That Was Easy
~Motto of STAPLES office supplies store.
Today is the 1st of September so it’s back to school day all over Russia! And I’m back from a blogging hiatus – and relieved to be so after lots of end of summer housework, admin and general revving up for the school year. I’m reminded of a recent quote from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat Pray Love” in a piece on Slate.com's XX Factor (Eat, Pray Love and Never Get Any Work Done) by Hanna Rosin on women and writing and the frustrations we often feel sticking to the task. “Do you think Philip Roth ever set aside his novel so he could change the sheets in the guest bedroom for the third time that week?” she asked. I love it: so true.
In honor of The Day of Knowledge, I wrote a piece for the BBC’s Russian Service blog “Strana Russia” about the differences of back to school in Russia versus back to school in the USA, which was published today in Russian. As usual, it garnered some heated comments. Here it is in English:
Back To School
My 13-year old daughter Velvet starts her second year at boarding school in the United States this autumn, so she and I have spent the past few weeks in the US getting her ready. My Russian husband has remained in Moscow at work. He is very sanguine about the entire process, which makes a marked contrast to his mood this time last year:
“Did you get everything Velvet needs for school?” he would bark at me on an almost hourly basis, “have you managed it all?”
I would repeatedly pull out a thick file folder with all the separate, color-coded forms from the school, my crowded “To-Do” lists and print outs from the Internet. Everything was there, all in order: she saw the doctor for her shots, had her eyes checked, she was up to date with the orthodontist, and, for good measure, I’d made an appointment for her to have her hair cut the week before school started. I told my husband all of this in what I hoped was a reassuring manner.
“But did you manage to buy everything she needs?” he would press impatiently.
“Like what?” I would query, mentally reviewing the past week, when it seemed Velvet and I had done nothing but fill up shopping carts (real and Internet cached) and “proceed to checkout.”
“Like her notebooks,” he exploded over the SKYPE line which crackled briefly, “AND PENCILS!” he screamed, “and erasers, and exercise books, and…that kind of thing.
Pencils? My husband never micro-manages on this level. It never occurs to him if we have sufficient reserves of fabric softener, cottage cheese, or cat food: he just assumes we will. And we do. So, I had, indeed, taken care of everything for Velvet in what is as American a tradition as hot dogs at a baseball game: the annual “Back to School” trip to STAPLES, the largest national purveyor of office and school supplies. We had, of course, had a blast: Velvet had everything from a set of highlighter pens all the colors of the rainbow, to a professional engineering calculator.
“Of course,” I told my husband reassuringly, “We did that last week.” I launched into a detailed list of our purchases.
“But did you manage to get everything?” he pressed.
“Well, what else do you think she needs?” I exploded, “a wand from Ollivanders…or maybe Quidditch pads?”
Which made him laugh, and he relaxed and crossed Velvet’s school supplies off his worry list forever.
I had actually understood his concern, which dated back to his Soviet childhood when ballpoint pens were non-existent, and exercise books only po blatu. Some of that underlying fear seems to linger in Russia today, despite the booming free market economy PR. The last week in August in Moscow is sheer hell as children from ages 7 – 22 get ready to return to their institutions of learning on September 1st. The traffic, always hectic, snarls into total gridlock for hours as harried parents crisscross the city in search of elusive school uniforms and French dictionaries. Bronzed from the dacha, frantic mothers race from one book store to the next, stand in lines, and elbow their fellow countrymen aside with more than the usual level of rudeness to stockpile paper products and state-issued text books which, as far as I can see, are manufactured with no thought to population statistics. This is why shifty looking types in dirty rain coats stand outside book stores and murmur sotto voce, “Woman…do you need an algebra textbook?” They hold up battered cardboard index cards with a list of all the books you won’t find in the store, but which they, presumably, can provide if you are brave enough to accompany them down the street to a dark alley where they operate out of the boot of a beat up Lada.
There is no joy in the process, the way there is for parents in the US, who fling themselves wildly into wild orgies of spending -- spiral notebooks, post-its, and # 2 pencils, knowing, as they do so, that relative freedom lies just around the corner. The thrill in America is the (admittedly mercantile) run up to the day, while the day itself is something of a let down. In Russia, however, it’s the actual “Back to School” that is the emotional zenith. After the frenetic, last minute search for supplies, suddenly September 1st dawns and, magically, the angst melts away in the face of the moving “First Bell” ritual that is as much a part of Russian life as military parades and blini and caviar. Russia’s children set forth on “the Day of Knowledge” bright as new pennies: boys with shiny shoes and scrubbed faces, girls adorned with stiff bows aloft in their hair. They grasp stiff bouquets of flowers to present to their teachers: held carefully -- slightly away from their bodies so as not to crush them on the journey to school. Through the streets, they make their way: little ones clutching parent’s hand; the older ones faking disinterest in meeting their friends after the summer vacation. Music fills the crisp September air, and Moscow, for one bright autumn morning anyway, becomes a big party. It never fails to reduce me to tears.
Just like the pencil aisle at STAPLES.
This post is part of The Stunt.
This article originally appeared on September 1, 2010 in Russian on the BBC’s Russian Service under the title: 1-я сентября - ежегодная паника. A link to the original online version can be found here.
Hey there Readers!
How is your Back To School process going? Who changes the sheets in your family?
Let me know by leaving a comment below!