It has been three months since I left Vladimir, but the memories are still as crisp as ever, and the chronicle of my time there just wouldn’t be complete without a reflection on my favorite day of the summer, an enchanting, vivid trek to the outskirts of town…
I dedicate this post to the friends who shared this unforgettable experience with me.
It was our last Sunday in Vladimir. The waning summer begged us to one last adventure, a journey to the pond where the boggy grass squishes under bare feet, water pooling and the ground shifting with every soft step. We swam and laughed and ate, all the while taking photographs to make the moment seem less mortal. I sit on the shore now, muscles stretched, pond water soaking through my old pink t-shirt, and I think I am content. My friends jump into the water again despite the shiver that the setting August sun has birthed, and I resist until I see them crawl onto a mound of dirt rising out of the pond in the distance. From some almost-forgotten dimension, childhood pulls me. My blood turns to fiery life and some long lost, gleeful little girl says “now!”

I jump into the laughing water, crispness engulfing my raw, rosy body, and I am young again. At twenty one years I somehow find myself grey inside, aged and arthritic for my striving and chasing mirages, ambition clouding my vision and melancholy clouding my mind. But now, I race through the magic water, chilly breaths shooting ecstasy into my lungs, the sky breathing softly on my face, January-cold twinges in the brown, organic lake lighting my feet with tingles of life.

The island oozes odorous dirt and rotting grass into the deep water as I pull myself up. My heart giggles and I am transformed into the five year old eager to muddy my skin by any means possible, to feel the earth at its most intimate touch. I used to come inside on hot summer days, painted in brown, grinning, content and more alive than life itself. Mom learned not to be surprised by my need for the dirt, the sensory abandon to something that lauded life beyond rules and structure and trying to be good.

I fall here now in an old brown bathing suit and embrace the island, letting the muddy mixture massage my skin. The constraints of consciousness are broken and all is sharp, clear and stunning: He never meant for me to grow up into the fragile senility of sin. Surely I am in Eden right now, innocent and intoxicated with a love that is not diluted and distorted by days trod to the rhythm of Ecclesiastes, the hopelessness of being small and insignificant and aging by the day. Here, His voice boldly caresses my ears with what I’ve always known in a vague whisper, in a displaced, misplaced love letter: that I am nothing, and that my nothingness makes His love that much more matchless.

I stand up and grin and pick up a wad of my chosen weapon; earth crawls under my nails. The war begins, and soon grenades are launched and twelve hands are spinning in joyful mischief. Each splatter of mud melts my mask, and I become clean, shining and whole. I fall and bathe once again, pale white skin washed and renewed by lovely soil, chunks of the island tangling in my wild hair. All I have striven for is eclipsed in this messy perfection that hints at heaven. Beauty surrounds me, beauty is breathed into me and I am Eve before the fall. He colors me with deft painter’s strokes; He makes me beautiful, and no constricting dress or wobbly heels could compare to this lovely living wet earth. He adorns me with freedom, and I now know love from the eyes of a vibrant little girl, screaming “Daddy, Daddy, watch me!”

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.

Running in Russia (and other gifts)

         This week has been hard. Extremely hard.  Language wise, I’ve been extremely frustrated, and physically, I’ve been exhausted. Being the perfectionist I am, I’ve been a little bit too hard on myself this week about my progress.  Classes have been going well, but they have been extremely challenging. I know that my language skills have improved since I got here, but it can be really hard to be objective about one’s own improvement.
        This week I started running. I normally hate running. But, with the motivation of a friend (thanks Jesse!) I decided to give it a try, at least three days a week. We found a track right between our house (we live on the same street) and meet there at 7 to run for 30 minutes before school. And at first, I didn’t really like it. I wasn’t surprised. But I was surprised on our second day of running by an early morning epiphany. As I ran around the track for the umpteenth time, feet thudding to the beat of my beloved Russian techno pop, it hit me:
       I am living my dream.
       I looked up at the sun peeking through the clouds and realized I was staring straight into a Russian sky. I looked around me and saw the Soviet era apartments, the neon painted jungle gym and the crackling sidewalk and I was struck by the fact that I was actually here. And every step I take here, every lap I run here, is a gift. The steady beat of my well-worn music now filled me with an almost magical exhilaration. The songs that I spent hours translating in my room, pining away for a return ticket to Russia now provided the soundtrack for this long-awaited adventure. And I’m pretty sure that a runner’s high has nothing on what I felt.
      And that’s only one of the gifts that running has brought me this week. This Tuesday, I was able to get connected with a church! And how is running connected, you ask? Well, I was able to get contact information from a friend’s sister who lived in Vladimir of a church she was involved with, and my friend Shelby and I set off to find the church, hoping to make the 7:00 youth group. But, after no avtobuses came and we missed the street we were supposed to take walking on foot, we realized we were running out of time. So we ran. I, in my uncomfortable flats and skinny jeans and Shelby, in her dress and backpack, heavy with her laptop. We ran, and ran, and ran, and finally reached a landmark close to the church. We were sweaty and out of breath, but we made it on time. And it was so worth it. The youth pastor welcomed us into the group and made us feel so at home. We sang a few songs, some which I actually knew in Russian from my church in Krasnodar, began studying the book of Mark, and then walked around town and chatted. The people there were so genuine and I am so thankful I was able to connect with this youth group.
      So yes, linguistically, this week has been hard. Extremely hard. Yet each and every moment has been a gift from God. I am so thankful for this passion He has put in my heart for Russia, and even when the going gets tough, I can look to Him in anticipation for the next step of this crazy, beautiful adventure. In three short weeks, I have already formed relationships with amazing people, both American and Russian, grown in my linguistic confidence, and had more adventures (and delicious food) than should be legal. And I’m beginning to see the gift in every step. Yes, even in running;)

Russian Barbecue (Шашлык)!

It’s about time for this blog post. I mean, Russians aren’t usually known for their cuisine. They sit around eating borsch, black bread, and caviar on a good day, right? Wrong! This week, I want to shatter the stereotype that Russian food does not taste good. In fact, although I may sound like I traitor to my beloved America, let me tell you a secret: I like Russian food better than American food! Yep, I said it. Russian food (to me) is not only tastier, but perhaps healthier too. Healthier, relatively speaking, that is. One of the things that I appreciate about Russian food is that everything is virtually organic. Meat, fruits, vegetables, and my favorite, dairy, are extremely fresh and are rarely processed. However, Russians have a predilection for adding heaps of fat to anything that would otherwise be considered healthy. Cabbage soup? Ladle some sour cream in! Cucumber and tomato salad? Here’s a gallon of mayonnaise! Couple that with a host mom who is the epitome of Russian gosteprimstvo (hospitality) and you have a recipe for a thirty pound weight gain! In fact, I have never seen anything in America that compares to this Russian brand of  hospitality, that at first, felt like a force feeding. The first week in Vladimir I became used to the questions (after I had eaten a Michael Phelps size meal) “Nadia, why aren’t you eating the candy I bought?” “Why aren’t you eating [insert food]? And my personal favorite, “You can keep your figure in America; here, YOU EAT!”   But although I sometimes complain about the amount and type of foods that I’m fed, in reality, I am loving every minute of it! I mean, since when have I ever had an excuse to eat sour cream by the spoonful? (Yes, I already know two of you who have excused yourself to go throw up after reading that sentence, and yes, that was hyperbole, I haven’t gone there….yet ;).
Anyway, over the next week or so, I want to introduce you all to the delectable Russian food that I have been enjoying this past month.  Here I go- Food #1: Shashlik
Shashlik is more than a food, it is a cultural experience. In the summer, Russians love to spend the day in the countryside cooking finely spiced meat kebabs over a fire. When explaining it to Americans, Russians usually call it a barbeque. Anyway, I got to experience the Russian shashlik experience with my Russian language partner, Alyona, her two friends, and my two American friends Jesse and Cody. We set out to the beautiful Russian countryside around noon with tomatoes, cucumbers, and enough meat to live on for a week. When we got there, we had to overcome a few barriers, as Russian men are the ones who traditionally prepare the shashlik, and Alyona and her friends had never done it before. But with the help of the Jesse and Cody, we finally got the fire started and the meat cooking. And it was delicious! Here are a few more pics of our feast:
This picture doesn’t have anything to do with Shashlik, but I couldn’t resist! We saw this babushka throughout the day leading her goats around the countryside.
I hope this post has at least started to shatter any stereotypes you might have about Russian food. Next up: Breakfast!