A Drunken Perspective

A throwback to my time in Nizhniy Novgorod three years ago. It’s interesting to reflect on the perspectives I held then and how I have grown…

From the moment I first landed on Slavic soil, everything in Russia had seemed full of novelty. Washing clothes in my dorm’s scummy tub wasn’t gross; it was adventurous. Russian cigarette smoke didn’t make me cough; it spiced the air with culture. Even being forbidden to flush toilet paper was somehow exotic.

View from the upper section of Nizhniy Novgorod

So when a drunken man stumbled into our sleeping car on the way to Moscow, I wasn’t surprised that I felt the same childlike excitement. The over-friendly man took a seat across from my friend Kelly and me and scooted close to my messily bearded friends Mitchel and Andrew (for some reason they had made a pact to spend the whole semester without the luxury of a razor.) Andrei, as he introduced himself, was thirtyish, with sandy blonde hair, nondescript eyes and foggy glasses. If this were Boston, I might have felt repulsion, pity, or even fear. But instead, I felt like a little girl at the zoo, sensing her skin prickle at a lion’s roar but knowing that the bars of a cage ensured her safety.  Somehow, I had persuaded myself that this was a different world, a Narnia, where nothing could actually go wrong. Well, at least I could get away with things that I couldn’t in America. I could go on sketchy amusement park rides without my father’s resistance. I could zoom around town in an overstuffed car without wearing a seatbelt. I could strip down without shame in a communal bath house. So I could certainly make friends with a drunken man on a train. I became very friendly.

Sadly though, my friends didn’t share my excitement. At Andrei’s sudden arrival, Mitchel’s blue eyes flashed with an overzealous annoyance. Andrew seemed amused, but only yawningly, perhaps enjoying Mitchel’s discomfort. They clearly didn’t understand that this wasn’t just a drunken man, this was a drunken Russian man! How could they not see that we were in for a treat? Mitchel’s eyes bugged out in frustration, Andrew leaned back in boredom, Kelly took the role of cautious observer, but I was on the edge of my seat. To my delight, after ten minutes of listening to Andrei’s jolly blabber, he was ready to tell us his life story.

“Do you know why I’m going to Moscow?” Andrei’s eyes glinted, confident that he was the charmingest Don Juan this side of Mt.Elbrus. “I’m going to meet my love!” He breathed ecstatically. I leaned in closer.

“Well, you see, I am married.” He paused. “But it doesn’t matter! It’s love!” My eyes went wide in surprise and delight. If I’d looked at my reflection in the dirty, Soviet-era window, I’m sure I would have seen a girl grinning like a child eating birthday cake, the joy in the sugary messiness of the night staining my face. This was not adultery; this was not real. This was just a story, and we were now extras in Andrei’s epic of a tryst. Wasn’t this why I had fallen in love with Russia? Every day was an adventure, filled with intriguing characters that gave me stories that could be told and retold when I was back in boring old America. Encouraged by our silence, Andrei then launched into a poetical diatribe on the meaning of love. I struggled to keep a straight face as I translated his words to my disgruntled friends. At this rate, this story was going to make my top five.

“Drink with me, my friends!” he cheered, clearly planning to take advantage of the train’s food service.

“No,” we declined, motioning refusal with our hands. I tried to explain our refusal, excited to see how well I could communicate in my third grade Russian.

“I usually don’t drink, so I don’t want to risk getting drunk right now.”

He leered at me knowingly. “You’re just afraid to fall in love with us.” I giggled. What he could have meant by his Gollum-like assertion was a mystery, but I gleefully etched it into my mind, adding it to the file that stored the antics of my favorite Russian characters.

“We have to get him out of here!” Mitchel growled.  No, please no! I wanted to know what was going to happen next.

“I’ll have three beers,” Andrei ordered the train attendant.

“Remember, we said we are not going to drink with you!” Mitchel retorted in his Tennessee twang.

“No,” he said, incredulous. “They are all for me!” Andrei explained. Mitchel rolled his eyes. I grinned, adding the quote to Andrei’s budding character résumé. Our enigmatic professor Harley, who had grown up Amish and lived as an expat in Bulgaria for a number of years, came upon our saloon scene. The seventy year old man with his ever-present black beret and love for cats was famous for his unpredictable constancy. It was his paradox of character that made him so intriguing; the more he talked about himself, the less we knew, and it always seemed he was slightly smirking at us with his mysterious old eyes. His reaction to our plight was signature Harley. Mitchel silently begged our professor for help with desperate eyes.  But with a conspiratorial smirk, he started to make conversation with our new friend. After a few minutes, with the mischievous gait of an adolescent boy, he kept on walking through the train, leaving us to fend for ourselves.

The rest of the night played out just as I had hoped, with Andrei resisting Mitchel’s pleas to leave and his tales continuing and the account getting juicier and juicier. Late that night, Andrei finally left our cabin, leaving three green beer bottles and a memory that I can now see was loudly caricatured by my craving for novelty. This character, this piece of entertainment, had bills to pay and work to do and a wife that he had hurt.

And in my ecstatic grabbing at a Russian adventure, I had simplified him into a cartoon character, colorful but flat.

I didn’t see him as a human, but as an extra in my own personal plotline.

I hadn’t thought about Andrei’s poor wife, married to a drunk who was running off with another woman.

And I certainly hadn’t thought that Andrei too, might be a hurting, lonely man.

I wonder what Andrei is doing right now. Maybe he’s sneaking off on another escapade with his secret lover. Maybe he’s late for work, nursing a hangover from too much vodka the night before. But maybe, just maybe, he’s at a bar, telling his friends the story of the stupid but amusing Americans he once met on a train to Moscow.

Your Tongue Will Get You All the Way to Kiev

Язык до Киева доведет. Your tongue will get you all the way to Kiev. My RD in Vladimir last summer shared this proverb with us to remind us of the power of using our voice. For many people, this little epigram is simple to carry out, but no matter how badly I desire boldness, assertiveness eludes me like the Roadrunner outruns Wile E. Coyote. It is embarrassing to admit, but despite my many times abroad, I cringe at the thought of approaching ticket counters. In reality, no one cares other than me if I make a fool of myself, but I still carry around the inflated image of scowling matrons and customs officers disgusted by the incompetence of stupid American girls. This image has stopped me many times from using my voice. On top of this my reticence to approach the ominous “other,” I rarely travel alone, so I have gotten into the bad habit of defaulting to the eagle-eyed directional skills of my friends.

When it comes to travel, I am a follower.

When it comes to travel, I am too timid.

Not wanting to impose upon the very people whose job it is to be imposed upon, I walk around terminals and train stations with unsure steps, hoping and praying that I actually board the right plane or train.

You’d think I would have learned by now that timidity in traveling is a vice that needs to be vigorously fought; after all, it was not asking questions that once landed me in the wrong airport without money or a phone. But still, no matter how badly I want to be assertive, no matter how many times I try to reframe the situation with psychological tricks, it still takes everything inside me to confidently state my question or concern to an unsmiling stranger. Add to this a language barrier, and the fear level spikes. I will never forget the adrenaline-filled trepidation that overwhelmed me as I approached the ticket counter to buy my first train ticket in Russia. Of course, it wasn’t as scary as I had imagined, but still, when I successfully bought the ticket to where I needed to go, I felt as victorious as if I had won a marathon, and almost as exhausted.

Now that I’m going to be doing extensive independent travel in my year abroad, I realize that putting so much emotional energy into such an everyday task will be exhausting. I’m going to need a lot more смелость (boldness) if I’m going to thrive in the rigors of the Russian travel system. So as a “warm-up,” I decided to take a trip down to Boston this week. It was my roommate from Gordon’s 22nd birthday, and I thought it would be fun to surprise her. All that stood between me and our reunion was a bus, a few subway rides, and a commuter rail. And I feel a little funny saying it, but I was scared. I was scared, but I couldn’t let that fear cripple me. I had to exercise my tongue. And as is often the case, things went much more smoothly than I had imagined in my worst-case scenario addicted brain. I almost got lost a few times, but I used my tongue when I needed to. And today, as I strode through the bustle of the Boston South Station, my steps were imbued with a purposeful bounce. The familiar traveling smells of coffee and cigarette smoke and city air brought back broad memories of trekking through Moscow and St. Petersburg, and at once I was confident, able, смелая. Язык до киева доведет; my tongue will get me all the way to Kiev, but first I had to let it get me as far as Boston.

Kicking Birds and Science

         I was going to name this post “Successes, Failures, and Lessons Learned,” but that title would put an insomniac to sleep. So now that I’ve deceitfully gotten your attention, you at least deserve to know how this random title popped into my head. So here it is: I have always secretly wanted to kick a bird. No, not a sweet, defenseless little sparrow. Who do you think I am? That would be cruel! I’m talking about one of the monstrous geese that strut arrogantly around my quaint New England campus. An early morning walk to class is simply not complete without the faint honking of fifty-some geese congregating on the quad in a feeding frenzy. And I’ve always wondered what it would be like to feel my foot punting one of those masses of honking meat into the wild blue yonder.
         In Russia, I experience this temptation on a daily basis, as the Slavic strain of pigeon shows absolutely no fear when humans approach. So today, while walking home with my friend Cody talking about the science section of the ACT test, I almost kicked a pigeon. Well, not really, but I pretended to almost kick a pigeon. And then and there we decided that “Kicking Birds and Science” would be a great blog title. But I digress.
         What I really want to share with you all is some serious reflection on the progress I’ve made, both linguistically and personally, through these intense two months. My time in Vladimir has been simultaneously challenging and exciting, frustrating and fulfilling, exhausting and energizing. Immersion is a very fitting word for this experience, for although language learning can be refreshing and invigorating, more often than not it feels like you are drowning and vainly grasping for something solid to hold on to. And this week, I’ve been tempted to get down on myself about my progress. I know that in reality, I have made great gains both linguistically and personally. But quite frankly, I am burnt out. As the Russians would say, I have kasha v golovye, the equivalent of “my brain is currently filled with soggy oatmeal,” and I’m beginning to feel that it’s pora domoi “time to go home.” But in order to remind myself of the great strides I’ve made, I think it’s important to reflect upon the five goals I set before I embarked on this adventure.
1.      My first goal was to feel comfortable discussing news and current events in Russian.  My Russian Mass Media Class has been extremely instrumental in helping me reach this goal. Before I began the Critical Language Scholarship program, I never dreamed that I would be able to successfully interact with Russian newspapers and television at my level of proficiency. I used to look at a newspaper, realize that I didn’t know 50% of the words, and immediately give up. But CLS encouraged us to not be intimidated by not knowing every word, and instructed us to instead, look for the general idea of each article. Each week, one student in our class had the responsibility of giving a presentation on a Russian news article and leading the class discussion. And this girl, who used to balk at the sight of a Russian newspaper, successfully, albeit imperfectly, led a discussion on the recently passed adoption agreement between the U.S. and Russia! And next week, for my final project, I will be giving a presentation of the culture of bribes and corruption in Russia. Although my presentation will be far from “fluent,” the Hope of two months ago would be petrified to give even a two minute report in Russian!
2.     My second goal was to successfully overcome inhibitions in one or more of my problem areas, such as organizing travel/buying tickets over the phone or in person; describing symptoms to a pharmacist or doctor; bartering for purchases, etc.
In America I am overly shy. I hate making phone calls, I get nervous talking to professors, and I avoid at all costs approaching strangers on the street. And to a girl conditioned to what Russians often consider the “fake” American smile, their neutral gaze can often come across as an annoyed scowl. But circumstances forced me to get out of my comfort zone, and I successfully bought train tickets to Nizhniy Novgorod, and not once, but three times explained my symptoms to a pharmacist, thanks to my purple bearded infection! I even was able to give one woman in St. Petersburg directions to the train station. Of all my goals, this is the one I feel in which I made the most progress.
3.     My third goal was to increase my conversational proficiency by spending at least two hours outside of class pursuing intentional conversations in spheres of conversation out of my comfort zone.
The first day I met my language helper Alyona, she talked so fast that I could barely understand. On our first walk through bustling Vladimir, I strained my ears to pick up the general idea of what she was saying. As the summer progressed, I not only began to understand more, but became more confident in my own conversational interactions. Alyona has been a great conversation partner, inviting me into her circle of friends and being very open about her life, and from quiet walks through the city to boisterous games of charades in the countryside, I have had more than ample opportunity to practice my conversational skills in a low pressure environment. People like Alyona and her friends remind me of the reason I fell in love with Russia in the first place.
4.      My fourth goal was to maintain my emotional and physical health.
Yes, I started running! But really, the most important piece of this puzzle was finding a church. When I arrived in Vladimir, I felt like a skydiver without a parachute, ripping through the air, trying to grasp for something solid. I have never been outside of a community of believers before, and I felt very alone. I was so blessed to come into contact with a sister of a friend who lived in Vladimir last year doing mission work. She connected me with a church and a youth group, and the people I have met there have been a great encouragement to me.
Finally, my last goal was to build a good relationship with my host family.
And all I can say to that is: I love my host mom! My host mom, Tatiana, is one of the sweetest, most patient, down to earth people ever. I am so thankful to have been able to spend the summer with her. Our conversations started off slow, but when I found out that she absolutely loves to cook, I tried to steer the conversations toward cooking and recipes as often as possible. And lately, we have made even more breakthroughs in the depth of our relationship. She began to give me advice about marriage, saying that I “need to find a man that you can raise like a child, take him like a horse by the reigns and steer him to do what you want.” Pause. “Or someone rich.” I almost died of laughter. But beyond the wedded-bliss commentary, Tatiana’s words have been extremely encouraging to me. It seems that on the days that I am most down on myself about my language progress, she compliments me on my abilities or work ethic. Yesterday, after a frustrating speech class and a brutal history test, I was feeling especially insecure, and Tatiana shook me out of my self-abusive mode with her kind words. A host family can make or break a study abroad experience, and Tatiana’s warmth, friendliness, and encouragement has definitely made mine an unforgettable summer. I will truly miss her!
So all in all, although this week it has been hard to see past my exhaustion, it is clear that I have made strides in my language learning. No, I am not fluent, my grammar is far from perfect, and I still have miles and miles to go in this language learning journey. But I am amazed at the progress I have made, and even more amazed at the depth of relationships with both Americans and Russians that God has blessed me with in my short time in Vladimir. 

 This blog does not necessarily represent the views of the CLS Program, the Department of State, or American Councils. 

What Happens in Petersburg Stays in Petersburg: a.k.a. Konstantine’s Creation Part 2

          There I stood, with a tearstained face and glass of vodka in my hand.
           No, it’s not what you think.
           The vodka wasn’t there to wash away my sorrows, but to wash my ugly, purple, infected wound. Appetizing, I know.  I thought that I had surely sucked out all possible drama from my misadventure on the ice, but I was wrong.
My wound was healing fine. After five days, it looked as beautiful as a gash on the chin can. After five days, an excellent surgeon I know was convinced that the stitches needed to come out. After five days, the dentist at my favorite dilapidated Russian clinic assured me that it was much too early to rid me of my blue beard.
          And on the seventh day, I did not rest.
           The Friday morning I went to the Dostoevsky Museum marked my week anniversary of waking up with stubble on my chin. In the morning, I noticed that my stiches and the wound around it looked slightly different. I went to a pharmacy, bought what I thought was antibiotic ointment, and thought everything was fine. But later in the day, my friend Shelby noticed that my wound had turned purple and was swelling. I went to another pharmacy, explained my symptoms to a pharmacist, and she gave me bacitracin. At dinner, I showed my friend Cody, who, after looking at it, was pretty sure I needed to get right on antibiotics. So I went to another pharmacy and tried to get antibiotics, but she assured me I didn’t need them. (All this was great language practice!) As the night went on, the creepy purple swelling got worse, and I began to worry. I Skyped my parents with a picture of my chin and upon seeing it, they thought I might be in danger. The stitches need to come out, they said. Even if had to call a friend to take them out. Even if I had to do it myself. Every tragic ending to my story went through my head. What if the infection spreads and I die? What if? What if?
         “Try to pull the thread and see if you can see the knot.” My Mom instructed me from the other side of the globe. At this point it was almost one in the morning and I was sitting on the bathroom floor, with the computer at my feet, a pitiful mess.
“Okay, I’ll try!” I stood up, looked in the mirror, and pulled on one of the threads protruding like hair from a witch’s wart. As I pulled, the wound started to bleed and I saw the skin pulling away. Squamish shivers washed over me like a score of spiders and I lost it. “I can’t do it!” I wailed. I sat on the floor and started breathing hard, crying, and hyperventilating. At this point my poor roommate Shelby was trying to give me privacy while reading a book outside the hotel room. When she came back in and saw me in my disheveled state, my parents talked with her and she went to get help. Before I knew it, four Americans and a Russian were standing around me, trying to comfort me. One was so nice she handed me a glass of water to calm me down. I wondered why she gave me so little as I brought the cup to my lips.
          “Don’t drink it! It’s vodka!” She hadn’t brought me water to calm my nerves, but vodka to sterilize the wound. Long story short, I ended up traveling through St. Petersburg   at three in the morning with Shelby and my R.D. in a valiant attempt to get my stitches the heck out! This clinic was much nicer than the one in Vladimir, and the doctors spoke English, albeit a very bookish, not quite-actually-spoken-English. I was sure they would take the stitches out. But no! The doc gave me amoxicillin and called it good. And that meant I had to return to my beloved Konstantine…
          Upon returning from Petersburg, I dreaded my meeting with Konstantine, the dentist who I remembered as an overbearing, intimidating caricature of Russian male chauvinism. But Tuesday night I gathered my strength and returned to that lovely hovel that housed so many memories. And I received the surprise of my life.
          “Nadyushka, come in!” Konstantine smiled at me as if we were old friends, using the diminutive form of my Russian name that is the equivalent of “Hopie.” The tension in my body relaxed as I leaned back and bared my chin. “It looks beautiful! You’ll hardly have a scar!” After five minutes of pulling, snipping, and calling me solnishka (sunshine), I was finished. “If you need anything, here’s my number.” He gave his number to my Resident Director. “I’ll be waiting for you next year,” he said, smiling. “I hope not,” I answered. “Just as a guest, don’t fall again.” I left the clinic in awe at the doctor’s transformed mood and euphoric that my fiasco with the Russian medical system was finally over. As I took the bus home, I was sure I was the happiest girl in the world. The wound is healing wonderfully, but nonetheless, I’ll have a souvenir scar that will tattoo this experience forever on my face. And I’m actually kind of excited about it.