Anna in the West

Many years ago we were looking for an au pair, a child minder to help us care for our children. A friend in Moscow gave us a recommendation and we invited Anna, a 17-year-old student, to stay with us for a few months. Our son Martin had Russian in school and it was great if she could help him with that.

It was the mid 1980s, and the Soviet Union was still intact. It took a while to get all the papers fixed, and there was a small glitch: Anna came by train and called us two hours before her expected arrival. “I’m in GHANevr,” she said. I made her repeat it a couple of times, but could not catch the name. That evening I discovered she had meant “Hannover” — Russians tend to replace the h with a g (as in “We spent our holiday in Gawaii.”)

Anna was a intelligent girl, nice-looking and well-mannered. It was going to be a pleasant stay. While we were getting to know her, on the second evening I think, she was sitting next to me on the sofa and I patted her conversationally on the leg, just above the knee. My hand froze, and I said: “Anna? What is going on??” — “Yes,” she replied, “I am very thin.” Her face was fairly normal, but my fingers could wrap around most of her leg.

I asked Anna to show me, and she readily slipped out of her slacks. I was horrified. Her legs were basically bones, wrapped in skin. Okay, I exaggerate here, but they were like nothing I had seen outside of impoverished third-world countries. “You are anorexic,” I said, “seriously anorexic. We have to send you home.” Anna protested: “I have been this way for six months now. You don’t need to worry, I will not die.” Then she explained: apparently there had been a case of food poisoning at the university where she was studying (biochemistry), and half a dozen students had died. Two were her close friends and she had watched them writhe on the floor before they passed away in agony, long before the ambulance could arrive.

After that she had stopped eating, especially in the university canteen. “Could you not go to a restaurant?” I asked. “A restaurant, near the university in Moscow?” she replied. “There aren’t any.” Her father would get up early, go to the market and buy one apple for her. That apple kept her going until she got back from university, late in the evening. Then she would nibble at the food her mother had prepared, but had difficulty eating even that.

The next two days I spent exploring how I could get Anna back home, while she begged me not to do that to her, promising to eat whatever I gave her. It was a promise she kept. I read up on anorexia and consulted our general practitioner. At the start Anna got a lot of fruit, which she loved, and vegetables and whole grain. Then we weaned her on to carbohydrates. After a week she was eating normally, actually with gusto — she was like a third-world child who has been starving and suddenly has food in abundance.

To illustrate her mental situation here’s an episode I have not forgotten: one day I took her to the editorial office where I was editing a magazine. We finished late and driving home I asked her if she was hungry. “A little bit,” she said, “but please don’t stop at a restaurant. I can wait till we get home.” I ignored this and steered into a McDonald's drive-in on the way. These were her verbatim comments: “What are you doing? Oh, you want to go to a restaurant. What did you do? You spoke to a pillar? Where are you going now? What did the man a the counter give you?” After about ninety seconds we were back on the road and we could feast on super-fresh fries and cheeseburgers. Her eyes closed in bliss as she did so, but when she was finished she looked over to me and said: “There are a lot of car accidents in Germany, right, because people eat when they are driving?” No, Anna, there is no downside to this little luxury. Just obesity, perhaps, which is not a problem to which she could relate.

Another typical incident: when shopping in the supermarket I found her looking at the bags of apples in the shelf. “They are so wonderful,” she said. “Can I have one?” “Sure,” I said, “put it in my shopping cart.” Then I saw her trying to open the bag to pull out an apple. “No, no, put the whole bag into the cart!” She couldn’t believe it: the whole bag? We will buy the whole bag? Soon Anna was gaining weight nicely — we measured every day — and her body started filling out. After two months she was close to (very slim) normal.

Some time during Anna’s we got a letter from her mother: “I am in Bulgaria, on a lecture tour. I can slip away and visit you, if you permit.” Of course we would, and soon she was in our house. Ludmilla was a professor of biochemistry and, like Anna, a thoroughly nice person. I doubt she had been doing the lecture tour — she had come to check on her daughter. Were we good people, were we treating her well, was she happy with her stay?

There was another poignant shopping incident: we were picking up groceries at an Aldi supermarket when I saw a tear run down Ludmilla’s face. “What’s the matter?” I asked in alarm. “This is unbelievable,” she replied, “the things you can buy for your children. And the way you live.” She told us a lot about her own life in Moscow. Especially dire was her description of how she had to periodically “turn cabbage.” Apparently everyone, even a university professor, had to spend some weeks every year in warehouses, turning over heads of cabbage, sorting out the ones that were rotting.

Some of Luda’s stories about Moscow were quite remarkable. For instance she told me about a friend of Anna’s who was returning home late in the evening when a couple of boys grabbed her and dragged her into a dark alley. There they pulled off her jeans and — run away with them. You see jeans were a privileged item of clothing in Russia at the time.

On the day before she left, Luda came to me and said: “Frederic, I want to give you Anna.” What? “Yes, she must stay with you. It is clear that you like her, and she loves all of you. Please keep her. Moscow is no place for a young girl like her.” I should mention that Anna was her only child. I had to explain that it was not possible to keep Anna — you cannot give away your daughter like that. The proposal was probably not completely serious, and the plan was quickly shelved. But it left a deep impression on my mind.

During the rest of her stay Anna came up with an audacious plan: “I want to study in USA,” she said — in an Ivy League university, preferably Harvard or Yale. “But that is hideously expensive,” I said. “Where will you get the money for it?” — “They need to give me a scholarship, pay for my tuition and my stay.” Good luck with that plan, I told her. She was undeterred and sent out applications. And I did the only thing I could to help: I wrote to the university boards telling them that Anna was a remarkably intelligent and very ambitious young girl who deserved this chance in life. And that I was not writing at her behest — in fact I had not told her that I was doing it.

On the day before her departure we took Anna swimming, at a Center Parc, a popular holiday village in Holland. “But I don’t have a visa for Holland,” she said. Still, let us see what happens, we said. On the trip we were treated to some more typical comments: “Oh, look at that sign — the border is coming. What shall we do? What if they don’t let me in? Will you drive back home? Where is the border station? We are back on the highway — are we in Holland??” Yes, Anna, that was the border, all we had to do is slow down a bit. She was shocked: back home I have to get permission to travel out of Moscow!

So what became of Anna? Later in the year I learned that she had been accepted by Harvard, with a full scholarship. Then, a few years later, her parents had immigrated to America. She finished her studies and got a job as an executive in a big company. She was healthy and fit.

I saw Anna twice in the US. On one occasion she took me to Brighton Beach, an ocean side neighbourhood in Brooklyn, along the Coney Island peninsula. It was full of Russian speaking immigrants, and we visited a family that was celebrating a birthday. Everyone greeted me effusively — apparently she had told them a lot about the person she was bringing with her. A number of families invited me to come to stay at their homes — in Oklahoma, Tennessee, remote towns. “You can come anytime, Frederic, and stay for as long as you like.” And I met Anna’s father for the first time. He was a biophysicist and educator and had founded an international institute for advanced education technologies. I got a protracted hug from him when we met, and heartfelt thanks for all we had done for Anna. “It was nothing,” I replied, “it was a great experience for us as well.” Okay, he said, “you were just the right people at the right place and at the right time.”

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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