St Basil Cathedral, The Red Square. Amazing.
Those that read my blog regularly already know I lived in Russia for 6 months. Living in this country was one of those moments that changed my life. I have made many selfish decisions in my life but probably none more than moving east of Moscow to Murom. I finally found a guy I love and less than 4 months later I was on an aeroplane 5000km in the opposite direction. Selfishness aside, here is small insight into the life I led in Murom, Russia.
I spent these 6 months surrounded by things I love such as history, architecture, culture, language and vodka but I lived in a small town (and one of Russia’s oldest, 846) where no one spoke english and the only time I was able to speak english was when I was teaching a class. The teachers were native russian speakers and only referred directly to me in english – otherwise it was russian. The food was labelled in russian, the street signs were in russian and I didn’t know enough russian to get by. I couldn’t pronounce the street I lived on (kubyshakonivokanpanavoska or close to it) so the teachers at the college often called the taxi on my behalf. At home I couldn’t answer the telephone, the door or greet people in the elevator. I started to learn Russian mostly by watching MTV Russia.
My walk to work every morning
To show you just how absurd my trip was, a man I met asked after a recent trip to Moscow, “While in Moscow, what did you see?” My response was, “I don’t know enough russian to read the signs, so I have no idea what I saw!”
But in this isolated bubble, not being able to speak, read, write , listen, respond, shop, make phone calls, watch TV or communicate in general, is where I found myself as a person. I had nowhere to run, no one to talk to endlessly about my problems. I had myself, my own thoughts and a lot of time to realise what I want in this life. I thought leaving on an aeroplane from NYC to Helsinki and then to Moscow, I had made a huge mistake leaving behind someone I liked for a selfish adventure but somewhere between the clashes of opulent glamour and derelict streets, I developed an affinity for a country on the other side of the world. I had a renewed appreciation for my life. My outlook changed. I did not lose anyone, I was now grateful to have met him.
The view from my apartment in Murom, Russia. One of Russia’s oldest towns.
Over the course of the six months, I did learn russian and was able to read and greet people. I remember a small russian girl writing with her finger on the foggy bus window, “my name is Ala and I am happy” (in russian) and I was able to read it. I was happy to read, even if it was at a 4-year-old level. Inside the elevator in my home I saw the Russian graffiti and was able to eventually read this too. I didn’t know Demetri but apparently he loved Anya.
I walked to work most mornings to avoid the rattling 1940’s German buses, only to see mice and cats lying frozen on the side of the footpath. They had not survived the -36 degree nights. Russians stoically walked to work or grocery shopping in their fur hats, overcoats and high heels straight past them without looking down. It honestly felt like I had stepped back in time, just long enough to answer all the questions I needed answered, then proceeded back into the future on my next stop: London. I thought I would be glad to be out of Russia and back in reality, but its stoic charisma, history and lack of any meaningful technology, while frustrating, was also liberating. Time crept by and allowed you to live – even if the living you were doing was out of your window or at the local supermarket.
So, when I hear “from Russia with love” it feels like a small token for me to hold on to. It reminds me of Russia but also who I was before I moved there. It also reminds me of that one particular person I left behind. It is a loaded quote for me, but one I have been thankful for every day.
Here are a small few things I learnt about Russia:
Family is the first priority and Russians often spend a lot of quality time with their kids – every weekend is family time. Families take their children skiing, to a nearby ranch, to the local park or a small road trip. They are always holding hands. Always.
Technology is years away in Russia – at least in the smaller towns. In the town I lived in, I spent 2000 roubles every month on internet alone. (About 1/3 of my pay cheque!) It goes by how many MB you download. A hotel in Moscow tried to charge me $200 a night for wi-fi. No thanks. And even when you do connect it’s slow.
A decent two bedroom apartment in smaller towns go for around 1 million roubles. An average Russian is paid between 1-3000 roubles a month depending on their job so many teenagers live with their parents until they meet someone they will marry, and even then may continue to live at home until they have enough money to move out which is often in their 30’s. Various “Americanisms” such as Hubba Bubba (1 stick) was priced at 2 x the price of a 2kg bag of potatoes. Life is hard there. Still.
Russians are very superstitious. Not many will share their dreams or aspirations with you fearing that “saying them out loud” will be bad luck. They also seem to not like reminiscing or looking back. They are very firmly entrenched in the “now.” One Russian lady told me, “Why look back? There is nothing you can do. It’s gone.” How very Russian.