In the past week, I have experienced the most embarrassment of my life. I have walked into the male restroom, been “spoken to sternly” by shopkeepers and gatekeepers, unsuccessfully (& successfully mind you) haggled for clothing, lost things, gotten on the wrong buses, locked myself out of my apartment, mixed up my words (did you know in Russian the verbs “to pee” and “to write” are surprisingly easy to mix up?), entered through the “Exit” of the metro, tried to buy theater tickets for the wrong month, nearly had a heart attack when a street marketer jumped out of me, and so many other painfully awkward scenarios.
I feel like I’ve grown incredibly in my sense of self and my ability to just try things. Two years ago I remember sitting in first-year Russian feeling paralyzed like I couldn’t speak unless I’d plotted out my sentences perfectly in my head. We’d be reading aloud in class and I’d calculate the sentence I’d have to read and plot out the stress and the intonation so it’d be “perfect” when it came my turn. Well, it turns out in real-life, it doesn’t work like that. My host mom or a storekeeper or my teacher will ask me a question and I have to respond immediately even though I only understand about 70% of the question (if that) and no time at all to think through any sort of answer.
It’s all a bit like diving. If you stick your toe in to the cold water, you probably will chicken out and not go for it, but if you just dive in headfirst without a second thought—you’ll probably find that the water is not too cold after all. One of the things that constantly surprises me is the kindness of the people around me. For every “bad” or hilariously embarassing experience, I have at least three good ones from passersby who are happy to guide me to your next stop to my host mom gently correcting my grammar to a market vendor telling me I’m pretty and actually don’t speak Russian as badly as I think (ok it’s a good marketing tactic but it still made me happy). So, thus, I suppose the moral of the story is—don’t be afraid! Perfect grammar and pronunciation are useless and impossible to obtain if you’re not willing to try. The world won’t end if you make a mistake, and nobody can help you learn if you are completely silent.
And you know what I’ve also figured out?
I actually love it.
I love being somewhere new. I love having to improvise with the limited language I know. I love being immersed and reading quietly to myself every sign, repeating sentences to figure out intonation, and listening for patterns around me. I love that slightly uncomfortable feeling when you totally know you’re improvising and talking about something way out of your depth (grammatically and vocabulary wise) but still keep going… It’s so empowering thinking: Yes, I can order food off a menu when I half-understand what all the food is on the menu! Yes, I can count change in Russian! Yes, I can successfully haggle for something in the market! Yes, I can read a book of poetry in Russian! Yes, I can survive a very embarrassing experience and still know that I’m the same ol’ me!
Also here’s a video of me talking about what I carry in my bag in St. Petersburg and what I think is essential for navigating the city! Those of you who’ve been or are here currently: do you have any suggestions or editions? Maybe you want to come to St. Petersburg too? Until next time!