HOLIDAYS & THE RUSSIAN WINTER

In my last entry I wrote about the elections in Russia and in the US. The purpose was to give ideas (in general) about what the election meant for Russian and American relations per my perceptions here in a small city in Russia. This present entry is more for those also interested in the practical dimensions of life in Russia as we face the coming winter. My family and I moved here just over six months ago, and now the Russian winter and the “holiday season” are approaching. Those elicit various emotions and plans on how we are continuing to adjust. So how is our “mixed” Russian/American family adjusting and how can this help those who are considering coming to Russia or those who just like to learn about what life is like here.

When I told people we were moving (back) to Russia the most common response was usually a question or comment about the climate. Does it really get that cold? How does someone from South Carolina survive there? Why does one from such a great climate like South Carolina even consider giving it up for Russia? I was raised where the summers were long and the winters were mild. We sometimes got snow in the winter, and sometimes we didn’t. Winter days were often bright, sunny, and not all that cold—at least not for long periods of time. Here in the Leningrad Oblast of Russia winter gets a head start on the December 21 official start of winter. The first snow started falling here the last week of October. The first week or so of November we had fairly deep snow. Then it warmed up to the mid to upper 30s (3-4 degress C) and most of it melted. Since then snow has been on the ground most days. Temperatures sometimes get above freezing, but that’s not good news. That is when the snow melts some and you have to walk in a muddy mush. So I prefer it to stay a bit under freezing. Today it is 23 F (-5 C), but we did get some sunshine. So I offer a few observations on how one raised in the American south deals with Russian winters.

First, I tell myself that “it is Russia” frequently. What did I expect? In SC if it got really cold, you would just hang on because in a couple of days or a week there would usually be a warmer break. There are no real “breaks” in the cold in a Russian winter, although some days are worse than others of course. For people in the US raised in colder climates the adjustment would perhaps not be so radical, but for me it has been a “learning curve.” And I’ve lived here over three years counting our time in St. Petersburg! Obviously, dressing warmly is a first priority. I thought it got cold when I lived near D.C., but “Russia cold” is a different dimension. Good winter clothes are readily available here in Russia. Make sure you have good boots! Then there is the obvious: heavy coat, two to three layers under that, etc. Then, we make sure we take vitamins, especially vitamin D. And despite the cold, we try to get out and walk as much as possible. Of course, the problem with going out as a family is it is a time consuming pain to get everyone ready. Make sure everyone has the right socks, boots, shirts, coats, etc., and then dressing a two year old is a monumental task that, frankly, my wife usually does. Pulling the covers up over your head in the mornings and staying in the apartment is the easiest, but not the best, response to the Russian winter.

Sickness is a part of life in the Russian winter. You probably are not going to make it through the winter without colds and flu making at least one “run” through the family. You have to accept the fact that the cold here in winter can be dangerous. A couple of weeks ago I came down with a cold. We had to make a trip to Riga, Latvia that week because of my visa renewal. I did not take my heaviest coat. I had checked the weather forecast and packed accordingly, but it turned much colder than the weather forecast predicted with continuous snow. We were outside walking around looking at the beautiful city and then spent all Sunday afternoon at the zoo. We enjoyed it, but I ended up feeling terrible with a horrible cough. I tried to go back to teaching, but after another week I finally gave in and Oksana called the doctor. He thinks I have pneumonia, although the radiologist said he thinks there is infection but it is not clear that it is pneumonia. Both agreed I need to be on strong antibiotics as well as other meds. I should have not gone out in the cold when I realized I did not have sufficient clothes. I should not have gone back to the school and my normal activities before taking care of my illness. I should have called the doctor when the cough kept getting worse. You don’t “challenge” Russian winters with your toughness. Just ask Napoleon or Hitler—or me! You would think I would have learned that by now.

While you can mollify somewhat the problems with the cold with appropriate clothing, there is nothing you can do about the winter clouds. I can’t speak for everywhere in Russia, but where we live in northwest Russia you do not see the sun very much in the winter. I saw the sun for the first time in a week today. Sunny days are not frequent, but even when the sun does shine, it does not last long. We are not too far from the Gulf of Finland, so maybe it is the humidity and currents. Further, official sunrise was 9:49 am today, and sunset is 4:05 this evening. This is not to say the cold is not hard to endure. But the combination of clouds and cold makes seasonal depression a real problem. And I am not speaking of just us “foreigners.” Many Russians confess they hate the depression that comes from lack of sunshine and constant cold. My wife and I both realized that our “moods” were much gloomier recently. I don’t mean that kind of clinical depression that leaves you suicidal. You just lose the cheeriness, and your system seems to slow down and even small tasks seem monumental sometimes. You have to accept that and talk about it. Also, we believe diet is important. Vitamin D supplements and as many green vegetables as possible are needed. Interaction with others is also helpful. Understanding that this is often a part of life here is the first step. Then you formulate a “battle plan” with your family to combat it. Every family differs in how they can best survive and even thrive in the Russian winters.

Now that the holidays are upon us there is the added dimension to life without family and friends in America. Holidays are a great time of sharing joy; they are also a time when we feel the absence of those who are not with us for whatever reason. I remember the first Christmas after my dad died. We had a really good Christmas with a lot of joy, but I felt his absense more strongly than I had up to that point. There is that “spirit of joy” in the air during these holidays in America. Thanksgiving was always when “the holiday season” seemed to begin officially. When we moved to America, Thanksgiving quickly became my wife’s favorite American holiday, because she said she did not know of anything equivalent to it in her country. It is not commemorating special national events, battles fought, or wars won like Independence Day (US) or Victory Day (Russia); it is not specifically to commemorate a religious event, like Christmas or Easter. It is “religious” in the sense it is the day our nation long ago sat aside to thank God for the blessings the country has received. Of course, Thanksgiving, like Christmas or any holiday, can be corrupted by the excesses of individualism and capitalism (Black Friday here we come!), but that doesn’t mean it has to be. Families get together and reflect on their blessings from God. Here in Russia this year, however, Thanksgiving Day was a work day for us. So what did we do? We had a late supper eating Turkey, potatoes, cranberry sauce (homemade), and cake. And we thanked God for blessing us in Russia. It wasn’t like the big feast we had with our extended family in America, but it was the best we could do.

Christmas here is not until January 7, and it is solely a religious observance. The gift giving and parties happen at New Years. In the days leading up to Christmas back in America we usually went to more than one party or meal at someone’s home. We never were big into the “Santa” thing so that is no big deal to us, and they have “Ded Moroz” (Grandfather Frost) here in Russia at New Years. We will still miss riding up to the “farm” above our home in Greer, SC and looking at The Turner Christmas Lights. Our family loved that. Then we would come back and walk around our neighborhood and look at how the different houses were decorated.

There are activities here we can get involved in, however. I have been asked to play Santa Claus and give gifts to the smaller Russian kids that study English at our school. I played Santa before when we were in St. Petersburg, and I loved it. Russians here have seen many of our Christmas movies and have heard our Christmas songs, and they love finding out more about them. I have not found that Russia has the quivalent of “Christmas carols.” So I play Christmas songs in my classes this month and let them learn the words. We are aware of and thankful for that fact that we will be bringing some celebration to adults and children here who only see these things on TV. Having an American “in the flesh” seems to make it more enjoyable for them. Fortunately this year Western Christmas is on Sunday so we won’t have to work. Some friends have invited us over for a December 24 Christmas party. Then on the Western Christmas morning we will get up and exchange gifts as a family. We will probably invite some family and maybe friends over to join us for an “American Christmas.”

While we have great Christmas memories of our time in America, we also realize how memory can often just bring to mind all the good things you had in the past that you do not have now. The good ol’ days were often not as good as we recall. We will remember the good about Christmas in America, but we won’t forget the materialism that seemed lurking around every corner. While in America, we loved going to parties and having friends over and exchanging gifts and singing. We, like many Americans, were also burdened with the financial concerns and stresses the holidays left us, however. There is that subtle competitiveness about gifts that creeps in. Frankly, Christmas strained our limited budget, and I know we are not alone in that! We live debt free in Russia. We will share some small gifts with the kids and send gifts to family in America. But we will not have to worry about the credit card bills that come in January and February that would set our budget behind so far. We’ll get together with family and friends for New Years, and there will be big parties. Then we plan on observing the Christian holiday that commemorates the incarnation of Jesus the Christ on Russian Christmas quietly in a house of worship.

Since we have been here over six months we’ve had to adjust to other aspects of life. After you’ve been here for several months, as someone (can’t remember who) said to me some time ago, “It’s like watching people (back home) get over your funeral.” When you leave the country there are a lot of words of support and affection, and folks really do hate to see you go. But then they get on with their lives. You’ve moved and you may have been a very important part of their social lives, but they have to return to their routine. I think our experience is fairly typical. You continue to hear from some friends and family members, but with others you just fall off their radar. Some people just do not write e-mails or make phone calls. We still treasure communication from our American family and friends, but we have to focus on how to adjust to life here and now. It takes effort to establish relationships in Russia, and you cannot be taking constant trips down memory lane and adjust well. With e-mails, Skype, FB, and a host of other social media if people want to stay in touch they will. If they don’t then that’s a choice no one else can control.

I have mentioned before the interest Russian people tend to have in people from the West. They want to get to meet you and learn about you. Nevertheless, building true friendships takes time—especially in Russia where people can be rather suspicious of strangers initially. After they get to know you and trust you then they will become friends like you never had. But a cultural difference is Russians tend not to form superficial relationships. They “size you up.” Once that trust and friendship is established, you can ask them for help in any area of life. But, again, that takes time. For us, that was cushioned somewhat by the fact my wife’s family was already here. So we knew some people from before. Still there was that time of readjustment for us. When you arrive here there is excitement at being in a new place, a new country, so much to see and do. Over time, however, there is the reality that the old friends are not here and e-mails and facebook can only do so much. It’s only natural that e-mails from America become less frequent. You look for new friends here, but it cannot be hurried. Again, friendship in Russia is very important, and you don’t become friends overnight….or over a month! A friend here is someone very close who you can trust completely.

My purpose here is two-fold. First, for those who are planning or are thinking about moving to Russia, do not be naive. America is in a tremendous time of political and cultural division. I cannot really say how many sides there are to some of the debates, because they seem to be splintering. There does not seem to be a shared moral, political or social consensus in terms of what America should “look like.” Some want to work within the existent “structures” to bring about change, while others want to form new structures and still others want to live as what I guess could best be termed “separatists.” Then there are those who want to leave. Obviously I speak as one who left, although our reasons were had a strong personal dimension as well. Life here just seems more, well, stable somehow. The differences are clearly here of course—political, social, religious–but I don’t sense the divisions are as viceral and even rancid as they are in America right now. Nevertheless, that does not mean life in Russia is smooth. Do not get so focused on the problems with America that you think moving to another culture would be ideal. You will miss things about America—some really good things that go unnoticed in the political and cultural “fuss.”

So I think it is important to ask whether the “pay off” is enough for living in Russia. I have tried to paint a picture that includes the negatives of living here. At the same time, I have commented all along that there are things about living here that I have gained which I cannot imagine having lived my life without. There is something about being around different people from a different culture who speak a different language that, while sometimes frustrating, enriches one’s life and has helped me to see the narrowness of my own views beforehand. You realize it is not the material things that give joy and depth to life. For example, we really miss our car, but not because of having access to transportation. We don’t miss the vehicle itself. We miss the family times spent together chatting or singing in that car. We can still do that without having a car, but the chatting and singing still need to be present and you have to be more intentional about it. Further, there has been an intrinsic reward in realizing Russians and life in Russia is not at all like the way it is portrayed in America. I’ve given up on main stream reporters presenting anything like an accurate picture. Life here, as I may have said before, is just “closer to the earth” with far less pretense. And sometimes life is just funny here. You see some things and think, “Hmmm…only in Russia.” Visiting here or taking a tour would have opened me up some to that discovery, but living here gives a depth to it not possible otherwise. When I go to the market I see people doing business differently; going to church reveals people who exercise their right to worship differently; having chats at parties reveals the stories of people far beyond what I could have read about if I had stayed in America. An example from this past weekend, I was sitting across from Vitaly, whom I had just met, at a birthday party. As the party wore on we chatted and laughed. He had just come here from working in a Ukrainian coal mine in Luhansk for five years. Here we were joking around about our countries and sharing stories on how to get Russian citizenship. So it is not that the cultural divides or ways of seeing things are not there. But life here is for people who like hearing from others from “the other side” and realizing those people really love it when they hear your story–because they really are interested in you. It creates a different kind of friend.

Being here in Russia as winter and the holidays approach comes with a cost. I’ve already blogged about why we came to Russia. But at some point you ask yourself why do we stay. It has brought about so many changes in our lives. But change happens anyway. Life would not be the same in America if we had stayed in America. Some family and friends will move away. Friendships change, evolve; situations change; kids get older. If we stayed in America I’d probably be whining for the days when the kids were younger—or easier. That is just human nature. We look forward to what is ahead of us in Russia.

ADDENDUM ON HEALTH CARE: I want to add a comment about my sickness and the care I received. As I mentioned it was my fault I did not seek help sooner. A friend of ours recommended a good doctor and Oksana called him. He could not see me that day, but said he could come by the next morning. They still make house calls in Russia! The price was double: he charged us $20 for his visit. He spent a lot of time with me and pretty much gave me a physical. He asked about my past health issues, surgeries, medications, etc. He was concerned I have been on anti-reflux medication for so long without a thorough inspection of my esophagus, but he said we would deal with my current problem now and talk about that later. As I said he was very concerned about my breathing and believed it was pneumonia, although he sent me for a chest and head x-ray. He tapped some places on my skull that were sensitive without me even realizing it beforehand. He also scheduled his nurse to come out in the evening to take blood and urine samples. He prescribed a number of medications, especially a strong antibiotic for all the infection I have. I am suspicious of antibiotics and do not like taking them. Without me mentioning that, he prescribed two other medications (a pro-biotic and an enzyme) to counteract what he said are the negative impact of antibiotics on our systems. I was very impressed that he was the one who brought up the “downside” to antibiotics. I have never had an American doctor mention that issue. We were treated very well at the hospital where they took my x-rays. It was very modern, clean and everyone was very professional and kind. They thoroughly explained what they did and what they found. Then today the doctor called back to check on me and to reassure us it would take a few days for the medicines to reach full effect. For the doctor’s house call, the nurse coming out to take my samples, the x-rays and conference afterwards and the medications our cost was just a little over $100. We could not have been more pleased with the care I received.

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