Congratulations to Kerry Dexter who won a free copy of 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count!
Freelance writer Alexandra Grabbe publishes her father’s memoir, Émigré, 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count
Alexandra Grabbe is a freelance writer and editor who lives on Cape Cod, where she runs a green B&B. Her father’s memoir was published but was never distributed after its publisher went bankrupt. More than 35 years later, Alexandra took on the ambitious task of editing and republishing the memoir because she felt her father’s message about the human spirit was just as important today.
“My Dad told an interviewer that he hoped to recapture an era that was gone forever and that the rest of the memoir would show what it was like for a European to adjust to life in America,” she says. “His life was filled with drama: A perilous escape from the Bolsheviks, the loss of his teenage sweetheart (also a refugee, to a Danish butter baron), coming to the United States with $300 in his pocket, teaching himself English, publishing six books, succeeding in the Federal government.”
Émigré, 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count, is now on sale on Amazon.
CONTEST ENDED. Readers of this blog are eligible to win a copy of the book in a random drawing by leaving a comment at the end of this post before midnight December 31, 2014. The winner will be announced here.
In this guest post for More Time To Travel, Alexandra Grabbe captures her father’s love of travel.
My father Paul Grabbe loved riding in trains and bought me a Eurail pass the first time I visited Europe. Dad grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia. His passion for travel may have come from an early trip to Cannes where his father worked as a military attaché – my grandmother decided to vacation there during the 1905 revolt that rocked the Russian aristocracy.Today we don’t think twice about booking airplane flights across the world, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, travel by steamer or train was the rule. Dad particularly loved sleeper cars and would wax lyrical about wagon-lits, run by the French International Sleeping-Car Company. He was three years old in 1905 and there’s no doubt in my mind that this first train trip left an indelible mark.
During his childhood, Dad would travel by rail every summer to spend three months on the family estate, near Smolensk, two hundred miles west of Moscow. To reach Vasilievskoye, the family would take the night train from the capital, a trip that lasted over fifteen hours. At the beginning of his memoir, Émigré, 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count, he describes the physical enjoyment of train travel:
“Returning to St. Petersburg after trips abroad or summers in the country was always a joy. I liked to wake up early, stretch out in the comfortable berth, and savor the sensation of being whisked through space. I loved the swaying of the railroad car and the rumbling as the train sped along. At dawn, I would reach for the shade, raise it halfway, and peer outside. In the fall, a typically bleak, northern landscape would meet my gaze. Marshes alternated with patches of leafless trees under a heavy sky. Abruptly the trees would end, and we would race past sodden fields that extended as far as the eye could see. A desolate landscape, but so familiar. To me, those marshes and fields were a welcome sight. They meant I was almost home.”
Perhaps his willingness to embrace travel came from an eccentric uncle who quit his military job when a superior ordered him to be present at an annual parade attended by the Tsar. Dad’s Uncle Sasha preferred to resign rather than change his itinerary.
For him, travel was almost a way of life. Once back in St. Petersburg, he would dine at my grandparents’ apartment and recount his adventures. I can almost see Dad’s eyes, open wide at the idea of crossing Equatorial Africa by canoe from Lake Tanganyika, climbing the steps of the Parthenon in Greece, and visiting the Sandwich Islands. Talk about trips off the beaten track.
Or, it could be his tutor, nicknamed Koukoulya, who fired up Dad’s imagination and planted the travel bug. Koukoulya told wonderful stories about a traveling circus that stopped in Russian villages along the Volga to give performances. In 1911, movie theaters were a novelty but provided an avenue of escape for 9-year-old Paul. Whenever possible, he and Koukoulya would sneak away to watch Westerns on the big screen.
Dad never forgot these “armchair travel” afternoons. In fact, he wrote Koukoulya in 1925: “Remember the motion pictures we enjoyed together, about outlaws and Indians, and wild goings-on in the American West? Well, dear Koukoulya, believe it or not, here I am in Colorado, right in the middle of the West. Only I don’t shoot from the hip or hold up stagecoaches. I shovel ore in a gold mine for four dollars and fifty cents a day.”
After the Revolution, it was, no doubt, the memory of such vicarious pleasure that led him to embrace what was still a new frontier: the wide-open spaces of the United States. The first thing he did upon arrival in New York was to buy a train ticket to the Midwest. In Émigré, he describes waiting on tables in a TB sanitarium, working as an extra in a Charlie Chaplin movie, training Russian wolfhounds, all the rage with movie stars back in the twenties, and much more.
Dad spent fifteen years in Russia, four in Denmark. Then he moved to the United States, living in Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC, and finally Wellfleet, on Cape Cod. He traveled light but always carried an assortment of keys along with him, keys that opened doors in his native land. Editing his memoir made me realize how much he missed Russia. This realization gave poignancy to his favorite phrase, “There’s no place like home.”
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