A Countercultural Faith: Why We Should Fight for Community in a Culture that Idolizes Independence

Nearing the end of my time in Russia in 2014, I sat with a close friend trying to puzzle out my next steps. I was going to be in grad school part-time, which would make a full-time job difficult, but I had to find a way to support myself. I was convinced, absolutely convinced, that it was imperative for me to set out on my own. I couldn’t return to my parents’ house if I wanted to wear the title of true adult; going back home would be to regress into immaturity and an unhealthy dependence. It would definitely be something to be ashamed of.

But my Russian friend didn’t see it that way.

“Why don’t you just live with your family, Hope?” she asked. “It would be good for you and good for them. You could help to support each other.”

The way she said it made it sound so easy-too easy, when as a young adult I should be paving my own way, not relying on others, being self-sufficient and independent. But something about her words made my perspective ring hollow. And as I let her words linger, I began to realize that my perspective wasn’t necessarily right, it was just…American.

The Role of Culture in Our Worldview

Although I thought that my viewpoint was one built by morality and maturity, I see now that it was actually a perspective built largely by my culture. It took seeing through the lens of another culture to realize that my view did not have the moral high ground.

The more I interact with my international friends and students, the clearer it becomes that as humans, we often place moral judgment on other cultures’ viewpoints and behaviors when in reality, our way of doing things isn’t necessarily better than theirs.

A great example of this is the typical American’s reaction upon entering Russia and being met with unsmiling, seemingly harsh faces. Americans tend to interpret a lack of a constant smile through their cultural lens: in America, smiling equals politeness and goodwill, so these unsmiling Russians must be rude, cold, surly people. What most don’t know though, is that a smile has a different definition in Russia. Russians generally smile when they are truly happy, and it is not seen as necessary to smile in public. In fact, it may even come across as disingenuous. So smiling, something we assign moral value to without even realizing it, is actually more neutral than we realize.

I believe it is much the same with the American ideal of independence. Many of us were taught the value of hard work and being able to support oneself from a young age, and there is much to be said in favor of this. However, I’ve learned that when this principle is taken to the extreme of I don’t need anyone else, the effects can be devastating. Since that conversation with my friend back in 2014, I’ve gotten to explore the issues of American independence and individualism through conversations with my international students and friends, in my grad work, and in my experience living both sides of the story. And the conclusion I’ve come to is that the belief that independence from others equals maturity and freedom is a lie that has had costly effects on our culture.

Dissecting American Individualism

The Geert-Hofstede model of cultural dimensions is a fascinating way to see how American culture’s individualism stacks up to that of other countries. For those of you who like Myers Briggs (INFJ anyone?), it’s basically the Myers Briggs for countries and their cultures. Geert Hofstede analyzed different cultures by 6 orientations: Masculinity, Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Indulgence, Future-Orientation, and of course, Individualism. All are fascinating, but what stands out especially when you see America is how much higher it is on the individualism scale than that of the cultures of many of my friends and students. Geert Hofstede defines individualism as “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members.” It has to do with whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. In Individualist societies, people are only supposed to look after themselves and their direct family. In Collectivist societies, people belong to “in groups” that take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/the-usa/)

What this means for American culture in general is that, “The society is loosely-knit in which the expectation is that people look after themselves and their immediate families only and should not rely (too much) on authorities for support. There is also a high degree of geographical mobility in the United States. Americans are the best joiners in the world; however it is often difficult, especially among men, to develop deep friendships.” (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/the-usa/)

This “loosely-knit” geographically mobile culture is in stark contrast to the more collectivist cultures I am familiar with. Take Russia and China for example. Russia comes in at 39 on the individualism scale, while China scores a mere 20.

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Chart: https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/

Collectivist culture manifests itself in different ways, both negative and positive. One thing that I have found in cultures that are more collectivist is that a.) moving out of the house is not a rite of passage into adulthood, but families often live together, and b.) there are tightly knit communities that are not only based around the nuclear family. Whereas in collectivist culture, community is almost a given, in American culture, it is relatively foreign. There are certainly pros and cons to both individualistic and collectivist cultures, but what I want to highlight is that pursuing community certainly doesn’t come naturally to Americans.

Many of my ESL students have expressed bewilderment and a sense of sadness at the way Americans act as individuals rather than as part of the community, for example, moving across the country on one’s own for a job. Whereas Americans take pride in their self-sufficiency and view isolation as a necessary cost of success, many I know from other cultures would argue that the toll that loneliness takes on a person far outweighs any benefits.

An Afghani friend who studied psychology hypothesized that the current mental health crisis in the U.S. is strongly related to loneliness and isolation. My own experience supports my friend’s thoughts. During my 9 months in Russia, I had no church community and was an outsider in a closely-knit foreign culture. By four months in, my mental health weakened to a point where I didn’t know if I could wait it out. God gave me the grace to push through to the end of my grant, but I came back a shell of myself.

Then, 3 years later, I became one of those Americans who moved across the country for a job. It seemed like the perfect opportunity at the time, but it soon became clear that what the job required of me would leave no margin for the type of deep Christian community I longed for, one that was woven into the fabric of my daily life. I felt myself wilting by the day, so I decided to make a choice that seemed strange from an American perspective and leave it all behind. I left a stable job with a fancy title for a place where I had no job lined up, but I knew that I would be living life with my best friend.

When I arrived in Burnt Hills, I didn’t think that I would find a true Christian community. I had become cynical of the possibilities for community that the American church structure provided, and I hadn’t seen many people who thirsted for community like I did, who had been so deprived of it that they wanted to find it and never let go. But God surprised me by placing me in the midst a diverse group of people united in their love for Jesus Christ and a desire to do life together.

This, I found, was the body of Christ in action. Imperfect, but beautiful. Human, but miraculous.

Called to Be Countercultural

As Americans steeped in an individualistic culture, it may feel natural to approach our faith as a solely personal thing: me and God and maybe my family, but nobody else. But if we approach our faith like this, we disobey the Lord and we lose something precious.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul calls us the body of Christ, in which God lives and works and ministers. As the body of Christ, each of us has a specific function given for the common good (1 Cor. 12). God has given each of us spiritual gifts, but we can’t live solely off of our own gift. God may have given me the gift of discernment, for example, but it’s arrogant to think that I can live my Christian life without others encouraging me, teaching me, and loving me. It is also selfish to not contribute what God has given me to the common good. We are not meant to function alone, but we “are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” (Romans 12:5)

During my short time being a part of this community, I can attest to the way that I have seen the body of Christ work together toward the common good and for the purposes of God’s kingdom. One thing that has been special to me is the way the Lord surrounds us and provides for us through His people.

Recently, we had a worship and prayer night with a visual that powerfully illustrated this reality. We stood in a circle while different struggles and sins were named. We were encouraged to step in the circle to receive prayer for those struggles and sins and to be reminded that we were not in this alone.

It was what happened after the service that was the most powerful though. Friends laid hands on me and prayed for me that evening. One checked in on me during the weeks after, talking through my tangled emotions and offering the blunt truth I needed to hear. And when God freed me from my struggle in an unexpected miracle, this friend was there to praise the Lord with me. This is just one of the ways I’ve seen God work over these past 5 months through this body of believers. And as I reflect upon my time here, I’ve seen myself change in many ways:

  • Whereas once I thought that a romantic relationship was the only thing that would take the ache of loneliness away, deep-hearted friendships with other believers have replaced my frantic longing with a hopeful contentment.
  • I feel empowered to use my gifts for the common good. Now that I’ve been poured into, I have energy to pour out, and I have the desire and opportunity to minister to others with the gifts that God has given me.
  • And most importantly, I’m growing leaps and bounds in my love for Jesus and in the knowledge of His love for me.

Aggressively Pursue Community

It is not easy to pursue Christian community in our culture. Many of us are raised and conditioned to solve our problems on our own and to approach our faith in isolation. But now that I have seen, experienced, and participated in a community that is committed to God’s kingdom and committed to each other, I can earnestly say that any sacrifice it takes to pursue this type of community pales in comparison to the beauty, grace, and power that you’ll receive from it.

Christian community is certainly not perfect; in our sinful state we still hurt each other, in our differences we frustrate each other, and in our limited perspectives we misunderstand each other. A quick glance at Paul’s letters tells us the story has been the same from the earliest of churches. But the miraculous thing is that though on our own we are sinful and petty and weak, Jesus Christ has blessed us with the honor of being His body and whose power in us overcomes our shortcomings. “[We] are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

So my charge to believers who are reading is this: aggressively pursue community. This will look different depending on your season of life, but the principle is the same: seek out a group of likeminded people who desire a community that goes beyond crossing paths once a week, who are committed to using their gifts and keeping you accountable and spurring you onward in this journey of becoming more like Christ. It may take time. It may take sacrifice. But it is so, so worth it.

The Land of Seven Fridays

Yesterday, my Russian teacher taught me that you can describe a person who is constantly changing his mind and plans as someone who “has seven Fridays in a week.” As she explained the phrase in detail, I (perhaps smugly) smiled at how this simple little phrase so precisely encapsulates Russian culture. If I have learned one thing about staying sane in this country in my three month stay, it is to hold plans loosely, because they probably will change at the very last minute. I can’t say that this check-list making, syllabus-loving girl has become comfortable with knowing that her Monday could turn into a Tuesday and then possibly a Friday, but I will say that living in a culture of ambiguity and uncertainty is  helping me to grow past my fear of not being in control. The last few weeks have highlighted this lack of control, as last minute events and assignments have been shoveled on me, heavy and thick like the snow that now blankets Elabuga. I am doing my best to observe how Russians approach this aspect of their culture and have been trying to follow suit, bundling up in alternating layers of preparation and flexibility, then stepping out to face the cold, windy, but sometimes glittery elements.

The last few weeks have been filled with events and experiences that all have this common thread of expectations being shattered and last minute decisions directing the show. Here’s a bit of an update for you all on life in the land of seven Fridays.

I’m a Director?

As a girl who grew up with a magician for a father, theater is in my blood, and I was excited to have the chance to put on a short play with my fourth year students. The dean has been asking me to be active with students outside my classes, so I thought that a little, low-key event would be a great way to start out. In my last post, I mentioned my embarrassing likeness to Chekhov’s Chervyakov in his story “The Death of a Government Clerk,” but what I didn’t tell you was that this story resonated with me so much that, three years ago, I adapted it into a play for a theater group I was in. I took an English translation of the story, put the lines to rhyme, and voila, had a ten minute comedy about a man who worries himself to death. I decided that this would be a fun play for my students to try out.

The day of the play, I walked in to the classroom where my students were to perform to find a bright-eyed journalist interviewing my students alongside a cameraman outfitted with all the clunky equipment any good paparazzi should own. The journalist quickly grabbed me and started a list of rapid fire questions in Russian. “Why did you choose this play?” “Why did you start studying Russian?” “How do Russian students differ from American students?” I answered as well as I could under the circumstances, but with a microphone in my face and a camera greedily surveying my every move, I definitely reverted to a bit of Russian 101, making mistakes that I thought I had left in the previous decade.

But there was little time to think about my Russian; before I knew it I had switched to English, standing on a stage before forty Russian students, extemporaneously speaking about Chekhov’s influence on American literature. Those of you who know me will understand just how big a step this was, since any sort of public presentation, let alone off the cuff speeches, have been in both my “afraid of” and “not good at” boxes. But in these past three months, I have found myself doing things I swore I would never do.  I think that when one’s daily reality changes dramatically, in some senses it is easier to put oneself in a role that had been mentally off-limits in the home culture. Back in America, as I said, I had created boxes for myself that dictated what I could and couldn’t do. Here, my identity is more fluid, without those comfortable boxes holding me in place, and though sometimes I feel less anchored, the change in reality has created space for me to do things I never thought I was capable of.

Anyway, my speech went relatively well and my students did great, although I missed most of the performance because the journalist wouldn’t stop asking me questions… After the program ended I was given a bouquet of flowers and people started congratulating me as if I had directed the latest production of Phantom of the Opera. I took the congratulations numbly, confused and amused by the fanfare.

The next day, a woman at the local English Club excitedly told me that I had been on TV and sent me the link. And sure enough, there was a five minute story about this new teacher-director-author, showcasing an interview with my students and me, framing the play as a masterpiece.

My students and I after the play. Here is the link to the news story.  Start at 7:50.

I’m a Teacher?

Although I am almost three months into it, it still feels strange, and almost wrong, for me to be in the role of teacher rather than student, especially since my students are almost my age. In America, I would never be considered qualified to autonomously teach 3 college classes. The responsibility is truly overwhelming, and most days I feel like an 8 year old girl “playing” teacher.

I really do enjoy what I’m doing, but so often, even though I plan and put thought into lessons, I feel disorganized and chaotic, fearing that I’m not actually being helpful to the students. Also, concerning curriculum, I thought I had understood what I was supposed to teach, but last week the head of the department informed me that students were supposed to read 500 pages a semester, and that I was supposed to have assigned them an individual reading book. I had heard of “individual reading,” but no one had told me about the minimum page requirement, so I had assigned them A Christmas Carol (100 pages :D). So the next period, I had to assign them all a 250 page book to read by the end of the semester. I thought my students would be upset, but they seemed nonplussed and accepted it in stride. I guessed I shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, they have 20 years more experience than I do in this culture.

Thankfully, I was able to talk to a very helpful teacher who eased my fears a bit by giving me some details on exams and curriculum, but then came the next “Friday.”

“And by the way,” she said, “today is the last day of your course in creative writing.”

“Oh, really?” I answered calmly, but the phrase that has become my constant companion threatened to surface:

“Why did no one tell me about this!?”

If she had not casually mentioned it, I would have had no idea that my creative writing class was not indeed a full semester course. Sigh.

So yes, navigating the unwritten rules of Russian academic culture and expectations has been trying, but if I approach teaching with the right perspective, these are really peripheral issues that should not steal my energy and joy. It is the students that I am here for, and it is the students that encourage me not to become disillusioned in these transitions from student to teacher, college life to work world. Here are a few pictures of some of the fun things we’ve been doing in class:

So, my all girl class really likes Channing Tatum, and we're working through a unit on film. We had a relay race to see how many adjectives they could think of to describe different actors and characters.
So, my all girl class really likes Channing Tatum, and we’re working through a unit on film. We had a relay race to see how many adjectives they could think of to describe different actors and characters.
In my creative writing class, I gave each student a writing prompt. They were to write for five minutes, then pass their paper to the next student, who would pick up where they left off. What resulted was some pretty funny stories. This one is my favorite, in which a young man finds an envelope full of money, then has to escape from a gangster in a sombrero.
In my creative writing class, I gave each student a writing prompt. They were to write for five minutes, then pass their paper to the next student, who would pick up where they left off. What resulted was some pretty funny stories. This one is my favorite, in which a young man finds an envelope full of money, then has to escape from a gangster in a sombrero.

I’m in America?

Navigating the land with seven Fridays can really run you down, and I’ve found that the best medicine for culture-fatigue is interaction with those from one’s home culture. This is why I was so thankful to celebrate Thanksgiving with four other Fulbrighters. Nick, who works at a sports institute in Kazan, hosted us at his luxurious dormitory. And no, “luxurious” is not a sarcastic barb; Nick’s living space is truly like a hotel. The complex he lives in was built in 2010 and houses Russian student athletes. It has very tight security, and not only did Nick have to go through round after round of bureaucracy to secure us rooms, but we had to go through two checkpoints to get in.

Our two days in Kazan almost created the illusion that we had gone back to America. We savored each day slowly, exploring the city, laughing into the early hours of the morning, eating good food. Because of the limited cooking equipment we had, we actually started cooking our Thanksgiving meal (complete with a chicken that we lovingly dubbed “turkey”) at 7:30 in the evening and ate our dessert of apple pie and ice cream around 2:00 in the morning.

Karin and Hanna relaxing in the hands of the complex :)
Karin and Hanna relaxing in the hands of the complex 🙂

Feeling refreshed and ready to take on December, we parted ways, but of course, right outside the comfort of our American bubble lurked another “Friday.”The day before we left Kazan, I mustered up my courage and ordered a taxi for me and Hanna. Three months ago I never would have attempted it, but I’m at the point now where successfully talking on the phone in Russian gives me something akin to a runner’s high. The woman on the other line understood me and said a driver would come get us at 3:00…And yes, you guessed the punch line: 3:00 came and went, and no taxi was to be found. I called the taxi company, and the woman seemed surprised that the driver was not there, saying that she would call him “to find out what’s up.” She sounded like she was going to kick butt, but when I called her back twenty minutes later she said, “it turns out that… he left without you.”

Of course.

I forgot.

This is Russia.

Thankfully, she called another cab, and an hour and a half later, we got into our ride home. But our trip would not be complete without an authentic exemplar of Russian masculinity. A guy our age climbed into the front seat with three bottles of beer, presumably having already drunk one, and started talking to us. At first, his questions were normal, acceptable, but after his second bottle of beer, he asked us, no, demanded of us over and over that we go to the club or café with him. These invitations alternated with his telling us “enough speaking in English! I can’t understand what you’re saying.” After our third refusal, he grumbled that we were too serious and finally passed out in the front seat…

Now that I’ve been back in Elabuga for about a week, I am beginning to think that of all the cities I’ve been in Russia, Elabuga embodies this concept of seven Fridays the best, both in its outer world and in my inner life. I am constantly changing my mind about this town. Some days I feel sharply homesick and beaten down by trying to function in a culture so different from my own. Elabuga itself can be an intimidating place; it is small, close-knit, and hard to break into.  But some days, when I feel just about ready to give up, Elabuga changes my mind and hints of the romance that once drew me to Russia, enchanting me with glittery snow in the wind, life-size gingerbread houses and snow laden pines, with the smile of a jolly old man feeding hungry kitties, with the laughter of students and with the gift of homemade honey from a Russian teacher. You definitely have to look for the magic more, but it’s there.

A nine foot snowman outside my dorm.
A nine foot snowman outside my dorm.

First Day at Work

When my host contact dropped me off at my dorm on Friday afternoon, all he told me was just to come in on Monday. This vagueness did not do much to settle my detail-oriented, American mind, but learning to be okay with the unknown is just a part of adjusting to Russian culture. I had no idea whether I would be expected to teach on that first day, so I prepared a few get to know you games as well as spruced up a PowerPoint I had made about my life in America.

My host contact, and older man in his last year of teaching, picked me up from my dorm, and just like he had on our drive from the airport to Elabuga, he barely said a word. I was initially disconcerted by his silence, confused as to how to relate to him. I am still not quite sure how to relate to him, but this morning I was put much more at ease when I met many of the women who teach in the English department. One of the teachers, a small, unassuming woman also in her last year of teaching, helped me to set up a library account, took me to register my passport, and acquainted me with the curriculum.

And as it turns out, I will not be assisting teachers, but actually teaching my own classes! I will be teaching a conversation class twice a week, a current events/newspaper class once a week, and I will also be teaching a creative writing class. It is strange to think that only four months after graduating college, I will now be teaching college classes. It was definitely both exciting and nerve-wracking to see “H. Johnson” on the schedule hanging on the fourth floor of the institute. I will be teaching my first class on Wednesday, but until then, I am trying to get to know the city better.

After getting my schedule worked out, a student from the institute named Anya showed me around Elabuga. I saw “The Devil’s Tower,” which, according to her, it is over 1,000 years old and has lots of folklore surrounding it (which I will need to look up!).

Anya, her friend Dasha, and Dasha’s boyfriend Radion also took me to buy a winter coat and an umbrella. Radion was a considerably good driver by Russian standards- he only swerved around a corner once 🙂

Let’s just say there wasn’t as much choice as I would have liked in coats…so I am definitely going to look very Russian! The coat is a long tan puffer with a contrasting darker tan hood and belt, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything exactly like it in America. The coat also came with a hat that was both bedazzled and had pom-poms, but this, dear reader, is where I draw the line.

All in all, I am doing much better than I was over the weekend. Slowly but surely, I am getting to know the city, beginning to understand the transportation system, and best of all, starting to meet Russians!

My Almost Arranged Marriage (or the Irony of Fate)

“I am so happy to see you! I need to talk with you about a very important matter.” The elderly woman’s light blue eyes, circled in soft wrinkles, gleamed with urgency. I smiled and felt the characteristic excitement that comes with crossing the barrier of small talk to genuine conversation with a Russian, and I gleefully agreed.

I had met Tatiana in the hotel lobby a few days before; while she was checking into the hotel, she asked me to watch her bags. As soon as I opened my mouth, it became clear to her that I was not Russian. From there I found out that she spoke fluent French, had taught for quite a few years, and was staying for a few days in Moscow before going to visit her family in Israel. Tatiana struck me as eccentric from the beginning; she spoke to me with an intensity and openness that I have not typically experienced the first time I meet a Russian.

Before I reluctantly ended the conversation (two girls from my group were waiting for me), she looked me in the eye and said in a definitive tone, “Just don’t get married while you’re here. I know sexually there might be the attraction, but it is just not enough time to really know a person.”

“I completely agree,” I answered, pleased that she seemed to share my conviction that this year was not the one for romance, at least with a Russian.

“It was wonderful meeting you, and I wish you success.” She smiled at me as we parted.

But as fate would have it, this was not our last meeting…

Skip to two days later, when Tatiana bumps into me and exuberantly invites me to talk with her about a very important matter. My first inclination was to think she was simply lonely and wanted to have tea with a willing listener. Perhaps she would give me advice on teaching; after all, we seemed to have similar cross-cultural interests. Or maybe she was a Mormon who hoped to share her faith with me.

There was no way for me to know that the real reason she wanted to talk with me could be summed up in one word: судьба.

The English translation of the word судьба as “fate,” is a weak definition at best because of the stark contrasts in perception of the word in American and Russian culture. Whereas Americans have the culturally ingrained mindset that our futures can be molded by action and perseverance, the Russian culture emphasizes the role of fate in the paths that our lives take. So although we have the word in our lexicon, we do not attach the spiritual and emotional weight to it that Russians do.

Tatiana and I sat down in the hotel café, where I ordered a black tea and she offered me dark chocolates dusted in cocoa. For thirty minutes, she told me about her life traveling with her military husband, her work as a translator, how she adored France and French people, and how art and culture were integral parts of being an intelligent, educated person. I was entranced by her clear, slow speech, stories gleaming with details, and her love for learning. She even tried to teach me a few phrases in French. About thirty minutes into the conversation, she looked at me with a smile and said, “but you’re probably wondering why I asked you here.”

“Da,” I answered, a subconscious premonition hinting at where this might be going. She started to weave stories of her nephew into her narrative, “a talented artist who graduated with honors, a man who is humble and shy…would you like to see a picture of him?”

Biting my lip, I conceded. I was faced by a decidedly poor picture of an average looking man in his late twenties. He was standing beside a large painting, apparently talking about his work, his eyes turned away from the camera.

“Do you like?” she asked. The Russian way of asking if you like something doesn’t require an object, so it was ambiguous as to if she was asking about him or his painting. Not wanting to offend, I muttered a “da,” and grasped for a tactful way to exit the situation. As if hearing my thoughts, the plump, smiling waitress explained that we needed to leave since others needed to eat and we were only drinking tea.

Tatiana, however, had not made a full case for her nephew Ilya, and invited me to her hotel room. My fascination with the situation outweighed any qualms I had, so I agreed. After following her into her third floor room, Tatiana sat me down and said, “so, have you understood me?”

“Um…You would like me and your nephew to meet?”

“Yes, I knew you were an intelligent girl!”

“I don’t know…” I said weakly, my Russian skills fleeing as my nervousness spiked.

“I just want him to marry an intelligent, well-brought up girl, and I knew you were from the minute I saw you. You see, I just think it might be fate. Why else would I have met you in the hotel lobby that day, then bump into you two days later? It might be судьба.”

Or perhaps it’s because we’re in the same hotel building, I thought smugly, but managed to keep a straight face.

“But I don’t know him,” I said.

“But I know him! He has no problems.”

All this from the woman who had told me not to get married while I was in Russia because it was not enough time to really know someone. But as the Russian saying goes, you can’t outrun fate.

Still, I thought a little Russian bluntness might douse the fire of fate. I explained to her that I was a Christian and that it was very important for me to marry someone who shared my beliefs. This led into a very interesting exchange on religion and its place in the marriage relationship. I was able to explain to her the centrality of Christ in my life, which seemed to surprise her. “You won’t find youth like this in Russia,” she said.

Although she tried to convince me that cross-religious relationships would work (the dashing Ilya was Jewish), she slowly started to get the hint, and two hours after we sat down, we parted amicably. She gave me her number and encouraged me to call her, no doubt counting on fate to bring us together again.

I returned to my hotel room with a smile in my heart, energized by the reminder of why I am hopelessly in love with vast country and its mysterious, beautiful people who are not constrained by the prison of logic and practicality, but who allow room for belief in the unknown, the untouched, the unseen. I can already tell this is going to be a great year.