Having lived in one foreign country or another for ten years now, I keep coming back to one question – what it is that makes it hard for an immigrant to blend into the landscape of his new country. This question is not so much about whether the hosts begin to perceive you as one of them as it is about whether you perceive them as a part of you. It is like when you buy new clothes, and you like how they are new, clean and crisp; and yet it takes time for them to start feeling as comfortable and invisible as those old sweats you’ve been wearing since the first episode of Friends. Some countries break this wall and you feel in them as if you have lived there forever, some fail and remain an expensive but forever restrictive Sunday suit even as the novelty wears out.
The answer lies beyond the physical space, of course, and even beyond the language. Shared culture, too, is only part of the answer, for contemporary collective cultural practices of the Western world differ from one country to another no more than they vary among city neighborhoods. I wake up in Sofia, take a cab to the airport, get on the plane, land in Logan, take a cab to my dorm within the span of a single consciousness. At least on the surface, nothing has changed; the cabs are the same and Brittney Spears on the radio is the same, billboards peddle the same Coke in the familiar two-liter bottles. My TV plays the same CNN; a Big Mac on Mass Ave tastes and feels just like the one on Slaveikov Square. Even the jet lag conjures nothing but an aftertaste of last week’s crunch time in the office. With clothes that smell of airplane food being the only indication of the distance just traveled, culture shock ceases to be a function of space.
It should not have been harder to make friends here than it was there, yet it was. Same bars, same drinks, same gossip; same friendliness and really a lot in common, yet a chasm in between. This chasm is not culture, or more precisely, not present culture. It's the past, but not the type of collective historical past upon which nations construct their mythological identity. It is a nearly immediate, a very recent past, as collective as it is individually intimate, the past also known as childhood.
A childhood viewed from the distance of passed years is not a continuum; it's an assortment of colorful shreds - a flash here, a smell there, a sound maybe. These shreds make up a childhood DNA code. Regardless of having been born and having grown up time zones apart from each other, my friends remain kindergarten buddies, sharing a collective childhood.
"Do you remember diafilms?" I asked them the other day, typing away at my instant messenger with a buddy roster of nearly two hundred and a VIP friend list of merely a dozen. "Of course!" they would answer.
Diafilms, a bit of the common DNA, are fairy tale comics printed on short strips of film, approximately 30 frames total, one panel per frame. A diafilm, immutably linear, projected on a white surface through a hand-cranked magic lantern, is a technological cousin of a slide and a grandfather of PowerPoint presentations. Unlike more traditional comics, diafilms had their all captions and dialogs in the bottom of the panel.
For us living in a pre-VCR era, diafilms were our movies on demand, and demand we did. My family had an elaborate set of rules regarding show-times; very quickly, diafilms replaced traditional bedtime fairy tales and were my irrevocable reward for being good throughout the day. Around nine, mom would goad me to bed, and programming negotiations began. A diafilm couldn't be shown twice in the same week; and on my good days I would be rewarded with longer strips. A few of the strips were of double length, that is 60 or 70 frames, which easily could mean a whopping whole hour of magic; those strips were reserved for the occasions when mom had to compensate for not showing up the night before.
I learned to read when I was five and switched to books some time later; the diafilms were for the illiterate younger me. The text had to be read out loud and thus my mom was instrumental to the success of the performance. For it was a performance: the most convincing voice-overs I’ve ever heard were moms' lines for the big grey wolf. When the stage was set – that is, the bed was made and I was in – the lights would go off, and the show would begin. Like millions of other apartments in the country, ours had wallpaper all around, so the diafilms were projected on the ceiling, very convenient for the authorities to keep the spectators in bed.
We had our commercial breaks, too. Half-way through the show, dad would burst in to peddle warm milk or vitamins or other goods praising their obvious advantages for one’s health and wealth, and well being of the humankind in general. Every once in a while, the pitch was complemented with a story how dad, now a film maker, had set up the first outdoor theater in their town to project and read diafilms to the local kids, charging a random nickel, a frog, or an equivalent in other boys’ currencies. That was in the late 1950s, when he was barely 10.
Unlike movies, diafilms were rarely discussed for they were not a socially synchronous experience; unlike today’s DVDs, diafilm releases were not widely announced or anticipated.
Nor were diafilms a pull medium. The film containers where bland and so unattractive to kids - at least in contrast with today’s gaudy packaging - that it must have been our parents who chose them for us.
For other kids, as I learned much later, the circumstances of their diafilm experience varied. Some would watch them as today’s kids watch TV – on their own during daytime, window shades down. We even had "multimedia" diafilms - film strips that came together with stories recorded on a vinyl disk. For others, diafilm shows were a party ingredient, with the oldest kid doing the reading, a distraction their parents would put together to keep the children occupied and the adults undisturbed. Yet everyone I talked to remembers diafilms as something special, almost magical. Unlike the plug-and-play VCRs of today, diafilms always required special ceremonial preparation: deciding on what to use for a screen, seating the audience, darkening the room, adjusting focus, appointing the reader.
Few of us now remember what the strips were about, apart from a handful of stories made famous elsewhere and then retold on static celluloid. But the magic of total immersion in a dream world remains, as remains the smell of hot metal, the screech of the crank and the memory of a white sheet on the wall.
Diafilms are still made by Diafilm Studio (site in Russian).