After not gardening in Moscow–with the exception of a some spinach seedlings I grew and then promptly abandoned on my trip home for Christmas–I knew I had to find a KC garden. To most new friends here, I said things like “I hope I find a new garden” and then I’d smile and shrug. To boyfriend Jack and older friends I’d say “I need to find a garden.” And they’d nod and say “I know.”

I experience this thing called fear. Sometimes it manifests as anxiety. Sometimes it’s a painful combination of the two. Though I welcomed spring’s arrival–embracing the close of what was honestly the longest winter of my life (it’s quite amazing how surviving a Russian winter and not experiencing a sweltering Midwestern summer can make it seem like you didn’t have summer at all. It feels like the last 20 months have been winter)–I feared that spring would come without me having found a place to make things grow.

I became fearful and anxious that I would not find a garden. It was a troubling paradox–hurry spring! but hold off until I’m ready! Jack suggested we pray, that I ask for one. And so, even though it felt selfish, I did. I was never taught to ask for things I wanted, but instead to pray for improved health, to pray for a resolved conflict.

Multiple friends in the KC area offered to let me garden in their backyard; however, I go to the garden almost daily, and therefore, needed something close to me, in the Northland, something I could be at in five minutes.

Though there weren’t many options near me, I obtained contact information for a few. I got on the list for the most promising one at the end of February, and the woman I spoke with said she was pretty confident that they’d have space for me. She’d let me know in April. My fear subsided. Hurry spring!

When I hadn’t heard anything by the double digits of April, I called. She was direct: “We’re out of plots, and you’re way down the list. We definitely won’t have space for you.” I protested a little, but mostly, I was shocked. And hurt that she hadn’t told me in enough time to find a plot at another community garden. I will not make her the villain of this story, though I’m tempted.

I moped around a bit and then started frantically calling other places on the list. No one at the YMCA ever called back. But, when I called one of the church community gardens, I had the following conversation:

Lady: “Oh, well we’re not actually doing the garden this year…”
*Heart sinks further*
Lady: “…so you can actually have the whole space.”
Me: “Wait, really? The whole space?”
Lady: “Yeah, we’re not using it.”
Me: “Do I have to maintain the whole thing or just the area I need?”
Lady: “You can just use whatever space you want.”
*We discuss logistics like tilling and water, etc. It hits me that this makes absolutely no sense*
Me: “Wait, are you serious? You don’t know me at all. This is like really, really nice of you.”
Lady: “Well, we’re not using it so if you want to put it to good use, it’s yours. Just call the pastor and tell him that you’ve already spoken with me, and that I said it’s okay.”photo 1

I met the pastor the next week, and he showed me the space. The garden is up on a hill in the middle of a field, surrounded by a fence because deer are a problem (more on this…). The church has 40 acres, so despite being easily accessible and close to a major road, it feels secluded, set apart.

He said he was embarrassed, that no one had used it last year and so everything had grown over.  And it was; the grass had grown up and died and the fence was mostly down. He asked how much space I’d want, and I felt conflicted–excited about the possibility of having it all but recognizing my limits and also not wanting to seem greedy. With the exception of a donation for water, he said, it would be free. He said that maybe others from the congregation would want to use it, too. They could find someone who would plow it, but I’d have to figure out the tilling. I imagined what prep work I’d have to do to get it ready.

I told him I’d take it. That night I researched renting a tiller or hiring someone to till it for me. This was totally doable, totally worth it. I wouldn’t get to plant as early as I’d hoped, but I’d be going within two or three weeks.

The next morning, the pastor called at 11 am and left a message; it had been plowed and tilled. It was ready. I could start planting whenever I wanted. photo 2

 

Advertisements

looking back: paris

March 14, 2014

SONY DSCAfter my longest hiatus yet from the blog, a post.

Don’t be fooled: reverse culture shock has quite possibly been a greater transition/difficulty for me than moving to Moscow. Though I’m finally coming out of it, understanding holistically why moving back was so difficult (and not just pinpointing elements of a larger difficulty) is still foggy, not yet something I’m ready to write about.

Words to describe the last six months: transition. growth. stagnancy. mourning. joy. thankfulness.

Confused? Yeah, me too.

Reflection comes naturally for me, and I’m often painfully aware of time and its passing. Every day for the last six months, I’ve asked myself “Where was I last year at this time?” The answers are: The opera. An expat Thanksgiving feast. The outdoor swimming pool. My parents’ basement Christmas night, terrified of my January return. My school, surrounded by Russian English teachers. A cafe with Sveta. The metro with Sveta. Everywhere with Sveta. Moscow. Russia. SONY DSC

Not here.

I think about what the weather is like, what it smells like outside of my apartment building, how to get to my metro station. I think about what we ate for lunch, what kind of tea Sveta and I finally decided on, paths through the forest, my favorite type of cheese, what the people wore on the metro. I try to remember faces places sounds. Sometimes, I can’t. I search my email inbox, hoping I wrote someone the details.

SONY DSCI’ve dreaded the end of February and first half of March all winter, because when I ask “Where was I last year at this time?” the answer is, in short, “low.” Or better yet, “the lowest.”

One year ago, I suspected that something was wrong because everything was hard. I blamed Moscow. I drank coffee and took Vitamin D. I surrounded myself with people, both in real life and over Skype. I both feared and coveted time alone. Then I went to Paris–my first trip to Europe–and confirmed what I feared.

I didn’t enjoy Paris. This not only made me feel ungrateful, but it freaked me out.For the first time in my life, I couldn’t pull myself out of it; changing location and busying myself didn’t change anything. SONY DSC

Of course, I liked it: I stood in awe, took photos and savored the food. I saw everything. In fact, I saw more things than I saw in any of the other places I visited, likely an attempt to distract myself, to keep moving. I was, however, incredibly aware of being unhappy and of being there alone. I appear in few photos, but now, I avoid looking at the ones I do because it’s clear that I’m trying to like it.

I became enamored with Notre Dame, visiting every day of my weekend trip, usually at night, ignoring the crowds because it felt like mine. I didn’t feel happy there, but comfortable, calm. I took photos from every angle. On my last night, I chose a cafe across the street from it, requested a window booth, and ate creme brulee facing it.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

There were other good things. A friend from my school in Moscow set me up in an apartment with her friends. I slept on a couch in the playroom and each morning, I was awakened by three kids playing dress up in French. After I showered, the oldest would bring me a croissant and orange juice on a tray, smile because we couldn’t talk, and then exit shyly.

My friend also put me in contact with her friend’s mother, a woman in her sixties named Christine. Christine wore her blonde hair in a high bun, a white coat with fur around the collar, boots with heels, and make up. Christine was beautiful, mostly because she smiled constantly, so content that she bounced when she walked. She smiled sometimes because she couldn’t understand me, sometimes so the parking garage attendants would let her park her small black car in a spot it barely fit, but normally, it seemed like it was because she was happy and thankful. SONY DSC

I don’t remember what Christine did for work. I don’t remember what we talked about. But I do remember that I felt able to talk to her in a way I couldn’t others. I remember that she took me to the spot with the most beautiful view I saw in all of Paris. And that there, we had a hot chocolate unlike anything I’ve had before.

SONY DSC

 And so I’ve dreaded February/March,  worrying that those feelings would return. That whatever it was in Moscow, whatever it was about the middle of winter, would become a yearly thing, would become a statement I’d make when talking to strangers at parties with no explanation: “I just can’t do February/March.”

But it didn’t. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s nothing like last year. Instead, the opposite: an inexplicable, overwhelming sense of thankfulness and joy. Not thankfulness that I’m not in Moscow anymore, as that experience is the best decision I’ve ever made (at this point in my life anyway). Not that winter is over. But that I made it through that part of Moscow. And that Moscow got so much better. And that eventually, this transition back to the US will also be “a year ago.” And coupled with that, an overwhelming sense of awe that my perspective has changed so drastically in one year. I can only imagine the place I was a year ago because I’ve been there, not because I’m there anymore.

There is one Paris photo where I’m not faking it. Christine took it from her car when she drove me to the Arc de Triomphe and instructed me to run out into the center of the crosswalk to take the best photo. She showed it to me before dropping me off at the Louvre.”I love photos in motion,” she said. “And look at you in Paris. You look perfect.”

IMG_1885

Dacha

July 15, 2013

Two weeks before I moved to Moscow last August, I read a National Geographic article about dachas, Russian summer homes. Gardener that I am, I knew that living in an enormous city for a year would be difficult, especially a city in a country with such a long, dark winter. So, I vowed to get to a dacha. Later, some of my American friends who study Russian said “If you get the chance to visit a dacha, go.” They described never-ending food and vodka; long, sunny days; gardens; and a break from Moscow stuffiness.

The culture surrounding dachas fascinates me. They’ve apparently been around since Peter the Great, but they became more common in during the Soviet Period, when the government gave land to citizens. This land had strict regulations attached to it–since it was to be used for gardening, the new landowners couldn’t built anything bigger than a shed for tools and maybe a small area to sleep overnight. Now those restrictions have been dropped, and people can buy their own land and build whatever they like (within village regulations, I assume). Depending on the village and the owner, some dachas are mansions and some still look like gardening shacks.  As the NG article points out, the purpose of the dacha is now contested–for many members of older generations it’s a place to work; for some, it’s a place for the family to be together; for the younger generation, it’s a place to relax; and for the elite, it’s another way to exhibit wealth; for others, it’s a mixture.

8844_985345388142_268066505_nI have no research to back this up, but I’d guess that well over half of Moscow’s families own dachas; obviously, from the middle and upper classes. On Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, the traffic leaving the city is ridiculous and makes the normal 45 min to 2.5 hour drive to the dacha last anywhere from 3 to 6 hours; the same thing happens on Sunday evenings when people return. For many Muscovites, going to the dacha isn’t something to do a few times a summer, but every weekend; my Moscow best friend, Sveta, gets legitimately upset if she doesn’t make it to the dacha each weekend, and after visiting one, I understand why.  Some people go there for the entire summer, like my friend Anya who took her 3-month old daughter to the dacha in May and is still there.

I’ve never seen anything like dacha culture. Sure, Americans make a mass exodus for certain summer holidays and many people own lake houses, but it is nothing like this. It makes sense, though, right? If you get 3 months of enjoyable/warm weather, you won’t waste them. This is why Musocvites line park benches every night after work, why old men sunbathe in Speedos at 7 am, why people stand in the most awkward positions just to be in the sun and not the shade made by trees in the forest, as if they can get all the Vitamin D their bodies need in a 3 months. Maybe they can. SONY DSC

At the end of June, I finally made it to a dacha, that of my friends Anya and Nastya’s family. Unfortunately, Nastya and I couldn’t devote the entire weekend, so we left at 8 am on Saturday morning. The 1.5 hour drive only took 3 hours, so Nastya said that the traffic wasn’t too bad. My first surprise was that dachas are all different, not a series of wooden houses with flowers as I’d expected. Some were wooden, but some had siding and a few were even brick.

As I mentioned earlier, Anya is there this summer with her daughter Masha, her parents, and their aunt; Anya’s husband Dima commutes from Moscow every weekend by train. I’d hardly been introduced to the family before Anya asked if we wanted to pick strawberries, which we had with творог for a late breakfast.

SONY DSCThough they didn’t speak much English, Anya and Nastya’s parents were incredibly kind and hospitable to me and we talked through Anya and Nastya’s translations. They sold their old dacha and built this one about seven years ago.

Shortly after breakfast, we went in search of berries. I’d been told to pack long sleeves and pants to avoid mosquitoes. The family scoured the house for a hat, boots, and socks for me, and Nastya and Anya’s father emerged with six hats for me to choose from, but as often happens in Russia, someone else made my decision–I was given the hat with the most coverage, camouflage and with a cape. I felt like I was going into the desert. While we waited for the rest of the family, Nastya laughed “The most fun part of going to the forest is getting dressed for the forest.” SONY DSC

I learned two things in the Russian forest: First, Russia has a lot of mosquitoes. Though the hat made me look funny, I was thankful to have it. I must have reapplied bug spray 5 times and still had bites the next day. Second, berry picking is serious business. Nastya and Anya’s mom Olga was quick and thorough. We were looking for these berries that are essentially mini blueberries (we later used the dacha’s WiFi…yep, Dacha WiFi (and though I brought it along, I refused to used my tablet)…to learn that they’re actually called “bilberries”) and though we passed bushes of them, she trudged on through tall grass and fallen trees until finally, we found an area that she deemed mostly untouched. When we finished, Olga had picked three times as many berries as anyone else. We also stopped for mushrooms, mini-strawberries, and wildflowers.

SONY DSC SONY DSC

After lunch, we went to visit one of their neighbors. Her land is actually a few plots put together and she’s filled it with an enormous garden: onions, beets, corn, cabbage, sunflowers, potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, flowers, and two greenhouses with tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. We talked about her methods and the full work days she puts into the garden. She sent me off with strawberries, peppers, and cucumbers.

SONY DSC SONY DSC

The rest of the day was spent talking and resting and playing with Masha. After a walk and some cake with tea, it was time to leave. I felt tired, the same wonderful, fulfilling tired I felt as an 8-year-old at the end of an evening spent in the backyard collecting lightening bugs. They sent me away with wildflowers, bilberries, and strawberries. 5154e72ae0e211e2abce22000a1f96d4_7

As we left, Anya’s father said “Well, your dachas in America must be better,” and I replied “No, we don’t have them.” I considered adding that we should have them, but honestly, I don’t think this would work as perfectly anywhere else.

 

 

 

 

 

molly mccleery in moscow

March 31, 2013

In August 2005, Molly McCleery and I attended Truman State’s “Truman Week,” which was basically a week of “get-to-know-you” type games, club intro meetings, and lectures/presentations; it was sorta like church camp minus God.

Molly and I were both enrolled in Dr. Tornatore’s intermediate Spanish class for Truman Week, and we both giggled when he politely asked the class, “Ladies, may I remove my jacket?” Molly was cool and alternative and so over Truman Week. So was I. Allegedly, I wore a brown-gypsy-like skirt that Molly found cool. Molly had a Fall Out Boy t-shirt, so I knew she was cool.  We would both like to forget these wardrobe choices.

Since August 2005, we have taken classes together (some semesters the number of classes we chose to take together was just embarrassing), lived together, completed grad school 4 hours apart (together), and had many adventures, most of them involving road trips across America’s beautiful Midwest, tallboys, animal crackers, bands that play harmonica, and/or snow.

We had never been to Moscow, though. After 7.5 years, we can finally check that one off the list.

Molly has promised to write a guest blog entry about her visit, so I won’t say much, but I have to at least say a few things:

1. Having someone here to tour guide around made me realize that I know a lot more about Moscow than I thought. Like, I know where things are. And I know how to navigate metro stops. And I know hip restaurants/cafes/coffee shops. Even when we got “lost,” we were never really lost because I knew where we were and where we needed to go.

I also know way more Russian than I thought. I realized this when we were trying to have syrniki, coffee, and reading time near Red Square and Maxim (a forty-ish year old Russian dude who was five vodkas in) wouldn’t stop hitting on us. When he said (in Russian), that I was beautiful and then that Molly was beautiful, I knew reading time was over. And we left.

2. While we visited some of my favorite spots, having Molly here encouraged me to see some new sight-seeing things.

We went inside the Kremlin…

SONY DSC

I tried to sneak into the Kremlin Palace.

SONY DSC

There were many cathedrals and even more icons.

We also went to the Fallen Monument Park, which houses Soviet sculptures. This place is incredibly cool.

SONY DSC

USSR. SONY DSC

Molly founds this cage of Stalin heads. Only heads. SONY DSC

Out of the numerous Stalin statues, I was drawn to this one. No one seems to notice that his face is partly gone. Also, someone had recently left flowers there. Which was…well…surprising to us.

Also, because Molly was here, I had the courage to talk to the Vladimir Putin look-alike at Red Square. When he wanted to charge 1000 rubles (and then quickly 700 and then 500) for a photo with him and his fake Russian flags, I was like “Dude, you cray cray.”

3. It was so nice to just do normal, best friend things. Like making brunch and dinner together. And watching really intense, thought provoking historical dramas like Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. And having a breakdown when Russia dumped more snow on us (on March 24th) and not having to have that breakdown alone. And laughing, so much laughing. Molly was quite taken with the Russian children who can’t put their arms down because of their snowsuits.

Molly said she would only buy a matryoshka if it was the size of a thimble. Naturally, when I found a thimble-sized matryoshka, I insisted she buy it. We then began taking photos for an art installment called “Baby Matryoshka.”

I call this one, “Baby Matryoshka or Really Big Chair?”

SONY DSC

Winter Sports 2013

March 4, 2013

Cabin fever is real. Before I came back to the States for Christmas, I was dumb. Despite ice on the sidewalks and temperatures around zero (windchill around negative fifteen), I still ran outside when I didn’t go to the pool. One sunny Saturday, I ran outside for only ten minutes before my hands started stinging, despite wearing winter running gloves. By the time I got back to my apartment (another ten minutes), they were numb. I laid on top of them in my bed for an hour crying, hoping they would come back to normal in time for the party I was attending that night. They did, but they were bright red.

Now that I’ve stopped being dumb–as this post will attest to–I fully expect to avoid any lectures this opening story might incite from well meaning parents, grandparents, aunts, and Joys, Mollys or Svetlanas. Deal?

MeI’m not sporty, but I am a pretty active human being. I missed running and walking and biking and gardening and the active life Lawrence let me have. I returned to Russia in January knowing I didn’t want to almost lose my hands again. Nor did I want to break something slipping on the ice. Enter winter sports.

Ice Skating

There are a number of places to ice skate in Moscow. Two of the most popular rinks are at Red Square and in Gorky Park. I’m sure that the rink at Red Square is quaint and lovely and historical. You  might even catch Vladimir Putin there since it’s in his backyard and all. SONY DSC

But Gorky Park is awesome. At night, it is all aglow and they pump music and I’m sure that all the teenagers hang out there. It is the largest ice skating rink in Europe.

I went with some professors from NES on a Saturday. It was sunny, but cold cold cold. I didn’t know this until a few months ago, but the sunnier days are colder because the fog traps the warmth and keeps it in. I fight myself on what I want regarding this.SONY DSC

Luckily, the Russians knew it would be cold, so they stayed home. There was almost no line to get skates. Then we skated. That’s it.

Incredibly Expensive Gym Membership–World Class Gym 

Okay, this is not a winter sport. Not at all. I run on a treadmill and lift weights and I will likely start swimming soon. But, it’s a whole new cultural acclimation, mostly because it gives me access to Russian TV, Russian music videos (which are actually white Russian rappers mixed in with Jennifer Lopez and the occasional Will Smith “Men in Black”–yessssssssss!), and Russian radio (which I’ve found is mostly Rhianna and Lady Gaga).

America’s Next Top Model comes on in the mornings; in Russian of course, but fierce knows no language boundary. On weekend mornings I watch Soviet cartoons. And sometimes, the Russian version of Hidden Camera comes on. They don’t really talk, but just make exaggerated hand gestures.  They have about 10 pranks per 30 minute episode. At least two of the pranks involved the prankster having an object (cell phone, notebook, etc) stuck in their butt (I’m serious) and then asking the person being pranked if they’d seen said object. I feel like telling you of the other pranks is completely unnecessary.

And, up until today, I had made no major faux pas at this gym. Apparently I’ve been offending two twins in their mid-fifties by wearing my down coat into the locker room. Ever had a locker room full of Russian women lecture you? Good fun.

The gym is incredibly swanky and if I told you how much it cost, you would be surprised and maybe you would judge me. But, since it’s been blizzarding and hanging out around 15 degrees for the last four days, I’m quite happy.

Broomball

IMG_2770I’ve only played broomball once, so I certainly cannot speak as an authority. It’s basically hockey without skates and a ball instead of a puck. You wear padded pants, padded shorts, knee pads, and elbow pads. You wear an over-sized jersey and if you’re on team U.S.A, it says “Frozen Assets” with a dollar sign in the center. When you only fall five times throughout the course of a game, you will consider yourself incredibly lucky. You will fall on bones and muscles you didn’t know you had. Your neck might be sore from holding up your helmet.

The embassies play broomball every year. The Germans flood two of their tennis courts–and voila–ice. I met up with people outside of the US Embassy, which meant that I had to show my passport after 24 seconds of standing outside the Embassy on the sidewalk (you can’t just stand outside the US Embassy…). When we got to the German Embassy, though, they just let us right in. I didn’t even show my passport. IMG_2772

When I first started putting on my gear, the pair of shorts on load to me had “Bollinger” written inside. I took it as a sign. But they were way too big, so I traded them in.

After we finished getting dressed, we caught the last part of two of the men’s games–Canada versus Russia and Germany versus someone…France? The Canadians were not happy; neither were the Germans.

IMG_2776Then our game started. We played the Finns, who are,  not surprisingly, good at broomball, since it is running on ice and Finland is cold.  I did nothing notable, good or bad.  They kicked our butts.

I would like to go cross country skiing but I’m not sure this will happen. A few Muscovites have encouraged me to buy my own pair of skis. “They’re not expensive,” they insist. What they fail to realize is how small my small apartment really is, that buying a fan at Ашан a few weekends ago and the equipment I acquired this past weekend at broomball has almost put me over the limit of “items for which I have floorspace.” I work endlessly to not acquire things here, and somehow, despite my best efforts, I am acquiring.

So, there’s this pool. чайка. It is a heated, outdoor pool. So, when it’s 30 degrees or 15 degrees or below zero or snowing, people can swim. Let me repeat that: I can swim in the snow.Snow

My friend Sveta and I toured the pool a few weeks ago, and since Sveta speaks Russian, she asked both her questions and my questions. I asked if you could swim when it snowed or rained, and the lady responded in Russian: “Even when there is lightening. We don’t care.”

I went back two weeks ago on a Friday night and navigated my way through getting a membership using single Russian words and hand gestures.  I always forget that I don’t know my address until someone asks for it. I know that I need to learn my address; it’s the first thing a person learns in kindergarten. Luckily I had a business card with my work address. I paid. I bought a blue swim cap.

Then I had the medical exam, which is required for almost all gym-like memberships in Russia.

I told the doctor “Я немного говорю по России.” She typed my name into the computer, wrote it on a small sheet of paper, the kind on which we leave notes that aren’t meant to be saved, and sounded it out, using elongated vowels and a soft “g”: Kaara Marrii Bowlinjer. She asked questions slowly in Russian, questions I couldn’t understand. I thought I might not pass.

When she said them in English, they made little sense:

“Do you eat?”

“Yes.”

She put the stethoscope on my back and breathed heavily. I mimicked her.

“When?”

“When do I eat? In the mornings, at lunch, in the evenings.”

“Last time?”

“Oh, 3 pm,” I remembered that rule our moms tells us: wait thirty minutes after eating before going swimming.

“хорошо.”

IMG_2588We sat down again and she asked me more questions in Russian and then stared at me. I laughed, apologized, phoned a friend for a translation. The friend didn’t answer. She mentioned “три” and I thought she was reminding me again that I couldn’t swim 30 minutes after eating.

I said “да, I cannot eat and swim.”

“нет,” she replied and then wrote a date on the bottom of the receipt where she had stamped her medical approval. She read the date to me. It was three months from now. I finally nodded and said “да, да, да,” which is how I’ve come to respond if I think whatever I can’t understand isn’t all that important.  She handed me the stamped receipt and while rubbing her arms in a scrubbing motion said “Wash before pool.”

So, I can breathe. I eat. I wash before pool. I’m in good health. IMG_2542

To get into the pool, you have two options. Walk outside and hop in, which seems like a terrible idea, though lots of old men in speedos do this. Or, swim out from the locker room through this tunnel with a rubber flap that keeps the cold air out. You just swim under and there you are, swimming in lanes, staring at mounds of Russian snow outside the pool.

I strive to be invisible when out and about in Russia. I don’t want to look lost on the metro. I don’t want to look like a tourist in touristy areas.  I don’t want to be noticed by babushkas or predatory men. Normally, I succeed in this. Sometimes, though, I become pretty visible.

IMG_2579On my fifth visit to the pool, I forgot to wash off before getting into the pool. I wasn’t trying to contaminate the highly chlorinated, impossible-to-contaminate pool; I just forgot. As I stepped into the pool, a skinny, naked, sorta sunken-in looking lady yelled at me from her shower stall. I looked at her, squinted my face in confusion, and said that I only spoke a little Russian. She repeated herself. When I still didn’t understand, another woman gave me instructions in Russian and then rubbed her arms in a scrubbing motion. I remembered. I said “да да да спасибо” and washed off. Crisis averted.

Then, after swimming, I went into the sauna. The thing about чайка is that the ladies are all naked. All the time. They do everything naked. I am an awfully modest American, so I change quickly and sorta hide in my locker. Personally, I’m real proud of myself for not just hiding and changing in a bathroom stall like I did the first time I went.

So, the sauna is an especially naked place. Normally I wear my swimsuit and no one says anything, but on this particular night, the women were bossy. They spoke Russian and pointed at my bathing suit. I shook my head, I said I spoke very little Russian. And one woman looked up at me and said, not as a request but a command: “In Russian sauna, everyone undress.”

IMG_2560When my friend Irina came into the sauna, I explained to her what had happened, as if to justify my being topless. I laughed and said “I just didn’t know how to say ‘no.’ This just seemed easier.” Irina only responded with “Kara, you know how to say ‘no.'”