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Surprise Party

Galina Briskin's story posted on October 17, 2012 at 12:37 am. Galina emigrated from Moscow, Soviet Union (USSR) to San Diego, United States in 1978

The Welcome Party took place in 1979, in La Jolla, San Diego county, one month after Polina and her family arrived in America. It was her dream to immigrate to a free country for many years. Working as an interpreter at the international symposium in Yerevan, Armenia, where she and her husband met Dr. Guilleman, a famous American scientist who eventually arranged a business invitation for Polina's husband to work in his lab at the Salk Institute in California. There were no business visas in 1979 and the Laskin family came to America as Jewish refugees. They stayed for a month at Dr. Guilleman's house as they did not have money for renting their own place.

"Andrey went to the Research Institute with Roger the next day after their arrival.  “You are welcome to stay in my house as long as it necessary,” Roger told the family that evening. “I know you do not have the money to live by yourself now. Stay here at least for a month. You can start looking for an apartment after Andrey gets his first paycheck. His salary will not be enough to cover all your expenses, so stay here as long as you want. Be our guests. It is too late for the girls to go to school now as it is already the middle of September, but it’s not too late to start looking for a job.” Andrey’s salary was rather low. The grant, Roger explained, would cover his work for two years. In the meantime, he wanted to help them as much as he could. Paulina knew they could not depend on his generosity indefinitely. They would have to make it on their own. They had to start thinking about their fate. Next morning, they all had breakfast in the dining room. Paulina loved the long wooden table that could accommodate probably more than twenty people. Breakfast consisted of coffee with cream and a freshly baked baguette with butter and jam. Paulina laughed when she realized why all the members of Roger’s family were so slim – they did not eat much. They did not have those bad Russian habits of eating too much and living on fattening food. Paulina was curious to see what Lucienne cooked and how she maintained her house. This was her first exposure to the Western style of life. Although she soon realized that the Guillemins were not a typical American family, she was still interested in seeing what Lucienne did to manage her home.In spite of the fact that Roger and Lucienne were extremely hospitable, Paulina still wanted to move out. She felt like she and the girls were a burden for Lucienne, even though she was very accommodating. Because the Guillemins’ house was high in the mountains, it took a great deal of time to reach the first bus stop. Lucienne was nice to offer to take Paulina and the girls to different places, but Paulina knew they were taking advantage of Lucienne’s kindness. They could not waste the whole month and do nothing. Paulina needed to start looking for an apartment in a decent, inexpensive area. And Anya and Masha wanted to find jobs as soon as possible. Paulina found a nice area not far from the Guillemins. Lucienne dropped her there and offered to pick her up.“Don’t bother,” Paulina said. “I will take a bus and walk up the mountain. I do not know how long it will take to find an apartment. I appreciate your help, Lucienne.”“Okay, call me if you need my help,” Lucienne said, closing the car door.Paulina walked from one apartment building to another. There were many vacancy signs, but prices were a concern. At last, she found what she was looking for – a furnished two-bedroom apartment with two baths. She was so happy with her first achievement. She left a deposit to move in the following week after the manager had changed the carpet. She was excited when she ran to the bus stop. There were several bus numbers, she did not know which bus to take, and she was not sure that any of them went to La Jolla. There were no people at the bus stop and there were no people in the street. She did not know what to do. She waited for any bus to stop so she could ask a driver, but no buses came. She decided to go to a nearby shopping center to ask somebody how to get to La Jolla. No one there had the slightest idea how to get to La Jolla by bus because they did not use public transportation. It was getting dark. Paulina did not have any other choice but to call Lucienne and ask her to pick her up.  Paulina shared her news about the apartment with everyone at dinner.“I also have news for you,” Roger said. “We are all invited to a party at the home of my friend, Dr. Alksne, who is a brain surgeon. It is not far from here, at La Jolla Farms. It will be on Saturday. Andrey, I told him about you, and he is interested in meeting you and your family.” As Roger spoke, he looked at Lucienne. She smiled secretly at him. On Saturday, when they approached Dr. Alksne’s house, there was not a single parking spot in the street. Roger found a place around the corner. He took a package out of the car that he had for the Alksnes. Paulina had brought some Russian souvenirs for them. Her heart stopped beating when she approached the house and saw the sign: “Welcome, Dr. Laskin and family, to America.” When they entered the house, a huge crowd of people greeted them with a storm of applause. Paulina noticed a guest book where every guest was supposed to sign his or her name. The house was full of flowers; huge boxes wrapped in beautiful papers with colorful silk ribbons were piled up in the hallway. Roger introduced Paulina and her family to the host and hostess of the house. The guests came up to them and introduced themselves. “We have a guest book that we are going to give to you after the party. Then you will know the names of the people who came to greet you,” Patty Alksne told Paulina.  One of the boxes served as an improvised podium for speeches. Paulina was extremely touched by the warm words and friendly hugs from everyone. Of course she realized that Roger and Lucienne had organized all this, but all the people who came to welcome her family cared, too. The evening was a big success. Paulina liked the way the buffet dinner was organized – simply and conveniently. Paulina was accustomed to conventional dinners at the dining table, with bottles of drinks and numerous toasts, jokes and talking. This was greatly different. She watched the guests as they socialized with each other holding a drink. She was surprised that people knew so little about her country and how they asked so many questions about life in the Soviet Union. Roger took the floor and spoke about Andrey, as a scientist, and Paulina, whom he met in Moscow at the symposium. His speech was very optimistic and he wished them a lot of success. Other people said nice and warm words with good wishes for the Laskin family. Paulina felt that somebody from her family had to say a few words of gratitude to the people coming to greet her family. “You have to say something,” Andrey whispered in her ear. It was not easy for her to speak in front of the big crowd of strangers. She mobilized her thoughts and courage and stepped up to the podium.“Dear friends, Andrey and I, as well as our daughters, Anya and Masha, are very touched with your warm reception. Doctor Guillemin did not tell us what the party was about. It was a big surprise, an extremely pleasant surprise. I will remember this welcome party for the rest of my life. You cannot imagine how pleasant it is for us to know that we are welcome here and accepted in the family of American scientists. We realize that we have to work hard to prove to ourselves and to all the people who supported us to get established in this country that my family deserves to live in the wonderful country called America. We also realize that we are here thanks to Dr. Guillemin who did his best to help my husband get work at the Salk Institute. I want to express our great gratitude to Roger and Lucienne for their hospitality and their compassionate attitude for our family. I also want to thank all of you who came to greet my family to night.” Paulina’s words were met with loud applause. She accepted the guest book and an invitation card sent to the guests in advance. According to this card, each guest was supposed to bring a present for the Laskin family. The list of gifts was in the gift store Bodanika, and each gift was assigned to the first letter of the last name of a guest. Paulina thanked Patty Alksne for the party.“No problem,” Patty said. “We like to get together for fun. I am sure everyone enjoyed the party. Good luck to you.”The next morning Paulina and her family moved to their apartment to start their new life in a new country. Later that afternoon Lucienne and Patty arrived with a truck to unload the gifts brought to the Laskin family at the party."

This excerpt is from the book Journey From Russia by G. Briskin.