Two Different Stories

The First Story:

The first day we moved into our new apartment in Barcelona I got all our family locked out of it. It was September 4th, the first school day for my daughter, and my parents had come to pick her up from school. On our way to the restaurant to celebrate the date we stopped by our newly rented apartment to show it to my parents. Everybody was already on the street waiting for me, and after doing some latest touchups, I thoughtlessly slammed the door behind me, leaving the key in the keyhole. 6pm. Everybody tired and hungry. Great! My dad came to check why I was not coming and I told him what happened. He suggested we call the locksmith. Well, to tell the truth we just had that experience a week before when my two-year-old son locked himself in the bathroom and it took us two hours and 160 Euros to get him out of it.  And as the locksmith had to cut the door to get my son out we also had to replace it.

I got a better plan in my head,  I knew that we had left the office window open, because it overlooked the inside “patio” and it was relatively safe. Our neighbors must have a window overlooking this space too.  The next thing I did was to call the doorbell of the door in front of us. Yes, for a split of a second I thought of the possibility of them getting scared and calling the police or not trusting me to get inside their house in order to get into my own house. We just had moved in that same morning, they did not know us. A friendly lady in her mid sixties opened door and I explained her the issue as clearly as I could in one minute. Yes, I wanted to do it fast, so that I do not get my husband and the kids involved and make everybody nervous. Once the lady got my plan she was ready and willing to help. She called her husband and they both showed me the way to their small room and opened the window for me. Her husband helped me to get from their window to mine. It was not too high, we live on entresuelo (which is a second floor in Spain), but still I was in a short dress and wedges and their help was very much appreciated. I got to my apartment, pulled the key out of the door and successfully met the whole party at the elevator.  We thanked the neighbors for their help and headed to the restaurant for dinner.

Later on we met this couple many times on the street, at the local toy store or talked to them when both of us were doing our laundry on the back balcony.  They turned out to be extremely nice people. They offered to babysit out kids if we needed to run an errand or just wanted a couple of free hours. They brought our kids toys that their grandchildren overgrew; they offered us to use their library whenever we wanted, gave us advice about music schools, invited us for coffee and told us to call their doorbell anytime there is an emergency.  It is the beginning of an amazing story of human kindness and openness to strangers. And we barely have been living in this apartment for a month.

The Second Story:

In August I got an email from a mother of our close friend saying that a friend of her friend got accepted to the Stanford PhD program and will be moving to Stanford, Bay Area this September. She also told us that he will be looking to rent some place to live and if we could help him with advice on housing.  I emailed her back asking her to share my email with her friend and ask him to email me. I also mentioned that I do not live in the Bay Area now, but still will be glad to help in any possible way.

A week ago I got an email from this friend of my friend who got accepted to the Stanford PhD program and was looking for housing in the area. I told him I will ask my friends from the Bay Area and may be they could help. I also sent him couple of emails with the links to sites like craigslist and others where he could look for housing, as well as told him what places to avoid, how to get around and which was the best coffee place in Palo Alto.  I mentioned to him that I emailed almost all of my friends in the Bay Area asking about housing and I would let him know as soon as I hear back from them.

Half of the friends I emailed about housing did not reply. The second half replied directing me to the craigslist.

This story is short and it ends here. Nobody asked to pass his or her email or phone to him in case he had a question. Nobody showed any kind of interest in this new person coming to a new place, to a new country.  Nobody really cared about being open to a stranger.  Or even not so much a stranger.

Barcelona, October 6th 2012

Notes from Rome: on bright blue bird, Italian caramel candies, and magic

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We spent about half an hour at the Italian Post Office. We went there to send some post cards and a small parcel. We stood in line for about ten minutes when a middle-aged man entered the post office building and right away started talking to the people around him. He knew almost everybody, the post office clerks saluted him by name, the old lady in the line asked him something and he got engaged into a conversation with her and people around them. Then he saw my son, we obviously were new to him and he asked my son what his name was. As my son was too little to be able to answer I answered for him. I told the man that my son’s name was Miro. And then he asked what zodiac sign was he, and I had no clue to that. Thus he asked me his date of birth, and I told him and he got all the post office discussing what sign is a person who’s born on February 11th. After a heated and very emotional discussion, the verdict was Pisces. The man, who by that time told me that his name was Dimitri, seemed glad with the result. He also told me that his name was Antonio, and his second name was Dimitri, and that he preferred to be called by his second name. By that time half of the people in the post office knew our names and introduced themselves to my children and me. We were a friendly crowd of people, almost all Italians (except us) talking about Russia in 1960s. After hearing my name, people always ask me if I am Russian. And I have told Dmitri that I’m originally from Moscow. Those who have been to Moscow or Ukraine were eagerly telling me their stories. By that time it was my turn with the post office clerk, who was young and shy and very nice, and who was listening to the conversation that was going on, but was too polite to get in it. Five minutes after, while I was being attended Dimitri came to my son with a small bag of candies. He just ran around the corner to the closest store and got Miro a nicely wrapped bag of Italian caramels. We thanked him, said good-bye to the people at the post office and left the building.  Later in the day when we were walking back to the hotel and both of my kids were tired and starting to whine, my daughter asked me for the candy that the man gave us. At first I could not get what was she talking about, and then she remained me about the man from the post office this morning. And I got the half full bag of candy and gave one to her and one to her brother. They proved to be magical. Both kids forgot about their tiredness, smiled and happily continued walking to our hotel.

We have visited seven churches today. We did not plan on it, we actually planned to visit one church and then sit at the cafe and enjoy some coffee and ice cream. The first church we visited, the one that we planned for, was the Basilica of San Clemente. It is a very beautiful 12th century Basilica built on the Roman’s buildings, with mosaics that make you stand with your mouth open and dive into the amazing details of its art. Apart from the main church, the Basilica has three underground floors, full of small rooms, narrow passages, mural paintings, natural wells with spring water and labyrinth staircases, in one word, an amazing assembly of crypts.  Enough to say, that after twenty minutes of looking at art and walking, we got lost. I mean, literally we could not find the way out of the underground world. Everywhere we went seemed to take us to new chapels, rooms, and buildings, all of them on slightly different levels and connected by very narrow passages. Our stroller could not get through them, thus we left it in the main underground chapel and went by foot. First the kids thought that it was fun that we got lost, and then they started panicking. Suddenly there were no people around and we literally ran through this underground labyrinth of poorly lit brick columns, arches, walls and connecting halls. Later on we realized that the Basilica was closing and all the tourists, who did not got as deep into the crypt as we did, got out way before us. After about ten minutes we made it to daylight too. The mosaic of the main altar was shining even brighter after being underground for about an hour. This must have been also the feeling of the monks who lived there. They must have thought that all the colors that exist in the universe are in that mosaic; or at least this is how it felt to us then, especially with the noon sun getting in through the church door. My son pointed to the small blue bird on the bottom of the mosaic. It was a bright blue bird that looked almost real.  “Mom, a bird!” sounded more like “Mom, a world”. And then I realized that this mosaic is ‘a world’ after you have spent some time in a crypt.

Then we made it to the cafe, with six more stops in other churches dating from 6th to 18th centuries. All amazing, some of them with mosaics, paintings, statues. However, San Clemente left some special feeling in us. May be it was a feeling of discovery. Or may be it had the taste of this Italian caramel candy that Dimitri gave us at the post office.

We also entered St. Eustachio church that is right in front of the cafe. We went there because we already got used to see its facade and we liked the deer head with the cross on it. And because a gardener with a hose was watering some plants in front of the church and it looked cool and fresh. The church is small and modest comparing to all others we entered today. All I can say is that it is very white. And I like white. It lets you think, relax and breathe freely. St. Eustachio church has the aura of cold marble stones. Its ceilings are white too; white with gold ornaments across all the cupolas. It is good to be sitting inside of it in July, when it is hot and humid on the street. It is almost as good as to be sitting in the cafe and being part of the cafe crowd, who talk, listen, drink coffee, share this moment with somebody else and then run away to take care of their daily lives. I feel like part of all these people. It does not matter where they are from, what language they speak, or what they will be doing in an hour. What matters is that we are all sitting on the street and seeing the church, the cars, the carabinieri passing by. We see the same shadow of the deer head with the cross on the pink house next to the church. We see the man who is watering the plants, and the suited man walking back and forth eating a slice of pizza. He is dressed in a suit (like most Italian men are) and he is eating pizza and walking and talking to somebody on a cell phone. And he is nervous. And all of us notice him and now he is part of our lives. As much as the church, the coffee and the man watering the plants are. We are part of this everyday magic, of this warmth that people can share by looking, by observing, by hearing, by giving and by merely being in a place and becoming a part of the place. And the happiest of us, like Dimitri, share this magic with others.

People I love are the ones who do not ask a child if he would like a candy, they just offer it to him. They do not ask if they should open the door for you, they open it. They do not ask you if you need help, they are there and they help. They are the people that make life magical for the rest of us. And I am grateful to them.

Rome, July 9th, 2012

Notes from Rome: weddings, cars and a deer head with a cross

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Saturday. In every church we passed by there was a wedding going on. I wrote before how elegant and beautiful Italian people look. Well, that was their everyday look. On Saturday they and their children looked gorgeous. Dark and skinny Italian women were all in short silk dresses or beautiful red or black gowns. All men in suits. All kids in white outfits. Girls looked like little bridesmaids. Everybody is sweating in their attire under the hot Italian sun. Still the crowd around churches looked wonderful. There you hear only Italian. The non-tourist Italian. Harsh, straightforward and melodic. Most of the men are nervous, women are stressed out calming down their small children. All parents getting their kids cold water from the ice cream vendors and asking them to be patient. Men standing outside of the church. Talking. In black or grey suits. Using white fans. Church stairs adored with some fresh flowers. White flowers. Nothing else. All of the people are elegant, nervous, sweating under the afternoon sun and still looking simple and spotless.

Cars. Cars are small. Much smaller than in any other country. Mini cars and Vespas is all you see on the streets of Rome. Old cars next to the new cars. All of them are small and easy to park. Italians drive chaotically everywhere, not following the road, but rather the direction they want to go. I saw cars turning around in the middle of a busy street, cars zipping through narrow cobblestone paved roads that you think are not drivable, cars sliding among buses and tourists on the crowded plazas. I like the driving style in Rome. It is fast, chaotic, but it is ‘a style’. I would not mind driving in this city.

When we looked for the best coffee in Rome, we were directed to Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè. It is located on a small plaza half way between Pantheon and Pl. Navona. The café looks everything but chic. Very simple and everyday. Few metallic tables outside on the cobblestone paved plaza. Yellow bags of coffee beans and amaretto cookies wrapped in yellow tissue paper on the counter. Coffee liquor bottles with yellow labels. Men and women, Italians and tourists are crowded inside the café. Old men in suits with cigars, young men in shirts and sunglasses. Women wearing dresses and high heels. The coffee is amazing. When you sit outside and look up you see the roof of the church entrance with a deer head and a cross on the top. And the birds flying around it. And the coffee is very thick and soft. When the coffee is rich you skip the food. After two cups of Americano you are not hungry. And you love the coffee smell around the place and the sweet velvety taste it leaves in your mouth. Really good coffee is sweet without sugar. And you carry away the taste with you. As well as the feeling of looking up and seeing a deer head with the cross on St. Eustachio church and the birds flying high in the sky.

Rome, July 7th, 2012

Notes from Rome: on traffic and night air

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We are getting better in crossing the streets. Traffic is hectic here, and you do not know from where the cars, Vespas or buses are coming. You just have to start crossing the street hoping that all transport will stop. The first days it took us a lot of time waiting for the “space” in traffic. Today we got much better; we started crossing the streets like people in Rome do it. Just crossing them, expecting the traffic to stop or at least to slow down and not getting scared of the Vespas zipping right in front of us. Cars go in all directions, independently on the traffic flow, one-way street signs and sometimes traffic lights. However, they seem to be able to stop right on time or elegantly maneuver around people. On the busiest streets we saw traffic police directing the cars. It looked almost like a scene from a movie, traffic controllers all dressed in white, added to the sharpness of this sunny and ancient city.

Ice cream and coffee prove to be very good, day after day. Kids eat tons of ice creams while I get my cup of Americano (espresso with some extra hot water). Not sure what is the secret, but the coffee is good. Much better than in Spain, Norway or the US. I heard before that Italian coffee is good, however, I did not expect it to be good in all the places I tried it. Espresso machines are everywhere; I do not think I have seen a bakery or a small sandwich place without an espresso machine. Also, Italian people are very nice, everybody has a kind word for the kids and is very respectful to me, as a mom. It seems like kids are a priority in the Italian capital and the moms, as a prerogative, too.  Kids are not treated as kids, but just as people to who you pay more attention than to regular grown ups. What I mean is that they are asked questions, sensible questions that require an answer. Questions the people would ask me too. They are asked for their name, where are they from, what language do they speak and what they like in Rome. And as these are not just sweet words and the answers are expected, the kids answer. They like to be these little citizens taken with full respect and consideration. Being able to chose their ice cream flavors for themselves and answer what have they seen in Rome are closely tied together. And it comes down to being responsible people who are exploring a new city.

Nights in Rome are much better than days. At least in summer. After 9pm the air is fresher, there are very few tourists on the streets and the buildings look different. What is visible during the day is obscured when the night falls. All the ‘noise’ disappears when then sun sets. New details, sharp windows, columns, doors and corners strike your sight. You see buildings that were invisible during the sunny hours. After 9pm Rome is full of light spots of illuminated facades, sharper cobblestone pavement under the yellowish light and music from the cafes and bars. Contrasts of light and obscureness, of silence and music, of scattered groups people and emptiness of the streets are becoming. I like Rome after 9pm. The air is light and your steps are echoed by non-ending buildings of the narrow empty ‘vias’. Only at night you pay attention to the light.

Rome, July 6th 2012

What is it that I like about coffee

It is the sharing part. It is not so much about the flavor, taste, beans or how thick the foam looks in my cup; it is about all these short moments when I shared a cup of coffee with somebody. I just had one cup at Trondheim airport, before boarding on my plane to Spain and it tasted exactly that: moving to Spain for a year, with all the dreams, ideas and insights it encompasses. Its flavor was about that midnight glass of wine in some dim bar accompanied by olives and ham, it included lots of hours on the playgrounds with the kids, hours under the sun on the beach and many more hours that I will work on our newly founded startup. It had it all and was just perfect. It also tasted like this year that we spent in Trondheim, Norway; it had its snow, wind, rain, northern lights, and how I froze 2 fingers, making pictures of the lights show, and how I then could not start the car and go home because my hands hurt and made it impossible to get the keys out of my pocket and to drive. It had the peach colored lights of Scandinavia midnight sun, that I enjoyed as it let me work 3 or 4 hours more per day. You never know what it is to be living 22-hour days before you have experienced it. And then you know it is great and you do not want to leave this county just because of that: because of how the light falls and changes you. This cup of coffee also had this weird landing I had in Oslo in April when the wind and the snow made it look like the land was covered by millions of white cables; thin, cold, parallel lines, an optical illusion of Nordic winds, falling snow and high plane speed 50 feet above the ground.

Each cup of coffee I drank, I enjoyed it with somebody. It was sharing, not drinking. In Spain it were people on the tables next to me, talking about their lives and me overhearing their talk. It was the French man in the Amsterdam airport who invited me for a cup of coffee and I did not know how to reject it politely, thus I accepted and listened to his French talk and drank my coffee and nodded and smiled. It were the two old men with cigars and straw hats in Portugal, that joined me on the beach terrace in Cascais and were half sleeping, half talking with the shirts half open. They told me about their daughters, sons, families and the sun was very hot, the wind was strong and their words flowed like the waves over the sand when they wash away the footprints somebody left there. And it was great. In Portugal the coffee was also about the carousels where the kids ride, with its happiness and about the love words of an old shoe storeowner to my son, when he bought his first leather sandals. Yes, that day we had to buy him sandals and I showed him different pairs of Crocs and he rejected all of them. Then later in the day walking on a narrow stone paved street under the afternoon sun he run into a small shoe store and picked his sandals. Dark blue leather sandals that cost 26 euros and I bought them for him. And the storeowner, the big old lady dressed all in black, like many Portuguese older women are dressed, hugged and kissed him and told him something about ‘amore’ and many other words in Portuguese that were all about love. And we all were happy, and couple of minutes later drinking coffee outside the shoe store, we knew it was all true and sincere and that love belonged to us like the sharp shadows on the white walls, like the blue tiles, like the sun that left its touch on our skins. And that coffee was about all that.

Then there were coffees at Doge, now café Venetia, in Palo Alto, USA. We have been going to this place for years, morning, day, and night. The coffee was always good because of the people that were around you. Because people talked to you and you talked to people and got to know some of them. I knew where the 66-year-old man standing in line behind me was born, because he just told me so. He was born in Boston, and then moved to NY, and then to Bay Area. I also knew that extravagant Russian lady, who sometimes talked to an old man with a walking stick with a lion head handle. I met there many of the people who later became my good friends. We just saw each other so many times at the cafe that it would be weird not to exchange words and smiles. This is how I met the people I love. Talking to them over a cup of coffee. And coffee acquired the tint of love. Many of my business ideas came to me when talking to somebody over a cup of coffee. When I would argue about something and then realize that I am not right, and still keep arguing but take a different perspective at the same time. This is how coffee became part of my work. And this is why I love it. It tastes like talking to people, like sharing my life with the person next to me, like listening to them and hearing them and loving absolutely all about it.

We are going to Rome in two weeks and what I am really looking forward to are all these cups of coffee I am going to drink there. In small cafes, in large restaurants, on the sunny and hot plazas, wearing shorts, jeans, dresses, heels and sunglasses. It will be about my kids chasing the doves in front of the cathedrals or 14th century churches, it will be about all these men and women I will get to know for that couple of minutes while we will be sharing our cup of espresso or Americano. And I will tell them something I have not told the people I see every day, and they will share their views, their dreams, their worries with me. And it all will have the taste of the best coffee in the world. Coffee in Rome will be about music, dusty warm pavements, fountains and words in Italian and in English or may be just smiles between people who do not know each other but share the moment. Smiles with the eyes over the rim of the cup are the truest ones; you cannot fake them. You either smile with your eyes or you do not. And this is all I know about happiness. It is somehow related to coffee and the smile over the rim of the cup.

The father of a very good friend of mine from Mallorca told me years ago that the best coffee he ever had was in Mexico. It was in a house of a very poor woman who offered him a cup of coffee and he then realized that this was the last coffee she had left for that month, and still she offered it to him instead of making it last for couple of more days for herself. And it tasted like the best coffee ever for him. And this is what coffee is about: sharing. I would be honored to share my last coffee with any of you instead of making it last for myself. It is not a physical act of drinking that enchants me. It is a purely emotional one and it is also about life and love.

June 20th 2012 (flying from Trondheim to Barcelona)