Culture Shock

Or What It Was Like For Me to Be Dropped In the Middle of Russia in the 90s…

You have you understand a few things first: I was only 16, practically a baby though I thought I was worldly and wise; this was the early 90s and communism had just fallen in Russia so it was a bit chaotic when I went; and, lastly, this was my first really big trip out of the country, other than to Canada.

I expected things to be very different but, at first, they seemed surreally different. I couldn’t wrap my head around the thought that I was in Russia. I walked around like a total tourism, gaping at everything. Red Square, in particular, blew my tiny little mind. I kept giggling and saying, “I’m in Red fucking Square” to myself the whole time. I almost passed out with glee in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral. But we weren’t going to stay in Moscow, we were going south to where my family was. We were supposed to head down by plane but that wasn’t happening for some strange reason. Everyone was keeping me in the dark. I hate being kept in the dark.

We found a hotel to stop in for a short rest and to make plans. I sat on the couch with D while the adults talked about how we would travel south. I found the Russian equivalent of MTV and we were amused for a while. There was a lot of 80s looking hair bands.

I was shaken awake shortly after and told it was midnight. Apparently, I had slept sitting up on the couch for four hours and my neck was all jacked up. My cousin was in the same shape as me. My father suggested some fresh air to wake up and I walked out onto the balcony. I became very nervous because the balcony didn’t seem very secure so I stayed as close to the doorway as possible. But I had the most amazing view of Red Square. It was all lit up. I felt like I was in a dream, it was too beautiful to be real. D tried to shove me out of the way, almost throwing me over the balcony and making it lurch sickeningly forward. We both screamed. I punch him and called him an ass and went back indoors. I was awake.

We were going by train, I was told. It would take three days. We would have first class sleeper compartments. I got excited. I shouldn’t have. I shared a compartment with my aunt. Yes, the evil one. It was the expected size but the “bed” was the bench which was faux leather that I constantly slipped off of. I learned to sleep holding onto the wooden back. It was also very short. I’m not super tall, about 5’8″. This bench was maybe a little over 5′ long. They provided a tiny, very scratchy blanket that matched the tiny bench. At first, I didn’t care because it was summer and I thought I would never need a blanket but A- my father’s cousin’s son- said to make sure to lock my door and window at night- to prevent theft- and the air conditioning kicked on really high. It was freezing! There was a pull down table below the window, which we kept down because we both had things we needed to keep within easy reach at night, glasses and such. So if I slid, I’d crack my head on the table. To top everything, my aunt snored, loudly.

Needless to say, the dining facilities weren’t up to par either. I nagged my father to let me try them one day and, when we went, I ordered a juice to start and got this weird viscous liquid that was half rusty and had brown flecks. Since I insisted, I took a sip and immediately regretted it. We left quickly. Whenever the train would make a stop, we picked up food supplies and there was plenty of fresh cold and hot water available. We made do. The bathroom was a shared one, of course. It had an airplane toilet and the tap was a pipe coming out of the wall. I knocked my head on it trying to wash my face during a particularly rocky spot on our trip. No showers.

Eventually, we made it to my relatives’ house. They were lovely people. My father’s cousin was R whom I was almost named after. She was an elegant and incredibly intelligent woman, kind and wise. M was her husband, gentle, jovial, and, as I had mentioned, a member of parliament. Their son A was introverted and a big Beatles fan. A’s wife N was more outgoing. She was a doctor with a down to earth manner. They told us that my father, D, and I would be staying at another apartment a block away, where R’s father used to live, so we could be more comfortable.

My cousin and I were told that we were not to go anywhere alone. We had to take a relative with us or a bodyguard at all times. Because of M’s job, he constantly received death threats and had even had a few assassination attempts made on him and his family. Yet, ironically, when we wanted to get about town, the thing to do was hitchhike. It was bizarre. But that’s how things were done. You paid a total stranger to take you somewhere. It was like Über in its early days.

It was so strange being there. The parks had tanks and old airplanes for children to play on. I saw statues of Lenin being torn down. No one was obeying any sort of traffic laws. It took me the entire six weeks to stop having a heart attack anytime someone drove me somewhere. Sides of the road, lights… Mere suggestions. But the food was amazing. The fruits and vegetables were the freshest I’d ever tasted. I didn’t miss junk food, except for the occasional soda which M would treat us to. Every so often, we’d go for ice cream and every time D would ask what flavors they had. Every time, except once, the man said vanilla, but he kept asking. When he said vanilla and strawberry, we were all so shocked that we got the strawberry.

One time, someone gifted me with a 4′ bottle of vodka. It came with a pump dispenser. When I said that I was 16, they looked at me confused. I then said that I couldn’t drink. They insisted that I could, I was Russian after all. I left the bottle there. How was I going to explain that one to my mom? My father just laughed at me.

I even saw friends of mine on TV when I was there. I know. Weird, right? I was bored, playing checkers with D. He had his back to the TV and I was facing it. This dance troupe came on and I could have sworn I recognized some of them. Then I realized, uh, yeah…I do know them! D thought it was a strategy to distract him so I could cheat. I had to put my hands in the air before he would look. Later, that night, he hunted down one of the guys from the dance troupe. They were visiting at the same time we were. Totally weird and unexpected coincidence.

There’s a few more stories I’ll get to on my trip to Russia. It was really a life changing trip for me.

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