When I was 12 years old, and in the middle of an immigration process from Belarus (B.S.S.R.) to the United States, we were living in a small Italian coastal town called Ostia. We shared an apartment with two other families, because that’s all anyone could afford, but luckily for me, one of those families had a boy, Misha, who was 11 years old, and we became fast friends.
With its drab colors, square, beige and off-white painted concrete and crumbling stucco houses, and broken old fountain near the post office, Ostia really wasn’t that charming. It was mostly a town that a lot of the Romans visited for the beaches on the weekends. There weren’t even that many trees, but Misha and I found a few to climb. Being a tomboy, it was paradise. It was in Ostia that I discovered potato chips, and in each bag a small surprise — a tiny plastic toy. That particular month I collected a couple of cows, a sheep, a farmhouse, a few pieces of fences and a train with a few railcars.
I also read The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas, and then, a week later, I saw the silent movie version of the book on the TV in a small neighborhood grocery store. I stood and stared at the movie, feeling a strong sense of déjà vu.
One sunny July day, the circus big top came to town. Misha and I went to investigate the grounds. We made it a few feet into the mess that was boxes, tents, barrels and other assorted debris, when two large dogs came at us, barking and growling. We ran away, scared. I don’t believe I have ever before or after, ran as fast as I did that day. I remember tripping once, rolling and coming back up as fluidly as if I was a professional stuntwoman — and just kept on running. Misha was impressed with both my speed and agility, although not nearly as much as I was with myself.
A few days later, Misha, my grandfather, and I went to see that circus — this time buying tickets and walking through the front. Because my grandfather was blind, I described to him what was happening in a hushed whisper, throughout the show. I was his personal ringmaster. This was an honest-to-goodness Big Top circus, in a large dark tent and hastily set up bleachers. There were tumbling clowns, elephants, tigers and lions, acrobats and a strong smell of animals and sawdust.
And the best part — after the performance, the real Ringmaster brought out a baby tiger and asked if any children wanted to pet it. Misha and I jumped at the chance. The baby tiger was about the size of a regular house cat. The poor creature was mewling in a rough little voice, not looking like it enjoyed the experience at all. And the most surprising thing, to me, was the fact that its fur was rough, not soft or silky.
That summer, I learned a little bit of Italian, like that Misha and I were called Russo — Russians. We went swimming a lot, played outdoors all day, and ate some fantastic ice cream — gelato. Our family left Ostia first, because we were going to the U.S., and Misha’s family was going to Canada.
My time in Ostia was one of the greatest adventures of my life. And it happened within the even bigger adventure of coming to America.