Finding Humor in the Siberian Cold

Beryozovaya Roshcha, “Birch Grove” park in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Photo taken from my Instagram

Being from Montana, I am certainly no stranger to cold, harsh winters. However, that would not spare me from the baffled looks of friends and family when I told them I’d be heading to the middle of Siberia for the winter. Needless to say, their confidence in my ability to cope (and my sanity) was not high. Montana may have cold, snowy days with cold, gusting winds, but Siberia is an entirely different beast. The entire region is pretty much one long-running joke about the cold and GULags. Nevertheless, I was prepared to face the challenge head-on, and prove to myself and those around me that I was perfectly capable of living a good life in one of the harshest climates on Earth.

While living there, I worked in the city of Novosibirsk — the largest city in Siberia and the third largest in Russia — as an English teacher to make some money and get professional experience while I was there. I got a free apartment in the middle of the city, a decent wage for food and entertainment, and wonderful hospitality from my boss and her family. Although their climate may be cold, and although they themselves may seem equally cold on the exterior, Siberians are some of the most welcoming and gracious people in the world. Forget “Southern Hospitality”, Siberian Hospitality is second to none (although they both have a tendency to overload you with tea). As an American, I had some trepidation about going there, mainly because I didn’t want to be seen as some sort of corrupt Western influence, or worse, a spy! Thankfully, those concerns only came up in jest.

But what was no joke was the cold. Upon arriving at the airport in Novosibirsk, the temperature was roughly -30 degrees Celsius, or -22 degrees Fahrenheit. You know it is getting cold when the two scales begin to converge. When I walked outside to begin the journey across the large parking lot to my boss’s car, I was met with a strange, unfamiliar feeling. The first big breath I took in through my nose caused a strange crackling sound. I quickly identified it as all the moisture in my nose freezing solid in an instant. If you’ve ever crinkled up an empty, old plastic water bottle, it sounds like that, except it comes from inside your nostrils. I may have underestimated how cold Siberia was. All the more unsettling was that my bosses frequently noted that this was a very warm winter for Novosibirsk.

They brought me to my very own apartment in the center of the city, mere blocks away from several large shopping centers, grocery stores, and most importantly, metro stops. You see, I avoided driving on Russian roads as much as possible, because I was very familiar with Russian dashcam videos. What became clear though was that Russian roads run on a sort of organized chaos, wherein all the cars seem to steer clear of one another and get to their destinations quickly (albeit not safely) because when no one follows traditional rules of the road, everyone is fully anticipating and expecting everyone else to perform reckless maneuvers as well. In other words, if everyone’s a bad driver, no one is. Sitting at my window on the sixth floor of my Soviet-style apartment block and watching the traffic on the major road beneath me quickly became a favorite pastime. I didn’t have a television, but I am confident that watching the average Russian roadway is far more entertaining than any T.V. program.

Americans often joke about Russians having some sort of advanced weaponry that we should be scared of, whether that take the form of hypersonic nuclear missiles or some sort of advanced laser weapon. Well, I can confirm firsthand that Russians do indeed have a remarkably dangerous form of laser weaponry, however, it acts much more like a Mario Cart item than an actual weapon of war. One evening I was walking back to my apartment from the grocery store on the other side of the major road, and I noticed that more cars than usual were swerving. A green flash of light caught my eye, and after tracing the beam to its source, I saw that it was coming from the middle of an adjacent apartment block. There was some kid in his window shining a giant green laser beam into the oncoming, nighttime traffic. You have to find someway to pass the time from indoors, I guess.

Indeed, that would not be my only encounter with advanced Russian weaponry. Once a week I’d go and teach at a school in the nearby town of Koltsovo. After my first lesson there, I was walking back to the marshrutka stop with an older student and asking him questions about his little town and what makes it special. He proudly noted that it’s a national “Science Town” of the Russian Federation, meaning that it has a special designation as a center of scientific research and development. I asked him what sort of research went on in the city, and he told me about a large biological research facility right outside of the town. Now, at first I thought that maybe they experimented on plants or animals or made medicine or something, but as he went on with his explanation, it became clear that this was not that sort of biological research facility. It was the sort of research facility where Russians work with all sorts of viruses, and he finished his explanation by saying, with pride, that their city is one of two in the world to have an active sample of the smallpox virus laying around, the only other being at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia. Very nice.

That marshrutka ride home from Koltsovo would normally take about 45 minutes, and as an American, it was certainly a learning experience. For those unfamiliar with the concept, marshrutkas are essentially large vans or shuttle-buses that run on a fixed route between stops. They are normally packed with as many people as humanly possible, somewhat smelly, and often cold. It may be Siberia, but that doesn’t mean that the drivers are going to waste their money on running heat to the back of their vehicles. The windows would often frost over, leading to some interesting artwork being scraped into the ice. However, I quickly found an ingenious solution to the cold: I would strategically find a spot between two old Russian babushkas (elderly women) in big, puffy fur coats and sandwich myself right between them. Comfortable? Not particularly. Cold? Not in the slightest.

But the cold is not the only problem to overcome in Siberia. Even though healthcare is much more accessible, its quality is often lacking, as I’d soon find out. One day I heard a knocking at my door. Now, my boss had warned me that there is rarely any good reason to answer a knocking at your apartment door in Russia, and that if I was going to answer it at all, I needed to look through the peephole at the very least. On the other side of the door stood a small, elderly lady in an EMT uniform. I opened the door and she seemed very relieved to see me, because I was soon to find out, they needed a strong young male. She informed me that a couple of floors down was an older man badly in need of medical attention. He was large and unresponsive, and this EMT and her partner, another older woman, were unable to lift the man from his couch to their cheap cloth stretcher, what was essentially no more than a hammock with handles. I hurriedly put on my coat, disregarding the normally-necessary Siberian attire of a hat, gloves, and scarf. Myself and another high-school aged young man went down to where the other EMT was waiting and helped to transfer the unconscious man onto the human-sized sling, then carrying him down the stairs to the ambulance waiting outside. I’ll admit that my muscles almost gave. He was heavy, much heavier than he even initially appeared, and it was all dead weight. Even with the two of us, it was exhausting. But that’s Russia, I guess. An EMT will go pounding door-to-door in order to find their own emergency assistance.

Being Russia, there is, of course, alcohol in abundance, and if you’re willing to compromise on taste a little bit, you can get it really cheap. Near the end of my time there, when I was preparing to leave because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I could not find any hand sanitizer left in the nearby store. What I could find, however, was cheap store-brand vodka. Yes, imagine being able to go to Walmart and get Great Value brand vodka. Given that hand sanitizer is pretty much just germ-killing alcohol anyways, I got some of the store-brand vodka and just diluted it in water to rinse my hands with. Modern problems require modern solutions, after all.

Another problem with alcohol is getting used to the Russian drinking culture and all of its norms. One of the best nights I spent in Siberia was New Year’s Eve with my boss, her family, and their friends. New Year’s Eve is a big holiday in Russia, much bigger than it is in the United States. People get together with loved ones in order to eat and drink in excess. There’s also a tradition of making many, many toasts around the table, to the health and happiness and prosperity of all those seated around it. With every toast, you must, of course, take a drink. At our feast, there was champagne and there was cognac. They offered me both, and not wanting to be rude, I accepted both. At the end of the first toast, I clinked my shot glass of cognac with everyone, and gulped it down. This, my friends, was a mistake. It was not a mistake because cognac is bad, but because Russians are very economical people, and they believe that if you’ve had a strong liquor like cognac, your taste buds have been dulled down to the point that it would be a waste for you to drink any champagne. This meant that I would have to take a shot of cognac for all of the remaining toasts that night, and as aforementioned, there were many. If there were not plenty of food to soak it all up, I’m not sure I would’ve made it out of there alive (or at the very least, conscious).

Now, going to the bar in Russia was likewise an interesting experience, at least as a young American guy. I’ve always wondered what it felt like to be the coolest guy in a bar full of people, like the hottest girl in a place who everybody wants to talk to and be around. Well, I found out what that feels like by being the crazy American who came to Siberia in the winter, and I’ve got to say, it rocks. Everyone wants to talk to you, everyone wants to buy you their favorite drinks to try, and as I would soon find out, everyone wants to dance with you.

One of the times I went to the bar was the Saturday night before International Women’s Day, another big holiday in Russia. Naturally, the bar was packed full of women celebrating and dancing to the live music. As one does in a bar, I’d had a few to drink, and needed to hit the restroom on the other side of the dance floor. The moment I reached the dance floor however, I was immediately pulled in by one of the older woman and asked to dance. Being that it was, in fact, a holiday in their honor, I obliged. One dance couldn’t hurt. Alas, it did end up hurting. Once word got around that the American guy was dancing, everyone wanted their go. For all intents and purposes, I spent the next 45 minutes being pimped out to various middle-aged Russian women for a dance while being on the verge of peeing my pants.

But all good things must come to an end, and with the pandemic beginning to shut down the schools in which I was teaching, I decided that I should heed the many warning I was getting from government officials and family and head back home early. It was one of the toughest decisions I have ever made. I don’t like leaving unfinished business, and I didn’t want to leave all the many good friends I’d made there, or all the students who I had grown close to. Regardless, it was the right decision to make, and I headed back home. By the time I flew from Novosibirsk to Moscow, where I’d catch a flight to NYC, most of the restaurants in the terminal were closed. However, among the places that were still open was a TGI Fridays. All things considered, it felt like a fitting last meal in Russia, so I sat down and ordered a drink and an appetizer. Why didn’t I order a full meal? You see, there was not one TGI Fridays in this terminal, no, there were two entirely separate TGI Fridays in this terminal. So after finishing my food and drink in the first, I moved on to the second for some more. I couldn’t exchange my roubles for dollars at that point, so I just had to find ways to blow them all anyways. Plus, I wanted to be nice and drunk for the long flight back to the USA.

And if there’s one thing that I took back with me on that flight home, it was the knowledge that even in a cold, gray environment, there are moments of light and humor that keep the belly warm (alongside some good alcohol, that is). I feel a little bit of that infamous “Russian soul” inside of my own heart, and find myself constantly reflecting on my time there. If the circumstances allow it, I can’t wait to get back there and experience it all over again. Siberian winters may be cold, but damn, are they worthwhile.

Essays on politics, philosophy, and culture by Ethan Charles Holmes | Metamodernism, Localism, Complexity

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