We’re sitting at the kitchen table and Elena, my host mom, is making us Turkish coffee like she does most days. I’m looking at the calendar and planning my week. She recommends an event that will occur two days after I’ve departed.
“I can’t go, I’ll be gone by then,” I answer.
“Lizonka!” she exclaims, rushing over to the calendar with a spoon in hand (in my memories she seems to permanently have a spoon in her hand and be perpetually dressed in her nightgown) “You don’t leave so soon do you?” I tell her yes, that I’ve only got two weeks left.
“But I’ll miss the English lessons.” This is our joke. She often brings me pieces of paper with English phrases written down that she’s seen on the internet or heard on TV and asks me to translate them.
“And I’ll miss the Russian lessons,” I say, since everyday with her is a Russian lesson. Life here is a Russian lesson. The classroom is on the metro, at the kitchen table, in restaurants and on the streets. Every interaction is conversation practice.
“But you miss Ehllie,” she says mispronouncing my sister Allie’s name, which always makes me smile. We laugh at our own accents ever since on one of my first mornings at her apartment she spent around 10 minutes making me repeat the Russian word for ‘I love’: Люблю.
“Loobloo,” I say.
“Net, Lewblew,” she says.
“That’s not what I said? Loobloo.”
“I’ll say it right this time: loobloo.”
“Net! Net! Leezocheek: LewBlew.” She laughs and I do too, smiling at the Russian nicknames she’s christened me with.
She also calls me “levsha” sometimes (again, a joke). It started from the fact that it took me around a month to figure out how to open the second door to her apartment (apartments here have two doors for insulation). She had me practice. I’d put the key in the lock and it wouldn’t turn. She’d put the key in the lock, and it would click perfectly. “Maybe it’s because I’m left handed?”
Levsha is the word for a left-handed person, so she adds it to her ever-growing list of nicknames for me. I accept the name after she tells me that though the left is often associated with the shoulder the devil sits on, but it also means creativity and intelligence. I take this as a sort of Russian complement since I’ve grown used to the honesty with which Russians discuss every superstition and every stereotype.
Elena is a one-woman cheerleading squad when it comes to my language improvement, telling me “molodtsi” (good job) when I come home from school everyday. “What intelligence,” she says beaming at me even after I stumble my way through complex sentences and come out the other end having made not a lick of sense. She even taught me Russian tongue-twisters or скороговорка (literally translated to ‘quick speaking’). We sat at the table drinking coffee and working on rolling my r’s.
“What sound does a dog make?” she asks.
“Net! rrrrrrr,” she rolls her tongue and laughs when I try.
Our cohabitation started around a month after my arrival to Russia. We had a meet-and-greet dinner at which she served chicken, salad, and candies to my friend Phil and I, insisting we put the ketchup on the chicken. (I’ve noticed many Russians offer me ketchup and I guess it has something to do with an American stereotype? Who can be sure?) At that first dinner we talked for around two hours. It was my longest conversation with a native speaker since I began learning the language and over the course of it, my head grew heavy and tired.
“You’re using your head to much — it’s growing, it needs sleep,” she tells me some nights if we’ve been talking especially long. Since that first conversation, things have gotten easier. We figure out how to communicate ideas and concepts with gestures and circuitous explanations. When I don’t have the vocabulary, I describe a word. When she uses an unfamiliar word and I offer the translator app on my phone she says, “Подожди, подожди!” (wait, wait) then explains it herself, which always helps the words to stick in my head longer. I can tell she enjoys this too, it’s like having another kid in the house. She’s raising me up, her American levsha, speaking slowly to me, and once even chastising me for not bringing an umbrella on a rainy day. “You’ll freeze!”
She puts fruit on the table and insists I eat. “Ешь, Лизонка!” (eat leezonka). I tell her I like granola bars and the next day I come home to find some on the table. “Whatever is on the table, it’s for you to eat,” she informs me, “Возьми!” (take it!)
The kitchen is our living room, our office, our dining room, our laundry room, and our all-purpose entertainment space. It’s where I first heard the word for “unpredictable,” (непредсказуемый) when watching the news and listening to my host mother’s commentary on the president of the United States. It’s where we heard about the mall fire in Kemerovo. Where we watched the news about Syria and where I first heard the word “Russophobia” when my host mom was explaining why she thinks there are so many sanctions against Russia. It’s where I learned the difference between the words “лягушка” and “жаба” (the first means frog, the second, toad). It’s where at least once a week I hear my host mom say, “Where’s the evidence! We didn’t poison the Englishman! Why would we? How would we?” It is also where I told her some people think Putin is one of the richest people in the world. “By how? Where would he have gotten the money? He came from humble beginnings, born right here in Petersburg.”
Mainly we laugh at the TV and talk about how we don’t like news, but then turn back to the newscaster to see what’s going on. Sometimes we watch soap operas or American movies that have been poorly dubbed over with Russian. More often than not it’s the Russian MTV playing horrible 1990s and early 2000s music videos in the background.
The kitchen is a keyhole through which I can peer into what I call “Real Russia.” It’s not the palaces or the Soviet Era. Not the Hermitage or the Kremlin. It’s just my host mom talking to her son on the phone or telling me about a good Organ concert I should go to in town. It’s hearing her talk about Crimea or about immigrants from Central Asia. Watching the presidential debates and her laughing, “It’s not a debate, it’s a circus!” The teapot boiling. The laundry hanging out to dry, the wind blowing in from the open window, the sound of the Tramvai on the rails outside or kids yelling at their parents.
We live in a sleeping district at the edge of town. There are mostly apartment buildings out here. A few grocery stores, restaurants, and a perpetually busy McDonald’s. (Every time I pass it I’m reminded of the Soviet joke my professor told me, “Gorbachev sold the Soviet Union for McDonald’s and Coca-cola.”). There is a neighborhood hockey rink which, now that spring is here, has turned into a small soccer field.
When I’m out here I feel more like I’m living a normal life than spending a semester as a international student. On Nevsky Prospect, the main street in the city center, I feel like a tourist, but here, I feel like just another person living their life, and my host mom is part of what creates that feeling.
I feel home here and less embarrassed by my clumsy language. I have routine and something that makes this whole experience feel more like a reality. I remember, back at the dorm, feeling my existence in Russia was somewhat more transitory. Here, I can at times forget I’m a visitor. After a long day I think how I want to go ‘home’ and lie in ‘my bed’ (‘home’ being my host-apartment and ‘my bed’ being the pull-out couch I sleep on in Elena’s spare room).
But now the trip is coming to an end and I’m going to have to learn to say goodbye not only to this city but to a woman who has been my teacher, my flatmate, my friend, and family for the past few months. I’ll have to hope she forgives my poor written Russian on the post cards she will inevitably be receiving long after my departure.