Hamburgers with Vanchka

16 Feb

Or: Sarah and John have too much fun talking and eventually get around to discussing what it means to be a “good ole boy” in Post- Soviet Russia for about ten minutes

John is a doctoral candidate and TA at my university. We met in Russian class two years ago, where our professor affectionately called him Vanchka, but I knew him as “The 30 Year Old Who Sat on the Other Side of the Room Who Was Way Better at This Language Than I Could Ever Dream to Be.”

After 12 summer weeks of Russian and walking to the Metro, we became fast friends. This semester, our education tracks are such that we hardly see each other. He responded enthusiastically to last week’s post with: “When are you on campus? I have many thoughts.” I was eager to see him, not only for his input, but because I missed my friend. Instead of dining on-campus, we chose the healthier and safer venue, a hamburger joint in the mall near my house.

I wanted to capture an artistic-looking photograph with my phone for this article. Instead, I have the menu and a wicked glare. Enjoy.

The waiter asked for our drinks and did not write anything down. Vanya and I shared a concerned glance. Maybe we should have stayed on-campus.

Coke for Vanya. Water for me. Conversation meandered through subjects as one wanders through a museum on roller skates.

“When I’m reading a story about a genius cryptologist–or whatever Dan Brown made up for that role– I want him to be so inept that he can’t function in society.” We spoke of Dan Brown’s consortium of schlock known as Angles and Demons and The DaVinci Code. “If it’s a romance novel, fine. Establish that early on and I’m ok with that. But in this? I don’t want a romantic subplot. I had to put it down once I realized that’s where Brown was taking it.”

Three times, our waiter asked for our order, and three times he did not write it down. At this point, Vanya and I were expecting our food to come out either frozen or entirely wrong.

“You aren’t supposed to come to work high.” Vanya took a sip of Coke.

“Maybe he’s a cryptologist.”

Vanya laughed.

Vanya responded enthusiastically to last week’s post with: “When are you on campus? I have many thoughts.” I was eager to see him, not only for his input, but because I missed my friend.

John and I met in Russian class two years ago, where our professor affectionately called him Vanchka, but I knew him as "The 30 Year Old Who Sat on the Other Side of the Room Who Was Way Better at This Language Than I Could Ever Dream to Be."

As the runner placed our meal on the table, Vanya and I were genuinely surprised that it was not only hot, but correct: hamburger for me, pulled pork plate for him.

“So!” Vanya said, “You’re writing a novel?”

I bit my lip, feeling heat rise to my cheeks. After five years of solitary workmanship, it was jarring to hear my characters’ names from someone else’s voice.

Vanya is not a WriMo, not my boyfriend and not my mother. I can lament with other WriMos about the process of writing. With them, I can flesh out ideas, give faces to characters and harness Google Earth’s power for good. I take their advice and guidance as fellow craftsmen. Past boyfriends (I am single currently–gentlemen) have given their honest critices. And Mom is…well, Mom is Mom. But, Vanya is an Outsider and his words are heavier and pierce deeper. A single glance could turn me into a marble statue of panic.

“Y-yeah. It’s um…finally got some momentum.”

I tripped and tumbled over the summary, taking my carefully constructed two-minute elevator pitch to a Homeric epic. Maybe, I thought, if I keep talking, he won’t hear how stupid my ideas are. Maybe he’ll only hear a verbose 21-year-old who has no business writing the subjects she is.

After five years of solitary workmanship, it was jarring to hear my characters’ names from someone else’s voice, as if I’d given him the name of an undercover Agent.

“How old is he?” Vanya asked between bites of pork. “Sasha I mean?”

“Twenty-six.”

“He’s not quite old enough for a proper Soviet upbringing, then.”

“Well, I remember the lessons I learned from kindergarten. He would have been six before It collapsed.”

“Hints, then. Put hints of that in there. And you know all Russian men serve for two years?”

“Of course!”

“Well, St. Petersburg is a significant port.” Chuckle. “Maybe he could have been a sailor. His mentor was the one who really drove in faith of the System. Show that the System does work, that his faith isn’t just blind and stupid.”

And suddenly I got it.

A “good ole boy” believes in the System, whatever that System is. Freedom, Justice and the American Way, Communism, Catholicism, whatever. He doesn’t just believe it because someone told him. The System is the force that gets him out of bed in the morning. He might not have the words or personal insight to figure it out why, but if someone challenges those fundamental beliefs, he will react. He has faith in the System because he honestly believes it is the right thing to do. It is the basis of his moral compass.

John put down his Coke and continued. “Remember–well, you probably don’t remember–in 2000?” I shook my head. ” The Kursk. It was a submarine that sank. Several countries were on standby to help, but the Russian government refused their assistance. Maybe Sasha knew someone and that whole event rocks his faith to the core.”

A “good ole boy” believes in the System. [It] is the force that gets him out of bed in the morning…because he believes it is the right thing to do.

All too soon, Vanya had to go head back to DC. We paid for our meal. I made another quip about the waiter being a part-time super cryptologist. I walked Vanya to his car.

I’m not quite done with my search for Russia’s “good ole boys,” but I’ve come a step closer. Lunch with Vanchka refocused my thoughts and energies and reminded me that it’s the things we’re taught as kids and the experiences we have that either reaffirm, change, or discard those lessons. That shapes us into who we areAnd yes, I know that sounds trite and obvious, but in the course of the “good ole boy,” it’s the common thread of experiences that build this trope. Just knowing where I am and what I need to look for is a good enough start for me.

It’s the things we’re taught as kids and the experiences we have that either reaffirm, change, or discard those lessons. That shapes us into who we are

Next time, I ask my Russian prof this question, I re-watch “Brat” and I finish at Agent 6.

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2 Responses to “Hamburgers with Vanchka”

  1. Frejzch February 19, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    As to writing style, some of your syntax bothers me (it seems to jump back and forth between simple when you’re getting a point across to complex and confounding when you get excited), which I’m only mentioning because it’s something to keep in mind for your novel. However, I’m excited to see the evolution of your plot and characters. I love those A-HA! moments when you realize that a tiny tweak in setting, the smallest change to age or upbringing, will draw together plot points that you’d spent months struggling with. Of course, the later this happens the more difficult it becomes to catch all the changes that need to be made. But it seems from this entry that you’ve got not only a great friend in the wings, but a potential editor as well. Best of luck to you. 🙂

    • theaccidentalrussophile February 24, 2012 at 12:15 am #

      Ah! I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to leave you a reply! School kinda got the best of me this week. It’s been nuts. Anyway, thank you so much for taking the time out to read and to leave a comment! Not gonna lie, you made my day 🙂

      As to the syntax–I know I have a problem. Another friend of mine is always complaining about it being too sporadic. So thanks for confirming his frustrations. I’ll have to work extra hard now.

      But yes, this whole process has been so much fun. And I can’t wait to study abroad in St. Petersburg, where researching is going to get that much better. Hmm…and John as my editor. haha. I’ll throw my work on his desk underneath his students’ papers. XD

      Thanks again for dropping by! 🙂
      -S

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