I ran into one of my Russian friends on New Year’s Day, and I asked her, “How are you?”
She told me, matter of fact, that she was utterly distracted, that her children were home from college and keeping her away from the things she liked to do, and that she had just had emergency surgery.
Her middle beat tone—neither upbeat nor downbeat—is so appealing to me now that I am back in the land where so many of us still answer the question “how are you” with “wonderful” and “great.”
When I lived in Moscow, I had a handful of Russian friends who tried to teach me that, “only an idiot smiles all the time.” And while I did smile all the time, I was prepared to turn it into a wince or a grimace at any moment, because like my Russian friends, I am incredibly suspicious of the idea of being happy. Happiness is not even a goal of mine, nor is it a goal for my children.
Now that I am back living in the United States, happiness still seems to be the only goal that is top of mind, as if people are still chasing an outmoded model of the American dream, one that involves a level of feeling that can only be equated with stupidity.
Of course I reappeared stateside just as the American lifestyle was beginning to seem less blindingly brilliant, and is for some even appearing dim, which makes this happiness thing even more elusive and compelling.
Back in Russia, happiness, it was understood, was just a fleeting feeling, like eating a cotton candy at Gorky Park. Happiness was a few moments of glory after getting to work just under an hour and a half, or creating the right stamp for the right document. Happiness was a walk on the frozen Moscow River in January or a boat ride on the Baltic Sea at dusk.
Maybe I didn’t get it but I never had the sense that Russians pursued happiness as a goal, or a permanent state of mind, as this could only be achieved by a lobotomy. Of course I did not know any oligarchs or extremely powerful Russians that intimately, but those I did interview seemed to me to pursue money for money, art for art, and power for power. Not for happiness.
When I first moved to Moscow, I asked everyone “How are you?” (Kak Dela?) It was a verbal tic. But sometimes colleagues responded with the words “Thank You,” (Spacibo) which confused me and pretty much ended the discussion. The best I usually got was “Normalno” which means pretty much what it looks like. Normal.
Call it fatalism, but I liked the realness. When we did talk, I felt my Russian friends wanted to get to what was under my skin. At the same time they protected me from feeling too raw afterward. I miss this get-to-the gist talk today.
With fond memories of my old Russian friends, as well as to all my Russian colleagues today, I would like to say,
I hope your New Year was without incident, and that you are even smarter and more creative this year than last!
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