Of course they warned us. Before departing from Washington, D.C. we were told all about the frank and honest nature of the Russian people, the worlds of difference between our modes of self-expression, forms of etiquette, and so on. The honesty received from our Resident Directors and other American Councils staff during orientation was much needed and (at least in my case) well heeded, but no amount of warning or expectation could prepare me for a week with my babushka, Valentina.
My host mom, Natasha, was on a business trip during the first week of the program, and upon my arrival to my new home I met Valentina, Natasha’s mother. Valentina doesn’t speak a word of English, is hard of hearing, and made little to no attempt to dumb down her use of the Russian language to accommodate my sensitive (and hardly existent) language skill. I was immediately aware of my lack upon meeting her, but I tried not to be intimidated, but rather excited for such a great learning and living experience.
Not just Valentina, but many Russian babushkas, possess spunk and liveliness not usually expected of or afforded to elderly folks in America. When my babushka asked me when I wanted to get up in the morning, she wasn’t messing around: on my first day with Valentina, I woke up at 7:30 am sharp, but took my time stretching and getting out of bed. Or, at least that’s what I thought I would do, before my babushka knocked on the door at 7:32 and told me it was time to get up; breakfast was almost ready, the news was on, and she had hot water ready for my coffee. I sat down at the table to enjoy my breakfast and she automatically began asking me what I thought of the news, about my plans for the day, telling me the weather and what I should wear, expecting answers and at the same time telling me I need to eat. My brain can hardly process English in the morning, let alone Valentina’s complex Russian sentences!
But it didn’t stop there. Americans have a sense of independence that really begins during puberty and the teenage years, and is solidified by certain landmarks in life, such as turning 18, moving away from home for college, getting a driver’s license and car, and turning 21. So, on the first day in my new home, as I prepared to leave and my babushka tells me that what I was wearing wasn’t suitable for the weather and continues to make sure I have all of the necessary items for a day in the center of the city, I was a little taken aback. I dutifully listened to Valentina as she told me to take my sweater, raincoat, and documents, and on the way to the metro tried to digest what seemed to me to be the lack of independence and control I would have while in Russia.
Talking to Valentina made my brain hurt and often left me speechless, but I tried everyday to be able to communicate with her and to relax and accept her control of the household as a sign of caring. Even as she’s sitting at the dining room table, telling me that I don’t eat enough and that I need some more fat on my bones, and I’m thinking, “Come on babushka, haven’t you ever opened a magazine?! I’m not going to look like those women by eating more food…” And when she knits her eyebrows when we speak, as if nothing I say is correct or to her liking…in these moments, it was difficult for me to recognize that her questions and commands were coming from a place of love and concern more than anything else.
And then it happened: the crisis, the problem, the huge misunderstanding I felt was going to be around every corner. One evening, enjoying a cigarette on the balcony of our apartment before bed, my babushka came to the door to ask me about one thing or the other. I can hardly remember what she was saying now, because what happened after totally clouded my thoughts. When Valentina returned inside to watch some sort of theater performance on the television, she locked the door to the balcony behind, leaving me phone-less, cigarette-less, cold and tired at 10:30 pm. Upon realizing that she had locked the door, I knocked loudly many times, but being hard of hearing my babushka had the volume on the television all the way up, and there was no chance of her hearing me. An hour and a half later, at 12 am, she returned to her bedroom to prepare for bed and found me on the balcony, innocently asking, “Who did this?”
It seemed to me dishonest to lie, but I tried desperately not to show the tiredness and desperation I had been feeling for the past hour as I told her that she had been the one to lock the door. I told her everything was good and there were no hard feelings, as best as I could in Russian, but even the next morning she was asking me if I could ever forgive or excuse her. It was at that moment that I heard the concern in her voice and I think I really found it in my heart to put myself in her shoes and understand her position. Having a new person in her house, one that was from America and could have any sort of predetermined assumptions or thoughts of Russia, one that she can hardly communicate with, and let alone understand must have been terrifying for her, perhaps even more than it was for me. This was her home, her life, her country, and in her mind she has a responsibility to treat me with the utmost hospitality as well as make a good impression for her home. I have never been put in such a position, and I began to realize what similar struggles Valentina and I were facing.
After a few days, I really wanted to do something special for Valentina, but with the language skills that I possess I wasn’t sure what was the best way to say thank you for taking care of me, for looking at the weather every morning, for making sure I’m not late to school, for being honest, and for allowing me to try new things in a safe environment. Instead of trying to string together all of these words in a broken, grammar-less sentence, I opted to stop by the grocery store and returned home that evening with Tvorog, laundry detergent, and fresh produce. Valentina’s immediate response was to chide me for buying things that she could retrieve on her own, but when I told her why I brought them she smiled and grabbed my cheek so she could plant a kiss and a small embrace on me. A very special moment, shared with a very special, spunky, honest, and sincere woman.