It was cold and dark and my shoes were wet and the gray snow covered the ground. The sky was not gray, but it was the day and there was no blue visible behind the thick layer of white clouds. Buildings were all made of heavy cement and cars drove by and the white paint was black with dirt. Car washes and colors did not seem to exist. The signs in Russian directed traffic and welcomed customers into small coffee shops and restaurants. "Вход." Entrance. There was a small fifteen-foot steel replica of the Eiffel Tower on one long street, dedicated to the city of Irkutsk. "The Paris of Siberia." The only touch color was spotted in paintings of flowers and forests and oceans with small boats that rested on the walls outside of a large storefront that sold framed art. A statue of Vladimir Lenin with one arm raised stood in the center of a square surrounded by tightly packed apartment buildings and some empty storefronts. It was all the same color and people moved slowly and routinely and at some moments the city felt sad and even apocalyptic but there was something beautiful about it.
We met a group of students who lived in Irkutsk for lunch at a restaurant. We all entered the restaurant from the sidewalk down a stairwell that cut into the ground and took us below street level. Our two groups did not know each other but they were excited to meet us and we were excited to meet them. Some of the students had lived in Irkutsk all their life and some had moved from other cities to attend the state university. I sat next to one girl who studied languages at the school. She spoke Russian, English, and French. We all introduced ourselves and laughed and shared our experiences and when we were finished eating cheese with honey, the girl took a group of six of us on a tour of the city.
We went to the supermarket and bought ice cream and gum and we walked along the embankment of the frozen river and she translated the names of large government buildings that were written in Russian for us. At night we went to a karaoke bar and listened to the Russian music and sang American songs and some of the other people in the bar took videos of us. I saw faces and eyes and shook hands and heard voices. It was our last day and we had a flight back to Moscow at five in the morning. When the night was over we navigated our way back to our hotel. In those short seven hours we saw the city differently and we made friends we might never see again.
It was not the first time I noticed it but it was then where I saw it once more. At first glance I saw a city that was dark and cold and sad and difficult to live in. Many people were tired and weathered from the environment and hurt by the economy. But in some ways they were softer than many people I had met before. Through all of it, there were people that showed me how to be light in darkness and soft in rough and warmth in cold.