“Chicken! Fingers!” Jen exclaims loudly, her finger jabbing the menu, as she glares up at our server.
The server patiently repeats Jen’s order back to her, in Russian, scribbling in beautiful, loping, characteristically Eastern European swirls.
This is America, we speak American? No, this is Moscow, 1998. We speak … whatever the hell we want, apparently. We’re in the center of the city in a café so accommodating that each menu item is printed in Russian, German and English. And there are photographs of the food, too.
What’s enraging about this experience is that Jen and I have been here studying abroad for three months in intensive language training already, after two years of taking Russian classes back home: plenty of time to master ordering from a menu in a café.
But today we’re outside the classroom, and away from our immersion experience (complete with assumed identities, names, personal histories and vocations, you know, back stories to act as mnemonics), and damn it all if Jen isn’t going to show everyone that we are from America, where we excoriate our philandering president, tuck our white-sneakered feet up under ourselves in a restaurant and order in our own damn language. Loudly.
“Shoulda gone to McDonald’s,” she mutters. Her eyes roll at me knowingly, as though I am going to return the gesture and pile on with my own expressions of exasperation. Those Russians. They’re so, like, Russian.
The only reason Jen’s talking to me at all is because it’s exams time and she needs my help. We’ve decided, I guess, to study at this Western-style restaurant, because here you can order things like Chicken! Fingers!
The last three months, the eight other Americans on this study abroad have gathered in one chummy clump and separated themselves from me wherever and whenever possible. Looking back with more than a decade of hindsight, it’s easy to see why: I’m the youngest student on this trip, and I’m utterly na´ve, excruciatingly immature, outrageously obnoxious and irritatingly enthusiastic.
As for me, I’m wracked with the classic inferiority/superiority complex: Though I desperately long for the rare kind word from them, I also pity them. Each one struggles against homesickness and severe language barriers, feels bewildered by the proclivities of their host families, gets confused by maps, feels intimidated by modes of transportation and becomes openly hostile in dining situations.
I definitely do not fit in with my countrymen.
And I don’t fit in with the Russians either, who glare at me, perplexed, when I smile at strangers, over-thank or over-apologize.
Once in March, for example, I find myself shoulder to shoulder, back to front with Russian commuters of all descriptions and odors, each of us hanging onto the ceiling straps on a crowded bus hurtling and bounding over snow and ice. I feel my small frame buoyed up by the other passengers, floating in a gray, garlicky, sweaty, woolen, furry — and completely silent — sea on wheels.
At one point our vessel lurches and I gracelessly topple into a staid, black-clad man wearing a fur cap, launching him back several steps, setting off a fur-cap domino effect.
“Forgive me, please!” I implore all around. The man stares at me, puzzled and irritated, and tells me wordlessly: Kid, in this country we don’t apologize for an accident over which we have no control. Save your apologies for when you truly offend someone.
I imagine the kind of spirited, can-do, howdyish, Midwestern personality I embody must seem peculiar, unwise or crazy here. My bare Ohio earnestness presents like an overwrought affectation here in the largest city in Europe. I’m so out of place.
I am living with gentle but not affectionate host parents who adapt meals to my imperious vegetarianism and gleefully settle in with me each night to watch American situation comedies dubbed over first in Polish, then in Russian.
But even with their kindness and magnanimity, I still feel deeply, painfully lonely: At one point I realize it has been weeks since anyone hugged me. I ache for kinship, understanding, the ease of intimacy among friends, someone just to get me.
I must adapt to this solitude. I have no choice but to experience Moscow alone. It’s time to shut this ever-loving American mouth and open a neutral heart.
And I find in my experiment that the Russians are not at all this cold race who disapprove of public displays of cheerfulness and mirth. They simply don’t understand the purpose of effusive politeness.
I learn that they prefer genuine interaction and authentic emotional expression. When I finally find friends among the Russian university students, they embrace me heartily, speak slowly, listen patiently and ask me a million questions about my family, my boyfriend, my university, my life.
They bring me along on all kinds of urban adventures for which I now feel truly fortunate, such as a night of intense avant-garde performance art in an underground club, a concert by the art-rock band Auktyon, a dinner party where we all recite poetry we’d been forced to memorize in school, film screenings and a day trip to Gorky Park where we eat ice cream by the Moscow River.
Though people start to mistake me for a Muscovite when I read Izvestia on the subway and bust confidently through the city without consulting a map, I realize that I still don’t really fit in, here or at home. That I’ve never fit in anywhere.
And that’s OK. I am still someone’s missing piece.
CONTACT FRANCES L. HARP: email@example.com