THE CHALLENGE TO SPEAK HAS ALWAYS CHOKED ME.
In classes, meetings, social events, the prospect of speaking up sizzled my nerves. I would be too paralyzed even for simple movements—like standing up to get a glass of water, lest I not be able to find some when I get there, or trip on my way. Sitting in a room with others, I would barely shift position, even if I was losing circulation in my foot.
I tried various things to find my voice and combat this combination of fear and shyness—voice lessons, public readings, social and professional functions. I had made a lot of progress by the time I was twenty-three, and no longer panicked at casual encounters.
Then I went to Siberia.
Plopping directly into Russia’s Far East might not have been the wisest choice for my first solo trip. But Russia was my dream, and despite the shyness, I had a sometimes-misguided I-can-do-this stubborn streak. So I charted a three-month train journey across the largest country on earth.
My drizzly first week in the naval port of Vladivostok passed slowly. Vladivostok had only opened to foreigners in 1992, twenty years before I arrived. It should have been a privilege to be there, one of few Western travelers to ever see the region, but it felt more like a trial, dampened by rain, culture shock, and loneliness in a gloomy hostel.
Cyrillic letters and rolling Russian conversation condensed into a constant fog. It was mostly white noise at that point, but I was determined to penetrate the verbal cloud.
Finally, the date on my pre-purchased train ticket arrived and I boarded a train called Rossiya (Russia). Joy shivered in my chest at the first gentle tug of motion, and I felt freer and freer as the chugging accelerated into the countryside. As towns and landscapes rolled past, I smiled at the shock of bright ultramarine blue houses among faded wood shacks. Ten hours later, I awoke about 750 kilometres north, in Khabarovsk.
Sunny Khabarovsk was matched by the warmth of my English-speaking hosts, Lesya and Yuri. While they worked, I was perfectly happy to promenade along the sea-sized Amur River for hours, enormous plastic cup of kvass—a barely alcoholic fermented rye beverage—in hand. But I also needed to eat.
In Russia, corner stores keep most products behind the counter, forcing you to ask for them; this far east, in Siberia, you have to ask in Russian. In cafes, pristinely groomed and dressed women met with men in either suits or track suits—my North Face travel gear pinned me as an outsider with piercing clarity.
A flaw in my grand journey’s design became apparent to me then. I could barely speak English under pressure—what the hell was I doing here, with first-year university Russian learned five years ago, barely refreshed in the months before departure?
Simply entering a café seemed impossible. The certain embarrassment of not understanding questions, and being watched by other diners, kept me devoted to street food for two full days. Even then, I paced up and down city blocks over and over and over and over, before stomach pains finally overcame cowardice and forced me to shuffle up to a kiosk to request whatever kind of pirozhki—a deep-fried meat-stuffed bun—was easiest to pronounce or point at. Thankfully Lesya’s homemade dinners were both healthy and delicious.
On my third day in Khabarovsk, after a generous portion of caviar for breakfast (courtesy of my hosts) I headed for a museum. After perusing a curated selection of art, historical artifacts and taxidermy, I went to collect my backpack from the coat check and remove the required crime scene-style plastic booties from my feet. The coat check lady started asking questions.
“Otkuda?” she simplified after I failed to respond to a more complicated query.
“Ya Kanadka,” I replied with false confidence, thrilled to know the answer to a Russian question for once.
She asked something else, but I didn’t understand. The security guard—a jolly, burly man about five times as big as me, with a thick handlebar moustache and a round, red clown nose shining on his ruddy face—strolled onto the scene to assist. His English was around the same helpless level as my Russian.
After several bouts of raised eyebrows and shrugging, I picked out Russian words for “where” and “husband.”
“Nyet, Ya odna.” No, I’m alone.
“Ohhhh!” They chorused and clapped their hands at me.
Taken aback, I laughed giddily. No one applauded or laughed when I told them I was going to Russia alone. Most people—Russians included—responded with a confused, “Why?” or a concerned, “It’s not safe.”
But these two—already strangely cheerful for Russian museum employees, who normally wandered the exhibitions with a scowl that guaranteed you would be damned to hell for touching or photographing any artifact—loved it. After a couple more clumsy exchanges, which I gathered to be jokes about how I looked like a turtle with my bulbous turquoise backpack, I left with many fond “do svidaniya”s and smiles.
The exchange had been absurdly simple compared to the amount of elation and accomplishment I felt. But it was my first interaction in Russian that went beyond food and money, the first time I laughed with someone in another language—at something other than my ineptitude.
That afternoon, I circled the block once, walked up to one of the hundreds of local ice cream kiosks that Khabarovsk is famous for, and sounded out their longest flavour. The blackberry-chocolate chill on my tongue was a triumph. When I’d scraped the bowl clean, I picked a mediocre-looking café, entered, fearlessly responded “table for one” to the question “smoking?”, sat down, and ordered a tuna sandwich and an espresso. For the first time on this trip, I was full before dinner.
Within a month, I’d rattle off grocery orders at store clerks in Russian without even reading from a list. Within four months, after I’d extended my trip to Ukraine, I’d bundle up for a late-night autumn barbeque in Sevastopol, and find that I could vaguely follow the Russian conversation between three engineers—even after multiple shots of vodka. Then I’d be asked to give a toast. And in Russia, a toast means a speech. Remembering the applause of the coat check lady and security guard in Khabarovsk, I stood up and gave my thanks.