“People like us everywhere. Really! Moscow, Peter, Kazan… but here, in Yelets, where we live and work, they don’t know us! They don’t understand real art,” Andrei yelled at me in Russian, drunk and emphatic, the red smouldering end of his cigarette coming dangerously close to my hair as he gestured his point. He was talking about the Molodyozhniy Teatr Proekt, the improv group to which my newest companions belonged. I could see the anger in his eyes as he discussed his passion, his work and all of his fears–but his drunkenness and my inability to respond appropriately led his mind to other topics in an attention-deficit sort of way. He finally landed on Spartak, the premiere Moscow soccer team, inviting me to come watch the matches with them sometime.
“I don’t really watch soccer, but I’d like to come,” I responded hesitantly in Russian, “In America, we watch football.”
“Why?” Andrei asked me incredulously but also just drunkenly.
“I don’t know,” I said, “it’s very strange because soccer is the most popular sport in the world… but not in America.” Keep it simple.
“Do you at least know some teams?”
“Well, I think I like Real Madrid–”
“Ahhhh!” Andrei and Mikhail screamed in unison, disappointed, and the conversation quickly devolved again into something I could only follow.
Back in the practice room, our drinking space for the night, after I had another drink poured for me, I was taken aback to hear a loud Russian pop song come gurgling out of some desktop speakers. Russian pop music has the interesting effect of both hurting and soothing your ears; there are many wonderful singers in Russia and some terrible beats. It turned out that I would get a taste of their improv work on the first night I spent with them. As soon as the song started, Katya, Dasha, Andrei, Mikhail, and even the director Oleg were out of their seats and quickly arranging props. I glanced at the other American in the room–the only other American in the city–for an explanation, but he looked entirely prepared for whatever charade was about to commence.
As the beginning of the song galloped into the first verse, the scene was Katya sitting in a chair, looking sullen, with Dasha lurking over her shoulder. Next, she tries to run to Andrei, but is intercepted by Dasha, whipped around like a rag doll and pulled in two different directions. The spectacle devolved as Mikhail and Oleg brought out some sort of stand, the top half of a mannequin, absurd but somehow still very real. Katya, Dasha, Mikhail, Oleg and Andrei were all characters and they knew how to respond to each other, despite having never said a word to each other before the performance began.
I was amazed, and I kept my eyes on Katya, a slender yet sturdy and cat-like girl with brown curly hair and freckles all over her face. The emotions she conveyed dripped from her face like syrup. She and Andrei might as well have been in love (it was much later that I would find out that they are, in fact, very much in love) by the way they’re acting, they could fool anyone.
And then, as the song sped toward a close, the audience–which included myself, Ben, Sasha, Masha, Igor and the other Dasha–who were given no warning, were treated to a Dirty Dancing-like lift by Andrei. I didn’t know what was happening until Katya made a desperate leap into the air. Andrei, drunk as he was, seemed to think that bending his knees might brace him more for this impact–but Andrei bent a little too low and Katya jumped a little too high, and, for a moment, all I saw was the surprise on Katya’s face. It looked as though she might jump right over Andrei, flying into a coat rack or a wall. But just as suddenly as it all began, Andrei shot up, catching Katya around the thighs and and she let her arms and body fall toward his. She looked as if she was lying down across Andrei’s back, laughing heartily and holding tightly to him as if she knew it wouldn’t have turned out any other way. Everyone else in the room shared that same look. They had known everything would be just fine.
“No, no, you don’t need your coat,” Oleg said to me, smiling, about an hour later as we walked out for another cigarette. I don’t really know how it happened, but just like that, we were all pals, and Oleg was showing me to the “office” where they got away with smoking cigarettes when it’s too cold outside.
Oleg was kind of like Uncle Buck, if Uncle Buck had a real job with real goals. Oleg is the kind of guy who drinks a little too much but never shows it, is always joking with you in a dad kind of way, and he may not have grown up entirely when he was supposed to; but even with all of that, his presence evokes nothing but kindness and kinship.
Being a foreigner sometimes (okay, always) means being bombarded with questions. Not only do natives want to know about you, but they want to know what you think about them. As I quickly found out, getting to know someone in Russia can often feel like an interrogation. Do I like Yelets? Why did I come here? What do I do? Aren’t I cold? What do I need? Above all else, Russian just love to help.
“Well,” I began hesitantly, “I can’t find any place to buy lotion.” It was the first thing I thought of that I’d been wanting for weeks.
“Shto?” Oleg asked me in a tone that sounded like sarcasm but was really just Russian for confusion.
“I can’t find lotion,’ I continued, carefully, “in the stores I’ve been in. I’ve looked everywhere.”
“You need to go to the Piterochka,” Andrei said.
“I have a friend who works in a cosmetics store; I’ll take you there!” Masha exclaimed.
“Lotion for what? Your hands?” Oleg asked, still trying to understand what I was whining about.
“Okay, okay, thank you,” I said to all of them, trying to sound as sincere as I actually felt, but I think my lack of confidence in speaking Russian broke through my voice.
Later in the taxi, Masha and I made plans to read Yesenin together and I was sure from the way this night had gone that, if I could continue to call these folks my friends, I would get by. Hopping out of the taxi, I tried to give Masha money for the ride, but both she and Igor vehemently turned me down. “No, no–Russian tradition,” she said in English, as if she wasn’t sure whether or not politeness was a thing in America. They got out of the car and said goodnight to me and I hugged them both. Though I don’t think Russians usually hug that quickly, I was just so grateful and they seemed to enjoy the gesture.
“So, we kind of need your help,” Ben said to me in English about two weeks later. We sat around the miniature table in the tiny kitchen of my small apartment, talking and drinking tea. “We would like to put a performance together before the winter comes, because the other stage in town will be taking over once the snow makes it too difficult to get over there,” he explained.
“If we could show our director that people care about the project, then we can get time on the stage,” Sasha, Ben’s girlfriend, said to me in Russian. She spoke not of Oleg, but the woman who runs the entire theater, who I supposed was not incredibly taken by their project. Sasha continued on about the foreign students–myself, two Africans and a Tajik who had become sort of a unit–and how the director could simply not say no if we showed interest. Her passion flared up as she started speaking quicker and quicker, and thankfully Ben was there to do some translation.
“Basically, what Sasha’s saying, is that we’re hosting a little work out type thing,” he paused, reading the fear on my face at the mention of physical activity. “It’s more like a warm up followed by improv exercises. You won’t even break a sweat.”
“Will I have to act?” I asked him in English.
“Probably, yes,” Ben responded.
“Will I have to speak?”
“More than likely, yes.”
“In Russian?” I asked nervously.
“Well, yes,” Ben responded, as if that should be the obvious part.
I think I started sweating when he mentioned acting, but I went full-on deep breaths and leg twitches when he mentioned speaking in Russian. When traveling or living in a foreign country, it’s easy to think that you are failing unless you are being a total Yes-Man: you have to go out and take advantage of every opportunity presented to you, or you’re not doing it right. I didn’t want Sasha to hold it against me, but how was I supposed to say yes to something that my stage fright and social anxiety would never allow? “I don’t think I can, Ben, I have horrible stage fright,” I said in a low tone.
“Oh Claire, there won’t be anyone there! It will just be the group practicing and basically goofing off,” he said happily.
“I know, I just worry…” my sentence trailed off.
“Worry?” Ben asked.
“I just get so anxious, Ben. I feel so bad, but I don’t know if I can do this. I will probably just shut down and run away crying. I feel bad Ben, I don’t want them to hold it against–”
Ben cut me off, “it’s okay, Claire. We were just asking, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to! I’m not gonna pressure you into doing something that makes you uncomfortable.” He was being honest, and for that I was grateful.
“I wish I could help in some other way,” I said.
“It’s okay, we will figure it out,” Ben responded, giving me a huge smile. Ben did some translating for Sasha, who seemed to not be upset about my anxiety.
She smiled and explained she had to leave, hugging me on her way out and telling me me, once again, that they would have to take me to Lipetsk to meet her parents, as well as get me some much warmer clothes for the upcoming winter. I didn’t tell her that it already felt like winter, compared to the Southern US where I’m used to spending my time, but I think that they already knew that.
When Sasha left, Ben stayed. We both let out a sigh of relief, because, no matter how nice it is to speak Russian, sometimes we all need a little break. We talked about Kubrick and Zvyaginstev films, our favorite Russian novels, and generally reminisced about home. Of course, I felt like nothing was anywhere near perfect, but in moments like this one I felt a solid sense of comfort in my temporary home.
The next Friday, I found myself on a stage with all of my new friends. I had no idea what I was doing. Physically, I was fine, stretching my muscles and doing fun warm up exercises. But I couldn’t squash the feeling that I was flirting with disaster, threatening to make a fool of myself.
I had done plenty to try to get out of this. I told Ben and Sasha about my anxiety, that I didn’t own any exercise clothes or shoes, even that exercise might be bad for my sometimes problematic back. But my numerous excuses and apologies in the end made me change my mind. Feeling sorry for myself and regretting my actions wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I hadn’t been pressured by my friends at all, but I almost wished, in that first moment on the stage, they had so I could blame them for my current predicament.
There were three other foreign student there with me–Jebar from Tajikistan and Fridien and his sister Tariro from Africa. They had been asked to join in the same way I had, but their responses were in no way similar to mine. They all appeared to be happy and engaged in this exercise, while I fumbled like a deer in headlights.
Dasha, the dark-haired Dasha, was leading the first part of the exercise. I couldn’t really understand most of what she said, but luckily I just had to follow her movements. Slipping around a little in the ballet flats they lended to me, I couldn’t help feeling awkward–like everyone was looking at me, and definitely laughing at me.
Suddenly Dasha stopped, and I looked to Ben who stood next to me for direction. “We’re splitting up into two groups,” he said, noticing that I had trouble understanding.
“You–with Katya,” Dasha said, waving her hand toward my half of the group. “You–with me!” waving her hand at the remainder of the actors.
“Is this the acting part?” I asked Ben quietly, in English.
“You’re gonna be fine!” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder and giving me a little shake.
“Ready?” Katya asked us once we were close, and we all nodded yes. “Good. Well, this is an improv group, so we are going to improv. I’ll put you in pairs, and you and your partner will create something for our group. Once we have seen them all and decided which is best, we will clean it up and present it to the other group.” Half of this was translated, again, thanks to Ben. Katya paired everyone up: Ben with Sasha, Fridien with Tariro, and Andrei with me. We all walked to separate parts of the stage so we could concentrate, without hearing the voices of the other actors.
“Can we not talk very much, Andrei? It will be hard for me,” I said to him almost immediately.
“Ok, ok, we don’t have to,” he said in English, then switching to Russian: “follow my actions.”
“Ok,” I responded hesitantly.
He began by taking a deep breath and walking away from me, as if to begin fresh. He paused, then walked right up to me and embraced me in a bear hug. I couldn’t shake my first memory of him, drunk and gleefully yelling questions at me, so I ran with it. I let my arms fall to my sides after the most unenthusiastic hug I’d ever given in my life and said, “You’re drunk,” in Russian. I pushed him away, turning my back to him and putting my head in my hands.
“No!” Andrei shouted back at me, following me and putting his hands on my shoulders. I turned around to face him and he stumbled, playing up the drunkenness, as if my quick movement caused him to go off-balance, and fell to his knees. I scoffed and contorted my face in a disgusted way and Andrei grabbed my hips, pressing his head into my stomach, and pretending to cry. “I’m sorry,” he cried.
“I can’t love a drunk,” I said to him, trying to push him away, finally slapping him against the head lightly as I also pretended to cry.
“Never say never,” he whimpered, a phrase that Russians and Americans have in common. “Never say never,” he repeated, holding onto me harder and kissing my belly. We were both really crying, not big tears but good, wet ones, and I almost forgot that this wasn’t real. I took Andrei’s head in my hands, first kissing the top of it and then crouching down to his level, kissing his forehead and finally touching my forehead to his.
“Again!” A shout from across the stage broke our concentration. The shout had come from Oleg, the director, who sat with the head of the theater in the audience, watching the entire exercise. Everyone else was silent, all eyes on us. Our skit had only been a few minutes, but all of our friends had taken notice and, I suppose, thought it was good enough to warrant silence. “Again!” Oleg shouted once more, and this time everyone but Andrei and myself took a seat near the wings of the stage.
I wiped my eyes and Andrei walked off stage, both of us prepared to recall the tears. When we finished the scene, though my nerves showed more the second time around, everyone cheered. Andrei smiled immediately after it was finished and gave me a big hug and a high five. I smiled, wiping away more tears and a look of bewilderment.
“I need to smoke,” Andrei said to me, “let’s go.” In that moment, only for a moment, and never again, even though I knew none of it was real, I thought I might be in love with him.
“So, Claire, do you have any plans for today?” my host contact, Galina, asked me, using a peculiar intonation (as she always does) when she said my name.
I had to think for a moment in order to understand what she meant. Celebrating a birthday is certainly different in a foreign country; it’s not so much the place, but trying to celebrate when you’re not surrounded by people who adore you is difficult. “Not yet,” I answered, trying to think quickly so I didn’t seem like an utter homebody, “I’m considering going out to eat.” It’s all I could think of. What was she expecting, anyway? But as I said it, the idea became more and more appealing.
“Okay, okay,” she responded shortly, not knowing exactly how to transition her thoughts in English. “I can give you a recommendation for a restaurant where many of my coworkers have eaten and have given it high praise.”
You and your coworkers are my mom’s age, I thought to myself, all the while nodding and thanking her for the recommendation. But then the idea was in my head, and I kept thinking about it all through my afternoon classes.
“Hey, Ben,” I spoke into the telephone in Russian, just in case he was on the street, “are you busy?”
“Hey, Claire!” he responded in English in his quintessentially Midwestern accent that at times overwhelmed me. “What’s up?”
“Not much, I just wanted to call to ask you about something,” I said in my anxious, round-about way. “Do you know of any nice restaurants around here where I could get dinner?”
“Hm, yeah, like a sit down sort of place?”
“Yeah, see, it’s my birthday and I just kinda wanted to do something–”
“It’s your birthday?” he exclaimed.
“Yes,” I said slowly, laughing.
“Hold on,” Ben responded, sounding like he was shifting the phone in his grip, or maybe multitasking, “I’ve got work soon, but Sasha and I want to help you celebrate. I will probably be home around six and I’ll call you then, okay?”
“Oh okay, yeah that sounds fine,” I said, surprised but happy to hear it.
“Sounds good! Talk to you soon!” He ended the call with a jovial tone.
Ben and Sasha had decided independently of me, but I happily agreed, that they would come to my apartment in the evening with some snacks and that we would figure out what to do from there. I was surprised, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been, when the four Chinese students from down the hall came trailing in after them to take part in the festivities. Cake was eaten, wine was drunk, and there was talk of going somewhere more festive than my kitchen. The Chinese students quietly excused themselves, not wanting to go out in the cold I suppose, and Ben, Sasha and I started donning our warm coats.
“So where should we go?” I asked them in Russian.
“There’s a place down the street called Art Cafe,” Ben started, “I think they might have a concert tonight. Wanna go there?”
“Sounds good!” I responded.
Walking into the cafe, I noticed that the place was packed, but it didn’t matter, because sitting in the corner immediately in front of the door were all our friends from the theatre group, minus Oleg. As we came in the door, they all greeted us with rowdy hellos and happy birthdays. Masha greeted me first as we got nearer to the table, standing and kissing me on the cheek.
“Claire, happy birthday!” she said sweetly. “Usually, I go home to Lipetsk on the weekends since it is so close. Igor usually comes too, but when Ben called us and told us it was your birthday, we knew we had to stay!”
I looked at Ben sideways with a big grin on my face, realizing that coming to this cafe was no accident. One by one, my acquaintances all told me happy birthday. Andrei even got up to give me a big bear hug. “Thank you all, it is a happy day,” I responded in Russian.
As we sat down, a waitress came to get us drinks. I garnered many odd looks and even a small shout when I ordered tea, to which I responded, “Just to start with!” While they all sipped cold beer, I needed to warm myself up from being outside.
“So, Claire, are you freezing yet?” Mikhail asked me with a knowing grin. It was 17 degrees Fahrenheit, which is lower than anything this Georgia girl had ever experienced.
“Yes, freezing,” I responded in the traditional Russian way by repeating back the verb, “but I’m getting used to it.”
“And what’s the weather like in America?” Andrei interjected.
“Much warmer,” I said, adding, “Perhaps ten or fifteen degrees higher than here.”
“Oooh,” Andrei said, low and slow, “cool.”
“And how do Americans celebrate their birthdays?” Dasha asked me quickly. I looked to Ben for help.
“Very similar to what you do here,” Ben responded.
“We give gifts, eat cake, and we have some traditions,” I said after him.
“Like?” Masha added.
“Uh,” I paused, unsure of how to respond. Finally, switching to English for a moment, I asked Ben, “How do you say ‘to blow out candles’?” He translated for me, a verb I can no longer remember and I added, switching back to Russian, “My family adds an extra candle. Your age plus one.”
Ben looked at me inquisitively. “Why?” he asked.
I laughed at the idea of not only explaining myself to Russians but explaining myself to the one other American. “I’m not sure. Luck, I think.”
Nodding and smiling, Masha responded, “oooh, interesting.”
“We also have a tradition,” Sasha began, smiling big, “but you’re not going to like it.” She continued, speaking quickly enough that I could barely understand her. The word ‘ears’ came up more than once and, as she finished, I looked toward Ben for an explanation.
“Don’t worry, she’s going to demonstrate,” he said to me, knowing my question before I had to ask.
Without further discussion, Sasha got up from her seat at the table and excitedly walked behind my chair. Pushing my hair behind my ears, almost like a mother would before she braids her child’s hair, she grabbed hold of the tops of my ears and gave them a good yank. Then she did it again, and as she yanked the rest of our group laughed and chanted raz, dva, tri, chetyre, pyat’ until I finally realized that she was going to yank on my ears all the way to 23, the age I had turned that day. “There,” Sasha said, once she had finished, sitting back down, across from me and next to Ben.
“That hurt,” I said dejectedly, rubbing my ears and screwing up my face bit. Everyone around the table laughed, conveying through their words of affirmation that the mild bullying is the point of such a tradition. Just then, the waitress came by to take another drink order, and while everyone else ordered beer, much to Ben’s dismay, I ordered a White Russian.
“You know, no one drinks those here,” he said in a slightly judgmental tone of voice.
“I don’t care,” I replied in English, “it’s my birthday.”
Rolling his eyes at me but cracking a short smile, he threw back the last of his Carlsberg in anticipation for the next.
“You know, they have a deal here,” Andrei said. “Five minutes before every hour, the medovukha is half off.” Medovukha, a traditional Russian liquor, tastes like honey but is as strong as a classic whiskey, not unlike an updated version of mead.
I glanced at the time on my phone: 20:45. When I looked back up, they all looked toward me, as if my birthday made me the authority on all activities. “Why not?” I asked in Russian; a phrase which, although it certainly translates well enough, was foreign enough to incite another chorus of laughter from the group.
Our conversation went on like this for quite some time, in slow and silly blurbs that I could grasp and respond to, with blips of quick chatter among the others that I tried not to take personally. After two bottles of Medovukha shared among the group, I nearly forgot that our dorms held a strict curfew until Masha mentioned to Igor that they should be leaving. I tried to pull out my wallet, but shoved it quickly back into my purse as nearly everyone but Ben shouted in disapproval. Masha glanced at me, with her chin tilted downward and her eyebrows slightly raised, as if to say that I should know better.
Once outside, we were all off in separate directions. Mikhail had called a friend and decided to stay at the bar, while many of the students had to get back to their dorms. Sasha and Ben lived in an apartment toward the other side of town, so they waited for a taxi to arrive.
“Claire, tell me, are you going to be at our performance?” Andrei asked loudly.
“When is it?” I asked him hesitantly, already predicting the likelihood of either being too busy or too cold to leave my room.
“Next month,” he said casually, as if the exact time wasn’t very important, “we can send you the date.”
“Ok, and what is the performance?” I asked.
“Chaika!” Andrei exclaimed.
“That’s Chekhov, right?” I responded.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “We are just one group performing, and the theme is the Motherland. Ben can tell you the details!”
All the students who lived in dorms walked off toward Lenin Street, while Ben and Sasha remained on the street corner.
“How do you say it in English?” I asked Ben in Russian.
“The Seagull,” he responded.
“Right,” I said, silently kicking myself for not ever having read any of Chekhov’s famous plays.
“Do you want us to walk you home?” Ben asked in English, sensing I might be a bit tired, not to mention drunk.
Before I could respond, Sasha interjected, saying that the taxi was already on its way. “I’ll be fine, it’s just up the street,” I said, knowing that Yelets was not usually a scary place to be at night, especially the main street in town.
“Bye, good night!” they both said. I returned their goodbyes and waved as I walked off. Hungrily drawing in the smoke from a Marlboro–a sweet reverie that reminded me of America–I hiccupped my way home, thinking fondly on a birthday that seemed so lackluster at the start and of all the people who had helped me celebrate it.
When my friends said they would be performing Chaika, what they meant was that they would only showcase a few scenes from the play, as part of a larger event dedicated to Russian cultural appreciation. There were also groups performing piece of Tchaikovsky, Pushkin, and Stravinsky. While I knew that this was not the kind of stage time they had been hoping for, there I was in a red velvet seat, staring up at the stage and waiting for the group to enter.
Sitting in the audience, I finally understood what they had meant about their popularity in Yelets. The group’s name was familiar in many cities, but this auditorium was not nearly as full as it should have been. I was shocked to see that none of the students I taught–even those who claimed to like literature–were there. It’s easy to stereotype every Russian as the brooding philosopher that certain nineteenth century artists made them out to be, but after awhile it becomes clear that they are just normal twenty-year-olds, too.
When Masha, Dasha, Katya and Sasha got on stage, despite the long, pleated dresses and period-appropriate heeled boots, it felt like the first time I watched them perform together in the practice room months before. Looking on from the audience, many memories of my new friends came back to me. I remembered, in spite of my anxiety about speaking Russian and making new friends, both our talks at the bar and our improv exercises at the theatre with equal delight. I remembered that first night and the silly scene many in the group had acted out for us, moving smoothly in and out of character. I watched them again, mastering an entirely different set of characters, with the older images of them lingering in my mind as I looked on. I thought of them like that in this scene, somewhere between Chekhov and Pugacheva, and thought that there must be something to this Russian soul idea after all.