They’re cold people, aren’t they – the Russians? Unsmiling and serious; trained killers from birth. Private, untrustworthy, capitalistic. Unsympathetic.
And that’s why I was feeling so very many things on the way home from school, strapped in next to the son of the Russian Literature teacher and speeding down the winding, bendy roads that led from the town to deep in the forest.
“It’s like driving to Father Christmas’s house,” I’d said, on my first night there, wide-eyed and jet-lagged. The town is named after the birch tree, and they stand like a Trojan army, tall and proud, packed in tightly and daring us to penetrate them. They’re stronger for the cold, for the snow, and after the vastness of never-ending Siberian land outside it’s intimidating and dark, threatening with secrets deeper within.
He said something in incomprehensible Russian and adjusted the car heaters. That was what did it. What made the lump stick in my throat. The vested interest in my comfort, in my happiness. To this man, this stranger, it was so very important to him that I be happy. It is to all of them.
They’re not assholes, you see. The Russians – I thought they were one thing, but rather inconveniently for everything I believed to be true, they’re not. They’re the opposite. Warm and giving, generous and funny. They laugh from their bellies. Feed you as if it might be your final meal. Insist that you understand that they know exactly what the rest of us say about them out there in the world’s playground. They know that Russia is the weird guy in Math class that you don’t want to be partnered up with. The girl you don’t invite to your birthday party. The neighbour you talk about to build false friendships with everybody else, because we all like a common enemy.
He’d driven 45 minutes to pick me up, 45 minutes back to the school in Berezniki, and then waited for me as I taught so that he could do the ninety-minute round-trip all over again. I’d been made to have tea with the director of the school after class – and I say made because I didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t a question. She had laid out chocolate and tea (always so much tea!) and biscuits and a fish pie in a sort of sweet bread that tastes like a very oceanic heaven. There was cake and stewed apples stuffed with apricots – a gift from the school’s psychologist.
Let him wait, they said to me, it is important for us to speak with you. They – the Russians – wanted to know about England and how it all works there, my experience in Russia, what I thought of their students. I replied honestly. I didn’t think you’d be like this, I said. They sent me home with a badge from the school and three notebooks, boxes of tea and extra pies and leftovers. So much stuff I couldn’t carry it.
So as we drove home, I was utterly overwhelmed with this weight in my stomach, a pressing behind my eyes. It’s just not fair, I was thinking. It isn’t fair that we’re so goddamn awful. It isn’t fair that I thought they’d be so goddamn awful.
Because listen: I don’t know how many times my bigoted, prejudiced, fucking mean self has to learn this lesson - we are ALL the same. All of us. Black, blue, Russian, Muslim, pagan, ugly as all sin or the most popular girl at school. We all just wanna be loved.
And what I’m understanding, slowly, mere days into to this two-month adventure, is that any suggestion of stand-offish-ness these people display, it comes rooted in a deep complex that they just aren’t liked by the rest of us. But isn’t that always the way? That we’re so bogged down with our own worries, insecurities, so concerned about how others perceive us, that we forget to forget ourselves and rise to the occasion first?
But also – we don’t like them, do we? Russia. And I’m struggling to remember why.
I’m trying, so very hard, to be the first one to smile. To put a hand on another’s arm, to ask how are you, to forget that I am absolutely fucking terrified of being here because this isn’t about me.
It seldom is.
Not in Russia.
In life, generally.
What would happen if I always reached out this way? Understood that the other person is always frightened by something – me, their own neuroses, the situation - so it’s my job to put them at ease? What if I didn’t put myself first? Recognised that the only thing that is real is love, and everything is just sort of… made up, in my imagination?
What if I were kinder?