I will never forget. It happened every year on April 12. It was done in Russian. We were not asked to read our assignments during those 45 minutes, although we were always told to prepare diligently, also for April 12.

On that day, Valentin Ignatievich told us how he and his fellow students experienced the day when Yuri Gagarin went to space as the first human being. He told us how his professors called off all of the courses and seminars, and how hundreds of students were extremely quiet listening to the report on the radio of the Gagarin’s flight and his landing. He shared with us the emotions he and his friends were living through on that historic day.

I loved those English lessons on April 12. I asked my sister, who is eight years elder than me and who learned her English with Valentin Ignatievich, too. She reported of the same experience. My friends from other classes said the same. This was an unofficial tradition at our school. And it was way out of program and rules.

In the seven years of learning English with Valentin Ignatievich, two times a week, I had several occasions, on which an English lesson for me and my school friends fell on April 12. And I was always glad to experience it again and again.

Valentin Ignatievich told us the same story every time, but the way he told it to us was always new. New sparkle, new detail came every time. I will never forget those special lessons. Every year, on April 12, I remember them with a smile. That is why I write this post. And that is why I created a scene in the novel I write about my father, inspired by my teacher’s story.

I was also glad to learn and experience two other things, occasions, connected to April 12. My mother told me that my father, if he would ever have a son, wanted to name him Yuri, after Yuri Gagarin. And my PhD exam was on April 12, 1999. When I learned that my exam was put on this particular day, I knew that everything would be all right. I was still nervous. But the memory of my father, of my English teacher, and the fact that I defended it in English, made this day very special, festive and unforgettable.

Picture: my father at his PhD defense in 1971. One year before I was born.

papa PhD 1

Questions and answers

I sometimes look through the collection of quotes I gathered in many notebooks and on scraps of paper. The following caught my eye today:

“The value of the question depends on the answer.”

I heard it at an IT conference in London, in June 2008. I don’t remember who said it, but I remember hurrying to write it down on a folded paper sheet of the hotel hosting the event.

I am often nervous to put a question. If questioning goes easily, that is, if the answering person gives me a feeling that I have put a good question, then I tend to “over-question” and bombard the others with questions. This is followed by feeling resistance of those who answer and my consequential withdrawing from putting questions. And then again from the beginning.

Contemplation about this quote made me conclude that persons, whom I valued most in the past and those I value today, made and make my questions meaningful by their answers. They made and make me feel that what I said and say matters.

My father was the most prominent in this array of my personal heroes. He was a true listener. And I loved going with questions to him. His answers were always extensive and given without hurry. But also to the point. He had an instinct how much answer was needed.

When I think of those I know and interact with today, my niece and my son are the first who come to my mind, who find my questions intriguing and make me feel good upon asking them. And I love the fact that both of them are much younger than me. I learn a lot from these two sweet people. They do laugh sometimes at what I say, but I notice again and again how they stop and contemplate upon the questions I put. My son has not lost yet the ability to find everything new and worth considering. And my niece, in her mid-twenties, has kept it. While observing, listening and learning from them, I am rediscovering my ability to do the same.

And here is a quote, I discovered in German and translated into English, so, it might not be identical with the original. It confirms that children and young people might be ones of the wisest among us. Because of their ability to make experiences and to wonder.

“Die Weisheit eines Menschen misst man nicht nach seinen Erfahrungen, sondern nach seiner Fähigkeit, Erhafungen zu machen“.

“Human wisdom is not measured by a person’s experiences, but by his ability to experience.” George Bernard Shaw.

Picture: My father (the first from the right) with his students at the University of Annaba, in Algeria (around 1980). Students loved him. My guess, also due to his answers and his ability to discover and to experience the brilliance of the others.




Lilly is a princess. She is not a child because she is a princess. Lilly lives in a castle.

Once there were many Lillis and many castles, but usually there is only one Lilly living in one castle.

She is very kind to dogs. She loves dogs and she feeds the dogs.

Lilly always allows things that mommy and daddy forbid. She always manages the things mommy and daddy don’t manage.

And she is the one for whom my three-years-old son threatens to leave when he and I argue.

Here is the story of how Lilly was ‘born’. It happened this summer in the picturesque town of Briançon, in French Alps.

On the first day of our summer vacation, and as my husband was fetching the stroller from our car, Niklas and I witnessed a gorgeous British bride and her bridesmaids heading to the church accompanied by some friends and family. Just a few minutes before, we’ve seen many guests of this wedding near the church as we passed by. All the guests seemed to have travelled here all the way from Great Britain. I was carrying Niklas in my arms when we saw the bride and her friends.

The young women were singing loudly and very well, I must say. They looked like having sprang straight out of a romantic movie into the streets of Briançon. The street we saw them walking was steep and shadowy. They were going down the hill towards us. The descending blond beauty in white was shining and both my son and I were mesmerized by the wonder and the merriness of it all.

I said to Niklas: “Look, what a beautiful bride!”

I saw confusion in his eyes and said: “She is marrying today. And that is why she is dressed like a beautiful princess.”

In the following few days, Niklas was playing and trying to dress as both a bride and a groom and leading me several times to an imaginary altar.

The second part of the story started when my mother-in-law bought him a book about the builder Manny, a French equivalent for Bob the Builder. While translating the book into German she did call Manny Bob. Manny-Bob had a beautiful Kelly to help him with his work. And Manny-Bob had a construction company and his own car with his name on it.

Several days past. We were in our car on the way to the next walk in the mountains. And this is when it happened.

As we passed several sweet looking small town houses, Niklas said: “Here lives my beautiful Lilly.”

I was intrigued. “Who is Lilly?”

“She is my mother and I am married with her.”

“But if you and Lilly are married, then she is probably your wife, isn’t she?”

“No, – , yes.”

“Sweetheart, do you mean Kelly, Manny’s, sorry, Bob’s Kelly?”

“No, Lilly!” And after a pause, “And I have a construction company and my car!”

A few more days later, Niklas went with his father and his grandparents to a castle, situated at the top of the city. I stayed at our vacation home to do some writing.

When they came back, Niklas told me about the castle and that Lilly lived there. They all heard many dogs behind the gates leading to the castle. The gates were locked but Niklas and his entourage could hear that there were several if not many dogs and they all claimed hearing someone giving food to the dogs. Niklas said it was Lilly. That she was kind and loved her dogs.

It is already more than three months since then and Lilly is always there when my son needs her.

When we, his parents, say: “Niklas, you must not do this!” the answer often is: “But Lilly allows this! She is nice!”

She always does what we fail to do. For example, she already managed to get a movie on DVD, which we recently watched in the cinema and which is not on sale yet. Anywhere. Even Nikolaus, one of the German equivalents of Santa Claus, who brings sweets and small gifts on December 6, couldn’t find one, according to mommy. But Lilly could, and she and Niklas watched the movie together.

Lilly never disappoints my son. And she is the source for many stories. Now, when mommy and daddy tell about their colleagues and friends at the dinner table, Niklas can contribute as well. And he tells us about someone who we know nothing about, just like he doesn’t know about some of our colleagues or friends. He tells us about Lilly.

In September, my son had something close to a crush on a girl of four. This is another cute story, but here it is relevant to be mentioned because this crush came and went. Lilly is still here.

Lilly reminds me of my own escapes when I was a child. When I started learning English, I imagined having a friend, or rather an admirer and a husband-to-be, with whom I spoke English. He was English and could not speak any other language than English and he had no name. This most handsome young man, whom I was never able to describe except him being extremely handsome and very kind, was the one with whom I shared all my most secret of secrets.

I am grateful to my son and to Lilly to remind me of the works of my own imagination and what a powerful and wonderful force it is. Without it many things would appear two-dimensional and un-poetic.

I don’t know whether my son will remember Lilly and her story when he grows up. We both might forget this story as I forgot about mine until Lilly was ‘born’.

That is why I wanted to record it and to share it.

Let this story be a sweet reminder to Niklas and to all of us about all the wonderful ways our imagination leads us along.

We often blame our imagination for our fears, but it can also provide help, it can reassure us in our beginnings, make us look ahead with curiosity and excitement, and show us the ways out of the labyrinth of doubts and worries.

Did you have your own Lilly or an English friend when you grew up? What was she, he, they like?

P. S. At the walls of Lilly’s castle:


P. P. S. Niklas the Builder:


Privileged by a cat

I woke up in the middle of the night because someone was shaking me. It was not a panicky shaking like in case of an earthquake or a fire. It was a rhythmic shaking as if someone was rocking me into sleep, but with rather abrupt and ungentle movements.

At first, I didn’t recognize where I was. I tried to support myself on my elbows to look at my feet and legs, where the shakes were coming from. But I had to stop because my head threatened to explode. And then, I started to recall what happened the evening before.

My colleagues and I had a wild and fun Christmas party. At the midnight we celebrated my birthday. Aha, this was the reason for my headache, or rather, I had to admit, a bad hangover. I immediately dreaded the morning.

Since I lived more than an hour away from our office at that time, my friend and colleague Klaudia has offered me to stay at her place overnight. I did it already several times until this encounter. And as at times before I slept on her guest bed.

I raised my head slowly, to avoid new headache punches. And that was when I saw him. Timmy! Klaudia’s big black cat. I could only see his silhouette in the moonlight, but it was him. And he was sitting on my ankles and washing himself. Thus, the short, rhythmic shakes.

I knew that Timmy started to accept me. He is not a cat who loves a cuddle or a rub. He shows you his appreciation by not minding you when you walk by his side while his majesty is taking his meal. You might think that he accidently touches you with his tail, but this is actually a gesture of acknowledgement toward only selected visitors. And the top honor is him sleeping on your feet. Only Klaudia and less than a handful friends received such a treatment, as Klaudia once told me.

So, this time he has chosen me. At first, I felt really privileged. I had always big respect for cats and their independency. But after several minutes of Timmy’s evening bath, which seemed not to come to any close end, I decided to place my feet on some ‘not so shaky’ ground, so to speak. I moved my legs carefully from under Timmy in order not to disturb him too much.

He stopped, but didn’t go away. As soon as I settled, he got up, searched my legs with his paw through the blanket and lied down. Again on my ankles. A second later he continued his evening bath.

Now, that was unacceptable! I had my wishes, too! He was a cat, for goodness sake! I was not going to let a cat dictate how I should sleep!

So, I moved my feet again away from Timmy. Even if they were slightly uncovered now and it was cold without a blanket, still I didn’t want to give in in this fight.

This time, Timmy didn’t stop his washing while I was moving away. He did it only when I stopped. Then he raised again, searched for my ankles and accommodated himself on them again.

We repeated the whole procedure several times. I was starting to get desperate, but I still didn’t want to chase him away. It might have ended worse for me, for starters. I never saw him in rage before and I didn’t want to try.

On the other hand, I liked this most elegant creature with his black slender body with hardly visible white spots on the ends of his front paws. You could only guess the small white spots at the top of his ears. But the most I liked about him was his character. He not only knew exactly what he wanted, but he also signaled it clearly. His slow considerate walks through Klaudia’s kitchen made any visitors slow down, interrupt whatever they were doing, turn and give him way.

While I was contemplating all the above, the shaking continued. I noticed that I was calming down and becoming sleepy.

Ok, I agreed. “I surrender, Timmy”, I said to him in my thoughts. “Now, rock me into sleep, please”.

And he did.