It was a cold and dreary Monday afternoon when the Papadopoulos’ car pulled up to the curb of Ledo Rumai. As I stepped out of the car with Mrs. Papadapoulu, Evi, and Catherine, the nervousness I had felt during the drive was replaced with a growing feeling of excitement; finally, after two long months of moving to and getting settled in Vilnius, Lithuania, I was going to skate again. I could hardly wait to get back on the ice, to see myself jump higher and higher, to feel my blades carve deep turns, edges, and spins. I was definitely ready to return.
On our way to the changing rooms, Evi and Catherine began filling me in on my new coach.
“Her name is Violeta-“
“She is very strict-“ interjected Catherine.
“No she’s not,” countered Evi, “She just doesn’t like when you glide into your spin on the wrong edge, she’s actually okay-“
“So you think she’s easy-going?” Catherine cried as Evi sat down.
“Well, she’s not easy going, but she’s not very strict either…”
Evi and Catherine, my next-door neighbors, had been taking group lessons at Ledo Rumai for about a year. Group lessons had never been my first choice, as I had had private ones back in the States. Unfortunately, private lessons were hard to come by in Vilnius unless you were extremely good. As much as I aspired to become a world-class figure skater, extremely good I was not. There were benefits to joining Evi and Catherine’s group as well. I would be skating with people that (a) I knew, and (b) spoke good English. In Vilnius, that was worth at least a hundred private lessons.
“She’s not that bad-“
“But she’s so tough!”
I smiled slightly at Catherine’s remark. A second grader at my school, she frequently refers to things as being “tough.” Glancing at the time, I quickly pulled on my skates and began lacing them up. They felt rather snug, a fact I hoped was attributed to my lack of skating over the past two months and not to my feet growing. Reaching into my bag, I pulled out a pair of royal blue gloves, put them on, and stood as Evi and Catherine started walking towards the rink door. I caught up with them as, together, we stepped through the door.
Our entrance to the ice rink was greeted by a blast of ice-cold air. When I say ice-cold air, I mean numbing, frostbite, negative degrees ice-cold air. I could have sworn I had stepped into a freezer. Ice rinks are meant to be cold (for the obvious reasons), but I had never been in an ice rink that was this cold. I mean, I had sometimes skated in short sleeves at my old rink, for goodness sake!
Next to me, Evi pointed towards the ice where Catherine was already getting on with several other skaters.
“Violeta’s not here yet, so we can go practice until she comes.” I nodded and, pleased I could move despite the cold, followed her to the barrier. Removing my skate guards, I took a deep breath, stepped onto the ice, and pushed off.
It was better than I remembered. All my thoughts of how cold I was and of how worried I had been dissipated on the first glide. I rounded the corners of the rink with ease as I felt my blades fly across the ice. I was completely energized, with absolutely no thoughts in mind except that of skating. I felt like I was Michelle Kwan at her best.
I was brought out of my thoughts by the harsh blow of a whistle. Turning around, I saw my fellow skaters flock towards a short, hard-faced woman I presumed to be Violeta. Her eyes, upon scanning all of us, focused in on me. She appeared to be taking me in. Just when I had begun to think that time had stopped completely, Violeta spoke to me in halting English.
“Elizabeth Leader,” I said quickly. The nervousness I had felt in the car had returned.
“You only speak English?”
“So you don’t speak Lithuanian?”
“So you only speak English?”
I felt like saying, “Didn’t we already establish that?” but I wisely decided against the sarcasm and merely replied, “Yes.” This response did not please Violeta, who gave a slight “humph,” but she seemed to resign herself to the fact she now had another student who only understood English. Turning to face the rest of the class, she proceeded to show us what to do for part one of the lesson: Warm-up.
In my experience, warm-up on the ice had always meant skating forwards, backwards, and performing simple footwork sequences that properly prepared me for the jumps, spins, and more complicated footwork that lied ahead. Starting out slowly, I would gradually skate with more and more speed as my muscles were warmed up. At least, I had always started out slowly.
Violeta’s idea of a warm-up was the equivalent of Roadrunner On Ice. It seemed that she (and all the other skaters) had no speed except “fast.” Pulled into a vortex of crossovers left and right, backwards and forwards, I could not slow down for fear I would be run over by another skater. I have never considered myself a slow skater, but judging by the way others were passing me I could have easily been a jar of molasses with blades.
After what seemed like an hour, the whistle finally blew. Panting, I glanced up at the clock on the wall and saw that only eight minutes had gone by. I still had fifty-two minutes of this left! Feeling as if I had run the New York Marathon, I turned back to Violeta. The class had suddenly split: Catherine had joined four others in the Beginning group, two girls in their late teens skated off to practice double and triple jumps, and Evi and I remained in the largest group of all. Our coach shouted a few words of Lithuanian to the beginners before showing us what we were supposed to do. It was a waltz jump.
Great! I thought, I can do that easily! The waltz jump, although not my favorite, was the first jump I had learned and therefore one I considered very simple. Gathering speed, I turned, jumped, and landed what I considered to be a pretty good waltz jump. Pleased with myself, I noticed Violeta skating towards me. Almost immediately she began gesturing violently upward, grasping my arms and right leg so forcefully that I almost toppled over.
“Up!” she said loudly, “Up! Faster!” Letting go of me suddenly, she pointed ahead.
“Again. Dar kartą.”
It did not take long before I began to think of the waltz jump as the Dar Kartą. No matter how fast I thought I did it, no matter how high I thought I jumped, my only words of praise were “dar kartą.“ It was not just the waltz jump, either. My loop, salchow, and change-sit spin were all critiqued the same way.
„Up! Down! Faster! Again! Dar kartą!“ I became frustrated as I found myself performing more and more sloppily, with no clear signs of improvement. As I went into my umpteenth loop jump, I noticed Catherine veer towards me. I skidded to a halt, but not before Catherine had tripped and gone sprawling. Standing, she brushed a layer of ice off of her trousers, beamed at me, and skated off rather hap-hazardly. Breaking a small smile, I went back to my loop. Again.
The sharp whistle sounded. My chest burned as I skated over to everyone on lead legs. Violeta was leading all the groups to the barrier. For one glorious moment, it looked as though we were going to exit the ice. That glorious moment was shortlived. Balancing on her toepicks, arms held high, Violeta began to toetap inch by inch across the ice. Forming a line, we followed her.
It was pure agony. My toes, already sore from the constant skating, were pushed deep into my boots as all my weight was placed on top of them. As we rounded the first curve in the rink, many of us dropped our arms down for a few seconds in order to replenish the blood flow that seemed to be greatly lacking there. We continued around the edge of the rink with Catherine lagging slightly behind, always moving, never stopping. Approaching where we had begun, Violeta broke into a series of fast crossovers, leading us in a snake pattern across the ice. A roar behind me told me that the Zamboni* was reving up its engine, but this did not deter my coach.
„Dar kartą! Dar kartą! Dar kartą!“ My ears rung with the words, my muscles burned, and my eyes glazed from the cold air that continued to dig into them. At long last, when I thought I could take no more, we stopped. Tripping over myself, I stumbled off of the ice. I tried to hold back the tears that were coming, fast and furious, from my bleary eyes. I felt sick.
How could I have gotten so out of shape in the course of only two months? How could my elements have been so bad? Was I even going to be able to keep up with this? These questions haunted me as I sat to untie my skates. Skating had always been something that was fun for me, but that…that had not been fun.
Somehow, in all of my wallowing self-pittiance, the image of Catherine Papadapoulu grinning up at me popped up in my mind. She really enjoys herself out there, I thought. She could fall down a hundred times or be frozen solid and she’d still be out there having a grand old time. I wish I was like that. Just like that, something clicked. I could enjoy myself during these lessons. It would take time, take getting used to Violeta and her rather strong standards, and it would take getting used to negative degree conditions. But it would happen at some point. I had enjoyed skating in the United States, and I would continue to enjoy skating at Ledo Rumai. Because skating, after all, is still skating no matter what country you are in.
Later in the car, Evi asked me whether I would continue with the lessons. Smiling, I replied, „I’ll see you Wednesday.“