A most memorable moment on my 2007 river cruise in Russia was during our visit to Uglich. When we left the ship for our tour, several elderly women were near the dock hoping to sell flowers to the passengers. One of them struck me as the classic image of a Russian “babushka”–grandmother. With her traditionally-patterned headscarf, and the character in her weathered face, I knew I wanted her picture.
I motioned a question: “May I take your picture?” A quick shake of her head told me no. But I persisted, and she finally agreed to a solemn photo. Then she began to tell me, with no common language, that the reason she didn’t want her photo taken was because she had no teeth. I learned that the cost for her to get teeth was very expensive, and she would never be able to do that. As we “conversed”, I tried to tell her that I thought she had a such beautiful face, and that she was lovely. I hoped she knew what I was trying to communicate.
When I returned from touring Uglich, I decided I wanted to buy a bouquet of Lily-of-the-Valley from her, and found her sitting at a bench near where we had met. She did remember me, and handed me the flowers. But when I tried to pay her for them, she refused to take the money. She gave me more than the gift of the flowers that day!
When the opportunity to return to Russia with a Grand Circle river cruise in May 2012, I decided to take a couple of prints of the photo with me. Just hoping that I would have the chance to give them to my friend in Uglich, but knowing the odds were slim. I’d shared my story and the photo with another passenger, and during our walking tour in Uglich she was excited to tell me she’d seen “my lady”. But I knew from her photo that it wasn’t “my” lady. After finishing our tour and souvenir shopping, John & I headed back toward the Tikki Don.
And there she was–I knew her immediately. I knew she wouldn’t recognize me, but her pleasure in receiving the photo was obvious! We tried to communicate, but the language barrier made it so difficult. Again, she gave me a bouquet of flowers and refused to let me pay. As we walked away, she hurried to show another “flower lady” her photo!
At John’s suggestion, I rushed to the ship to see if a staff person could come help with translation, and Anastassia, the Cruise Director, agreed to come for a moment. And we found that my friend’s name is Alexandra.
Alexandra’s first reaction to learning that the photo was taken 5 years earlier was “And I am still here.” Alexandra is now 87 years old. The main thing she had been trying to say to us was that she wanted to invite us to come and stay at her home. And what could she give us? She had preserves and other things she’d like to give us. What could she give us?
Anastassia was near tears. She was reminded so much of her own grandmother, and what a hard life the older people had in Russia. They have barely enough to get by, and medical care is very hard to get. But Anastassia knew that Alexandra would not accept money from us, and if she did it would likely be given to others. I gave Alexandra my card, and she said that her granddaughter could help her write to me–and what could she send me?? I finally agreed that it would be lovely to have a scarf like she was wearing, and I would look forward to hearing from her. I so hope that I will hear from her, and be able to write back–maybe with a little gift!
One of the most striking things we learned, though, was that Alexandra had been ill. This was the first day she had been out selling flowers.
The thing about traveling the world is that some of the most memorable and meaningful moments come in the unexpected connection with a person. Your understanding of life in that place deepens, and your memory of that place will always carry their image. How amazing that Alexandra has touched my life twice. I hope I have the opportunity to let her know how much she means to me.