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May 2020
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My Best Russian Lessons

In 2016, I was nervous. As a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, we had the opportunity to give presentations about our experiences in Russia and, for me specifically, experiences in Smolensk where I studied Russian language.  By that time, I had many experiences to pull from. I had played in a Russian men’s basketball league and thought about the differences between American and Russian play styles. I was a teacher, and the university environment I was in was much different from my alma mater, William & Mary (go Tribe!). I was also extremely fascinated by the cultural importance of a “hello” that was valued by my close Russian peers. Despite all of these interesting topics, one group of women made much more of an impression on me than anything else – the вахтеры of our dorm at Smolensk State University.

At William & Mary, our dorm security was managed by a card swipe. The first day I entered the dorm at Smolensk State University, however, I was shocked to hear a strong voice with extreme confidence – “Пропуск покажи!” I was startled and tried to explain that I was the new American visiting student and that I hadn’t received my university card yet. Despite my best efforts to explain my circumstances in Russian, the security remained unconvinced – no pass, no entry. It was a rough start to our relationship, but over a year of time this woman, Галина Васильевна, and three other women would show me the sincerest kindness and help me understand what people-to-people diplomacy truly meant.  

It’s been 5 years since I was in Russia, yet the вахтеры (Галина Васильевна, Людмила Владимирова, Людмила Павловна и [по ее словам] тетя Надя) taught me some invaluable lessons that never seem to leave me. These four women in Smolensk shaped my life, and I always feel honored to write about the lessons they taught me. So, here they are.

The little things matter.

One day I noticed that Людмила Владимирова’s dishes were dirty after dinner. Since I was doing my dishes and had a soapy sponge, I did her dishes, too. About 15 minutes after finishing, she came to my room to ask me if I washed her dishes. After saying yes, I was praised to no end. It was a small thing, but it seemed like it changed her world.

That night she mentioned to me that my cooking skills were sub-par (I couldn’t agree more). She decided to clear her weekend plans to show me how to make борщ from scratch. It’s a simple recipe, yet every time I make it, it reminds me that small exchanges of kindness and intention can make momentous changes in someone’s life.

Always ask what something means.

When I first started learning Russian, I tended to remain quiet when I didn’t understand something. I found, however, that it was impossible sometimes to understand the meaning of a вахтер’s story without asking questions about what something meant.  They taught me to never fear embarrassment for the sake of true understanding and learning. I might be quick to stop a native Russian speaker dead in their tracks so they can explain a word, but I’ve found that most of the time, they feel great about helping me deciphering the meaning of a new word, especially when they see someone is invested in learning the intricacies of their language.

Treat others how you want to be treated.

These women, through their human good will and actions, have encouraged me to reciprocate good will to those around me. I will never forget the time my shower doors exploded in my dorm. I don’t want to get into too much detail, but essentially I learned that my glass doors were not necessarily heat resistant. One day after a shower, I went to open the doors, and they literally exploded from the hot/cold effect.  The sound was shattering. Soaking went with some cuts on my arms, I went to the dormitory director to ask them what I should do. They said, “Well, clean it up and then take a shower with half the door.” Having heard this, Людмила Павловна, approached me and said, “Everything is going to be fine. I’ll help you.” In a matter of minutes, she came back with a bucket and broom and cleaned all the glass up and helped me throw away all the broken parts of the door. That day I stayed many hours after class to help my students at our English conversation and book club. It was only right to treat others how Людмила had treated me.

When I first decided to learn Russian, I had no idea of where it would lead me. Some people may have an idea. They might study a language to read a text in its original script, to translate legal documents, or just because the alphabet looks interesting. The one inevitable path that learning a language will lead you down, however, is to foster new relationships and explore new cultures. I didn’t plan for it, but learning Russian connected me to four women that shaped my character, and learning any language will do the same for anyone if he or she embraces it.

By Daniel Falloon, the founder of https://botz-coffee.com/