69) My Danish Family

I grew up in a small town, surrounded by forest and swamps, near the border of Russia and Belarus and Ukraine. Basically up until I was 8 years old, that is all I had seen. At that point, we did not have a lot of money, it was the 90s/beginning of 2000s, the money was scarce. I was raised by my grandmother, who was a school teacher. Even for her, it was difficult for her to raise me, because sometimes they would not pay out the salary on time. She told me how sometimes she was concerned how she is going to buy milk for me. The area I grew up in is considered an area with high radiation due to the Chernobyl disaster. The radiation cloud covered some of the areas in Belarus and Russia, because of the wind that blew East, so my town was one of those that got some of the radiation and some people were evacuated at that point. But my family stayed, it was optional whether you wanted to leave or not. 

After the Chernobyl disaster, a lot of European organisations wanted to see the consequences of how the radiation affects people and help those people, especially children. One of the ways they helped was to take those children on vacation or trips for a month to host families or to children camps in Europe. And one of the organisations that helped was a Danish organisation which every summer, had two busses of children going from the Western part of Russia through Belarus, Poland, Germany and finally to Denmark. For kids that are eight years old, that is an unbelievable long trip to take. Some of the kids they took were orphans, some had health complications or developed slower due to radiation when they were born. And some of them were just taken because they did not have enough for holidays. I was not orphaned, and as far as I know my health was not affected, but I was still with them on this trip. I remember my grandmother asking me, ‘do you want to go to a country named Denmark?’. And I completely did not know what that was at that point. I remember her showing me the map and it was a small, small dot on the map compared to the huge Russia. That was interesting for me, I was excited. It was me and another girl who would be with that host family, and we had no idea, what kind of family that would be, who would be those people, nothing about it. 

My parents and my grandmother packed my things and sent me with that bus to that unknown country, to that unknown family. We were driving for a long time by bus, to a town called Middelfart. Then we all got off and had to wait until the Danish families were coming and met us. A Russian woman would announce the families there and the children that went together. So it was the other girl and me, and I saw Ruth, who would be my host-mother and her husband Karl. I think this image of first seeing them will never disappear, because it was such big thing to meet these people. We went to the car and drove South again, to a small town. I remember sitting in the car and Ruth was asking some questions and we were trying to communicate. Our first night we were sitting in the kitchen and eating ice cream with them. And it was a huge bowl, you know in Russia you would just get a small portion of ice cream and here it was a big pot of vanilla ice cream that you would take it out of. We never felt awkward or out of place, because Ruth and her husband were making sure that we were talking on the same language. She is very good at explaining things so that they could be understood, so she would just point at things and use gestures. And she would talk Danish, but she would describe for example if we would drive with the car or if we need to go to the store or something, she would repeat these words over and over. And I would hear them and understand and remember. She has this very good way around people, she can just talk to people openly and communicate and she has a very open and inviting and welcoming spirit about her.

We were there together for three weeks. And these three weeks were filled with experiences, because she is such a person that is doing things. She has a plan for every day, she has a plan for what we are going to do, what we are going to eat, who we are going to meet… and that was already laid out for us every day. There would be no day where we would be left to ourselves, it was always something. We would be invited to her friends for coffee, for dinner, and she would introduce us to all of her children. We also knew all of their neighbours, they would visit each other and drink coffee and we would be invited and we would play with the neighbours kids. Or we went to the zoo, or one time also to Legoland. It was just packed, we had three weeks, but it was full of impressions. She would take pictures of us and make photo albums to send to our families.

Sometimes she would go to humanitarian organisations or second hand places and ask if they would have some clothes for us for free. She is very good at sewing and hand-crafts in general. She is knitting, she is sewing, she is making lace. I remember she was making us some shorts, they were purple, and they were so cool. When I came back to my home town, I was the coolest dressed person, at least I felt that. And from the beginning, Ruth would include us in all the conversations. She would try to ask us, what we did, what we see for instance in the zoo, and what kind of animals there were. If we went to someone, we were not sitting there by ourselves, but she would always try to include us, so that we talk. That helped my Danish immensely. After the first three weeks I came back home and I was already using some of the Danish phrases. I felt like a Dane. 

I remember, after all of these impressions, I did not feel homesick at all, I just wanted to stay there. The going back was very sad, we were crying and saying good-bye to them. I was happy there and she was always smiling, and it was just sad to leave. These three weeks completely changed me. I saw a world that was completely different from mine. And maybe because Ruth was so nice, and the people around me, I thought all the people in Denmark were like this. Like Denmark is a country where people are just kind to each other. And it was her, Ruth, she made me feel like this. Now looking back at it— I live in Denmark now and I know it is not true, people are different, but she was like this, she was one of the few people I have met that possesses these qualities. 

So when I came home, of course I wanted to go there again and we would talk and write to each other. Ruth also got to visit me and my family in Russia with her close friend Edith, and that was interesting for them to see, where I grew up. One thing is just that a child comes there and you don’t know where they come from, but when you see the town and families, that leaves a big impression. After that, they invited me and the other girl again there. So that basically continued up until 2007, around that time, so up until I was 13, 14 years old. I would get invited, every summer, for three weeks. It was the highlight of my summers. I would look forward to that so much. I remember I made a calendar to tear of each day until I would go there. I really feel natural there, like this is my second home, even though it was such a short time each year. Basically throughout all these years, we grew together as a family. And I think it is very rare, because a lot of children would go several times and would keep those connections, but they would still fall apart at some point. Maybe I just don’t know any other examples.

My growing up and my forming as a person I owe to her, I owe who I became as a person and the things I learnt throughout— like speaking Danish on a  general level— it is also because of her, because she would speak so much to us, all the time. She changed basically the whole trajectory of my life. I was very good and interested in languages, English was my favourite subject at school. When I chose a university, I wanted to become a translator or linguist. I ended up at Moscow University of International Relations, which is one of the biggest universities in Russia. We could choose from 86 languages and I wrote that I wanted to learn Danish. They had different years and groups, so at that point I actually got Norwegian, where I was wondering ‘What is that?’ But I’m happy that I learned Norwegian, and I learned Danish on the side. And I wanted to work in Denmark, I wanted to establish relations between these two countries and be active there, because I knew so much about it. And I got into an internship where I came to Copenhagen in winter 2016. Interestingly, we went all around Jutland and Fyn with Ruth, so I have been basically in all of Denmark apart from Copenhagen. Copenhagen was completely new to me in 2016, I did not know anything about it. To me, Denmark is more Jutland than Zealand. When I go to Jutland, every time I go to visit my family there, it is like I’m home. It really is my second home.

I came for an internship, and then I got a job in Denmark. And we reconnected. Ruth and I always stayed connected, but of course there were years when I was studying and we would just talk on Skype or on the phone. Now I feel so happy and so blessed, now I’m in Denmark and I’m married, but they are my second family. Because my Russian family are all back home and it is hard to go back there. When I was moving to Denmark I did not consider it as leaving my country. My hometown was 12 hours by train away from Moscow and it was not like I was going there often. When I was moving to Denmark, it was like a two hour flight to Moscow, it never felt so far. But when Covid hit and the war came, suddenly there were these borders, suddenly you are far away. You cannot just go on a plane and two hours later you are back in your home country. It is not as easy anymore. My friends and everyone who is outside of Russia is struggling to go home. Now it is very expensive, and also with Covid there were all these quarantine rules and tests. So I was very happy that I had this second family, like second parents, to be around, and that made it so much easier. I can go there for holidays, and every year we have this Christmas cookie tradition. She would gather all the grand children and we would make cookies together. Also, Ruth and her new partner Sven were like a family to me on my wedding in March this year, and because of all the visa restrictions, my family could not be there and it was very tough for me. But Ruth and Sven were there as part of my family, and that was something I will always be grateful for.

So that is the story, the person that changed my life. I think she has this way about her, just doing something for someone. And I think it was not only for us, but she was also helping when the Syrian crisis hit, when she invited Syrian refugees in their home and prepared them a home-cooked meal, you know something like that. Nowadays it is a time where you put something on your instagram, show your stance, but she was never like that, she really did things. Also she did not brag about it, I mean she would tell people about us, but she would not talk about herself, it was never about herself. And she has many own children and grandchildren, they all take on these same values, they are very kind and polite and welcoming. I am 30 years old now, and when I come they welcome me, and some even say they consider me their sister, because I have been there so much. 

That is my story, and I’m glad that it will be remembered. Because memories fade and things fade, but if it will be published, it will be great.