The holidays on Mars

If somebody asked me to provide the shortest definition of holidays, American-style, I’d say that they consist of long and thorough preparation followed by something rather brief and uneventful. The holidays in real life, unlike in the movies, are lacking in the atmosphere of ceremoniality and solemnity.

In the far away 1993, as part of a student exchange program, the first of its kind in the post-Soviet world, I had a chance to study for a year at the University of Kansas, situated in the city of Lawrence, forty minutes or so to drive from Kansas-City. To say that we didn’t know anything about the United States then is to say too little. It was an endeavour similar to going to Mars. The magazine “America,” published in Moscow at the last days of the Soviet Union, in the framework of Gorbachov’s “friendship” with Reagan, as well as the “allowed” writers, such as Hemingway, completely failed to prepare us for the real challenges we had to face.

…Holidays in the States had the tendency to begin early on. A week or so before Halloween, the students started to fasten plastic spiders to all possible surfaces in the hallways and elevators of the dormitory. As for the preparations for Christmas, they began immediately after the celebration of Thanksgiving. The time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is considered to be magical: this is the time of waiting for a miracle. It also is the time of endless Christmas music from every store or public place. A few weeks before Thanksgiving break, which is a small island of days off in the sea of the academic semester, we, foreign students, were provided with “host families” to stay with during this time. We called them “ghost families” instead of “host families,” because, paradoxically, this was closer to the truth. After all, we were lost in the faraway land which might as well be a kind of a “ghost” for us. The administration equipped us with these families for a good reason. The dorms were open during the breaks and vacations, but the cafeterias weren’t, and cooking in the dorms was prohibited. Supermarkets were far away, and one had to have a car to go there.

My host, or ghost, the family was from Kansas City. They called me on the phone, and we set up the pickup time. They came for me a day before Thanksgiving: a smiling mother of the family, let’s call her Sheryl, and her two kids: the sixteen-year-old Jennifer and the twenty-year-old son, Sean. In Kansas-City we went for dinner to a pizza place. I ordered a tea, imagining the kind of tea we had at home, but instead, they brought me something too sweet and too cold, with ice cubes. At home, after meeting the father (a rather apathetic man whom we can call Michael), I gave some souvenirs to my new family, and thus began the trickiest part of my visit, that is, a friendly conversation. I should probably make a point to say that I am worse than just shy; some would call me neurotic or even anti-social, and never, by default, would I ever dream about becoming a part of any “ghost family.” Thank God, I am adult now, and I know better, never to subject myself to such things. Well, in 1993 there was a lot of what I didn’t yet know about myself.

A brief family portrait may help imagine the situation better. Sheryl, the mom, flashed a typically wide, but not totally sincere American smile. She loved to read romance novels, and had the whole shelf of them, the ones that usually feature the protagonist with a naked torso, hugging an endangered and saved Cinderella. The father, Michael, loved television. Son was what they call “a nerd,” wore glasses, and liked reading. With the daughter, Jennifer, we made friends. She was very lively and loved horror movies, just like I did. They were not the worst of families, everyone was polite, though lived his or her separate life, emotionally speaking. Dad had TV, mom – romance novels, and all together they had their Baptist church. They might have been a bit boring, but their house did have peace and quiet.

The conversation consisted of their questions and my answers. The questions were usual, as I found out later: how many cars per family people tend to have in my country, and whether Ukraine is a part of Russia. It was easy to answer the second one, about Russia: I just said “no”, which, of course, passed unnoticed. As recently as a decade ago my American friends still tried to mail letters to me addressed to “Ukraine, Russia” – just like they would write “Kansas, USA,” where the first word was the state, and the second – the actual country. The car question proved to be infinitely more complicated. When I said that we tend not to have cars at all, the family reacted rather emotionally. How so? How do you live? (A good question, indeed). And Jennifer went on, passionately explaining to me that one should have at least three cars in the families where there are teenagers, otherwise how can one make in time to different activities, and keep to different schedules?

…How? For a second I thought about my hometown. In the winter of 1992, the cars were not running – there was no gas. Public transport was paralyzed for the same reason. To the lovely Uzhgorod State University, where I was a student, I walked. It was situated on the top of a somewhat steep hill, and several miles from our neighbourhood, too. No point to even say that nobody was pouring sand over the thin crust of ice that covered the sidewalks and roads. No point to describe the veritable figure skating championship, only without skates, that was going on along the way. I had this persistent fantasy while proceeding on my fours on the slippery road forward, toward the university, this beacon of knowledge, that the professors, who should, of course, come to work sooner than students, would throw us all a rope and pull us up. This could have been a brilliant metaphor of life and education. It would resemble a fairy tale about poor peasants who were trying to extract a radish and lined up, pulling it from the ground, as well as a famous song by a Russian rocker about the people bound by the same thread, an allusion to Soviet totalitarianism. But I did not risk describing this vivid picture to my new family.

In preparation for the holiday, mother and Jennifer toiled in the kitchen. Sean was reading. Father managed to watch four westerns while waiting for the food. I cannot recall how the actual event of eating went; probably, well. And no, I did not lose my memory due to alcohol: for there was none. The family were Baptists. The days after Thanksgiving, which is always a Thursday, turned out to be unexpectedly difficult, and could present a textbook case of intercultural miscommunication. Nobody cared to offer me food, and that was not because they planned to keep me hungry, but simply because they thought that I was a reasonable adult and they were my real family. This meant that I could just take whatever I wanted from the fridge, heat it in the microwave, and eat it.  They were kind people, they really were; even if I were to eat the whole fridge out, they wouldn’t have said a word. But… I wouldn’t dare open it. Back then, I could not understand why, but now I can: in our (post) Soviet lives, the kitchen was a sanctuary! It was there that the family kept their biggest treasure, that is food. And the food was everything. Nobody dared to just walk in the kitchen belonging to the descendants of those whose grandparents lived through Holodomor, a war, or a siege. Nobody dared to grab food from somebody’s fridge: everything was already rationed, and, by eating it up, one risked leaving another person hungry.  It was an old taboo, and it was alive deep inside me. Holodomor and the war were in the past, but then the 1990s started, more years of hardship. In my host family, I was not eating for two days. I am afraid I surprised them quite a bit. Finally, on Sunday we all went to church, and after church to a McDonalds…

…But let’s rewind back a bit. The evening of the actual Thanksgiving Day is the time when Christmas lights are lit. The whole town goes out into the streets to watch this happen. Jennifer, Sean and two of their friends invited me to go with them to the city center. When we arrived there and stepped out of the car, we realized that, compared to the afternoon, the evening suddenly got much colder. It was as if winter heard Christmas songs and saw the lights, and decided that her time has come. The lights were shining brightly as soon as it got dark. The alleys of decorated trees were now sparkling with lights. In the center of the plaza stood the Christmas tree, also richly lit and decorated. It seems to me that the music was playing, but I cannot remember for sure: it is possible that its rhythms were resonated only inside my head. Everybody looked at the trees in amazement and smiled. There was something very touching in all this, as if this was a collective plea for happiness, a hope that united in a much more tangible way than the common meal of Thanksgiving or even Christmas. It was very cold, but it was somehow fitting. It was cosmos itself, cold and dark, and through it the stars shone, even in this country, seemingly much more preoccupied with the material than with the spiritual; even though the next day was the Black Friday. In reality, a human being is lost in cosmos, and the hardest part of being a human is to learn to trust this cosmos, despite its cold and its darkness, despite being lost in an alien space, despite borders and misunderstandings, despite all that separates us from the others and from our own true self.

…It was there and then that I realized why the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is called magical.

Oksana Lutsyshyna

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