Tag Archives: Russia

A silver box came from Russia. What was in it made me cry.

Sometimes we create our story, and other times it creates us…

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I was just like every other kid in junior high. Twelve year old Liz with big red glasses, shoulder length sandy blonde hair and teeth that were begging for some braces. My arms and legs were too lanky for my body and everything I did was awkward. Painfully awkward.

I was just like any other junior higher, except for one thing. I lived in Irkutsk, Russia. My family moved to Siberia when I was eleven and it remained my home until I was thirteen. Those long Siberian winters and their stories are preserved deep in this soul. The food, the smells, the sights. The people. Mostly the people.

I don’t think you could separate those experiences from me. They are so woven into my perspective, thoughts and dreams that to remove them would be to unravel me altogether. Russia marked me.

But something has happened since I’ve moved back. More and more years have gone by since those days, and it seems smaller and smaller. Not to me. Never smaller to me. But when people learn that I used to live there, I get riddled with questions. And the answers go something like this:

I only lived there for two years. 

No, I don’t really speak Russian anymore. If I am around it then it will come back, but sadly I am no longer fluent at the drop of a hat.

Umm, no. No I haven’t gone back. Yea, I know it was a long time ago.

I bet you are right. A lot has probably changed since I’ve been there.

Oh, really? You lived in Spain for eight years. Yeah, I’d love to hear about it. 

At the end of the conversation I am left feeling a bit small. Like people expected more from me. Or I am surrounded by people who have lived overseas longer, currently speak Russian or have visited since I lived there years ago. I don’t remember the answers to their questions. Suddenly, I feel a bit disqualified. Probably like a guy who played junior high football would feel surrounded by college players. Still a football player – but not really compared to them.

And it hurts when something so significant to you seems insignificant to someone else. So I don’t bring it up all the time. I hate feeling that it wasn’t that big of a deal. So I hold it tucked next to my heart and only share it with the people who make it that close.

But yesterday something happened.

A friend of ours, Ryan, visited Russia this summer on a mission trip. While there he spent time in Irkutsk and he came back with a gift for me – a gift from Natasha. After trying to figure out which Natasha, cause there are like a billion of them there, I learned it was from my friend who lived near us in our first apartment. She was one of my very first friends in Irkutsk.

Now as an adult, she attends the church that my family moved there to start. And when Ryan came to work with that church, she sent back a box for me. A box that made me cry.

There was a sweet note that was written in English, but with that distinct Russian handwriting – “ To Elizabeth with love from Siberia.”.

Each item brought back a flood of memories. A beautiful box made of birch wood – carved by the hands of a people I love so much. A Christmas ornament that will go front-and-center on my tree this year, I assure you. Some yummy chocolates to have with a cup of hot tea. And then, I opened the silver box. Inside was a bag of meringue cookies.

I just stared. How could she possibly remember that? Tears came. She remembered. Natasha remembered.

Those cookies were one of my favorite things in the world. Any time I passed a stand or kiosk selling them I would always stop. There was a bakery down the road from my house that sold them and I went nearly every afternoon after school. And she remembered.

Peel back the layers of time, the change of government, the loss of language, the nineteen years since I had seen Natasha… and it was all still there. Because it happened. Because I was there.

So, what if others have more international experience than I do? Or more language skills. Or more up-to-date information on the country. So what if in a conversation among expats my experience doesn’t compare to theirs.

It is my story. And Natasha knows it.

All of us feel the same way to a degree. Our story is big to us, but compared to another’s it seems to lose a bit of its glitter. Making the rounds at parties we don’t feel we have anything interesting to say, because sometimes we fear that the things that have become part of us are only average.

We look at people and decide within our minds that our stories are not worth telling. At least not loudly.

If I had a magic wand, I would do what Natasha did for me. I would send you a silver box and inside would be that thing that helps remind you of your story. The love you lost, the book you started to write, the college degree you loved but didn’t set you apart. You would pull out your junior varsity swim jacket and rock that thing in front of Michael Phelps himself. Or that high school basketball trophy? Shoot I’d send that to you with a chain so you can wear it like a baller. ‘Cause it’s your story and it is worth telling.

And while your life may not be the thing of best-selling novels or Oscar-winning films – it matters to you and to the people you shared those stories with. And it matters to God who composed the whole thing Himself with a beautiful vision that we can’t even begin to touch in our wildest imaginations.

Natasha, who I haven’t seen in almost twenty years, sent me cookies and it tells my story. I don’t know what is in your silver box, but you know what? I hope you tweet it, Instagram it, share it with the world. ‘Cause it’s your story and it’s worth telling.

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Filed under Fire, Global, My Life Thus Far, something bigger, Whimsy

Why I Speak To Cats In Russian

illustration by Gemma Correll

illustration by Gemma Correll

I speak to cats in Russian.  I know, right?  Weird. Why would a girl from Texas do that?

During the ages of 11-13 I lived in Irkutsk, Russia with my family. So much of my life has been shaped by those years. When there is a bowl of soup in front of me, you can bet I will put sour cream in it. The smell of dill is synonymous with summer in my mind. I believe that eating ice cream in freezing temperatures will keep you warm and I draw a line through my ” 7 ” s and ” Z ” s.

Also, I still speak to cats in Russian. I’m not sure why, it is just one of those things that stuck with me. I wish it was a more useful skill that remained from my time there, like knowing how to tell which berries can be eaten in the woods. That would be helpful to remember. Instead it is the cat quirk that has stayed with me.

In high school I tried to be cool and keep the cat thing under wraps. I was a closet Russian-cat-speaker. I moonlighted as an average American teenager. Pretending to be angsty about life and acting like platform sandals really looked cool. ( they didn’t. The NEVER were cool. )

And I was accepted. I was accepted for the perception of myself I put out there. The bummer was that the acceptance felt really limited to me. My peers weren’t accepting the Russian speaking, politically driven, and senior citizen loving teenager that I really was.

In college it all came out. Time had taught me to embrace some of the cross-cultural traits I had picked up. I developed my friendships differently – high outer walls and low inner walls. I made factual statements in question form and tended to clap in unison with the person next to me.

I stopped hiding all the little things I was so insecure about before. Shout out to hipsters for making quirky cool I guess. I wasn’t afraid of who I was anymore. Encouragements were breathed in deep and owned because they were spoken to the real me.

When we are honest about who we really are, we can be loved for who we really are. And we all need to be loved. —> click to tweet

Sure, I am still quirky. I’d like to think it is charming in a Zoe Deschanel kind of way, but it probably isn’t. And it doesn’t matter really because it is who I am.

So many of us are surrounded by people who care about us, but we still don’t feel loved. Perhaps it is because we aren’t being honest and showing them our true selves. The cat thing is a funny example, but there are more serious things we keep hidden.

Our sins, our weaknesses, past failures or deeply rooted insecurities. Maybe you struggle with depression and are afraid people will misunderstand you. Perhaps you think your religious beliefs will be judged or maybe you are afraid your personality isn’t right.

I believe we were all made to be loved. By God and by others. So be yourself – insecurities and all – and be loved for it. And if you speak to cats in Russian too, let me know. We could start a club.

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Filed under Faith, Funny, Global, My Life Thus Far, Uncategorized, Whimsy

three things communism taught me

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Roman Cieslewicz poster circa 1968

I was looking up my Myers Briggs personality type yesterday. I discovered that I share the same personality as Mao Zedong ( Dictator of Communist China) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (President of Iran). Hmm…

After being sent into  a brief identity crisis, I found myself sifting through my experience with a country that has lived under an oppressive government. Russia. I lived there right after communism fell during the early/mid 90s.

Those years were probably the most shaping years of my life. As an adult, I am constantly realizing how much communism taught me. Here are three lessons I learned:

1. You can’t make decisions for other people. 

We didn’t control the heat in our building. To be honest, I’m not really sure who did. Heat just turned on one day in early fall and off in late spring. That sounds like a good thing for living in Siberia. Logical even. The hot water pipes would crank up and our radiators would soon be fiery.

But it wasn’t. It would get sweltering. We would have to open our windows to let the -25 degree air in. Yet, in another person’s house, perhaps the heat was not enough. Buildings were different. Pipes were different. Personal preferences were different.

The same was true with people’s beliefs, professions and families. You can’t make choices for people.

2. You need to ask ‘why’?

An American moving to post-communist Russia has a lot of questions. Why are your wedding dresses hot pink? Why can’t you open a window on a train until a specific date in May? Why are their so many lines? Why is everyone yelling at me?

There was a large department store called TK.  It was several stories high and there were many escalators. When they worked they were escalators, otherwise they were metal stairs.

At the bottom of each escalator there would be a woman sitting in a chair. Her job was to watch the escalator. Why do you need someone to sit and watch an escalator all day? No one could answer that question. They didn’t know. The government just gave her that job. It baffled me, but they didn’t seem to question it.

My friend Olya came to visit us shortly after we moved back to the States. She had her own series of questions. Why does everyone have such big cars? Why are the supermarkets stocked with so much food and yet there are hungry people? Why don’t schools teach foreign languages in elementary school like they do in Russia? I told her that is just the way it is here.

Communism taught me that I do need to ask ‘why’.

3. In the end, we are all just people. 

For decades, Russians were our enemy. They were portrayed as cold and heartless. But they aren’t. Russian culture is warm when you get down to it. They will feed you all the food they have if you come over for a meal and spend hours listening to your story over tea.

One of the greatest privileges I have had is to see the world. I have had walked the streets of Syria, the villages of Sudan, the busy shopping districts in Beijing and the romantic streets of Paris to name a few.

People are people. They all want to love and be loved. Mothers all of the world rock their babies to sleep. Men carry the daily stress of providing for their families. Teenagers dream of falling in love. Teachers give so much in order to educate a generation. Doctors work effortlessly to bring health to their communities.

People are passionate. We speak different languages, live in different environments and believe in different faiths.

Communism was hard on the people of Russia. But they lived through it.

Communism taught me that people are the same everywhere. Made in the image of God and longing for value.

So, when you read the news about North Korea or Iran, remember that a government isn’t a culture or a people. Remember that behind a headline there are the true stories. Individuals similar to you.

As you probably know, communism didn’t turn out to well around the world. Lets learn from it. Lets not be arrogant in our opinions about what is best for people, or forget to ask ‘why’. Most of all, lets remember that we are all just people and we are all desperate for a God who loves us.

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Filed under Faith, Global, My Life Thus Far, Politics

From Russia With Love

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I know you are all wondering how I came to be this international woman of mystery that I am today. Well, from ages 11-13 I lived in Russia. Central Siberia to be exact. Our family went to the bustling city of Irkutsk to plant a church in the mid-90s. Russia has stayed in my heart ever since and it is today’s Sunday Kind of Love. A truly beautiful nation. Plus, these old photos are completely embarrassing, so it works for An Uncomfortable January too.

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A street in downtown Irkutsk.

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Houses in the snow. A common site.

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Oh, the athleticism displayed in this photo The great thing about long winters and so much snow is that it gets packed down hard enough to ski or ice skate if you need to go somewhere.

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The kitchen in a friend’s old house.

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I’ll give you one chance to find the American in this pic.

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Parent’s would gather and build amazing forts of ice and snow around the city. They had slides and stairs. A winter’s playground.

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Just the neighbors butchering meat in the hallway of our apartment building.

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One of our church’s small groups.

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My beautiful mama in blue. And that’s me in the red sheep sweatshirt. Handling some meat. Grind, slice, chop…

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Doing math homework on my abacus.

Well, hope you enjoyed memory lane as much as I did. I’m guessing your junior high experience was a little different than mine?

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Filed under An Uncomfortable January, Global, My Life Thus Far

Russian Contraband

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I know what you are thinking. How could anyone make a fur hat from a stray dog look so good? We all have our strengths people. Rocking fur in a Siberian winter is one of mine.

I lived in Russia from ages 11-13. These were the days of Russian breadlines and shortages of all kinds. New products were being introduced to people for the first time as well. I’ll never forget the time a dishwasher showed up in a big department store in the city. People hadn’t even heard of one before.

I stopped in a little kiosk at the bottom of my apartment building one day. There it was. I hadn’t seen it before in our city of 500,000. Where did they get it?!?!

I didn’t care if they had purchased it from the black market. I didn’t care if they had broken people’s thumbs to get it. I wanted it.

A small package that every 13 year old wants. A tube of Cover Girl lipstick. It was petal pink and frosted, but I didn’t care. I wanted it. I could tell it was real because the package didn’t say something like ‘For the cosmetic coloring of mouth for beautiful woman ‘. Those ridiculous attempts at English were dead giveaways for fake imports. This was real. It was American. I was American. We were meant for each other.

So I bought it. The rest of the winter my dog & squirrel fur hats were accentuated with frosted petal pink lips.

It was the first makeup I ever owned. And it might have been illegal.

Quite the coming of age story don’t you think?

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Filed under Global, My Life Thus Far, Whimsy