AN ENGLISH PROFESSOR AND FIVE STUDENTS from Mordovian State University meet us at the renovated train station. All of them are pretty and attentive. They take us to the university. After filling out all the formal papers we have a four-course lunch feast at the professors’ cafeteria. Then the old cherry-red university bus with curtains shading all the windows delivers us to our host families.
We meet for classes in a tiny class room with big windows, a lot of plants, and fine china cups. Our new friends from the English language department provide us with lots of tea. We just have to be sure to buy plenty of piroshky (a little white bread filled with cabbage, potato, jam—loved by each of us) and sweets to go with it. Every day at least two students and one teacher are always available to assist us. On the weekends we see 10 and sometimes even more of them.
The professors we meet at Mordovian State University, besides being helpful colleagues and extremely well versed in their areas of expertise, are warm and welcoming hosts. The students, many of whom speak several foreign languages, have traveled to the USA and England. At every turn they are here to help us.
After classes we go to concerts, tour the town, and visit local museums, the chocolate factory, historical villages, and the nearby monastery. We eat out a lot because the food is tasty and inexpensive (especially compared to prices in Charleston). We are invited to authentic private bath houses at the homes of our hosts. Girls first. Massaging and slapping each other with leafy birch-tree brooms in a humid, hot, wooden room. We feel like true Russians.
Our C of C students charm a lot of people by saying hello in Russian and trying to have a simple conversation. At the reception desk of the Foreign Language Department the faces of older ladies hearing “zdravsvuyte” (hello in Russian) immediately change from apathetic to warm and then radiant. We go to our favorite souvenir and book stores, where sales women have gotten to know us and are waiting for us. It seems they like that we not only buy a lot, but that they get a chance to ask us about America, to hear a lot of English, and to hear our American students struggling to speak Russian.
On the street, we see little girls in pony tails, wearing bright dresses and adorable hats, holding the hands of their simply dressed parents. College girls are trying to be stylish by imitating western European fashions, but they still look very Russian. Why? Because in spite of their sexy summer dresses and 6-inch heels, they are carrying large bundles of groceries in well-used plastic bags. Old women are ambling everywhere. Not many old men. Grade-school children in uniforms, unaccompanied by their parents, are safely skipping for blocks and blocks to their school—a sight we rarely see in America now.
The people in Saransk are as interested in us as we are in them—so much so that a number of articles are written about us in the local newspapers. Our students are admired for studying Russian and for coming all this way to a little-known city and university. The papers are also eager to know what we think about Russia, whether we are enjoying our stay in Saransk, and if we will come back.
The question for us, however, is not if, but when. In fact, we are looking forward to repeating our visit again next year, but to travel through St. Petersburg instead of Moscow. •