We arrived at the mansion, a three level home hidden behind a high brick wall. Guarding the entrance was a huge dog, perhaps half St. Bernard, half German Shepherd. He was kept in a large cage near the front door. As soon as he heard us coming up the walk, he began barking and a terrified Karen refused to continue. We finally got her through the front door and into the foyer.
From what I have seen, Russian homes rely on the kitchen as the sitting room. Most homes are small, so all rooms become bedrooms. This house didn’t lack space, but we were still ushered into a kitchen the size of 2 Israeli living rooms. There were two large tables. Sasha motioned us to sit, and the woman cooking brought us soup for lunch. As always, Karen asked for the bathroom, and this was our first sign that the house was far from normal. The toilet was on the ground floor and included a pool of water that was bigger than a jacuzzi, smaller than a pool, and looked very much like a Mikve (Jewish ritual bath). Karen squealed with joy, thinking this was the bathtub she had been waiting for! In Israel, we have water rationing and we use a shower to save water. I promised Karen as many baths as she wanted in Ukraine.
Needless to say, we soon discovered that only the toilet was for our use. When we indicated that we wanted to bathe after a 16 hour train ride and then half a day spent meeting our “team” and visiting the baby home, we were ushered into a small bathroom with a tub surrounded by more products than you will find in a sorority house.
We discovered that the house belongs to a wealthy Jewish widow who was in the US visiting her son, the doctor (of course). There was a dry sauna, which was also closed to our use. The cook showed us to a rooftop garret with two sofa beds. The wooden stairs leading up to it were as steep as a ladder and we needed to climb down two full flights to use the only bathroom made available to us. Further, we soon discovered that the fridge was empty and the lunch we ate was the last edible thing the cook prepared. We later found a fridge in the garage with some eggs in it, and I made omelets the next day after the cook tried to feed us some sort of meatball that was deep fried in rancid oil.
The widow, Marina’s, living quarters appeared to be on the second floor and included a large sitting room, and at least two other doors, probably a bedroom and private bathroom. The doors were closed so we didn’t see them. The entire house was painfully over decorated with stuffed animals of every genus, crystal, china, and knickknacks. Marina apparently loves the USA since we found American flags and other memorabilia everywhere. This photo of us with George Bush, and a life-size Marina portrait in the background, was in our garret.
To add to our discomfort, there was no Internet, and this “mansion” was in a totally residential area with no Internet cafe, or even a grocery store in walking distance. We realized we had to leave, but had no one to speak English with, and no idea how to go about finding a new place.