My favorite memories of living as an American in Russia include the early evenings I spent in the kitchen, sharing in Russian conversation with Rita, the mother of the family I lived with. Twenty-one years later, I remember it like it was yesterday.
Rita spoke a little English and a little German. I spoke the American college version of Russian and German. So we could communicate somewhat. She was such a dynamic person with a strong heart, and we got along instantly, even without much of a common language. When we couldn’t figure out what the other was saying, we made a note to ask her grown, married daughter, who was an English teacher and stopped by almost daily.
My employer offered an allowance for Russian language instruction. Rather than sign up for yet another class, which I had done for years, I asked if they would pay Rita just to talk with me in Russian. They agreed.
Several early evenings each week, when I got home from teaching at the university and Rita was home from work and preparing dinner, we would hang out in the kitchen and talk only in Russian. Sometimes I asked her to talk, and I would listen and ask questions. At other times, she would ask me to tell her about my day or answer questions about my life back home in the States.
This was a total immersion way of learning – she had to use the Russian words I understood to explain the ones I didn’t. And hand gestures, pictures, and sometimes, “We’ll ask my daughter when she comes for dinner.”
Through these conversations and her willingness to correct me, I began to speak real Russian, better than any class could have taught me. And I learned more than the language. I learned about Russian family life and culture, as well as Russian Orthodox traditions.
In the spring, when the family was planning for the summer garden at their dacha, Rita sat at the kitchen table holding seed packets. She asked me to read what was written on each packet. Then she described the plants that would grow from these seeds and what their garden would be like. At the tail end of a long Siberian winter, our conversation about the garden lifted our spirits.
At other times, she would talk to me about the dishes she was preparing for dinner. Or about our neighbors and what they were struggling with or celebrating.
I learned about birthday customs and Rita’s family history. She showed me their Russian Orthodox icons and explained how at one time, they were hidden from the Stalin regime, and now they were hidden from potential burglars.
I will always remember the day in late spring, when the landscape was still covered with ice, when Rita came home after a drive to the dacha and set a handful of green leaves on the table in front of me. In the middle of the woods near the dacha, she and her husband had found one of the first budding trees of spring.
Those early evening Russian conversations will always remain one of the fondest memories of my life. Not only did I learn how to understand and speak the language. I also learned so much about life that has stuck with me all these years. Most importantly, I grew in friendship with an amazing Russian mom who will always have a special place in my heart. What a blessing from God.
If you have the privilege to live overseas as I did, make the most of opportunities like this one. Those experiences will shape your life in ways you can’t imagine.