For reasons I do not completely understand, I have always been drawn to Russia. After hearing my father’s stories of his travels to this foreign, faraway place and admiring from afar his wondrously painted Matryoshka dolls, I was hooked. I remember my utter delight as he gifted me my favorite, a doll depicting a princely fairytale. I gave it a place of honor on my bookshelf, and her amiable, motherly smile would be one of the last things I’d see before falling asleep, a constant reminder of the distant place called Mother Russia and my desire to be there. Furthermore, Russian’s beautiful alphabet enchanted my mind, and I always hoped that one day I would be able to decipher those mysterious characters.
Fast forward and I was honored to be accepted and take part in the NSLI-Y program. Some of my favorite memories are from my unforgettable time with my host family. I remember our awkward first dinner together when my бабшка (grandmother) piled my plate high with food and my entire family asked me questions about my life in America. While my responses at first left much to be desired, I gained confidence and familiarity with the language as I practiced more and more.
On my first night, my host mom came to my room with hundreds of baby photos and proudly explained each. After peering over them, exploring through these photos what growing up in Russia resembles, I was happy to be able to show her the scrapbook I brought as a gift of my life in America. The next night my host father revealed a book filled with old Soviet pins and coins he collected, which we examined together. To show my interest, I asked questions (in broken Russian) about the pins and he was always happy to explain. Later he would also excitedly show me all the paper models he had built.
My favorite thing we did together was our visits to the сад (garden). I had never really worked in a garden before, and I loved picking these strange, delicious berries and eating them right off the bush. As we gathered berries, I conversed with my host siblings and asked questions about Russian life. Here, amongst the trees at twilight, I was especially happy and comfortable speaking Russian.
I will always remember our last night when we went to the train station together. All of the students, host families, and our wonderful teachers were there in tears to say goodbye. As we waited for the boarding time, my host mother hugged me and stroked my hair saying “всё хорошо, всё хорошо”, or in English, “all is well.” Once we boarded, we plastered ourselves to the train windows and waved goodbye to our new friends and family. As the train began to leave, my sister and other siblings chased the train for as long as they could waving goodbye.
The only thing I allowed myself to expect about my program was a level of Russian proficiency; however, my hopes of becoming part of a family, making lifelong friends, and having a second home have been fulfilled. Now, whenever someone brings up Russia, all heads turn to me and expectantly wait for my reaction. I try to give my opinion as truthfully as possible, which can result in a chorus of rebuke. This is when I gently remind them that Russia is not an ominous geographical entity, but rather a very large, complex country filled with people who simply want to live in peace and happiness; a people who welcomed me and twenty one other Americans into their homes, schools, and cities with kindness. I remind them of the sense of “us” I felt in Russia.
Julia was a participant in the 2016 NSLI-Y Russia Summer Program.