When the notice came that I’d be spending nine month in Russia, it took a few moments to settle in. Once I got past the initial shock, one of my first coherent thoughts went something like this: “I’m going to stand in the middle of Red Square. I’m going to get fat on borscht. I’m going to see the Nutcracker in Russia.”

Up until this week, I’d stood in Red Square. I’d eaten plenty of borscht, but because of portion sizes, the lack of corn and chemicals, and lots of walking I’ve lost a good bit of weight instead of gaining it. The last of that three-pronged first thought that popped into my head came to pass this week.

But it almost didn’t.

To enhance the suspense, a photo of this week's best lunch before you get to see the next sentence. This burger from Grelka Soul Kitchen Bar, was filled with a litany of tasty, typically Russian toppings.

To enhance the suspense, a photo of this week's best lunch before you get to see the next sentence. This burger from Grelka Soul Kitchen Bar, was filled with a litany of tasty, typically Russian toppings.

My credit and debit cards work fine here for in-person purchases, but I’ can’t buy anything on line. No airline tickets, no movie tickets, no products, services, or—you guessed it—ballet tickets. So, there was no chance of buying ahead of time digitally, and I found the advanced ticket window at the opera and ballet theater to be closed on several of my trips to the city center. The city’s Nutcracker run wound on and on, and my busy days of writing and teaching deadlines crossed performance after performance off my list of possible attendance nights. The final night of the run, Wednesday of this week, was sold out weeks in advance. Which means Tuesday was the last night with tickets available. Before I went to teach in the afternoon, I checked the online ticket map to find about a dozen seats left. By the end of the class meeting, there were six. By the time I hustled back to my flat and changed into ballet-appropriate attire, there were two. The good news is that both of those seats were single seats, spaced far apart from each other. Suited up and hopeful, I jogged to the bus stop and began the 45-minute trek downtown. The temperature had risen enough that last week’s ice had turned to slush, and the ongoing precipitation was now rain. Stomping chippy ice with every step and dripping from head to toe, I reached the office in time to listen to the man in front of me ask for a ticket. He walked away with it and I stepped up: there was a 50/50 chance he’d just left me empty handed.

“Я хотел бы один билет на сегодня, пожалуйста,” I said. (I would like one ticket for tonight, please.)

The clerk pointed to that one, glorious, remaining ticket: the front row, and three seats left of the exact center. Expensive by Russian standards, the ticket cost less than 1/3 of what a mid-auditorium seat cost last year to see the same show at Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center.

With the ticket stowed away in my passport holder, I ran back through the rain, Across Lenin Square, and spent the next three hours doing what I’ve spent just about all my waking hours doing the last few weeks: working.

Specifically, I was outlining and then formatting documents for a pair of conference presentations I would give later in the week. For a crowd comprised of students and current teachers from high schools and middle schools across the region, I gave a pair of talks, one on the use of observation as a tool in creative, academic, and journalistic writing, and the other a session on how to run a creative writing workshop—or at least to incorporate some of its elements into a language learning classroom. Suffice it to say there are some stylistic differences in expectations between American and Russian academic conference talks, but it was a good learning experience, I think I achieved most of my presentation goals, and I got to meet some lovely people, so I’d call the endeavor a success. (Notes for the presentations are located here.)

The café where I outlined the notes was a bit of a success, as well. I’ve been there many times. At the beginning of my Novosibirsk experience, the café employees would see me coming and seek out the official English Speaker on Duty to handle me. Then, a couple of regular employees got familiar with my up-and-coming Russian language ability. But on Tuesday, there was a brand new employees. I made my order: a Chemex pourover of single-origin Sumatran coffee, with a chocolate muffin and indicated it was to the café, not a take-away order. I paid, and he asked (all in Russian) whether I was from England or the U.S.

“Oh,” he said. “очень хороший русский.”

Translated: “Very good Russia.”

So, one of three things happened:

•Either my Russian would’ve been unacceptable for a British person, but it was ok for an American.

•My speaking ability is actually improving.

•My speaking ability is not improving, but the new clerk at Akademie Coffee is the nicest man in Siberia.

Me in my coffee ordering, ballet watching finery.

Me in my coffee ordering, ballet watching finery.

It could be any of those, but my continued battle with language leaves me with this one aside before we get to a ballet play-by-play: I used to wonder about foreign baseball players who’ve been in the U.S. for significant amounts of time--sometimes decades--and still need/want translators for television or radio interviews. Was it because they had teammates with whom they could communicate comfortable without having to learn a new language? Were they so focused on the sport that they had to neglect everything else important to getting along in life? Is it just that hard to learn a language, even when you’re surrounded by people who speak it? Turns out, the answer is simply, “Yes” to all three of these. So I get it now. I understand baseball a little bit better. Now, I still don’t understand what on earth is going on over there in the U.S. that would enable the lousy Cubs to actually win at anything, but that’s a different issue altogether.

Now, the important moment, the grand finale: The Nutcracker in Siberia.


Inside view of the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre.

Inside view of the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre.

The orchestra was sensational. The settings were intricate and dynamic, always changing and shifting throughout the scenes. The costumes were elaborate. And the dancers--they were beyond description. I should say that in addition to the city’s professional ballet troupe, Novosibirsk is home to one of Russia’s prestigious ballet training schools. So, essentially, the last background dancer hanging around in the edge of the wings is likely to eventually be a principal dancer in some major city’s professional ballet.

But here’s the thing: in the middle of all this excellence, the show was stolen by a three-year-old.

Last year at the Cincinnati version of the Nutckracker, a family sat behind us. The kid (somewhere in the rang of five to eight years old) directly behind me kicked my seat through two hours full of performance. By the second act, the parents distributed smartphones and this kid and his older brother played video games from their expensive vantages.

The star of the show watches her fellow performers take a bow. A moment later, she took one as well.

The star of the show watches her fellow performers take a bow. A moment later, she took one as well.

Next to me on Tuesday, a mother held her three-year-old daughter. Like the American boys, she got restless in the second half. But instead of turning to electronics, she got mimetic. As in, she hopped down off her mother’s lap, walked into the five-foot gap between our seats and the orchestra rail, and she began to emulate the moves of each dancer. Her spins were crisp. Her dips were dramatic. Most importantly, her smile was vivid. The people around us clapped for her as well as the performers. I clapped for her, and I clapped for the rejection of sedentary lifestyle that had two mothers clearing snow slush off the community playground equipment when I got home from the performance. In the wintery mix of rain and snow, in the middle of a cold Siberian weekday night, they were ensuring that their kids could keep active.

When I learned I was coming here, it was the marquee events I had in mind. Red Square. Borscht. The ballet. But since arriving, it’s the small actions of regular people that’ve caught my attention and shown me beauty.