In 1974, with no end in sight to the Cold War, the Soviet government erected a 19-story structure in North Riverdale which best reflected what Americans considered to be the “backward” mentality of the Russians: They built the massive structure from the top down. A fence was built. Cameras were installed.
The land was Russian — foreign soil not far from the Westchester County border. Paranoia rose. But the uncanny does not always mean alien.
In 1975, a child emerged from the gates wearing a ballerina costume. She loved flowers and plants and bugs, and simply wanted to learn the arts while making friends. Her name was Daria Nawrocki.
“I would call Riverdale my first home,” Nawrocki said. “Sure I was born in the Soviet Union, but I don’t remember any of it. My earliest memories are from Riverdale Avenue and the Riverdale Library.”
Nawrocki’s father was a translator for the United Nations, which required his family — Daria included — to relocate from Moscow. Yet, unlike those he would translate between Russian and English, Nawrocki’s father was not a diplomat, thus for him, the rules were different.
“Unlike the other Russians I knew, we weren’t a diplomat family,” Nawrocki said. “My father’s job was translating. We only had to go to the Soviet House for classes and for family movie nights.”
Nawrocki wasn’t just allowed to interact with Americans, she sounded like one. Russian may have been her first language, but English was easy for Nawrocki to pick up. She sounded just like a childhood friend, Suzy. They played in backyards and went to Van Cortlandt Park looking at bugs and flowers.
But when Nawrocki told her friend she couldn’t come to ballet class with her because it was only for Russian kids, Suzy’s mother barred the two from interacting again, even going so far as to kill the phone line.
“They thought I was a spy,” Nawrocki said, laughing. “They thought they were being listened to. A lot of people thought that back then, and maybe they still think it, I’m not sure. It was a little painful back then actually, but I understand with hindsight. Instead of close friends, I had a setup of plants and bugs in jars and glasses on my windowsill.”
And now she has something more — her own art exhibit just down the road at Buunni Coffee.
While still a young girl, Nawrocki spent time with flora and music, desiring to be an entomologist when she grew up. Or a professional pianist. But then, before she knew it, she was back in Moscow. Then came years of study in a Soviet school, followed by a degree in international relations and marketing. By 1997, Nawrocki found herself in Angola teaching a nongovernmental organization how to print a newsletter.
After that, Nawrocki made it back to the United States, this time in Washington D.C., joining the corporate world. Nawrocki shared a cubicle wall with Sarina Prabasi, the future owner of Buunni Coffee. Although the two began a friendship, Prabasi moved to Ethiopia, and fell out of touch.
“So I started working for Campbell Soup,” Nawrocki said. “It still had nothing to do with art, which I still thought about. But as a brand manager, I enjoyed setting the direction. You could see a result at the end of the day, literally watch people watching your work. And also eating it.”
Despite enjoying her work, Nawrocki’s children were getting older, and missing out on something she grew up with: Russian. Nawrocki moved to Philadelphia, hoping to find more opportunities to expose her children to her native language.
“I started writing my own Russian children’s book,” Nawrocki said. “I couldn’t find one, so I started my own. And then, literally up the street from me was this like-minded woman who turned out to be Russian as well. So then we started a school.”
The Golden Key Russian School in the Philly suburb of King of Prussia is an afterschool program where children learn Russian as a primary language, but also can choose a variety of other subjects, including art, math and theatre.
“I didn’t want to stop,” Nawrocki said. “I managed to get that off the ground, and then I sort of just remembered that I wanted to paint. So I took a painting class, then joined the Delaware Valley Art League, and my life just keeps going.”
Nawrocki was able to return to what she loved as a child — flowers. Her painting style is fixates on minute details.
“The way I paint is to show what goes unnoticed,” Nawrocki said. “At a detailed level, a petal is so important. Even weeds can be fascinating.”
And now she’s come full circle. Her friend from Washington, Prabasi, had returned from Africa, and brought with her the idea of bringing her style of Ethiopian coffee to New York. One of the locations for this new Buunni Coffee chain? Nawrocki’s hometown of Riverdale.
Now Nawrocki has her flower painting work on display there.
“I was so surprised when Sarina told me she opened a coffee shop in my old hometown, and I’m so happy she hosted my paintings,” Nawrocki said.
Nawrocki’s exhibit, “Flourish,” remains on display at the 3702 Riverdale Ave., shop through the end of March.
If nothing else, it shows that no matter how much Nawrocki has changed since running out the gate of the Russian Mission on Mosholu Avenue, she’s still that little girl inside,
“Since living in Riverdale, I’ve always loved to stare at little things,” she said. And now she can share that viewpoint with everyone.