Photos courtesy of Megan Mead
“My body can’t handle this Russian cold.”
The complaint rose in a frosted steam, muffled by the layers of scarves and jackets wrapped around her face. The complaint was particularly funny because it came from my friend and travel companion, Ekaterina Makarova, who is not only a Russian native, but has been a Moscow city dweller for 24 years of her life. She’d gotten use to the balmy SoCal weather during her time in college and had joked that the only way she’d survive a trip home would be “layering my tank tops.” Standing in urban Moscow, in all of her mismatched layers, comparing her to a Matryoska doll (a russian nesting doll) would’ve been humorously unavoidable.
The cold was a pleasant change for me. I’d spent the last few months in Tampa, Florida where it’d been 87 degrees on Christmas day. I was looking forward to seeing seasons, and despite never having lived in the snow, I’ve always enjoyed it every chance I could. I was also looking forward to the cold placing distance between me and my last few months in Florida. I’d left California on a rather sudden note to take care of my father, who’d been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. My life for the past several months consisted of radiation appointments, prescription pickups and noisy sitcom reruns. Moscow winter was a blustery breath of fresh air.
We stayed at Ekaterina’s apartment. She’d lived there with her parents and her two younger brothers all her life, and they’d kept her room unchanged, as if she were still living there with them. Despite my American friends warning me about Russian culture being “cold and standoffish,” I was met with warmth, love and tons of hearty and delicious food. Ekaterina whispered to me as we were meeting her babushkas (grandmothers): “You’re a guest, so they’re going to compliment you nonstop. Just smile and nod.” I was also pleasantly surprised that Ekaterina’s family were not really Vodka drinkers. They were more into Cognac and Bourbon, which was music to my whiskey-drinker ears. Brandy kept us warm as we ventured into the snowy Moscow streets, and quiet familial fondness kept us warm when we returned for the night. Well, that and the central Moscow heating that turns on for the entire city. There’s no switch in the apartments, so residents can’t turn it off, so people roast at night. That part wasn’t as fun.
One week into our Moscow adventure, I got a call from my step mom in Florida.
My dad had passed away.
I was watching snow fall gently outside the window of Ekaterina’s room when she told me. And remembering all the stories dad had told me of his childhood in Iowa. I imagined a young version of dad walking on the street below me, clad in his puffy snow suit, dragging his toboggan behind him.
In that moment, the Moscow cold didn’t separate us at all. If anything, it made him feel closer than ever.
Ekaterina’s mom doesn’t speak any English, but she gave me the biggest hug when she found out about dad, and she refused to let me go until I stopped crying. Moms, no matter where they’re from, know how to give the best hugs, the ones that let you know everything is going to be ok.
And that is what I found in Russia: a family that treated me like I was one of their own, regardless of a language barrier or cultural eccentricities. I found a family that looked me in the eye and said “You better come back and visit” when they took me to the airport. I found a family that comforted me during devastating loss.
People ask me if I regret finding out about my dad’s death while I was abroad. I don’t. Standing in the Moscow cold, feeling the snowflakes fall on my eyelashes and sting my cheeks, I felt at peace knowing I was partaking in a winter tradition he was all too familiar with.
I was staying warm in a frozen world.