[dropcap]A[/dropcap] few weeks ago I got sick to my stomach. It started with a baguette at lunch, one side spread with tiny meat chunks, the gaps in meat chunks filled in with grease, and the other side spread with fish scales. In the home for otherwise homeless mothers (one project of the Catholic aid organization in which I work), the mothers take turns cooking every day. That day Natasha was cooking, and she is the mothers’ home absolute worst cook. But she’s a nice woman, and she happened to also be watching me eat. So I ate the disgusting sandwich, and my intentions were so good I would have eaten all of it, too had I not gagged on the last bit.
A few hours later I was in bed with a pot on the bedside table for vomit, with all my reserves of smetka (a great Russian stomach medication) strewn about the floor. My stomach felt like a balloon, and I lay on my side as I imagine pregnant women do, trying not to squash anything. I was miserable, and I was alone, and so I called my parents.
“Mommy, I’m sick!” I said. “I ate fish scales.”
“I’ve got to run,” she said, “but you can talk to Daddy for as long as you want. He knows about being sick.”
My dad has had his share of sicknesses. He’s had Malaria multiple times, and Dengue fever.
“The other Peace Corps volunteers in Central Africa and I learned to live with being sick with a kind of religious acceptance,” he said, and I stared at the very Catholic (picture suffering) crucifix in my room. “And remember,” he said, “most of the people in the world feel the way you do now, or just not quite right most of the time. Maybe they’re fighting infections, or maybe they’re just hungry, but near perfect health like yours isn’t the norm.”
Then I asked him to tell me his absolute worst food poisoning stories, and I felt a lot better. Or rather, I felt like the balloon stomach was a much more acceptable thing.
Now, before I continue, I have to tell you that of all of the false gods I have available to me for worship — Money, Power, Intelligence, Pleasure — my personal favorite is Health. The line of thinking that accompanies the worship of Health goes like this: “Laughing slows the aging process so I should laugh more. Petting a cat lowers stress levels so I should pet that cat. Taking part in organized religion boosts immune function, so I should go to church today.” Basically, where health should just be a salubrious side effect, it becomes the telos itself, and the chase after Health slights and obscures the conversation, the cat, and the church service. It’s quite the vice.
Consequently, sickness is my worst nightmare. A small dull pain in my stomach puts me on edge, and a small sharp pain anywhere in the vicinity of vital organs makes me frantic. Throwing up fish scales pained me even more than it should have, because what if it were Salmonella? But I got better, and soon after the fish scale incident I realized that my immigrant girls, my very own immigrant girls, were among the people my dad was talking about when he said “most of the people in the world feel the way you do now” — the percentage of the world population slated for near constant bodily pain. The knowledge tormented me.
Who are my immigrant girls? Well, they aren’t actually mine, but I like them so much that feelings of possession have entered my side of the relationship. They are five girls between the ages of 8 and 16, from two separate families. All of them immigrated to Russia from Middle Asia within the last five months. Their families immigrated illegally, and so Lela, Oolya, Aucherok, Sabina, and Parizot can’t go to school. Instead, they go to the kids club all day, where they learn Russian from a Russian teacher and math from me. As illegal immigrants to Russia, their parents and their older siblings work the jobs that no one else wants for pay that no one else would accept. Still, the move is a big improvement for both families. Back in Middle Asia, all of the girls, even the 8-year-old, had to work on tobacco farms. Smoking is bad for you, likewise is working on a tobacco farm.
Well, math lessons got a little slack for a while as I racked my brain from a lifetime of reading Shape magazine for ways to make my immigrant girls healthy. We had flossing classes, but their mouths were already rotting with cavities. We had yoga classes, but they found yoga much too slow and boring. Then it got cold, really cold, like it does in Novosibirsk. And any Russian will tell you that the number one biggest threat to health is not alcohol, nor cigarettes, nor a diet packed with simple carbs, but cold. Of course, my immigrant girls, from mild Middle Asia, had only thin winter coats. And of course, their houses were cold.
“At the club, it’s warm, but here, it’s cold,” Oolya said. She had seen me walking on the street while she had been on her way home, and invited me into her house. We sat at a little table in the warmer of the two rooms and drank coffee. Oolya’s three-year-old sister, Goolya, cried because she couldn’t have any.
“No Goolya,” Aucherok (8 years old) said, “coffee is bad for little kids. Okay, you can have a little of mine.”
Oolya looked glum, but when I asked her what was under all the snow in the yard, she perked up. Her house (a traditional Russian summer home, a dacha) will be lovely after the thaw. There are cherry trees in the yard, and space for a vegetable garden. Oolya’s family will live well in spring and summer. But when I sat with Oolya at her kitchen table, the coldest (negative thirty) was still to come. And the girls had to have good coats before then.
The trouble was, the orphanage (another part of the compound in which I work and live) had already donated all the extra coats to the church. And the church had already given away all the coats. After a few days of searching for coats, I came to the director of the organization and he said “It’s an empty issue (пустое дело). Those girls want for everything.” I was heartbroken. The girls, though, never complained. They seemed to have accepted without a second thought that being dangerously cold day after day is just part of the Siberian winter.
And then a man came to the office one day (from where, I didn’t hear) with a box of winter clothes. He had a lot more, he said, in his van. I was very happy — overjoyed — until I saw Oolya the next morning, wearing her thin yellow coat.
“Why didn’t you give her a coat?” I demanded of my boss, “There are tons in the office!”
“We gave her a very nice coat,” my boss said, “But Oolya watches MTV, she wants to look like the girls in Miami.”
I yelled at Oolya. I told her no more math lessons until she wore her warm coat. Oolya protested, but the next day, she wore her warm coat. And of course I won’t tell her this, because I want her to continue wearing that fat, gigantic coat, but I admire her. Some things are more important than health. In Oolya’s case, looking hot on the walk to kids’ club.
Read Franny’s first installment detailing daily life in a Russian orphanage here.
Read Franny’s second installment, consisting of musings on the city of Novosibirsk, here.
Read Franny’s third installment about immigrant girls here.
Read Franny’s fourth installment about attempting to escape a Russian hospital here.
Read Franny’s fifth installment on sadness here.