Greetings from Krasnodar!
Sarah (Scout) Mills, Portland, Washington, USA (2015)
I arrived around 9 pm yesterday after about 24 hours of traveling. Unlike the first two times that I came here, I didn’t experience the same euphoria upon hearing the pilot welcome me to the Russian Federation. At first I was disturbed at this thought–what if the magic is gone forever? What if my love of Russia is fizzling out now that it isn’t so foreign anymore?
However, I didn’t have time to worry, I had to make it through customs, passport control, and security before catching another flight. As I looked around the Moscow-Domodedovo airport, attempting to read the gate numbers through a haze of fatigue, I noticed that my anti-climactic entrance to the country gave me a new kind of excitement. When the plane touched down I shook myself awake, mechanically collected my belongings, thanked the flight attendants, and went on my way. I trudged through Domodedovo with the determination of an exhausted traveler who knew that the end of airplane food and security checkpoints was in her near future. I casually brushed off the incessant offers for cheap taxi rides, switching my brain from “No thank you”-and-an-uncomfortable-smile American mode to the simple “nyet”-and-a-scowl Russian mode. After being shoved one two many times I used my last remaining energy to put on my best commuter walk, long since forgotten after a few months on the laid back American West Coast. Once on the plane, I argued for about five minutes with a flight attendant who insisted I needed to accept a sandwich or “at least some tea.” When the guy in the seat next to me asked for the time, I put my watch in his face and grunted “seven…seven thirty…five.”
My host, Elena, picked me up from the Krasnodar-Pashkovsky airport and starting chatting rapidly about the weather in there and how bad she was at English so thank god I spoke Russian. After a few months of not speaking it regularly, my Russian wasn’t so great either and the only things I even tried to say were along the lines of “sorry, yes, sorry, sorry.” She dropped me off at a beautifully furnished studio apartment and gave me fresh tomatoes and plov before handing me the keys and telling me to set up my phone first thing tomorrow. I was reminded about the wonderful Russian tradition of turning off the hot water for a few weeks in the summer for maintenance upon taking a shower, but, as any Russian would say, whatever.
I waited all morning for the euphoria to hit. Hell, I waited all morning for some kind of initial shock to set in, but to no avail. After making myself some kasha and getting acquainted with my new neighborhood I came to grips with the fact that it wasn’t going to happen. I looked around, smiled to myself, and confirmed that I was back.
But what of the magic? Doesn’t this all mean that this incredible country has become boring to me? I didn’t even bring a camera this time!
Of course not. Many Russians have told me that the third trip to Russia is a test. If you make it through and still love it, then you’ll keep coming back forever. If not, it was fun, but at the end of the day it’s just another place you went. What they didn’t tell me is that the third trip to Russia isn’t just a test of dedication, but of cultural fluency. Naturally you could say this about every trip abroad, but there’s something particular about the third time. I’m not fluent in Russian, I’m not equipped to live completely on my own, and I still need to prepare to deal with the fact that I’m living in a foreign country with a ridiculous bureaucratic system and undrinkable tap water. However, I’m not afraid of everyday interactions in banks and grocery stores, I’m not intimidated by the thought of navigating a brand new city on my own, I don’t consider the language barrier something that could prevent me from doing anything, and I don’t need to consciously adjust to any social norms because my brain just kind of switches over on its own.
In short: it just doesn’t seem foreign to me anymore.
I’m navigating my new surroundings like I would in an American city I’ve never been to before. After three years learning Russian and 6 months studying here, I can finally say that I have achieved one of my most important goals, and that is to see Russia as another place to be, rather than an exotic novelty. It certainly isn’t boring and I definitely love it here, but I love it as if it were my homeland. Sure, this language is still as difficult as ever, but that’s just a consideration I take in when approaching situations in every day life, rather than the number one thing that defines how I see this country.
Today it’s a balmy 30 degrees Celsius (about 86 Fahrenheit), but there’s nothing like an ice cold cup on kvass from a street vendor to cool you down. All is well here in Krasnodar and I look forward to the next three months.
“Bad people don’t like animals.”
According to Elena, that’s the fact that lets her feel safe on the internet.
“I only join VK groups for dog lovers. I trust people that love dogs.”
It certainly would be hard to imagine a good person who didn’t love Louis, her four-year-old Maltese Terrier and faithful sidekick.
“Louis, please be so kind as to sit on your pillow, you know you get sick when you sit on the floor,” she tells him patiently, giving him a careful side eye. In response, Louis curls up on his pillow as if he understood Russian better than I did.
Other than adoring Louichik, Elena’s interests include traveling, electronic music, and shopping. She is a woman who demands respect while maintaining a playful demeanor at all times, navigating her job as a successful accountant on neon pink stilettos.
My weekend at Elena’s mother’s house in the nearby town of Krymsk was one filled with salo (cured pig fat), champagne, fresh strawberries, and pirozhki with adygean cheese. Sometimes I think I will never get used to the abundance of hospitality in this country.
All in all, things here seem quite normal. My culture shock is practically nonexistent, at least in the traditional sense. Unlike previous trips, I’m dedicating this one to finding the similarities between my American life and my Russian life. Strangely enough, I’ve come to realize that many aspects of Russian society are practically identical to those in American society–the endless highways, overwhelming displays of capitalism, love of food, and of course the government’s constant need to impose their values on the surrounding world in the name of morality. (I’m not going to expand on that last one here, but it’s worth noting.)
Krasnodar is, through and through, a southern city. There is something lazy and provincial about it that lets me feel perfectly at home strolling down Krasnaya (the main street that cuts through downtown) and admiring the luscious landscaping on the pedestrian section that runs downs the middle of the street. That doesn’t mean Krasnodar isn’t modern–no, it’s quite modern in many ways, from the enormous Galeria (a local version of Saint Petersburg’s premier shopping mall) to the myriad hipster cafes with abundant assortments of coffees and teas and cute jokey WiFi passwords. It reminds me in many ways of San Francisco when I’m on Krasnaya, but as soon as I leave it’s obvious that I couldn’t be anywhere other than my dear Russia.
In Krasnodar there is little grandiosity. You wont find very many cathedrals (and of the noteworthy few there isn’t a single one that doesn’t have services or allows woman to enter without headscarves for the purpose of catering to tourists) and there are about three noteworthy museums. If Saint Petersburg is the Window to the West, Krasnodar is certainly the Window to the South, with a diverse population ranging from Ukrainians to Circassians and a climate that could rival Southern California.
“I don’t speak Ukrainian,” Elena tells me over lunch. “But I do speak our kubanskiy version, which is like Russian and Ukrainian all mixed up together.”
I’m getting used to my life here, but there is much more to learn and to see, I’m sure. So far I’m diving into Krasnodar one cafe at a time, allowing myself to drop a few extra rubles on some lamb shashlyk or Georgian wine because honestly, I’m alone in a city where I know one other person and I’m not getting any younger so why the hell not.
A little bit of suffering never hurt anybody: an ode to public transport, the Russian Soul, and run-on sentences
I find that the greatest source of suffering comes from public transportation. The buses, trolleybuses, and trams are all slow, perpetually flinching beasts that smell like that all-too-familiar smell of, well, people. The metro is fast and the stations are beautiful, but there’s something depressing about how it renders my daily commute uneventful, mechanical, and devoid of chatter. Every time I take the metro, about halfway through stations Vasileostrovskoe and Gostiniy Dvor I imagine what would happen if the train just stopped. Would anyone even move? Say anything? Would we simply be trapped under the Neva [River] eternally reading the free Metro newspapers? As if this business-y environment didn’t make me uncomfortable enough, included in the 29 ruble price for a metro ride you receive a complimentary show: a shockingly noisy makeout session will undoubtedly accompany you down the escalator, as the combination of the deepness of the SPB Metro and the stairs’ ability to account for a height difference between a couple makes for the perfect environment to suck face on the go. Hey, it certainly is a time killer. Seriously you guys—that escalator ride is long.
Every day I choose my poison. Do I want quick and lifeless? Or slow and so very alive that I can smell it? Either way, I leave public transportation reluctantly, already eagerly anticipating the next 2 hour commute. More often than not, I enjoy the journey more than the destination, and I guarantee that’s not some overprinted tote-bag proverb—it’s really because the destination usually doesn’t have babushkas, or abrupt stops that knock you into that one balding guy who smells like beer and herring, or the constant reminder of “осторожно, двери закриваються.”
I decided to write this not because I wanted to complain. I’ll save that for my novels. This actually has two purposes: one, to remind myself that’s it’s okay not to love Petersburg in the way that I love the much kinder city of Kazan, but rather in the way that Gogol or Dostoyevsky loved cold, indifferent, beautiful Saint Petersburg. The other purpose relates especially to you, the reader: I want to convey more than the study abroad brochures attempt to when they recruit the undecided voters of the college student world. “But’s it’s beautiful!” they write frantically, “look at the churches! the palaces!” My reply to those unnecessarily defensive selling points is a colorful sentence that my neighbor would surely approve of, so therefore I, an overzealous cultural ambassador for the glorious Russian Federation, shall omit it here. They have laws about swearing, you know.
Once again I shall repeat, for the sake of those who skip to the end, that I love living in the city. I discovered this upon arriving here and existing in Saint Petersburg for the greater part of a semester. It is not Petersburg in particular that is so conducive to suffering (though its literary and historical context sure as hell doesn’t hinder anything), but rather the big city environment in general. All the same, I find my Russian Soul (which I am almost positive was given to my by accident at birth, as my blood is as Scottish as as the pub franchise that bears my family’s name) is fat and healthy wandering Nevsky Prospect, and for that I’m grateful to be reassured by my various professors and acquaintances that I’m “наш человек.” A good lust for suffering and a decent appreciation for the degradation of humanity is illustrated a lot better with the Admiralty Spire glittering in the background.
A Quick Note on Family
Living in Russia has made me more comfortable with the idea of frequently calling and visiting my parents. So many social constructs in the U.S. instruct us that we are deadbeats if we live with our parents for any amount of time after we graduate. Our society tells us that in order to be independent we need to minimize our contact with our parents. Calling them frequently is laughable. College is seen as a place of freedom mostly because for many, it’s completely parent-less.
Though I do enjoy independence and I am working to become a person who can bureaucratic and financial manners on their own, I don’t necessarily think it’s necessary to associate independence with the absence of my parents. I understand that many have difficult relationships with their family, and therefore do strive for a life distant from them in order to pursue their own freedom and happiness. However, as someone who is fortunate enough to have a good relationship with her family, I can honestly say that the pressure I felt to minimize my contact with them after I started college wore me down immensely. I felt childish, pathetic, and spoiled for wanting to call my parents frequently and text them even more so. I felt terrified for the prospect of potentially living with them for more than a few days after my first year of school.
It’s very refreshing for me to look around this country and see that these ideas about family are completely constructing by our society and social norms. Russians, as some of you may or may not know, often live with their parents and even grandparents well into adulthood, and if not they regularly call and visit. There are many students on this program that mock that tendency, calling Russian men “losers” for living with their mothers, and insisting that “it’s impossible to find a decent Russian man because they all lives with their moms.”
It’s interesting how these aspects of our culture transfer over when we’re faced with a new cultural environment. Even I was a little surprised at the positive connotations associated with living with family past your teen years. I had read about this aspect of Russian culture before, but seeing it first hand was strange. Little did I know at the time, it was soon to give me new confidence in openly loving my family and calling them often.
American students often say that they are willing to learn and experience new cultures when they come abroad, taking into consideration different contexts for social behavior and always respecting people despite their different values. However, I am extremely appalled that many students do not realize that these ideas about family should be respected as a part of a foreign culture in which they are guests.
The idea of family in Russia has empowered me to be comfortable with my relationship with my parents and question the guffaws of the average American when presented with different familial relationships.
If you want your faith in humanity restored, come to Kazan
Why, you ask?
Because Russian culture is a culture of honesty, intensity, and love. And not just Russian culture–Tatar culture also.
If you ask someone at a store if you should buy something, they’ll tell you honestly. They won’t lie to sell you something.
If you meet someone once, they’ll remember you forever.
Babushki have tons of stories and they love to tell you you’re pretty.
Kazan folks love foreigners but will try to convince that Russia is horrible, so it gives me a chance to talk about how strongly I love Russia because they also love arguing.
Mention a poet and someone will recite a poem by said poet. Anytime, anywhere.
Everyone loves cartoons.
If you get lost on a bus an hour outside of the city, everyone on that bus will immediately jump up and help you. Yesterday we didn’t even ask and six women crowded around the driver demanding information about how to get to the lake. After that, a lady at a restaurant asked everyone she knew to give us a ride because the taxis and busses wouldn’t come out there, and then some army guy called a cab and demanded that he take us.
If you drink alone at a bar the waiter will ask you about your life and demand you order food because they are concerned.
The strays are always well fed.
Someone will always hold you bag, your place in line, anything–it’s just customary.
When Russia knocks, let her in
Tonight, after hopping a few bars to find a good fit, my friend and I landed at a bar called “drive.” I ordered an expensive cocktail and we listened to live classical guitar. The bar was tiny and there were very few people there. After hearing us speak English, the waitress asked to sit with us and was absolutely honored that Americans would want to come to Russia to study. “What about France? Sweden?” She asked us. Naturally we responded that we fell in love with the literature and the beauty of the language. Her favorite poet is Mayakovsky like me. She got our phone numbers and made plans to interview us for a project she was doing. The only English she really knew was “I want to learn English but I’m so fuckin lazy.” Her name is Nastya and I adore her.
After that, a middle aged Russian man from the group of people dancing tango asked me to dance. I said I didn’t know how but he taught me. In the US, or even two weeks ago here, I would’ve said no. But, hell–I’m in Russia living my dream. So now I know a little tango.
I love this country
Sarah (Scout) Mills, Portland, Washington, USA