Guernica Magazine

We Are Here

We exchanged stories of our hosts in a sort of competition, observing everything they did like anthropologists or comedians. One of us slept on a fold-out couch in the kitchen. One suspected that the “uncle” who visited the family weekly, while the father was away in Switzerland, was actually the mother’s lover. The post We Are Here appeared first on Guernica.
Illustration: Somnath Bhatt.

Summer vanished. All along the Volga, the beer tents where we’d gathered during our first weeks were folded up and put into trucks. For a few days, the town’s students sat among the poles. By the following week, the poles were stacked and carried away and the boardwalk looked empty on the grey water.

Trees turned their leaves and shed them, like the peeling paint of the town’s yellow buildings. Round, majestic hats appeared with the first sharp wind sweeping in from the river. It was a sight we’d always imagined. And the fur coats, too. Cafés were lit neon at daytime. Solitary drunks sat in the empty park. Old women bundled in felt and wool sold vegetables out of buckets.

Finally, we had a sense of where we’d come. And we were gladdened by the gloom.

We wished for things to get darker, and colder. We wished for snow, for the grey light. We almost cheered at the unsmiling waitresses, hoped they would ignore us for longer, shrug when we asked them in our comical accents whether they had the pelmeni. We would look at each other, then, smiling triumphantly.

“Welcome to Russia,” we’d say.

Back at university, our dorm rooms were decorated with Soviet-era posters of women workers; advertisements for chocolate with the face of the freckled boy, Kuzya; cartoon characters we hadn’t grown up with. We were nostalgic for these things that didn’t belong to us. We were born several decades too late. We longed for things that were more real, a little decrepit.

One of us had set out to read Master and Margarita in Russian, and another, War and Peace. We stated our goals without hesitation our first year at university, while we struggled to conjugate the genitive case. We said we had always been drawn to this culture and its people, and we used words like “stoic” and “noble” to describe our passion.

*

There were a few other foreigners in town. We met them at the internet café where all the foreigners gathered daily. A German businessman, who’d lived for a year in Delaware, took all of us out to dinner our first week, when we were up for doing anything. We would meet after class to go to the market and try the foods that looked the strangest; we went to a sauna even before the weather was cold.

“You guys are great,” the businessman told us at dinner. He ordered us shots. “You remind me of my student years.”

Afterwards, when we stood shivering outside, coughing on cigarettes, he said,

“Welcome to Russia, everyone. It’s a lot of fun

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