Many of our childhood experiences and impressions accompany us through our lives. Some of them even affect how we react toward the ways the life is showing up. And some memories give us always a warm, cozy feeling when coming back.
Like those of special gifts. A favorite toy, or something special that only adults would get. Like real tools or real big and dangerous construction machines. This is what my son wished for until recently. He didn’t get any of those and most probably won’t soon. So, I am thankful that his current wishes are toy-cars. I must say, I am quite curious what would be for him his special treat from his childhood, which will make him smile when remembered.
This contemplation made me ask myself what was my special treat? The answer came pretty fast. I grew up with quite a few toys, inherited and new ones. Maybe this is the reason why, it’s not a particular toy I still cherish. It is a combination, a package of three things: a piece of Moscow salami, a loaf of dark (black, as we used to call it) bread and a little packet of cream cheese.
I spent the first and most memorable part of my conscious childhood in Algeria. My father taught physics of semiconductors at the University of Annaba, a wonderful city on the Eastern Mediterranean coast of Algeria. We spent three years there, and I was between six and nine years old. These were the first three years of the school for me. The time when the school is still so new and exciting.
The reason the dark bread, salami and cream cheese were so special is quite simple. Because you couldn’t find and purchase them in Algeria. So, whoever came back from the Soviet Union, as we did from summer vacation at home, brought them along and they were saved as long as possible. And of course the first to get some small portions of these precious treats were we, the children.
Every one of us, kids, got this special gift on the day when we became young pioneers. There was one Russian, Soviet, first-to-eighth grade school in Annaba and most foreign children were going there. All of the good pupils were eager to become a young pioneer among the first. Only the “bad” ones were not chosen or had to wait one year until allowed to get the honor. And the youngest had to wait too. And to my bad luck, I was one of the youngest. So, I was one of the last in our class to become a young pioneer. Today, I smile fondly at my eagerness then, but at that time this late ceremony was a bit of a tragedy.
Nevertheless, there was something I could boast about and most of the kids from my class couldn’t. I got the special gift twice during our stay in Algeria, while most other Soviet children got it as a gift only once.
We were living in poorer quarters of the city during that time and our apartment had been very wet, which meant frequent outbursts of pneumonia for me. Long days in bed were quite boring, so I became shortly curious when my Mom told me that someone, from the recreation center of our small Soviet community in that part of the city, was looking for a child who knew some kind of verses or could sing or perform something nice. I should also say that this was around November 7, the day of Communist revolution, which was a special holiday in the Soviet Union.
After the first curiosity sat down and I realized that I had to do something, I became reluctant to go, but then still did as asked.
When we arrived, we learned that the little performance was organized for an admiral and sailors from a Soviet military ship, which docked for only one day in Annaba. This visit was unexpected, so the reception for the admiral and his crew was spontaneous and humble.
When I recited the poems, we all saw the admiral wipe away a tear. Most of the poems I learned at that time were about heroes of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) and their fallen comrades. The admiral was one of those who came back alive. After I finished reading the poems by heart, the admiral whispered something to one of his sailors, who hurried out of the door immediately. Then the admiral approached my mother and me and we had I nice chat.
I don’t remember much of this event, just some snippets. Most of the events were restored by my mother.
But I remember, how someone entered a while after, how he approached the admiral and gave something to him. And how the admiral turned to me and how I looked down and saw my old beige rain-coat, which I had on because of my fever and also the unheated rooms. And on that background, two hands appeared wrapped up in gold-rimmed black sleeves of the Soviet marine uniform. These hands placed salami, dark bread and a brick-like parcel with cream cheese into my embrace.
Each of these pieces of an ultimate taste of home, were so much bigger than what everyone got when becoming a pioneer.
The pride I felt then still fills my heart today with warmth and makes me tell this story again and again.
This experience of touching the heart of a strong person, made me follow my mother’s advice and go to recite those poems to our neighbors at home, who were veterans of the Great Patriotic War. It did it several years in a row on May 9th, the day of the Great Victory. I did get some treats at those times as well. But the greatest gift to me was to see the warm tears of their gratefulness and appreciation of the gesture. Even through my juvenile embarrassment. I will always be thankful to my Mom for teaching me to make such gestures of humanity and gratefulness to those who highly deserve them and need to know that what they did was invaluable.
Picture: me on the day I became a young pioneer. I wasn’t too happy, as you can see.