Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Southern Hospitality

The Russian people I've had the opportunity to meet (using the term broadly here) are kind, generous, friendly people.

After traveling by truck for over a week and 3000 miles, riding in a car (especially how they drive here in Florida), feels practically like flying. I'm not used to accelerating this fast. Everything's so quiet. No vibrations. Smooth ride. I've never been much of one for city driving, but honestly, this shift in transportation has me on the edge of fright.

I'm terrible at remembering names, or I'd insert one here. The guy who picked us up speaks excellent English, with very little accent. He says it's because he lived in New York City for 4 years illegally, and learned English well so the cops wouldn't be able to spot him as easily.

We go to a friend's house, where a Ping-Pong table is set up. I play for a little bit, against the host (?), then the two brothers start playing against each other. Both are great players. Soon it turns into an alternating three way match, what appears to be a father and his two middle aged sons. As most of the exchange, between players and observers, is in Russian, I'm left with only observation. I love an observational roll, however, so it's fine.

The thought comes to me that if I watch long enough I should be able to learn how to count. Unfortunately, the Slavic language group is so dissimilar from the Latin/Germanic languages I've been surrounded by all my life, that I have nowhere to start, and I don't quite know the game well enough, and am not paying close enough attention, to be able to keep my own score.

The game is intense. I can't really tell who is winning but it seems to be a close match. The father, very serious, determined, never breaking a smile, conservative in motion, yet moving with skill and precision. The "sons", thoroughly enjoying themselves, "dancing" around at the other end of the table, taking chances, clearly knowing what they are doing, and confident of their abilities..

This is the first time I've ever been completely surrounded by people who, whether or not they speak English (as a majority do), generally prefer not to. Even Petr, my "tour guide", mostly engages in the good-natured banter, or, sitting on the other side of the patio from myself, watches quietly. He's not good at the game either.

Somehow the language barrier doesn't seem intimidating at all. So much of communication is separate from the words used - vocal inflections, facial expressions, posture.. Honestly, I've felt more distant around people of my own language group, who I already know.

"Would you like some water, or orange juice?"
"Sure, water's fine. Thanks."

After a while we go to the house where we'll be staying. This is the house of Michael, Petr's boss. It was his family who I met earlier.

My own presence here is nearly accidental. For the fact that these people would willingly take me in for the short time I'm in the area, I can only be grateful.


Being a person who often prefers speaking more through body language and subtle cues than actual words, when surrounded by people of a foreign country, I'm much in the same position as the local toddler. Young children, full of wonder and curiosity for the world, have an unlimited capacity for staring. I, for better or worse, have not entirely lost this ability myself. As such, when a young child looks at me, unabashed, curious, unrelenting, I have no problem returning the gaze. Their curiosity is primarily directed to wondering who I am. I, on the other hand, want to know what they are thinking. Some children are shy, and quickly look away. Some seem frightened by this unexpected return of interest.. Almost never do I meet a child who seems unsurprised by the returning gaze. Sometimes I find a particularly friendly one.

The local toddler, I know not whether he is absolutely terrified, or overwhelmed by curiosity. Perhaps it is a mix of both. At any rate, whenever eye contact is made, whether he be laughing or crying, his response is to freeze, giving an unrelenting blank stare. When the gaze is broken, he seems to return to his last thought. Or is he crying more because of me? Or, is he crying because he lost my interest? Or... ?

As the next couple days wear on, I working to not terrify him by my apparently mesmerizing gaze, and work to more consistently smile warmly, rather than play with different emotional expressions. Eventually he seems to warm up and begins returning the smile. Now it's clear that his interest is primarily curiosity.