The Holidays, Loneliness, and the (Bright and Shiny) Future

I’ve always been mystified by Russians’ preference of New Years to the traditional western Christmas holiday. For me, New Years has always been a bit of a let-down; I usually spend it at home with my parents watching the ball drop or classical music on PBS. Snore. As you can imagine, things go down a bit differently in Russia.

New Years became the primary winter holiday in Russia during the Soviet era. New Years is a secular holiday, so that makes sense. For the uninitiated, celebration of New Years in Russia is basically (western Christmas+New Years) X 100. There are presents, Father Frost, champagne, tangerines, fireworks, wishes, and enough mayonnaise salad to give a Kenyan marathoner a heart attack. Some key dishes are “Olivier” salad (a blander version of a basic American potato salad), “Herring in a fur coat” (a weird, multilayered salad that includes beets and tastes kind-of okay until you get to the herring), and “Kholodets” (it’s meat aspic you guys. I’m not kidding). One American friend complained that New Years is celebration of the worst cuisine in the world. I’m going to plea the fifth on this one.

As many of you know, I went home to celebrate Christmas in the US with my family. It was a fantastic mental break (not to mention weather break), but I’m very glad that I decided to return in time for the Russian holidays. My celebrations started with an unbelievably awkward party with colleagues at the Institute. Highlights included seeing my boss (drunkenly?) shimmy to some of the worst Soviet-era disco music I’ve ever heard and an painfully awkward slow-dance to Abba’s “Happy New Year.”

I spent actual New Years Eve in the company of almost-strangers, which was both entertaining and kind of a bummer. A friend invited me to spend the holiday with her friends, a group of mostly 30-something couples who spent 2 hours preparing a huge feast that they barely ate. One highlight of event included an adapted game of musical chairs in which the men predatorily circled an a group of women, attempting to grab one with the music stopped. At another point in the evening I decided to refresh my own champagne (a woman pouring her own drink is a no-no in Russia. I know this and make a point of ignoring it. Obviously), one of my new male acquaintances scolded me, reminding me that “we have a patriarchy in Russia.” OH REALLY?

The actual highlight of the night of the night was the incredible fireworks display in the city center. Seriously, this provincial Russian town put any 4th of July display I’ve yet to see to shame. Unfortunately I didn’t get any good pictures of it because we had switched to vodka by that point. But here’s a picture of the feast no one ate!

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My favorite holiday celebration was at the home of my colleague Natalia Vladimirovna (you will remember her as my “Russian grandmother” who always brings me food). She invited me and three of her old students who graduated about ten years ago, one of whom I know from the Institute. The three  met and became friends during their college years and are still best of friends to this day. Hanging out with them was fun, but had the side effect of making me really miss my own college friends. The holidays do weird things to even the most stoic among us.

Speaking of emotions, it’s been a pretty long time since I’ve updated you on the goings on of my life here. This is in part because life has gotten pretty boring, at least from my perspective. My reactions to my everyday experiences have normalized; not every Russian-y thing seems like an event worth sharing anymore. It’s just life. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing.

I’ll give you some examples. That my life has slowed down to a normal pace is good because it gives me the opportunity to feel what it’s like to really live here. This isn’t some abbreviated, study-abroad, excursion filled tourist experience. I have time to read, rest, think, get bored. I have to deal with my own housekeeping problems, cook my own food, make my own financial decisions. I’m at the point where I’m considering whether or not I want to prolong my stay in Russia another year, so it’s helpful to have real experiences to base this decision off of.

On the other hand, the slowness has made things really difficult. I’ve been hesitant to admit that because it feels like failing. I mean, I have this prestigious fellowship and this once in a lifetime opportunity; shouldn’t I just be making friends left and right and seamlessly integrating myself into community life at every opportunity? The reality, of course, is that things aren’t as glamorous as I’d hoped they would be.

It’s been hard to fight the feelings of loneliness, especially now during the holidays when I have so much aimless time. Yes, I’ve made lots of new, cool, welcoming friends. No matter how often I see them, though, I often feel guest in their company. It’s hard to integrate yourself into a group of people who have known each other for years (especially with a language barrier, but I’ll talk more about that later). I grew so accustomed to being surrounded by my close friends 24/7 in college: I never had to eat a meal alone, I always had someone to talk to. The transition to living alone for the first time, especially in with the confluence of other circumstances, has been really tough.

I’ve talked to some of my recently graduated friends in the US about this, and it seems like a pretty common experience. I force myself to recall my first year of college when I felt similarly lonely to give myself some perspective; it takes time to build deep relationships. I know that I need to be patient. The language barrier, however, has added another level of separation between me an my new and potential friends. When I tell them this, they always seem shocked because I can definitely communicate at a basic level and I understand everything that they say to me. There is a very specific, insidious kind of loneliness, though, that comes from not being able to communicate oneself fully, especially for a very verbal person like me. I never actually went through the “nobody understands me” phase during my adolescence, so I guess it had to happen eventually!

But you guys! I have some really amazing stuff coming up this month! I’m packing up and heading out of Murom on Saturday morning to hang in Moscow for a while. I’m hoping to get the chance to meet up with the group of Wellesley Russian students who are in the city for wintersession, to see old friends, and to do some touristing. On the 13th, I’m flying to Vladivostok (a city on the Pacific coast of Russia) to start my westward journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Unfortunately, the trip is going to be a little rushed since I have to be in Moscow by the 26th for a Fulbright event. Just a good excuse to have a second go during the summer months, eh?

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A map of the Tran-Siberian railway. I’ll be sticking to the red route.

A friend and I are starting together in Vladivostok, where we will depart on a 66 (!!!!!) hour train journey to Ulan-Ude. There we will hopefully meet up with two other Fulbright teachers and continue our journey westward. The itinerary is pretty up in the air so far, so it should be an adventure.

Once we make it to Moscow, we have a Fulbright training event thing that lasts a couple of days. I’m looking forward to seeing the other teachers again and catching up. I’m hoping that talking with them will give me some perspective on my experiences here, both as a teacher and an American living in Russia. After that, I have about two weeks until my work starts again. Maybe I’ll travel a bit more around Russia’s Golden Ring. We’ll see!

I won’t be able to blog while I’m traveling, but I’m taking a notebook and a camera so that I’ll be sure to have stuff to share with you. Until then, С Новым Годом! (Happy New Year!)

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Some photos

ImageFrom my first weekend in Murom. Shashlik with new friends in a Russian village.

ImageAnother new friend!

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I took a trip to Nizhny Novgorod with my student Sofie.

OuALrQ_RYOEAt the Murom Philharmonic with Stas, Ksyusha, and Alyosha.

ImageMy first years took me bowling this weekend!

ImageWith Sevo.

ImageWith Nadya. (And beer. She tells me that when you take a picture of a bunch of booze it’s called palevo.)