Vladimir, Russia 5/16/2016
I have taken very few Russian classes at Vanderbilt University. Actually, I have taken no Russian classes at Vanderbilt University. Actually, I have taken no Russian classes at all.
My decision to fly over 5,000 miles to a country that relatively few Americans visit and who's language I do not speak for a full month could not have been born out of extensive knowledge of Russian and Russian culture, because that is knowledge I do not possess. That motivation came more from intense curiosity, love of travel, and desire to learn than from experience of any form; I had little formal interaction with the language or culture, so I had few expectations. That being said, there were a few things that still managed to be completely unexpected.
- My host family speaks very little English.
- As this trip did not require knowledge of Russian, I was subconsciously operating under the assumption that all of the host families involved would speak fluent English; on a more general level, I rediscovered that, as an American traveling, my arrogant expectation was that most Europeans I'd meet would understand me. It did not take me long to discover my mistake. As I got off the van from Moscow at 10:30 PM Sunday night, I was greeted by my host mother (Vera) and daughter (Polina), both beaming, and both with heavily-accented "Nice to meet you!"'s. That was some of the last English I heard that night, and, while the revelation that they spoke very little of my language terrified me for a few long seconds, the whole family was so welcoming that soon it almost didn't matter. We figured out that we did not understand each other fairly quickly, and then reverted to gestures and cognates, and the little English Polina had learned in school; it was amazing how smothered with enthusiasm and hospitality I was, despite the language barrier. After Vera and her husband Ivan had gone to bed, Poli and I sat awake on the computer, having a conversation via Google Translate and teaching me some Russian words. They were so immediately kind and welcoming that I went to sleep that first night much less worried about living with strangers than I had been even when I thought we'd share a language.
- This one I sort of saw coming, but I didn't think it through, and I didn't realize that short nights would mean that, if I slept with the window open, I would both wake up and fall asleep to bird song; also, I made the mistake of sleeping with the curtains open, which meant I would wake up at 4:00 AM in a panic, thinking it was 9:00 and that I was late for my first day at the American Home.
- I still don't know whether this is a cultural thing or a 'my host family' thing: my first Russian breakfast consisted of some toast, cheese, vegetables, and, most notably, cereal. Not that cereal is notable, of course; no, the thing that shocked me was that my milk, graciously poured for me by Vera, was absolutely scalding hot. Cereal with warm milk is very weird, like oatmeal gone very, very wrong. I ate it anyway, of course, partly out of a wish to be polite and partly because I don't know the Russian word for 'hot.'
- I know that, when it comes to things like television, movies, and music, American culture can tend to be hegemonic, but I'd assumed that effect lessened the farther east you get in Europe. However, when we visited the Vladimir State University today, they seemed more into American culture than we were. Youth in Russia prefer American and British music especially, and they were almost scornful of contemporary Russian music; when Ben brought up a modern Russian artist he liked, most students actually laughed. Polina even told me today that her favorite artists are Eminem and Snoop Dogg (Snoop Dog E. Dog? Snoop Lion? I don't remember).
- I'm beginning to figure out that a lot of the things that I quirks of a few specific countries I've encountered in the past are actually universal things, and that the US is the weird outlier country that doesn't comply. Tea is one of those things. I used to think tea was a mostly British thing, and then a mostly Western European thing, and at this point, I have been in Russia for more than twenty-four hours and had burning hot tea on three separate occasions, and I'm ready to accept that tea is a thing that everywhere but the US does and accept it.
- My first dinner in Russia was at a sushi joint, and it was surprisingly delicious (I've since been told by people at the American Home that that might have been an anomaly, but whatever the shrimp was great). My host family picked me up from the American home with their eldest daughter, Lera, who speaks very good English, which was very useful as we could clear up some finer communication issues over dinner (I'd slept in the wrong bed the first night, and it made my host mom feel bad; it's my fault, I should've figured this out myself, as I slept pillow-less on the bed that was not made, but hey I'd just made an eight hour time change sue me). Lera was great too and we all colored at the restaurant (there were coloring pages on all the tables; their family is very artistic and mine was definitely the worst) and it was a blast all around. We all sang along to American music in the car on the way home.
- From my host family to the people at the American Home to the students we met today at Vladimir State University, everyone has been incredibly friendly and, more notably and thankfully, outgoing. It is very helpful, when you're like me and unstructured social interaction is already your nightmare with Americans that you already know, much less people from a different country that you just met, when they approach you; everyone involved with this trip on the Russian side, particularly the students, have been very interested in us and made sure that we felt included and welcomed, coming up to us and initiating interaction more than I expected. We all exchanged Instagram and Facebook information and I'm excited to make more friends throughout my month here.
Well, this is way longer than I anticipated making it; the rest will probably not be this long (or maybe they will, who knows.) At any rate, I'm excited for tomorrow (we're visiting the huge and gorgeous Assumption Cathedral and having a welcome party kind of thing) and so tired I might fall asleep before I publish this. All in all, a great first day.