Today marks my third day in Kyiv, where I will spend the next couple of months studying Russian language at the NovaMova International Language School and interning at the Institute of World Policy. Two of the first things I did upon my arrival here in Kyiv were to seek out a few safe, pleasurable running routes for daily exercise and locate the closest Catholic church where I can continue to practice my faith, which is a fundamental part of who I am. These two priorities are serving me well, helping to keep me grounded and comfortable as I acclimate to new surroundings and challenges. I’m also discovering that despite my initial stumbles as a clumsy foreign guest in others’ homeland, genuine bonds of kindness and understanding can transcend language and cultural barriers, turning new surroundings into an environment of warm enrichment.
For example, after my host mom and I finished eating dinner together last night, I accidentally dropped and shattered a plate when I was helping to clear the tiny kitchen table and wash the dishes. I felt awfully embarrassed and apologetic, like I was a burdensome nuisance causing a wreck in someone else’s home, but my hostess surprised me when she turned to me and said “You’re a good girl” with a smile. She appreciated me helping with the household chores and cared more about me wanting to spend time with her, talk with her (despite my broken Russian), and help her with the dishes, than she cared about the ruined plate. Her forgiveness forged a trusting connection between us, and I learned once and for all that the Russian words for broken plate are разбитая тарелка.
Another instance of my initial abroad stumbles fashioning unexpected growth occurred during my first solo experience of the metro system. Other passengers and I piled into an already crowded car at one of the transfer stations in the central part of the city. I couldn’t reach any handles to grip and brace myself, so I firmly planted my feet in a broad stance and hoped the acceleration wouldn’t be too extreme for me to keep my balance. Unfortunately, my dense body and small feet, coupled with the fast take-off caused me to lose my footing, and I accidentally stomped hard on a woman’s foot with all my weight. I knew it hurt her because she gasped and wrinkled her face, but she completely understood that it was an innocent infliction of pain and that I felt bad about it. I sincerely apologized in Russian, but communicated more with my facial expression than verbal language, and her face transformed from one of pain to one of compassion. Instantly, it seemed a small bond of kindness and understanding formed between us that would last beyond our short ride on the public transportation.
Lastly, on my way back home from St. Nicholas’s Cathedral this evening, it started to rain. I was glad that I had packed an umbrella from America, and I held it overhead as I walked to the Olympiiska metro station. Unfortunately, the wet umbrella created a dirty puddle on the metro car floor, and I wondered who would have to deal with my mess after I disembarked from the train and went on my way. “Why am I leaving a trail of broken or soggy messes wherever I go in Kyiv?” I thought to myself. Then, as I was walking up a hill to my host-family’s flat, I came across an elderly woman with bulging grocery bags dangling from both of her hands. Her silver hair was turning dark grey as the rain fell upon and saturated her head. I held my umbrella over her head and together we continued to walk up the steep incline towards our apartments. She thanked me and began a quickly-spoken monologue in Ukrainian. I explained to her in Russian that I’m American and don’t know much Russian or Ukrainian, but that I’m living here for a little while. She understood what I had said, but continued to talk to me rapidly in Ukrainian as we walked along the path. She knew I wasn’t understanding much, but I could tell that she didn’t really want or need me to understand her words. She simply liked having someone listen to her and keep the rain off her head.
We parted ways as she went into her apartment building on the right and I went into mine on the left. Her gracious departing thanks immediately got me contemplating the concept of understanding, the roles words play in our lives, and the ways in which we communicate the most important things in life.
I am far from mastery of Russian or Ukrainian, but I’m amazed by how much Ukrainians and I can communicate without complete comprehension of words. In fact, a lack of understanding the languages is helping me to better focus on other aspects of communication and relationships. What if we focused less on the peripheral aspects of understanding and being understood by others, and focused more on listening to and caring for people? What if we focused more on our common rain showers, shattered plates, and joys than on our own independent pathways? In some ways I feel a lot like the animals and small children that I see during my daily runs through the city. They don’t understand much Russian or Ukrainian either, but they nevertheless know how to communicate love, happiness, pain, and needs in their interactions with others, and they’re able to bring joy to those who speak a language they don’t understand.
My Russian will continue to quickly improve, and I look forward to learning more and more, but for now, I’m very thankful for my lack of knowledge, since it’s giving me insights that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to see in the same valuable way. Although right now I’m a clumsy foreigner who can’t comprehend or speak fluently in the homeland tongue, I’m able to take the rain off of someone’s head, even if I create some messy puddles, too.