Have you ever had a transcendent moment – a momentary pause in the rush of day, a hush imposed on the noise of living, a stillness that pervaded your surroundings so that you could hear the beating of your heart?

I had such a moment, nearly forty years ago.

If you live long enough, you’ll find that the world’s geography changes before your eyes. The boundaries of nation-states morph, disappear, and then are resurrected onto the same parcel of land with a new name. Alternatively, lands are sliced and diced according to some random plan by those temporarily in power. Cities are renamed according to the caprice of time or the ruling regime or passions of its inhabitants. You can never be sure what town you will wake up in, even when you are sleeping in your own bed.

So it was that in the fall of 1979 I found myself in a country called the U.S.S.R., living in a city called Leningrad. After graduating law school I accepted a two-year fellowship, studying what was euphemistically called “Soviet” law. It necessitated spending ten months in Leningrad and Moscow. My mother, having fled Poland after World War II, considered herself fortunate in having escaped a Communist regime. She was perplexed as to why I would willingly subject myself to living in one. Being wise, she knew what life would be like over there. Being naïve, I could only see adventure and mystery awaiting me as I lifted the drapery and slipped behind the Iron Curtain. What awaited me was something totally different. 

I and a small group of American exchange students arrived in Leningrad in late August of 1979. It was a beautiful time of year to descend upon a city with historic buildings, some with golden domes that would glow when kissed by sunlight. There were bridges crossing the canals dissecting the city, reminding one of Venice. We settled into our dormitory rooms that we shared with Soviet roommates. For the first few weeks, we were overwhelmed with the classic beauty of the city’s museums and broad avenues, with its workers’ cafeterias and kvass (home-brewed beer) vendors on the corners. It took us awhile to see behind the façade and understand the reality of this society, the scarcity of food and essential goods and services, as well as the lack of privacy and freedom of thought that its populace labored under. Big brother watched every move its citizens made and each word uttered or written.

Realizing we were being spied on, we learned the tricks of evasion so that our conversations would not be listened to and our activity would not be tracked. A mellow September turned into an October colder than I was accustomed to. Produce available in Soviet stores consisted of bread, potatoes, condensed milk and canned fish. Fresh fruit and vegetables became a dream of the past, as did any kind of meat.  Being ever vigilant against surveillance or eavesdropping took its toll. Shadows lengthened as daylight hours shortened. Lines haphazardly grew at random storefronts as rumors spread of Czech shoes here or Polish sausage there. My initial enthusiasm wore off as I witnessed the constant strain and struggle endemic in living in this country.

It was November. Icicles hung from bare tree branches. The weather was relentlessly gray and cold. I was homesick. My mother sent care packages filled with toilet paper and laundry detergent, kind enough not to say “I told you so” in her letters. With the prospect of seven more months to go in this mirthless place, I acknowledged, ruefully, that my mother was, once again, right.

Thanksgiving was approaching. We were trying to figure out how to make potatoes taste like turkey, when, unexpectedly, the staff at the American consulate invited us to join them for a real Thanksgiving dinner to be held at a dacha two hours north of the city.

The dacha was a former summer palace of a long-dead Russian noble, so it was resplendent in an old-Europe, slightly decaying opulent sort-of-way. The furniture in the spacious rooms and the art decorating the walls were a cornucopia of color welcome to the eye after months of bleak grey. The dinner table was laden with real turkey, edible vegetables (more color!), sweet potatoes (but this kind of potato was alright) and pumpkin pies. Sitting down to the table, in a grand salon, we gorged ourselves on healthy food and good wine, able to engage in spirited discussion freely without fear of being watched. We were served coffee and brandy – so very sophisticated.

And then we were invited out to the terrace to “see something special”. We piled out onto this grand stone precipice, overlooking the inky waters of the Gulf of Finland. No lights, no sound other than the raspy intake of our own breath. “Look up”, they said, and we did.

And there, strewn across the sky, was a shimmering curtain of green, purple and red jeweled lights. The aurora borealis. I was transported at the sheer grandeur of this spectacle, a mere glimpse of the mysteries yet to be unveiled by this universe we inhabit. It was awe-inspiring, terrifying, hinting at forces greater than those of earth-bound mortals, whispering of beauty and peace, a majesty attainable if only we stood still and listened to the harmonies of the heavens.

And for a moment, I was bestowed the gift of grace.

And now for a divinely indulgent dessert:

Cranberry-Chocolate Tart

Pastry

1 C flour

1 T sugar

1 t baking powder

¼ t salt

4 oz unsalted butter

2 T water

350 degrees. In food processor combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. V\Cut in butter until mixture resembles small peas. Stir in water and combine into ball. Chill 30 minutes then roll out to fill an 8 inch pie plate. Chill.

Filling

4 oz. bittersweet chocolate

¼ C butter

1 C corn syrup

¼ C sugar

3 eggs

2 T orange liquer

Grated zest of 1 orange

Pinch cinnamon

4 oz. cranberries

Melt chocolate and butter over low heat. In separate pot combine corn syrup and sugar and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Set aside. Beat eggs, liquer, orange zest and cinnamon in a large bowl. Stir in chocolate mixture and corn syrup. Pour into crust. Sprinkle cranberries in a single layer over chocolate mixture.

Bake for 40-50 minutes or until pastry is cooked and pie is set. The cranberries will split.

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