The Return

We hadn’t heard back from him in years, and then came the email.

As if no time had passed and like we’d been corresponding for the years after he left New Zealand, Vladimir sent an email with pictures of him skiing in France. It didn’t state whether he’d left Moscow’s cold winter grip again for a warmer climate permanently or the skiing trip was part of a brief winter holiday.

For those of you who don’t know the Ballad of Vladimir — quite a catchy name, huh? — I’ll fill you in.

Noel and I met Vladimir on a penpal service called Chanton and he said he was moving to New Zealand to be with his boyfriend and he wanted friends. Having been in the same circumstance, I thought it would be nice to correspond with him and offer the hand of friendship. And, the whole American-Russian thing I guess was kinda lost on me to begin with (seeing how we were growing up on opposite sides of the world during a time where our governments were enemies). So we wrote to Vladimir and were happy to get his emails back.

A few months later, he arrived. He flew into Christchurch, and his boyfriend (whom he also had met on-line) came up from Dunedin to meet him at Christchurch International Airport. Vladimir had asked was it okay for them to come over and meet us in person, and, of course, we said yes.

Now, we had a longish driveway leading from the road to our house and a big picture window in the office/second bedroom which faced out onto the driveway. So, Noel and I were wondering where they were when two men rounded the trees between the road and our section and started walking up our driveway towards the house.

One looked like a farmer. Blue checkered shirt, collar up, slightly baggy jeans, boots, all looking rather haggard and washed a few million times.

The other was wearing black leather pants and a dark purple shirt, unbuttoned to the chest. He wore a red bandana and moved very gracefully. And all Noel said was, “Wow, we have one hot penpal!”

After greeting them and small talk, Vladimir and his boyfriend, Donald, perched on the couch. Noel and I sat in our armchairs opposite them, both thinking, after a while, “My God, they are as different as chalk and cheese.” Donald owned and worked on a farm; Vladimir was a hairdresser from big city Moscow. And, while opposites normally attract, these two seemed miles apart in every respect.

So, before they left, I told Vladimir — I was quite worried at this point because he had moved all his possessions in a container to Dunedin — if things didn’t work out, call us and let us know. It was always good for him to have a back-up place to stay.

A few weeks later, the phone rang. Noel picked it up but couldn’t make out what was going on, so he handed it to me. It was Vladimir; between the sobs, he told me his and Donald’s relationship was over. He didn’t know what to do. (Noel and I had discussed this possibility after he and Donald left our house a few weeks earlier.) So, I told him to gather what things he could and come and live with us for a while.

A few days later, Vladimir arrived in Christchurch. Meeting him at the train station, he had very little with him, but he was glad to be someplace less stressful than where he’d been. We got him home and settled in.

Vladimir lived with us for nearly a year, and during that time, he became part of our family. He’d help in the kitchen and with the housework. Our pets, especially Levi, adored him. We’d all joke around, calling him Boris — isn’t that what all Russian men are named? — so he called us Doris and Noris. He cooked us Russian food, which is a cultural experience in itself, and became a huge part of our lives.

The funniest story, though, was our trip to the liquor store. Wandering through the aisle, the smell of liquor on the floor — someone had obviously broken a bottle — permeated the store. Vladimir stopped and said, “Hm, it smells like…” and couldn’t remember the English word for what he wanted to stay. Quickly pulling his Russian-English dictionary from his pocket, he looked it up. With a proud smile on his face, he stated loudly, “Crotch. It smells like crotch in here.”

“Um, I think you have the wrong word,” I said, pointing to his dictionary. “If we look up…”

“Crotch!” He said as he pulled the dictionary away. “The word is crotch!”

By this time, Noel had his eyebrow cocked, glancing sideways at us. The store clerks behind their cash registers and some of the customers were gazing in our general direction. “I think you need to look that up again. It’s not that word.” My words came low and strong.

Vladimir sighed and flicked the book open, pointing to the word. “See,” he said without looking. “It’s there.”

“Oh,” I started to laugh. “You mean cranberry.” I then proceeded to laugh so hard I nearly wet myself.

Vladimir, a perplexed look on his face, kept asking, “Then what is a crotch?”

Still laughing, I waved him away saying between gasps, “I’ll tell you later.”

Ultimately, all good things must come to an end. Noel and I booked a trip to the US to visit my family, and so, Vladimir decided he wanted to move on as well. He’d met a guy who lived in Wellington, and, from there, decided to give a relationship with him a go. So, we parted ways, keeping in touch via email.

Things with that guy didn’t work out either, so Vladimir, with his permits running out and with a slim hope of gaining permanent residency, left New Zealand. We got the occasional Christmas card, usually with a very quickly written return address or no return address at all.

Slowly, we lost contact. First, he shut his email account down. Then, we moved to a new house, trying to get in touch with him via snail mail with no idea of whether or not he received our new address. Had he moved? Where was he? Was he back in that small flat he rented in Moscow, the same as thousands in the dozen or so apartment buildings in his complex?

So, it was rather refreshing to get an email from him today, many years after we lost contact with him. I fired an email back at him to say hi, how’s he been, sending a carbon copy to Noel… Here’s hoping our old friend responds!

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