a big beautiful mess

It is COLD in Russia, you guys! (Or, a brief introduction to the varieties of northern Russian boots).

After the collective chorus of “I told you so!” abates, let me tell my story of the last couple of days.

Everyone is very excited about the cold, and very excited to ask me, “Zamyorzli?” — “Are you cold?” with a knowing grin on their face. It got down to -29°C [-20°F] last night, making this officially the coldest weather I have ever dealt with. I’ve been drinking a lot of tea. The biggest problem is that keeping my feet warm has proven to be a bigger challenge than I expected.

Yesterday, after spending some productive time at the Central Coffee House downtown, translating a complicated article from last semester, I got on the bus to go home. But something was different about this bus ride. After about fifteen minutes on the bus, we had not yet gotten to the turn onto my street. It should have taken us about two minutes. There are always traffic jams at rush hour, but this one was epic. The bus was standing still, like a waiting room, the windows all frosted with ice and nothing but the red glow of taillights letting us know what was going on outside. The woman next to me tried to make a hole in the ice on the window  to see where we were, but all she revealed was a slightly larger patch of fence.

As we crept down the street, I was getting crazier and crazier inside. My feet were cold from the bus being cold, and from not moving. I was anxious to get home and have dinner. I had to go to the bathroom. I decided to get off a couple stops early, about a fifteen minute walk from home. I regretted the decision almost as soon as I stepped off the bus, but I would regret it much much more by the time I finally made it home. Moving my feet did nothing to warm them up, as it turns out. They just kept getting colder and colder, and hurting more and more, and finally getting number and number. My wonderful beautiful fur-lined Russian boots were failing me! By the time I made it to my block, it felt like I was desperately getting my feet home, rather than them getting me home. When I finally did make it back, of course the sweet talkative old night watchman was on duty, and he wanted to talk about what a mild winter it has been, and I had to almost run away from him to get to my room, where I threw off my boots and shoved my feet in between the pipes of my radiator. I couldn’t feel anything. Later in the night, once my feet defrosted a little bit, I wasn’t able to keep them on the radiator for long because it was so hot.

Today, I was determined to conquer this problem (read: terrified that I was grossly and dangerously underprepared). I had the first Conversation Club at the American Corner at 4, so I left home early, around 1pm with my fur boots stuffed full of socks to do some shopping beforehand. I took the bus and walked a few blocks to one of the bazaars, in search of wool mittens and socks and scarves, oh my! I saw a woman wearing these boots, pimy, which have reindeer fur on the outside and inside! One of the Norwegian girls who I went to the monastery with had boots like these, and I think she was the only one there without cold feet. Łukasz was considering pimy during the Great Boot Hunt of 2011, but I think the price of 8,000 rubles put him off.

At the bazaar (which was still partly outdoors, mind you, despite the fact that it was -27°C),  I failed to buy anything other than a pair of socks which the lady persuaded me to buy by pointing out that they were “Ours, Russian-made,” and not imported from Korea or somewhere. She also rubbed them on my face for me, so I could see how soft they were. And then I got right back on the bus and went home as quickly as possible, because my toes were starting to feel like they were made out of wood again. I was, I admit, quite distressed. As I came in, the two girls who were on duty, sitting in the lobby watching TV, looked up, and asked the inevitable– “Zamyorzli?” “Just a little bit,” I answered. “You have to get some gloves!” the older of the two scolded me. “I have some, of course!” I answered quickly, pulling them out of my pockets. Her response? “Disgraceful!” That was not heartening.

In my room, I took stock of the situation. I had decided not to wear the heavy duty L.L. Bean winter boots I brought with me because there is no furry insulation in the foot part, only on the ankles. But the Russian-bought boots were clearly not cutting it, so I decided the Bean boots couldn’t possibly be worse. I changed into a pair of slightly heavier, polyester tights, then put on a pair of thin wool socks, then a pair of heavy wool socks, then a pair of footless leggings, then my jeans.

This combination seemed to work. I made it to the library with my feet still palpable, and had a fantastic time leading the first Conversation Club. The topic was culture shock, and I had a lot to say– too much, probably. Next time, I need to speak more slowly, and less. We’re planning to have the chairs in a circle as well, instead of rows of desks, to make it more conducive to an actual conversation. But regardless of the downsides, the people who came asked really good questions– the perennial question about the bears, of course, but also questions like, “Don’t you think it would help socialization to avoid speaking in your native language?” and “What about Russia do you like so much?” and we ended on a discussion of gender roles in the family.

Afterwards, Zhenya and Alina and I went to a Blin Haus nearby and talked, in English and Russian, about differences between American and Russian schools, about the weather, about the drinking age in Russia and America… and about winter footwear. I learned about yet another kind of boot, valenki. Learning this word put a lot of puzzle pieces together– Alina had shown me little keychain-sized souvenir valenki when I was Christmas shopping back in December. I’ve also seen life-size valenki in the children’s section of a couple of shoe stores, but was never quite sure what their intended purpose was. And, I saw another person at the bazaar wearing them today! They look like a bad children’s drawing of boots, but I promise, they are real, and people wear them. They’re made out of wool felt and apparently are super warm.

So now you know. The crisis seems to be averted for the time being, the Bean boots serving their purpose (fingers crossed). I got home this evening and the night watchman greeted me with, you guessed it, “Zamyorzli?” I gave up on trying to impress the Russians with my stoicism and said, “YES! I am freaking COLD.”

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