I recently celebrated my 30th birthday and was reminded of my 29th birthday – I was in Russia for my 29th and my husband had traveled to visit me for that week in October. I thought about our walks through Tavricheskiy Sad – the leaves had all turned orange and yellow and Russians were walking around with those silly leaf crowns on their heads! The weather was cool and I was reminded of how “at home” I felt in my favorite city – Saint Petersburg. Upon returning to America, I regularly had dreams about SPB, walking down the streets which had become so familiar to me. I miss seeing the little boy who lived in the apartment below – he would always greet me enthusiastically each time we passed each other.
Whenever people ask me why I chose Russia for my study abroad experience, I never really quite know how to answer. There is not an ounce of Russian blood in me – I am composed of 63% French Canadian and 37% “other”. But really, when it comes down to it, I am American. I don’t speak French and I’ve never been to France. Russia was my first foreign experience and we hosted a Russian exchange student when I was a teenager, so I guess it makes sense that I chose Russia. Only this second time around, I fell in love with the country – something I did not do in 1999.
It’s always difficult for me to explain what I love about Russia, and why I miss living there – I still feel as though I know so very little about the country. I was never a Russian history or literature major – I was not really very enthusiastic about many of the great “cultural” aspects of Saint Petersburg, which all the tourists flocked there to see. The palaces and onion-domed cathedrals are all pretty and well, but I always found myself much more fascinated by the long train rides, babushka’s, street vendors, Soviet apartment museums and block-style housing (many of which can be seen scattered across multiple post-Soviet states). I would much rather ride into the arctic circle on a train to Murmansk than spend my days touring the Hermitage. I found the little “Soviet” eccentricities fascinating – habits and informal channels adapted in relation to the Soviet economy, with all its shortages. Everything about Russia was so different from my experience as an American… it kept daily life interesting, and at times, exciting.
I think one of the things I most enjoyed about living in Russia as a student and ex-pat for a year was the detachment from my own cultural norms and bureaucratic system. I was no longer glued to my iPhone and all the modern conveniences we cannot seem to live without here in the States, and I didn’t have to hear and read about American politics all the time (if only I could have been in Russia during this past election season!) When I returned home, many things I used to care about no longer seemed very important to me and I no longer worry about things that used to cause me anxiety.
Living in Russia changed my way of looking at many things in life because I had to make a conscious effort to try and understand and interpret everything that was going on around me. Not speaking the language fluently made life more challenging and the level of self-accomplishment more gratifying when I learned to adapt to and face the challenges. It may sound silly, but I was so excited when I learned how to make it back and forth to the airport without needing a taxi (so much cheaper!), and even more excited when I survived my first solo Russian rail experience – I had purchased the tickets myself, despite my broken Russian, and survived all of the stares of the people in Platz car at the American female traveling alone. If I could derive half as much enjoyment learning to read and order off a food menu here in the States, perhaps I wouldn’t miss Russia so much!
In all seriousness, I understand that this new love for things Russian is what it is because I am a foreigner and found life there different and challenging (and I have a passport to get me out if push ever comes to shove). I’m sure Russians feel the same when coming to live in America for the first time. One great thing about both countries is that we are both immense and very diverse. One could travel to Siberia or to the American “wild west” and see an entirely new kind of Russia and America. In this respect, both countries offer ample opportunity for the individual who likes to keep life on the zestier side.
One last thought – considering our past histories and the animosity that once used to exist between the the closed Soviet empire and America, I cannot help but find Russia and her people fascinating.
Article originally published for EnglishinRussia.ru blog: http://www.englishinrussia.ru/en/blog/culture/russian-sentiments