We have finally returned to our (somewhat) normal life in Russia after our trip to America this summer. The boys are back in school, Oksana is teaching two days a week, and I am reading, keeping up my Greek, studying my Russian and doting over Marina Grace. As I have said, we all really missed America and our family and friends there after we got back. What we did there, who we saw, and what we miss kept coming up in conversations. Over time, however, we realized nothing good could come from thinking that life back in America would be just like it was on our three week summer vacation. It would be back to school and work. So we refocused on our life here while still being thankful for our extended American vacation. We also made a couple of decisions.
Our first decision was a big one: We decided to buy a house. We knew our rental apartment was too small and had looked at a few houses both here in Luga and in the nearby village where we go to church. We never got very serious about any of them. After we got back to Russia Oksana found one on-line that had plenty of space and was at a very good price. It was not complete, however. The family had been living in it but had decided to build a second floor and were in the process of doing that when apparently the husband died. (The lady just said she was now alone. We didn’t know if that meant he left or died.) So the upstairs is “roughed in,” but no interior walls are up. They were adding a vinyl exterior so that is also not complete. It’s a little ways down a dirt street, but the houses in the area are nice, and it is surrounded on three sides by a forest. Oksana has a close friend whose husband is a builder. In fact, he specializes in remodeling and restoration. He is a very nice person and volunteered to go with us to inspect the structure. As I said, this one has plenty of room for us, a bit over 2,000 sq. ft. The rooms downstairs are quite large. Our builder friend carefully inspected everything and afterwards told us it is a well-built house, and also the biggest house for that price that he’s seen. He gave us an approximate estimate of how much it would take to complete the work, and since it was well within our budget, we decided to buy it.
I couldn’t take out a mortgage in Russia because I do not have any income here. Obviously, Oksana does not make enough teaching part-time to qualify for a loan either. This summer my “financial guy” in America, whose company has my IRA, told me that one part of my retirement account is invested in a manner his company is not able to continue managing since I no longer live in S.C. We knew there was a possibility that we might buy a home here so while we were in America I transferred that money to my Sberbank account here in Russia. Plus, the Russian government gives money to families who have children if they are making a significant purchase “to improve their living conditions” or will use the money to continue the education of their children. It is called “maternal capital.” So we signed the papers to purchase the home and then applied for the maternal capital to be transferred to the seller (it’s all electronic – you never see the money). The home is ours, but the present owner does not have to be out of the home until she gets our maternal capital deposited to her bank account, which usually takes anywhere from one to two months. Russia does not give “tax breaks” for children. Income tax in Russia is a flat 13%. Anybody can, however, apply for government funds if they have children. Russia’s population was decimated after WWII (“The Great Patriotic War” as it is called here). Then the birth rate fell again dramatically during the Yeltsin presidency since people simply could not afford children. Now the government is very “friendly” toward families with children, and help is available. The maternal capital is not a loan. It is money the government gives to support families with children.
Since it looks like we’ll be here for some time I also decided I need to work even harder on my Russian language skills. Everyone else in the family, even four year old Marina Grace, speaks Russian well. I have studied Russian on my own for several years, but I have never taken an actual classroom course in Russian. So I decided to take a one week “immersion” course offered by a school in St. Petersburg. I checked around and the school had a very good reputation. So I signed up for 30 lessons in one week. It was one-on-one with the teacher, a Russian lady named Anastasia who is from St. Petersburg. For six hours a day I studied and spoke in Russian. No English was used at all. I was not allowed to say anything in English, and she explained everything in Russian only. The bulk of the time was spent in a class room practicing speaking, listening to her and recorded dialogues, reading and doing some grammar. Three afternoons we ventured out into the streets. We went to the Russian Museum, the Hermitage, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. As in the classroom, during our visits we spoke only in Russian. That was particularly difficult. There were so many things to see, but she was constantly asking me questions and explaining things in Russian. So they were not just leisurely trips to important sites. I was seeing Russian history and practicing the Russian language all at the same time. I stayed in the apartment we rent for Roman. Oksana, Gabriel and Marina Grace were back in Luga. That was tough. I had to navigate around the big city all on my own. (More on that below.)
The week was probably my most difficult one since being here. I felt very out of place without the family, and I could actually feel my brain get tired from being forced to communicate in another language for hours. I do believe it was a productive week, however. It forced me to do things I would not otherwise do. As anyone who has ever tried to be proficient in communicating in any foreign language knows, it is a big move from short sentences in a workbook to actually understanding “native speakers.” The speed makes every word seem to run together. Second, fear of making mistakes is a constant enemy. I think this is the main reason children learn languages so much easier than adults. They simply do not mind making mistakes. They want to communicate. Gabriel never worried about it. Hence, he learned very easily. He just kept speaking it until he got it right. In this course, I didn’t have a choice. I spoke, and I made mistakes. I listened and often did not understand. The teacher was very patient. She knew what she was doing, and she would repeat whatever I asked her to repeat—as many times as I asked. She never seemed frustrated. Also, she had a very high quality sound system, and we listened to dialogues of different Russian speakers. I did not finish the course under any delusions that I am now fluent. I do, however, have a greater grasp of my weak points and how Oksana and I can work together in the home so that with practice I’ll keep improving. I asked Anastasia about any resources or programs of study that would help. She said I speak well, my vocabulary is pretty good and I have a basic understanding of Russian grammar. But, she said emphatically, “You need to practice, practice, practice!”
One evening while I was in St. Petersburg I met a fellow “cultural refugee” for supper at a restaurant near the school. We had met on-line in discussions of issues pertaining to the Russian and American relationship. I told him I had been looking forward to asking him questions I always get asked, e.g., “Why did you move to Russia?” and “What is it about life in Russia you like?” At one point in the conversation he said, “It’s just we don’t have the stress of living in America.” Strangely, I knew what he meant—and what he didn’t mean. I knew he didn’t mean that life in Russia is stress free. Of course, there is stress living here. Learning the language is stressful; living in an environment without the support of friends and family from America is stressful. Bad things happen, things break, etc.
Life is simpler here for us, however. There is no way we could live on my salary in America. The house we bought would be at least three times the cost in South Carolina. (And more than that in other parts of the country.) The stresses of work, fatigue and time pressure are nowhere near what they were there. If we get sick, we don’t stress over medical bills. If something needs to be repaired it doesn’t cost the proverbial “arm and leg.” Clearly, the political debates are nowhere near as intense and divisive. I realize that the Western press presents this as evidence Putin is a dictator and everyone is afraid to criticize him. The truth is, as I have said many times before, issues are discussed here without the blather. My friend and I talked about how we have been involved in discussions and debates with people we know here in Russia about politics and other matters. Neither of us had ever had the experience of people getting angry at us or anyone else involved in the debates. People toast friendship and get back to the meal or whatever they were doing.
I would like to reiterate something else I have mentioned in passing before. The fact that Russia and America have been in a tense relationship now for quite some time does not mean those of us who live here worry about that impacting our relationship with Russian friends or even strangers. After Anastasia and I had visited the Russian Museum the other day we had a long walk through a park with which I was unfamiliar. She continued her “teacher” role even in our conversation in the park, so I had to focus on that. After a while our time was up. She pointed me to where I needed to go to get back to the school and on to my metro station. Unfortunately along the way there was construction, and I was sent on side streets and could not find a way to get back to the area I knew. I headed in the general direction I thought I needed to go. Two things were against me. I’m a small town guy and any big city confuses me. I’m pretty good finding my way through fields and forests, but buildings look the same to me. Second, it was very cloudy and without the sun I have trouble figuring out my directions. Soon, I was lost!
I continued walking and stopped one lady and explained I needed to get to a Metro Station. She told me to continue the direction in which I was going and what street I needed to look for. When I got to that street I couldn’t figure out which direction I should go. I asked a young man (late teens, early twenties maybe) who said he didn’t know. I thanked him anyway and continued my walk. A couple of minutes later he came running up from behind me to tell me that he remembered the general location of the station. He pointed me in the right direction and named the building I should start toward. He tried to speak English, but I understood his Russian better than his English. When I got there the entrance to that Metro was closed! No one was allowed in that station for some reason. I was worried now. I walked a bit further and then stopped a middle aged man about to cross the street. I explained my situation, and I asked him to speak slowly because my Russian was not very good. He pointed and said in English, “Go that way. See blue building. Left.” I found the station and made it home!
When I was meeting my friend for supper the next evening I could not find the restaurant. (Turns out I had walked past it, but it was a small place with no sign out front.) After crossing the street and going on further, I didn’t know what to do. I asked a young lady who had stepped outside for a smoke if she knew where it was. She said she had never heard of it, so I started to move on. She spoke to me (in Russian of course) and said, “Wait. Let me look it up on my phone.” I paused while she put out her cigarette and looked up the place on the phone and showed me on the map. All these encounters took place on a busy crowded street. I openly told them I was a foreigner, and I think all of them figured I was American since two of them used a couple of English words. Yet all of them stopped and took time to help me the best they could. Of the four people I asked for help not one of them was rude and all helped me the best they could. This is not some folksy small town. This is a city of about 6 million people. You will understand when I hear the the U.S. Department of State issue a warning that Russia is not a safe place for Americans to travel, I insist that they are motivated purely by political posturing which has nothing to do with actual knowledge of Russia. If it were so dangerous then this chronically lost meandering American would have had much more to fear and a whole lot more time would’ve been spent trying to get home.
When I got back to Luga Friday night, my father-in-law picked me up at the station. On the short ride through town to our apartment I was very thankful to be back in Luga. I realized how much I like living here. Places and people are now familiar to me. The calmness of this little provincial town reminds me of how calm it used to be in the small towns and the culture in which I was raised back in America many years ago. I know it sounds weird to sound nostalgic about America long ago when talking about life in Russia now, but I sometimes feel that way. I know there were problems, stresses and disagreements back then in America, just as there are in Russia now. There is a difference, however, between cultural stress and constant division and agitation. Whatever one hears on the news, please know that from my experience here and my “worm’s eye” view of things, Russians are not looking for fights and conflicts with Americans. Their political leaders are not trying to stir up feelings of animosity toward Americans within the people here. If they were, I’d perhaps still be wandering around the streets of the big city!