Ten years ago, today…
…I packed up two suitcases (remember when you could take two checked bags on a plane for free?), said my farewells to my family and friends, put on a can-only-be-Canadian-red blazer, and flew half way around the world – literally – to spend a year living in Siberia, Russia.
Was I having a bout of insanity? Were my parents sending me to the Gulag for misbehaviour? Did the government send me to spy à la Cold War? No, nothing of the sort. At just shy of 17, I chose to go to Russia to live for a year. (How?! I hear you cry). I went on a Rotary International Youth Exchange, a program run by the Rotary organization, that sends high school aged kids from country to country on both short- and long-term exchanges.
I’ve spent the past week or so trying to decide how to write this piece. Reflections on the year? Discussion of Rotary and the program and how awesome it is? Just pictures (they’re a thousand words a piece!)? I decided, as you will soon see if you are still with me dear reader, to plagiarize myself. That is, I have taken bits and pieces out of an essay I wrote for my Grade 12 Writer’s Craft class titled, “The benefits of living a year in the middle of nowhere”. And now, without further stalin’…!
Most people know major cities, like Paris or Rome. I’d even go the length and say most have heard of Munich, Osaka, Los Angeles, or Vancouver. Now, if I were to ask you to find ‘Krasnoyarsk’ on a map, could you? (Here’s a hint: it’s in Russia). I bet even hard-core geography lovers would be in a bit of a pickle to pick up this almost million-person city in Russia. So where is Krasnoyarsk, anyway? Well, the middle of nowhere is a pretty good description.
Located in the heart of Siberia, Krasnoyarsk is nestled between the river Yenisei and the Stolby taiga nature reserve, north of where Kazakhstan meets Mongolia. A major station on the Trans-Siberian railroad, Krasnoyarsk is between Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, a gem amidst the ever-changing landscape of Siberia. How exactly do I know this? Well, [ten] years ago I was given the enormous chance of going, by way of Rotary Youth Exchange, to Krasnoyarsk to live for a year.
So there I was, on the plane going to Moscow, making my way to a place I’d never seen pictures of, never heard of before, and knew almost none of the language. Makes you wonder, why Russia then? When I was given the chance to live almost anywhere for a year, I really wanted to do something different. Everybody goes to Europe [kudos to them – Europe is awesome!]. I wanted a challenge, a place hardly anyone had gone to before, and Russia was that place. The Russian language also uses a completely different alphabet, Cyrillic, and I wanted to be able to read it and write things so no one else could read them. For example, Вы сможете это читать? Learning Russian is one of the hardest things I’ve done.
Hardly anyone I knew there could speak English, and I was forced to learn the language to be able to live normally, to take a bus, go to the store, and get schoolwork done, instead of just standing and looking like a stupid foreigner (which at the beginning I was). On the journey over, I had a most unpleasant time in the Moscow airport, one that, for a moment, made me seriously reconsider my choice of country. How can the country’s main international airport have only three people who speak any sort of English? Even getting into Kras (as I affectionately call her) was a little oppressing at first: grey streets, grey skies, grey everything greeted me, and I wondered yet again, why did I come here? Although perhaps in was the fact that it was five in the morning and I’d already been travelling for two days without sleep. Maybe.
My host family, whose daughter was going to the U.S. on exchange, was absolutely amazing. I hardly ever felt awkward with them, and my host mom (shout out Светлане <3), treated me just like her own child after the first few weeks. Usually you live with three to four families a year, but I had the luck of staying with one and I couldn’t have been happier. Before she left on her exchange, my host sister showed me all around Kras, and I fell in love with the city: the churches, the river, the architecture (albeit Soviet and dull), the Stolby – everything! I felt like I was exploring a new side not only of the world, but also of myself. What reactions would I have? What experiences would I get to try? What new culture was ready to embrace me?
The main question I got upon my return to Canada a year later was what did I actually do in Kras? When people ask me this I really don’t know what to say other than ‘I lived’. Had a family, went to school, made friends, explored, did athletics, learned Russian, not that different from any year in Canada for me. The main differences were, obviously, that I learned Russian [and can still speak it quite fluently, though it’s gotten worse – oops], I was able to travel across the whole country (from Moscow to Vladivostok, from Lake Baikal to Yakutsk), spent four days on a train, met many new people and other exchange students, jumped off a bridge, and much, much more.
Living in Russia forced me to grow up a little faster than normal. It allowed me to become fully independent and gave me freedom within rules (actually, Russia has very few rules, but you didn’t hear that from me. The rules are mainly ‘guidelines’ on how you should comport yourself). I was able to become a more open person while being true to myself through opportunities that took me out of my comfort zone on more than one occasion. For example, I used to get very nervous singing in front of people; however, when the Russians found out I could sing well they at once told me I’d sing in concerts. Again, and again, and again… Similarly, before Russia had I been asked to do a presentation, even just a school one, I would have not been able to do it. I used to get scared, shake, and become really nervous. Now people have to tell me to stop talking and I always go over my time limit! On these occasions, did I have much of a choice in what I was asked to do? Well, yes, but I was always mindful of how that would reflect on Canada, as I was a ‘little ambassador’ for our country, and for many of the people I met during my exchange I was the only foreigner they’d ever seen, let alone Canadian.
I also learned the culture of ‘the Motherland’ and became a part of it, making relationships that will last for a long time to come with people I’d have otherwise not met. The skills and new things I learned are worth much more than the money I spent to get there. By living in the ‘middle of nowhere’ I was able to get away from the stereotypical Russia and the hustle and bustle of the more industrial and touristy areas of the country and experienced the real Russia – the one you hardly ever see: falling down dachas (cottages), beautifully decorated Orthodox churches, the man on his way home from shopping in the next village over, cows blocking the road for at least ten minutes, the drunks sleeping in the stairwell almost stopping you from getting to school, squishing onto an obviously over-crowded bus to get to the island with the stadium…Siberia is real. There is no front to it all; what you see is what it really is – no tourist traps, no forgeries, and no over-zealous people trying to snag your money. I gained peace of mind from the simplicity of the Russian people and their surroundings and, being in the middle, was given many opportunities to travel with others or by myself into the vast, beauteous landscape of Siberia.
All in all, my year in Kras was worth far more than money could ever buy. It was everything I’d though and then some. I learned, cried, got mad, celebrated both Canadian and Russian holidays, immersed myself in the rich culture of the hospitable Russian people. Learned a language, made new friends, saw new things, and you know what? Europe can wait. I’d sooner return to my ‘second’ home.
I was told once that “Once you’ve been to Siberia, you can’t not return.” They were right. I’ll undoubtedly go back [indeed, I returned to Kras for New Years and Christmas of 2011/2012].
Who’d have thought the middle of nowhere could be so wonderful?
Further pictures from my exchange can be seen on Facebook, here: https://www.facebook.com/jenipher.laughton/media_set?set=a.10150619401995626.681019.528200625&type=3
Or from my return visit 5 years after, here:
Or if you just want pictures of Lenin statues…:
Russian translation (hopefully!) to follow as soon as possible :)