Last we left off I dragged MF and Olga out in the middle of downtown Vladimir, Russia in a snow storm in order to pick up a package sent from my parents. Olga was in the midst of mourning her lost dad and I in my single-minded focus on the package was oblivious. By the time we got home, MF and I had both spend the better part of 3 hours trying to retrieve the package in -35 celcius weather. Our noses were full of ice, our round MF had ice stuck to her face, my lips and nose were freezing to the point of numbness. Tears on our faces froze. We weren’t sad, but very cold weather makes strange things happen.
This time in Vladimir, these three months of October, November and December of 1996 were miserable for everyone in our group.
People were going home like crazy. We easily lost 1/3 of the group in training. One girl looked up her site in her Lonely Planet and it said to not go there because it still had alot of contamination from Chernobylsome ten years earlier. That was it for her.
Another girl had a boyfriend back home who had bought a house for her and was waiting for her to come back to get married. Why she was in Russia in the first place was a mystery.
It became easy for volunteers to predict failure at their assigned sites after starting our time there with 3 months of icy winter. And so they did. And then they left. It didn’t do morale for the rest of us much good. We started to ponder our navels and wonder why we weren’t going home.
K proclaimed that he wasn’t going home because he had to do a “Project” (PC encourages this) of starting a modeling agency with his students . K was insanely immature, but he was also so irreverently funny that it was nice to laugh at his stupid quips at times. But that was the alternate project to creating navel lint sculpture, which was his first choice. Did you know that you get more navel lint when it is cold? Who knew?
Russia isn’t a “love at first site” type of place, like say, Italy. There are boxy, old cars, stern people, crowded buses, no landscaping (I am not sure how this became important to me, but in its lack, I realized I missed even those shaggy shrubs), bleak apartments and nuclear energy facilities casting their shadow, nay, no shadows with out sun, perhaps just a shadow of uncertainty of their safety and oversight… combine these with 3 months of below freezing temps and suddenly whatever anyone was trying to escape stateside didn’t look so bad. Russia, truthfully, looks best in the spring, fall, or winter on the outside. Winter is a time for cozy conversation, good meals, tea, reading and playing in the snow. It is the relationships that make Russia warm.
After you stay there for awhile, you grow to see much beauty. Church bells, fresh produce everywhere and at the time there were soviet relics everywhere. Adventures, new friends and challenges were the order of the day there. But it doesn’t make a great first impression in the dead of winter.
MF and I made pizza at my home stay apartment because the only pizza there typically had mayonnaise and pickles. There was just so much wrong with that. Sausage was pieces of hot dog or bologna. Tomatoes did not exist. Sauce was mayo. It was all just so surprising, we were SO EXCITED to get pizza, and we ended up with this “version” of pizza that was… only edible if one was really, really hungry. Which we usually were. We would eat this “pizza-food” creation, grimacing for another disappointment, but brightened because it was food. MF and I invited all the non-clique folks and we made some really good pizza.
MF distinguished herself by being so easy to work with. Beyond that, her laughing at strange things or odd commentary, I didn’t care. She was nice. Period.
MF was shipped off to her site. Penza. We emailed. Her guilelessness always struck me. My friend K made fun of her.
“So how’s MF? Still got her beard?” K was a jerk. A somewhat endearing jerk, but nevertheless.
MF had a good sense of humor. I didn’t always understand why she was laughing, but I started to do this too though, because I so desperately needed to find humor and it was always happy when a person laughed. Except for when we started to sound crazy.
“I have no money for food or bus fare! HAHAHAHAHAHA! I have gone to the bank every day for 2 weeks and now the tellers know me by name! HAHAHAHAH! I have to hope the ticket collectors on the bus don’t kick me off, I don’t have 15 cents for bus fare! HAHAHAHAHA! What are you eating for dinner? Can I have some too?? HAHAHAHAHA! No really.”
To be fair, this was not a common occurrence. It only happened once. But my excessive positiveness is something that I took home with me. Now I don’t have to laugh at crazy things and I can identify non-problems more so than before I did PC.
After we went to our sites, MF and I only saw each other at trainings. Since all the other volunteers had grown to mistrust or loathe each other after the training debauchery, the atmosphere of our group was awkward cliques and some fairly caustic attitude problems. I had problems of my own at my site and was personally on “survival mode” so MF was a good person to sit next at every training because if and when I got morose, she listened and then changed the subject.
Me: “So now since I have had to change sites, people are wondering why I left the first place and some people don’t trust me (BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH)….”
MF: “Hm. You know, it is good to see you again, I am glad you got to change sites. I hear they are having a banya tonight, wanna go?
She also helped out when I was volunteered to be the stuffing captain at the PC thanksgiving in Zelenograd one year. I had to make 3 different kinds of stuff and stuff something like 13 turkeys. MF got a bunch of people who had nothing better to do to help out with this. In the end, all I did was collect the ingredients together, and they did the rest. I didn’t want to be a stuffing captain!
She was stoic in the face of my perpetual internal desperation and gloom. About a year into my time there I was struggling–facing winter, too much time, and again some hard core coping skills had to kick in. MF just hung around. She all but ignored my poor attitude, answering each time with something less miserable, less inward looking and improved my ability to see the world, the snow, the market, the ice cream joint and to forget forget forget about stupid things that were making me unhappy. I don’t know why she stuck with me. But she did, and I was okay with that. Grateful even.
That night after the turkey stuffing we went to the banya, a coed one (eeek!) wrapped in tableclothes. Strange times. For the unintiated, banya was sauna followed by a cold pool, snow or cold shower. It got the blood flowing in the cold weather and was respite from the chill. Banya is highly addictive in Russia!
I left Russia, and though I told my counterpart I would cry, I never did. In fact, to dissociate from that “chapter”, put it to a close, end it was okay by me.
After I left, MF stayed another TWO YEARS for a total of nearly four years in Russia. She also got a Masters in some Russian type of subject area. Her Russian vocabulary improved far beyond mine but she did endure some difficulties because of her Russian. Her colleague rejected her so her work there was without a Russian connection. Talk about difficult. MF had plenty of her own crap to deal with. She was such a realist though.
MF came to visit me here. Here in Portland. Here with my daughter, my husband. We went out to sushi and I went to visit her at the training she was attending in Forest Grove.
I am in awe sort of, of females that can just be okay with perpetual singleness (she is nearly 40 now). In my younger years I was more than ok with singleness, but after 30, it became less ok. I didn’t want to just do whatever I wanted anymore, I wanted to share the decisions and the experiences. MF seemed happy.