Baltic and Other Shores

“Destiny itself is like a wonderful wide tapestry in which every thread is guided by an unspeakably tender hand, placed beside another thread, and held and carried by a hundred others.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet”

I was in New York City to give a talk at the Teachers College, Columbia University. It was a tremendous honor in and of itself and, for the first time in my career, I planned to share an unfinished work, a book in progress. I’m usually a bit nervous before public speaking. I wanted to stroll around my hotel before lunch. The L’Occitane store was just next door. I like their products; plant and flower-based fragrances and skin care from Provence, Southern France. A week earlier, I received an email about a promotion but deleted it, thinking that since there is no such store in State College, I wouldn’t have an opportunity to make use of it. I completely forgot that I could use it in New York.

I entered the store and was greeted by a nice young woman. I explained to her my situation; she said that unfortunately they needed a code on the coupon to process the gift and to offer the discount. It wasn’t all that important and I told her I’d just look around. I mentioned that I’d been enjoying their products for quite some time. “Have you been to Provence?” the young woman asked. “No, unfortunately not yet, but it is definitely on my list”- I assured her. “You should come to Paris and take a train to the South. Don’t fly there directly, you will miss all the beauty of the region. On the train you can relax and look around and enjoy the view”- she definitely knew what she was talking about. Noticing my accent, she asked where I was from. I said I was originally from Russia. She asked where exactly in Russia, I responded I was from Moscow. She also had an accent, so I asked where she was from. “Lithuania”- was her answer. “Where in Lithuania?”- I asked. She said she was from Kaunas. It is possible that my senses were just a bit on edge before the talk in the afternoon but the word “Lithuania” hit me like a wave of childhood nostalgia, the warm memories of the cool waves of the Baltic Sea. “My goodness, I love where you are from!”- I exclaimed. “I love all of those places. I visited many of them decades ago while living in Russia. Kaunas, Vilnius, Kretinga, Klaipeda, Palanga…” I was not showing off my knowledge of the Eastern European geography. These were my personal spaces; spaces of innocence, joy, peace; that quintessential childhood experience before the world breaks in and reveals its confusion, cruelty, disappointment, resentment and frustration.

I first visited Lithuania with my parents and grandmother when I was five years old. We spent three summers there. Over the years we also visited neighboring Latvia and Estonia. I went to Tallinn and Riga with my classmates and our homeroom teacher. I was in Kaunas with my mom the summer I graduated from high school. The Baltic Sea, the forests, and the sand dunes create the most charming landscapes. The cities and towns of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia at the time were our window to the “West”. Under the Soviet regime for only forty years, the streets were clean, the food in cafés and restaurants was excellent, and the department stores actually had clothes in them. But Lithuania remained my forever childhood. We stayed in a little village near the town of Palanga. The River Shventoye was close to the house we rented a room in and the beach was a fifteen-minute walk away. The water in the sea was rarely above 65 degrees Fahrenheit but I enjoyed it anyway. You can pick sea shells on all other beaches in the world. But in the Baltics you go through the seaweed thrown on the shore looking for the pieces of amber. The amber originates in pine resin, the wind throws it into the water, and the current brings it back to the shore. The most beautiful cycle of Nature.

“Have you been to Nida?” – the young woman asked. I actually visited Nida with my dad the summer after my 7th grade. We traveled to the outskirts of the city of Kaliningrad (the former German Konigsberg that became a part of the Soviet Union in 1946). We spent two weeks in two different resorts there. One was on the part of the peninsula that bordered Lithuania and was right in the middle between the Bay and the Baltic Sea. The magical smell of the pines and spruce mixed with the salty sea waters has stayed with me forever.

“Just give me a minute”- the young woman asked. I was circling the aisles and the shelves filled with roses, peonies, lavender, and almonds. “We usually don’t do this but I can find you in our system by name”- she offered. I gratefully obliged. Receiving a gift and a discount for the product I purchased, I exited the store saying instead of goodbye: “Say hi to the Baltics from me when you are there next time!” She promised she would.

I came out to the street thinking that no matter where we go, we are always home. A young woman in New York was originally from the place of my childhood. I remembered that the last time I was in a L’Occitane store, it was in Seattle. I was attending a conference at which I met an editor from Emerald Publishing group who reached out to me to discuss a potential book project. The young British lady, blonde, with freckles and that charming accent, told me that they were expanding their education and politics section; she was wondering if I had a book in mind. I said that I didn’t think I could contribute to that topic but I had an idea of my own. I explained that I wanted to explore the relationship between childhood and education and compare the USSR/Russia with the US. The editor became very excited: “This is a great idea! I have a master’s degree in Soviet history, I love this! I did my thesis on Khrushchev,”- she explained. I was a bit surprised, to say the least, to hear that a “typical” British woman, even in the publishing business, would even know the name Khrushchev, let alone write a thesis about that period. We hit it off and five months later I signed the contract. It was that book that I came to present at Columbia.

I stood in the Teachers College’s library conference room that afternoon in front of an audience of faculty and graduate students of International and Comparative Education. I didn’t just share my book in progress; I was sharing my story and the role education played in it. I told them that my grandparents lived within the Pale of Settlement where Jewish population was allowed to live in Tsarist Russia. The Great October Revolution of 1917 opened the doors of large cities and their universities to ethnic minorities and  women. My maternal grandmother came to Leningrad to become a civil engineer; my paternal grandmother received a medical degree from the University of Nizhny Novgorod. I moved from Moscow to Jerusalem to study Sociology at the Hebrew University. We later moved to the United States so I could pursue my doctoral studies. Here was I, an American professor, working on a book comparing childhoods in the two seemingly different contexts of Russia and America. Here was I, a third generation of Jewish women whose lives have changed in all possible ways as a result of education. Here was I, once a little Soviet girl collecting pieces of amber on the Baltic shore, sharing my work within the same walls where Comparative International Education was conceived in 1899. Yes, we are all connected. People, places, history and biography.

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