Close encounters

A bit like me arriving in Russia… only reverse the height difference.

The most rewarding travel moments for me come in the form of interactions.  Differing cultures, languages, and social scripts all make for fascinating conversations and mishaps that probably wouldn’t happen on my home turf.  So from here in Yaroslavl, I present you with a few recent Close Encounters.

… of the drunken kind.

I knew questions about alcohol would come up eventually, regardless of how much I dislike the sterotype and want to sweep it under the rug (right along with “Russians don’t smile”).  As much as I want the bright colors and warm friendships to define my experience in Russia, there are some darker tales to tell as well.  If there weren’t, I probably wouldn’t be visiting institutions full of abandoned and neglected children here every day.

I’ve run into three legitimate drunks so far here in Russia.  I don’t use the term lightly.  These men were alone, in broad daylight, so drunk they could barely stand up straight.  And that count is exactly three more than I’ve ever encountered anywhere else.

Two of them were just sad scenes, sloppy and ignored by bystanders.  But the other, I doubt I’ll ever forget.

I was waiting alone at the bus stop, wearing large black Mary Kate sunglasses and a nonchalant  “I’m pretending to be Russian so I don’t stand out” look on my face (which I think I’m getting pretty good at).  In my left peripheral vision, I could see an a large awkward figure walking, or rather staggering, in my direction.  I stepped back to give him room to pass on the sidewalk, but he didn’t pass.  He stopped in front of me and leaned in close, peering into my sunglasses as if examining himself in a funhouse mirror.  He tilted his head side to side and squinted his eyes.

Simultaneously, I shrunk and dodged to my right, yanking my glasses from my face angrily.  It was then that I noticed that he smelled like vodka and morning breath.

Indiscernible Russian.

“What?” I snapped back.

“Give me a drink from your water bottle!”

“Excuse me?  No.”

He stared down at me furiously, breathing hard.  To diffuse the tension, I said, “I don’t speak Russian very well, sorry.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

I glanced from side to side before answering, to see if someone might rescue me from the conversation, but everyone seemed disinterested.  “America.”

“Huh? Belgium?”

“No.  A-mer-i-ca.”

Silence.  More angry staring.  I feel like his name had to have been Boris.  Or maybe Igor.

Suddenly, a smile.  “Big Ben?  Eh?”  He held his hand up high to demonstrate Ben’s height.

“No, that’s England.”

More silence, more staring.  I realized I probably shouldn’t have corrected him.  Then, again, a delayed smile and a laugh.  He suddenly palmed the back of my head like a basketball, pulled me toward him, and gave me a loud, exaggerated kiss on the forehead.  He released my head and stomped away to harass two more young women a few meters away.

I stood there stunned, not sure if I should feel relieved or enraged, looking around to see if anyone else had noticed the cartoonish scene that had just unfolded in front of them.  Apparently they hadn’t, or at least were pretending not to.

When the bus arrived a minute later, I glanced over to make sure he was continuing his staggered march down the street before getting on.  My heart rate had not yet slowed, but I resumed my faux-Russian nonchalance and tried to forget about Boris and his vodka kiss.

… of the babushka kind.

One of my various volunteer placements in Yaroslavl is at a senior center.  I usually come by once a week to do crafts and chat with the members, all but one or two of whom are women.

The first time I visited, I could tell they were not expecting a Russian speaker, since one particularly grumpy lady complained audibly in Russian about how silly it was for them to bother going around saying their names, since the volunteers never remember them anyway.  The others hushed her up quickly and she rolled her eyes.

At some point during the craft hour, I ended up being ushered away from the activity table and into a chair in the corner, surrounded by a gaggle of impossibly sweet-looking grannies.  I broke the ice by asking if they’d all been born there in Yaroslavl.  Most of them said yes, aside from one who’d been born in Azerbaijan (but was of Russian descent, she added).

They wanted to know why I could speak Russian.  I said (truthfully) that I had always wanted to learn it because I think it’s the most beautiful language in the world, so I studied it in college.  I could see them melting.

As they peppered me with more questions, the group began to grow in size.  More chairs were pulled up, until I was completely circled by babushkas.

“Do you know any Russian literature?” one leaned forward and asked.

“Yes, I’ve read some Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Lermentov, Turgenev…”  I ran down the list.

“And Pushkin?” one interjected.

“Of course.”  I then proceeded to recite one of Pushkin’s most famous poems (“I loved you“) from start to finish, and half the women chimed in to join me.  The others cooed and awed and clasped their hands in front of their hearts.

I knew exactly what I was doing.  I was being the guy who brings a bouquet of flowers not only for his girlfriend, but also for his girlfriend’s mother when he picks her up at her house.  A total suck-up.  It was too easy.  Little did they know, however, that when I learned this poem in the fall of 2004, I had no idea what the words meant.  I could barely read cyrillic when it was hammered into my head by my Russian professors.

Now that I had won their hearts, the women started opening up and telling me about themselves.   They were former engineers, mathematics professors, nurses, chemists.  They gushed about how beautiful mathematics is and told stories about their tenure at various universities.  Some of them had traveled extensively, often alone.  They spoke with warmth and humor and gratitude for my interest in their country, and I felt humbled by them.

I left the senior center that day having learned a few things:  never underestimate the power of Pushkin or the prowess of a babushka.

… of the innocent kind.

The following are genuine (translated) quotes by the wonderful children with whom I work in Yaroslavl.

  • “Why do you speak English?”
  • “You look like a little girl, so tiny.  But your face, that looks older.  And your hair is pretty.”
  • “Aren’t you afraid to fly in planes so often?  You know, a lot of them crash.”
  • “Will you marry me in five years?”
  • “How much does it cost to buy a llama in Peru?  With and without fur?”

An egg-carton caterpillar made by my beloved Pasha

30 comments

  1. I love your experience with the babushkas. It’s always a nice thing to learn a little bit of the language and culture of the place we’re visiting. Sometimes we can get free drinks or food because of that! And of course the widest smiles ever from the locals.

  2. This is just lovely, Meghan! How did you find the recording of the Pushkin poem set to music? I, too, am a slavophile, and went to Russia as soon as I could get there after the Soviet Union collapsed. I applaud you for your courage and determination, and for your Russian language skills! I studied Russian for two years, but had to cary my dictionary with me everywhere. When I was there (in ’92), alcohol was a big problem among Russian men. I guess it still is.

    • Thank you Joanne! It must have been a fascinating time to have been in Russia, right after the fall of the USSR. Hopefully you’ll make it back some time soon so you can compare!

  3. Love the quotes from the kids…they always ask the best questions.:)
    With respect to the drunk…I’ve had a couple of similar encounters abroad as well…except in one, the man started grabbing at me and pulling me behind the bus shelter…no one so much as batted an eyelash…be careful and take care of yourself.:)

    • That sounds terrifying. I’m glad my case didn’t turn into anything more serious. You’d think that in the middle of the day, surrounded by people you wouldn’t have to worry about something like that.

  4. Su

    Beautiful post, you have a wonderful way to express your experiences. Homeless drunks are human to and often we forget to treat them as such, your experience with one for me was touching. Thanks for sharing your wonderful story with the babushkas, those moments are precious and rare. We forget that the older generation have their stories which often are the most interesting.

  5. First of all – the quotes from children are too adorable. ❤ 🙂

    Second of all – the drunken incident. Ewwww! I would have smacked that guy for putting his lips anywhere near me. Good for you for being so calm. I would have freaked the eff out!

    And I absolutely love the babushka story. Too lovely.

    • Aren’t they cute? I especially loved their interest in the furless llama market.

      And yes, in retrospect I should have reacted more strongly, but at the time I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I was also surrounded by other people at the bus stop, so I felt like if it got too out of hand, hopefully someone would help me. But yea, gross.

      Thanks Ceri!

    • There are two categories of people In Russia considered as almost the holy 🙂 Those are the drunkards and the fools 🙂
      If they do not do any harmful or criminal things, we (Russians) treat indulgence with them, as any other nations do, I am sure 🙂

      But roughness has no excuse. I’m sure if the incident got out of control, someone would bring him down a peg.

      P/S/ Babushki are the most efficient weapon against the drunkards! )))

    • Haha thank you Sid! Believe me, the reverence of literature and art here is amazing, and so are the people at that center for all they have lived through in the last century. It gives me hope too!

  6. You are making Pasha famous. My heart is swelling with glee.

    One day, when we write a twinbook (a twook?), a chapter will have to be devoted to the strange questions people ask us on our travels.

    • He deserves to be famous. Did you see that caterpillar?

      And yes, I agree on the twinbook. I have a lot more questions where those came from. I love getting to hang out with eight year olds all day…

    • Thank you, Susan. You’re right, I am full of more love than I can keep up with this year, heaps and heaps of it. And one thing I will say that I am proud of is that I’ve developed patience, finally. I never particularly liked being around children before, but now that has changed completely.

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