There are not many Catholics in Russia. And yet, as fortune would have it, the only Catholic church in Perm happens to be located a block away from my university. I have been attending mass there since my arrival, and I like the place, but I was beginning to feel awkward about not having introduced myself to the priest. The thing is, in a big church, one new face isn’t all that noticeable. But there are not many Catholics in Russia, and, as this church is more the size of a chapel, there are only about a hundred people there on a Sunday. Also, I’d already had some inostrannii times which needed explaining, and there is something about priests generally which makes me feel like I need to explain myself to them. So I really wanted to introduce myself to the priest, but I’d never had the opportunity, and I wasn’t sure what to do.
The opportunity came in the form of a pushy nun. Or maybe it would be fair to say “a pushy babushka”, rather than attribute the pushiness to something nun-ish about her. Or maybe it would even be fairer to say “a pushy Russian”, as that seems to be one of the national character traits. I had taken to sitting in the pew for a little after mass, just to see if someone would talk to me, only everyone always seemed too happy talking to each other. But a week or so ago, just as I was getting ready to leave, this little nun with someone else’s baby in her arms turns around to me and starts asking me if I know how to get to the new building.
Now, when you’re in a foreign country, even if you kind of speak the language, when people start talking to you like they assume you understand, it becomes urgent to communicate to them right away that they’re not talking with a native speaker. So even though my Russian’s improved these past few weeks, my first instinct is to say “I’m sorry, my Russian is very bad.” This isn’t to try to get them to speak with you in English, although that is sometimes the result. It is instead to get them to speak more slowly and clearly. Maybe even with hand gestures. (When the circumstances are reversed, the goal is just the opposite: I know I have succeeded when I can order coffee, or get through the checkout aisle at the grocery store, without anyone realizing I’m not Russian.) So this Russian nun with someone else’s baby starts asking me questions, and I say to her “Извитите, но я гаварию ро–Рускии толька чуть–чуть.” And the nun grabs this other lady, who grabs her daughter (who speaks a little English), and I find myself being invited along to this other building for some sort of holiday celebration.
To put this in context: I was out the night before at a concert, and had then crashed for the night at a friend’s house. At this point I am still wearing the same clothes as the night before, which are presentable but not my usual Sunday best. Also, I haven’t eaten breakfast, and am desperately hoping this next-door celebration includes food. Oddly, however, in spite of all this, I was feeling pretty comfortable with the situation, and didn’t feel like my appearance was too far out of the norm, so I went along with everything.
It turns out that the celebration had something to do with St. Nicolas. The priest, Fr. Dmitri, got up and said a few words, and was asking the younger kids questions like it was Sunday school. Then one of the parishioners came in dressed like Santa, along with a girl in an angel costume, and they started calling out names of the little kids. The kids stood up and were asked some sort of question like “what was the name of Abraham’s wife?” and then given a present. Some of the little kids were pretty adorable. There are not many things cuter than an audacious 3-year-old girl basking in attention as she recites the Our Father.
After this, folks brought out open-faced sandwiches and cookies. Julia, the lady who’d ushered me in, offered me some tea, and folks began socializing. At this point, Julia, her daughter, and I had stumbled through a half-English, half-Russian conversation about where I was from, where I was studying, and what my plans were for Christmas, with bonus questions about if I as on my own, and if I had any friends. As I was standing at the table, wondering why the Russian obsession with mushrooms extended to little biscuit sticks with chocolate caps (resembling—but thankfully tasting nothing like—mushrooms), a new person started talking to me in English.
This new person was black. There’s not really a PC way to say this in Russia, if you don’t know their country of origin (it took me a while to realize that black people in Britain are not “African Americans”.) Besides which, Russia is not a very PC country. It is hard to convince folks that, in spite of what they may have gleaned from Pulp Fiction, “nigger” is absolutely verboten. When my Edinburgh coursemates mentioned an American would be joining them, one of the Russians asked “white or black?” (He was apparently really eager to meet a black American.) Another example: at the concert the night before, I was introduced to a fellow named Evgeny who happened to be Jewish. The word for “Jew” in Russian is “evrei”, so his friends punned his named as “Evreny”. Imagine if you had a Jewish friend named “Jude”, and you decided to just call him “Jew” all the time. My guess is that wouldn’t really go down all that well. Although, while I’m on the topic: we went on a tour of a lot of the Russian holy places the other week, including the synagogue. It was located above a bank. (Face palm.) There is also a brand of vodka called “Jewish Standard.” (To be fair, the label has quite a nice explanation about how it’s meant to promote good times and fellowship. Also, I have heard it’s pretty good vodka.)
Anyways, it turns out my new friend is from Nigeria. We chat, and he gives me some encouraging advice on surviving in Perm. At this point, I notice Julia is talking to Fr. Dmitri, and as I am feeling like it’s about time I head home, I decide to say goodbye to her and hopefully use the opportunity to introduce myself to the priest as well. So I say goodbye to my Nigerian friend… Andrew? And catch Julia’s attention. “Ah, Laura,” she says, “are you leaving?” “Yes,” I say, “but it was good meeting you.” Now Fr. Dmitri turns to me: “Laura, where are you from?” he says (in Russian). “I’m from America,” I say (in Russian.) “America?” Fr. Dmitri says (in Russian.) “By your face, I thought you were Polish.”
Fr. Dmitri is very nice. He has obviously recognized me from earlier, and asks me some friendly questions about how long I plan to be in Perm. Then he introduces me to Fr. Konstantin, who is also very nice. (Julia breaks in at this point to pass me a piece of paper which has her name, number and “25-12-12, 11:00” written on it, which I think is either her way of inviting me over for Christmas, or letting me know what time mass is.) I tell Fr. Konstantin about the paper I plan to write on soviet censorship of Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak, and he offers to take me to see the local gulag (the only one left preserved in Russia).
Our conversation is interrupted by a lady who wants to tell me that she had a cousin who lived in Los Angeles, who died at the age of 94. This lady tells me she is 67, she teaches German, and that there was a twenty-year age gap between two of her cousins… or maybe it was between her mother and her aunt. I think one was born in 1907. She is in the middle of telling me that doctors have trouble finding employment in America, when a funny little man, whose face is lost in an explosion of facial hair, comes to tell me that the priest wants to have a word with me. I follow the funny little man into the hallway, where the little man informs Fr. Dmitri that he is supposed to want to have a word with me. Fr. Dmitri finds this information appropriately startling. The little man leaves, at which point Fr. Dmitri apologizes to me saying that some of his parishioners are “a little mad.” He fumbles in English a little longer, and then settles on “mentally ill.” I still cannot tell if he meant to refer to the little man, or the crazy lady the little man saved me from.
I thank Fr. Dmitri, assure him I wasn’t bothered, and he lets me know the parish website so that I can find the schedule and know when events are. I thank him very much. We shake hands. I am embarrassed. “I’m afraid I don’t know where the exit to the building is,” I say. Fr. Dmitri points to the door behind me. “It’s right there,” he says. Sure enough, there is an “exit” sign right above my head. Inostranka. Fr. Dmitri opens the door for me. “Dos vidania”, I say, waving.