When something bad happens, you have three choices: let it define you, let it destroy you, or let it strengthen you.

The heart of the difference is not ability or even talent, but desire

The purpose of life is to discover and develop your gift. The meaning of life comes from sharing your gift with others. - David Viscott

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Neither here, nor there

Нет родины в отечестве моём...No home in my homeland...hmm, even Google couldn't translate it the way I feel. But this is as close as I can try and describe my emotional being on this last trip. Every year it gets harder. And this time, on a second day, it hit me - I am not home anywhere. It's a common knowledge that the first generation of immigrants have it most difficult. In US I am as Russian as they get. Back in Russia - I am an American. Where is home? I don't have one...that's the truth...
It was still a wonderful trip. One day a few years ago I had compiled a bucket list. "Take a foreigner to Russia to see my home country through their eyes" was on it. This past week I had put a check mark to this wish - and realized exactly why I wanted it...

I ran only twice in Moscow, and both times it was before Larry arrived. It was -15C with winds and humidity, and while Russia had began a wave of fitness a few years back, seeing a single woman in tight pants and red jacket at 6am o’dark in the morning on the streets is still rather a weird encounter. Especially when all the streets are sheer ice covered slightly with mashed snow on top. By the end of each hour I felt every small muscle on my backside and hamstrings from making an effort to keep my body upright and feet from sliding and slipping.

It is fascinating to come back to a place where you grew up and kind of measure it up. The first run I kept going, and going…and going – and suddenly, just like that, I was at the Third Ring highway, the place I never walked to before, where Moscow boundaries end and I’ve only being out for 35 minutes. It was twice further than I ever walked when I was a teenager. Made it for an interesting perspective. My second run I made a different loop, and still couldn’t find more than an hour worth of total running, simply ran out of road (not that Moscow is small - iut's huge, my folks just live on outskirts) – not to mention that morning was so cold, my eyeballs froze and I had an ice layer on my chin and cheeks. However, each of those runs brought me peace. Like - everything is ok, normal, the way it should be. I guess it’s just part of me, whether I am training, burnt out, or don’t care about it at all…

There were more bickering with my family members than usual, although it was also longer than I stay on average. Still, it showed how far apart we grew, me – over here, in US, them – back home, and in a different country at that. It was sad. We kept our cool and played adult, but the aura was there. How many times will I be coming back? I don’t know anymore. It draws me, but it also pushes me away…

Even before Larry came, I was making discoveries with Stephen’s eyes, now that he is 15 and has opinions. He picked on details that were rather so right, it wasn’t funny. Everyone is in a hurry in Moscow – big hurry. They all walk 3-4 miles a day just for their daily tasks, getting to bus, then subway, then work, then back, supermarket, picking up kids, back home…you get the idea. Even without running, we figured we walked between 6 to 10 miles each day with sightseeing. Add to it tightening muscles Pilates style to keep upright on the sheet of ice – and here you go. Explains why I never gain weight on my trips home, even though eat like an elephant every night, 4-course meals. Speaking of food, another Stephen’s observation – all Russian people care about is to feed their guests. By the way, we don’t take them out. It is a bad manner to take your guests to a restaurant. You have to cook elaborate meals to show how much they (guests) mean to you – and then the hostess spends all evening serving, cleaning and washing, rarely sitting with guests (it’s a man’s job).

Larry said it is obvious to him why I am so good at an ultra. May be not fast, and that pays into a 100 mile more than a 50k. This is where I learned to powerwalk. To be patient (try standing in a line to every place you need to get, or waiting for the bus in -25C). To get by on no food (fast-food places didn’t exist back in Soviet, and now are too expensive for the salaries, so you have a simple breakfast, and then a 7pm dinner). To accept changes (who wouldn’t, living in Soviet? We don’t make decisions, we just adapt to them.) We love to sacrifice – the whole culture is built on it. We love to help in trouble. Not so much to see others content (why am I not so lucky?). We wear dark clothes (Moscow is a dirty city, even though the streets had gotten extremely clean in the last few years), but our women wear lots of bright make up. Russian people as a nation is skinny – I am one of the fatter examples. It got even skinnier. Ladies look like elite athletes with no thighs or hips. Trust me, arriving to Atlanta airport and standing on escalator really made a point at it. But then again – we walk a lot, and we don’t eat processed food. Everything is made from scratch, and there is no abundance. We also appreciate beauty, inside and out – and work to keep at it.

We go to theaters, museums and concerts – still, no matter collapse of Soviet Era. We still read (much less than before, though). We are just as crazy about gift-giving for New Year as here people do for Christmas – it wasn’t even funny. And yes, we still drink a whole bunch of vodka for any and every occasions…

I showed Larry so much, my head was spinning, and it was wonderful. Some of it I actually saw for the first time myself. Like inside Kremlin – I bet you’re picturing Soviet officials, but it was built as a city of Orthodox churches. We saw Russian Ballet and heard a concert of classical music, visited an Old Circus (where tiger misbehaved, but gymnasts were fantastic) and Kremlin Armory Museum (not what you think it is), saw every famous building inside the First Ring of Moscow (historical city) and Moscow State University, spent 2 frozen hours trying to find my Medical University with no money for a bus fair (yeah, I know, sounds really stupid and shameful), heard Church Liturgy with beautiful singing, walked in a cemetery, took plenty of rides in the best (and first in the world) subway, got amused by Red Square and vicinity, ate tons of traditional food made by my sister and walked in a snow blizzard through a Victory Park (for WWII)… I am sure he, in his detailed manner, will write a great post about places we visited – and what he thought of us.  I simply include a few random shots that mean something to me…


  1. Awesome post. I have always wanted to visit Moscow. Looks like an amazing place.

  2. Gosh, I can really relate. I have lived in the US for so long I am no longer really Polish though my upbringing and life experiences make me view the world differently than most Americans. When I go to Poland I can see how the country and people have changed and I know I have not changed with them. I see things they can't and probably I don't get many things that are obvious to them. It is a strange place to be in. It is like I belong to two different cultures but not entirely. I am somewhere in-between.
    Still, I love visiting the country where I grew up, seeing familiar places, conversing easily with the people. I can get away now with many things that "are just not done" there only because I am a foreigner and on top of that an American. I get to break the rules with no penalties. Isn't that cool?
    I visited Moscow many, many years ago, way before communism fell. I would love to see how the city has changed. Hope the people are as nice as I remember them. One of these years I will make it there.

  3. Beautiful pictures! Is that your father? Your smiles are alike. : )

  4. I really want to visit Moscow too. I hope your eyeballs recovered from being frozen. The nice thing about being as transient as you are is the ability to adapt to new places and find home wherever you are based on your own definition of home, whatever that is. It doesn't need to be a country or a house or a state or city.

  5. Going "home" for the holidays can be challenging, regardless of whether it's half-way around the globe or just a few states away. I'm happy to have had several "homes" and once I've left one, even though deeply attached to it, I can't ever imagine going back to any of them again. Sounds like a fabulous adventure, though, and how great to share it with Larry. Although it looks very very cold.

  6. "Home is where, when you have nowhere else to go, they have to let you in." I don't know who said that, but it seems right. Going back to places you think of as having been home is always strange (and I'm starting to realize that these sentences have grammar you might need to have English as a first language to understand).

    I'd like to visit Moscow, but it's such a huge city, it would be hard to do it justice - and somehow everyone ends up with the same pictures of St. Basil's! And I'd do it when the weather was better...

    When I was in grad school, everyone thought I had to be European, not American. When I asked why, they'd say things like "You're not fat! You're not loud and obnoxious. You're not obsessed with how you look. You have an accent." Maybe I'd fit in better somewhere else.

  7. Love the post Olga, wow what a trip for Larry. Awesome you were able to take him and experience the trip together. I bet your family misses you a lot. :) Happy New Year!

  8. Very interesting post. Very interesting to see your opinions of Russia then vs. now.
    Also interesting to hear you still say Soviet. There are many younger than us than have no idea about the U.S.S.R.

  9. This is my favorite post of yours. This is Olga!
    I wonder - does your family understand what a powerful and inspirational person your are? Or do they think you're just an American?

  10. Happy Holidays Olga!!! Don't forget we have "another New Year" in stock : ) Great post, I was just reading and smiling and rereading. In some ways we're still Soviet. Larry without a Hat (didn't you get Ushanka?!), it wasn't too cold. Stephen looks like a kid from the block. Our kid. "I felt every small muscle on my backside and hamstrings from making an effort ..." EXACTLY Olga! Restaurants .. hmm, I remember waiting in a line back in 1989 or 90 for about 2 hours just to get to an Arbat restaurant, sitting there with parents' friends .. and absolute stranger (he also waited 2 hours) we shared the same table, even without talking to each other. Personally I glad everything has changed. And not all changes are good. Our Ladies... after looking at local American chiks (mostly missionaries), you're right - almost Elite Athletes. Thanks Olga for Great Post! С Новым Годом, С Новым Счастьем!

  11. Sounded like an incredible trip ~ beautiful coat!!