change, inevitable and all-encompassing

Originally published on 04/05/2013

Why do all good things come to an end?  Something inside wants to say that they don’t have to or that they won’t, that good things can/will continue on in a never-ending state of goodness.  As I look out the window of the train, things flash by, quickly into and out of existence almost faster than my eyes can register them.  Things I will never see again.  A slowly decaying Soviet apartment complex appears and is gone, as if time crumbled it away before my eyes.  A birch forest grows out of ground and withers away all in the instant our train winks by.  Ashley, looking out the window over my shoulder asks me, “Do you think creative writers are born, or that creative writing is a skill people gain?”

Without hesitation, I answer, “Yes.”

Yes meaning that some are probably born with certain talents, while others persist until they achieve some skill, or some combination of the two.  We discussed what role a child’s upbringing plays in their obtaining of certain skills; what the parents could do to help the child, and what was left up to the child to decide him/herself.  I cut my finger on the edge of the train ticket as I reached into my bag.  As a huge dollop of blood splattered on the floor, my face paled.  Ashley says that our children are going to have the same problem.  And it is most likely true.  I mean, my dad gets queasy even when people talk about blood around him.  I don’t know about my grandpa, but he is probably just like us.  Anyway, it was one nasty ticket-cut.

Our conversation evolved into what others think of us when we change.  How some people say things like, “You should just accept me for how/who/what I am.”  Now, I realize people frequently are seeking acceptance, validation, or something like that when they say such things, but we hypothesized that such a mentality implies a lack of desire to progress.  Sometimes it is simply easier to be stagnant.  At the same time, we considered how sometimes, when one starts to change something in their life, others perceive it as “false” or something to that effect.  Perhaps a fear of progression?  Maybe.  Maybe it is something else.

For the record, we were talking about writing skills, not about anything political or whatever.

Anyway, we came to the conclusion that change is scary.  But it happens.

Krasnodar is a beautiful city.  The Muscovite winter seems to have survived all the rites we preformed out in the forest.  But here, spring is already in full swing.  What I found most striking were the buildings, especially those still under construction.  Although they were brand new, they appeared to already be in some state of deterioration.  The plaster covering the bricks in places looked as if it had only just been smeared on the wall, in other places was already crumbling away.  Metal was rusted.  The very foundation was shaken.  As soon as we’re born we start dying.After arriving in Krasnodar, I thought, “Why on earth did we not fly directly to Sochi?”  Oh well.  After an interesting wc experience (anyone who has been, knows what I’m referring to… anyone who doesn’t  email me privately and I’ll inform you), we ventured out into the city until the train to Sochi arrived.  We instantly started sweating.  It was only 68 degrees… But considering that yesterday in Moscow it was snowing, I suppose that makes sense.

I guess we had better (not that I advocate “eat, drink, and be merry,”  but we should have a good attitude, and have a good time.

Speaking of dying.  I was talking with one of the guys recently, and he told me how when he was leaving his mission he was saying goodbye to an elderly lady and he knew that that was the last time he would see her.  She has passed away.  I’ve felt that too, I think everyone has.  During this trip Ashley has lost two very close family members.  Our hearts, of course, are with her family.  Death is hard to deal with because of the change it represents in our lives.  Life in that we know that we must continue on without those people.  Death in that we know we’ve lost them.  All jumbled up into an emotional dichotomy of life vs. death, which leaves us confused, hurt, and pining for those who have passed.  People fall through the cracks… We’ll never see them again, at least in this life.  But we should always, always remember them.

Yesterday Ash and I went to visit Lydia Ostravets.  We arrived about an hour and a half late.  After apologizing profusely, she said that there was no help for it, because I work with Russians.  I suppose that could be true… But this time, it was purely my fault.  Perhaps the Russians are Russifying me, however.  She then had us eat.  Whilst walking from the bus stop, I told Ashley that I bet the education of our first child that she would feed us the following:  a salad composed of tomatoes, cucumbers, raw cabbage and onions, a smear of mayo, some vegetable oil, and cat hair; followed by, what is best described as an eggroll… but not the Chinese eggroll, but the Lydia eggroll (lavash and egg salad with fresh dill); then the main course, chicken on two pieces of bread.  All of which is washed down by tea that is a thousand degrees, and which never cools.  Seriously, she must have a magic chainik.  Anyway, I guess our first child is going to get an education after all, because right after taking off our coats, she rushed us off to the kitchen.  It was good, besides the cat hair… and Lydia hair.

Then we talked for a couple hours.  Intermixed with tea breaks, she showed us a photo album of her first missionaries and other missionaries.  She knew everything about everyone in the pictures… Literally everyone.  Even though some of it was obviously fantasy (for instance, there was a picture of Elder Jessee standing on a boat with a huge fish.  The boat hand, a scrawny Filipino kid, Lydia claimed was his brother…), I think that the fact she remembers the people is absolutely fantastic.  For Lydia, everyone is important; she doesn’t let people fall through the cracks.  Even when distance and time has created a separation comparable to death; she will never forget, and tries to break barriers with emails and letters…

I’m especially bad at this, I forget and lose track.  I can’t even keep in touch with people.  I don’t write people.  I don’t even call people back sometimes… Sometimes emails sit in my inbox for days before I answer them.  I’m socially lazy.  Worse, I let people fall through the cracks, losing relationships that I could have maintained if I put forth even the smallest effort.  I need to learn a lesson from Lydia.

Lydia sends her love to all those she knows:  Mechum, Jessee, O’Bryant… She remembers all of you.  She told me that sometimes she’ll pull out the album just to look at the pictures of her missionaries.

Obviously, we mean a lot to her.

We’ll all grow old.  Even though Lydia says she is young, the years are wearing on her; it has been a long time since the 20s.  We naturally move from one stage to the next, no matter how hard science tries to slow it or stop it, the naturally progression of life will move on.  Even if our bodies didn’t age, our minds would.  Imagine being a hundred year old mentally and physically 21?  I think that might be hell.  I think we’re meant to die.  We’ll have a body that can live forever when we can mentally handle it.

Anyway, things change, and that is the point of it all.  I don’t know if I’m thinking about this so much because of the time of year… Or because of all the change in my own life.  But I am.  I am changing.

Change is there, inevitable and all-encompassing.

Advertisements

burn the witch… well, at least the effigy, or lots of pancakes

Originally published on 03/21/2013

I hate waking up late.  Especially after you wake up early, then decide that you have just enough time for it to be worth it go back to sleep.  That’s what happened Sunday morning.  Greg woke us up practically as he was heading out the door.  Ashley and I threw on our clothes and stuffed the food we had purchased the night before in a backpack and rushed to our Maslenitsa adventure.

We met Greg, Elena and her kids, and a few other people at metro Savyolovskaya and to catch the next elekchichka destined for the woods.  We had no idea where exactly we were going and the best answer we could get out of Elena was that we were going to maslenitsa.  Elena explained that it is supposed to be ambiguous like that.  The details for this gathering couldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) be found on the internet.  It wasn’t advertised, and wasn’t to be written down in any way; in true folkloric fashion it is an oral tradition.

For not being advertised, there seemed to be a ridiculous amount of people hanging around the metro station with us.  But that was nothing compared to the train station and the train ride  afterwards.  I haven’t been on a train that crowded since I served in Podol’sk.  When we arrived where we were going, we simply disembarked from the train and were swept away in the river of people flowing into the woods.  It wasn’t that far to the destination, which we learned was called a polyana, perhaps only a mile or so, but the going was slow as the train of people chugged along.  The people were of all ages, sizes, and colors.  I don’t mean ethnicities.  I mean literally, the people were painted multifarious colors, and most wore brightly colored coats and snow gear.  A nice contrast to the normal black and grey of the city.  No better way to welcome in spring, I suppose.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The pines broke into a clearing blocked by a 10 foot wall of snow.  Guarding the gate into the polyana was a skomorokh.  In order and join the festivities, we had to sing a song.  After botching Scarborough Fair, the skomorokh let us in (probably only because he didn’t understand the song).  Inside the polyana was a sea of people.  After wandering for a long time or a short time, Elena found her friends and we participated in various pagan rituals to welcome in spring.  Our initiation into the pagan rituals was light, with a game that looked something like red rover meets Victorian-style dancing.  It involved the two lines running at each other, and couples running through the middle.  Naturally, some random girl came up to Ashley and said, “Let’s go!” and away they ran.  So I went with Greg.  Next we formed a line, holding the waist of the person in front of us and stretched our legs out as if we were mounting a horse.  Then we were told to start rocking back and forth from foot to foot, chanting, “I’m a snake, a snake, a snake. I slither, slither, slither.”  As we did this, people would crawl between our legs, and then join the back of the ever-increasing snake.

The masses then dissipated into the woods, as people went to tables carved out of snow to eat, drink, and sing.  It was about now that we rejoined Elena to go to our own table in the woods.  Elena has a group of friends who are folklore enthusiasts.  Some of them are professional folklorists, some of them are psychologists, some of them are young and probably have no profession yet.  The point is it doesn’t matter who or what you are, but instead the point is to embrace ancient tradition, to share in wonderful camaraderie, and, of course, to eat scrumptious food.  Although I was quickly full of food and sbiten’, I don’t think my hunger for their singing or friendship could ever be sated. There were a plethora of other rituals, each with their own interesting symbolism.  We saw swings in the trees, half naked men (and a woman) climbing a 40 foot pole, and many other things.  But nothing is to compare to the general revelry and splendor we were witnessing; it is certainly a memory I will take to my grave.

Burning the kukla chases away winter, or so the tradition goes.  The effigy is made from birch branches and is dressed in clothing, made to look like a babushka.  As spring is a renewal of the world, a time of rebirth and new beginnings, so does the burning of the kukla represent fresh life for those present.  It was bittersweet to see her burned, but I suppose that is why it is such a striking symbol.  After the effigy was nothing more than a smoldering frame, a huge whirlpool started in the crowd, as people circled it three times, maybe chanting, maybe not – the actions are generally more important the words when it comes to these types of things.By this time the polyana was a sea of color, as thousands of brightly dressed people filled the clearing in the woods.  The densest and most tumultuous section of the sea was surrounding a 20-25 foot tall snow castle.  There were a handle full of people atop the castle.  The people looked ready for battle, or at least a hockey match, dressed in half traditional clothing, half in helmets, goggles and knees pads.  To make their get up even stranger, the majority of them were sporting GoPros.  What were the people doing up there?  Well, they were defending the kukla, the effigy that represents winter, of course!  And they were defending it with all their might.  A cloud of powered snow gathered around the castle, as the biggest snowball barrage I have ever seen impacted with the top of the castle.  As salvo after salvo flew from the thousands surrounding the castle, waves of people started crashing against the battlements (watch this link for an idea of what it looked like).  Eventually the torrents of people conquered and whilst waving a flag of victory, took the effigy to be burned.

Leaving back to Moscow was somewhat surreal.  I fell asleep on the train and when I awoke in Moscow things were different.  We went home and back to everyday life in the big city, as if our excursion out into the woods was nothing but a dream.

In any case, Monday was sunny and warmer than the day before.

a good sunday, or the church on spilt blood

Originally published on 03/11/2013

Today was an especially spiritual Sunday for me.  Really the only thing out of the ordinary was me botching my talk in Sacrament meeting.  Perhaps that is what made it such a great Sunday.  Judging by the various blog posts out there, it was a good Sunday for others as well.

temples-2
Inside “Spas’ na Krovi”

Anyway, this post isn’t about my Sunday, if you were wondering.  This post is about St. Petersburg, among other things.  A few weeks back, the group of BYU interns made an exodus to St. Petersburg to see the Hermitage and other sights, such as the Orthodox temple Spas’na Krovi.  Despite all of the craziness with a hostel we didn’t end up staying in, sore feet, and ticket confusion, I had a great spiritual experience there.

One of the first sights we saw was the temple Spas’ na Krovi.  This temple has great historical significance, as it was built in memory of the Tsar Alexander II after he was assassinated.  Naturally, it was high on our list of things to see.  When we got there, we found out that we had to buy tickets in order to get in (well, I suppose receive free tickets would be more accurate – students get free admission to most museums throughout Russia).  Once inside the temple I was shocked.  Normally when entering an Orthodox temple, one passes into a different world, the smell of incense and candles washing over you as you step into halcyon reverence mingled, perhaps, with seraphic singing.  No votive candles placed before the ancient icons.  No mystique.  And assuredly no reverence.  People spoke openly.  Flashes bounced from cameras as tourist (including us) snapped pictures.  Profits made on tourism.  This was simply a museum.

It all just felt wrong.  And it was definitely not what I was accustomed to.  There was no reverence.  No passion.  No devotion.  While the temple was astoundingly beautiful, I left with an odd feeling of regret like I had just seen the Mona Lisa with spaghetti sauce on the corners of her mouth.

The spirit.  Later that day we visited the Kazansky Cathedral.  It was everything I know an Orthodox temple to be, despite its very unorthodox exterior (the photo to the left is NOT the Kazan Cathedral… I simply didn’t have a good picture of it).  However, I did notice something different.  Something I guess I hadn’t really noticed during my other visits to Orthodox temples.

The spirit was very strong.  We happened to arrive in the middle of one of many ceremonies preparatory for Easter.  There were many people there worshipping.  They really were worshipping Heavenly Father and you could really feel their faith.  Albeit, doctrines are confused, rituals incorrect, and a completely foreign understanding who God is, however, none of those things negate the temple-goers’ faith.  The spirit was there for those who truly believed and it was a very touching experience.

The spirit was there with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

dombra, yes – no – maybe

Originally published on 03/06/2013

To begin, I would like to feel somewhat apologetic for my last rambling, preachy post… But I don’t really feel that way.  However, if it was boring, annoying, or offensive, for that I am sorry.  In Russian, we often say, “da net, naverno.”  Which means, literally, “yes, no, maybe.”

This post will be better, yes, no, maybe.

Today I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Jak, a Kazakh kid that lives on our floor.  When I met Jak, he was holding something of a recital for the French guys who live on our floor.  You see, Jak is a very skillful dombrist.  The dombra, a two-stringed Kazakh folk instrument is played quickly, percussively, and most importantly, passionately.  Jak was rocking.  Literally, his whole body was swaying as he played for us.  After he finished playing for us, Jak and I talked for a little while.  After a few questions, Jak was explaining to me the history of Kazakh folk music.  I told him that the music he played made me want to jump up and dance.  I then asked him if he knew any traditional dances.  He instantly told me that dancing was for women and men played the dombra.  He then became rather pensive.  Eventually he said that there were a few male dances, but that were relatively newly re-birthed, as most had died during the Soviet Union. 

The Soviet Union, in attempts to unify and civilize the borders of the Russian Empire, destroyed cultures local to these areas.  Thus, this was the case in Kazakhstan.  Soviet power would also take resources from the edges of Russia (i.e. Kazakhstan) and pull them into Moscow, leaving the outskirts impoverished.  For the Kazakhs this was especially difficult during the early years of the USSR and many fled to neighboring countries, such as China, India, and south to the Middle East to avoid starving to death.  Over the last 20 something years, Kazakhs have been returning to their motherland, bringing back traditions that the USSR destroyed over half a century previous.  Because of this cultural return, Jak learned the Qara Jorga, a male/female dance (he used the word “unisex”).

Jak told me that the theme of the majority of folk songs is that of war, horses, army life, and, of course, more horses.  Jak really loves horses.  We discussed that it is interesting that the music is more masculine, but that there aren’t as many male dances.  He thinks that there were a long time ago, but that the USSR killed off a lot of the male dancer/dances.  Good thing that the Kazakh diaspora kept at least a little of the tradition alive, because life is definitely not complete without the Qara Jorga .

I’m interning in the Folklore Department at the “Gorky Institute of World Literature,” a research center of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  We work with some of the leading Russian ethnographers, anthropologists, and folklorists.  It is pretty much the bees’ knees.  We do a little work, but a lot more learning.  Really.  I have never met someone that is more generous with knowledge then our boss, Elena.  She is truly an amazing person.  During our discussions with Elena on the Russian folk epics known as bylinas epic poems that are sung as part of an ancient oral tradition – we talked about how the Soviets tried to recreate them into epic tales of our comrades Lenin and Stalin’s supposed heroic services for the proletariat.

Russians often feel a deep, spiritual connection to the bylina.  Elena, a very experience ethnographer, says that if you don’t cry when you hear certain epics, there is something wrong with you.  There was no such connection with the Soviet epics.  In fact, people generally scoffed at them.  All the Soviets did was take ancient plots and swap the hero for Lenin.  Laughable?  Absolutely.  Russians recognized that not only the communists’ feats weren’t true in deed, but that they were not true in merit; they were more unbelievable than magical fairy tales.

Was it simply stigma against the good comrades that made the Soviet renditions of bylinas so terrible?  I’m not so sure.  I think the people’s immediate rejection had a more basal root in the Russian subconscious.  Guess what it is… That’s right, you got it!


Emotion.

The Soviet system was an effective (in its own right), industrial machine, which, according to its own rhetoric, should be by principle emotionless, faithless, and progressive.  Principles that contradict the emotion-filled bylinas and folk tradition.  So what happened to these Soviet epics?  I don’t really know… And if the Soviets hadn’t have written them down, I’m sure that no one would at all.  The epics simply did not resonate with the people, and therefore they didn’t stick.  It is all about the feeling, the passion, and the experience.  Something that can’t be produced in a factory, no matter how awe-inspiring your propaganda is.

In other words, I’m going to learn the dombra.

the bad samaritan, or sparrow hills.

Originally published on 03/01/2013

There is something about being over here that causes me to look inward.  Something about living in the megalopolis, as we discussed with our Russian Grammar teacher Galina, “makes a person lonely even though he is surrounded by people.”  Well, to be completely truthful, I’m not lonely in the slightest.  But Moscow has assuredly instilled some sort of deep introspection in me.  Probably because of the crazy things we see every day.  If we choose to, that is.

Normally our Russian grammar class is a little draining.  Sometimes it feels like I’m beating my head against a brick wall.  Then I remember that I’m studying Russian and that I am beating my head against a brick wall.  Today, however, Galina gave us our mid-term as a take-home instead of giving it in class.  As that act will probably single-handedly save my grade in the class, I started out the day with higher-than-normal spirits.  Everyone else was doing their own thing after class, and Ashley had work, so Greg and I decided to go hit up St. Basil’s, visit a statue park, and drop off some film I attempted to shoot in the Holga (we’ll see if it turns out) to be developed.

We went to St. Basil’s first.  Strangely, even after living in Moscow for two years, I had never actually made it inside.  When Greg and I looked up the visiting hours online, it was even listed as a “less visited” attraction in Moscow.  That seemed a little strange to me, but understandable I suppose.  Everyone, myself included, came to see the beautifully unique temple.  Most come, see the fairy tale esque temple’s strange exterior, stop, and take pictures.  After which they most likely head in to GUM to buy something that is ten times what it should cost.  They go and see, but they never actually see, or at least, I hadn’t   If you haven’t been inside, do it, when you get the chance.

Greg and I then went adventuring to find what we called “The Statue Park,” but is really called Bolotnaya Ploshchad (which means, “Boggy Square”… literally) to see what we thought were called the “The Seven Deadly Sins.”  Turns out we were wrong about that too, the collective group of statues being called “Children are the Victims of Adult Vices.”  These statues were quite thought provoking and, especially after visiting St. Basil’s, caused me to go into one of those self-evaluating moods.  The statues representing the vices stand in a semicircle around two, presumably innocent, young children.  The kids are blindfolded, and are… well, they are either playing or are wandering around lost, I can’t really decide… But lying at their feet are fairy tales.  That is interesting in of itself, but two of the vices especially intrigued me a little more.

One of them, a haggard women beggar, represents the vice of Poverty.  I could probably go on for days about this subject, but really you’re probably already bored of reading this.  So I’ll cut to the chase, at her feet were coins.  Not statue coins, but real coins.  Like ones I could have picked up and bought a loaf of bread with (really, I could have, there were enough there).  This is something I have been thinking a lot about lately.  Not taking coins or buying bread.  Not because I see a lot of poverty in Russia.  But because I see a lot of giving.  I don’t know who my target audience, but I’m assuming because the posts are in English that it would be Americans.  Anyway, the principle applies to all humankind.

We don’t give enough.

I feel like I see a lot of giving here.  I mean, sure, we give here and there in America… But do we really give?  When I see how people do it here, I’m not so sure.  Definitely something at least I need to work on.  (Vicesee Romans 15:1)

The other statue represents a vice, of which I don’t think the children – our generation – are innocent.  Indifference.  This problem has reached epic proportions.  It has grown from a vice passed from adult to child, but it is seemingly becoming an aspect of global culture.  Children are brought up, ostensibly everywhere to not care about real life.  Perhaps not by their parents, but by the internet, Xbox, and iTunes; for assuredly, children spend more of their waking hours plugged into such devices than interacting with people.  We’re becoming more and more indifferent by the day.  We don’t even have to put our fingers in our ears anymore, we have earbuds to do that for us.  The sad things, we don’t even realize it… and if we do, we don’t realize it often enough.  A member of our branch taught me the other day that in Russian you can say, “having bananas in your ears” instead of “having headphones in your ears.”  I think the phrase is great, and I’m going to definitely start using it in English as well.  So… Take the bananas out and start caring about life.

Again, I’m just as guilty as the next guy.  I’m just saying, we could all step it up a notch.

As an example of me not stepping it up a notch, I’ll close with the story of the bad Samaritan.  After Bolotnaya Ploshchad, Greg and I went to develop my film.  Being the big dummy I am I didn’t bring along the address or any sort of useful information for finding the place I decided to develop the film.  Thus, Greg and I wandered around for a bit.  Whilst wandering, we passed a man who looked to be on the verge of death.  There were others who passed him too, steering clear of him, and the gore he was vomiting up – all doing nothing to help.  He was bleeding, and looked lost and confused.  Both Greg and I wanted to help him, but had no idea what to do.  Thinking of missionary days, I remember being told to avoid such situations as to avoid trouble.  And that is what we did.  Sure, we talked about it for a few moments.  But soon enough, we were back to our chipper, old, American selves, the man lying on the side of the road in a puddle of blood already far behind us.

Then I stopped to think how terribly, horrifically wrong that is.  Why hadn’t we done anything?!  Why did we act so indifferently?!  How could we not care so much as to call an ambulance!  For heavens sake, who cares what would’ve happened to us; it is not about us anyway, how selfish of us to make such a situation about ourselves.  This is not an adult’s vice passed down to us children.  This is completely my vice and one that I need to change.

We need to help.  We need to give.  And we need to start caring.

As I was mulling this over on the metro ride home, we pulled up to Vorobyovy Gory, my personal favorite metro station.  I was staring out the glass into the mostly melted Moskva, having one of those really deep self-inflection moments, when I realized why “Sparrow Hills” is my favorite of all metro stops.  As I look out the window of the metro wagon, I get pulled out of where I am.  Realistically, I’m in a tube full of people.  But instead of the monotonous black out the windows, suddenly there is light – real light – which makes me forget where I am.  While I’m looking out at nature, the metro starts up again without me noticing, and it takes me off guard every time as the light, the beauty, the reality, flashes suddenly back into darkness as we leave the station.  It always jolts me and makes my eyes wig out.  And every time, it leaves me wanting more light, more outside, more life, and I can’t wait to get to Ugo-Zapadnaya and to be outside.

I think life is a lot like that metro station.  While a lot of people have bananas in their ears, we have to look for those moments of reality and hold onto them even when they disappear back into the darkness.

Hold on to them because they are what truly matter.

grechka, or the head & the heart

Originally posted on 2/27/2013

When we arrived in Moscow, Ashley and I noticed that our room was much colder than the other rooms in the hostel/dorm.  We put off talking to someone about it until it became unbearable for Ashley.  I then talked to the ladies at the front desk, who told me to talk to our floor’s cleaning lady.  After that, I never seemed to see her anywhere.  So our room remained as it was, freezing.

Wherever we go, Ashley ends up talking to someone.  On the metro, in the store, when we’re hopelessly lost, Ashley ends up talking to someone.  And somehow, they always end up deeply engaged in the conversation with her.  Thus, it was Ashley who finally made contact with the cleaning lady.

Apparently the cleaning lady made the necessary arrangements, because one day, when I got out of the shower, Ashley comes and says, “Don’t come out, there is a guy here fixing the window.”  I hear her attempting to make conversation with him, but she ended up letting him work in silence.  After standing around in the bathroom for a while, Ashley brings me a robe, and I go out and talk with the guy who hadn’t actually yet begun to do anything to the window, but was standing there inspecting it intensely… I still don’t know what he was doing for the 5 or more minutes I was standing naked in the bathroom.

Anyway, we engaged in the typical introductory conversation, which with Russians usually doesn’t begin with your name or whatever other superficial questions people ask (well… I suppose that is not entirely true, because people always notice my accent and immediately ask where I am from, which is followed instantly by, “What on earth are you doing in Russia?!”), but instead jumps right into hearty subjects… like the weather.

After we came to the conclusion that all that can be said about Russian weather is that it is cold, we quickly began reminiscing about the wicked heat of the summer of 2010 and the peat fires in the bogs surrounding Moscow.  These peat fires left putrid smog floating over Moscow for the better part of July and August.  Of course, our little missionary apartment didn’t have air conditioning, which meant that in order to not broil ourselves every time we were forced back into our apartment we had to open the windows.  Actually, we just left the windows open all the time.  We put wet sheets over them in feeble attempts to somewhat filter the pollution.  Mostly, we just came to grips with the fact that we were effectually smoking several packs of peat-cigarettes a day and moved on with life.

This conversation, naturally, led to us talking about grechka (buckwheat… but no one who speaks Russian says buckwheat and no one who doesn’t speak Russian ever uses/knows/has tasted buckwheat.  Thus, it is grechka.).  How, you may ask, did our conversation turn to this under-heard-of grain?  Well, that same hellish summer, not only Moscow was ablaze, but most of Russia’s bread basket was as well.  The man fixing our window added that it was not only the fire/heat that smoked the crops, but greedy private farmer’s under-speculation, that was another dynamic of the crisis.

You see, when the under-planted fields yielded meager crops, and rumor of a shortage of the staple – if not holy – grain began to spread, the third factor of the crisis reared its paranoid head:  Russians bought stores entirely out of grechka.  Thus, what little grechka was left in the country was most likely imported, and thus, was outrageously expensive…  That is to say, if you could even find the expensive stuff.  We’re talking over 4 dollars for 100 grams of grechka.  Unheard of.  The fix it man, who was finally starting to work on our windows, continued by saying that people would buy this stuff by the bob-cart full.  They would buy it, even if they didn’t like it.  Basically, this stuff became a drug that probably even the classiest mafia gentlemen would stoop to sell (or buy).

He speculated that this is an abnormal aspect of the Russian mentality.  I disagreed, using the example of ammo sales in the recent gun control scares in America.  Whether I simply fumbled getting the example out properly, or whether he just wanted to talk guns, grechka brought our conversation to gun laws.

After shaking his head, he told me the real problem with our window was that it was actually open.  So he closed it.  Shaking his head some more, he then said that he is glad that guns are (for the most part) illegal in Russia, and that he would never trust a Russian with a gun for the following two reasons:

Firstly, Russians act per their hearts, not their heads.  According to the window fix-it man, the American people act according to a logical, even empirical, thought processes; one that renders an average American capable of owning a gun without blowing his own or someone else’s brains all over the wall.  A Russian, however, acts according to the emotional impulses of his heart.  Thus, he would not trust a Russian with a gun, for fear the dueling practices of the 18th and 19th century would return, or suicide rates would dramatically increase.

I must have given him a skeptical look, because he defensively stated that it wasn’t just him, but that this is characteristic of the Russian people:  that it is Russian to act according to emotion, according to your heart.   I couldn’t dispute that.

Secondly, he stated that this bit of Russian psyche especially doesn’t mesh well with high levels of vodka consumption.  He says that this only intensifies the urge to follow the heart, which would leave many, many people dead if Russians were allowed to have guns.  Drunk Russians plus guns equates in dead Russians, according to the man who was finishing putting foam in the cracks around the edges of our window.  It was already a lot warmer in our room.

He asked if we had preference on tape color.  Thoughts of Russian psychology, guns and ammo, and, of course, gretchka were confusedly bouncing around in my head… Tape color?  “Uh…” was about all I could come up with, mind you, our conversation was in Russian.  I hesitantly said that it didn’t matter, to which he replied, “Good!  Because I only have yellow.”

He taped up our window, smiled through his thick mustache and wrinkles, a twinkle in his eye.  He was truly a good man.  A man who obviously had no hesitation in life, who followed his heart, and by the light in his face, obviously loved.  A man who truly lived.

As went to leave, I realized I didn’t know his name, despite our almost hour long conversation.  We laughed, as he said, “Valery,” and I said, “Danny.”  Now our room is warm and Ashley is happy, I found out that grechka is connected to all aspects of Russian life (pretty much), and had an important lesson about the head vs. the heart.

And I can now see a little bit deeper into what it means to be Russian.

Thanks Valery.