Russian Barbecues and Minty Tea
This past Sunday, I packed up my bags and said goodbye to the hostel where my fellow Americans and I spent our first month in Russia. Though it still hadn’t dawned on me that I would no longer be spending 24 hours with all of my amazing roommates, I still felt quite a depressing pang in my chest when I closed the door to room 304 for the final time. Within the span of two flights of stairs, I left my comfortable American-tourist bubble and ventured out into the “Real Russia” – my very own бабушка by my side.
Now, I knew that I would spend most of my first few days with my host family in a constant state of confusion, but I didn’t expect to meet a random Russian uncle that would guide me into the back of a van and drive me down a pot-hole ridden dirt road to a lake 30 min outside the city. At this point, it was 90 degrees outside, the van had no windows, and I hadn’t had any breakfast, so needless to say, I was a bit grumpy and would have rather taken a nap than swim in the lake. By the time we finally pulled over at our destination, I was ready to fall asleep on the sand, but my eager grandma and her friends pulled me onto my feet and lead me to the water.
I cautiously waded up to my ankles, the frigid water nipping at the 800 mosquito bites I’ve acquired throughout the last few weeks. When my friend’s uncle dove head first into the water, I gaped and made sure that everyone knew that I was deep enough already. Mr. Russian Uncle either didn’t understand or didn’t care, and he sent a wave crashing into my chest with the slap of his hand. Basically soaked at this point, I dunked and the headache I’d been building all day fell away.
After a few more minutes floating around in the water, the grandmas called us all to lunch– an perfect barbecue spread with fresh vegetables, sausages, and even a watermelon!
My host family helped me name everything on the table, and I promptly added those words to my notebook. After we packed up our picnic, we were back in the van and driving to my friend’s host family’s dacha.
Walking around the dacha was like a tour through an early 20th century country home. The house was small and colorful and smelled like fresh wood with only a few rooms but plenty of places to rest and relax. After the grandma’s led us through their gardens and let us taste everything they grew there, we sat down for tea, and if there’s one tradition from Russia that I’ll be packing in my suitcase, it’s mid-day tea.
I’ve never been much of a tea fan, but the minute you put fresh mint leaves and lemon wedges into your cup, English Breakfast becomes a lot less boring.
Coupled with a bowl of fresh strawberries and some sugar cookies… Mmm! Delicious.
That night, back at our apartment, I had my first nightly tea-time conversation with my host sister, half in Russian, half in English. This would become a part of our nightly routine, and probably the time my Russian improves the most every day.
The following morning, on Monday, we took the bus to class where I spent my typical five hours drilling grammar concepts, frantically writing vocab words into my notebooks, and receiving lists upon lists of homework assignments that I would later rant about in our LC meeting. After class, I got my first opportunity to roam Kirov with my host sister and a few other friends– something that I had been hoping to do since we arrived. We walked along the riverside, bought giant bottles of soda at the grocery store and went on a pancake hunt that brought us all the way across the city to a 24 hour cafeteria and a chocolate museum.
On Tuesday I was told that we were going on a “Quest” which ended up being an abandoned orphanage-themed escape room where I was reminded with every note of creepy, suspenseful music why I don’t watch horror movies. Fortunately, an intense rainstorm (which my teacher referred to as a “hurricane”) forced us to take shelter in a Vietnamese restaurant where I ate my weight in egg rolls and beef with broccoli.
Wednesday, our group wrote our dialogues in the park and toured an ice cream museum, and Thursday the van was back, this time driving my friend and I into the woods to a state park to ride horses. While we waited for our scheduled horse riding time, we took paddle boats onto the lake.
At that moment– paddling around and scaring мама утка and her ducklings with some country music– it felt like summer; the summer that I would be having if I were in the US right now.
Summer is stereotypically lazy; the time when we’re supposed to kick back and relax, but my experiences with the season have always been quite the opposite. I’m always busy, whether it be running around from rink to rink when I was younger, to pre-college programs these last few years. Although I’m happy that my Summer has always had a purpose, sometimes I wish that there was nothing on my schedule. It’s hard spending the 4th of July abroad every year and having no control over what food you eat or what activities you do. Sometimes, though, you’re just pedaling along in a lake at some state park in Kirov, listening to your favorite song on a cloudy day, and you think to yourself that at this moment, you could be anywhere in the world. No matter where you’re being dragged by your family, program coordinator, or strange Russian Host Uncle, you’ll wind up somewhere that feels remotely like home, and that can be just what you need.