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.

In the Land of Anne

The sand here is like cinnamon, and the quiet is vast and freeing.

The view from the beach by our cabin. Photo Credit: Blake Johnson. Check out his blog here.

The family has just settled in for the week at a little oceanside cabin in Prince Edward Island, the home of one of my favorite fictional characters, Anne of Green Gables.

I have always felt a special connection to the overly dramatic, hopelessly romantic, prone to misadventures redhead, and as I have grown up, my story has mirrored hers in many ways.

My family and closest friends will tell you that I share Anne’s penchant for dramatic, melancholy musings; I long ago adopted her phrases “the depths of despair,” “kindred spirit,” and “bosom friend” into my vocabulary. Sometimes when I feel that no one else understands, I comfort myself with the thought that Anne would. I am blessed to have a “bosom friend,” and our relationship reminds me a lot of Anne and Diana’s. Like Anne, I dream of becoming a published author and I am leaving home to become a teacher in a new place. If you haven’t seen the film, this short trailer will give you an idea of Anne’s character:

One of my favorite Anne moments is when she shatters her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head.

I have never smashed a slate over a boy’s head, but I did do something similar. In seventh grade, I had quite the crush on my pastor’s son, and at youth group, he would not let me get a word in edgewise while I tried to tell a story. He kept guffawing, his husky twelve year-old voice drowning out my own. In a desperate attempt to both shut him up and get his attention, I smashed my Styrofoam bowl full of nacho cheesier Doritos hard on top of the boy’s head. From his reaction, I think it hurt. Unlike with Anne and Gilbert, that relationship never did work out…

I have also gotten injured because of my pride. After being dared, Anne tries to walk the ridge of a roof and sprains her ankle. In order to prove to a friend that I was “adventurous,” I tried to land an ice skating move that I had no business attempting. I spent that night with a scary Russian dentist name Konstantine who sewed up my chin. You can read about it here.

It is wonderful to finally experience the enchanting island that has captured me again and again every time I have popped in one of our old Anne VHSs. I am looking forward to seeing life as Anne saw it. Let’s just hope that this doesn’t happen:

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.

The Irony of Fate

When I found out I was being placed in Elabuga for my teaching assistantship in the fall, the name was nothing more to me than than a humorous string of syllables (think boogie-man, the Ooga-Booga man from Crash Bandicoot). But upon doing some research into the city, I discovered that one of its claims to fame is that it was the death place of the renowned poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

List of Russian language poets
List of Russian language poets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happening upon this information was one of those satisfying full-circle moments for me, since the first poem I ever read in Russian (and attempted to translate), was by Marina Tsvetaeva. Age 13 was the year that my passion for the Russian language was ignited, and  I still remember vividly the lessons I took, held inside the home of a tall Muscovite named Natasha. For homework one night, Natasha gave me to translate what is perhaps Tsvetaeva’s most famous poem. It was far beyond my level at the time, but that didn’t stop me from eagerly flipping through my massive Russo-English dictionary in search of the keys that would unlock the meaning of the mysterious text. Below is the poem in both Russian and English translation:

Мне нравится, что вы больны не мной,
Мне нравится, что я больна не вами,
Что никогда тяжелый шар земной
Не уплывет под нашими ногами.
Мне нравится, что можно быть смешной –
Распущенной – и не играть словами,
И не краснеть удушливой волной,
Слегка соприкоснувшись рукавами.

Мне нравится еще, что вы при мне
Спокойно обнимаете другую,
Не прочите мне в адовом огне
Гореть за то, что я вас не целую.
Что имя нежное мое, мой нежный, не
Упоминаете ни днем, ни ночью – всуе…
Что никогда в церковной тишине
Не пропоют над нами: аллилуйя!

Спасибо вам и сердцем и рукой
За то, что вы меня – не зная сами! –
Так любите: за мой ночной покой,
За редкость встреч закатными часами,
За наши не-гулянья под луной,
За солнце, не у нас над головами, –
За то, что вы больны – увы! – не мной,
За то, что я больна – увы! – не вами!

3 Мая 1915

I like it that you’re burning not for me,
I like it that it’s not for you I’m burning
And that the heavy sphere of Planet Earth
Will underneath our feet no more be turning
I like it that I can be unabashed
And humorous and not to play with words
And not to redden with a smothering wave
When with my sleeves I’m lightly touching yours.

I like it, that before my very eyes
You calmly hug another; it is well
That for me also kissing someone else
You will not threaten me with flames of hell.
That this my tender name, not day nor night,
You will recall again, my tender love;
That never in the silence of the church
They will sing “halleluiah” us above.

With this my heart and this my hand I thank
You that – although you don’t know it –
You love me thus; and for my peaceful nights
And for rare meetings in the hour of sunset,
That we aren’t walking underneath the moon,
That sun is not above our heads this morning,
That you – alas – are burning not for me
And that – alas – it’s not for you I’m burning.

Translated by Ilya Shambat

One of the reasons that this poem is so well known is that it makes a musical cameo in the classic Russian New Year’s movie, Ироны Судьбы (The Irony of Fate). The film begins with  a group of Russian men enjoying an New Year’s Eve at a Moscow баня (bath house) and getting drunk. This would hardly be noteworthy, except for that the men get so drunk that the conscious ones can’t remember which one of their passed-out friends was supposed to board a plane to Leningrad. And being good friends, they do their best, but they still put the wrong friend on the plane.

When the hungover Zhenya arrives in Leningrad, he is still not sober enough to realize that he’s not in Moscow. So he flags down a taxi and gives him his “home address.” The driver brings him to his “home,” and Zhenya passes out on a bed as soon as he arrives. (Note: such a mistake was possible because Soviet-era city planning was big on uniformity; i.e., Moscow and Leningrad had many of the same street names and identical housing complexes). Zhenya is surprised to awake to a beautiful woman screaming at him to get out of her apartment…and so it begins. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but here is the clip in which Nadia (the woman who lives in the apartment), sings lines from Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem. Hint: it’s a happy ending.

This movie is near and dear to my heart because of the ironic role it once played in my travels, what I like to call “The Irony of Gate.” At the end of my study abroad in 2010, I sat sick with strep throat in my hotel room while the rest of the group went to stare at Vladimir Lenin’s waxy corpse. To keep myself occupied, I watched The Irony of Fate, unaware that I would soon become Zhenya. On the way back to America, I managed to get on the wrong plane, giving my parents and group mates the fright of their lives. While on a layover in Frankfurt, I got separated from my group and approached what I thought was the correct gate. Esteeming German efficiency and attention to detail as infallible, when the gate attendant let me on, I boarded with complete confidence. And then I waited. And waited. And no one in my group came. The loudspeaker confirmed my growing doubts, “Service to Newark, New Jersey.” I was supposed to be going to JFK. I’ll never forget the flight attendant’s reaction when I told her my plight; she looked over her shoulder and said to a male attendant in a grave tone, “we have a situation.” A situation indeed, but thankfully one that I can now laugh about. Eight hours later, I arrived in America fatigued, but unscathed, and feeling a little guilty for giving everyone close to me such a scare.

I can laugh at it now, but I definitely hope my travels to Elabuga go much more smoothly than my little misadventure three years ago…