A Colorful Canvas

My daily dose of awkwardness 

As I waited for my bus to arrive at the stop, I rejoiced in the peace provided by the music blaring from my headphones. Generally, I use these commutes to reset myself— clearing the slate before heading into another day of “learning experiences.” In the midst of cacophony that combined the sounds of the traffic before me and the melodies flowing through one ear and out the other, I felt a light tap on my shoulder. Jarred by human interaction, I quickly whipped my head around only to see a woman about my age asking me a question. I pulled the headphones out of my ear and fumbled over my words until I could let out a single “Что? (What?)” In a swift response, she pressed her perfectly manicured hand into a fist and forcefully pulled back her thumb against the top of her first finger, miming an action that was almost as foreign to me as the language.

“У вас есть зажигалка? Курить?“

My mouth slowly began to gape and I felt my eyes glaze over. Flipping through my mental rolodex of pre-prepared phrases my eyes panned to her left hand, in which she limply held a thin cigarette between her fingers. In a split second it all became clear: the miming, the cigarette, “Курить.”

She was asking for a lighter.

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How I actually look when approached by a person speaking Russian

A sheepish smile formed on my face as I looked down and shook my head in embarrassment.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t smoke.”

And again, the canvas was speckled with droplets of color.


Hands down, one of my favorite stores is LUSH. Generally serving those who are both environmentally and beauty conscious, LUSH is where dreams happen. Vegan soaps, shampoos, and lotions stretch from the floor to the ceilings as the amalgam of sweet, floral, and herbal scents waft through the air. On the advice of a friend Veronica, some friends and I decided to go check out the Russian LUSH, which is the same quality and products as in America, but notably cheaper. Like in any other LUSH store, it was small, crowded, and filled with the notorious bath bombs which made the brand famous: except everything was in Russian.

While perusing through the tight walkways, a strikingly beautiful employee comes and starts talking to us and asking if we knew about the products—the conversation quickly shifted to the fact we were Americans studying at Herzen, and were learning Russian there. Anastasia, the LUSH “consultant,” used this introduction as a springboard to ask us everything about our skin, hair, and beauty worries while leading us to the sink for samples. Despite trying to explain that we were just looking, our arms were quickly covered with mud masks and soap samples, as Anastasia described them at light speed. My friends and I stared at each other while we were bombarded with soaps, lotions, and other elixirs.

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“Please stop giving me samples, I have no idea what you are saying” — Me in LUSH

Anastasia kept the conversation light, asking us about simple topics like what we were studying and where we were from; however, the speed of speech and a lot of the beauty related vocabulary set us back, and we were at the will of only Anastasia’s prowess of the products. I tried to explain the fact I had oily skin by using the term масло, which is cooking oil. But, I digress.

Thirty minutes and a face mask later, my friends and I began to make our way to the register to leave. With our baskets in hand, we trekked back down the narrow corridors surrounded by fragrant and brightly colored products, only to be stopped again by a woman on a ladder yelling about a new lavender lotion.

I wish I could tell you more, but I truly could not understand a thing that was happening.

I walked into LUSH hoping to just look around and leave; I left with a face mask, toner, a hand that smelled like chocolate, and the belief that I could never learn the Russian language in full.

The single most embarrassing (and hilarious) moment in Russia 
As you may recall in my last blog post—written about 2 weeks ago— I included a picture of my laptop and a small coffee drink sitting on its’ right-hand side: that drink is an affogato. Combining the joy of dessert with the buzz of caffeine, an affogato is simply espresso poured over ice-cream. It truly is one of life’s greatest little secrets, and one of my favorite pick-me-ups.

Now, I never want to drink an affogato ever again. 

Because of my lack of Wi-Fi at home, the luxury of internet can only be indulged at cafes. On Nevskii Prospect, there are a plethora of cute little coffee shops with comfy interiors and cheap pastries, but few and far between have the life source of my generation: Wi-Fi and outlets. Walking into Newman, I thought I had found my new go-to shop: plenty of seating, a delicious menu, and more outlets than imaginable. I quickly claimed a table and ordered my celebratory treat with ease, with my friends Brooklyn and Lizzy stumbling in about a half-hour later.

As the day turned into evening, I decided to ask for the check so I could make it home in time for my daily fare of soup and salad.

“Excuse me, check please,” I asked in my most polite and clear Russian.

I gestured towards my empty cup and said, “Alone,” trying to make clear that I only wanted my part of the check.

“One?” she inquired at me as I nodded in affirmation.

Beaming with pride over my successful interaction, my friends noticed that the waitress did not immediately go to the register, but rather back to the kitchen. We all thought that was rather odd, but nudged it off as just usual Russian restaurant behavior (aka taking their sweet time). A few minutes later, the waitress had transformed into a barista, brewing a fresh cup of espresso and preparing a small scoop of ice-cream.

Oh no.

That familiar feeling of embarrassment demeaned my previous thoughts of a successful language interaction as I humbly accepted my second affogato of the day. I validated my mistake with a chuckle and finished my tasty treat (which was almost as satisfying as the first).

However, as we sipped on our coffees and chatted, time was quickly moving forward and the evening was moving into night. Stepping up to the plate with a single strike to my batting record at Newman, I was confident that I could ask for my check and leave.

“Excuse me, check please. I had two.” While saying this, I gestured the number two with my right hand and pointed towards the two empty cups with my left.

“I understand!” the waitress said as she moved back to the barista bar.

Oh no.

“I think you just ordered two more affogatos,” Lizzy said with a pained look on her face. “But, I think you said everything right.”

The three of us actively watched the waitress from our table, tracking her every move in search for yet another one of my mistakes. She flitted from the bar to the kitchen and to the register, moving so quickly it was hard to discern what exactly she was planning to do. As we all felt relieved when we saw her at the register, a familiar noise sparked an immediate feeling of dread. The whirr of an espresso machine penetrated our relief and Brooklyn’s eyes got wide. Lizzy whipped her head over to observe the barista preparing not one, but two more affogatos for our table. Lowering our heads down to subdue our laughter, we all tried to plan what was going to happen next. Were we going to accept the drinks? How were we going to explain my mistake? How the hell did I order two more affogatos?
As we were devising a plan, the waitress came over and set the two small cups on the table and began to slowly pour the espresso over the mounds of frozen dessert. The table erupted in laughter. Lizzy burst into tears and left to go have a cathartic laugh in the bathroom. Brooklyn, in her usual fashion, immediately took a picture of me with my medals of failure to send to the group chat.

I just wanted to leave.

Strike two and three came in one pitch, and I was out for the count.

Four affogatos and 720 rubles later, I came out of Newman with a big, fat pour of paint on my canvas and enough laughter to last a lifetime.

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Artist Anslem Kiefer utilizes mixed media and layers of paint to illustrate the poems of Soviet author Velimir Khlebnikov, scraping away at the layers to reveal incredible landscapes

At the end of every day in Saint Petersburg, I like to take a step back and reflect on each day’s successes and failures. Much like the clichéd metaphor of paint on the canvas, my words and experiences are brought to life by the method in which I choose to perceive it. On one hand, I can see each spattering as the dirtying of my time in Russia and ruining what I hoped to be a perfect trip. Or, I can take an alternative approach and look at every new color, line, and speckle and a contribution to a greater piece—the portrait of an American student in Russia.

For now, I am choosing the latter; hoping that maintaining positivity and laughter will create a work of art I can be proud of.

By: Sheridan Smith

Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program

Term: Summer 2017


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