A week after I arrived in Chelyabinsk, my AIESEC manager informed that I could shift to a comfortable house closer to my workplace than the one I stayed at initially. Though I was taken aback by the overly modest settings of the apartment I first set my foot in, I had gotten used to its diminutive structure and begun to enjoy the babushka's hospitality and genuine warmth. However, I decided to take a look at the new home. Sveta, my second host, was a final year design student at the university I worked with. She took me home one evening to give a preview of what she had to offer. Her parents were away on a two week vacation and she wished for some company in their absence.
The most popular and fastest means of public transport in the city is the marshrutka - tempo travelers which charge 18 rubles for one trip regardless of the distance traveled. Sveta and I boarded the marshrutka in front of a discount mall, a short walk from the campus. "Na Astanofkya, Pazhausta" (at the stop, please), Sveta called out to the driver as the marshrutka drew into the Gorodok Magazine bus stop adjacent to a department store (Magazine in Russian means shop). Contrary to what I was told, the house was away from the city, quietly nestled in a neighborhood in which most people owned small plots of land where they grew vegetables and tended to pigs and cows. At the gate, a huge German Shepherd welcomed us from inside his kennel. He peeped through the hole on the side wall and kissed his master's hands.
The foyer opened to the toilet and store room on one side and the kitchen and bed rooms, on the other. As we entered, Bushinka aka Busa, a toy terrier, welcomed us with great zeal, going around in circles and licking our feet. Busa had three puppies - toy terrier and chihuahua mixes, which were hardly a month old. Keisa, the Russian Blue cat, was relaxing in the bedroom, her silky grey fur camouflaging against the animal print of the velvet blanket. A narrow walkway lined by coat hangers extended to the master bedroom. It was large and spacious with a bunker bed cum storage and a plush leather sofa which doubled as the second bed. The windows were on one side, looking out to the kennels in the front yard. The television set sat on a wall cabinet that displayed a motley of elephant figurines. Sveta had a fetish for the gentle giant and she was excited to know that I hailed from the land of elephants. Her parents occupied the bedroom adjacent to the kitchen. A bushy white cat lived on the other side of the foyer but unlike Keisa, he was fearful and cranky. The house was nestled in the middle of a vegetable garden, a pig sty, a chicken pen and a cow shed. Kittens played hide and seek in the yard and rabbits munched on greens inside their crate. I was amused by the rustic vibes of country living in this forsaken corner of the city.
I shifted to Sveta's house during the weekend and from that day on, my life flipped. It was a welcome change from the rudimentary comforts offered by my first host. Sveta acquainted me with her friends and my social life improved drastically. Though her parents returned from their trip two weeks after I moved in, it wasn't too often that everybody was in the house together. They worked in shifts on alternate days and Sveta stayed over at her boyfriend's most of the week. Busa, the toy terrier, was quick to embrace me into her fold. Keisa, however, had feline inhibitions that prevented her from being as expressive as her canine counterpart. Yet she would sleep with me on the sofa and brush her fur against my legs when I returned home from work. While I was there, one pig was slaughtered; many were born. I learnt that the gestation period of pigs is 3 months 3 weeks and 3 days - the rule of threes as it is called. With the coming of winter, I faced the challenges of living in a remote locality off the main road. The entire area was buried in layers of snow and hardened ice, making it incredibly difficult to walk. I suffered at least five falls in those two months, but luckily, none too serious.
A strong and independent lady with a friendly demeanor, Sveta's mother welcomed me to the warmth of her home with hot soups and fresh salads. Her father was an affable middle-aged man whose positivism spilled over to those around him. He would joke at the dinner table and offer me vodka shots and Russian beer. Despite his cripplingly weak English, he rambled endlessly about Russian and American politics. He would play the accordion and strum the guitar to the tunes of the Beatles classic, Yesterday. Through music, we transcended the boundaries of language and culture. 'We are a crazy family', mother would say. They were hardworking people who led a simple life filled with love and laughter. I learnt to cook borscht from my hosts and in return, introduced them to the spice of Indian cuisine. They gave me a sense of belonging, notwithstanding the glaring ethnical contrast. Sveta's elder sister lived nearby with her husband and daughter, Vervara. A party was organized at her house when the baby turned six months old. I had grown so comfortable with them that I drank Cognac with Sveta's grandmother at Vara's half birthday celebrations.
Beautiful, intelligent and immensely talented, Sveta left an indelible mark on my mind with her enigmatic personality. An upcoming model with a lot of potential, she was well connected in the fashion world. Having posed for the camera from an early age, her attitude and expressions were effortless like a pro. I always felt that there was a lot going on within her. With a rich and fiery inner life, her emotions were intense and they shone out of her eyes. Probably, that's where she drew inspiration from. When she was not at college, she was either away on a modeling assignment or working part time at an architectural firm. At other times, she was staying over at her wealthy, 34 year-old boyfriend's apartment or visiting her grandmother who lived in the city with a dog. Sveta introduced me to her photographer friends who seemed interested in clicking my pictures. Thanks to her, I got a couple of opportunities to test my modeling skills. Professional makeup artists and seasoned photographers played with my earthy skin tone and full-bodied figure to create a visual ensemble. I also got a chance to go clubbing, the Russian way. She became my official guardian, stylist and fashion adviser. She also introduced me to Cyrillic script, taught me how to read Russian and gifted me a letter book. Her less-than-average English skills never became a hindrance in our relationship. Sveta would ask me to type out whatever I wanted to communicate and she would translate it using Google. The reply also took the same convoluted route. Though the process was tedious, we developed a close relationship in those few weeks and shared some heart-to-heart conversations.
I am deeply indebted to this amazing family for giving me a home in Russia.