After two weeks of muddy sidewalks and damp streets, the clouds quit playing coy this afternoon and let us have it with the snow. There have been stop-and-go flurries for the last several days—the ground hasn’t been dry this month, but there’s never been enough snow to stick past noon. An hour into tonight’s Russian lesson, Sergei, my teacher, opened up the blinds and showed me six inches of accumulation in the parking lot. Just like that, it was winter in Siberia.
Never one to let a teachable moment slip by, Sergei sent me to fetch a coat and took me outside. We learned all the wonderful snow-related terminology of Russia as we built a снег женщина—a snowwoman. We were joined by Vika, one of Sergei’s students who is learning English. She translated terms between us, and joined in the building project. Often, I interact with Sergei’s younger students of English during my own lessons. Because of the terms of my visa, I must be incredibly clear here: I am a student at the school who pays the full hourly rate for all of my lessons and I am not compensated in any way for talking to the other students. It’s simply a joint part of our collective learning processes. We translate for each other. The students line up at the door when I walk in, and we greet each other in English and then Russian—practice for us both, and then we get back to our own work. But in these quick instances, I can’t help but thing of the young student who made such an impression on me during a Cub Scout camp so many years ago, the person who made me want to question the stereotypes of what it meant to be Soviet, and later, Russian. I recounted that story in more detail in Dispatch Number Two, but here’s the important thing this week: little by little, I’m getting small chances to connect, to share humanity and share stories and share coffee and share smiles. For all the (I think) noble research and teaching goals of this program, that’s where the real possibility and hopefulness lies. While the media and certain officials in each of our countries can’t veil their love for all things bellicose, here and in the U.S., there are Americans and Russians getting to know each other, drinking tea, teaching their customs to each other, comparing idioms, building snowmen together, and showing off their breakdancing moves. (Seriously—a pair of five-year-olds demonstrated their breakdancing routine for me this afternoon, and it about knocked me over.) My great hope for the months remaining in this trip is that I leave a trail of warmth and curiosity everywhere I go, because that’s the way people learn to work together—not by watching angsty television reports until fear paralyzes the last flecks of humanity out of all of us.
The talk about snow was prescient in other ways, too. The more I learn about the Russian language, the more I understand why the nation’s literary artists have been among the world’s greats. This language practically begs its practitioners to wallow in literary goodness. Part of that is because there are more limits than in many languages. There aren’t particularly snow squalls or blizzards or flurries or wintery mixes here. There is snow. It snows a certain amount, and that’s the end of the standard descriptive options. This leads to invention, to the broader use of comparison or figures of speech. Snow, for example, can sometimes be referred to as “white flies.” What a beautiful image. In English, there are so many nouns and verbs at our disposal, there’s seldom a need to build an image like that, but here, its exemplary of the way conversations are constructed.
Another interesting feature of the language as it pertains to weather: snow is never deep. It’s only high. Where the English language tends to measure how much snow has built up on top of our normal, existing world, in Russia, the snow falls, and the top of it becomes the surface. There is only depth, not height.
It’s so easy to fall in love with a culture and language that treasures depth in such a way.
This morning in class, a student asked me what I miss about home.
It was a question and answer session for a class on grammatical cases in English, and I was visiting to give the students some perspectives from a native speaker. Before visiting the students, I’d brushed up on verb forms and derivations and practiced pronunciations to make certain I was serving as a good model for second-language learners. I had all the hard things sorted out—at least I though so.
It was the conversational questions that proved the roughest.
“What do you miss about the U.S.?
I don’t miss the politics, that’s for sure.
I miss things about home, certainly. It’s been nearly two months in the Russian Federation now, and there are little things that nag at me from time to time. I’d have to think pretty hard about it, for example, if someone offered me a Faustian deal for a burrito bowl from Chipotle right now. Of course I miss my loved ones and family—that goes without saying. My cat. Things I knew I’d miss—things that any human away from any home for any extended period would name.
But what else do I really miss?
That’s a tougher question than it seems on the surface. I’m having a great time here, meeting wonderful people, visiting exciting new places. I’ve built a new routine, made new friends, developed new spots of comfort where I can go and hang out to feel relaxed and happy. There are cafes. There are stores and restaurants I frequent. Grocery shopping has gotten far simpler: I snagged a discount card at the grocery wholesaler, and another for the cosmetics shop that sells face wash and other toiletries, and I’m doing better with food names and cash register interactions in Russian.
There are some things I can’t replicate. I miss driving, for example: the simple ability to hop in a car and go, anywhere, anytime. Public transportation is wonderful, and it has its own set of benefits and conveniences, but there are trade-offs. A five-mile trip can take 40 minutes. The bus schedule can go off kilter and leave a crowd of anxious people waiting in the cold for half an hour. So, yeah—I miss the car. I miss family, of course.
But there are less tangible things, too, and those are the ones that washed over me as the student asked his thoughtful question. There are moments I miss. Familiar places I would pass in normal life. Little things like miniature golf. Nothing that I ache for, just things that would be nice, if they happened to be around. A dryer, maybe (every speck of surface area in my flat is currently occupied by air-drying white shirts.)
Things I wouldn’t think of if no one had asked.
And that’s a thing in and of itself. One of the true pleasures of exploring a new place on a long-term trip is that you have a chance to be questioned by people who don’t typically live the same way you do or experience the things you’ve known. Those questions, can make a person really search through who they are. The questions themselves might not be profound. Why do you like baseball? How would you describe New York to someone who will probably never see it? What is it like to own a car? Being asked questions that no one normally asks of you causes you to rethink the actual reasons behind your daily activities, your thoughts, beliefs, hopes, and loves. That leads to growth, and that’s something all of us could use.
So, go explore someplace new this week. Until then, rest easy in the knowledge that the official Fulbright Disclaimer remains ever vigilant: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State of the Fulbright Program.
Love "Dispatches from Siberia?" Subscribe on your Apple Device via the Apple News App. Search for Keyword: "Dispatches From Siberia."