I’ve met many interesting strangers in Russia. The vast majority of the experiences have been very positive. In 2005, I met a delightful stranger that captures the essence of the “typical” Russian. I went to the Gorky Sea, a large reservoir outside Nizhny Novgorod, that acted as the regional getaway since Soviet times. On short notice, hotels are usually full, so locals rent out rooms in their apartments. Boris negotiated one of these deals, and so we boarded in an infamous Soviet apartment building, our host, an elderly babushka. Her apartment was big enough to host another couple in the room next to us. There, a husband and wife, likely in their fifties, settled in for the weekend. The meeting happened in typical fashion. They noticed Boris and me speaking English and then fascination bolted out of the gate. Once introduced as an American, the husband was simply stunned. He’d never met an American before and was elated. Again, in typical fashion, he insisted on drinking with me as a sign of welcome and friendship. His gold teeth shimmered in the dreary room. Within seconds, I heard the familiar “thump” of a bottle of vodka set on the table and the clinking of the shot glasses. I feel I’m barely exaggerating that if I met a Russian in the middle of a desert, he’d have that bottle and glasses ready at any moment. It was Boris’ translation that please me the most. He said, “I’m not even able to translate how excited this guy is to meet you.” How can you feel any more welcome than that?
There were some small, incidental gestures that still make me smile. Sometimes I would get stuck in a language barrier and a Russian would rescue me because they spoke English. One time, a cashier at the grocery store persistently asked me a question. I was completely stumped and it seemed that our transaction was about to fall apart because of this silly obstacle. From left field, I heard a bold, monotonous voice, “She wants to know if you have a discount card.” Oh! No, I don’t. The eavesdropper pulled his own card out quickly and scanned it for me and the transaction was saved.
The most peculiar incident occurred after I had gotten stopped by the police. I had actually committed a violation this time, and I was pretty nervous. At a traffic light, I got tired of waiting for a tram to turn right due to the heavy pedestrian traffic crossing the street. I pulled around the tram on the left side and raced through the intersection. Whistles blew from street police standing nearby, waiting to wave through the governor on his daily commute. We passed each other frequently on our way to work and the street is usually crawling with policemen. I should have known better. Patience is a virtue, I know, I know.
The police officer who stopped me was visibly agitated which only made things more stressful. I’ll get more into interactions with the police in a different section, but for now, it can simply be described as a complex test of wills between enforcer and defendant. As the officer and I struggled mightily to communicate, I got quite flustered. I was getting late for work, I was pulled over in the middle of a bus stop, and pedestrians and buses were swarming all around me. I was getting nowhere with the policeman and I let my imagination get the best of me.
Suddenly, a woman starts knocking on my passenger window. Conditioned to deal with this since gypsy children frequently approached my car for money at stoplights, I angrily waved her off. “I’m kinda busy here dammit!” She wasn’t deterred though, and I finally opened the window and yelled, “Что!” (What!) She replied patiently in English, “Excuse me, sir, but do you need help with translation?” Stunned, I said “Huh? Uh, yeah, okay.” How the hell did she even know what was going on here anyway? Regardless, here she was and she stepped comfortably in to the scene, immediately engaging with the officer. After the initial briefing, she told me that I needed to step into the police car to get a ticket since I did something bad. Immediately, the familiar police car situation was at hand. I knew what I was in for.
I stepped into the car and the woman walked me through the officer’s questions. It took a long time and the officer go frustrated. He wasn’t used to such a crazy situation and ultimately decided to tear up the ticket and let me go. The woman gave me the scoop and I was suddenly set free. I was scratching my head over the whole thing and I couldn’t help but ask, “Where did you come from? How did you know what was going on?” She answered that she had been waiting for the bus right where I got pulled over. She could hear the futile efforts of our conversation and decided to help out. She was a teacher or employee of the Linguistics University down the street. Her language skill, sincere empathy, and a twist of fate let our worlds to collide for a moment. I gave yet another heartfelt thank you, said goodbye, and she was gone forever. Did that really happen?