She carried the family china on her lap in an airplane for 6,000 miles. Now, Galina Balk is filling her prized teacups with hot Indian tea and bustling around her small kitchen with platters of fragrant Russian delicacies.
Ask her how to create the tasty pastries she places in front of you and you'll get a sly smile. You might as well be asking for national security secrets from the FBI.She won't reveal her recipes, but it's no secret that Galina, 69, and her husband, Mark Balk, 76, are enjoying their new lives in Salt Lake City. That's what they wanted to discuss over a Free Lunch in their cheery seventh-floor apartment at a downtown seniors' complex. Although I tried to convince the pair to dine out or let me bring take-out, they wouldn't hear of it.
"Food made at home is better than anything you can get in a restaurant," says Galina. "Forgive me, but Americans have forgotten the tradition to cook at home. It is a bad habit."
Certainly, no restaurant could top Galina's savory cabbage pirogi, baked apple-and-cheese appetizers and rich Russian chocolates. Preparing the foods of her homeland is a small way to hold on to the past while embracing a new culture, she says.
Although they prefer Russian cuisine, "the tradition of democracy in this country is a wonderful thing," says Mark, a former World War II soldier with blue-green eyes and tufts of white hair that rise like clouds above his ears. "We are so grateful for the generosity of the American people. Everyone here is very friendly, very kind."
The Balks, both retired math professors from Smolensk, Russia, immigrated to Salt Lake City two years ago. Their son, Sasha, who works as a math professor at the University of Utah and has lived in the United States since 1990, invited his parents to fly west to spend their retirement years.
But there is only one reason Galina and Mark ultimately decided to leave everything behind and make the journey: They wanted to meet their only grandson on the day of his birth.
Born six months after the Balks' arrival in Utah, Jonathan, nearly 2, "is a treasure," says Mark, who has excellent English due to years of study in Russia. He is quick to interpret for Galina, who is taking English classes, but admits her specialty is mathematics, not grammar.
"It was not easy to leave my homeland and start over," she says as she refills our tea cups. "I lived all my life in Smolensk. But I wanted to see little Johnny."
"We are getting older, and I wanted to help my grandson to become a good man," adds Mark. "He brings so much joy; he is the focus of our lives in America."
Two months ago, Mark won a statewide Grandparents Day essay contest with a millennium letter to his grandson about what is important in life. "Cherish and save through all your years your curiosity, your ability to be amazed at a stream and at snow, at grass and a sunset, at the cry of a bird and at the whisper of a birch," he wrote.
"Johnny is lucky to be raised in a country with possibilities for everybody," says Mark. "I hope he will have many wonderful experiences in the century to come."
As the millennium approaches, the Balks are making plans to celebrate with Jonathan and his parents, although as mathematicians, both agree that the real starting date for the new century is still a year away.
"It is a dilemma, but there is a phrase that I like very much," says Mark. " 'Age is a matter of mind. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.' I don't mind if people celebrate this year, and Galina doesn't mind." He sips his tea and smiles. "We will celebrate twice."
Have a story? Let's do lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what's on your mind to [email protected] or send a fax to 466-2851. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.