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Winter In Moscow (Sojourn, America)

James Warren September 08, 2022
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Human connection can be found in some of the most unexpected places.

In December 1989, during my junior year in high school, I had the opportunity to travel to Moscow as part of a student exchange trip. This was the culmination to an already pivotal year, but in terms of my personal education, and world history. Earlier that year, I traveled to Germany on a youth missions trip, supported by my church and family. Just a few months later, the Berlin Wall fell. My mother concluded that my trip to Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, coupled with my trip to Moscow, meant that I was destined to precede big things in the world. (And when the Soviet Union collapsed just a couple of years after my trip to Moscow, my mother would often convey a sense of “I told you so,” related to my travels, world history, and my penchant for significant coincidences.)

The trip was so expensive for our family, for a while I didn’t think I could go. I don’t know what the experience was like for other students from non-wealthy backgrounds, but in my case, opportunity seemed to find me, early and often at my high school, The Dwight School. I remember that my school was generous when it came to providing access to opportunities for me, which was the case again in this situation. A portion of the trip was covered as a scholarship, and my mother did what she could to cover the difference.

This was a different kind of trip for me. Save for a few chaperones, I was traveling with my classmates, my peers. I’d never traveled anywhere without family, or that wasn’t related to my religious Christian upbringing (church camps, revival camps, vacation Bible school, mission trips, etc.). Looking back, this trip may have sparked a new openness in me, that for a period of time thereafter, was at odds with my religious background. 

I think it was just one or two days after Christmas, and I can’t remember the airline, though I kept my boarding pass and have it somewhere. (I think it was Pan Am, because I vaguely remember the trip to Germany being aboard TWA.) My soundtrack was a combination of my various musical influences and preferences at the time, ranging from MC Lyte, De La Soul and Big Daddy Kane, to The Bangles and Janet Jackson, to Steven Curtish Chapman and Amy Grant. Ah, the musical fusion that comes from the youth of a Black teenager in 1980s NYC, who also attended many predominantly White charismatic Christian churches growing up. 

We packed our suitcases with Levi’s 501 button-fly jeans to give our host families – these were explained to us to be extremely valuable in Russia, and relatively inexpensive in the U.S., so they made for great gifts – and lots of Quaker Oats chewy granola bars and Swiss Miss hot chocolate packets for ourselves, in case we couldn’t or didn’t want to overcome our American palates in favor of the local cuisine.

One of things I noticed – and almost always realized during my time at Dwight – was that I was one of the only Black people around: on the trip, on the flight, and certainly in Moscow. I remember that I had a little bit of a crush on a girl who was on the trip. We were already friends and at one point during the flight over, she fell asleep with her head on my shoulder. I don’t think I ever told her, but as classmates and friends, flying over the Atlantic, just that little bit of connection made me feel less alone and less out of place. 

When we landed in Moscow, we were met by our sister school and host families. Everything about Moscow shocked me, but nothing more than how utterly, utterly cold it was. I was thankful for the large, black puffy coat with the fur-trimmed hood and the requisite Black Timberland boots I wore, because after all, I had to represent the NYC in the USSR – and stay warm. My hosts were a teenage girl around my age and her grandmother. 

The first few hours and couple of days were a jet-lagged blur. The food was… different. A lot of it I tried, a little of it I enjoyed, and some of it I didn’t. One thing that immediately stood out about my host family’s home was that it was tiny. I saw only one bedroom, so I wondered where everyone would sleep. I quickly learned that my student host gave up the bedroom for me, and she and her grandmother slept in the living room. Their hospitality warmed my heart during those cold Moscow days and nights.

I remember buying souvenirs in or near Red Square (many of which I’ve managed to keep all these years): a classic Russian fur hat, nesting dolls, soviet-style pins, etc. We all planned to keep some of our Russian currency to bring home, and I remember tearing a dollar in two halves for my host and me to sign and exchange. 

I remember an event at a school or cultural center, where we took in a performance from some of the students of our host school. I remember becoming friendly with my classmate’s host. This guy was cool, funny and smart; he loved talking about the differences and similarities between the USA and the USSR. We got along well.

One day we left the city and traveled past the outskirts, into a more rural where saw more of the cultural heritage on display, and one of Russia’s famed ski jumps. Back in the city, I found the architecture of Red Square and the Kremlin, and all of the “bulb-y” buildings quite beautiful. In Red Square, there wasn’t a Black person in sight, initially. And then, far across the way, I spotted some faces that stood out; they appeared to be Black. I remember walking over to them and we exchanged excited “hellos” as we recognized a common bond derived of some ancient shared ethnicity, and of simply standing there, so out of place in Red Square, as “only’s” and “others” in a sea of something that I viewed as common-ness. Looking back, this was probably one of my strongest memories of learning about other people, who were at first glance different from me. It was also a time when I remember us (as Americans) having something profoundly in common: simply, our Americanness. Perhaps both of these views were mistaken on my part, since as we learned, below the surface in the Soviet Union were so many different ethnicities and nationalities in that place at that time, and the same could easily be said about America, even if the physical differences were more apparent. Perhaps my assessment of what was both common and different back then was merely skin deep; I’m grateful that today I possess a more thoughtful appreciation of what makes us who we are, individually and together. 

On New Year’s Eve, I recall there being an organized gathering, perhaps at the school or cultural center, followed by a party at the house of my host’s friend. A small group of us traveled together – my classmate, his host (the one who loved to compare nations), and me. We started to walk to the party, using a major thoroughfare that also had trolleys, and wound up being chased by a huge gang of young men, whom our local friend later referred to as “skinheads, like what you have in America.” At the time, all I remember him saying was “Run!” as we hopped from one trolley to the next to put as much distance as possible between us three, and this gang of dozens. 

After a quick detour by the U.S. embassy, where we waited for the trouble to pass, we finally made it to the house party. I was out of breath, stressed, and also excited at the thought of a New Year’s Eve party. I think that was the first time I had vodka. I remember music, dancing, and laughing. We were just a bunch of teenagers – American and Russian – hanging out at an apartment on New Year’s Eve, and having the time of our lives.

Eventually the trip came to an end, and we made our way back across the Atlantic, home. By the time we landed at JFK, we were exhausted and we dispersed quickly. 

After the few remaining days of winter break had passed, we all returned to school – changed perhaps, but also falling back into some of our old ruts, our old cliques. We had been made into one while we were in Russia, now we were back to being a collection of individuals, many of whom were distant once more. Still, I find that many of the memories and a few of the relationships endured. I couldn’t have known it then, but this trip’s impact on both my adolescence and adulthood was profound. It inspired an awakening, a curiosity, perhaps even a courage in me that fused with my identity. (I recently went back to my 30th high school reunion, and despite not having seen most of them for decades, I felt still deeply connected to my school and my classmates. I was instantly thrown back into the days and feelings of being a high schooler in New York. To my surprise, the connections had lasted after all.) 

This whole trip turned out to be a cultural immersion, but I’m not so sure about it being an exchange. Our sister school came to New York in the spring of the following year. We were supposed to host them and show them around our city, and I don’t think any of us – save one classmate – were around to meet with them because we were all on spring break. Our vacations took precedence. Despite that, I learned a lot about myself during my trip to Moscow and over the years since. Finding commonalities with people whom we think we have nothing in common with takes work. And sometimes, when we put ourselves in the right place at the right time, the commonalities emerge in surprising ways. These newly perceived commonalities provide the basis for appreciating uniqueness as well. We went from a bunch of separate teenagers from two countries, locked in a Cold War, to a group of young people sharing the start of a New Year, in a melding of culture that none of us could’ve experienced separately.

This, I’ve learned, is joy to me: finding commonality and appreciating uniqueness. It reveals our individual and collective identities and enables us to connect with one another. 

 

This story is part of my Sojourn, America collection. I’d love to know what you think. What parts resonated with you? Have you ever connected deeply with someone whom you didn’t think you had anything in common with — at least at first? Have you ever had a time where you felt like you could both find things in common, while respecting and appreciating your differences? You can tell me about it in the comments, share your story on this site, or share it on social media using #SojournAmerica. 

Photo credit: iStock.com/RTimages

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