Monthly Archives: May 2013

Awkward Table Conversations

Христос Воскресе! That is, Happy Easter everyone!

After my 4 am arrival home from my belated spring break in Sochi, I awoke to sounds of the entire extended Cherkashina family once again gathering in our small apartment. Oh goodie.

But then again, it is Easter, and while I know Tatiana herself doesn’t regularly attend Orthodox services, it sounds like others in the family do. And of course, like any holiday, it’s a cause for gathering together. But like any holiday, there’s always that one topic to avoid….

Long story short, Uncle Seryozha asked me about Stalin. I have no clue why. But he does have a habit of bringing up historical/political/economic topics, so it’s not really out of character. But let me preface this with the fact that I am still in Russia. Which means that with Easter lunch we’ve been doing shots. I’ve maybe had four, with food, so all is well. The men however are at at least seven drinks, which shouldn’t be a problem, but when sensitive topics come up it certainly becomes one.

I tried to stay as neutral as possible. “Americans in general don’t really like Stalin. It’s just how we’re taught in school.” However Roman, Anya’s husband, takes this moment to jump in on the discussion.

“He shot 6 million people!” Of course the generation gap between him and Vladimir Vasilich causes problems.

“You’re young, you don’t know how bad it was, you don’t know how it was after the war! I lived-” 

The mothers/grandmothers at this point are yelling for silence, that it’s all a misunderstanding, etc. It ends when Roman, attempting to shout down Vladimir, gets shouted down himself, and he, Anya, and Liza leave, while he’s still shouting, “Even the Americans know!” After about half an hour, the rest follow. 

Fast forward to this evening, Tatiana and I watching The Lord of the Rings (dubbed in Russian, of course) on the couch. She got a call from Anya, and talked for a while. Apparently Liza was running a temperature too, so it wasn’t a bad thing that they had left early. This naturally brought up “nash Roma” (“our Roma”). “His head is so empty!” I suggest that maybe since he’s younger he just has a different perspective. Tat just shakes her head and sighs. “I think Vladimir Vasilich is…smart.” I try, searching for words. I forgot what wise was, so that was the next best thing, obviously. She laughs. “Well maybe not smart, but he has experience! That means he knows something.” She laughs again. “Was he in the war, or was he too young?”

“His father died in the war. He and his older brother were just teenagers. His wife, her father fought on the front lines. He came back with both legs and a hand missing.”

When you hear stories like that, it’s not hard to see why every city in Russia – from the poke-n-plumb towns you don’t even notice by the side of the road to Moscow itself – has at least one monument dedicated to those who died in World War II. I’m so excited to be here for Victory Day – May 9. One of my very favorite sights in Vladimir, other than Sobornaya Ploshchyat at night, is Ploshchyat Pobyedy (Victory Square) at night. It reminds me of a smaller version of the memorial in DC, names inscribed on a shiny almost reflective stone wall. While there are no names here, the dates are inscribed as well as outlines of famous figures from Vladimir. The national and regional flag fly above this, and an eternal flame burns in the very center. I’m just saying, does Carmel, Indiana have such a memorial? Maybe a section of each graveyard, but there is nothing so obvious, a meeting place for everyone to see. To be honest, the statue of Lenin that still stands in almost every town freaks me out a little, but you can’t say Russians don’t respect their history. If I didn’t actually hate history as much as I do, I would definitely push for America to do more of the same.

All in all it was what anyone could expect from a holiday – drinking, laughing, eating, drinking, yelling, watching soccer. And at the end of the day, I still got to see Johnny Depp as Icabod Crane dubbed in Russian. SUCCESS.

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Birthdays in Russia… (written sometime back in March)

After that emotional drainage as well as most of my homework, it is now PAST midnight, and I have to be up promptly at 0710 for class. But for some reason (and this honestly puzzles me) I am not tired.

The reason this puzzles me is because for the last two days I have been privy to a holiday often portrayed in movies or TV shows made in/set in/about Russia: the Russian birthday party. The funny part is that March 22 (Friday) was my younger sisters birthday, and Saturday (the 23rd) was Tatiana’s. Parties all around!

Being a part of hosting a birthday party in Russia reminded me in so many ways of hosting a party back home. You wake up earlier than you’d like, clean literally everything, and start the cooking several hours before your appointed army of helpers joins the fight. Snapshot: Tatiana and I in our Russian dressing gowns (She got me one as a gift for Women’s Day. I am now officially Russian.) carrying the kitchen table into her bedroom which we have magically transformed into a banquet hall, while attempting to kick off our tapochki before walking onto the freshly-vacuumed rug.

But before I begin, I’m going to need ot organize my thoughts. Life here often reminds me of a cartoon I once saw referencing high school, claiming there were “too many characters, and not enough plot.” So to avoid that I’ll start with our cast of characters, move on to activities (including toasts, singing, and TV watching), and then come back and see what I missed.

There was Vladimir Vasilich, her father whom I’d already met several times. Her daughter Anya and granddaughter Liza also appeared, finally! I say finally because in the placement email I received before arriving in Russia, it mentioned that Tatiana’s daugher and young granddaughter came to visit often. Thus, I brought gifts for them too, and was thrilled at the prospect of a semi-extended family. However, I had until Saturday only come across Anya once, when she dropped something off here, and passed her and Liza in the building doorway once without realizing it. Finally, my little-little sister had arrived! But let’s remember: she IS five years old. I think the fact that I don’t really understand Russian 100% and she isn’t speaking English is the only reason I don’t find her entirely obnoxious. But as that’s how it is, we got along swimmingly.

After her initial fear of strangers was overcome (within about 10 minutes) she bequeathed to me several new hairclips with instructions on how they were best worn. Then she helped me pick out an outfit to wear for the party, and we both donned our prettiest princess dresses. Which of course meant I ended up in a clubbing dress that I wouldn’t have put forward for a family party, not to mention four coats of mascara and no less than 3 separate eye shadow colors. But what can you do.

As fun as playing princesses was, it became exhausting after so many demands of “Read! Read! I don’t know how yet! No, THAT one!” This is taxing because while my spoken Russian is passable (occasionally even “good,” depending on how many drinks I’ve had), bedtime stories in rhyme scheme are the stuff they test me on in Phonetics class. Ouch.

Interspersed with all this was meeting all of the other relatives: Tatiana’s “sister,” Irina (who is actually an aunt, I believe, but they call each other sister because they are approximately the same age); Irina’s husband Seryozha; their boys Artyum and Daneel, who are around my age; a pair of professors from her days at university, Nikolai Sergeiich and Katerina Romanovna; another Seryozha, who’s exact relation I couldn’t quite place but I assume is a cousin (Hession family equivalent: Stilwell’s Uncle Mark); and of course her mother, whom we all simply called ‘pro-baba.’ This swirl of Russian should have left me thoroughly drained. And while it has, it’s also invigorating.

After initial introductions I either was helping the women in the kitchen (most of whom had come early, so I had become comfortable with their speech patterns) or sat listening for whatever I could catch while eating.

The topics at the table ranged from politics, to finances – these matters often involved asking my opinion – to how Russia and America are different. This question is so broad it continually stumps me. Honestly, the weather in South Bend is pretty comparable to that of Vladimir, so no trouble there. The food is usually my biggest pet peeve. PIZZA. People, GET IT TOGETHER. Among other things Russia lacks are bagels and good (and by that I mean crappy-American-style) Mexican food. Russians on the whole eat more dairy products (which I already explained, ad nauseam), and fish is much more popular here.

I always forget that many Americans my age don’t like fish, so when Uncle Seryozha asked me if I had tried the fish, and I reached for a piece, he looked confused. I explained that my dad made salmon like this all the time. “Well then you’re already Russian!” I can’t tell you how welcoming it felt to hear that. After hearing that title given to our resident year-long student, whose skills I have continuously envied this entire semester, it seems that maybe I might be making some progress. Baby steps.

Of course, any sort of get-together involves copious amounts of alcohol. So between topics – and sometimes inspired by them – were various toasts, all to Tatiana and her wonderful life, spirit, daughter, health, etc. These toasts were some of my first clues to her single parenthoods beginning, and hearing the testaments of how hard it had been for her made me tear up at times. I think that’s when the family – mainly the women, of course – started to realize just how much I can actually understand. By the time it was my turn to toast it was really tough to focus on declining words correctly while attempting not to cry, so there were just a lot of “thank you’s” as far as I can remember, and by the end she and I were hugging and drinking, she her cognac and I my vodka. Successful Russian toast: completed.

After dinner was basically finished and the cards and gifts were distributed (of course it was almost all cards, as the “jubilee years” of 50, 60, 70, etc are marked by large sums of money typically) the drinking continued, but this time the men set to singing. Out of the four or five songs they sang I knew only one, the Russian birthday song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rB5TEJfdmRs), which I obviously joined in for. The rest I asked about, when they were finished singing, and learned that they were Khazak songs that they had sung as children in Khazakstan, before they all immigrated back to Russia. Crazy. But cool.

After the singing and drinking wound down, the only entertainment to be found was the TV. What were we so raptly watching while sipping tea you ask? Sumo wrestling. Totally casual. I assume there’s some sort of respect between the cultures because sumo traditionally started with tea before the matches began, but I can’t be sure…

I’m sure there are things I’m leaving out, as I started this in March and its now May… in any case, just a small piece of my mind. And I’m not promising St. Petersburg or Moscow anymore. And all the photos from Sochi will be on Facebook. (A picture’s worth a thousand words! 🙂 )

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