On the bus ride from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport to the town of Vladimir, located about 200 kilometers east of the capital, my 26 compatriots from the Critical Languages Scholarship program (http://clscholarship.org/index.html) and I were told that our host families would be waiting for us. I gave my host mom a hug as she told me I’d be living in a part of town called “Dobroe”, and, considering the translation, was feeling pretty great about my luck in terms of location. As we turned onto the main street, Bolshaia Moskovskaia, I thought about the fact that I was finally (finally!) in Russia after countless semesters of language study in the U.S. I considered the nights spent memorizing verb conjugations as an undergrad, and the summers I had given up paid work to do intensive study. Happy to have finally made it to Russia, I looked out the window and realized we were still, well, driving.
Vladimir is a small city by most standards, with a population of around 300,000. It’s famous for its importance as a medieval capital, and the place where Alexander Nevsky was initially buried (later moved to St. Petersburg by Peter the Great). What it is not well known for is being a sprawling metropolis.
Turns out, Dobroe actually used to be a separate town all unto itself. When Vladimir expanded, the boarders of Dobroe and Vladimir grew so close that, in effect, they melded into a single town. That’s all well and good for Vladimir, but for me, I’ve just never really been an outskirts kind of girl. I’m more a center-of-the-action type. I was jealous of those students who got to live in the center of town. And, lest you think I’m a shallow snob, there were some serious practicalities involved in my envy. For instance, those students who lived closer to the center were often able to walk to school in the morning. I, on the other hand, had a 30 minute bus ride, which involved many an uncomfortable interaction. For instance, most mornings I had to mumble my way through a confrontation with the ticket woman. Attempt to pay her with a 500 ruble note for a 12 ruble ticket and I promise that all hell will break loose, at which point your language skills will break down and it will be necessary to open your wallet to show her that you do not, indeed, have anything smaller that you are simply trying to hide from her.
Another major inconvenience of living in the suburbs was that the buses stopped running around 11pm. Though this didn’t prevent me from going out, it did force me to call a cab in order to get home. Cabs in Vladimir are not really the luxury they are in major metropolitan areas in the U.S. That is not to say that they are seedy, but that they are very affordable. While this factor was a major plus, taxis are not simply waved down on the street, but require one to call a dispatcher who then sends a cab out to the present location of the caller. The downside of this, of course, is that it requires a conversation in Russian with a dispatcher who is usually not very happy to be working third shift.
After a few painful exchanges with cab dispatchers, I decided to stay closer to home and try the one and only bar in Dobroe, “Belii Medved”. “Belii”, as we affectionately came to call her, soon turned into my favorite place in town. I quickly felt a rapport with the bartenders, who helped correct my pronunciation of the names of beers. Word spread around our group that we had been accepted at Belii, the sign being that we were served alcohol in glasses, rather than plastic cups. Soon, students from the center of town headed out to Dobroe to check out Belii with us.
By the end of the program, my resentment for being stuck on the fringes of town had turned into pleasant satisfaction. I had learned the faces of my neighbors, got into a routine of running at the elementary school’s track in the mornings, and watched as the babushkas repainted the playground outside of my apartment building. I liked the rest of Vladimir. Going to soccer games and art exhibits in the center of town was fun, but it was Dobroe that became familiar. By the end of the summer I recognized that Dobroe has her own pulse and rhythm, history and character, like every city, and every village. I even started to believe the legend that the village of Dobroe had been named such after Ivan the Terrible had passed through it and been so impressed that he uttered a single word “dobroe”. And, thanks to my apartment’s distant location, I had learned how to call a cab after a few beers and handle a mad Russian woman on public transportation at eight in the morning.
Nellie Manis is a 2nd year MA student interested in Russian, East European, and Eurasian sociology and law with particular interest in the minority experience and the rights of under-served communities. She received a BA in History and a BA in International Studies from Penn State University in 2008. After completing her MA in 2012 she hopes either to pursue an MA in Translation and Interpretation, or pursue a career in the international sphere, while continuing to study Russian, French, and modern Greek.