In December of 1994, a direct Aeroflot flight brought me over the North Pole from Moscow, Russia, to Anchorage, Alaska. Only nine hours separated two entirely different worlds. I thought I was ready for my new work assignment: I'd researched Alaska and studied American culture and English for many years. In reality, my preparedness didn't help a whole lot. I still experienced culture shock, making a conscientious effort every day to understand, absorb, and appreciate the new way of life around me.
Anchorage seemed so spread out, dominated by one- or two-story houses, unlike Moscow with its dense high-rises. Except for a few remarkable structures, all the buildings in Anchorage blended in an architectural blur due to their practical similarity. The lack of color was surprising; one would imagine more interest in brightening the monochromatic wintery world. Anchorage looked quite bleak and dark. The landscaping appeared puzzling: rocks instead of sculptures, short trees enclosed in cages.
"What are those wire cages for?"
"To protect the trees from moose, of course."
"Oh, I see! Of course!"
I had actually never seen a live moose before and was stunned to watch the massive animals grazing on city vegetation.
"Just wait until you bump into a black bear."
Amazing! That would be highly improbable in overpopulated Moscow.
What I liked at once was the bounty of city parks with creeks, lakes, skiing and hiking trails. The mountain backdrop and dramatic Cook Inlet framed the portrait of the city, significantly enhancing its looks and adding natural appeal to its otherwise industrial character.
I stayed in a roomy apartment on the ground floor of a large house on Lake Otis, across from St. Mark Lutheran Church. My landlords, a couple in their late 50s, Joe and Nancy Lix, lived on the second floor. Joe was a plumber and an overall handy man. He could make or fix anything, and their well-maintained house proudly demonstrated Joe's versatile skills. Nancy, a cheerful and energetic lady, used to run a bed and breakfast in their home for many years.
Their lively dog took an immediate liking to me. So did Joe and Nancy.
On my first weekend in Anchorage, the Lixes invited me for lunch.
"I am going to cook Alaskan salmon; you'll like it," said Nancy. "Joe, would you mind taking Olga for a drive before lunch? She hasn't seen much of Anchorage yet."
"Sure! Where should I go?"
"Oh, I don't know—around town. Just show her your favorite places."
Joe took me for a drive along Northern Lights Boulevard, "one of the main traffic arteries in Anchorage," pointing to the businesses where he did plumbing jobs. At Muldoon, Joe turned right and followed Tudor Road.
"I know exactly where to go! It's a special place, my favorite. It's heaven—you'll see for yourself!"
Joe parked his truck by Eagle Hardware & Garden, and we walked in. I'd never seen such a huge home improvement store before; it was really impressive in size. Other than that, I had no interest whatsoever in the giant array of bolts, appliances, and lumber.
"So what do you think? Isn't it heaven? Wait until you see the power tools!"
Joe was genuinely excited. With his eyes shining, he showed me plumbing supplies, washers and dryers, heating and cooling systems.
"It's an enormous store, Joe. Thank you for bringing me here: I am learning some new vocabulary."
At lunch, Nancy asked what we'd seen.
"Eagle Hardware? You must be kidding me!" Nancy laughed. "Who in a normal mind would take a girl to a hardware store? Olga, it might be heaven to him, but it really isn't. After lunch I'll take you to the most wonderful place in Anchorage, the closest it gets to heaven."
Nancy's "heaven" turned out to be Bell's Nursery on Specking Road, beautiful and charming with holiday spirit: the smell of Christmas trees and coffee, starry poinsettias, sweet background music, sparkles and lights, a tasteful arrangement of gifts. Even Mr. and Mrs. Santa were there talking to nice children in festive clothes. We had fragrant tea from real porcelain cups at an elegant wrought iron table with a flowering Christmas cactus in the center.
"Isn't it wonderful?" asked Nancy, "This is my idea of heaven."
I liked Bell's a lot and became its devoted customer since that first visit.
In 1996 I got married and mentioned this episode to my husband Chip. He smiled. I asked what would be "heaven" to him in Anchorage, a place where he’d take someone new to town.
"To the Alaska Zoo, definitely. It's by far the best Anchorage has to offer."
My good friend Susanne named her church the most spiritual place in town. When she sings during Sunday service, the harmony of music, voice, and attentive silence of congregation transport her directly to heaven.
To me, after 20 years in Anchorage, the most special site remains Loussac Library, a peaceful and friendly temple, where reading and learning bring people closer to heaven.
I am sure every Anchorage resident has that uniquely remarkable spot in mind, and there must be many different places in town where people feel heavenly. Leo Tolstoy, my favorite writer, expressed it better than anyone: "So many men, so many minds."
Olga Alvord was born and raised in Russia, moved to the U.S. in 1994, and is now an American citizen living in Anchorage. Alvord received a Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and English from Moscow Linguistic University, where she was employed as a professor of English Grammar and History of the English Language. In Anchorage, Alvord worked as an adjunct instructor at University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University, a foreign languages teacher at Grace Christian School, and, most recently, an ESL, English, and Social Studies teacher with the Anchorage School District. She has remained passionate about education, world languages, and cultures. A mother of three and grandmother to two, Olga is happily married to Graham Alvord. She devotes her free time to family, friends, and multiple hobbies.