When I answered the phone, I recognized the voice on the other end as belonging to one of the executive secretaries at the university where I work.
“Professor Howard,” she said, “I understand that you know Russian?”
“I have studied it for two years,” I responded, “but I’m not sure that constitutes knowing it.”
“That’s better than most,” she replied. “You have probably heard that we have a girls’ choir coming from Novosibirsk, Russia, and I’m sure you know about Novosibirsk.”
I told her that I had heard about the choir, and did indeed know of Novosibirsk. Novosibirsk, a large city deep in Siberia, consisted almost entirely of scientists and their families. Most of the work done there was secretive and, therefore, it had been a closed city. Very few outsiders were allowed in, and almost no citizens were allowed out. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and democratic changes, that city was opening up.
“Well, we have run into a slight problem,” the secretary continued. “These girls have almost never been outside of Novosibirsk. The outside world will be very different to them. Instead of putting them up in hotels, we hoped to have hosts families that could show them what we are like, and perhaps share some of the fun things from our country with them. Since you have had a little Russian and could communicate with them, we were wondering if you might host some of them.”
I talked to my wife, and we agreed that it might be fun, especially since we had teenage daughters of our own. So the university scheduled for us to have four of the girls stay with us.
We planned a lot for the day. Our daughters helped us decide that the foods should be pizza, lasagna, Twinkies, and Ding Dongs. We bought them each a shirt that had “Idaho” on it, and we also prepared lots of fun activities.
The evening finally arrived, and the whole family went to pick them up. When we met the girls that would be staying with us, our children were not ready for the kiss on the cheek they used as a greeting. Even I, knowing that was their custom, had not prepared myself.
That night we had a big pizza party, and, of course, we had lots of pop. When we first showed them the pop, the girls were slightly concerned. “Vodka?” one of them asked. I shook my head and tried to tell them it was pop. “Nyet. Eta soda'” (No. It is soda).
One girl smiled. “Oh. Coca-Cola.” I learned she had tasted that once on a short trip away from home. We opened all sorts of pop so they could taste them. The girl who had tried Coca Cola poured a full glass from one of them, and she gulped it down. Suddenly she let out a huge, uncontrollable burp and started to giggle. That convinced the other girls it was vodka for sure. But after some time, with the first girl’s urging, and due to the fact she didn’t appear drunk, other than burping and giggling, they all eventually tried some.
Having never had anything like it before, it had an especially profound effect on them. They would try to hold the burp in only to have it come out their nose. One of them, speaking in Russian, said “If I don’t burp, my nose does.”
All of our other activities went out the window as we, instead, spent the evening letting them drink lots of pop, burp, and laugh while we laughed at their delight.
As a group they drank three two-liter pitchers of pop. When it was time to go to bed, we passed around the Twinkies and Ding Dongs. The delight in each girl’s eyes as she bit into them was well worth the expense.
They all hugged us good night, and then one said, in broken English, “America funny place. I much like.”
And with that they went to bed, only to learn the other effect of a lot of pop – being in the bathroom most of the night.