It’s been awhile. I made a commitment to actually keeping up with this thing, so I’m forcing myself to sit down and write. Fortunately, I have been up to quite a lot, and I realized that the last time I wrote winter had just barely crept in to my life. Now I’m writing from the heart of it, after having taken the time to smell the roses in -42, watched the snowdrifts outside my dorm finally grow taller than me, and finding myself again after losing my mind during the longest night of the year.
Point number one: Russians (at least those that live this far up) refer to the solstice as the longest night, rather than the shortest day. That quarter-life crisis inducing thought that Russia can no longer surprise me is something I’ve finally made peace with, and my method for doing so is to make note of every tiny little itsy bitsy new thing I learn. For example, I had the realization that because of the metric system, there is no standard size for a ruler here. I watched a woman at a bookstore ring up a ruler without a price sticker by taking a smaller ruler and calculating how much to charge by the centimeter. Incredible. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.
So yes, back the darkness. That.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t that difficult to get used to. In fact, it always gives you something to talk and joke about when you have nothing to say, which I truly appreciate whilst trying to make friends and seem like a normal human being. Even if it doesn’t happen at the bus stop or in the grocery store, small talk is a thing and it tortures me no matter where I go. Fortunately for arctic dwellers, the cold and the dark are always there, lurking around and inserting themselves into the conversation.
The cold, yes the cold is also a thing. We’ve had our frigid days, but fortunately when the temperature drops gradually you can adapt pretty quickly and appreciate -27 after a week of -30. Some people have asked me what exactly -40 feels like, and I usually just say “it hurts.” It does. It’s noticeably harder to breathe, your fingers always find a way to hurt worse than anything you’ve ever experienced (with or without fur/wool mittens), your nose is somehow always bleeding just a bit, you become aware of every single hair on your face if you stay outside long enough for the frost to set in on your body, and the sun that’s always perched right above the horizon and never higher starts to look blood red. But honestly the biggest thing that bothers me isn’t the fact that it’s cold, it’s the fact that Siberia gets all the attention. Um, excuse me, arctic circle? Hello? Don’t forget about us up here when you complain. We want in.
I have truly fallen in love with the winter. It teaches you to appreciate every degree, very ray of sunlight, and every warm embrace. My favorite moments are mornings (whether that’s 8am or 11am, depending on whether it’s February or December) when it snows and you step out into a world of bright white and every color has been muted to a pastel. The cold wakes you up. The only bright colors are the various fur coats and ski jackets, and the tiny white flakes dusting them make the deep reds or bright pinks look that much more saturated. But enough with the bad poetry. Anyone who’s seen snow isn’t amazed. It’s just that the snow here is perfect–dry and fluffy and endless. The winter is something that makes me comfortable even in sadness or solitude. There’s no pressure, you can just be. It teaches you to remember, to remember the warmth of the sun or the feeling of grass. To make use of every bit of warmth you can find, even if it’s just the presence of a stranger next to you on the bus.
I spent two weeks traveling around Russia for my holiday vacation. I organized the trip with the intention of crafting an experience that would remind me why I loved Russia so much, and thus I chose two cities that were once my home and two new cities that were on my list. Nearly every day I had a moment of bliss where I realized I was falling in love with Russia all over again and that my plan to revamp our relationship was working quite well. I would sit and gaze at a cathedral or a sunset or a forest and try to remember that one quote from Lermontov about nature that ends in “what a country” but never remember it fully. I started in Kazan, where I saw old friends and enjoyed the hip city that’s been growing more modern every single day.
After a few days of romantic solo walks and warm (non-solo) coffee shop conversations I made my way to Saint Petersburg, where I proceeded to hold back tears for five days as I kicked myself for not appreciating the city enough when I lived there. I made some new friends in my hostel, celebrated the New Year, drank six coffees a day in six different hip coffee shops (a consistent trend of going to places that don’t exist in good ol’ Ukhta), shopped for New Years gifts, sketched on Nevsky Prospect, and even managed to see some art. No matter where I end up living, I know that the ideal city will always be Peter, and I’ll always aggressively ask myself how, how did I actually live here once, how did I walk around this incredible place and not realize how lucky I was?!
I then traveled back up north to Arkhangelsk to visit a dear friend and experience -42 degree weather. With wind! The few days I spent there were the polar (ha) opposite of my week in Peter, but in the perfect way–I got to feel warm and toasty in an actual home, eating home-cooked food and laughing with someone I already know. No pressure. Plus, Arkhangelsk feels truly northern, and I’ve already given my heart to the North.
The last part of my trip landed me in Siberia. I ran off to Irkutsk with a fellow Fulbrighter and saw Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world and one of the 7 Wonders of Russia. 10/10, did not disappoint. What can I say? Irkutsk was also a lovely city that I would love to return to, and the combination of the peace and quiet of the lakeside and the bustling beauty of the city was a fitting finale. I definitely need to see more of Siberia, and I will. I like fur and claws and antlers and various other cold-weather animal-related art and goods enough that I just have to.
I’ll end this post with some honesty: I don’t want to go home. It’s the Super Bowl today and I woke up with a craving for Mexican food, so yeah, I’m not saying I don’t miss it. I do. I miss my friends and my slang and my culture. I miss my parents. I’m remembering everything that makes my country wonderful no matter what. This is a surreal time to be away. But, again, I don’t want to go home. There are so many things about my personality that always made me feel a strange sense of longing for places I had never been, but I wouldn’t call it wanderlust. When I came to Russia for the first time I found my superstitious, romantic nature wasn’t a joke everywhere. I can save my smiles and “I love you’s” here and it doesn’t make me cold. Of course, most of the way I feel at home here is in the little things, the little feelings that I can’t explain and wish I could. I’m terrified to leave this place not knowing when I can come back. I can’t face a life of only visiting for a few weeks from time to time, but I may have to. I’ve exhausted my study-abroad programs and scholarships and there is some part of me that wants to settle in one place for longer than 9 months.
But I think no matter what I will eventually need to accept the fact that I’ll always feel a little foreign, no matter where I go. The American friends and family who I love more than anything and who are truly my people have yet to see me in Russia and don’t understand me when I speak my second language. That alone is shocking. This side of me is half of my personality, and not only that but I have changed so much in the past few months that I think my identity isn’t split between my languages by rather caught up in a mix of the two. Perhaps the biggest problem is that I like it that way.
Sometimes I just look around and think to myself, hell, it’s a damn shame there are so many people in this world who will live their whole lives without experiencing Russia.