No, You Can’t Kiss Me!

“Never talk with strangers.” Никогда не разговаривайте с неизвестными.* This simple advice would have saved me a lot of trouble if I had been conscious enough to heed it.

When I stepped on the train to visit my friends in Vladimir, I had no idea that I would soon be unwillingly locked in a Russian soldier’s embrace, his determined gaze meeting my horror-filled eyes as he got ready to plant an unwanted kiss on bewildered lips. Этого не может быть. Но это было. Here I was, stuck in an agonizingly long second, his homely face with pathetic brown eyes looking at me like I was a piece of grade A American beef…

THE STUPID GIRL WHO JUST WOKE UP

Now I won’t lie, the Russian platzkart has always exuded a bit of romance to me, the possibility for late night conversations with a handsome and charming traveler while speeding through the taiga has always seemed more epic than than a stale stroll on the beach. But just to get things straight, “Lieutenant B.”, as we’ll call him, was neither handsome nor charming. It all happened when I woke up on my platzkart bed to see a soldier in full uniform sitting on the bed across from me. He was homely and a bit stocky, with greasy brown hair and brown eyes. I must have looked startled at his presence, because he quickly said, “don’t worry, I’m just here to charge my phone, the only outlet is at the front of the train.”

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The layout of a Russian platzkart. Photo Credit: Glucke, Wikimedia Commons

“Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s fine,” I yawned, shooting him that reflexive, wide smile that my sleepiness had prevented me from censoring. That was my first mistake. In America, when a girl smiles, it’s polite. In Russia, when a girl smiles, it’s an invitation. Whether he heard my accent or not, I don’t know, but while my guard was still down, he asked me, “where are you from?”

Without thinking, I shot back “from America. I’m a teacher here.” Second mistake. Stupid, stupid, stupid girl. At the word “America,” something changed in this nonchalant Russian soldier, and before I knew it, he was sitting at the table across from me, ready to talk. Again, I stupidly took him at face value, thinking, “what’s the harm in some small talk? I only have an hour left on the train.” I asked him if he had a family, and his calculated response warned me of his real intentions.

“No.” he said. “I wouldn’t have gotten acquainted with you if I were.” With eager, puppy dog eyes, he told me “you’re very beautiful. It’s me who’s the ugly one.” Although I tended to agree, in reflexive “politeness,” I said “nyet,” and smiled.

When he offered tea, my first reaction was to hesitate; after all, the age old trick is the drug in the drink, but he seemed to read my mind, and said “relax,” and showed me a sealed tea bag to prove that his intentions were less than criminal.  He excitedly got two mugs from the conductor and poured us tea. Not wanting to be rude (stupid, stupid, stupid girl!), I sipped the tea very, very slowly, convincing myself that if the drink was drugged, then I wouldn’t get enough of it in my system to do any damage.

I joke about my “stupidity,” but in reality, by the time he had brought the tea out, I had realized that letting my guard down in those first few moments of consciousness had invited me to play this game of cross-gender interaction by his rules, rules that were very different from American girl-guy flirtation. There is a much more pronounced power differential between the sexes in Russia, and it became clear that this soldier felt a certain power over me. At this point, I did not want to make him angry. I had no idea how reactive his temper was, nor did I think anyone on the train would help me if something did happen, so I resorted to trying to play his game as best as I could, hoping that I could bide my time with fawning pleasantries until I could escape into the fresh Vladimir air. As the conversation went on, my nervousness took center stage, and the very words I didn’t want to say kept coming out of my mouth. Long story short, he found out I was single, and then he really turned on what he thought was the charm that might get him a green card.

RUSSIAN PICK-UP LINES

I don’t remember the sequence of Lieutenant B.’s wooing session, but the cheesiness and systematicity of his whole routine was hard to forget. In less than twenty minutes, this Russian soldier played me terrible Russian pop music to set a romantic mood, then sang me his own song, after which he said confidently. “You love it when I surprise you, don’t you?” (Ты любишь, когда я тебя удивляю.) He showed me pictures of himself as a child, and he asked me if it was hard for me to be without a man in my life. He could be my boyfriend just for the train ride. He could come to America with me.  He even bluntly asked, “so, do you like me?” But it was his Martin Luther King Jr. style speech that made me want to flee the train more than ever.

“What are your dreams?”he asked. After I answered, he began.

“I had a dream, to buy a car. I bought a car. I had a dream, to become a soldier. And I have a dream,” he looked at me suggestively, “to kiss a foreign girl.”

Oh no he didn’t.

“My friend dated an American, and he says they are so much more interesting to go out with. He says they’re different. And Russian girls have no soul. If you have money, they’ll be by your side, but if you lose it, they’ll leave you without a second thought.”

EATING PIG FAT

Yes, it got even weirder.

“Have you ever tried sala?” he asked. Now sala is a Russian food I had done a good job at avoiding on previous trips, but I had actually put it on my Fulbright Bucket list as something I wanted to try. From what I had heard, sala was gelled meat fat that you put on bread. Apparently, also the food of love. Lieutenant B. ran to his seat and brought me back a slice of brown bread with two chunks of congealed fat. I took a bite into the chewy, bacony fat and breathed a sigh of relief when it didn’t make me throw up. “So, do you like it?” he said.

“It’s not bad,” I said honestly, at which he decided to gift me with an entire bag of cut up fat and brown bread!

PHOTOSESSION

About this time, his soldier friend appeared in my section of the train, and Lieutenant B. asked him to take a picture of us. He wrapped his arms around me hard while his friend snapped a picture, and then, this was that fatal moment when he looked at me as if he was about to go for that foreign-girl kiss.

“Nyet,” I said firmly.

“On the cheek?” I made a face, and before I knew it, his mouth was planted on my cheek while another picture was snapped. Oy. His friend left, then he came over to me, combing his hair, (which apparently was supposed to be attractive?) and asked me, “Can I please just kiss you before you get off the train? I just want to feel the difference.”

What!?

Well, he would feel a difference for sure if he actually dared, my lips were so chapped they were cracked, and***ahem***, never having kissed anyone before, he’d probably leave with the impression that American girls were the worst kissers on earth. But more importantly, never having kissed anyone before, there was no way that I was going to let my first kiss be with some random soldier who saw me as nothing more than a check off a bucket list.

He was persistent though, and before I got off, he asked again, and in frustrated Russian, I said “I can’t!”

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“I don’t kiss people that I’ve just met,” I told him. He deflated, finally accepting my “no,” and I breathed a sigh of relief as I exited the train. But I walked along the platform to the train station, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around to see Lieutenant B behind me, shooting me a creepy grin. I quickened my pace, thankful that he didn’t decide to follow me. Soon, I was safe with my friends in Vladimir, memories of the soldier taking a more humorous than scary tone, but I will say that this experience opened my eyes to the need to be on my guard at all times while traveling alone, especially in a culture where what I consider to be simple politeness can be taken as an invitation to kiss me, then marry me and then finally, get that visa to America…

*The title of a chapter from one of my favorite pieces of Russian lit, The Master and Margarita. 

Pictures from England

I’m visiting friends in Vladimir right now(!)where I spent the summer of 2012 studying Russian. I have so much to write, but I didn’t want to forget to post pictures of my 10 wonderful days with my parents in England. Since typing from a phone at a snail’s pace is a frustrating way to blog, I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. Enjoy!

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Oxford Castle: almost 1,000 years old. First a castle, then turned into a prison until the mid 90s. I felt like I was in an episode of Robin Hood! (Those of you who know me well will understand how exciting it was ;)…..)

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Views from Eynsham, the village in Oxfordshire that we stayed in.

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And of course, I would find a samovar in England…

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Dad and I before seeing Les Miserables

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Best parents ever!

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Mom and I

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We ate lunch at “The Eagle and Child,” a pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien used to meet to discuss their writing.

The Realest Day on Earth

On a bone-biting, rainy day back in October, the millennium-old Elabuga received a new tag line that I have no doubt will go down in the annals of Russian history. No sooner did Nick, one of my fellow teachers, arrive in his future residence in Kazan than his hosts dragged him off for a weekend to a little town which turned out to be a hybrid of traditional Russian and Tatar soul and mysterious Slavic eccentricity. Nick told our Thanksgiving clan that as he hiked through the countryside in freezing rain, Elabuga made an unforgettable impression on him. Then and there, Nick christened Elabuga “the realest place on earth.”

Nick’s description of Elabuga has really stuck with me, because in just a few words, it describes the town’s effects better than I could in five pages of narrative. Something about this place, with its simultaneous raw intensity and idyllic quaintness, leaves an impression on you that you can barely describe in any other way than just “real.” If I seem vague, it’s because it’s a “realness” that can’t be described, but needs to be experienced (hint hint: I’d love to have visitors!). Since our get-together in Thanksgiving, our quasi-Tatarstan кружок (circle) has used Nick’s tag line to both humorously and seriously refer to any and everything that goes down in little old Elabuga… which brings me to last Tuesday, what I like to call the realest day on earth.

For the first time in my life, I went skiing.

I know what you’re thinking: “Did she end up in the hospital? Did she run over a babushka?” Well, my friends, I’m happy to say I didn’t do either, but I will say that quite a few babushkas actually showed me up with their skiing skills, and that I did have a few head-on encounters with the snow.

The adventure started when Ksyusha, a woman from the English club, invited me to go skiing on Russian Christmas (January 7th). Feeling a little stir-crazy and missing physical exercise, I quickly agreed. We went with a motley group of high-schoolers, college-age guys who were clearly very sportivniye, and a few thirty-something women. I started out a little wobbly, but was surprised that I didn’t fall right away. I actually did considerably the first half of the forest trek, since there were few steep hills that I had to go up; it was mostly little dips that even someone with my experience could handle. We reached красная гора (Red Mountain), which boasted a beautiful view of a frozen lake and miles of field.

Here we drank tea, ate hazelnut chocolate to give us an energy boost, and took a bunch of photos. The three Russian guys, who had been shy before, even began to warm up to me, one suggesting that they should all pose around me for a picture of “three bears and an American.”

It’s good they warmed up to me, because they basically had to carry me back to our starting point. It all began when I couldn’t get my skis on. Before I knew it, I had two good-looking Russian guys trying in vain to connect my big feet to the skis. After what seemed like five minutes, they finally succeeded in hooking my feet in, and we were off.

It was right about now that I started falling. A lot. And whereas before, I was with two girls from English club and could discretely pick myself up, now I had three guys behind me, simultaneously making me nervous with their presence and ready to pick me up every time I fell. There were three especially memorable moments from our trip back. First, two babushkas were skiing right toward me; I didn’t have the talent to turn away in time, and they barely missed me. Instead of ignoring it, one of the guys starts yelling at the babushkas, telling them “it’s not your road,” and “can’t you see she’s bad at this!” Thanks for the confidence boost, buddy.

Secondly, after struggling for five minutes to get up a hill (after falling on my face as the guys tried to pull me by my ski poles, and after being instructed by a middle-aged Russian man), this babushka flies right past me and conquers the hill as if it were nothing. If I learned one thing that day, it’s that you should not underestimate the babushka.

Finally, and perhaps most embarrassing, I found myself before an even larger hill that there was no way I could climb. This time, one of the guys had to hold my hand while the other skied both our weight and pulled me by my ski pole. The awkward “ride” seemed to go on for hours. Overall though, I had a great time, and the guys were good sports about helping me get through my first time on skis. They also gave me the benefit of the doubt, noting that the skis I had rented bore the number 13. And most importantly, I didn’t hurt myself before my long-awaited trip to the land of the Britons.

My knights in shining ski gear

After our skiing adventure, I stopped at the store for food (where the security guard now knows me and told me in English “good day!”), then met Hanna at the bus stop for a snow hike to the Devil’s Tower. The Devil’s Tower, or Чёртово Городище, is one of Elabuga’s claims to fame, a mysterious lookout surviving from Volga Bulgaria that is thought to date from the 12th century. Of course, most of the tower is a reconstruction, but if I’m not mistaken, it still has some of the stones from the original.

The view is breathtaking, and it is definitely a place I’m looking forward to frequenting once the weather gets a bit warmer.

Hanna and I made sure to bring the necessities for a snow-hike in the realest place on earth. TEA!!!

Breaking the Silence

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a word. I haven’t felt able to write, the depth and heaviness of all that has been going on in my heart has not easily translated to words; the tools of sounds and letters that usually make meaning have run like sand through my clenched fists as I have grasped for a way to make sense of guttural, overwhelming consciousness. For a month, all I have been able to do is to open my mouth and utter an unintelligible, emotional groan, words seeming irrelevant when the waves I thought should have subsided by now keep slapping me, and I am only able to form the words, “help me Lord, I need you.”

Many language learners go through a “silent period” in the early stages of immersion. It is a time when the learner is so inundated with new sounds and tones and meaning that he acts like a sponge, not producing any language himself. This doesn’t mean he isn’t learning; speech will eventually emerge, but he simply needs to absorb for a while. This month has been its own silent period for me, as I have struggled just to keep my head above water, simply absorbing what God is doing in and through me without being able to make sense of it like I want to.

Although I can’t begin to plumb the depths of the changes taking place inside me, I am beginning to see how God has used this difficult time in my life to make me more like Christ, to mature my perspective, to bring me to a more daring, vulnerable trust in Him. I feel older, and part of me doesn’t like that. I feel that I have aged 5 years in the past three months, having lost the romance and twinkle in my eye that Russia used to light in me. I feel older, and part of me knows that this is good, that I am stepping out of a transient fantasy into concrete, messy, but colorful reality. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that I believed that He wanted me here and I still believe that He does. But every morning that I get up, bundle up and plod the wintery way, I realize more and more that I am a different person than I was in September.

Three months ago, I would have told you that freedom is synonymous with wandering, and that roots are synonymous with chains. I would have told you, if I really trusted you, that maybe this running away to Russia wasn’t as brave as it seemed, since I thought that steady was synonymous with stale and lifeless, and boring was synonymous with depression. That life, real, conscious, colorful life was synonymous with running into an adventure that could swallow me into purpose, where each day could be a story, quantifiably exciting, to be snatched and put in a snow globe, waiting to be shaken up and retold.

And maybe it is not that I am growing up and out of something actually, but that layers are being scraped off, eyes are being cleansed of perspectives that I thought were central to who I thought I was, revealing themselves to be superficial ideals that actually distract me from my calling. My favorite part of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is when Eustace, who has turned into a dragon by his own fault, has to have Aslan peel off his scales in order for him to become human again. When Edmund asks him what it was like when Aslan changed him back, Eustace replies (in the movie version),

“No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t do it myself. Then he came towards me. It sort of hurt, but… it was a good pain. You know, like when you pull a thorn from your foot.”

What God is working in me hurts, but it is a good pain. I see Him scraping off layer after layer of frivolous Hope and frivolous hope(yes, I just did that) and replacing it with a gaze closer to Christ’s.

Before I left, I was a girl with her eyes always on the country that she fell in love with, using it as a tool of escapism, believing that it was her mission to be there, that life in the States would mean depression, thinking that in order for life to have meaning, it had to be an exciting novel. And then I lived in a foreign country, really lived in it, not in a bubbled, protective study abroad program. I found out that I don’t like living alone. That what I truly desire more than a career is a family. That I still want to write, write, write! And for the first time, I realized that America is home, that maybe roots are a good thing, and that hectic and adventure and unpredictable are still fun, but that stability is not synonymous with stale.

I’m not afraid of boring anymore. I no longer see roots as synonymous with chains. I’ve become more practical in a good way. Like my hero Anne of Green Gables realized the year she went away, “I went looking for my ideals outside of myself.”  I’ve learned that living a life worthy of the Gospel doesn’t necessarily entail drama, but blossoms in the quiet moments, being willing and open to the Holy Spirit and watching Him in awe as he works miracles in the mundane.

I still long for that romance that first drew me to Russia, that summer camp, twelve year old candy-like joy of running through a mile-high forest with new friends, to feel smoky, crisp summer air blow my hair as we tear through the night with a crazy driver, obnoxious pop music igniting our veins.  To have late-night conversations in platzkarts and to find magical swimming holes that are as close to Narnia as we’ll ever be, feeling that we’ve conquered time somehow. And although I am growing up into reality, I know that this romance is as needed and as real as ever, that growing up doesn’t mean losing the song that He put in my heart ten years ago. And in the New Year, He gifted me with a glimpse of what drew me here in the first place, at a time when I thought it was lost forever. As I walked through St. Petersburg at night with a friend I thought I’d never see again, bright lights against the dark blue sky and darker Neva, I felt the years I had gained come off. As we retraced footsteps from a far-away summer and reminisced about where we had been and shared where He had brought us, I walked into light and joy and peace,  given perspective in this time of painful refinement, and hope to press on.

Some treasures from 2 Corinthians that have encouraged me in the past few months:

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.”

2 Corinthians 1: 8-10

 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

2 Corinthians 4: 7-12

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

The Country Where the G.P.S. Scolds You: A Little Post on Cultural Differences

After about a month of being here, I am still finding it hard to adjust in certain ways. I am not yet used to what, through my cultural lens, appears to be unnecessary harshness and scolding. Although on the logical level, I understand that American and Russian communication styles differ greatly, I have still taken the seeming abrasiveness very seriously, avoiding or dreading situations that will involve being scolded. My knee-jerk reaction is to take it all very personally; for example, I still felt upset hours after a marshrutka driver yelled at me when I forgot to close the door to the bus. This was all until I experienced G.P.S a la Russe.

After a restful weekend in the city of Kazan (more about that in a later post), I ordered a charter taxi-van to bring me the 3 hours back to Elabuga. I was the first passenger, so the driver (who used so much slang I had no idea what he was saying) plugged other passengers’ addresses into his G.P.S., and off into the city we went.
So you know how in America, when we make a wrong turn, a robotic but decidedly female voice says, “recalculating”? Well, when the taxi driver decided he knew better than the G.P.S., a slightly less robotic male voice blurted out in an irritated tone, «Зачем отклонились от маршрута!?», “Why did you go off the route!? You must turn at the next left!”

I thought I had misheard; after all, in my mind, there was no possible reason for actually programming scolding into a G.P.S. system. As the driver wove through the city traffic, I listened closely, and heard it again and again. “Why did you go off the route!? Why did you go off the route!?” Just to make completely sure, I typed it into Google on my phone, and sure enough, it yielded lots of results for Russian G.P.S. systems. As the taxi gained more and more passengers, not one Russian seemed to think that the constant scolding was anything but normal. As for me though, I was trying my best not to burst into laughter, both at the absurdity of programming scolding into a GPS system and at the Russians’ non-reaction.

I am sure it will still take me quite a bit more time to get used to the Russian communication style, but at least I am starting to understand it more. My experience with the G.P.S. showed me that Americans and Russians perceive scolding in very different ways. I have yet to understand exactly why scolding plays such a prominent role in Russian communication or how exactly Russians perceive it differently than Americans, but I realize now that I shouldn’t take it personally. So the next time I am scolded and am tempted to hang my head in shame, I’ll remember the irritated voice of Mr. Russian G.P.S. and do my best to crack a wide American smile.