in sickness and in health

…there will never, ever be soap in the bathrooms.

Welcome to February, the month of epidemics, viruses, swine flu, normal flu, head colds, and every other wintry malady you can think of. Here in Ukhta, they have a booming business.

In fact, this week Vickie and I have not had classes, because the university semester still hasn’t entirely gotten started, and all of our other schools (three of them, by my count), are closed on quarantine.


I think once in high school we closed school for sickness, but that was because 3/5 of us were out sick, and what’s the use carrying on class for two people?

Strange-small-school exceptions aside, Russians and Americans treat illness very differently, particularly in the context of school. For example:

  • Prevention: American schools try to prevent the spread of illness by putting antibacterial substances everywhere. All desks wiped down every day, giant bottles of hand sanitizer stationed at every door, endless supplies of soap in every bathroom. In Russia, I consider myself lucky if I find a questionable bar of soap in a school bathroom. Prevention consists of closing down schools so that kids don’t interact with each other (because kids never see each other if school is closed, right?). Also wearing surgical masks to work/on public transportation.
  • General personal health: American kids take Flintstone gummy vitamins, drink orange juice, eat broccoli. Because Mom said so. American grown-ups take Vitamin D, drink orange juice, eat salad. Also because Mom said so. It’s weird spending a day with a Russian family and never seeing a vegetable other than carrots (and potatoes?). Where both are agreed, though, is that going outside and taking a walk/going skiing is a lot better for illness prevention than sitting around inside.
  • Staying home: A runny nose and a cough will not keep an American kid home from school. Even if that cough is kind of nasty-sounding. The same symptoms in Russia, on the other hand, signify much more than a head cold: that’s pre-pneumonia. There’s even a word for this phenomenon… приболеть. I’ve had some kids miss weeks of class because they приболели and their moms are afraid to send them to school with a sore throat, lest it become worse.
  • Treatment of staying home: In sixth grade, I almost got held back because I missed so much school from sickness. Missing class was a big deal. Let alone at university– missing four days of class in a given course could constitute a failure, barring a doctor’s note validating the intense seriousness of your illness. Even a serious (and seriously infectious) head cold wasn’t going to cut it. Here, the teachers encourage students to stay home if they feel something coming on. I encountered this attitude for the first time when I was still in America… in freshman year Russian class, when my professor told us something along the lines of, “I don’t care what the university rules are: if you feel gross, don’t come to class and get me sick too.”
  • Home remedies: One thing we have in common is chicken noodle soup. The stuff is universal. Other than that… Americans consume lots and lots of water, Sprite/Ginger Ale, and other things that make us happy (i.e. ice cream). Don’t you dare suggest to a Russian that sick-you should eat ice cream. They will, instead, give you a plate of chopped garlic to breathe, another plate of garlic to consume, and endless tea with ginger, lemon, and honey (the latter of which I can actually get behind).
  • Doctors: In America, I went to the doctor when we thought I had an infection that needed prescription meds (for everything else, there’s ibuprofen! or NyQuil). Depending on the symptoms and who was in charge of me at the time, this could happen 1-7 days after symptoms started. In Russia, if you are sick with something that feels contagious/have a temperature, you do not go to the doctor. The doctor comes to you. Why go out in -20 degree weather, worsening your own symptoms and infecting everyone around you? (I actually really like this system.)
  • Can we talk about soap again: Dear Russia, if you’re reading this, please just put soap in like at least one bathroom per building. I would be forever grateful.
Russian homework on point. Translation: “No ice cream for you! You just had a sore throat a week ago.” “But Grandma, it’s so hot out.”

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