Understanding the beauty of the absurd

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Ivan Aivazovsky, Field, Sunset

By Olga Shafran

In the 25 years that I have lived in the US, I went back to the former USSR exactly once ten years ago. I went to Kiev because I didn’t need a visa to enter Ukraine, to Minsk because that’s where I’m from, to St Petersburg because that’s where my husband is from, and Moscow because we felt that we should.  

I went with a group of friends, and we had a wonderful time and made lots of great memories.  We giggled at the rude sales-ladies in stores and laughed out loud when the waitress at Peterhof brought us menus and then proceeded to say “Netu” (we’re out of it) very sternly at every single item we tried to order.  It turned out the only food they had was the special that was written on the card in the middle of the table.  Why she brought us elaborate menus will forever remain a mystery.  We were able to retain a sense of humor about the whole thing, because we knew we would be going back in a few days.  

Although I was extremely emotional and constantly on the verge of tears while visiting the Belarusian countryside, picking mushrooms, watching the cranes fly over a field, or drinking ridiculous amounts of vodka with my childhood best friend and her loving family, I knew that I no longer belonged there.  

America is where I came of age, graduated from college, met my husband and got married, but it wasn’t until that visit back that I started to feel truly American.  

My kids love hearing stories of what our lives were like “in the old country.”  And they started asking why we don’t go to visit.  But they’re still in the age of childhood innocence where a person is either a “good guy” or a “bad guy”.  To understand Russia/Belarus/Ukraine you need to appreciate nuances and see the beauty in the absurd and the ugly in the glamorous.  I promised them that we would go one day.  I hope their patience outlasts the reign of Lukashenko.  

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