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When In Rome, Do As The Russians Did

by Victoria Gomelsky

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Straining to revive long-forgotten memories, I stared at the balcony of my former apartment, a one-bedroom I shared with my parents and twin sister in the fall of 1978, when we joined thousands of Soviet Jewish émigrés living in the coastal town of Ladispoli, Italy.

I couldn’t be sure that Via Duca degli Abruzzi 122, and not the building next door, was where we spent three months of that year, but the ochre-colored bricks looked familiar. So did the thinning sunlight as it hit the north-facing balcony in the middle of a stormy November afternoon. For a different perspective, I crossed the street so that I stood beside the yellow stucco walls surrounding the property on the corner. This is where I had the most powerful flashback, aided by the shouts of kids playing in a nearby schoolyard: a vision of Julie and I, just five years old, running for the black sand beach one block away, our Italian girlfriends in hot pursuit.

The ancient Romans built seaside villas in Ladispoli as early as 200 AD, making it one of Italy’s oldest holiday resorts. Today, well-heeled tourists know it as the location of La Posta Vecchia, a seventeenth century villa transformed into a luxury hotel and restaurant. But in the 1970s and again in the late 1980s, this was where more than 250,000 Soviet Jewish emigrants—including my family—passed through on their way to North America or to Israel. Located about 35 minutes west of Rome on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the town served as a visa-processing way station for Jews streaming out of the Soviet Union by the planeload. They had even dubbed our stretch of sand “Russian Beach.”

But on this wind-whipped afternoon, the fifth of a weeklong Roman holiday Julie and I took over Thanksgiving, Ladispoli didn’t look anything like the schmaltzy Russian beach town we were hoping to find. No peeling signs in Cyrillic. No bakeries serving black bread. And not a big-bosomed babushka in sight.

Our time here seemed erased.

It didn’t help that we’d arrived during the siesta when practically every shop closes. Shuttered and quiet, the streets reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode in which a pilot stumbles through a town where teapots sing and faucets run but people are eerily absent. As we walked west from the graffiti-scrawled train station toward the central plaza with its modest fountain, the sight of darkened windows seemed to bode poorly for our much-hyped return visit.

Our expectations had already been tempered by the Italians we’d met. Take Beppe, for example, a goateed private eye who chatted us up at a posh club in Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood on Thanksgiving night. In between sips of too-strong sambuca, we eagerly shared our plans.

“Why Ladispoli? The sea ees so dirty there,” said Beppe, short, he told us, for Giuseppe. 

Why indeed? If you asked Julie, my fraternal and sometimes polar opposite twin, she’d have said we were going because I insisted on it. She was happy to tag along, given that I didn’t complain too much about her spending several hours later that evening on Rome’s Via del Corso in search of the perfect Italian boots. But my reasons for wanting to return were less clear.

In the past few years, I’ve developed more than a casual interest in the émigré experience shared by those who passed through Ladispoli. Not making a return visit during our week in the Eternal City would have been like going to the Vatican but skipping out on the Sistine Chapel. I wanted to get closer to an understanding of who we were at that time. We were in political limbo then, stuck between our formal renunciation of one government and our tentative acceptance by another. Yet our spirits showed none of that tension. My parents have described Ladispoli as something of an eternal holiday.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), whose motto during this period was “Rescue, Reunion, Resettlement,” shouldered our cost of living while we waited for the State Department to approve our American visas. We were given enough money to rent the two-room apartment on Via Duca degli Abruzzi. My dad worked part-time in a doctor’s office, filing paperwork. My mom stayed home with Julie and me. Sometimes, we took the bus into Rome, where we’d linger in the piazzas or traipse around the Coliseum in our trendy Italian clogs, picking wildflowers and marveling at the cats. Most of the time, though, we just hung out at the beach. The tidy Soviet-issue apartment we’d left behind in Leningrad seemed like it belonged to a parallel universe.

“By Italian standards, it was already too cold for the beach,” my mom recently recalled in an accent that still cracks with misguided verbs and off-kilter inflections. (She speaks to me in English because I gave up the ability to speak Russian as soon as I stepped into my first American classroom, as a kindergartner.) “But for us, it was so hot. They were looking at us like crazy, but we loved to hang on the beach.”

While she suntanned with the other mothers—women from Moscow, Kiev and our hometown, now called St. Petersburg—Jul and I played house in the hull of a wooden fishing boat washed up on the sand. Turned on its side, it could hold an old fruit crate and two makeshift stools, and that’s where we sat, drinking imaginary chai and squishing our toes in the sand.

Twenty-five years later, I returned my gaze to the second-floor balcony and its throng of potted plants. I have always been drawn to balconies. Who isn’t? They remind me of altars. This one, with its view of the black sand beach and the distant horizon, was my first and as such, has always figured prominently in my memories of that time, when I used to press my face between its wrought-iron bars, posing questions about life in America to no one in particular.

Jul dragged me to the beach before I could indulge my trademark Russian nostalgia any longer. We stood on the sand, packed and dense from days of rain, and looked out over the roiled-up ocean, where foamy waves rolled in one on top of another.

“Do you remember this?” I asked. “Right here is where that old boat was, the one we flipped on its side.”

“I can barely remember last week,” she said before skipping down the desolate beach and preening for my camera.

Wrestling with my own memories, I recalled an essay in which Susan Sontag wrote, “The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs.” Sure enough, I can hardly distinguish the gauzy memories of our Italian days from the photographs that come to mind when I think back to them. My parents keep dozens of faded prints from those three months in thick albums in the living room of their Los Angeles home. Going through them is an annual ritual. In one of my favorite pictures, we are tan and giggling, leaning our heads against each other on the sun-striped balcony, Jul’s loopy blond curls looking so un-twinlike against my straight brown pageboy. We were fluent in Italian then, my mom tells us. That makes two languages on the forgotten pile.

“Let’s get some spaghetti,” Jul said for maybe the fifth time that day. I rolled my eyes. She has managed to stay a vegetarian for seventeen years by eating almost nothing but pasta, bread and cheese. Spaghetti is her all-time favorite.

On Viale Italia, the street that dead-ends at the main plaza, we found a run-of-the-mill pizzeria, where she had to settle for uninspired gnocchi served on a flimsy plastic plate. My limp lasagna was also disappointing. No matter—we would have spaghetti that night, Jul declared.

Scoping our fellow diners—a swarthy family of five wearing marinara-stained plastic bibs and two twenty something guys who looked like the Italian versions of Lenny and Squiggy—I imagined that they rarely made it into Rome proper. Unlike the trendy cafes and restaurants where we had so far spent most of our time, here there were no men in sharp Prada suits or women clutching tiny silver cell phones.

On the train back to Termini Station, I borrowed Jul’s iPod and slumped into my cigarette-stained seat. I pressed play and listened to Tracey Thorn from Everything But The Girl sing the melancholy chorus to “Hatfield 1980”:

This is the place I live
Where is everyone? Are we the only ones?
This is the place I live
And so does everyone, so does everyone.

I had to wonder what had become of the others who’d had their first taste of exile here in Ladispoli. Where had they scattered? Had the dreams they’d hatched on Russian Beach been fulfilled? If I knew anything at all about them, it was that their lives had been cleaved here in this forgotten town by the sea, much like ours had been: Before emigration, after emigration and the peculiar Italian waiting space in between.



Victoria Gomelsky is editor of a trade publication, Couture International Jeweler, and freelance writer in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Escape, The Sun and an anthology called Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1973 and emigrated to the United States in 1978.