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A woman of two homes

By Matt Bellassai | November 15th, 2009



Every morning in Russia, a driver would wait for Natasha Schiff to emerge from her house Schiff, Natashabefore whisking her away to her office at Rostov State University. Head of the university’s Linguistics Department, Schiff would rush into her office, assign the day’s tasks to her three secretaries, and commence a day packed with meetings and classes.

Her busy schedule suggests a woman deeply involved with work. A professor, administrator and translator, Schiff would often stay at the university past working hours. Her father joked that she was violating labor laws with the amount of time she spent working, but she never held back.

“The image of a businesswoman was never me,” she explained. In Russia, people work not for money, but for purpose – “to be useful,” she said.

Now in the U.S., the 59-year-old linguist lives in a world entirely apart from Rostov-on-Don, but not because she’s unfamiliar with the United States. Schiff is more traveled and familiar with America than most U.S. citizens, having been to 35 states throughout her years as a translator and teacher. This time in America, she’s experiencing an atmosphere she’s never encountered before.

For the first time in her career, Schiff has absolutely no work to do, and now, she’s here to stay.

Somebody Must Sacrifice

Schiff and her husband, Bobby, a musician and U.S. citizen, decided to move to the U.S. after they became engaged, but the decision was hardly easy, she explained.

She was always a private person, but when she first met Bobby after a performance of his a few years ago in Russia, she opened up. They loved the same things, she discovered, like beauty and art, and they talked for hours on the phone. It grew into a love that knew no borders.

When Bobby proposed, it was clear that they would settle together somewhere, but neither knew which country would be better. The possibility of giving up her life in Russia led Schiff to regard marriage with trepidation. One of them would be giving up their life to settle in the other’s home country. Somebody would have to sacrifice, she recalled.

A wedding performer, Bobby’s band was grounded in the U.S. His network was here, and establishing himself as a musician in Russia would be difficult. So the couple decided to settle in the U.S. Out of love for her husband, Schiff respected the choice, but was devastated by the decision. “The feeling was that I finished my life,” she said.

Everything Stops

Emotion overtook her colleagues when Schiff told them she was leaving for the U.S. “So many tears,” she said. “We were crying for half a year.” It wasn’t just about work. Her coworkers were some of her closest friends, and she absolutely adored her students.

Living in west suburban Riverside for about six months, Schiff seems lost without her attachments to Rostov and the university

Without work, she fears she’ll lose her abilities as a translator, that her “tongue will become like stone” and render her unqualified. “This is very painful,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ll stop being the person I am.”

But being without employment has taught her more about the very importance of work. “You understand more when you’re not working that work is a very large part of our lives,” she said. “You lose the status. You lose your professional identity.”

Natasha Schiff with the cat she brought with her from Russia

Natasha Schiff with the cat she brought with her from Russia

Stop and Smell the Roses

Schiff’s beautiful white cat, which traveled to the U.S. with her and her husband, nestles about her legs as she speaks. “He never had my attention back at home,” she said. “He was locked in the apartment by himself. Now he sees the family more… he must feel at home”

Like her cat, Schiff seems to be adjusting to her home in America – only at a slower pace.

As devastating and painful as her migration has been, with the extra time she’s had at home, Schiff seems to be opening up more in the U.S. than she ever did at Rostov State University. Her emotions suggest that she’s given up part of her life – that not having work is somehow making her less of a person – but the revelations she’s had with her free time in America have opened her eyes to parts of her life she’d never known before.

In Rostov, a city with more than a million people, Schiff never had time for “human things” – as she called them – like painting and cooking. “I never did the things I loved in life,” she said. It was all books and papers, and no time to enjoy home.

In the U.S., the difference is dramatic. She boasts about hanging tomato plants, purchased off the internet, which have sprouted 60 small tomatoes – a feat she could never have imagined accomplishing in Russia.

Without the intensity and demand of her work, Schiff has had time to consider the best of her home back in Russia. “Being here is like an intensifier,” she said. “[It’s] a situation where your memories become more vivid.”

Schiff is better able to reflect upon herself. “Your identity – you can only watch from the outside,” she explained. “It took me to cross the ocean to feel stronger about what home is.”

Just the Beginning

Schiff getting accustomed to one of her homes

Schiff getting accustomed to one of her homes

“I still feel like I’m on a big vacation,” Schiff went on to explain. She speaks slowly, carefully considering each word before saying it. When she refers to Russia, she doesn’t hesitate to call it “home.”

She’s aware of how things are changing and she’s optimistic. “I’m free as a bird,” she said. “[But] I hope it will not continue like this all the time – though I enjoy it.”

Her future is still wide open. She looks forward to where life in the U.S. might take her, hoping to someday translate a book. It’s her “one wish,” she said.

Once she’s completely settled in America – perhaps more comfortable with calling her new home, “home” – she plans on resuming work as a teacher and translator. “Or maybe there’s something else that will dramatically change my career,” she laughed.

“Certainly, the place where you are mostly is more ‘home,’” she said. “[but] I do hope we shall have two homes.”

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