How I found Bela Shiyiman
How I found Bela Shiyiman
Luck is a curious entity—unpredictable and impalpable.
Once I was lucky. It was in late March of 1976. My parents and I had just arrived in Ostia Lido, a suburb of Rome, Italy. A train carried us there, and as we stepped out and received tickets for the luggage to be claimed later, we were taken to the small vans that were to take us to the Post Office where the refugee families had to register and look at the advertisements for the apartments for rent on the wall of the La Posta (its Italian name).
The vans could take only a few people, and it so happened that my parents were taken to a van but there was no room for me, and it was not possible to change assignments. With her characteristic sense of irony, my mother said, “And this is what they call a reunification of families?” My father gave me a 100 Lira coin for the public bus and told me to meet him and mother at the home of Bela Shiyiman, their acquaintance from Odessa.
By the time we arrived in Italy, Bela had lived in Rome some nine months—she would go on to live in that city for a total of 20 months—a brilliant decision—as living in Rome turned out to be a once in a lifetime experience for our family, and we stayed there only three and a half months; my father wanted to arrive in America prior to 4 July 1976—this we accomplished. Bela stayed in Rome under the pretense of changing her mind of going either to New Zealand, or Australia, or Canada; she finally settled in New York in 1978 or 1979.
On that sunny morning in Ostia Lido, the vans could not wait; they had to pick up and ferry to the post office a train full of people. Papa told me the name of the street where Bela lived, but he couldn’t find a piece of paper with her exact address right away, and the vans couldn’t wait, so I said, “It’s ok, I’ll see you there, and if I don’t find it, I’ll come back and wait for you at the post Office.”
The vans got separated in traffic, and when my van dropped me off at the Post Office at the Piazzale Della Posta, I did not see my parents.
Then I did something truly idiotic in retrospect but which appeared rational to me at the age of 15—first day off the train in a foreign country, I board a bus and say to the bus driver two words which signify the name of the street—the bus driver nods, and I sit down in a seat near him. (A quick Google search tells me that the bus started off on Viale Della Manna and then turned right on Lungomare Polo Toscanelli—facts of which I was oblivious in 1976.)
The bus runs along a sun filled boulevard situated between black-sand beaches lapped by the Tyrrhenian Sea on the left and 4 to 7 stories buildings on the right; the buildings are concrete, some painted white some yellow, all concrete; some beaches are private, some have public access; the black sand glistens like gun powder in the morning light.
After about ten minutes or so, the bus driver speaks to me, and the only word I recognize is a word that sounds like “parallel”—this word exist in all European languages, and somehow I understand that the street I’m seeking runs parallel to the boulevard. I sit down for a while, and then when I feel the moment is right, I disembark and walk a block inland until I find the street where lives Bela Shiyiman.
The name of the street I recall no longer (it’s been thirty four years), but Bela’s name is unforgettable—what a name for a person—at that time long ago, I had no idea that Bella with two l’s means beautiful in Italian or that Shiyiman sounds a lot like She-Man in English.
When I reach the street, I realize that it stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction. The buildings are whitewashed concrete several stories tall; it’s about 11:00 in the morning; the sun is hot; the street is extraordinarily dusty—an inch and a half of dust on the pavement muffles the sound of footsteps; there are very few pedestrians in the distance, and walking on a cushion of dust has an effect of making me feel like I’m dreaming while realizing that no one sweeps the streets in Ostia Lido, Italy unlike in Odessa, Soviet Union.
I walk up and down the street for a while—about four blocks away there is a waste area overgrown with grass and bushes; this undeveloped tract interrupts the street for a hundred yards or so; the same street continues on the other side but I do not enter the undeveloped ground and instead walk back to the same cross street where I descended from the bus.
The street is still empty except for a few old Italians. At this time, I do not speak Italian except Dove Posta—a crude form of an expression “Dove e la posta?” asking where’s the Post Office.
The complexity of my task dawns on me—how can I possibly find a person whose exact address I do not know? Seeing that my project was ill conceived, and that finding Bela Shiyiman without knowing her exact address or without speaking the language is impossible, I decide to seek directions for the Post Office.
I see a pleasant looking Italian woman who had just turned the corner; she has curly black hair and dark eyes and is wearing a light brown, light cotton dress; she is carrying some groceries and is about to enter her building. I ask her, “Dove Posta,” and she answers in Italian and vaguely points in the direction from which the city bus brought me.
By this time, I feel exasperated, as I figure that I will need to walk back to the Post Office since I didn’t have the money for a return bus fare; then I uttered a mild oath in Russian, “Chyort Poberi,” which means something akin to “the devil take it,” in English.
The Italian woman immediately replies in perfect Russian, “Whom are you trying to find at the Post Office?” I answer, “Either my parents of Bela Shiyiman who lives somewhere on this street and whose address I don’t have.” The woman says, “I’m Bela Shiyiman; we’re standing right in front of my building foyer. Come in.”
I followed her and met her son who was four years older than me, and he was not too pleased to make my acquaintance; together we watched a black and white television. I still remember a commercial: “Sono Presto Lavotrice,” an advertisement touting a laundry detergent Instant Wash.
My parents arrived an hour later; my father was beside himself; as soon as Bela opened the door, my father asked her to take care of mother while he returned to the Post Office to look for me. “He’s sitting in the living room watching television,” Bela said, and I remember an astonished look on my father’s face when he saw me, but the look passed quickly, and we forgot the whole incident in 10 minutes as if nothing extraordinary had occurred.
To this day, I wonder how I got so lucky on that March day in 1976. It’s amazing to me that I got off the bus at a cross street which intersected the block where Bela Shiyiman lived. I have no rational explanation about how I found her, but the fact remains that my intuition was spot-on at that time in my life, and that my luck was extraordinary.