Behind The Iron Curtain: Stool Samples

Behind The Iron Curtain: Stool Samples

Infamous Stool Sample Matchbox

This was originally written on my FB page where I post pictures and links almost daily and which you immediately should follow. I remembered about the stool samples when I was writing this post about the Soviet medicine of my day.

*Warning: please don’t eat while reading this.

Soviet kids had to be healthy whether they wanted it or not. And healthy meant parasite-free. So once in a while, my school (and I imagine all the other schools in the area) put out a call for stool samples. By a certain deadline every child had to submit a matchbox full of you-know-what, tightly wrapped and marked with the name of a producer.

At that time (and maybe still) the Soviet toilets (in places with indoor plumbing but not in public restrooms) were different from the American model we are all used to. Instead of a small pool of water ready to accept your deposits, it was more like a vase with hardly any water at all. When done, a person would pull a chain and a waterfall coming down from the high-mounted tank (if the water was on that day) would flush the stuff down through the hole located in the front part of the toilet.
That technical aside was necessary to explain that at least our parents didn’t have to fish for floating crap, it was all right there, nice and piled. Clearly no 8- or 9- or even 12-year-old wants to have anything to do with putting their own crap in a small box, so that somber duty had to be fulfilled by our parents. Many years later, as a parent myself, I’ve done many disgusting things and touched some substances that would make a grown man gag (and they did). But even after thousands of diapers changed I am still not sure I could go ahead and do what my mom had to do. This is something that would make you think twice about having a child.
The next day, the matchbox was proudly delivered and submitted to school, securely wrapped in multiple layers of paper and plastic (we didn’t have zip-locks or any bags of that nature) and tied with a string, with my name proudly scribbled on it like a designer brand. To this day I have no idea if anyone did anything with those nuggets. You can imagine that a school with 800 or a thousand kids can produce enough crap to fertilize a small organic beet farm. (Note to self: submit this idea to the school district as an extra source of income in light of recent school budget cuts by Governor Brownback.)
I always imagined that a lab in lower circles of socialized healthcare hell, populated by medical school dropouts, dimly lit and smelling worse than a meatpacking plant on a summer day, did nothing else but unwrapped the packages and examined the contents for parasite eggs and the signs of dinners past.But in reality I think they just threw these boxes away and faked the results. After all, sooner or later the parasites show their ugly heads, if you know what I mean.
Epilogue: When we came to the United States we had to pass some medical tests (in addition to the overpriced testing we were required to do in Moscow before we left). Then we received a mail-in stool sample kit, which consisted of some Popsicle sticks and cardboard envelopes. I was tempted to send my stuff in a box, but reconsidered and just threw the kits away.

They would have to pry a stool sample out of my……….

Montreal Graffiti

I always wanted to visit Canada and this year seemed as good as any for another trip in North America. We did a lot of train riding, starting in New York City to Montreal, then Toronto, finishing in Niagara Falls. I am getting pretty good at planning these things and everything worked out nicely and it was as close to a perfect trip as I could’ve hoped for.

As always I had both the camera and the phone with me, but found myself using the latter the most, phone is always close, the quality is decent, it makes easy panoramas, and the photos can be easily uploaded from the nearest WIFI spot. I realized that I bring the camera out of habit and can see myself traveling without one in the near future.

We found Montreal to be amazing, delicious, friendly and easy to get around. And covered in great graffiti. I am a big fan of murals and other folk art and Montreal didn’t disappoint.

Here are some samples:

Montreal Graffiti

…but wait,there is more… Montreal Graffiti

Sitting Down For The Road

We don’t have many traditions in my family. We don’t sit around the Seder table asking questions; we don’t eat Chinese food on Christmas; we don’t have Taco Tuesdays or Gefilte Fish Fridays. We are pretty ordinary people in that sense. Or every sense.

There is one tradition that I’d like to keep and pass along to my kid – sitting down for the road.

Sitting Down For The Road

A view of Congressman George H. Tinkham’s suitcase after his trip. © Time Inc. David E. Scherman

Every time we were about to leave on a trip my Dad always said “Let’s sit down for the road” and we would set down our suitcases and sit quietly for a minute. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do – when you are a kid on the way to an exiting destination the last thing you want to do is to be stopped in your tracks and sit around even for a minute. But then again it’s a minute well-spent. You could realize you forgot something, or just look around one last time so a memory of your place will travel with you and eventually make you homesick. You could concentrate, finalize a plan, prepare for the departure, as a pilot might say revving up the engine. Many useful things you can do in a minute. Or you can just not do anything and wait for your Dad to signal that the sitting down for the road is over and open the door to something that awaits outside.

I’ve done this ever since I can remember. I sat down in places I’ve never returned to; I sat down with people who I never got to see again; I sat down before the trips I remember and many forgotten ones. Now I get to tell my kid to sit down and I like the continuity of it. It’s a real tradition, beautiful in its simplicity and as meaningful as one wants it to be.

For the road…

How I Was A Yiddish Singer

The mid-1970’s, when 7-year-old me was roaming the mean streets of Odessa, was a great time to live there. Odessa’s Jewish population somewhat recovered from the devastation of the World War II and the pogroms and devastations before that and, while the Soviet Government had a firm grip on the emigration spigot, prospered as much as was allowed. Jewish actors, teachers, musicians, artists, restaurant singers, underground business owners, doctors, tailors, professors – Odessa’s Jewish population was having another one of its golden ages. Maybe I should say “Odessa’s adult Jewish population” because many kids like me didn’t know we were Jewish.

Recently I ran across a website where Jews of my generation were describing how they discovered that they belonged to the Tribe. Not one of them found out from their parents. It was always a neighbor or neighbor’s kids, some lady at the store, an angry classmate, an opponent in a fistfight, someone throwing an insult or a backhanded compliment; Jewish kids were last to know about the most important thing in their lives. And then I understood why we don’t always see eye-to-eye with the American Jews, the ones carried to a Rabbi on the 7th day to have parts of them snipped, and taught how to participate in the great world Jewish conspiracy from their early days. Unlike them, we made it to adulthood intact, without ever seeing a Rabbi or even knowing the word Rabbi, or anything about being Jewish or the conspiracy we were born to participate in. While they were able to proudly announce their Jewishness in more languages than one, our nationality was conveyed in a series of winks and tongue-clicks with an understanding look and a sad face.

Around that time every resident of Odessa worth his eggplant caviar recipe had to have an underground recording of so-called Odessa songs. These were the songs usually performed in restaurants or weddings, sometimes funny, sometimes stupid, but always entertaining and good for dancing. Some of those included faux Yiddish lyrics and even when the original Yiddish had some meaning they were copied from musician to musician so many times that they lost all or most of it in the process. My household of course had a tape like this and I played it enough times to remember all the words in Russian and Yiddish. Except I didn’t know it was Yiddish, just like I had no idea I was a Jew and many other things a 7-year old not supposed to know. I also didn’t know I couldn’t sing.

How I Was A Yiddish Singer

I am at the center with my usual facial expression. Girl whose father was a part of the panel of celebrity judges is on the left wearing glasses. Odessa, 1976

That didn’t prevent me from volunteering to perform in a school concert. The casting committee consisted of my first grade teacher with the last name Rosenberg* and the father of my classmate with the last name Schneider*. I went on to perform a hit “Rahilya, May You Croak, I Like You”.

It went something like this:

Rahilya, may you croak, I like you.
I can’t live without you, Rahilya!
Rahilya, we’ll get married, you’ll plump up
And we will live on the beach together.

And then the Yiddish part started. I dutifully repeated every word with an exceptionally joyful intonation, perfect projection and a smile on my face. At that moment I was Pesachke Burtstein reincarnated if I only knew who he was.

Afn boydem bakt zikh knishes,
They are making knishes in the attic

Funem tukhes shit zikh mel.
And flour is pouring out of the ass

Az der tote trent di mome,
When Papa is banging Mama

Kinder makhn zikh aleyn.
Kids are playing alone.

Rahilya, you are beautiful like Venus,
But you will grow a large belly
And if not, let the cholera take me
But let it take you first!

Rahilya, we will go to Yessen-tukhes**,
Where sun comes up between the blue mountains,
And if not, kish mir in tukhes***
But my patience has run out.

Tears filled my teacher’s eyes and streamed down her face. My classmate’s father, a gentlemen in what then seemed like his 70’s but probably in his 40’s, was shaking and crying like a baby. We didn’t have Kleenex then so they wiped their faces with newspapers and rags. I finished with an especially well-done kinder makhn zikh aleyn and triumphantly looked over my teary-eyed audience of two.

This is the original song I was performing that day from the infamous tape.

My parents were friends with my teacher, so she just called them that night and asked them to try and contain my singing talents at home.

My Mom still reminds me about this every once in a while.

I never found out why I wasn’t featured in the school concert.

I still remember the words to this and other songs from that tape but nowadays my only audience is the shower curtain.

I don’t remember how I found out I was Jewish but I don’t think it was from my parents.

And that’s how I was a Yiddish singer.

*Unmistakably Jewish names
**Play on word combination Yessentuki, a famous Soviet resort, and a Yiddish word tukhes (ass).
***Kiss my ass (yeah, I know lots of ass-words in this song)

Big thanks to my friend Yelena S. for her Yiddish expertise in preparation of this post.

Graceland

One cannot visit Memphis without making a stop at Graceland. I’ve heard of people visiting Graceland more than once, but beyond checking the visit off your bucket list there isn’t much to do there that would warrant repeat visits. Elvis’s mansion might have looked impressive in the 1960’s but it’s pretty average today and it’s not even fully open “out of respect for Elvis”, so you won’t be able to see the infamous toilet where he met his demise. All the other exhibits across the street including Elvis’s personal planes and cars are of limited interest. And for a dead guy Elvis is charging way too much for the pleasure of strolling by all his jumpsuits and gold records and cassettes. That really doesn’t stop the crowds of people from filing in, and parking lot that would make an average Wal-Mart proud is never empty.

The first thing that struck me was that the mansion is fairly small by today’s standards. I always imagined it to be more grand and lavish. Not so much.

Graceland

…but wait,there is more… Graceland