The Surprises We Find is a series of guest posts written by friends in intercultural marriages. Over the summer, they will share the hilarity, confusion, shocks and romance of being in intercultural relationships. For some, the shocker is how similar they are, despite differing backgrounds. For others, the shockers include new types of food, in-law relations and scintillating trips to home countries.
Home is where the heart is slippers are
A big ‘thank you’ to you, Amelia, for the opportunity to share a page from our story, and to add our voice to the beautiful chorus of couples in inter-faith and inter-cultural relationships.
Yuriy and I met around Christmas of 2010, par l’aide de one of the newest avenues for meeting potential mates: an internet site! There was a movie made about this particular one, you probably know it…and no, dear readers, neither of us was a) selling our car, b) ranting, or c) hunting for a new apartment.
From our very first date, I was smitten: I loved the way his eyes sparkled when he spoke of things that made him happy, the passion he seemed to bring to everything he did, his strong sense of empathy, and finally, his bilingualism! Yuriy’s family moved to the United States in the early 90s from the former Soviet Union, in what is now Ukraine. As an aspiring polyglot, I was enlivened by this new challenge presented by my partner: if I was to feel at home with his family, I was going to have to learn [some- let’s be realistic] Russian.
I also have always believed that conversing in one’s host/guest/future in-laws’ native tongue is the ultimate sign of respect, so I enthusiastically began my journey with the Russian language that is sure to continue to challenge me for many, many years to come.
My first memory of visiting Yuriy’s newly-purchased condo was a large cloth bag in the entryway, filled with several pairs of slippers and athletic-type sandals. Upon entering the home, Yuriy changed immediately from shoes to a pair of slippers, which would only be taken off before crawling into bed. While I had faint recollections of similar behavior from an Egyptian host family, I had never before been so intimately acquainted with a slipper-wearing culture (if left to my own devices, I would never wear shoes anywhere in the warmer months!). I would later learn that such a slipper collection is an important fixture in many Russian homes.
As our relationship deepened, as did my understanding of the importance of slippers: they serve to protect the feet from physical damage, insulate the body from exposure to cold (floors), and, perhaps most significantly, are associated with intimacy: a symbolic representation of the division between life inside, versus outside, the home.
When the day finally came for me to meet Yuriy’s parents, I was of course, nervous. But this ‘first encounter’ could not have gone any better!
Overwhelmingly, the most comical moment of the evening, and most pronounced memory for me, was an exclamation made over dessert by Yuriy’s father: we were dining at a Thai restaurant and had ordered a soup-like dessert made with young coconut. After swallowing the first spoonful of the whimsical, multi-colored dish, he declared that “This tastes like my hair in the morning!” His wife, immediately coming to the rescue, was quick to suggest that perhaps no, he meant that it looks or smells like his hair in the morning (smells?!) but alas, after much banter, he insisted on the ‘taste’ association. While a pleasant memory to be sure, it was only in compiling this entry that I realized the greater symbolism of this proclamation.
Following this initial meeting, I saw Yuriy’s parents more and more often; however, there was still one element of uncharted territory that lay before me: when stopping by their home for a quick hello, dropping off groceries, or picking up some mail, I stayed in the car while Yuriy went inside. At first, this arrangement was odd to me, and made me a bit sad: our relationship seemed great, I thought his parents liked me, so why must I stay in the car while they visit? Fortunately, this stage passed, and I later became cognizant of earning the privilege of impromptu visits.
In addition to donning slippers, the “at-home” wardrobe adopted by many Russians consists of comfortable lounge-wear clothes, which fall somewhere between athletic wear and pajamas. While the idea of crafting one’s outfit in support of comfort was certainly not a strange one to me (see above note about shoe aversion), I began to realize that the Russian approach that I was observing was far more nuanced than my own. What was surprising to me was the fleeting sense of embarrassment I felt when reflecting on this juxtaposition: in Russian households, only very close relatives and friends are afforded the privilege of visiting while the hosts are in “home clothes”…whereas my cavalier approach said “You’re coming into my space, take it [my unabashedly casual and potentially unwashed clothes] or leave it”. I probably should start thinking twice about spending so much time in running shorts and a sports bra…and maybe those times I’ve worn pajamas to the grocery store, too, while I’m at it…
A few years later, I proudly look back on my journey through the various established levels of comfort and intimacy in Yuriy’s family, and his parents’ grace and patience that brought me finally to the very core of the intimacy web. While I didn’t recognize it at the time, Yuriy’s father’s reference to his morning hair was my very first peek into the core of their family, my first ‘taste’ of the ‘inside’ life reserved for a select few. Fast-forward a few months, and the next milestone on this journey was reached: on a regular visit to his parents’ house, Yuriy offered for me to come inside, despite his parents’ being in “home clothes” and not in a state of readiness to receive guests. Finally, with our wedding a short three months away, I am happy to report that I’ve reached yet another checkpoint on this journey: my very own pair of slippers at Yuriy’s parents’ house, ready and waiting for my next [unscheduled] visit.
Amelia and I met on the McGill University Novice Crew team and shared many an early-morning workout!