Throughout my stay here, fellow teachers and students have repeatedly asked me how I manage to go about daily tasks: grocery shopping, trips to the post office, bus rides, etc. At first I was insulted by this line of questioning.
I used to tease my family that I would get married here if they didn’t come visit me, to force their confrontation with this country that’s stolen my heart. Whether my threats worked or my parents finally decided to see what all the commotion was about, they arrived in Russia two weeks ago. This trip turned out to be payback for all our family “vacations” to different battlefields or “Trail of Tears” monuments where my mother insisted on reading every plaque from beginning to end.
In fact this vacation was a total “Freaky Friday” role reversal. My parents were completely reliant on me to read their menus, find them bathrooms on a minute’s notice, and fill the rather large gaps in their knowledge of who killed whom and who wrote what in the past 300 years of Russian history and literature.
My responsibility as a tour guide/unexpected parent to my own parents was not without fulfillment. The pride I can only imagine progenitors must feel when their offspring perform at recitals or walk across graduation stages was mine to experience when I saw my mother haggle down two amber necklaces for the price of one, with Russian skills learned from a 1980s-made tape set called Passport to Russia and free basic lessons from our local library (some of the set phrases she’s learned by heart include “I am an English woman,” and “I like coffee with milk,” although neither of these phrases is remotely true).
I felt the reluctant joy parents must experience when they see their teenagers drive away, their first time at the wheel alone. After letting my parents mindlessly follow me through the tunnels and stations of the metros both in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I finally made them figure out our destination on their own, deciphering the colored lines and blocky script without my assistance. Although I could decide our path of travel or what train to take more quickly, by the end of the trip they no longer needed me to do this for them.
I would also make them do tasks they were slightly uncomfortable completing, a holdover from my childhood when my father let go of my training wheel-less bicycle after he promised not to, but nevertheless I found myself riding smoothly across the pavement, an accomplishment I hadn’t expected. For my parents this meant making them try to order their food in Russian or give the conductor the right amount of fare.
My parents didn’t have a cell phone while they were here, so before the several professional meetings I needed to attend during their stay, I had to deposit them at a place of interest, inform them where the nearest bathroom was, and dole out money for coffee or whatever snack they wanted while I was away. If I was late in returning, I hurried along the crowded streets thinking what if I lost them, what if they are too cold, too hungry, too foreign.
I had to listen to a lot of questions like: “Are we there yet?” and a lot of statements like: “You didn’t warn me there wouldn’t be toilet paper in the bathroom!” but they were worth the looks of literal shock and awe that occupied my parents’ faces for most of their trip. Watching them take in Red Square at sunset with a full moon hanging among St. Basil’s cupolas or peer down the depths of the longest escalator ride they have ever taken satisfied my need for my parents to make an acquaintance with this place.
They also wore me out. In our quest to take in as much of Russia as possible we walked everywhere and climb everything. I was hyper alert the entire trip, wanting my parents to enjoy everything but also feeling responsible that they observe the correct Russian rules: standing on the right side of the escalator, getting out of your tram seat if a pensioner comes on, throwing your toilet paper into the trash can and not the bowl.
I started going to bed earlier and earlier in the evening, falling asleep with my clothes still on. I could hear my parents in the next room, looking at the day’s pictures, chatting with family back home, or quietly reviewing the events of the day. They stayed up until even the northern sun had set, relishing the adventure of their second youth.
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