Twenty-three-year-old Lisa, the staticky blond Ukrainian who'd ate borscht in a fuzzy brown sweatshirt so comfortably next to me, had given me the sensation that she was one of the rarest types of girls: one who'd make an eager, formidable travel partner. Well, I may never know if that was true or not. I left her city, crossed the Ukrainian-Russian border, and arrived on May 13th in the town I'll be staying in.
Staryy Oskol, pop. 200,000, isn't as pearly-clean nor pretty as Ukraine. But, it ought to be interesting, because I've never seen another place like it.
The people live in fat, ten-story, color-less, old buildings - as if they'd been put there like mice. These buildings have been dropped about the flat area, separated by lawn, which adds to the walking time and makes the place less pedestrian-friendly. There aren't many personally-owned shops in town, but rather a lot of huge supermarket chains.
The impression I got from this was that the people don't have a lot of control over their lives. They've little autonomy over where they can live, work, shop. It seemed like a place where the people would be weak, as if they don't act much but instead do as they're told.
Staryy Oskol is largely a town of factories and mining. I was told that much of it was built during the Soviet area when a young communists' group came to help construct some of the mines and factories. Oh boy, nothing makes the heart gleeful like the image of a bunch of young communists merrily laboring for the good of the community!
Of course, my impressions of real-life Russia and of a long-gone Soviet communist system are in their infant stages. Just like an infant.
I've mainly been associating with the area's middle-to-upper class, until now. I live in one of the town's growing number of modern detached houses. A family is letting me stay with them and feeding me, like I'm their third, older and hairier son. The father is an engineer and the brother of Albina, my Russian friend from the Czech Republic. If it wasn't for Albina and her husband Igor, I'd probably be having the cultural experience of living in a Russian ditch somewhere.
Instead, I'm teaching occasionally in a language institute. The students are young and intelligent and progressive. One boy, Dima, is a seventeen-year-old writer who philosophizes we have to perform our missions in twenty-six worlds before reaching ... well, more worlds.
Two girls, Nadezda (whose name means "hope") and Elina, have become my best friends here. We walk amongst the hedges of mediocre Staryy Oskol parks, play Russian billiards, buy beer in two-liter plastic bottles, talk, and dance.
Interestingly enough, Russian billiards is played using balls that are too big to fit in the holes. Thus, you play for hours and hours, and nobody ever makes a ball. It's a communist game, designed in a way so that no one can ever win, and thus no one will be better than anyone else, and everyone will be equal. Hooray!
-- Just kidding, sorry. Actually, the balls are only slightly smaller than the holes, so it's still tough to make them, but it can be done.
Twenty-one-year-old Elina has hiding eye-sockets and lips like a stingray. Her moon-thin skin glows. Radiant jaw-bones arch smoothly towards a cute ear and neck. She has a tall painted forest of dark eyelashes and long black hair that would be heavy like a bundle of sticks if put in a ponytail.
She says "zuh" instead of "the" like she's French, she smiles foolishly and cracks up even if she's the only one laughing, and she calls herself "best dancer" and moves like a shaking baton. Her pale purple lips have welcomed me at times with a warm addiction for kissing. She's the type of girl you just want to look at and draw close to and dance with. Unfortunately, she prefers "pop" music, yuk.
Taller, long-cinnamon-haired, dimple-cheeked Nadezda has a harder life than Elina's, I think. She's closed and cement, as if she's come to assume people interact only because they seek to take from each other. From what I've been told, some Russian guys expect sex for small favors and other times use power and intimidation to get it. Around me and Elina, Nadezda is usually clever and talkative and happy.
Elina would like to go to America. Nadezda would like to meet a clever buy, and she'd like me to travel with them back to Europe. I'd like to have fun and be close to them, then continue on my way.
After hanging out with the girls, I return to the family home. The late-thirties father - also called Igor - has a big friendly laugh and loves Russian comedies.
The best one we watched was called, "Kafkavskaya Plennitsa" (Caucausus Captive). It had a lot of silly action, and I'd recommend watching it.
At one point, a young man is jumping wrapped-up in his sleeping bag, and he falls and rolls into a fast river. One criminal is nearby, getting a drink from the river, and he quickly pulls up his shirt. But, instead of diving in and saving the young man, he scratches his belly, pulls his shirt down again, and runs away.
Later, there is a car chase. The criminals throw fruit at the good guys' car. One criminal takes out a small slingshot, puts a cucumber inside, and shoots it but the cucumber doesn't fly two inches. When his fellow criminal looks at him, he motions sending the palm of one hand splatting into his fist violently, and nods a victory grin.
Much thanks to Eduard & Valya for the place to stay!