UW Jackson School of International Studies undergraduate Mary-Elizabeth Mayer is the recipient of a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS) for the academic year to study the Russian Language. She spent fall quarter studying abroad with the School of Russian and Asian Studies, which allowed her to learn about the cultures and traditions of countries that made up the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. During her program, Mary-Elizabeth traveled to Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia. She is now back at UW, where she continues her study of Russian.
By Mary-Elizabeth Mayer
Coming back from my study abroad is not the experience that I thought it would be. I thought that I would either be a completely different person, or that I would be exactly the same and my life would continue as it was before I left. The truth of the matter lies somewhere in between these two options, and I am still trying to figure out how to adjust to life after such an exciting adventure.
While I was in Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia, I was constantly meeting new people, being exposed to different ways of seeing the world with every dawning of the sun. Now that I’m back in the United States, I am struggling to find that sense of excitement, the sense of wonder that dominated my months abroad. I miss Moldova; I long for the cramped “marshrutkas” with their grumpy drivers yelling at me either in Russian or Romanian. I close my eyes and imagine walking through the clean, planned parks that cut through the city. When I daydream, here in the cold and wet Seattle winter, I feel the warmth of the Georgian sun on my face, the jagged edges of ruins beneath my fingertips, the sweet burst of Georgian grapes on my tongue. Or there are days where I think of Mount Ararat looming in the clear blue Armenian sky while I view some of the oldest surviving wonders of ancient Christianity.
To the best of my ability, I completed my task whilst abroad. I met new people, I learned more Russian, and I feel that I have come to understand the world in a different way than I did before. I represented my country with the respect and dignity it deserves, and listened to the stories and experiences of others in a language that was not my own. However, when I think back on the whole experience, I cannot find one single moment that is better, or more beautiful than the others. Each day—even the mundane ones, or the ones where I wanted to tear out my hair because learning Russian is hard—blurs together in a warm painting of memories.
From art galleries to history museums, to areas that wish (or at one point wished) to be their own country, I did my best to learn and live the culture of this region. I went to a Moldovan wedding where I tipsily rambled in Russian and English, and danced until dawn. My friends and I helped Chisinau celebrate both the Day of Wine and the Day of the City, and watched preparations begin for the New Year. We bought socks from Kazakhstan in a little Chisinau bazaar, and ate Georgian pomegranates with hands that shivered in the Moldovan fall.
Beyond the actual structure of the program, we managed to learn just as much about Eastern Europe and the people who live there on our own adventures. My friends and I took a 10-hour bus ride from Moldova to Brașov, Romania on Halloween weekend, visiting the Castle of Bran at night and listening to tales of Vlad the Impaler from our Russian-speaking guide—feeling somewhat relieved that there were parts we did not understand. Mariel and I traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine to visit our beloved Inna, who was our guide and good friend for our early travels. Whilst there we saw Maidan, the location of the Ukrainian revolution that illustrated the people’s displeasure with not only their own government’s shortcomings, but its failure to shake Moscovian control. We walked up major roads where innocent protesting civilians were killed by snipers, their memorial plaques still new and surrounded by fresh flowers. Kyiv was such a wonderful, beautiful, normal city, it was hard to remember that a few hundred kilometers away a war was raging within Ukraine’s borders.
Last but not least was Moscow. Moscow. What words exist to describe this marvelous city? There was a perfect marriage of history and modernity, of beautiful historic buildings and massive sky scrapers. The museums alone could warrant love songs and endless praise. There was no way to see all that I wanted, but I saw enough to leave me hungry for more. We went ice skating in Red Square with the lights of GYM, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the Kremlin lighting the ice. I spent late nights walking down snowy streets in a city that, just for those few days, we made our own.
It can be painful to remember the people I met, as good-byes in this scenario are often ‘proshai’ or forever farewell. Yet I can never forget the generosity of those who opened their homes to me, who took in this ditzy American girl and showed her their world. I miss my host family—their conversations, their food, their Moldovan traditions, the patient way my host mom would help me with my homework, their fluffy Persian cat Alica. I have even begun missing the things that drove me crazy while I still lived in Moldova—the invasive questions about my love life and when I want to have children were endearing in their own way. Though these sorts of questions demonstrated the differences between our cultures. Everyone was shocked when I stated my desire to wait at least ten years before getting married, much less to begin thinking about children.
The world I left behind was beautiful, simple, and something I miss dearly. I do not think that I will fully understand the impact my journey has had on me until I’m much older. Until then I relish in the stories I have, the beautiful pictures I can paint with my words to try and help people understand what exactly I did in my four months away from the country that I call home.
Mary-Elizabeth’s participation in this Russian language program abroad and at UW has been made possible by a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship (FLAS), which pays tuition and a stipend for travel and living. Qualified graduate and undergraduate students of every major are eligible for FLAS fellowships to study abroad and also at UW. Learn more about the FLAS program and how to apply here.