Today, a former student, one of my Russia Travelers (kids I took to Russia 10 years ago) and I met together as colleagues in the same middle school. She, working with kids; I, working with teachers. We got to talking about our trip together years ago, and I told her I was working on another essay about those weeks we spent together so very far from home. I spent many hours, during those years of the exchange, preparing the kids for those trips. We talked about cultural adjustments they’d have to make…about differences in values…about similarities in matters of the heart. My students had no idea that their teacher was learning to cross cultures, too…
When I traveled in Russia, the loss of independence was the hardest adjustment I had to make.
As the coordinator of an exchange program, I expected to travel about on my own to the school, to the market, to the restaurants my students frequented, and to the parks where they played. After a few days of riding the bus with Irina, the host teacher, I was ready to travel alone.
But Irina was not convinced.
The trick to riding the bus in Russia is to push your way on like everyone else. In a crowded bus, your body is not your own, and personal space is only in your mind. You have to accept intimate contact with strangers. Courtesy demands that you remain silent or at least quiet in your conversation if you are with someone else. You have to be wary of pickpockets (I was told) and conscious of older people who deserve the seats. That sometimes means hanging on to overhead bars, or in really crowded situations, allowing yourself to be supported by the individuals packed in around you. You hang onto nothing in these situations and grab for the bar when the bus stops so you won’t be swept away by those who are exiting.
The conductor, usually a matron, pushes through the crowd asking to see passes and selling tickets to those without them. She makes eye contact with each individual, gives a brief nod when you hold up your pass, and for those who don’t have a pass, she somehow accepts money and even makes change as the bus lurches along. She never forgets a face, so there’s no danger of her asking twice to see your pass or overcharging you for your ride—but she’s ever on the alert for freeloaders.
Irina could see I knew the drill, but she still wouldn’t let me ride alone. “I can’t let you do that,” was all she would say.
Then one day I needed to meet my students at an hour that was inconvenient for her; she was forced to let me go.
I received strict instructions: Bus #17 from her stop straight to Lenin Square.
Bus #17 came. I boarded a nearly empty vehicle and took a seat on the right so I’d be sure to see the stops. At first, everything was normal. Then the bus pulled into a parking lot I’d never seen before, and everyone else got off. I sat there until the conductor gestured that I, too, had to leave.
I won’t say I wasn’t anxious. I realized that even if I asked for help, people wouldn’t understand me—and I wouldn’t understand them. So for just a minute, I considered that Irina might be right.
Then I noticed that the people on my bus had moved to a spot at the front of the lot and were standing there, waiting. The conductor and the driver had gone into a building that looked like a shed. Other buses entered the lot; the same thing happened.
It was a shift change! Sure enough, another #17 bus came along, and I climbed on. The bus resumed the usual route, and I met with my students, as planned.
As a matter of pride, I didn’t tell Irina about this incident. Besides, I was afraid that if I revealed even a moment of anxiety, I’d never be on my own again.
By the second year of the exchange, the Russian teachers with whom I stayed had accepted the fact that I could and would ride the bus alone.
One day I met Irina for an afternoon of shopping. At the conclusion of our time together, she put me on Bus #1 to “Kristy,” the area at the edge of town where I was living. I had been told to take Bus #4, but Irina assured me that #1 went to Kristy, too—she used to live there herself. We parted, and I rode Bus #1 down Octobrisky Street toward the bridge I knew the bus would cross on its way out of town.
Just before the bridge, the bus unexpectedly turned. I noticed the deviation immediately and, with a sinking feeling, watched the buildings go by. A few blocks later, the bus stopped at the railroad station and everyone got off.
I approached the conductor. “Kristy?”
She replied in sentences I didn’t understand, wrote #4 on a piece of paper, and gestured toward the corner where #1 had unexpectedly turned.
My moment of panic was short-lived. I would walk to that corner, catch the right bus, and continue my journey.
Just then, a taxi pulled up and I heard a familiar voice call my name.
It was Irina. She had read a sign on the side of the bus as it pulled away that indicated the route had changed. Concerned that I would be frightened and not know what to do, she had found a taxi and pursued me to the railroad station. That is when I understood at last the depth of her concern for me. I surrendered my pride, climbed into the taxi, and we laughed together all the way to the corner.
I learned later that the name of that corner bus stop is “Friendship.” Fitting, because that is the place where I gave up my obstinate insistence upon independence—truly an American trait—and understood the motive behind her guardianship. That was the moment real friendship began.