by Kemal O. Nicholson
I remember it, like if it were yesterday. After a four hour flight from London, I made my descent into the deep winter, my thoughts bursting with expectation, but at the same time some degree of expected nervousness. I was after all the first of a batch of new students on government scholarship to Russia.
I remember when I first mentioned to close friends my intentions of going to Russia, I was asked by many if I was mad. As far as we all knew, there were no Antiguans there. Western media is usually rife with images of Russia, either as a troubled state or as an aggressive state. More than once I was told to reconsider, as Antigua was the safest place for me to be. One friend pointed out the huge amount of tourist arrivals.”They want to come here,” he said. “Why would you want to go there?”
I suppose that I have always enjoyed swimming against the tide. It would not be entirely true to say that I did not have any doubts myself, but I was young and I was restless, with a great desire to learn (especially from other cultures) and these were the push factors that motivated me.
Thus, as I made my descent into the deep winter, I had no idea what to expect. To be honest I expected to be greeted with all of the negative images which I had previously seen of Russia. After Leaving my connecting flight to Moscow from the UK , I felt as if I was leaving the Last civilized post in the world. I now understand that this was representative of my limited worldview at the time. A Lot of people have limited world views. I’ve met many of them during my years of study in Russia, and during my travels to other countries. I’ve been able to understand them and their thought process because at some stage I also was likewise limited. Limited by experience, limited by hearsay (propaganda), limited by my own worldview.
I arrived in Moscow in February 2010. Looking back, I can say the time has really flown. It was -30 degrees, and snowing when I arrived there. To say that I was cold would be an understatement. I couldn’t understand how people could live in such temperatures.
My first impression was that Russians never smiled. We come from a society where we are encouraged to display pleasant and friendly expressions. I soon came to understand this was not the case in Russia. After a few months there I realized that a smiling face has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of a person. Russians are quite friendly; once they get to know you. If you become friends with a Russian he/she can be your friend for life, through thick and thin. Once I understood this I began to pay less attention to the serious faces. Even in our own society there are people we can all count on, people who prefer to smile and talk less, but on whom we can rely. I’m sure everyone can relate as to having such a friend or acquaintance.
Moscow is an old and beautiful city. During my first winter I didn’t see it much because of the cold temperatures. Once the snow had cleared and I began to venture outside I noted the beauty of the Architecture, with different buildings from different time periods of Moscow’s history.
I’ve since gotten a chance to see several other Russian cities, and I can say that I was always stunned by the varying beauty of all the cities I visited, From St Petersburg-To Vladivostok.
I had a lot of fun explaining to people in Russia where Antigua was located. The majority of Russians hadn’t heard of it and I always felt like I was some sort of emissary or messenger. Their eyes would light up as I told them stories of the Sun, sea and sparkling sand, with many asking me to invite them once I got back. I believe a lot more could be done for relations between our countries.
The main task when living in a country with another language is to learn that language. The Russian Alphabet looked like hieroglyphics to me but with the help of my Russian professors, and some audio software that I downloaded I was able to grasp the first bit of Russian which I needed for day to day movements, and as I made more Russian acquaintances My Russian vocabulary grew to the point where I would even astonish myself with the fluency. My first attempts at “I speak English, do you speak English?” didn’t work especially since I was being taught entirely in Russian.
Language like anything else is a process, but it’s one of those things that can be quite elementary if one has no other choice but to learn it.
Nothing is without challenges. The main two challenges I have already mentioned are the cold weather and the language. To any future sojourners, dress warm and focus on learning the language. We live in an increasingly globalized environment and the challenges in any given territory or environment are almost the same in today’s world. Let us be bold, Let us step out and engage new territory and seek new horizons. Surely this can only enrich us a nation, and strengthen us a people.
Kemal Nicholson currently resides in Moscow Russia, and was the First Antiguan and Barbudan to Graduate from a Russian University. He holds a Bachelors degree in Political Science and is currently Pursuing a Masters degree in World Politics and International Relations. Nicholson’s literary accomplishments include honourable mention in the 2006 Wadadli Pen Challenge and winning the 2008 Independence Literary Arts competition in Antigua and Barbuda.
Reprinted with thanks to Nicholson, a Wadadli Pen alum who continues to make great strides, for granting permission to share his experiences in Russia; his underlying theme of openness to and engagement with other cultures far removed from our own, overcoming our prejudices, and enriching our experience of life in the process, seem particularly timely in these times.
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