Sveta, or full name, Svetlana, was born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan. She looks back on her youth in the Caucasus as some of the best years of her life. Like many Russians of her generation, Sveta looks back fondly on her years as a child in the Soviet Union, agreeing that "life was better then." She misses these old days, and is never pressed for a story about life back in the good ol' days. This makes for continually interesting conversation, but an even more mysterious, and surprising woman. For a few weeks, I lived life by her side, understanding more fully her values, her priorities, her goals, her dreams. What a wonderful example and friend. Thank you, Sveta.
She takes after her Dad in every imaginable way, from the tip of her nose to her feisty and exuberant character. She grew up swimming, as her Dad managed a sports' facility in Baku, and eventually wound up at Moscow's prestigious sport's institute on a scholarship for synchronized swimming. She learned from her father that in order to get things done in a Soviet society, you start at the top of the food chain and work your way down. Always go see the director first, get him to see your side, and your battle's basically won. More easily said than done, but that's Sveta in a nutshell. She chooses her battles carefully, but fights to the end to the benefit of her children, her family, her friends, and her guests, (to which we can attest from personal experience.)
Sveta has always been a believer. Since she can remember, she has always believed in God, and walked with Him wherever He lead. Faith is an easy thing for her. She can recount mystical experiences that make your hair stand on end! One night we stayed up until 2 swapping spiritual stories - she has some doozies! These acted for her as proofs along the way, compelling and telling of the life she's lead. To her very intelligent and pragmatic son, stories of his mom's experiences both torture and fascinate him. He cannot intellectualize what his mom has experienced. In a post-Soviet, rationalistic society, this is the legacy of faith she leaves for her family. If only there were more like her...
What will I carry with me most from our time with our host family? Sveta's inexhaustible hospitality. Daily, Dan and I were humbled by her generous and gracious manner toward us, at first complete strangers to her, and later dear friends. She never once lost patience with our mumbled and incomprehensible speech, never once expected something in return for our stay, never acted out of disingenuous or insincere motivations. She intentionally welcomes people into her home, meager as it may be, and provides not just a place to stay, but life for these people there. Countless times, she would return from dropping Dasha off at swim practice, or taking Yan to school, with a new acquaintance or fellow mom to have some tea or to make a salad together while their children swam or studied together. She befriends new people easily and lovingly, welcoming them quickly into whatever she has to offer. She seems to understand when people, from her closest friends to these new contacts, are in need; she is not deterred by the messiness of their lives, but still jumps into difficulties with them. Each week she watches her friend's problem child so as to provide her friend some much needed rest and solace from a difficult situation at home. Her hospitality is not a manufactured set of behaviors when company comes around, it's a genuine state of her heart. By that I was daily challenged and refreshed.
Sveta taught me not something I'd like to do and create in my own home, but something much deeper, somebody I'd like to be. Her lessons were not of Russian etiquette, or cultural do's and don'ts, or 6 easy steps to being a more hospitable person with a home for entertaining... Her gift to me was hospitality in its purest, deepest form. Her gift to me was herself, a gift of which she is most likely unaware. Sveta, thank you for showing me the best possible side of Russian culture. It was a pleasure to share in your life and home. Here's to many more memories down the road.