Essay: Words to remember from Russia

In Russian village life, it's important to remember the words that are worth remembering – and forget the ones that aren't.

Kazbek Basayev/AFP/Getty Images
Rural Russia: Women gathered in the village of Kombileyevskoye on a late-November day last year.

As the billowy clouds slipped beneath the wings of the plane, the Russian countryside slipped farther away. The afternoon sun had slid off the tops of the Ural Mountains and turned the fields golden. Rivers wound their way around tufts of homes huddled together against the coming winter, while smoke floated lazily above the banya (bath house) chimneys. For a few moments, the scene below was convincingly serene – a gentle landscape dotted with villages curled up like cats napping.

Village life in Russia, in fact, is anything but idyllic or serene. The amount of work is grueling, as is the endless task of keeping everything, including yourself, clean.

Still, there are the rewards of magnificently fresh meals that put to shame their city counterparts. There is the peace of weeks without the sound, sight, or smell of traffic. There is a genuineness to life, as well as a closeness and caring for one another, that drives people back to the more civilized – as they see it – countryside.

Yet, the unequivocal custom of speaking your mind is one aspect of Russian village life I've never quite become accustomed to. For years, I winced every time words flew back and forth between family or friends. Five minutes later, I'd look again to see everyone laughing and slapping one another on the back.

Only slowly did I come to understand the Russian saying, "If you can't say what you think to a friend, then to whom?" It makes for relationships that, if not polite, are true and strong, without deception or artifice.

It was Andrei who taught me the secret of not getting hurt. It lies in remembering the words that are worth remembering – and forgetting the ones that aren't. It's no more complicated, I learned, than throwing out the husks and getting on with cooking the sweet ears of corn. After dinner, whoever comments on the discarded husks?

I had been quick to judge Andrei the first time I met him. I had long thought of him as poor, even as he continued to teach me the meaning of generosity.

He had accepted me in the village of Talitsa more than anyone else because his warmth was not due to politeness. It came from the simple assumption that someone far from home needs care. I soon became close to him and his wife, Katya.

Over the years, I've come to be treated like a villager and not a guest. I am expected to hold my own in the energetic exchanges and am trusted to remember only the words that matter. Nonetheless, when the conversation turned to America this year, I never thought I'd hear my friends voice such sentiments.

The most stinging comment made everyone pause and momentarily look down. The voice was Andrei's, but the harshness of the comment was not. Other than the stories Andrei hears on television, he knows virtually nothing about America and will probably never see it firsthand. The outburst came from a contentious political issue that had been repeated for days on the news. It was obvious that Andrei disliked what he thought America to be. If he knew the real thing, I thought, he would love it.

The awkward moment passed, although I had sadly failed to say something worth remembering.

On your last day in Russia, all your friends come for tea and to see you off properly. Everyone was talking at once.

Grandmother Zoya was asking if I remembered to pack the piroshki (jam-filled rolls) she had made that morning in case I got hungry during my journey. She then gave me a freshly ironed handkerchief.

"You can't go on a journey without a handkerchief!" Anatoly piped up.

"Next fall, we'll go mushrooming. I'll get you your own basket." Vladimir chimed in.

"Don't forget to give Auntie Buzzie our love," said someone else, echoing the unexpressed sentiments of the others. "Everyone should have such an aunt!" (She always sends them magical little presents that light up, turn into different things, or are surprising in some way.)

There was a pause as we looked at the clock. It was time to go. In the silence, Andrei said, "Come back more often." Everyone nodded.

He had found the words he wanted us all to remember.

Later, remembering them on the plane, I got out my piroshki and ate them with the juice the flight attendant had just given me. They were filled with apricots.

The flight attendant smiled. "I see you've been cared for."

"Yes," I replied, grateful not only for the piroshki but for the words Andrei had spoken so sincerely.

What grace, I thought, that we can remember the words that matter. Unlike a computer that stores and deletes words without understanding a single one, how wonderful that we can let go of the words that hurt and remember the ones that heal.

My friends and I have chosen to hold on to the best of one another, despite knowing the worst. It is a view that is neither rose-colored nor mud-stained. It is a view that lies somewhere between the idyllic vista I saw from the plane and the earthy scenes I saw around the crowded kitchen table.

It is a view that makes you in awe of the fact that we were given a whole world in which to live.

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