The Moscow Times had a chance to speak with Maria Danilova, one of our former reporters who is the author of a novel for children that has, sadly, relevance today. “Anya, Here and There” is the story of a little girl who moves to New York City from Russia.
Danilova was born in Moscow but spent most of her teenage years in France and the U.S. with her parents, who were scientists who traveled for work. She worked as a journalist for The Moscow Times and then for 15 years at the Associated Press, stationed in Moscow, Kyiv, other ex-Soviet states and then in Washington.
After getting a master’s degree at Columbia University with a Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in economics and business journalism, she now works as an editor in Washington.
How much of “Anya” is autobiographical?
The book was inspired by my experience of moving to New York with my husband and daughter several years ago, as well as by my childhood memories in France and the U.S. When I was growing up, I changed several schools, cities, and countries and had to learn French and English and adapt to these big moves. Some elements of the book are autobiographical — my husband and I studied at Columbia University, like Anya’s parents, but other parts are made up: luckily, our daughter never got lost in New York. There is this idea that children are very flexible, they are like sponges and absorb everything around them so easily and quickly, they learn new languages, they adapt. It is true, but it’s also important to understand that it’s still not an easy experience and that they need our support.
Why did you decide to write this book?
The book started writing itself. I was hard at work on an adult novel and never planned to write anything for children. But I was reading a lot of children’s books with my kids, and at some point, my reflections on my daughter’s experience moving here as well as my own, along with all the books we read, came together — and the opening pages of “Anya” came to me. So, I set my novel aside and started writing this book. In 2020, “Anya” was short-listed for the prestigious Krapivin literary prize.
Do you think your book might be helpful for children who have had to leave Ukraine now?
The experience of Ukrainian children can hardly be compared to what my heroine went through. Fleeing war — no child and no family should have to go through that. But once the initial shock of the evacuation passes, the children who ended up abroad may face some of the same challenges that Anya did: learning a new language, a new culture, making new friends, starting a new life. And I want them to know that it will get better, it will get easier with time, with the support of their loved ones, with the help of their new teachers, classmates, and community. I think the book can be helpful to the thousands of Russian families who left the country in recent weeks, too.
But I hope they will all be able to return home soon.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The flight attendant adjusted the yellow scarf around her neck, brought the microphone to her face and started jabbering in English.
“We have begun our descent into New York’s JFK airport,” Dad translated for me. “The captain has asked the passengers to fasten their seat belts and prepare for landing.”
They didn’t have to ask me twice! I had been glued to the window for an hour already and couldn’t wait for us to arrive. Our flight lasted nine hours, and even though I watched all the cartoons that they had on board, I was still so impatient that I felt like I was going to burst.
When, oh when!
It was a clear, sunny day. The sky was tender blue, transparent with just a scattering of small clouds that hung in the air like pieces of cotton. I looked down, chewed on the tip of my braid and peered at the city where we were going to live.
What did I feel as I looked out of the window? How can I explain…
Have you ever gone on a rollercoaster ride? Do you remember how that feels?
At first, when you get in the car, you are full of energy and resolve. You are maybe a little nervous, but just a little. And then the doors snap shut, and the cars begin slowly climbing up, the wheels screeching on the tracks, and your nerves give way to fear. You no longer understand why you even went on this ride, where you got the crazy idea that it would be fun, and why didn’t you listen to your mom… But the train keeps moving up and up, and when it reaches the highest point, the sky, it slows down and hovers above the steep drop. The passengers behind you are screaming and squealing, your dad is pretending that he is not scared, but he cannot fool you — of course he is scared, very scared, same as you. You squeeze yourself into your seat, you dig your hands into the guard rail and yelp under your breath: no, please, no, I changed my mind. But it is too late, there is no going back. Another couple of feet, another one — Mama! — and the train plunges into the void, taking you with it.
And below you lies New York.
From the plane window New York looked like a forest – one made of stone.
The whole city was divided into streets that ran in perfectly straight lines and intersected at straight angles like the squares on Grandpa’s checkered shirt. And on each such square, on each inch, on each tiny plot of land, skyscrapers rose like matches, houses piled on one another. The buildings stood so close to each other that people from neighboring houses could probably spy on each other without much difficulty. From time to time I could see patches of green; those were parks.
“Look, it’s Central Park, the one we told you about!” Dad exclaimed, leaning closer to the window.
“That one?” I asked, disappointed.
Mom and Dad had told me that Central Park is one of the biggest parks in the world, but from the window of our plane it looked no bigger than Grandpa’s pepper patch.
We were descending lower and lower, leaving the clouds above us. The sun was shining so brightly that our plane was casting a shadow in the form of a small toy plane that was flying beneath us and trying to get ahead of us.
The houses, which just minutes ago seemed tiny, looked bigger and bigger by the second. The trees also grew. A few more moments and we started making out cars that were driving along the highway, advertising billboards, and flags on the landing strip, until the wing of the plane became parallel with the ground and, having jolted a little, our plane finally landed. Hooray! I prepared to clap to thank the pilot for a safe landing, but for some reason none of the passengers started applauding and I was too shy to do it by myself.
Surprised, I looked at Dad. He shook his shoulders.
“It looks like they don’t have this tradition over here.”
So, this is how it starts.
Mom had gone to New York a week before us to prepare everything for our arrival, and now she was supposed to meet us at the airport. But after we loaded our suitcases onto a cart and went out into the arrivals hall, Mom was nowhere to be seen. All around us people were being greeted by their relatives, friends, children and taxi drivers with signs in their hands. Even a small dog in a cage that was on our flight was met by her owner, a plump woman in a large straw hat. “Rosie, my little girl, I’ve missed you so much!” she cooed.
Only nobody was waiting for us.
Confused, Dad and I looked around. We were about to get seriously upset, at least I was. How could this be? Can you imagine traveling across the world to another country, another city, to see your mom, and she is not there….
All of a sudden, we heard a noise — the clatter of heels on the floor — and shouting. The crowd began quivering, then parted and Mom came running towards us, fast as a rocket, smiling and breathing hard. Mom was holding a big red balloon with shiny letters, “Welcome to New York,” written on it.
“My loves!” she shouted. “Finally!”
That’s why she was late — because of the balloon. She had bought it for me on her way to the airport, but as she was entering the subway, the balloon flew away. So, she had to go back to the store and buy a new one. That’s why Mom told me that she would only hand me the balloon when we got home to be sure that it wouldn’t fly away a second time.
We got in a yellow cab, like the ones Mom and Dad had told me about, and set out for our new home. As we drove, it turned out that our taxi driver, a dark-skinned man with a turban on his head and a thick, grey beard, had also come to New York from some far-away country only recently. He spoke very little English and had only a vague idea of where he had to take us.
“Well, now we know for sure that we are in New York City,” Dad smiled. “In New York everybody is from somewhere else.”
As we drove, Mom told me that New York City is divided into five districts, called boroughs. The most famous borough is Manhattan, an island on the Hudson River. It is known for its skyscrapers, its beautiful streets and museums — and this is where we will be living.
After losing our way several times, we finally stopped in front of a tall building made of red brick. While the taxi driver unloaded our suitcases, Mom and Dad looked around and became mesmerized.
“New York! Manhattan! I can’t believe it!”
Mom hung on to Dad, they started hugging and kissing and didn’t notice when, during a kiss, my balloon slipped out of Mom’s hands and flew away. I stood quietly and watched the balloon rise higher and higher into the sky, its string trembling like a tail. It became smaller and smaller, until it turned into a tiny red spot in the clouds. I tried really hard not to get upset, but my nose started tingling. Where did my balloon fly off to, I wondered. Home, perhaps?
Mom hugged me and promised to buy me a hundred million new balloons. Then she led us into our new building. It had an unusual front door — a revolving one. It’s as if in order to enter, you had to ride on a merry-go-round, and then jump off it at the right moment. A stern man with a mustache in a dark blue uniform and a peaked cap sat at a desk in the vestibule. Mom smiled at him, pointed at us, and told him something in English. He nodded silently.
Mom hadn’t lied to us: Our apartment was bright and spacious, much bigger than the one we had in Moscow. But it was also absolutely empty — I would even say naked. All we had was a red carpet, rolled into a tube, from some family friends who lived in New York, and a large inflatable mattress.
And nothing else: no bed, no table, no chairs. Grandma and Grandpa also weren’t here. To say nothing of Olga, Alexei and Lala.
I stepped up to the window — New York City stretched in front me. Floors, windows, fire escapes, red brick, brown and gray. And roofs, more roofs, one on top of another as far as the eye could see, higher, then higher still. Finally, the roofs bumped into a thin layer of sky, so thin, that if they had more brick, there wouldn’t be any sky left at all.
The buildings indeed stood so close to each other that I could clearly see a young woman in the house across the street from ours. She sat at her desk, buried in books, and didn’t notice us.
Even though I understood that we were in New York, my eyes were still instinctively looking for what I had been used to seeing out of the window in our Moscow apartment: the spire of Moscow State University that Mom had attended, the round dome of the Moscow Circus, where Dad took me often, streetcar tracks.
There was none of that here. I sighed.
“Hey, hey,” Mom came to the window and hugged me. “Chin up! We will have lunch now.”
While Mom busied herself in the kitchen, Dad unfolded the red carpet in the middle of the living room and put a large cardboard box on it. Now we had a table.
I vividly remember that first lunch in America. We ate borscht and meat patties and drank home-made apple punch.
Mom told us that when she arrived in New York, the first thing she did was run to the store to buy pots and pans so that she could cook a home meal for us when we got here. We can survive without a table the first few days, she figured, but at least we will have meat patties. Because, as Olga likes to say, a home that smells of meat patties is a home where you want to live.
I never got to the meat patties, though. After borscht I fell asleep right on the red carpet, because it was already the middle of the night in Moscow. Mom and Dad brought me into the bedroom and put me down on the inflatable mattress. Good thing I had already fallen asleep. Otherwise it would have been too sad.
The next day we woke up early in the morning because we were still on Moscow time. It was midday in Moscow and Olga and Alexei must have been in their lab, studying their microbes under the microscope. Grandpa was probably working in his garden in his grey shirt, either weeding or fertilizing, and Grandma was cooking. New York, on the other hand, was still sound asleep, including the young woman across the street.
Mom made oatmeal and we again gathered around our cardboard table.
“Today we are going to get furniture,” Mom announced and started stirring the oatmeal in my bowl in order to cool it.
“Great. Where will we go?”
“Before I answer this question, I have to tell you something.”
And Mom launched into a long and complicated story.
“A long-long time ago, when Alexei was young, like Dad and I are today,” Mom began, sipping her coffee, “he had a friend, Uncle Boris.”
“Olga also had a best friend,” Mom went on. “Her name was Aunt Lena. Aunt Lena was very smart and very beautiful. She played the piano; she danced and went to museums and theaters. Eventually, Uncle Boris lost his mind.”
“Oh my God!” I was terrified.
“What I mean is that he fell in love with Aunt Lena. Then they got married, had children and moved to America, to New York.”
“This reminds me of Grandma’s soap operas. Is some terrible tragedy about to happen?”
“Don’t worry,” Dad smiled. “This story has a happy ending.”
Mom took another sip of her coffee and went on.
“Years passed, Uncle Boris and Aunt Lena’s children grew up and left their parents’ home. And now Aunt Lena and Uncle Boris are selling their house in the suburbs and are moving into an apartment in the city so that Aunt Lena can go to museums and theaters.”
“And what do we have to do with all this?”
“They have a lot of furniture in their old house that they don’t need. And they are giving it to us.”
Truly, a story with a happy ending.
We rode the subway to get to Uncle Boris and Aunt Lena’s house.
Mom said that the New York subway is one of the city’s landmarks, along with the Statue of Liberty, Central Park and the museums, which Aunt Lena cannot live without. The subway is famous for several things: it has so many lines, directions and stations that you are bound to get lost; millions of passengers ride it every day (though not as many as in Moscow); and street performers put on shows in train cars. They sing, they dance, they stand on their heads. Some of them ask the passengers to thank them with money, others do it for free — simply because they enjoy it.
And of course, on the very day we went to Uncle Boris and Aunt Lena’s, our second day in New York and our first subway ride here, an unknown creature entered our train car… an alien.
He was wearing a shiny black fitted costume. His fingers were twice as long as human fingers, his grey peaked head swung from side to side and his brown eyes the size of pears were popping out of his eye sockets. He was twirling around a pole, creeping up to the passengers and wiggling his scary fingers in front of their noses.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t entirely sure who it was: a man in costume or an actual, real alien — who knows what goes on here in New York. Terrified, I clutched Dad’s hand. But none of the other passengers blinked an eye. Some were reading, others were looking at their cell phones, still others were listening to music. They paid zero attention to the alien’s antics.
“Mom, why aren’t they scared? Or at least curious?”
“Because it’s New York,” Mom said knowingly. She had spent a week longer in New York than we had and already considered herself an expert in all things New York. “If you want to surprise a New Yorker on the subway, you have to try harder than that..”
Having failed to impress the audience, the alien got out of the train at the final stop together with us and went on his way to take care of his business. Who knows what kind of business aliens have in New York City.
And we went our separate way. Uncle Boris and Aunt Lena were already waiting for us. And we still needed to rent a moving truck.
Uncle Boris and Aunt Lena’s house was huge, just like in Grandma’s soap operas: It had a big porch, a living room, a dining room, several bedrooms and a backyard. A dog, a dachshund named Molly, got under everybody’s feet. The only thing missing in this house, compared to Grandma’s soap operas, was a maid with an apron.
Aunt Lena turned out to be very beautiful, just like Mom said. She had long blond hair and a red dress in a flower pattern. I could see now why Uncle Boris lost his mind.
Uncle Boris wore glasses, and his curly hair was sticking out in all directions. Looking at his old photos that hung on the walls, I could see that he used to have dark brown hair, which now had started turning grey, making him look even kinder.
“Take everything you need,” Aunt Lena announced. “The more, the better!”
And we did need a lot of things. We took a brown couch, a large bed, a door mat, a dining room table with chairs, white plates with blue flowers on them, a colander, cutlery, book shelves, pillows, blankets, a princess costume, which Aunt Lena and Uncle Boris’ daughter had once worn as a child, and a plush teddy bear in funny overalls, which I found at the back of the closet in the kids’ room. I called him Mr. Pants.
The only thing that Uncle Boris and Aunt Lena didn’t have was a children’s bed because their kids had grown out of it a long time ago and they had already gotten rid of it. That’s why Mom ordered a bed for me on the Internet.
While Mom, Dad and Aunt Lena were carrying the remaining boxes onto our moving truck, Uncle Boris and I were chatting in the kitchen. He put a small pot of milk on the stove to make hot chocolate.
“You know, Anya, sweetie, there was a time when your grandfather Alexei and I were the talk of our university or maybe even the whole of Moscow. We always had great adventures together.”
“Really?” I was excited. “Tell me all about it!”
“Well, once, we bought a can of sweetened condensed milk and we decided to boil it. Because, Anya, you have to understand one thing: boiled condensed milk tastes twice as good as regular condensed milk.”
“We put the can in boiling water and went to a friend’s place to play a game of cards. We thought we would play one game and return, but we got so absorbed in the game, we didn’t notice the time pass. The water boiled over, the can exploded, and the condensed milk ended up all over the walls and ceiling. We spent the whole evening cleaning up the kitchen.”
“So please remember one important thing: When you prepare condensed milk, you must make sure that the water doesn’t boil away.”
“I’ll remember that.”
Uncle Boris poured hot milk into two cups, stirred in the cocoa powder, and put one of the cups in front of me. Then he took a plastic bag out of the cupboard, took out several small white balls that looked like lumps of cotton, and dunked them in my hot chocolate.
“They’re called marshmallows. Try them, they are very good. You eat them with hot chocolate or you can also roast them over a camp fire.”
How I liked Uncle Boris! Alexei has such a wonderful friend!
“Tell me another story, please!” I mumbled, my mouth full of marshmallows.
“When your grandfather Alexei turned twenty-five, he had a party in his dorm room that I think the entire city of Moscow still remembers to this day. Oh, how we danced there, how we sang, how much fun it was! I’ll have you know that it was there that I met Aunt Lena,” Uncle Boris went on. “Though I have to admit that I did something a little crazy at that party. Or, if I am to be honest, something completely crazy. I felt ashamed of myself afterwards.”
“What? What did you do?
“ See, Anya, I was really fond of Aunt Lena and I wanted to impress her. I told her I could open a bottle of champagne so that the cork pops out and hits the ceiling…
“So it was you?” I blurted out. “You broke Alexei’s chandelier?”
“How do you know about this?” Uncle Boris was so surprised, he nearly choked on his hot chocolate.
I couldn’t believe my ears! I had heard this story so many times, and I finally met its hero.
“Uncle Boris! I am so happy! It is such an honor!”
Mom and Dad filled our truck to the gills. There was so much stuff that we had to put a few boxes in the front seat, and the white plates with blue flowers and the forks rattled next to us the whole way home. Mom said that the plates look like Olga’s fancy Gzhel china and that that was a good sign.
That evening our apartment stopped being naked. Mom and Dad arranged the furniture and put our clothes in the closet. I took my toys out of the suitcases and we hung magnets and photos on the fridge, just like in our Moscow apartment
I lay in my new bed from the Internet, covered by Uncle Boris and Aunt Lena’s blanket. The blanket was warm and cozy, although quite old. I could feel that Uncle Boris, Aunt Lena and their children had all slept under it. And when I sniffed around, I realized that Molly also liked to lie on it.
But I was still sad.
It felt so strange and lonely to be in our new apartment. How did this happen, that our entire home, my bed, our things, the view outside our window — all of that stayed behind in Moscow, while we ended up here. How? Why?
But I wrapped myself in the blanket and was comforted by the thought that this blanket and all the furniture in our New York apartment came from friends of Olga and Alexei, as if when they saw us off there, at the train station, they had passed us into another pair of caring hands.