First, They Were “Foreign Students”

A few nights ago, we ate at a pizzeria. A pizza in Spain. I know. But why not?

It turned out the restaurant was patronized by actual numbers of Spanish diners, which made it feel locally “authentic.” We realized that as 9:30 approached and several Spanish couples suddenly appeared. For probably the latest diners in the world (the Spanish), apparently it was time finally to consider actually eating dinner.

Next to us, a Swedish family had already finished and left. We by now mid-pizzas, two other couples appeared and were seated where those Swedes had been: an English older man (he looked 70ish) and a Russian, I’d say, 50-something woman, and a Russian couple – a 50ish man and a 40-something woman. I’m assuming here they were Russians because I overheard the English man jokingly lecture the women “not to speak Russian. English, please.”

Tenerife beach promenade, Canary Islands, Spain. [Photo by me, 2016.]
Tenerife beach promenade, Canary Islands, Spain. [Photo by me, 2016.]

How the world has changed. I remember (showing some of my own age here) some among the first Russian students arriving to study during the final days of the USSR, through the early post-fall years, c. 1990-1994, at a university where I worked in New York. Initially, they seemed pretty to very affluent. (The “less affluent” began appearing in the later 1990s.)

Some were in American government undergrad classes in which I was a graduate assistant, and also in classes I taught myself. As Americans, we had been raised to be wary of the Soviet Union, and few of us had ever actually met a Russian. (Except for Russian Jewish immigrants, who’d been in New York for some years already; and these new Russian students weren’t Jews.) Now these Russians were suddenly among us – occasionally not showing up for lectures, traveling all over the U.S. between terms (“I drive to Chicago with my friends,” one guy told me.), getting drunk in the dorms, and otherwise behaving, well, like American college students regularly behave.

I met several who were close with NHL players. (“Oh, yes, he play for New Jersey Devils,” one girl told me.) I recall them also as mostly bitterly anti-communist, extremely critical (naturally) of the post-communist social breakdown developing back at home (“You don’t ever want to go to Moscow,” I remember one girl saying. “The crime, the carjackings, my parents want me here.”), and hyper-materialistic. (“I don’t care about learning history,” another girl said. “We want to be rich!”) My “Lena” character is a combined fictionalization of several of them I’d encountered, and I’ll never forget one girl smilingly and essentially lecturing me after a class one day:

Excerpt from "Frontiers," on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.
Excerpt from “Frontiers,” on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.

I also now suddenly also recall a Lithuanian woman (c. in 1990-1991) who had made it absolutely dead clear to me she was Lithuanian, not a Soviet or a Russian.

Today, a quarter century since the official end of the Soviet Union, we have at least a whole generation entirely raised – in the U.S., Western Europe, and the former USSR – with absolutely no personal recollections of the world as it was when there was a Soviet Union. Russians/Soviets couldn’t travel easily outside the East Bloc. Indeed, in the late 1980s even visiting Soviet-dominated Poland – which became the first to throw off Moscow’s “leadership” – was problematic for Russians and other Soviets in case they were “contaminated” there by capitalist and other Western ideas floating around too freely. And Westerners certainly could never easily travel around inside the Soviet Union either.

Spanish postage stamp. [Photo by me, 2016.]
Spanish postage stamp. [Photo by me, 2016.]

Nowadays, though, they turn up in a Tenerife restaurant with an English man. And no one really thinks anything of it. Except me, of course – who suddenly drifts back to recalling when that sort of interaction was brand new. πŸ™‚

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