The battle to learn Russian is tedious and at times mind-numbingly complicated. At one point you may think you understand what is going on. You may be able to name all the items in your house, grocery store, and maybe your town. You may be superb at grammar and you can tell whether you need to put this sentence in genitive case or into accusative, however that all changes when you realize the rule that everything comes with an exception. This rule also applies to Russian culture and in particular a 98 year old woman sitting on a bench.
It was a sweltering Friday evening and I was coming back from the gym. I was hot, sweaty, and most of all thirsty because I left my water at the dorm. I was running down a dirt path to get back to the dorm when I saw a little old lady gesturing for me to come to her. I was apprehensive at first but I thought nothing could happen if I just talk to her. She was maybe one hundred pounds soaking with very fine white hair and a dress that hung off her body with the same careless freedom as her skin. Hey eyes were a sharp blue and porcelain white skin rivaled that of freshly fallen snow. She was missing most of her teeth but she managed to tell me that she was trying to get to the store and wanted to go buy groceries. The problem was she was having a hard time a hard time walking because of her back. I agreed to help escort her to the grocery store and bring her groceries back to her apartment (which she had said was on a nearby street). We started walking but with the combination of her age and her aching back the journey of only about 200 meter became the an hour long escapade that involved multiple stops to rest and the occasional loss of balance.
She would not talk while we moved because much the trip strained her back. However when we sat down it became clear she liked to talk. It became clear that this was no longer a good deed for an old lady but was a challenge on my listening and speaking skills. She began to ask me about my family and my age and I replied as best I could without sounding like a complete idiot. She laughed about the fact that I was 20 and she was now 98. She told me about her life in Russia when she was my age. She went into great detail about her family and all of her sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and friends. Then she told me about their jobs, their families, where they lived, and how they died. Now if you are a Russian student your understand that listening to Russian for just fifteen minutes straight with intricate vocabulary and complex structure can be difficult. Add the fact that the speaker has barely any teeth and the voice of a mouse then you are in for one hell of a Russian lesson. What I was astonished by was how open she was about her problems, her life, and pretty much everything. She went so far as to spare no expense at telling me her views on Russian politics, life in the soviet union, and her opinion on American politics. After the cavalcade of information and 45 minutes of stopping and starting we finally made it into the store. I grabbed a basket and asked her what she needed. She led me to the beer and liquor and told me to grab bottle upon bottle of beer and vodka till we had filled the whole basket with booze. She smiled and proceeded to buy all the alcohol.
Confused and too far into the thick of this situation I go from good Samaritan to alcohol pack mule. What’s better is she takes a swig from her newly purchased vodka and tells me we are going back to her apartment. With that swig in her she gains a newfound pep in her step that propels us to walk 15 minutes to reach her apartment. The whole way back I pretend to listen to more of her stories as we sit down, but inside my head I count each bottle of booze as a step stone closer to hell. Our epic journey ends at her apartment where she takes the bag carry the obscene amount of alcohol. We part ways and she thanks me the only way an elderly Russian woman knows- a drink and her heartfelt thanks. While I was still rather confused and now attained a newfound respect for the Russian alcohol tolerance I leave the apartment complex.
As I leave I spot two elderly women sitting on a bench who had been watching this whole escapade. They gesture me to talk to them. Now you would think that I would have learned better than to interact with more old Russian women, but of course I guess learning Russian makes you into a sadist. So I walk up to them and they complicate me on being a good person but confirm my suspicions that I was enabling a 98 year old alcoholic. While they laughed at my naiveté I reasoned that if she was 98 years old then I guess she must be doing something right. I ran back home that day thinking about Russian culture and how I may never understand everything. And while there are always a stereotypical Russians they surprise you when you learn about how open they are. They may seem reserved and cold but inside they are as open as a book. So maybe you want to avoid interacting with every person while abroad but as always try to be engaging with others who speak the language you are learning. Best case scenario may learn something new about the language and the culture. Worst case scenario you enable a 98 year old woman to drink and get laughed at by a couple of elderly women.