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