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Adventures in Avoidance
Or, How Wes Got His Water
Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT), as the name would imply, focuses much on accepting the discomfort we experience in life so as to deal with its causes. However, all too often, we choose to avoid the situation that causes us this discomfort, thereby perpetuating it. This first of a two-part autobiographical sketch, beginning below, illustrates this.
July, 1996. The Soviet Union had been dead nearly five years and yet, the engine of free enterprise still sputtered, much like the old Soviet autos that belched black, acrid smoke along Nevsky Prospekt. I was in one such auto, a newly-arrived 19-year old, excited to exercise the limits of my 3 years of Russian study. The old Lada I was riding in had stopped at a light on that fabled St. Petersburg street. My Ladamates were fellow Americans on a one-month language immersion program. Together, we would spend many slow and demanding hours with our kind and patient instructor, Olga. But that was all yet to be.
To my left was our driver, Anton, hurling epithets at the pedestrians non-chalantly crossing Nevsky, for their audacity to still be passing in front of us as our light turned green. Anton’s obscenities were soon drowned out by the whine of his Lada, as the pedestrians quickly scampered out of harm’s way.
But, I digress. Nostalgia has gotten the better of me, for this article is really about water. You see, most water systems of the Former Soviet Union contain the parasite giardia lamblia, also known as giardia intestinalis for its ability to colonize and wreak havoc upon your small intestine, resulting in diarrhea. Russians appear immune to this, being a hearty people in general, and accustomed from birth to the delicate dance giardia takes in their intestinal tracts. Drinking boiled water, or chai, is ok, but drinking unfiltered or unboiled water is akin to playing Russian roulette.
Having survived the journey to my new apartment, my host mother Nina quickly began peppering me with the most practical of questions regarding my dietary preferences. Unfortunately, my three years of Russian, college-level mind you, weren’t up to the task. “Oranzhevoi sok,” I responded, hoping to clarify my preference for orange juice. Sadly, my efforts were met with the most confounded stare. I began to squirm. Finally, Nina, much like the great Sherlock Holmes, deduced I had really meant to say apelsinovoi sok. It was then I received the jarring reminder that oranzhevoi referred only to the color orange. My real-world Russian instruction had begun.
My mind, muddled by jet lag and the still enigmatic nature of the Russian language, was operating about as quickly as then-President Yeltin’s economy. This made miming a new linguistic necessity with Nina, creating a feeling of great discomfort I hadn’t experienced previously. This led me to the following question: How do you handle sharing a small apartment with someone you cannot communicate with? My 19 year-old me answer: You leave… and go out to the street to get some water!
This decision, of course, could be rationalized because I DID need water. After all, I hadn’t yet acquired a taste for tea. And furthermore, what was I doing inside? Hadn’t I come to Russia to see the country?!? Time to begin exploring!
Unfortunately, the problem with avoidance is that the very thing you’re trying to avoid presents itself again later on, often in a more painful way. This is a truism my time in Russian would attempt to teach me. Learning this lesson, however, would take years…
Stay tuned for more thrilling linguistic adventures in avoidance and to discover how Wes got his water!