Summer vanished. All along the Volga, the beer tents where we’d gathered during our first weeks were folded up and put into trucks. For a few days, the town’s students sat among the poles. By the following week, the poles were stacked and carried away and the boardwalk looked empty on the grey water.
Trees turned their leaves and shed them, like the peeling paint of the town’s yellow buildings. Round, majestic hats appeared with the first sharp wind sweeping in from the river. It was a sight we’d always imagined. And the fur coats, too. Cafés were lit neon at daytime. Solitary drunks sat in the empty park. Old women bundled in felt and wool sold vegetables out of buckets.
Finally, we had a sense of where we’d come. And we were gladdened by the gloom.
We wished for things to get darker, and colder. We wished for snow, for the grey light. We almost cheered at the unsmiling waitresses, hoped they would ignore us for longer, shrug when we asked them in our comical accents whether they had the pelmeni. We would look at each other, then, smiling triumphantly.
“Welcome to Russia,” we’d say.
Back at university, our dorm rooms were decorated with Soviet-era posters of women workers; advertisements for chocolate with the face of the freckled boy, Kuzya; cartoon characters we hadn’t grown up with. We were nostalgic for these things that didn’t belong to us. We were born several decades too late. We longed for things that were more real, a little decrepit.
One of us had set out to read Master and Margarita in Russian, and another, War and Peace. We stated our goals without hesitation our first year at university, while we struggled to conjugate the genitive case. We said we had always been drawn to this culture and its people, and we used words like “stoic” and “noble” to describe our passion.
There were a few other foreigners in town. We met them at the internet café where all the foreigners gathered daily. A German businessman, who’d lived for a year in Delaware, took all of us out to dinner our first week, when we were up for doing anything. We would meet after class to go to the market and try the foods that looked the strangest; we went to a sauna even before the weather was cold.
“You guys are great,” the businessman told us at dinner. He ordered us shots. “You remind me of my student years.”
Afterwards, when we stood shivering outside, coughing on cigarettes, he said,
“Welcome to Russia, everyone. It’s a lot of fun here.” We didn’t see him again.
There were the two missionary boys—or that’s what we guessed they were, because their good looks didn’t match their bashful ways. They were bewildered by our jokes. And there were the Italian girls who’d come to work in an orphanage.
We would all meet up at KFC, perhaps only to make a point of our displacement, feeling kinship as we ate potato wedges.
“Finally, something without sour cream,” we said. “Something that’s not pickled.”
Every morning in class, we told each other what our host families had prepared for dinner. Smoked eel, cabbage of a hundred varieties, pancakes with cottage cheese. For some reason, all this made us roar with laughter. We exchanged stories of our hosts in a sort of competition, observing everything they did like anthropologists or comedians. One of us slept on a fold-out couch in the kitchen. One suspected that the “uncle” who visited the family weekly, while the father was away in Switzerland, was actually the mother’s lover. These were the stories we would share when we were back the following year, and in telling them to each other we made them legitimate—the stories of this baffling world which we had seen. Stories of our experience.
Before I arrived, I imagined giving myself up to this time, as if entering a cocoon. I would emerge from it transformed, a year later, into a better version of myself. I trusted that the year would fill me with all the things I lacked, without even knowing what they were.
I lived with Galina Ivanovna, an old woman with orange hair whose color matched the tiny flowers on her cotton dresses. She walked up and down the corridor all day, sorting a growing hive of plastic bags hanging from the radiator knob, putting away leftovers in the refrigerator or the balcony, then changing their places for no apparent reason. I guessed that she was in her eighties, but people looked older than their years. (We called this “the Russki metamorphosis”—all the thin, blonde girls transforming overnight into babushkas.)
Galina Ivanovna lived downtown, close to the university where we had our classes. Her stone building had arched windows and an impressive, rounded, rusty door. She told me proudly that a movie was once filmed in this building. Inside, it smelled of mold. The apartment itself was very old, its leaking pipes and cracks secured by a system of rubber bands, cardboard, and cotton.
I slept in the living room on the divan, by a glass cabinet stacked with a blue china dining set and crystal glasses. Next to them I placed my contact solution and creams.
At breakfast and at dinner, we sat across the kitchen table on two stools, and Galina Ivanovna asked me, “Soup, now? Chicken, now?”
She served the dishes one-by-one, regardless of my answer.
From the moment that I introduced myself, she swept my name aside and called me Masha.
“It’s just you and me, Masha,” she said during our first dinner of soup and pancakes.
Her sister Irina, who had lived upstairs, had recently passed away. Irina had been a host mother, too, up until the very end. I didn’t know whether this was a good thing, or a sign of hardship. Irina’s two children, Galina Ivanovna said, lived in Moscow.
“And your children?”
She shook her head.
“But you like students?” I asked.
Galina Ivanovna got up from the table. After a few minutes, she came back with a photo album and pulled her stool next to mine. She started on the first page and showed me, one by one, the photographs of girls in college sweatshirts and cable-knit sweaters, smiling brightly in front of the glass cabinet.
“Sasha, Alya, Lara,” she said. “Tanya, Katya.”
There were also photos of the girls hugging Galina Ivanovna or holding her hand. She waved her hand in the air as if to dismiss them, as if she were embarrassed, but she did not rush to flip the page. At the end of the album were several photographs sent from the U.S, of Christmas gatherings, hiking trips, the Disneyland castle.
“This is Florida,” Galina Ivanovna said. “This is Maine.” She took the pictures out of the plastic sheet to show me the place names written in Cyrillic on the back. It was clear that these girls, who had shared something of their own lives with her, were Galina Ivanovna’s favorites, and she remembered them by their real names.
“My Jessica,” she said. “Look, beautiful Stephanie.”
The following evening, while we sat at the kitchen after dinner, she asked whether I would like to go to the theatre. She could ask her friend, who worked at the ticket booth, to get us in.
“Thank you,” I said. “That’s O.K.”
I tried to explain that I wouldn’t understand a play in Russian.
“Concert?” Galina Ivanovna asked.
“That’s O.K,” I said again. “Thank you very much.”
I was planning on joining the others after class to go to KFC.
“Irina loves the theatre,” she said, and I wondered whether she was speaking in the present tense for my sake.
“I wish I’d known her,” I said.
“Won’t you be bored here, doing nothing?”
I opened my hands in the form of a book. I pantomimed writing.
After a while Galina Ivanovna said, “Everyone’s gone.”
I nodded my head. Then I said, “I’m here. You’re here.”
After we’d cleared the table, she followed me to my room and took out a frame from the back of the glass cabinet. She pointed at the photograph of a man with a mustache, wearing army medals.
“My husband,” she said. “He also travels. He reads a lot, like you girls.”
Next day in class I told the others that my host mother was a real character.
“Guys,” I said. “I think she communes with the dead.”
By November, the trees were barren.
We had done everything there was to do in town. We’d visited the cathedral, walked the boardwalk to the medieval fortress, went mushroom picking with one of the hosts, went to the discotheque. We even went to a play and left after the first act. We visited the Italian girls at the orphanage and spent an afternoon drawing with the children. We took a weekend trip to Tolstoy’s estate where we bought fur hats and flower-patterned shawls like the old women wore at the market.
When I came home from the trip, my shawl draped in a triangle on my back, Galina Ivanovna took me by the arm to her room and sat me on the bed.
She brought down a cloth-bound bundle from the wardrobe and untied it on the floor.
“My mother,” she said, holding up a camisole. And she said it again, showing me a tablecloth, its matching napkins, a crepe dress. I pantomimed sewing with my hands and she nodded.
“My mother,” she said.
At the bottom, there was a pair of baby’s socks, and a tiny, blue-checkered dress.
That evening, Galina Ivanovna asked me to sit with her in her room to watch a show about a girl in high school, with thick glasses and braces. We had tea, and Galina Ivanovna went to her wardrobe and brought out a bag of sweets.
When the show started, she pointed at the dark-haired actor.
“She likes him,” she informed me. “But he doesn’t pay her attention.”
I guessed that the heroine would undergo some sort of transformation in the coming episodes, as they all did. I got up during the commercial break, forming my hands into a pillow next to my cheek.
“Alright, then,” Galina Ivanovna said, and waved me off.
I lay on the divan and finished the grammar exercises for the following day. I added some details to the paragraph describing my hometown. I wrote that there were large maple trees, famous for their autumn colors; that my family members all lived close by; that even though it was small, it was a beautiful town. I tried to use all the words I knew in Russian, even though the accumulation did not resemble my home: post office, library, park, bench, pool, cinema.
Afterwards, I took out my journal where I recorded details each evening: the smell of beets in the apartment, the square pieces of newspaper cut up to use as toilet paper. I added the bundle of old clothes Galina Ivanovna had shown me, and the bag of stale candy in her wardrobe.
There was the boredom we exaggerated—Damn, this town’s boring—and there was boredom itself.
Every evening after class, I walked the few blocks to Galina Ivanovna’s building, then walked back to the university to do my homework in a classroom. Afterwards, I’d wander around town, ending up by the cathedral. The others would have gone to their host families. They all lived in the suburbs and were worried about getting back in the evening when busses were less frequent. I was lucky to be living in the center, with the freedom to come and go as I pleased. The others said there was nothing at all around their neighborhoods—neither a shop nor park, just the dreary concrete blocks side by side along the road. Once they were home, they told me, they were more-or-less imprisoned. Perhaps this was why they began participating in their families’ lives. They babysat for the children, visited acquaintances, helped prepare time-consuming traditional dishes. As they settled into their routines, I thought that I was the unlucky one, after all—that I was missing out on an authentic experience.
In the evenings, I lay on the divan, contemplating whether I had anything else to add to my journal. I’d already described the town, as well as some historical facts and legends. I copied poems from Doctor Zhivago which I’d brought with me for inspiration.
After her TV show was over, Galina Ivanovna would come to my room without knocking and sit at the edge of my bed. She told me what we would have for breakfast, and for dinner, and when I confirmed, she said, “In that case, I’ll go to the market tomorrow.”
I thought that perhaps this was her way of asking whether I wanted to join her.
Sometimes, while she chatted, she would begin unbuttoning her dress without the slightest sign of discomfort. She wore layers of clothes beneath—a cotton shirt tucked into her underpants, long socks— so that she was never really naked. Still, I was so surprised the first time this happened that I got up and went to the cabinet, to take off my contacts. Galina Ivanovna took off her dress and draped it on her knees. I asked her if she was preparing to go to sleep.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, as if I’d offered to help her around the apartment, so she could go to bed quickly. “I just have a few things to finish up.”
I was amused to think of all the ways I could recount the situation to the others. But the period of competing for our hosts’ eccentricities had already passed.
At the end of November, a box arrived from one of the students’ parents, filled with Snickers bars, sour candy, popcorn, and an abundant assortment of books. The parent must have been told that we had exhausted our entire reading stock as well as that of the town’s bookstore, which had three books in English: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Little Women, and Call of the Wild. In the box there were thrillers, spy novels, current bestsellers back home, books about exotic places and historical anomalies—books set in Kabul, Shanghai, St. Petersburg, about revolutionaries or seamstresses.
We divided the books among us and exchanged them regularly. I read faster than the others and urged them to finish their books quickly. Some gave them to me without reading until the end. They were comfortable in their routines, by then. I observed the change, their calmness, the gradual ebbing away of their bewilderment by this new life.
I read without rationing, going to my room as soon as I got home, without giving Galina Ivanovna the chance to come and tell me about her day. We had also settled into a routine, going about our days without disturbing each other. I left home before breakfast and read in a classroom before the others arrived. I joined Galina Ivanovna for dinner, getting up to wash my plate as soon as I was done, despite her protests for me to leave it in the sink. Then, I went to my room to read.
The characters and geographies blended together—the eerie and the familiar, tragedy and joy. I was happy to discover my capacity for concentration, for reading whatever came my way, as if this were proof of passion. As if this, finally, were the gleam of my transformation.
The others were adopted into the social circles of their host brothers or sisters. Some of them took on hobbies: wood painting, iconography, singing with the local choir. One girl started a softball team among the Russian students and coached them in the evenings. We helped her organize a bake sale to buy team shirts, and all the students and professors showed up, delighted by the cause. Another girl gave English classes at the orphanage.
The program coordinator told us that we were an exemplary group. We had adapted so well and quickly. There had only been one unfortunate event, when a student got mugged late one night, going home from the discotheque with his host brother. Our university sent e-mails of sympathy and warning, but we understood that this was the type of thing that might have happened anywhere.
On the first night of snow, I decided to go for a walk. Galina Ivanovna came to the door as I was putting on my boots and told me it was too cold to be out.
“Sit with me and watch the show,” she said. She smiled like a girl and reached to hold my arm.
“Masha, why do you always want to be alone?”
I told her that I couldn’t really follow what was going on in the show.
“Nonsense,” she said. “Look how you speak.”
I had my keys with me, I told her. She shouldn’t worry about going to sleep.
I walked past the university and the park to the cathedral. Snowflakes flurried silently in the light cast by street lamps. The plaza was empty. I took one of the roads leading out like rays from the cathedral—this was a unique feature of medieval city planning which I’d included in my journal. I came to the river, frozen in thin patches.
I walked towards the fortress. On the other shore, the town petered out and gave way to a dark wall of trees. I was thinking of lines I might add to my journal, trying to recall the sight of the empty plaza filling with snow, when I heard a voice behind me, telling me to be careful.
A guy, around my age, stood a few meters away, smoking a cigarette. He smiled vaguely. I nodded my head.
“Be careful,” he said again. “You’re going to freeze.”
I didn’t know whether his words were menacing or friendly and I shrugged.
“What’re you doing here, anyway?” he said. He stepped closer. I thought that he looked familiar. “Are you a poet or something?”
“No,” I said. I started walking back in the direction of the cathedral and heard him laughing behind me.
“Hey,” he shouted. “What’s up?”
For some reason, even though I felt no danger, I walked faster with each step. Once I reached the cathedral I began to run. At home, I noticed that the money rolled up in my coat pocket had fallen out.
The following morning after culture class, I asked for a meeting with the coordinator and told her that I, too, had been mugged the previous evening.
“Nothing serious,” I added. “No real loss.”
But I told her I’d decided to return, instead of staying for the spring semester as well. The coordinator said I shouldn’t rush into a decision. It would be a shame to go back now, just as I was getting comfortable in Russian. I agreed with her, nodding the entire time that she spoke.
“When else will you get such an opportunity?” she asked.
I added that there was, in fact, another issue: I didn’t have much opportunity, as it were, to speak Russian with my host. She was too old, I said, and I wasn’t sure that she was entirely capable of hosting a student at her age. I alluded to the fact that besides her physical limitations, she was perhaps not mentally capable either—she could not clearly distinguish between the living and the dead, and she had, on several occasions, taken off her clothes in front of me.
The counsellor was alarmed.
“We didn’t know about this,” she said. “All the girls have always loved her.”
She offered to find me another family.
Galina Ivanovna was a wonderful woman, I agreed. But it was no one’s fault that she was getting old.
I added that it might be better for me to concentrate on academics the following semester, anyway. Russian was not even my major.
The counsellor urged me to stay at least through the holidays. I could see that she was concerned, as much for me as for the reputation of the program.
“All right,” I said. “And thank you for everything.”
Before leaving her office, I told her Galina Ivanovna was very sensitive. It would be best not to mention what I’d said.
Some were spending the holidays with their hosts. Others were traveling to Moscow. I decided to join them, and would go on another trip from there, perhaps to Kazan, or north to Arkhangelsk—I had in mind a train journey ending in a fabled, mythical place before my return home.
During my last weeks in town, I went to class eagerly, made decks of vocabulary cards, filled my journal with all the sights and sounds I encountered. I attended choir practice, went to the orphanage for a day of games with the children. When I came home, Galina Ivanovna would tell me that she had left me food on the table, just in case.
“Masha, did I do something wrong?” she asked one morning as I was leaving. After class, I told her, I was going to one of the other hosts for dinner.
“No,” I said. I only wanted to make the most of my time before I left.
“You’re leaving because you don’t like it here?”
“No,” I said. “I like it.”
I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
One day before the trip to Moscow, I got sick. By the following morning, when the others were boarding the train, I was so ill that I couldn’t stand up.
Galina Ivanovna came to my room every hour, holding her hand to my forehead, changing my pillow-case, bringing soup that I didn’t touch.
“Come on, Mashenka,” she said. “Just a little bit.”
Whenever she urged me to eat I cried meekly, feeling pathetic.
One afternoon, when I had managed to eat a few spoonfuls, she carried my stack of books to my bedside. I shook my head no, then I thanked her.
“You love reading,” she said, and this, too, made me cry.
She brought the stool from the kitchen and sat in my room for the rest of the day. I would fall asleep and wake up and Galina Ivanovna would be sitting on the stool, her hands on her lap, without a hint of impatience.
“You’ll get sick, too,” I told her. “Please don’t wait here.”
She waved her hand.
The next day, I got out of bed and showered. That evening, we sat at the kitchen table. Afterwards, I joined Galina Ivanovna in her room to watch the show. The girl still wore braces and thick glasses, but she had made a place for herself in the social life of the classroom. Even the dark-haired boy took notice of her.
When I was going to my room, Galina Ivanovna asked me what I was planning to do the following evening, New Year’s Eve.
“Nothing,” I told her.
“We’ll eat together,” she said. “It’s important to be together.”
In the afternoon, I walked to the cathedral, its walls rising out of the snow, its gilded domes covered in white. I bought presents to take home from the wooden booths set up around the plaza. A tour guide was explaining the structure of the roads extending from the cathedral. I went inside to light a candle. Before leaving, I looked up at the lavish rows of icons, their hands raised in blessing or testimony, and I tried to distill something of this sight to take back with me. Then I went to the supermarket and bought an ice-cream cake.
Galina Ivanovna had brought the kitchen table to my room and set it with a red cloth and crystal glasses. On a small table were appetizers and a bottle of cognac. The photograph of her husband was also on the table, and another photograph, of a baby, one or two years old, bundled in a knitted blanket.
We raised our glasses to the coming year. Galina Ivanovna nodded at the photographs before taking a sip.
As we were clearing the table, I thanked her for hosting me and gave her an amber brooch in the shape of a heart, which I’d bought that day in front of the cathedral.
By the time the television was showing fireworks from the Red Square, she was asleep on the couch.
Later, I recounted her with fondness. I described her pickles and soups, her cotton print dresses, her slowly disintegrating mind, as if she were a character from a fairy tale. I said that the old woman had called me Masha and that for a time afterwards I’d written to her, signing my foreign name as she had given it to me. I had even sent her a photo album—my dorm room, the dining hall, my parents’ home, the streets and parks of my town, the white wooden church on the hill. On the phone, she told me that my town looked just like her own.
“You must have felt at home here,” she said.
The last time I talked to her was on a New Year’s Eve, not long before her death.
“Happy New Year!” I shouted. “I hope you’re having a glass of cognac!”
“Remember, Masha, when you and I celebrated?”
“Of course, it was wonderful.”
“You were the last. They said I shouldn’t host anymore.”
“You were a very good host,” I said.
“You shouldn’t have told them,” she said. “Whatever you told them.”
Then she added, “But I forgive you.”
In telling the story of my Russian adventure, I would say that these months with my old host were a formative time in my life and had taught me something of the lives of others.
But of all the details I didn’t include in the story, so that with time they were forgotten, I still remembered the afternoon when Galina Ivanovna brought me the stack of books. For a reason I couldn’t quite understand, the sight of those books had made me cry.
Galina Ivanovna had sat on a stool by my bed and rubbed my hand between her palms. I saw that she was crying too.
“It’s so sad,” I thought she said to me. I wasn’t sure whether I understood her correctly.
“I’m not sad,” I said. “It’s O.K.”
She shook her head.
“We are here,” she said. “Side by side.”
And she told me she was sorry, because she couldn’t do anything else to help.