I couldn’t believe my eyes, so I dodged my way through the Saturday lunchtime crowds by the market, and strode towards him. Two women were stroking his cream head. When he saw me, he slid past them and lifted his long aristocratic muzzle to my outstretched hand, from which I’d made sure I removed my glove. I don’t like to stroke animals with my gloves on. Just as I don’t like to shake hands with my fellow humans except with my bare hand. I stared in disbelief at the rounded bust, the sharply tapered, greyhound waist, the wavy, silky coat that formed a kind of fur collar around his neck, the tall, slender legs, the long, bushy tail, the elegant demeanour. I hadn’t seen one for over forty years. “Is this a Borzoi?” I asked the owner.
“That’s right,” he replied with obvious pride.
I stood caressing the Russian wolfhound, then crouched before him, and he immediately wiped my face, all the way up from my chin to my nose, with his soft tongue.
A Borzoi. I could barely believe it. In Norwich.
The last time I had seen a Borzoi was back in the mid-Seventies. In Nice. I was nine. On sunny winter days when there was no school, my grandmother and I would often take a walk along the Promenade des Anglais, and sit on a bench, our backs to the glitzy casinos that remained closed until the evening and the domed entrance of the Hôtel Negresco, looking at the sea so blue it seemed to have been painted cyan by Dufy. La Baie des Anges. I had semi-chronic bronchitis and dark rings under my eyes, and my grandmother said the sea air would help cure my cough.
Among the other strollers, we would often see individuals who were clearly not French. There was something proud and other-worldly about them, I thought. Sometimes, as they walked past our bench, they would overhear us speaking Russian, and stopped to engage in conversation. The men would tip their hats at my grandmother, sometimes even lift her hand and brush it subtly with their lips. The ladies would sit next to us. All were considerably older than my grandmother. Distinguished, formal, their hats and coats sometimes a little the worse for wear. All overjoyed at meeting another Russian speaker. “Oh, such a pleasure! Have you been here long? When did you leave? Before or after ’17? And does your granddaughter speak Russian? Oh, good, well done. It’s so important. My own grandchildren hardly speak a word. I keep telling my daughter and son-in-law, but they just speak French at home. ‘Katia’? Oh, how wonderful, you gave her a Russian name! And your family? Yes, many of my relatives disappeared, too. Terrible times. How could they do such things to their own people? Yes, we also received letters with half the pages missing. And now so many of us are here. At least the climate is mild.”
After they had gone, my grandmother would impress upon me that these were Russians. Russians – not Soviets. And, back in those days, their accent was noticeably different.
Some of these Russian émigrés would stroll with their dogs. Borzois. There was something about these hounds’ genteel demeanour and their sad eyes which, in my child’s imagination, very much symbolised the vieille Russie of the books my grandmother read and the stories she told, as well as the conversations I overheard among these émigrés. Long, snowy winters. Fairy tales. Ballrooms with crystal chandeliers. Rhymes by Pushkin and Lermontov. Tchaikovsky’s heart-wrenching music.
One of these, a tall, formidable lady with steel-white hair gathered under a sable hat and piercing-blue eyes, befriended us, and would often invite us to her flat in the exclusive Cimiez area of the city. Somehow, she had managed to smuggle part of her wealth out of the USSR, so lived in relative comfort, and – if I remember – paid the occasional visit to a plastic surgeon in Germany. She had an impressive collection of fur coats and jewellery, and took it upon herself to “educate” me in matters which she felt my family clearly lacked the means in which to instruct me.
“Now, Katia, this is important: look at this mink. How can you tell that it’s of the finest quality? Hmm? Remember, I told you last time. You look at the long hairs, thickly set, the sheen… Wouldn’t you like to have one like this when you’re grown up? Now this one here is cream Astrakhan – very rare. And this is leopard, of course…”
I listened politely while trying to catch my grandmother’s eye and send her a silent plea.
Later, at home, I wrote a fairy tale about a leopard fur coat that comes to life whenever a lady wears it, roars and sinks its teeth into the owner’s flesh, mauling her to death. Eventually, I also made up variations on the theme with alligator handbags and snakeskin shoes.
As I crouched by the silky, friendly Borzoi outside Norwich market, I wondered if he was the descendant of a line that came from Old Russia. Whether any of his ancestors had ever strolled along the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice. Whether I had ever stroked them, age nine, more fascinated then by them than by their owners.
I read Ashen’s blog article and she mentioned yours and I decided to walk over and read It. Very nice article about your childhood. It made me think of my own. I am an ExPat living in Europe, exactly said, in Germany, and I know what it’s like to walk down the street and suddenly hear someone speaking American English. You don’t hear it often here in the part of Germany where I live so I turn to them, greeting them and often we have a small conversation, and I am delighted because once again I’d had the chance to speak in my native language and to hear first hand what is going on in my own country.
So I enjoyed reading your article very much.
Thank you for reading and commenting. After over two decades in London, where you hear every language under the sun, I loved to Norwich just over a year ago, and here it was a culture shock for me at first to hear almost nothing but English. I felt as though I was suddenly fed the same dishes over and over again.
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Highly evocative…Proustian, but with a borzoi:-) Thanks for taking me somewhere else [for a short time]…
Not sure about the “Proustian”, it’s only about 1,000 words… :–)
certainly…you have some ‘work’ to do [at least you ‘don’t suffer in the original’!]
I was vaccinated against Proust by my Lycée, age 16 or 17. Nothing like school, sometimes, to put you off some truly good literature.
Oh, Katia, you really transported me this time! What a wonderful story. What I wouldn’t do to read that story about the leopard coat! Any chance you still have it? That made me laugh out loud! Thanks for sharing this incredible memory of the time you spent with your grandmother and the exotic woman you met! Love it all.
No, I don’t have my childhood stories anymore. I used to get rid of them after a while. Thank you so much for your kind comment, Eva.
Thank you for an interesting story, Katia! By the way,do you still speak Russian?
Hi, Anna! Sadly, I haven’t spoken Russian for years. I don’t have anyone to speak with :–(
What a lovely piece of writing, Katia. And what a wonderful sense of time and place it conveys! I’ve seen a bit of Nice, too, though not with the advantage of family and history you met there. I think it was the perfect cosmopolitan place to encounter your Borzois, and a very evocative place to have memories of old Russia given you.
When were you in Nice? I never cared for it much but when I was a child it was small and pleasant. I happened to pass through it about ten years ago and it was unrecognisable! Full of tourists, brash, crowded, and the Promenade des Anglais felt a little seedy to me.
I was in Nice in 1974, and it was very beautiful to me then. The sea, the bright colors and dancing lights, the warm and balmy but not overly hot weather, everything seemed better in Nice. I was staying at one of the local lycees with a group of student travelers, but I eschewed a lot of the group activities and went out on my own, wandering around and finding my way back later. Of the activities I participated in, I remember that we went to a castle or a ruin of some sort on top of a hill (though of course I forget the name, stupid me), and saw the mosaic tiles on the sides of the walls outside the castle. There was a view there of the whole coastline. I was only 17 at the time, but the memory has stayed with me all my life.
1974? Heavens! That’s exactly when I was there! We lived there 1974-1980.
What vivid recall. It’s a blessing to have memories of grandparents. I keep dotting down impressions about mine, which I plan to share in time.
Borzoi. I looked up images of the Russian wolfhound and was impressed by their gracefulness.
Your fairy stories about animal pelts coming alive and taking revenge would make a poignant collection.
Borzois are gorgeous-looking dogs. They have the elegance of greyhounds but don;t look as vulnerable and pathetic. I’d love to read about your grandparents.
You have made my day. You could write a blog about Borzois every week and I would be happy. Did you see War and Peace last night? Did they get the dogs right? I loved the beautiful wolf ( a cross surely?) if the afterlife gives me the choice between coming back as a cat or a dog I will cry!
Yes, I watched the episode minutes after posting my blog so the borzois made me smile. I have no idea if they got it right. I imagine they must have done their research. Not having read the book, I sat there, hoping that glorious wolf would be spared.
That is so wonderful you saw a real Borzoi–I’ve only seen photos and they are a very aristocratic and magnificent breed. I’m so glad you were able to stroke such a gentle, friendly animal. . . 🙂
Yes, they are beautiful, aren’t they? Not my kind of dog, though. I prefer something a bit more rough and with more grit.