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  Expatriate Writing Contest  2009 3rd Place Winner
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2009 Expatriate Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Living in Russia

Opening the Door of Possibility—Leaping, Stumbling, and Dancing into the Russian Way of Life

Author in Peasant Costume
Author in traditional Russian peasant costume with members of our school dance troupe.

Epiphanies in Russia

I step out of my grimy, Soviet-era apartment block and spy the perennially-smiling, toothless babushka (granny) from the flat below mine, feeding fish scraps to the neighborhood’s stray cats. She clicks her tongue theatrically, predicting my imminent demise because I am without a hat (it is September). Then, taking pity on me, she invites me into her minuscule kitchen—with its panorama of Orthodox icons—for a shot of vodka, because I “look like a sweet girl.” It is 11 a.m. And I think to myself, this is Russiaand I live here!

Since accepting an English teaching job in a boarding school outside St. Petersburg 18 months ago and taking a leap of faith into the utterly unknown, I have been in dizzying freefall and, frankly, never expect to reach the bottom. Russia adds a whole new dimension to that sense most expatriates would recognize: there are those epiphanies about the culture in which one finds oneself, and a myriad of new questions about the set in front of which one is playing certain scenes of one's life. In all my travels, from pounding along the beaten track, to wandering off the edges of an out-of-date map, I have never felt so keenly the juxtaposition of comprehension and confusion as I do in Russia. This is, after all,  a country (if you can use so modest a term to describe a vast blanket of territory draped over a third of the earth’s circumference) where the sun sets in the west as dawn breaks over its eastern horizons. It is an apt reflection on how confounding (when ill you may be advised to wear a vodka-soaked shirt), surprising (Russia is the only country where I have ever had someone return a lost purse, with no demand for reward), frustrating (it took my landlord three months to replace a light bulb in my flat), and wonderful (the generosity of people who have so little is overwhelming) it can be to live here.

The elephantine, mustachioed woman behind the ticket counter at Viitebsky train station looks at my passport and fires a rapid round of Russian at me. I stammer that I want a one-way ticket to Vilnius (a phrase I have been painstakingly rehearsing during my 45-minute wait in the queue). “You’re not Russian,” she tells me. “No ticket.” And she motions me impatiently to leave, offering no further explanation. This is Russia, I remind myself (with a number of additional expletives)—What on earth am I doing here?

The Russian Language

The language, even more so than the other countries I have lived in, is so much more than just a medium of communication. Its structure and social insinuations help to explain the endless mysteries of Russian life. Already speaking four languages fluently when I upped and moved to Russia (having previously sworn that I would never attempt a language with a different alphabet), I was dumbstruck at how deeply complicated the language is. Having learned other languages easily, finding myself painstakingly spelling out words letter by letter (and often having them turn out to be transliterations of English or French words anyway) was beyond exhausting. I felt lost in a world I could not understand. Fellow expats took great joy in informing me how impossible the language was, and Russians would refuse to understand me if I made even so minor a mistake as stressing the wrong syllable of a word. For months the language barrier was an impenetrable wall that I could not break down.

Teaching English in Russia

Today I will be teaching my first English lessons at the boarding school where I now work. As I pass through the gates, I see 40 naked teenage boys throwing buckets of ice-cold water over themselves as a part of their daily morning exercise regime. As I hurriedly avert my shocked gaze and scurry inside, I wonder, is this a Russian tradition? And am I expected to do it, too?

Author with Students in Russian Countryside
Author with a group of my students during a weekend school trip to the Russian countryside.

Being a teacher in a boarding school has given me opportunities far beyond those available to most English teachers working with different groups for short periods of time every day. I have had the wonderful experience of really getting to know my students, their families, and our local community. Rather than a window through which I can glimpse Russian life, my students have opened a door through which I have been able to leap, stumble and dance into it. There have been school trips (and if eight hours on a bus with teenage boys is not a cultural experience, I do not know what is), trips to the boys’ summer cottages with their families, and exhilarating debates over cups of sweet Russian tea about subjects as varied as feminism, history, and The Simpsons. Being cast in the role of a Russian folk-heroine as part of our Veterans’ Day dance spectacle remains one of my most treasured memories—being given the gift of honorary-Russian status for a day.

Is it Possible to Become a Russian?

I could live in Russia the rest of my life; speak Russian, marry a Russian—but I will never be Russian.

Realizing that complete assimilation into another culture is not a reality can make you feel a failure—after all, that is often the reason people start new lives in new places. But I have come to understand that there is enormous value in feeling respected and included by the people around me, in spite of and because of my differences. To be joked with, asked opinions of, and be accepted by Russian people as a foreigner who wants to understand and love their culture as they do feels like a great privilege indeed.

The Subculture of Expatriates

It has been a particularly stressful week at school. Financial worries—combined with standard common sense-defying Russian bureaucracy—has me feeling down and weary. It is 8 degrees and I have not seen the sun, literally, for over two weeks. My phone buzzes and it is my close fellow expat friends calling. “Argh!” they cry down the line. “We’ve had a horrendous day! You bring the juice, we’ve got the vodka!” And just like that, I am hopping on a minibus heading to their flat, thinking: it’s not always easy to live in Russia, but it would be so much harder without good friends.

Friend's graduation from military school
A friend’s graduation from military school was an amazing celebration and insight into yet another facet of Russian life.

Making friends and creating a social network in a new country is a cultural experience unto itself. Aside from relationships with locals—neighbors, colleagues, and random acquaintances—there is the peculiar subculture of expatriates, with different attitudes and varying degrees of enthusiasm and cynicism about life here. One thing is sure: it would be infinitely more challenging to exist in Russia without people in similar situations who can share the fun times—and the really fun times…toilets that will not flush and then will not stop flushing, roofs that blow off entire apartment blocks and stay unfixed for weeks, endless visa sagas, and the like. The Internet is an expat’s true friend, especially in a place as rapidly-changing as Russia, when opening times, addresses, and prices are constantly changing.

Student Friends

Many of my students have also become great friends. Here we are at our school’s end of year concert.

The bonds you form with fellow expats are often instantly and deeply formed. The first night I met Maya and Lucy, two of my closest friends in St. Petersburg, I missed the last train home and ended up sleeping on their floor—the first of many a memorable evening together. We pool the information we discover about our local environment and marvel at the adventures we have had—and are yet to have. We also share fits of laughter at our individual and collective experiences—my fending off a rabid dog using a carton of milk as my shield, them bursting into tears in front of a dozen bystanders at the post office when the terrifying attendants there would not let them send a box of Christmas presents home. Sharing laughter and experiences reinforces the sense that we are not alone, and is vital in so many ways.

I look out my window onto a street that is simultaneously completely familiar and utterly foreign. I have looked out over it when we have had 23 hours of daylight out of the past 24, when it has seemingly been perpetually dark. Such moments are just one frame in a series of scenes in which I have been cast since moving to Russia, even as I am gradually creating a life for myself in this infuriating, sublime, often-indescribable place. Not a day goes by when I do not feel like my horizons have been pushed out just a bit further, and my eyes opened just a bit wider…when I do not think, with a hint of incredulity: This is Russia—and it is home.

For More Information

Organizing your visa is absolutely the first thing you should do. There are many options for starting the process, so talk to people who have experience with this often-infuriating system and begin the process as early as possible. Check with the Russian embassy in your country first, or try www.visatorussia.com for up-to-date info.

Guidebooks tend to become obsolete particularly quickly in Russia as prices, locations and quality of services change constantly. The internet is easily your best bet for good information. The following are some of the most reliable sources:

  • www.sptimes.ru: This is the local English language newspaper (free, twice weekly) that has current listings, reviews, and by far the most objective reporting in St. Petersburg.
  • www.facebook.com: This links to the homepage for the St. Petersburg Expats group—a wonderful source of information for everything from accommodations for rent to language tutoring offers and travel advice. A real gem.
  • www.saint-petersburg.com: A general guide to the city and its many attractions. A good overview for the uninitiated.
  • www.tefl.com: For English teachers hunting for jobs, this is by far the best job database I have come across during my career, and was the springboard for all my experiences in Russia. Highly recommended.
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