It is no secret now that I had a rough start to my first month in Russia volunteering through Geovisions. But despite the fact that it was nothing like what I expected, I was able to leave my homestay with some warm memories and some valuable lessons learned.
I will fondly remember:
The time I spent at the local school in Lisiy Nos. I visited the school on three occasions, observing and sometimes participating in the English classes. Olga, the English teacher, was so excited to have an American visit and proudly invited me to talk to the students about America, go over pronunciation with them and sit down over tea to practice conversational English with the oldest students. I wish I could have spent more time there.
Hanging out with Phillip. I spent more time with 11-year-old Phillip than any of the other children. I always smiled at the way he would say “good morning Kate” whenever he saw me, regardless of what time of day it was. During my last week, he took me walking down to the beach by the Gulf of Finland and through the nearby woods, sharing his lunch and picking flowers for me. The closer we got to my departure, the more he seemed to want to be around me and I can still picture him standing at the end of the driveway waving goodbye as I pulled away.
Spending the evening at Olga’s house. I spent my first Saturday evening in town at the home of Olga (the English teacher) and her husband, Oleg. Olga showed off dozens of Oleg’s paintings displayed throughout their home and shared home videos from the early 1990s. Although Oleg spoke no English, he managed to interrogate me about art and jazz and politics in Chicago and the United States. Considering I know little to nothing about art or music, it made for a simultaneously boring, yet fascinating conversation.
Sauce confusion. I laughed when teen-aged Vanya presented me with a bowl of gluten-free pasta together with a package of ketchup. I explained that we usually didn’t put ketchup on pasta, so Vanya then suggested mayonnaise, which I again politely declined. The next night the scenario repeated itself with his sister Dasha, who pointed out that the ketchup label said “tomato sauce” and that the mayonnaise label said “spaghetti sauce.” Which made me wonder who on earth is in charge of creating labels for these products in Russia?
The pepper spray incident. It wasn’t actually pepper spray, but one night toward the end of my stay, one of the kids accidentally sprayed out massive amounts of something “used to keep animals away.” I didn’t initially feel any effects, but by the time I went to bed (around midnight), I realized that my eyes were burning, my throat was itching and it was becoming difficult to breathe. Not wanting to wake anyone, I took my thick blankets and pillow and went to the other side of the house, looking for an alternative place to sleep. I settled on the landing area downstairs from the kitchen, near the makeshift sink and washing machine. I had barely fallen asleep when my host mom discovered me and insisted I come upstairs – and sleep in Sasha and Dasha’s room. With both girls. All of us in one bed.
Maverick and Chyernish. I love animals and there were plenty around the home to keep me entertained. Two in particular won my heart – Maverick, a black schnauzer, and Chyernish, a 7 month old black kitten. Maverick followed me around, yet was always wonderfully calm, just looking at me with sad eyes waiting for me to throw some leftover chicken bones his way. Chyernish lived with Natasha in the room adjoining me, but often managed to push the door open and hang out with me instead. Natasha emailed me that when she got home on the day I left, she found him just sitting on my bad, as if he was wondering where I had gone.
Beyond the memories, I took away some valuable lessons.
I went into my homestay expecting to live with a “typical Russian family.” At the same time, I didn’t even really have a picture in my mind of what that meant. Nonetheless, I was disappointed when my host family didn’t live up to that unformed expectation. By the end of my stay, though, I realized there really isn’t such a thing as a typical family anywhere. What is a typical American family? I don’t really think there is such a thing anymore. Every family is different in every country.
I also realized that no matter how hard you think you have it, someone out there has it worse. Just weeks after I complained about Russian flies and mosquitoes eating me alive, I saw a Facebook post from my friend Megan in Tanzania about having parasite eggs removed from her big toe – followed by a post about her trip to a Tanzanian hospital after slicing her finger open while cutting spinach. Suddenly, a few bug bites didn’t seem quite so bad.
I also learned that I am stronger and more resilient than I imagined I could be. And while I tend to be a bit of a pessimist (or as I like to call it, a realist), I may have a bit more of glass-half-full side than I thought, finding positives where I could and making the most of a tough situation.
Finally, I realized that every experience has value – even if it wasn’t what you expected or what you wanted, there is something to be learned from every situation.