I’ve been in Russia for less than half an hour and I’ve already seen at least three kids with mullets. I’ve already been yelled at by an airport official (you can’t look at my passport and tell me it’s not mine just because I’m wearing glasses). I’ve already had a brief, yet hellish, encounter with the sandpaper that Russian airports try to pass as toilet paper. Welcome to the motherland. So many things have changed since I’ve been to Russia last, myself included (apparently). It’s been three years, after all. My grandma sent a taxi driver to pick me up, instructing him to look for a tall, blonde, chubby (her words, not mine) girl. Needless to say, we spent a good 15 minutes looking for each other. I am neither tall (5’6″ is pretty average, but I also make it a point not to wear heels in Russia because my grandmother is convinced that tall girls get no men), blonde (not even close, although I did highlight my hair once), nor chubby (see grandma? I took your advice from last time, the advice being: stop eating). It took the cab driver all of two minutes to figure out that my cover story of living in Moscow was a lie. It took me another twenty-five minutes to convince him that going to a university in Europe would give me such a thick American accent. It took no time at all to realize that it was a good call not to tell him that I’m American. With all the things happening in Crimea, I kept my mouth shut and waxed poetic about all the great times I had studying abroad in Paris (which is true, but just for one brief summer of my life), while the cab driver told me of evil incarnate in the form of Джо Байден.
Of all the senses that get assaulted on every single one of my returns to Russia, the sense of smell is always the strongest. The sickly sweet smell of my grandmother’s perfume as she holds me close when I get home. The smell of pickled cucumbers and garlic that hits me as soon as I walk into her house. The smell of (to put it bluntly) chicken crap that permeates the (appropriately located) chicken coop in the back of her house. The smell of gasoline tinged with the smell of fresh bread and fried bundles of stuffed cabbage pierozhki, as I cross Karl Marx street and Kommunist street. The smell of sweaty bodies, a little too used to the Soviet standards of showering (that is, once a week, if at all).
The experience of Russia is loud and visceral. It’s like being hit in the stomach, eyes, and mouth with one of those 2.5 liter bottles of beer that seem to fill at least half of every grocery store here. The longer I am here, the more I realize my true home is no longer here, but back in the U.S. I can’t say I miss the smell of pee on the New York City subways, but I miss the sense of (largely misaligned) comfort the griminess of the city brings. I miss the smell of the incense and lavender essential oil in my yoga studio. I even miss the smell of that one block in New Haven that has like four Thai restaurants on it. Like my grandmother’s perfume, Russia is just a little too sickly sweet.