The Matryoshka: Postcard from Portugal

Photo © Anita Lekic. All Rights Reserved.

I stroll through our little garden in Monte Estoril, heading for the beach. Every Thursday the municipality organizes a local antiques market in the garden. The selection is not very interesting: china from the sixties, decorative items, costume jewelry, and odds and ends bought up from houses whose owners have passed on. Sometimes I stop and take a quick look.

Today was one of those days when I stopped. What caught my eye was quite ordinary: a matryoshka nesting doll, the plain, traditional kind you could buy before the Wall fell and more elaborate versions, with the matryoshka represented in non-traditional clothing and vibrant colors, with touches of pearly lacquer, started showing up at markets in the U.S.

I longed for one. I had longed for one for such a long time.

I love collecting objects from different countries. Since I used to live out in the suburbs of Long Island, this was not an easy task to accomplish. Nevertheless, whenever I had a chance, I rummaged through church basement stores and often stopped when I saw garage sale signs. Over time and for little money, I succeeded in accumulating several ornaments and boxes that originated in Eastern Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East. I had loved exotic textiles all my life, and on several occasions I was really lucky, finding faded kilims from Pakistan and even Iran. But the new matryoshkas were not an expense I could justify. When they first appeared, I recall, they were selling for well over fifty or sixty dollars. So I held back, and never bought one.

I didn’t know that life would eventually lead me overseas, as an employee of an international organization, and that I would have a chance to visit quite a number of countries, including Morocco, the ceramics and textiles of which I had so pined for back in the States. So, with time, I had my small collection of ethnic decorations from a variety of countries, and I treasured them. Their actual value was questionable. Nevertheless, I displayed them as prized possessions in special spots in my large bookcase and on the fireplace mantle.

Before settling down in Long Island, in the years of my childhood and youth, I had lived in Brazil, Egypt, and the former Yugoslavia. My father was a diplomat, appointed to a new post every four years. These displacements were quite traumatic for me, since I was torn repeatedly from environments where I felt rooted, safe, and secure. It was only much later, as an adult, that I actually understood just how profoundly dysfunctional my family—my sole anchor in all these moves—was. There was precious little love, if there was any love at all. I don’t remember ever having been held or embraced. But growing up, this was how things were supposed to be, and I never questioned them.

Several decades have passed. By force of circumstance, I have lived the life of a nomad for so very long that I can think of no place in the world that I identify as home. I have ended up living in Portugal, in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. My precious items have been packed up and stored away in a large Indian trunk. I’ve never liked clutter.

But today that traditional matryoshka, literally, gave me pause. It’s not that I had longed for one before and now had the money to buy it; it’s that all of a sudden, I remembered, or realized, how very many things I had so desperately wanted in life. And they were not really expensive objects. I guess it is a generality to say that as one grows old, one wants less. But now I am trying to understand that desire, that longing that simply remained unfulfilled.

Portuguese blank postcardAnd, as I look back at my life, I realize that the feeling of longing was always there, irrespective of the things I so desperately wanted at various points in my life. The objects, including the new Russian matryoshkas, were surrogates for a far deeper, unfulfilled desire. And that desire was the desire for love, the love I had experienced so little of in my life. I am still searching for it, although I know it is a futile endeavor, even at my advanced age.

Nowadays, when I travel throughout Europe, I continue to encounter items in shop windows that I am immediately drawn to. I pause and look at them and, often, I enter the store and hold them in my hands to admire them. The world is full of exquisite, enticing objects, and I shall continue to admire them whenever and wherever I find them. But now I recognize them for what they are: simply objects. I know that no object in the world will ever replace tenderness, affection, or love, and that pain cannot be wiped away or even diminished with the simple purchase of a beautiful, exotic object. And now, so late in the day, I just put them down, turn around, and walk away.

Anita Lekic has a B.A. and an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures. In the ’90s, she taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook as an adjunct professor and later moved to The Hague in the Netherlands to work as a translator for the UN War Crimes Tribunal. She now lives in Portugal.

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