Wednesday 19 July 2017

My parents sent me to Russia alone for a month, aged 13

Communism had fallen, and her host could offer her little food and no hot water in their freezing flat, and there were strange noises coming through the walls too, writes the author of 'The Party', Elizabeth Day in the Guardian:  

When I was 13, my parents sent me to live in Russia for a month. It’s only relatively recently that I’ve realised how odd that sentence sounds. Now, when I tell friends that I went to live at the top of a Soviet-era tower block with no running hot water before I’d even hit puberty, they tend to fall silent and look a bit shocked. But for years, I just thought it was a fairly standard example of how brilliantly bonkers my family is.

My parents have always been adventurous. When I was four and my sister was eight, we moved from Surrey to Northern Ireland, where my father got a job as a surgeon. It was 1982 and the Troubles were still on. Our school runs were punctuated by army checkpoints manned by soldiers with machine guns.

My parents were keen that we learned about the world beyond our front door. My Swiss-born mother raised us to speak French, and my father read us stories from Russian literature at bedtime.

So when I went to secondary school in Belfast and Russian was offered as a subject, I didn’t hesitate. I was taught the rudiments of the Cyrillic alphabet by a man with a russet-coloured beard, who looked reassuringly like Leo Tolstoy. Some time later, my sister – who was at boarding school in England – also decided to learn Russian, and a teacher from a nearby boys’ school was procured to give her lessons.

I never quite fitted into my Belfast grammar school. I had been put forward a year, so I was young, nerdy and spoke with a posh English accent. I dressed badly, too, mostly in corduroy trousers accessorised with a neon-orange backpack. I didn’t have a happy time and left halfway through my third year. It was decided that when I started my new school, I would redo the year and catch up with myself.

I thought that I would have six blissful months to mosey around at home, lying in late and watching the lunchtime edition of Neighbours. My parents had other ideas.

My sister’s Russian teacher was organising a school exchange to Novgorod, and was persuaded to take me along, too. All the other students (with the exception of my sister) would be 17-year-old boys. I would stay on for two weeks on my own after they had all returned home.

We went in April 1992. Eight months earlier, a failed coup had triggered the end of Communist rule in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned as president in December. By the time I arrived on a wobbly Aeroflot flight, Boris Yeltsin was the most powerful man in the country. I knew about Yeltsin from the television footage of him delivering a rousing speech while standing on top of a tank. It wasn’t the most stable political atmosphere in which to launch an unsuspecting 13-year-old, and I had no idea what to expect.

It was dark when I was finally disgorged from the airport coach. My suitcase was unloaded on to the pavement and I said goodbye to my sister, trying my best to be cheerful despite my nerves. When I looked up, I saw that the light of the moon was blotted out by several high-rise tower blocks. I was met by a young woman with dyed blond hair, who took me to one of the towers and led me up several flights of stairs to the top floor.

Here, I was introduced to the young woman’s mother, Vera, who was to be my host. She also had dyed blond hair and a heavily made-up face. When she opened her mouth to smile, I could see the wink of gold fillings.

I was shown around the apartment, which consisted of one bathroom, two bedrooms, a sitting room and a narrow kitchen. The only word of Russian that came to mind was vkusno which I thought meant “lovely”. With every room I was shown, I repeated “vkusno” and nodded appreciatively. The two women laughed. It was only later that I found out vkusno means “delicious”.

 Elizabeth Day: ‘I’m not sure I would send a 13-year-old of mine on a similar excursion.’ 
After the initial introductions, I remember feeling incredibly anxious. I had almost no idea what anyone was saying and I went to bed with a lump in my throat. Sleep, at least, was reassuringly familiar. When I woke the following morning, and every morning after that, I had a few seconds of imagining I was at home, only to remember with a shudder that I was far away from everything I knew.

The days fell into a kind of routine. It became clear that Vera had very little and, although she was being paid for hosting me, and I had come armed with presents, food was scarce. Breakfast was porridge and a cup of black tea into which we put spoonfuls of jam. Then I would go to school, where I had a brief period of being reunited with my sister in the playground, before being separated into our different classes.

A lovely girl called Janna befriended me and took to carrying a pocket Russian-English dictionary around with her so that we could communicate. It was Janna who introduced me to the joys of Russian ice-cream (genuinely the best I’ve ever tasted). Later, I went to stay with her family for a week.

But most of my memories of that time are of food, or the lack of it. At school, we were served “fruit juice”, which was radioactive green and tasted like licking the back of an envelope. Back at Vera’s we would have bowls of gruel with unidentified bones floating in the middle. For a treat, Vera would open a tin of condensed milk and we would spoon dollops of it into our mouths.

I became aware Vera had special night-time guests whom she introduced as her "cousins"
Everything was different from home. There was no hot water in Vera’s apartment and I had to visit a neighbour on the ground floor for the one bath I had during my time there. There were hardly any cars on the streets, and the ones I did see were all Skodas. There was an omnipresent smell of sewage: ferric and sharp. In museums, you had to wear slippers made out of carpet so you didn’t mark the wooden floors. It was freezing cold and snowing and I understood why so many Russians wore fur hats. At school, there was a thriving black market exchange in Soviet-era badges – hammers and sickles; clenched fists and silhouettes of Lenin all picked out in colourful enamel – and I started a pretty impressive collection.

During the second week of my stay, I became aware that Vera had special night-time guests whom she introduced as her “cousins”. They were always men and every time one of them stayed over, I could hear the sounds of them having sex on the other side of the wafer-thin wall. At the time, I didn’t really understand what was going on but I think now she must have been making money in one of the only ways available to her.

I don’t want to give the impression that it was all miserable, because it wasn’t. I spent the last week in St Petersburg with a delightful older couple who took me shopping and had a supply of fresh apples from their countryside dacha. The kindness shown to me by people who didn’t have much was extremely affecting. When I left, I gave this couple a bunch of flowers with all my remaining cash taped into the stems.

This was an era before email or mobile phones, so I had no contact with my parents other than by letter. My mother used to send me cassette recordings of The Archers so that I wouldn’t feel too homesick. By the time I got back home, I spoke Russian fluently.

Still, it was a challenging month. I don’t yet have children of my own, but I’m not sure I would send a 13-year-old of mine on a similar excursion. I asked my parents recently whether they felt worried about it or if, looking back, they would do the same again.

My mother said the experience gave me a sense of self-sufficiency and empathy for how other people lived. This is true. My time in Russia introduced me to different viewpoints and ways of life that broadened my horizons and made me aware of how privileged I was.

My father said he was confident in my ability to make friends and get on with things: “Adventures do by definition involve risk, but not having an adventure means missing out on life, a far greater risk.”

I think they are both right. I’m glad I went to Russia when I was 13. But I’m also quite glad I don’t have to do it all again.

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