Russian Adventures

by Randy Godwin

Paying for the Bus Ride

 My American friend has during the last six months come across several amusing situations with his general friendliness and lack of command of the Russian language.   Having instructing him in how to pay for our bus ride using the Russian “for two” as he hands over the twenty-four rubles to the driver I hear him practicing under his breath. “Za dvoik, za dvoik, ,,,”  “So far so good.” I think.  The bus pulls to the curb, we climb up and my friend happily hands the driver the money and in a clear firm voice with little or no hint of his American origins proudly proclaims “dva zaika!”  garbling the syllables as is his habit.  “Well,” I think, “it is not too far from the truth as he just has informed the driver he is paying for two stutterers.”

 Bus Ride - Fellow Travelers

 Bus rides are, it seems, an unending source of curiosity, amusement and interactions with the local populace of our standard Russian metropolis for my American friend.  Coming back from an excursion into the city from our present-day home on the outskirts he tells me of his latest encounter in getting quickly to “na ti” with a fellow commuter.  The buses are crowded in the mornings and my American friend was standing in the aisle when asked if he would be getting off soon with The Russian “vi vihodite ckoro” - will you be getting off soon; this being the polite way to ask a fellow bus rider to make way so the requester can pass by.  My American friend, accustomed to being asked if the bus was going to stop at a particular stop or if some stop was next, replied “ne zhaio” meaning he does not know.  My friend can pronounce the limited phrases he knows with something approaching a native accent.  The normally dour Russian rider’s face brightened considerably as he looked with incredulity into my friend’s face saying “ti ne znaesh???! “ meaning “you don’ know?” and switching to the informal “ti”.

Only later did my friend realized what had happened and was delighted with the encounter and even went so far as to say that his answer was not entirely wrong as he often was not sure himself when and where he might get off one of our little rolly-polly busses as they weave through the streets he seems to love so.

Bus ride and church revelation of Christ in Moscow.

My American friend often says one of the things he likes about living in Russia is the wealth to him of new associations. His mind works in a peculiar way it seems and gets pleasure from connecting seemingly unconnected things.  He even goes so far as to say that when the store of new things from which he can draw associations from is exhausted the essence of reality seems to start to fade to a kind of oblivion.

Travelling with friends in Moscow we visiting one of the most famous of the Russian Cathedrals during Old New Years time.  We happened to go in as the service was being performed. I stayed back with one of our Russian friends as my American friend went forward towards the service.  He remained there watching for some fifteen minutes and then returned and we left.  He was more quiet than usual and simply asked me about what I had seen during the service and that they had opened the sanctuary to reveal the most beautiful image of Christ he had ever seen, a transparent Christ ascending to heaven and that he had stayed watching until the beautiful golden doors close again on the painting. No more was said about the Church or image until about a week later as we were riding together on a little bus so covered with mud that I felt as if I was riding in a filthy snowball.  We sat side-by-side on the first seat directly behind the bus doors.   The bus pulled up to a stop and the doors opened for perhaps 30 seconds.  No one got on or off and the doors closed again and the bus continued on down the busy street.  I glanced at my American friend and saw his face with its beam of pleasure as he looked off into space.  He was quiet for a while then turned to me and said that although he felt I did not enjoy such nonsense that as the mud covered bus door had opened he had looked out and had seen a beautiful woman standing at the bus stop.  She was dressed in blue and had a gold colored cap. She stood very still and as the 10 or fifteen seconds passed in his mind her image  had mingled into the image of Christ ascending into the heavens that he has seen in Moscow.  Then as the bus door closed and the mud covered class hid her image from his eyes again a deep rush of pleasure had come to him at the exactness of the two experiences of the golden doors opening to reveal the image of the transformed Christ and the closing of the cathedral doors to once again close off the mystery from his eyes and the opening of the mud covered bus doors to reveal the image of a woman as beautiful as the artist’s conception of Christ glorified and the creaky filthy bus door closing to leave him again only the memory of the revelation.  

I’ve come to think my American friend’s perceptions are somehow less distinct or perhaps better to say lack a certain “borderless” that may be due to his childlike joy in his experiences in this muddy land I’ve inhabited for some 30 odd years.  This linking of the sacred with the not even profane but rather the mundane would be sterile indeed except for his personal pleasure that I sense.  Not really much different than taking a child to the zoo for the first time and hearing their observations that the elephant’s trunk is exactly like the giraffe’s neck.  Christ’s transformation revealed in one of our most sacred churches of Moscow and the not uncommon feminine beauty of a provincial “nezvestni” with golden cap breaking through into his experience with the opening and closing of a bus’s endlessly opening and closing door.  

If he were not somehow simply naive such things would insult me I believe.  But still I know from our conversations that he holds the sacred as a true mystery and is not willingly or should I say knowingly profane.  I know that where he comes from, somewhere not only thousands of miles away but also some un-understandable distance in a dimension called the bible belt and whirling around a string of Sunday School mornings he was taught and came to believe that the mystery in our icons that is untouchable, sacred, the mystery of Christ is in some sense I cannot but smile at a kind of Huckleberry Finn buddy that might go fishing with him or help him Jim like on a raft.  Unfathomable, as if talking to a Congo native never having seen civilization he would come and tell you matter-of-fact that the world was hanging from a bean thread and that rain could be summoned by wishful thinking and asking turtles using a particular rhyme then look at you like you should make that equal to your own knowledge of the world and perhaps even admire the eloquence of it.  What can one say or do but to smile indulgently?

Vodka in the Windshield Wipers

My American friends first visit to Russia was attended by an acquaintance he had made while practicing language through the internet. My friend tells the story of how several things surprised him after he met his friend and got into the car with him.  First his Russian acquaintance, a young man of perhaps twenty-five years of age, took out a rather scary looking tazor from his glove compartment.  My American friend asked if it was for robbers or car jackers in a knowing way having some experience himself with such dangers in the US.  He was rather taken aback however when his acquaintance said no, not for carjackers, for stray dogs.  As my American friend tried to get his footing in this new country he next smiled a knowing smile and asked his Russian friend if he had been drinking a bit before picking him up.  His Russian friend said, “no - why do you ask?”. My American friend said “I  smell vodka abit”, politely.  “Oh!  that's from the windshield wipers. We use it instead of de-icer, it’s cheaper.”  My American friend said he might have prefered that his driving friend had been drinking just a bit to this explanation which only served to disorient him further.  That night he says after his Russian friend helped him get checked into the Moscow hotel where he was staying for the night (and where he relates he had to meet with what appeared to be a manager in their office for paper work) he checked all the windows that they were locked (although he was on the eighth floor) and placed a chair wedged against the door handle in a trick he had learned in Texas while staying in a motel that had he says a bullet hole in the bathroom window.  Russia was strange in ways he had not anticipated. Not even threatening ways, simply in ways he could not foresee and this disconcerted him more than carjackers, drinking and driving and any of the other hundred dangers he had learned how to look out for in the US and here it now was starting to appear were replaced by as of yet unformed dangers that might somehow come through eight story windows or disregard the hotel deadbolt he had set so firmly.

Learning Each other's Names - Randy and Raunndi

My American friend while staying at my parents house in a small village about twenty minutes outside of the  city came back from one of his excursions into the city with a story that he had met one of our neighbors at the bus stop beside the village and how excited and proud he was that he had struck up a “conversation” with her.  I asked him about it curious as to what kind of conversation he could have had with his limited Russian and the village neighbors who I was quite certain were not English speakers.

“Oh,” he said proudly, “I introduced myself to her. She was a wonderful babushka and very friendly.  She asked me my name and then I asked her hers and she told me her name.  Then we tried to help each other with the pronunciations of each other's names!”

“Really!” I say.  “What was her name?”  I was very curious about who he might have spoken with.  

“Raunda.  Or something close. Do you know her? She had a very nice hat and very friendly. We tried and tried to pronounce each other's names but did not make much progress. First I said my name then she said hers and I tried to pronounce it but did not get it right so she repeated it and I tried again but was very difficult and seemed I could not get it right - she kept repeating it after I said it.  But she was very nice and I like her name.”

Here he repeated what he thought was her name using what he had come to believe was a fairly close approximation to the sound Russian  “Raunda”.

“There is no such Russian woman’s name.” I told him. “You must be mistaken.”

“Oh no, and I think I am pretty close she helped me for several minutes until the bus came and she was trying so hard to get me to say it correctly.”

“What was it again?” I ask.

“Raunda, or Rayndo, or maybe Rayna” he said.

I pictured the two of them standing by the bus stop waiting for the bus. My American friend saying his name and asking her hers in his incomprehensible Russian.  Then him trying to repeat her correctly as she said what he thought was her name while it was simply her trying to say Randy and follow his ever changing hopeless Russian sounds bubbling up out of his naive delight. Dy-ra-chok…  delightful.  

I explain to him through tears of laughter and he smiles a kind of wistful smile that somehow mingles his sense of his own ridiculousness with the sadness of having lost an experience he thought was one thing and turned out to be quite another.

The Yellow Non-Taxi

While traveling in St Petersburg we grew late for a theatre engagement and needed desperately to find a cab.  My friend spotting a yellow car along a side street insisted this was a taxi and, ignoring my protests that it was no such thing, insisted we walk the two blocks of our way to “grab a taxi”. Walking along behind him I could not help but feel his insistence was pure stubbornness and could not fathom his absolute certainty that “that is a taxi of course!”  

Coming up to the yellow car from the rear he gallantly opened the rear door for me and, I am sure, was preparing his short Russian “to the theatre” directions to the “cabby”.  When the driver turned in shock and began to yell in very distinct Russian to get out of his car I could not help but feel a bit of sympathy for my friend at the look of extreme disorientation that crossed his face. Later he continued to mutter about yellow cars are always taxis in america and “who would think to drive a yellow car if it was not a taxi!???”  He now refers to these moments of surprise when long ingrained expectations are not met as “yellow non-taxi moments.”  There have been and continue to be many as he gradually adjusts his foreign eyes.  I sometimes wonder if his inner expectations and assumptions lacking such direct contradiction will in time also adjust to our reality.


Automatic Weapon at Customs

Coming through customs at Moscow airport I was delayed by a lost bag.  So I was one of the last to go through the line.  Being one of my first visits to Moscow I wasn’t sure what to expect from customs inspection and wondered uneasily about the gifts I had brought from the US and if I should have filled in the declaration form more thoroughly.

My unease was somewhat relieved if not entirely by the Russian traveler in front of me.  After a short discussion with the customs guard that seemed friendly he was asked to open up his bag for inspection.  The gentleman promptly opened up a long suitcase and withdraw a very impressive automatic rifle which he demonstrated happily was not loaded by pulling out the clip and opening the chamber with a flourish.  The customs guard, a rather dour looking woman, did not blink, smile, or otherwise indicate anything surprising had happened and instructed the well-armed traveler to repack and pass through. I rather sheepishly took my turn through customs to display my suspicious chocolate covered cherries and small bottles of maple syrup with New England scenes of colorful fall foliage.


Cultural Opportunities Adapting American Norms

My American friend observes that in a few small coffee shops and restaurants he has been struck by what he can only describe as genuine happiness in the expression of friendliness by some waiters and waitresses.  Having visited a Brighton Beach restaurant with a few Russian friends visiting from Russia for a vacation and seeing his friends delight in seeing what they called a typical Soviet Era restaurant not 20 minutes from Manhattan’s vibrant mix of American energy possessing it seemed everything and everyone in site they smiled knowingly at the large menu and the invariable “we are out of that” from the unfriendly young waiter.

My American friend insists now that there are genuinely friendly people.  People who if given an environment where they can express their friendliness and be supported will be happy and if not will become depressed if living in a society that does not look favorably at kindness and friendliness to strangers.  It works both ways of course he thinks and in the American South where he grew up and where friendliness to strangers was taught and practiced there were many genuinely unfriendly people with smiles on their faces and “ will you have french fries with that hun’?” on their lips and he learned to recognize them. So now he sees at times two things mixed occasionally at shops and restaurants.  The friendly atmosphere and the happiness of a friendly person able to be the friendly person they are.

“Well, it’s nothing really new.” I explain.  “We’ve always had our enthusiasts and even parks devoted to them.”  He insists there is something different though that this is simple friendliness not harnessed to some bigger cause.  Who can understand such talk and why it even matters to him, why it is of any interest?  This man gives up his old life and comes across the world to live in a new place and this is the kind of thing he comes up with. When he first came to Russia everyone he met wanted his impressions of Russia. “Tell us what you see, how are we different, what are your impressions?”  I admit also eagerly waiting to hear what he would say to such questions.  That was perhaps seven years ago and I’ve long since given up on hearing anything that would give insight or show some capacity of his to make a clear observation that might leave one thinking, pondering, something worthwhile. Instead my American friend sees a Russian teenage burger pusher working in a Russian Mall and observes what he says is their relief at working in public and allowed and even rewarded for expressing a part of themselves that is genuinely friendly.  

No one I know sees any point at all to such “observations”.  It’s as if my American friend observes that Russians pause more before crossing a street.  That they take a quarter second on average more to check traffic.  It’s impossible to explain to him that it’s simply not important.  That there is nothing in the reality of the world that is affected or would ever acknowledge that a quarter second even if it is in fact a quarter second matters. That whether Natasha or Alyosha is in fact feeling a sense of being true to their inner nature is of no import.  He laughs and says I’ve made a pun and that it fits.  That it is perhaps related to import. But I do not see the humor and to me it’s simply undiscerning connections and his fondness for these that leads nowhere.

The First Hurray!

After hearing of some of his  adventures on the streets and buses of our provincial Russian city I decided to suggest an outing for my American friend to purchase tickets at a kiosk for a theatre show he had suggested we attend.  Off he went one day then the next.  Never a word of theatre tickets or any rewarding story or adventure. Nothing. SImply days of disappearing in the afternoons and talk of rambling along streets and buying a guitar capo.  Ok, I decided we will not see this show. I confessed I was more interested in the results of the quest I had tasked him with than the production itself so I was not insistent on buying tickets.  Where had he gone instead though? Was he simply forgetful or perhaps simply too shy to attempt the purchase?  My pump priming was for nought it seemed.

Later he told me a story of his experience soon after recalling in his mind my suggestion to purchase these theatre tickets.  As he tells it he was walking back along Prospect Revolution when he recalled my suggestion to purchase the tickets. I had simply suggested it but he felt, he says, it was a kind of setting up of a situation to try and get an interesting experience and  he had consciously resisted it.  He even felt a twinge of distaste for the whole idea.  That somehow it would make the city less itself to him if he attempted to will something interesting or contrive a likely situation.  

As he walking along he saw ahead of him the entrance to our wedding hall.  Lining both sides of exit were people happily waiting for the newly wed couple to emerge.  My friend slowed down as he walked to try and time his passing to the couple’s emergence.  As he slowly walked toward the lines of people he noticed a babushka quietly sweeping up rose petals on the sidewalk close to the exit.  She caught his eye because her colored hair so closely mirrored the rose petals with their beautiful red petals changing to white close to the ends. The sweeping grandmother’s hair too was colored red on its ends with white ends closely haloing her head.  Just at the moment his mind took in the pleasing similarity of the rose petals swept neatly into a pile, the rose petal sweeping grandmother and her rose petal hair the newly wed couple emerged from the wedding hall.  

A cheer went up from the wedding guests lining the walk along with a great shower of rose petals tossed into the air blowing across the couple. My American friend says he was the only well-wisher to the newly married couple who heard the soft curse of the rose petal babushka as the rose petals descended to cover her sidewalk and her matter-of-fact soft “блин” mingled with the shouts of “ура!”

He’s happy now with this story.  I admit it’s amusing to me but  such wanderings and time spent for such a trifle?