Ideologies? Or Just Friends?

I grew up in the Cold War. I know it looks like ancient politics now. But it was real for us.

We knew the world could be destroyed by nuclear weapons. That undercurrent ran beneath daily life. Two countries with tons of nukes hated each other. I lived in one of them. It’s not that we thought about it every day. But some months or years the tension would cycle up. By the time I was in high school, the prospect of nuclear war seemed very real. Even scarier was the thought of a land invasion.

I grew up in an international city. My 6th grade classroom was like the United Nations. From childhood, I was interested in other cultures. I felt called to work in diplomatic relations, so when I got into college, that’s what I pursued. In the early 80s it was a given that I would learn Russian language and study Soviet politics.

I attended a lot of workshops and conferences with guest visitors from the Soviet Union. Nobody knew who they could trust. Everyone was sizing each other up. I thought I knew how to be diplomatic and ask the right questions. I remember getting very uncomfortable when my fellow American students would go into inflammatory mode when interviewing a Soviet visitor.

I traveled to the USSR as a college student. I thought I would get to know the culture better, see behind the Iron Curtain so to speak. But we were kept under such controlled circumstances that it was hard to meet anyone except people approved by the Party. The few others we met were the ones who interacted with foreigners under the radar, and it was all about money. Before long we were buying items for them in hard currency stores where they weren’t allowed to buy things, using money they made on the black market. None of it seemed real. Everything I learned was one form of disinformation or another.

It wasn’t till the Cold War had ended that I had the privilege to go back to Russia and teach at a university. I lived with a family and shared every part of life with them. Spent time enjoying life with my neighbors. Played with neighborhood kids.

During those years, I got to know my university students and loved their personalities, laughed with them, encouraged them, dreamed their dreams. Ended up in the hospital when I got bit by a rabid dog, and became internationally vocal about healthcare needs in the new Russian Republic. Helped college students start and lead a series of community round table conversations on issues at the intersection of their new constitutional rights and the struggles of daily life. And traveled to places that had only just opened to Americans.

I lived on a local wage and found daily life challenging. I had to take a second job teaching English. I was grateful my local family fed me. I was not in the same situation as my Russian friends, because I had health insurance, a US passport, and an open one-way ticket to New York. But when it came to daily life, it was hard and I was often alone.

That made me all the more grateful for the friendships that came into my life. Those were precious people I’ll never forget. I felt like I had known them forever. They meant the world to me. In those years, they became my friends, family, neighbors. They were my life.

I rejoiced when they rejoiced, I cried when they cried. Missed my train one night so I could stay with a distraught family whose daughter had disappeared. (She eventually came home and was okay, but had gotten some bad news that was difficult to handle.) Spent hours on the phone trying to find a medical organization that could give medicine to a friend who was going blind. (I was not successful.)

I remember one night in Russia, sitting in someone’s living room with a group of my closest friends. I looked from person to person, how well I knew them, and how much each person meant to me, just for who they were. I didn’t see nationality. Just saw my friends.

And I realized, dear God, at any time in my growing up years, my country might have launched a weapon that would have killed them, the very people sitting in this room, my friends who had become so important to me.

It wasn’t an international relations textbook anymore. It wasn’t the evening news. Nor was it a conference with visiting dignitaries and heated arguments.

It was as simple as the room we were sitting in. These were my friends. Through my tears I thanked God no one had launched a nuke. Not because I was afraid to die. Not because I didn’t respect security measures and the difficult decisions government leaders have to make. But more because I couldn’t imagine a world that wouldn’t have my friends in it.

I have no desire to make a political observation in all of this. That wasn’t what came to my mind at that time. It was more this: Friends are precious. And real. Take care of them. Appreciate and value them.

Ideologies are shortcuts that help us avoid the messy, valuable work of getting to know real people. Don’t miss that.

Be open to realize that people who are different from you could just as easily become a close friend. Before you judge someone or dismiss them, consider what your world might be like if that person were a good friend.

Most people don’t want to blow up the world. They’re trying to get through the day just like you are. They love the people they’re close to just like you do.

Can you see that real person through all the rhetoric, through all the hype?

Can you see the world through the eyes of someone you don’t know, someone who could just as easily be your friend?

Memories of Learning Russian with Rita

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.






Teenage English Lessons in a Polish Suburb

The atmosphere was quiet, as I waded through calf-deep snow toward a little apartment on the outskirts of Poznan, Poland. The light in the windows was inviting. This kind of winter was new to me, a Florida girl. The night sky was a deeper blue, as the moonlight reflected off the snow.

After spending the summer in Poland, and the fall semester back home at University of Florida, I decided to go back to Poland for the final semester of my senior year. Here I was, in the middle of an osiedle, a Polish housing community. The towers of lighted windows reminded me of Miami Beach. But I was a far way from there.

I was going to meet Krysia, an 11-year-old daughter of one of the university officials. She wanted to learn English. I had committed this semester to living my Polish experience to the fullest. I was here not just to complete the credits I needed to graduate. More than that, I wanted to squeeze out every ounce of this adventure. So I volunteered to teach English to this sweet little girl.

Her apartment was different from most of my Polish friends. She had her own room, for one thing, and a piano in her room. Her walls were beautifully painted and covered with posters that looked not unlike an American teenager’s decor. Cozy thick carpet and lots of pillows piled up made me feel young. Everything was bright and colorful, including her disposition. She had a beautiful smile and a giggle that bubbled up with joy.

I didn’t know her background, other than her parents were divorced. I knew nothing of the circumstances that led to her living in what seemed an affluent place, in the middle of this snow-blanketed osiedle, two tram lines away from my dorm. But this was part of my experience, so I embraced it.

We spent an hour together, two evenings a week, and in between she practiced. I asked her questions about her life, and her school. She tried her best to recount, in English, things that happened during the day, which opened a window for me into the life of a Polish girl. I knew it wasn’t a typical window, as she went to a private school and lived in relative luxury. But it was a window into her young world, and I appreciated that.

With her vocabulary largely self-taught, she stumbled over the words. When she didn’t understand something I said, in English or in Polish, she simply giggled. Her eyes showed genuine joy. My heart felt light too, after each session.

Even so, we weren’t making much progress. I knew it; she knew it. Her father tactfully expressed that he knew it. I wondered if he would fire me, but he said it was good that she spent time with a native speaker from America. However, it was clear he expected more. While she wasn’t a disrespectful child, I could tell she wasn’t terribly worried about her father’s wishes for her language skills. But she was thrilled to spend time with someone from the States.

That’s when it finally hit me. “What questions do you want to ask me about America?”

The barrage tumbled out of her heart, with a mixture of Polish and English. I smiled. Now, we’re getting somewhere. I asked her to spend time that week writing her questions, in Polish, in her notebook. I would answer them – in English – the following week, and we would talk about them.

Her pages were filled when I returned. Although I spoke Polish, and I understood more than I could say, it took several dictionaries and the full hour for me to understand some of her questions. I took her notebook home with me and wrote my answers in English. The next week, we had so much to talk about. In English.

Her improvement was amazing each week. One night, I walked in and she had sheet music from a song that was popular in the States. I helped her learn to speak the lyrics, and to understand (most of) what they meant. (She was 11, after all.)

At the end of the semester, her father gave me a bonus payment. I used it to buy her a gift, and we enjoyed a celebration.

The creativity that was needed in teaching her was something that would inspire me through many years as a teacher, in equally challenging situations. Do what works. Do what will stick. Make a connection. Be present. Get to know and appreciate the person you are teaching.

I will never forget that little girl, in the moonlit apartment, in the snowdrifts of a suburb of Poznan.

Do you have memories of teaching, or working through language challenges, or unexpected connections in places away from home? I’d love to hear them.

Be blessed.

The Beauty of an Ordinary Moment in Belarus

I crossed the border between Russia and Belarus at a tumultuous time. I had a lot to worry about – and to be excited about. I’m amazed at how, some 19 years later, what stands out in my memory isn’t the dramatic backdrop. It’s an ordinary moment with a student whose name I don’t remember, but whose heart I will never forget.

As a visiting university lecturer, I was based in Russia for two years. A friend had invited me to travel to her university in Belarus and give a guest lecture. I was always excited to see a new place, and I was so passionate to teach on human rights, anywhere I was invited.

I was struggling with visa issues – nothing I had done wrong, just a mix-up on paperwork. This train journey was supposed to provide a chance to get a new exit/entry stamp that would clear up all my problems. Little did I know, the tension between Russia and Belarus meant that the borders were “removed.”

While the border confusion might have inconvenienced me, the tension affected a whole nation far worse. The country’s leader canceled elections and the value of currency plummeted the day I arrived. My friend who had invited me was married to the American consul. When he met me at the train station in Minsk, he just shook his head by way of explanation, and we went to McDonald’s for a burger. He expressed sympathy over my visa situation but there was nothing he could have done.

I was to speak that evening, and again the next day, as part of a weekend conference. Meanwhile, I had a few hours with nothing to do. A student from the university in Minsk had been assigned to help with whatever I needed. She was willing to take me on any official errand or to any of the famous tourist sites in the city.

After a moment’s thought, I said with a laugh, “What I’d really like to do is buy some eye liner.” I also asked where I could find a CD of my favorite Russian pop singer.

She smiled. “I know where we can go.”

We spent the afternoon at a shopping mall, looking for makeup and CDs. This was an old-style Soviet-era shopping mall – not what probably comes to mind when you read those words. The arrival of Western items was still fairly new. But this student knew where to find the things I needed. We could barely communicate but we had so much fun. Eye makeup and music doesn’t require translation to be enjoyed together.

I’ve never forgotten that day. It stands out as one of my favorite moments living overseas. Forgotten were all the politics, border patrols, visa problems, and even the excitement of presenting my work at the conference. We were just two kids having fun at a shopping mall. An ordinary moment that brought such familiarity and peace in an otherwise tumultuous world. I am thankful for that student spending the afternoon with me.

When you travel or live abroad, these are the moments not to miss. They are the memories that will last far longer than the bigger dramas. Be fully present in those ordinary moments. Enjoy the company of the people who cross your path. Then write about those experiences, as an encouragement to others.

Have you encountered an ordinary moment in an extraordinary situation? I’d love to hear about it.

Be blessed!