Growing up in Russia

There are moments in everybody’s life when they grow up a little. Certain events or thoughts or words trigger something inside us that causes us to ‘age.’ We become more responsible or aware or understanding. The thing is, these moments are endless and thus, we are constantly growing up, or rather, learning from our mistakes or our curiosity.

One such event happened to me when I was studying in Russia for a summer program of Russian language and culture. I was there mostly for the culture. I am a terrible language student and can’t say I picked up much Russian other than the necessary phrases to survive in St. Petersburg for a month.

I stayed with a family about a 10-minute walk from Smolny University, but there was a bit of a commute to the inner part of the city. I used the bus system there and had familiarized myself with a route to and from the apartment and ‘down town.’


Mariinsky Theater

My first week there, several of us met up and attended a fantastic Russian ballet. It was performed in the famous Mariinsky Theater. We sat in our own box, nibbled on treats, and bought souvenir mini ballet slippers. I still have my pair hanging off my door at home and they remind me of this night every time I look at them. The ballet ran incredibly late, but you wouldn’t have guessed it was passed midnight. In Russia, it stays light most of the night during the summer months. They call these the White Nights.

I said my farewells and got on the infamous bus 22 back to my side of town. St. Petersburg is basically a giant marshland so there are tons of bridges and at night, these bridges are drawn to let in and out ships. So there is a period of about 4-5 hours where you are stuck on whatever side until the bridges are put down again. Luckily, my apartment was on the same side of the river as the Mariinsky Theater.

The first part of the bus ride was uneventful. I wasn’t quite comfortable enough to sit back and read so I watched the familiar landmarks pass by, reassuring me I was on the right route. But the ride took an abrupt turn into unfamiliar territory. Suddenly I found myself on streets I had never seen. Or was I mistaken? Nope, I was lost.

The sun began to set, making the night eerily dim and my 20 or so minute ride home turned into a 40 minute one somewhere else. Something was very wrong. I gathered my things, pulled out my pocket map of the city, and made my way to the front of the bus. In the little Russian I had acquired in my weeklong stay, I asked the driver where we were. At the next stop, I had him point at the map. We were by a river. I looked out the front windshield and saw a bridge that was approaching quickly.

Before I could process even what direction I had ended up in, I was off the bus. There was no way I was ending up on the other side of the river for the night. I found myself at a dark bus stop. We had been told before our trip to be discreet about being a tourist and American students while in Russia. But I was desperate. I looked around. There was a stooped over drunk man on one end of the bench and a boy, maybe my age, or even a little younger, standing outside of the bus stop.

I basically ran to the boy, map opened wide, eyes even wider. He saw my desperation and had a surprising sort of calm about him. My first word out of my mouth, “do you speak English.” First rule, broken. I sorted out where I was, that the next bus wasn’t coming until 5:00 AM, and that the metro across the street was shut as well. His suggestion, hitchhike.

This is something I had never done even in my own  town where I pretty much knew everyone let alone a giant foreign country. But, it was my only ticket home, unless I wanted to hunker down for the night in the bus stop.

In Russia it’s actually a pretty common practice to hitchhike. You waive down any car and bargain with them. We crossed the street. I showed him on the map where I needed to go pointing to Smolny University. Second rule broken. He started to waive down cars heading in that direction. The first couple he spoke to and then waived on. I have no idea why; maybe the cost wasn’t to his liking, or the people? The third one was it.

He opened the door for me and told me that they would take me back. And without evening thinking I asked, “will you come with me?” Suddenly, I trusted this boy, and I trusted him a whole lot more than the plump couple squished together in the front of the little red car. He and I crawled in the back and we began our journey.

I tried to spot certain landmarks that I recognized but we wound through back ally ways and side streets. For all I knew, they were taking me back across the city to do what they wanted with me. All the disturbing things I had seen on TV or read in the paper suddenly seemed very possible. I even recall taking a breath and thinking, this is it. I will never forget that feeling of desperation and helplessness. I was in the hands of three strangers.


Smolny University

And then, we came to an open round about and directly across from it was Smolny, the big blue onion topped building. I spat out, “that’s it!” We pulled around and stopped. I began to rummage through my purse, looking to the boy to see what I owed. But he was already handing the man our payment. We both climbed out and I asked what I owed him but he shewed my money away. I then asked how he planned on getting home. In broken English he replied, “don’t worry.”

I was shocked, but also grateful and thoroughly exhausted. I thanked him several more times, made sure he was OK the best I could, and turned to begin my walk home. I crawled into bed that night still amazed at what had happened when I realized, I hadn’t even asked what the boys name was.

This was the event where I grew up a little. It was the moment when I realized there was true danger out there and that I was quite unprepared to manage it on my own, but also that there are incredibly kind people that will help you and ask for nothing in return. The boy taught me a lot about humanity. I can still recall his face and demeanor vividly, but there is no name I can credit to him. I do hope every time I have told this story he feels proud somehow though, because he will never know how thankful I am for his being there and keeping me safe.

I found out that I was on the last bus of the evening, thus, bypassing my stop, and going a more direct route to the bus barn. I got a load of bad luck that could have gone many different ways, but I was swept away with incredibly good luck in somehow being paired up with a kind bystander willing to accompany me and pay for my ride home.

It’s always a reminder for me that people are good. The bad is so commonly emphasized, but these deeds good happen every day. Take a moment and think about any good deeds you’ve gotten to whiteness or experience or even do yourself. Share them!

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