Reprinted from 24-8-11 and my first blog.
Coming into Russia, one feels the overwhelming smell of pickled fish, cigarettes, and sweat. The passport control officer sizes you down without as much as a “Have a nice day! (insert smile here)” and is obviously judging me because I’ve only been to Russia once last year and I have an American passport. When I ask a woman where the toilets are, she can tell that I’m foreign and just points to the left. I’ve already been to her left and found no bathrooms.
And then I think to myself, I still have six hours until I reach my grandma.
I fly to Ufa for two hours on a charter flight, squeezed in between a man who is sweltering unto my arm and a crying baby. The seats are cramped and I hear that the weather has been in record highs for the last three weeks. By the time it reaches noon, the town is a toasty ninety five. I don’t think it ever gets lower than ninety. And I am coming into a town with no air conditioning but also no hot water. So I guess that evens things out.
When my grandma meets me, within the first two minutes of our meeting, she looks at me and tells me that I’ve gained weight since last year. She goes on to comment on my figure (good) and the size of my legs (bad) and my red eyes that haven’t slept for two days (really bad). After the two hour ride home in an unairconditioned taxi that smells like petrol and cigarettes (which as I think about it now is not the safest combination), I am in Sterlitamak – a city of 200,000 where about half of the population is related to me. My grandma brings me through the gate to show me to her husband, and makes another remark about my weight. He nods in agreement. She reassurs me that I’m not fat at all – just fatter than last year. In the next ten minutes, my aunt and uncle swing by unannounced – as is by family custom. She sizes me up and nods in agreement with my grandmother who is spreading word of my freshman 15.
But then my grandma hugs me and I finally begin to take in the smells of her kitchen, the bookshelves straight out of the 80s, and the patterned array of rugs on the wooden floor. My grandma offers me tea with homemade raspberry lemon jam. I resolve to go on a crash diet as soon as I get home.
Maybe Russia isn’t so bad after all.