In the early 1980s, the USSR underwent a series of leadership changes.
First, Brezhnev died. I was 5. We got a day off from school for his funeral. His successor, Andropov, lasted barely 15 months before dying, too. I got a day off from first first grade. So you can imagine I was fairly excited when Andropov's successor, Chernenko, died 13 months into his reign. But evil man Gorbachev decided we'd danced on the graves of the Secretaries General enough, and off to school we went. (That's me, second in the window row.)
Besides not letting kids mourn adequately, Gorbachev instituted other changes. He tried to clamp down on alcoholism, with mixed effect. I hardly drank anything the next few years, though the rest of the country kept tippling.
More importantly, the USSR loosened exit restrictions, and my parents decided to give the US a shot. They tentatively asked me about a hypothetical scenario of going abroad; I was in favor.
(Photo with my cousin and grandfather, just before leaving.)
We were able to get an exit visa and prepared to leave. We were allowed to pack two suitcases per person. At that time, it seemed entirely possible that we'd never see my grandparents again, so it was a tearful goodbye at the airport with them.
We also had to pay a large chunk of money to renounce our Soviet passports. Money well spent.
The migration process was somewhat labyrinthine in those days - we boarded a flight for Vienna, where we would stay for a week or two until our Italian papers could be arranged.
Vienna was the first foreign city I'd visited, and far and away the cleanest place I'd ever seen.
I also got my first experience of a western supermarket, which was overwhelming. I can still remember the ridiculous abundance and variety of yogurts.
After a week in Vienna, we boarded a train through the Alps and went to Italy.
Apparently we were considered a terror target of some sort - we'd get minimal advance warning of which stop was ours, and we'd have to get all our suitcases and things off the train mach schnell. Or perhaps pronto.
The machine gun-bearing Carabinieri guarding the station made an impression.
The stay in Italy was also bifurcated. We stayed in Rome for a week while the men day-tripped to a beach town called Ladispoli (famous for its black-sand beaches, pictured) and attempted to rent apartments.
Thus, "Affittasi appartamento" was the first Italian phrase my Dad learned. My mother spoke some Italian, but renting apartments was mens' work.
He found a place, and my beach vacation began.
While I was enjoying the sand, my parents were in a bit of a pickle. We were supposed to head to Boston, but it was overrun by Russian immigrants and the local agencies instituted a $1500/head fee to sponsor a refugee.
The people who'd invited us to Boston didn't know us so well (nor did they, or we, have that kind of money), so while we awaited a US visa my parents scrambled to find a new destination.
Fortunately, my Dad's uncle lived in LA, and my Dad's adviser in Moscow had collaborated with a professor at UCSD. After some long-distance calls that consumed a sizable portion of our meager funds (and some incredibly expensive collect calls), we were headed to a place I'd never heard of. As soon as we got visas.
It wasn't all tense planning - we were in Italy, after all, so we scrimped and saved up in order to take tours.
We got to see much of Northern Italy - Milan, Florence, Siena, etc. However, the two highlights for me were Pisa (I'm pictured holding up the tower), and the miniature Europe in Rimini.
Everyone else questioned my taste. At this point, I do, too.
A few times a week, we'd gather in a central spot where someone would holler out names and distribute visas.
Finally, about two months after we'd left Moscow, it was our turn. Thanks to the beneficence of HIAS*, we had our tickets to fly to San Diego.
I wish I could say I recall a dramatic moment on arrival. But my only solid memory is that the flight from JFK to SAN was on American Airlines.
*Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
We showed up to San Diego a day or two before Halloween. I'd never heard of the holiday. I also knew no English.
My great-uncle welcomed us, and my first memory of the US is that, after we dropped off all our stuff in our new home, we went to Arby's.
I had strawberry ice cream for dessert. This was America.
After that...I took some time to watch TV so I could learn English, then I started going to school, and in no time I was doing all the normal things sixth-graders do, like dressing up as Robin.
As it happened, my grandparents' worst fears of never seeing me again were not realized - we'd all be reunited in Southern California within five years.