My flashbacks to my first big trip are showing up here a lot — I posted about traveling in the Soviet Union and Volgograd was my first time to travel outside the U.S. And while that may seem to cover it for some, there were so many unique things that I had the chance to experience, that I had to do one more post . A chance for me to relive some of the exciting times and to wince a bit too!
I started to do a top 10 list of things about Volgograd and couldn’t narrow it down so we get 15!
1. Friends in Volgograd TOTALLY ROCKED!
As I said in the post on what it was like to travel in the USSR, I was a bit shaken by traveling solo in Russia. So, I was a bit uncertain as I arrived in Volgograd. I had met just a few people in the country in person and they were all in Moscow. I wasn’t sure exactly how everything would work despite having coordinated via letters (remember, there wasn’t real-time online convo back then!) and a phone call or two. I truly had nothing to worry about as my friend Sergey had so many preparations made for me that it was unbelievable! He had gotten the cultural group to agree to help and that gave me translators, access to journalists, etc. Wow! They truly came through for me!
Sergey’s family did everything in their power to make sure I felt at home.
2. Journalists there were INCREDIBLE!
I had the chance to talk to a lot of journalists and they were so excited about talking with me. Their passion was right on the surface! They not only shared openly what they were doing at the newspapers they worked at, but they had lots of questions. It was exhilarating to talk to people who shared excitement about the future of communications in a global environment. So many questions in fact that one of the reporters (named Elena) invited me to dinner at her family’s home one night!
I had the chance to see the local TV station, go through the control room, etc. Since I was producing some local access in Memphis and had a lot of broadcasting classes in college, I felt right at home.
3. Roses. I had the ability to splurge on roses! Not a dozen, thirteen.
Remember, I was there while I was working my way through graduate school. My parents had three of us in that same age range. I had spent four years in college (loans, etc meant no possibility of five years) and had gotten really used to living cheaply. Splurging for me was getting a pizza with friends because we had a coupon that made each of our’s share $3! When I got to Russia & traded money, I suddenly had stacks of bills.
As we were walking around town one day, I saw roses. They looked awesome! I have always loved fresh flowers so I decided that I would buy a dozen roses for Sergey’s house, hoping his wife, mom and grandmom would enjoy them. They definitely did EXCEPT I found that buying twelve would be bad luck so I got the 13th. The photo is of Sergey’s grandmom :).
4 A drink called kvas which still gives me shivers.
One of the things I learned quickly when I met people from various countries in college was you will eat and / or some things you have never tried. And you will do it with all the polite reactions you can muster, even if it is horrible. Well, there was this drink called kvas in Russia. It is a fermented yeast sort of thing and Russians find it very refreshing. I looked at it and thought it looked like tea… or maybe tea… But the taste. I wasn’t prepared for that! NPR did a story asking whether Americans were tough enough to take kvas and I can admit I’m not! If you want to try, go to a global grocery and you can likely find a bottle if they have Russian foods & drinks. On the other hand, having heard of borscht, I was worried about it, but found it was pretty good!
5. Lack of choices in stores. Bare shelves.
There were a few times when we went past markets and there were lines of people waiting. Something had come in and everyone wanted some. There was one place where it looked like we could get a soda. The brands were there — I remember Fanta — and yet there were no soda canisters to connect to the fountain. It was unusual for me and a clear reminder of how lucky I had it at home. I kept thinking that something as simple as a 7-11 could be revolutionary.
6. Getting a manicure. Who’s next?
One day everyone had appointments, meetings, etc so I needed to spend the afternoon solo. We were going to the theater that night (check out that theater too!) so I casually asked if there was someplace I could get a manicure. You know, just relax and feel pampered. Well, that’s where I was taken. Seems I hadn’t thought too much about my lack of Russian really cause translators had been with me so much. And the salon… well, there wasn’t many who spoke English. So my friend talked to the ladies there about what was going on, helped me understand and went on her way. As a customer left, a lady motioned for me to go ahead, I said something like “thank you but I am fine” and she began to insist, pulling my hand to get me out of the chair. Then another woman didn’t want me skipping line so those two started arguing. I was fine waiting my turn. Had some music, had something to read, etc. Wow. It ended up the whole salon got engaged! I’m no longer sure whether the one trying to be hospitable or the one in a hurry won the argument, but the discussion is burned into my mind as is the fact that once I got in a chair my hand was put into near BURNING water! I couldn’t take it so my hand kept popping back out and then would be shoved back in! What a memory!
7. World War II left indelible marks on the city & its people.
There are few places in the world where people have suffered so deeply due to war. The mill is the only place left standing, much like the down in Hiroshima, Japan. To think that’s all that is left of a city where hundreds of thousands lived… Well, it leaves a mark on you too as did some of the other pieces connected to World War II.
8. Meeting people on the street.
I didn’t blend in Russia, not at all. I was so overtly American, even though I wasn’t trying to be. The clothes were totally different and even though I wasn’t trying to stand out, things like my sneakers really popped out. I had so many people smile or wave but occasionally older people would see my camera and be very uncomfortable. it was a very wide range of reactions. Friends explained that for decades the country wasn’t open to strangers and some were still suspicious. I guess they weren’t much different than some New Yorkers though!
It was another burst of full-blown American capitalism was during an afternoon where Sergey and I had been shopping. As I think about it, it may have been the same day I bought the roses… hmmm. This stands out though as there were Russian and American artists on vinyl.
And as you see from the photo, I still have them! Since I’m a huge music head, Sergey was helping me find Russian rock music when we stumbled on albums by blues great Muddy Waters and jazz legend Thelonius Monk as well as Paul McCartney’s “Back in the USSR.” I needed to introduce Sergey to Muddy Waters & Thelonius Monk. And obviously I needed a big stack as this is only a few! Yes, my luggage was heavy coming home!
As I said above, I had the chance to eat dinner at a reporter’s home. Met her family and really enjoyed it. She also interviewed me. I wasn’t sure how an article would come out or anything, but after I had been home for a month or so, there was a package delivered and it included a picture of me in a teaser box on the front page and the full back page was the conversation with me. It was so surprising to me then that eventually my mom & I got it framed. It actually is still on the wall of my office as it’s a great reminder of the kinds of connections you can make if you are willing to go outside your little part of the world. The photo at left is the article as shown in my thesis.
11. The dacha and mosquitoes. Really massive mosquitos!
I had heard of Russian dachas — homes in the countryside where people could escape the city for a bit, especially fleeing the heat of the summer. Sergey’s family had one, it was alongside lots of others and was quite modest. We actually took the ferry over I think. Remember, it was May. Lots of cucumbers were coming in from the gardens there… in fact cucumbers rate a spot on the list but that was Russia in total, not just Volgograd.
It had been a very wet spring and we were along the Volga. The mosquitoes… they were HUMONGOUS! The whelps that were popping up… were significant enough that I couldn’t possible hide them. So the next thing I knew, there was a hunt to find a treatment! I think everyone in that part of the county ended up hearing the story and lots of women came to see my arms & legs and try their special poultice. Wow. Some of the things that were put on my skin… I swear a blow torch may have been preferred to a few! At the same time, it was very touching that everyone was concerned for me. The bumps were nothing familiar to them and they were going to solve the problem.
12. Vodka and an inability to keep up with grandma (or anyone else!)
13. A banner from a communist organization.
The cultural group was in a building that used to include offices of a young communists organization and so I was there a few times. As we had talked along the way about souvenirs like the albums I bought, the idea came up that I should have something uniquely Soviet. Next thing I knew, a flag came out of a closet some where and was mine. It has been in four different states with me and is an amazing conversational piece!
14. Russian to English phrase book with things like “I need my green card.” and “Would you like to get married?”
This book is in a box in the basement and I couldn’t get my hands on it… I hate that cause I can remember how much fun we had picking out absurd phrases. A friend Kostya had bought the book and studied the more helpful phrases, but then the interesting phrases, well they entertained me so much that he gave me the book. I have got to find that pup!
Having grown up in Memphis, the river city, I love being in places that are grounded by such a clear geographic landmark — rivers, mountains, oceans, etc. It gives me a way to get my bearings no matter what. And frequently you are able to just watch the sun change over water as sunrise or sunset is so inspiring.
Which story is more or least surprising?