When I moved in with the Arteev family in January, I was in a bad mood. I had just returned from Germany to find that my Russian roommate wanted me to leave so that her Norwegian boyfriend could move in. (He ended up moving to Australia two weeks later). Fifteen minutes after placing a housing request on couchsurfers.com, I got a phone call from my future flatmates. Vladimir invited me to come over and inspect the apartment and meet the family, and I went over that same day.
Vladimir (Vova) and Elena (Lena) are close to me in age, and they have a two year-old daughter named Sofia (Sonia, Sofika, Sonichka). It’s typical in Russia to share a home with people you don’t know. Most families can’t afford the cost of renting an entire apartment, and spare rooms are let out to others. Before I came to live with them, a woman and her young daughter had been there. The main room doubles as a living room and bedroom. The bed is converted to a couch during the day, and it also becomes the social gathering place every time guests are invited over. It was strange to me that Sonia’s birthday party and an Easter celebration took place in the master bedroom. A kitchen, a bathroom with a small washing machine (they’re easily half the size of American machines, and drying is done on racks), and a separate small room with a toilet made up the rest of the apartment.
The family invited me to join them for tea. Vova did most of the talking, while Lena listened and tried to follow the conversation. I’m sure she was thinking, “Oh, no….I know my husband’s excited about all of this English practice, but I don’t understand ANYTHING right now…” Sonia stared at me in confusion, not comprehending these different sounds I was making, and wondering why in my presence her parents were making these strange sounds, too.
I moved in two days later, and I was immediately invited to join the family for dinner. I was surprised, because several of my fellow teachers at work had also had experience living with Russian families, and they never had experiences where the people they lived with wanted to share anything with them. I was slightly depressed and reserved at the beginning of my stay, but over time as they continued to extend their hospitality we became friends and then family.
Little Sonia never learned how to properly pronounce my name. She called me ‘Gae-gum,’ and when I arrived home she shouted it: “Gae-GUM!” She was there to meet me at the door every day, and was very diligent about helping me put away my boots, coat, hat and scarf. After a while, she was entrusted with the task of putting away my ipod, which she did with great care. When I was home, she dressed up and selected a purse before coming over to Gaegum’s House to visit. Once I had admitted her to my ‘house’ she proceeded to inspect the drawer where I kept lipstick and would carefully apply some with my permission and assistance. I quickly learned the word for cartoon in Russian (multeek, Gaegum!!) and we watched the Wiggles and the Russian Winnie the Poo together. The Wiggles got us dancing and often led to hide-n-seek in my bed. ‘Gu-goo’ is ‘peekaboo’ in Russian. I’d given up on learning the language by the time I moved in, but with a toddler in the house, I couldn’t help but learn, although most of the Russian I learned were things you would tell a small child. Vova and Lena started using English a lot with her, and then repeated it in Russian, so I started learning, too. (Come here. Do you want to eat something? Where is…? Don’t do that!) I usually didn’t correct their English, but in cases like , ‘Come Sofia, it’s time to wash your teeth,’ I stepped in with a correction. I was shy about speaking Russian to adults, but with Sonia it was a necessity.
Vova’s English is very good, and he acted as translator from the start. He and I had long conversations, my favorite of which was when a house full of silver treasure was discovered in St. Petersburg, and we started making plans to tear apart the apartment in the hopes of finding our own treasure. He’s an engineer with a very mechanical mind, and when I lost my contact lens down the drain, he disassembled the entire thing to help me find it. We were unsuccessful, even with the valiant efforts of Sonia. Once a week I went to my friend Mike’s house, and we would make dinner together and watch at 80’s movie. One week I came home with leftover lasagna, which Vova loved. He kept badgering me about the recipe until one day he finally placed a paper and pencil firmly in front of me and said, “Lasagna. Now.” We all went on an expedition to get the ingredients and cooked it that evening, and we also made it for Easter. I taught both Lena and Vova how to play several card games, but Vova and I had an intense competitive rivalry with Egyptian Rat Trap, and despite his efforts to slow my reaction time with vodka, I was the reigning champion.
I spent the most time with Lena. She and I had a slow communication start, but after she started using English every day, she really started surprising me with her vocabulary. I got very sick the first week I was with them, and she was there to take care of me and offer me medicine, even though she told me gravely “I don’t know how to save you,” as I was hanging my head over the toilet. I think both of us recognized that we would be fast friends, but the only problem was that we couldn’t always communicate what we meant with each other. Ours was the special kind of friendship where you can understand each other without words. When it was just the two of us away from the house, her playful girlishness burst out and we linked arms to skip down the street. We went to the banya twice and she taught me how to sauna like a Russian. Once she was frustrated with Sofia and said, “Sometimes I want to kill you. Not you, her. But you are in Zone of Risk.” From that point the Zone of Risk was our private joke, and if anything was in danger or needed to beware of our mood or anger, it was in the Zone of Risk. When I came home to a dead fish in the sink, Lena explained that it had been in the Zone of Risk. When her chickens wouldn’t lay eggs in the summer, I told her to warn the chickens that they would be in the Zone of Risk. (The chickens really were in the Zone of Risk, because Sofia tried to love them too hard. Vova explained that one of the chickens chose to go to paradise rather than endure being taught to fly by Sofia)
I learned a lot about being a family while I stayed with them. I saw the sacrifices that were made out of love. I saw the care and devotion they showed each other daily. I saw how much you have to give up for your children, but how it can be one of the greatest joys you’ll ever experience. Russians use many diminutives to show affection or endearment. Lena became “Lenichka,” Vova became “Vovochka,” and as I transitioned from renter to friend to family, Meghan became “Gaegumchik.”