I have been blessed over these past few months with a wonderful host family experience. My host mom, Natasha, is not only great at keeping me fed and safe, but she has shown me kindness and friendship in ways that I would have never expected from her. Before I left for Russia, my professor in the States gave me a piece of advice, which was not to judge anyone just based on age or cultural differences and open myself up to meeting new people and making connections even if they seem impossible. She was so right with this advice, especially in the case of my host mom, who I hope will continue to be my friend even after I’m no longer under her roof.

Just as I incorrectly interpreted many of the actions of my Babushka when I first arrived, it was easy for me to see Natasha’s actions as a little overbearing, at first. I made a habit of leaving the house in the morning about five minutes earlier than I really wanted to, because Natasha has a little routine of making sure I have everything. Umbrella? Check. Documents? Check. Jacket or sweater? Yep. Phone and money? Of course. She would patiently watch me put on my shoes, unlock the door and send me off in the morning with a small peck on the cheek and, usually, some sort of inspirational phrase or a wish for a good day ahead.

Despite my first impressions, I grew fond of her protective behavior. Her kindness was purely her choice and not any sort of expectation from me, and it felt like she genuinely cared for me. I made sure there were always flowers on the table and I did the dishes when she allowed me to, or more accurately when she wasn’t home. She loves to talk, and in the evenings we started to have long, sometimes very thoughtful, and sometimes just fun, conversations that even began to cut into my time for homework; however, I never minded much, because the progress I made speaking with her and my connection with her as a host and a friend was very important to me.

One of these conversations centered around my wish to apply for and receive the Fulbright to return to Russia as an English teacher. She showed a lot of excitement for me and seemed to have a lot of faith in my abilities, based on the amount of progress I’ve made in speaking Russian in these two months. She gave me advice, such as which cities I should try to go to, how to live in a smaller Russian city, and she was a little surprised and perhaps concerned when I told her that I was really worried about being able to survive a Russian winter. As I should have guessed, she began telling me that the temperatures aren’t really as bad as they seem and as long as you bundle up, you’ll be fine, but I was still uneasy.

One day, returning home from a long day of school, a found a small bag that looked like clothing near my bed. I figured Natasha had meant to put it away and forgot, so I didn’t bother with it. Soon after, I received a text from her saying that she was on a trip with her work and wouldn’t return until late. She also that that the bag, containing two thick hats and a wool scarf, was for me for my next trip to Russia. Overwhelmed by her kindness, I opened the bag and put both hats and the scarf on and, I couldn’t help myself but to cry a little. Having someone who’s obligation to care for you truly only extends to food and shelter show such kindness touched my heart in so many ways. I realized how, before making this journey, my love for this language and culture came from such an outside point of view, that it was almost a fetishization of these people and their traditions. Living here, experiencing the education and everyday life firsthand, has given me an entirely different outlook on this country and its people. Having someone like Natasha, who, I feel, has shown me the heart of Russian culture and tradition, has been a truly life changing experience; one that has solidified my dreams of returning to this beautiful place to learn and experience even more.

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