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The family lived in a two-room apartment. I shared the sole bedroom with Denis, while Nadya, Sasha and Tanya slept on a fold-out sofa and a fold-out chair in the living room.
It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, in the days before iPhones and laptops, before the ubiquity of the Internet and email, living abroad was an act of emotional as well as physical separation. Letters and parcels took about one month to travel between England and Russia. If I wanted to phone my parents or my girlfriend, I had to book a call that was so expensive, I could speak for only 10 or 15 minutes.
That profound sense of separation is now replaced with trepidation about what I will find. I know that I have grown and changed during these past 14 years. I don’t stop to consider that my hosts have, too.
My first couple of weeks with Nadya and Sasha in 1995 were pleasant but full of forced politeness, as you might expect when a family invites a foreign 18-year-old who cannot speak their language into their home. Tanya’s English was excellent. But whenever she was not at home, I had to communicate with Nadya, Sasha and Denis using a mixture of sign language and trial and error.
The family was expecting a textbook “Englishman” — someone reserved, well educated: a tea-drinking, hat-doffing character from a British drama series. So it must have come as a surprise when they discovered that their impish, long-haired “Englishman” was polite but mischievous, had never drunk tea and was proud that his sole Russian sentence was “Zdravstvuite, menya zavut Ira,” or, “Hello, my name is Ira” — short in Russian for Irena.
Gradually we relaxed around one another. I believe the real ice breaker arrived toward the end of my second week, when I returned home one evening and announced that I had learned a new Russian phrase: “Zdravstvuite, menya zavut pushistaya zadnitsa,” or, “Hello, my name is fluffy buttocks.” Nadya, who had a wicked sense of humor, thought this was the funniest thing for an Englishman to say.
“Paul,” she said, “it’s time you learned Russian.”
From then on, Nadya would point out different objects in the apartment — a table, a chair, a spoon, the television — and tell me the word or phrase in Russian. Soon she began to teach me Russian mat, or curse words, drawing from a reservoir of thousands of words and phrases that the writer Victor Erofeyev once described as “linguistic theatre [and] verbal performance art.”
My experience of Russia was of a people who had little but gave everything, rather than what I saw in England, which was of a people who had everything but gave little.