"Winter is Coming!" and then a pause until I nod and acknowledge that, yes, I know the show--that I understand. Over and over again, this conversation has happened. It hasn't gotten old yet, but it's getting a bit realistic. The primary catchphrase of the Game of Thrones television series is big deal here, precisely because winter really is coming. Quickly.
I always imagined it would take a blizzard to put a Russian into a parka. There was no reason for this assumption, but it just seemed logical: a historical reputation for hardiness, the prevalence of cold, the fact that most humans hate bundling up until it's absolutely necessary. Those ideas got shattered earlier this week when I walked to the university office to run a few errands. Wearing a T-shirt under a wool cardigan, I was warned by no less than four colleagues that I ought to have a scarf on, and probably a hat as well. It was 55 degrees at the time.
This is still shorts and short-sleeve weather for most folks at home, I wanted to say. I didn't though: one of my resolutions before boarding the plane to Moscow was that I would avoid at every possible juncture the opportunity to become needlessly comparative. You know--the person who always says: yeah, but back home we... More listening, less explaining, I decided (a good philosophy all the time, not just when traveling). So I nodded and said thanks for the advice. I have a couple of scarfs, and I'll use them. Hats, too. I'm just not quite ready to give in to them. Not during the daytime at least. But that 55-degree afternoon? It turned into a 28-degree night. So, they had a point: if my visit to the office required the normal commute home to the city center, I would've run into night, and therefore a deep chill. In reality, all I had to do was walk back across the street, which left me safely ensconced in my flat before the temperature took a cliff-dive. The next morning, my phone told me it was 26 degrees. "Well, that escalated quickly," I mumbled, but by the middle of the morning, it was back to cardigan temperatures and sunshine.
Before I left West Virginia, I heard more than a few people gasp as soon as the word Siberia came out of my mouth, mostly on the account of the assumed snow. As the last paragraph indicates, it's about to get cold here, and it will likely stay that way for a very long time. But I've gotten a handful of notes from other researchers in Russia, proclaiming jealousy of the sunshine-laden photos I've posted on social media. Siberia, it turns out, is a veritable paradise of sun and pleasant temperatures. At least for the moment. And yet, many people are bundled like it's mid-winter. As I write this, it's Friday afternoon and I've got two windows propped open. At the bus stop below, at least half the students and all the ladies with shopping bags from the nearby store are in puffy parkas with hood up and hats on. Some wear gloves. There are a few in snow boots, even though there have been only two instances of precipitation in the last month. Where I had imagined a toughness with respect to the weather, the reality is thoughtful preparation.
Of course, pragmatic as life looks in the daytime, the evening will shake things up. After my Russian lesson this afternoon, I'll catch a bus to the city center, where a theatre is in the third day of an American film festival. Netflix and Hulu don't work here for licensing reasons. Pandora and Spotify are null for the same reason. So, I make it a point to enjoy entertainment in English when it comes. I fully expect that when I arrive in the center, I'll see the same thing everyone sees in every city: waiting outside the dozen nightclubs of Novosibirsk, the teenagers will have forsaken their daytime coats for short dresses and T-shirts. Because if there's one thing that can be counted on in every culture, the kids will put party before health.
Aside from the weather, my attention has turned to preparing for workshop classes, which begin next week, and the continued struggle of my own Russian lessons--one of the most humbling, frustrating experiences of my life. The struggle to remember subtle differences in letters. The conflation of sounds. The vocabulary that eludes me at every turn. But there is hope. Following Tuesday's two-and-a-half hour session with multiple teachers, I proceeded directly to the pizza place where I'd struggled mightily through an order the week prior. With no English and no pointing, I managed to order a large pepperoni to go. The same girl who was so patient but so confused a week ago clapped this time. She actually applauded, right there at the counter. Bored eaters looked up with scrunched brows and shaking heads. This should've made me feel like a child, but it was a victory. Learning to connect with a person on their terms is one of the most valuable and essential skills a human can possess, and this experience of struggling every day to communicate, to accomplish the most menial of tasks--it's letting me approach live moment-by-moment with greater nuance and greater appreciation for the people around me. Whether they've worn their scarf or not.
Next week, the primary work of my fellowship begins: the students have been selected and my merry band of burgeoning creative writers will meet for the first time. I can't wait to hear the stories they bring with them. Until then, I leave you with the immortal words of the Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.