Another holiday away from home, another impersonal Amazon note printed on a gift package slip. In my time at school in California and abroad, I’ve become a pro at brevity, with only 200 characters to express what my dad means to me on Father’s Day (luckily, my dad and I are cut from the same sentimental cloth and I know he’s not expecting an Edible Arrangement and sonnet about his best qualities, of which there are many!)
All that’s to say, living abroad never ceases to be challenging. Russia may not be Afghanistan, but it ain’t Western Europe. Russians and Tatars have entrenched cultural and social norms that could take years to understand and navigate; I have seven weeks. I’ve had successes (locating a cafe with a secret password in the attic of a residential building) and failures (both my credit cards malfunctioning at the supermarket checkout with only enough change in my wallet to buy a measly banana). Hot tea and soup are served in sweltering summer weather, air conditioning is condemned as a harbinger of sickness and death, and running outside is met with glares from babushkas and leers from teenage boys. Each night, Russian state news condemns the Ukrainian and American governments for the escalating violence in eastern Ukraine.
And yet… when my credit cards failed to work, the cashier and queued customers chuckled instead of passively huffing at my idiocy. I’ve had outstanding Russian black tea and borscht, caviar on my toast for breakfast. When I run along the lake in the morning, I pass mosques and churches, crumbling with age yet pulsing with life after the stifling death of the Soviet era. While I sat in the city square this afternoon, a group of Russian Hare Krishnas descended with drums and bells. I hung back at a healthy distance. I wanted to watch cynically behind my Ray Bans, avoid interaction with the performers, and simultaneously satisfy my curiosity. Yet despite my antisocial intentions, a man broke away from the swirl of chanting and color to press a slip of paper into my palm: я желаю всем счастья. I wish you all happiness. Though I have no immediate plans to trade the Metro for a Soviet hippy van or jeans for the Hare Krishna garb, I kept the paper. If Hare Krishnas could carve out a place for themselves in Kazan, so can I.
To support me in that process, I have a Russian language tutor, Alyona. Alyona has been instrumental in my acclimation to life here. She leads me to her most-frequented spots in the city – Vladimir Lenin’s home, a sleepy park on a hill with a statue of a Russian poet and view of the Volga River, tiny cafes without signs advertising their existence – while I try and fail to conjugate the verb ‘to eat.’ She regales me with the history of her favorite artists and writers while I mistakenly ask her to weep about her 120-page thesis rather than tell me about it (though I’m sure weeping has been involved in its creation.) Laughter, patience, and an affinity for charades are necessary when taking on a second language. Below, you will find a picture of Alyona and me at my new favorite cafe. Please note and appreciate my attempt at a restrained Russian smile; in any other country, you’d be able to see all my pearly whites. Cultural integration at its finest.