This week I will return to the Russian city of Samara first time in 12 years. Samara is a city on the Volga River some five hundred miles southeast of Moscow. It is the first Russian city I called home and I lived there for about six months in 2007-2008.
But it wasn’t the first city in Russia I ever visited. My first experience in Russia was actually in Saint Petersburg in the summer of 2006. I traveled there as a student with other American university students studying Russian for a six-week culture and language program.
I still remember the smell of the air as I exited the plane and took my first steps in Russia. To this day I continue to associate this smell with Russia. It was not the smell of fresh flowers, nor the scent of a spring air freshener, nor the fragrance of street food sizzling on a grill. It was the smell of dampness: the smell you might encounter in a dark basement with water percolating in through its wet stone walls.
Twelve years is a long time but some memories of Samara have remained with me through the years, just like I remember the smell of the wet floor in Saint Petersburg’s airport. I tried ice skating for the first time in my life in Samara. I remember buying a pair of ice skates at the Park House shopping center and taking them across the street to Gagarina Park to skate on a small pond that had long frozen over in the dead of the Russian winter. Ever since then I have regularly gone ice skating here in Russia.
I remember the lack of western fast-food restaurants and pizzerias in Samara. When last I was there, the city had only one McDonald’s in its center. I never ate there because the line was always too long, sometimes running out the door and onto the sidewalk. I am very interested in seeing this weekend how much Samara has westernized over the past decade (not that westernization is a good thing).
I remember the place where I met my friend Pavel, with whom I remain friends to this day. He also lives in Moscow now and we regularly see each other. We met while Pavel was working at a mobile phone shop not far from my home. I bought a mobile phone and regularly frequented the shop to add money to my account (at the time, all mobile phone plans in Russia were essentially pre-paid plans that allowed you to add whatever amount of money to your account at a time and you could use your calling, texting, and internet services until your balance reached zero).
Lastly, I remember knowing very little Russian. I moved to live in Samara after only three semesters of studying Russian at university and after a six-week study abroad program in Saint Petersburg. I am very interested in being able to walk the streets of the neighborhood and city I once lived in, yet I could not communicate very effectively, now that I am an advanced speaker of Russian! I remember having to draw pictures of what I wanted to say, buy, or do, in order that people could understand me.
Times have changed, Samara. See you soon!