What my Russian Grandmother Taught Me

I chose to live with a host family during my stay in Moscow and upon my arrival, still had no idea about the composition of my host family, their interests, language skills, etc. Olga Dmitreevna, my host mother, doesn’t speak any other languages besides Russian, and I speak only poor Russian so it’s been a fun game of learning how to communicate. While the first night was frustrating, by this point we’ve figured out how to talk to one another and how to hold conversations. After a few weeks of living with her, Olga Dmitreevna has taught me a few life lessons:

  • “No Exit” or “No Entry” in the Metro stations isn’t always true

When I first arrived in Russia, I was careful to observe all laws and social etiquette. It’s painfully easy for Russians to spot foreigners, and sometimes attention can bring trouble. Almost every day, I have to take the Metro to my university. At the station closest to my university, Белорусская, I have to leave the station, cross the street, go up a flight of stairs, and then walk down the street to my university. On my first day of classes, my host mother went with me so I didn’t get lost on Metro. As I prepared myself to go through the annoying paces to get on the right side of the street, I watched as my host mother, blatantly ignoring the two feet tall sign indicating “No Entry”, walked through the entrance and took a much easier path to my university. No one attempted to stop her and as I watched, a few more people did the same thing. Since then, I’ve always followed Russians’ lead on how to navigate street and Metro signs.

  • Sour cream goes with everything.

Blini. Soup. Salad. Potatoes. Pelmeni. Bread. Cabbage. Everything. I’ve only ever used sour cream as a way to cool down spicy food, and I’m pretty sure I’ve had more sour cream in the past couple of weeks than the past five years. After I arrived in Russia, I first started putting sour cream in my food because I decided “When in Rome…” but now I’ve learned to enjoy it. As to whether that will stay true once I return to the States, I’m not entirely sure.

  • Tea is not a drink but an occasion.

Since moving in with my host mother, a cup of tea has never taken me less than thirty minutes. I’ll have a cup of tea with every meal (even on days when the temperature reaches 40 C) and sometimes another cup if I come home earlier than usual. I love to drink tea but before coming to Russia, it was always a solitary, unwinding kind of drink. With my host mother, tea is a sociable drink for sharing with others. At first it was difficult with the language barrier but as my Russian improved, so did the quality of the conversations. Even so, I’m still terrible at small talk.

  • Patience is worth it.

As mentioned before, I speak very poor Russian, and my host mother speaks only Russian. I consider her a saint because she makes an effort to have conversations with me and not only over necessary things like food and laundry situations. The first couple of days it was like pulling teeth. It wasn’t fun, there was a lot of repetition and charades, and sometimes we just gave up. Even now, after particularly difficult days of classes when my Russian has gone down the drain, she still makes an effort to ask about my day or family or how I how liked whatever museum or park I had gone to that day. Sometimes I have to break out the dictionary. Sometimes I stop declining my nouns. Sometimes I understand but have no idea how to respond. Despite all of this, she still stubbornly makes an effort, and that has made all the difference in the world.

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