As Sochi Olympics are all I can hear about these days, it reminds me greatly of the time I spent in Russia when I was 20 years old. As a Russian major, I ended up spending about three months in Saratov, Russia (20 miles from the Kazakhstan border), for my ‘Licence’ year. Thank goodness I didn’t have to live by myself over there, my great friend and classmate Angy was with me during the whole journey.
I can’t say I enjoyed Russia. A year prior to this specific trip, I had had the opportunity to visit the country and I got to see some of the most appreciated landmarks that Russia offers; but this time, I landed in Saratov.
I remember the little plane we took from the Moscow airport to Saratov and to this day, I
am still amazed can’t believe we made it in one piece!!! We landed in a field and picked up our broken luggage that had been undoubtedly opened. We got in a car and were dropped off in front of a building that seemed so very typical of a post-communist era. It looked abandoned and somber. It was our residence for the next three months. Our ‘posh’ apartment happened to be on the 10th floor. We later realized the building’s elevator worked 1 time out of 10 and the staircase had no light. I can still see myself freaking out at every corner, not knowing what was coming next.
The apartment itself was quite big and we managed to feel somewhat comfortable but little did we know, we were up for lots of lonely moments in our temporary home.
Our daily routine was: school-internet ‘café ‘ (more like four walls and a few computers)-home.
As I said, it got boring and lonely quickly. We first arrived late august so the weather was pleasant, but as time went by, it got cold and days got short, very short. I remember waking up at noon one Saturday and seeing the sun go down around 3pm. Bummer! These kinds of little things took a toll on us. We didn’t get the heat turned on in the apartment until it was a good -10 outside. That was just absurd to us.
I guess the most traumatic was the fact that we couldn’t take a shower. In fact, we didn’t take a shower for one month and a half. Yes, you read that correctly! The water was the color of Coca-Cola and on top of that, it was cold. That little kitchen pot became our best friend and our most convenient bathroom accessory as it is the only thing we could use to boil water in the morning to get ready for the day. What a pain to wash our hair!
We tried to go out as much as possible. We interacted with people a lot and visited local landmarks. Locals really took us in as their own children, invited us over and made sure every meal was a feast.
The interesting thing about this journey is that Saratov had never seen foreigners before. 2002 was the first year the city opened its doors to strangers, so for us to be able to study at the university, just like every other Russian student, was a big deal. And, as it was so new to them all, we never thought we would be treated the way we did…in a good way…
Everywhere we went, we heard: “See Paris and die! My dream is to see Paris, after that I could die happy.”Seriously, you should have seen the smiles on their faces. Especially the little grandmas we would give little Vichy cosmetics samples to. [When you’re from Vichy, you always know what to offer people when you travel!]
It got to the point people asked us to sign autographs in the street. Not only were we popular, but we were rock stars there! (I’m exaggerating a bit but you get the idea)
But not everything was as glamorous and happy there…
Generally speaking, we found people to be quite unhappy. Walking in the streets, we could feel communism and the previous years had damaged Saratov’s people’s spirit greatly. People were always polite (for the most part) but it was a difficult task to get them to smile. BUT, when we got to know them, their generosity and curiosity were endless.
We got to witness sad but very real and common things as well.
Every day, on our way to the internet ‘cafe’ we used to pass by these poor homeless children (ages between 5-10) who seemed to be living on their own. As we became more curious, we investigated as to why they all seemed to have red noses. It was indeed curious?
What we found out was so disturbing and, as a mom, thinking about it makes me tear up a bit. They were sniffing paint, ALL DAY. These children were so unhappy and lonely; that’s the only cheap thing they could do to pass time and make life seem less painful. They did it so much, their nose would bleed. Saratov wasn’t a terribly poor city. It actually had very rich people, but there was a very big gap between the privileged and the others. A very, very big gap.
From the very beginning of our stay, we noticed a very old man sitting all day and every day at the same spot, begging for a little change, as is was probably the only thing he had left to
do in life. We proceeded to accumulate “rubles” for the next three months and made sure to drop off our treasure (over a pack of cigarette full of coins) in his hat. Man, that was one of the most rewarding moments of our life and it will forever be one of the most memorable moments I lived in Russia. He smiled at us and cried. We waved and went on with our lives.
These are a few of the stories I could share about my life in Russia, I just couldn’t elaborate on everything that happened there. Impossible! In the end, although I did not enjoy living in Saratov for many reasons, this experience taught me lots about myself. Not only was I able to live on my own, but I could do it in less than desirable conditions. These months underlined the fact that I am privileged in this world. It definitely brought to my attention all the things we take for granted on a daily basis (especially the day I visited a datcha in the country and HAD TO go pee in a hole in a little shed in the back of the backyard, in the cold). It also taught me that people are people and no matter where we come from and what language we speak, we all have similarities and common interests that bring us closer,
I truly believe that wherever you travel, the experience is not so much about where you go, but it is about who you meet and what you allow yourself to share with them. This was the case for me in Russia.