I can sum up my trip in one word
"The village is called Vetoshkino," we said to the woman at the roadside cafe in Kazan. It was, we were confidently told, five hours north of us, two hours south of Kirov, and in the vicinity of Urzhum.
But neither Nikolai, our Russian companion, nor the kindly woman who had served us two steaming bowls of borscht could find it on the map.
We arrived 11 hours later - at 5 in the morning, having fallen into an ice hole in Urzhum at 2 a.m. - but that's another story.
Nikolai's cousin Tatyana had been up since 4 to milk the cows and was waiting for us. She and her husband, Mikhail, were sorry to hear about our adventure on the road, but were not overly concerned as, after all, this was Russia. Someone was always sure to come along and help. It was just a question of being patient. Their nonchalance was, in a strange way, reassuring.
Vetoshkino was settled in the mid-1800s. As far as anyone knew, I was the first American to set foot there. Given how hard it was to find, that was not altogether unbelievable.
We were in Vetoshkino to do what would be the first of various ongoing projects across Russia: We were to buy new books for the village library, which was housed in the main school. It held about 1,000 books, the newest of which were from the 1950s. We were also there to buy every child in the school a book of his or her own. And that is actually where this story begins.
We were taken to several classrooms to get to know the students, to tell them about the library project, and to make a list of the books they wanted.
Nikolai had warned me that the village children rarely see strangers, let alone foreigners, and so we would have to work hard to overcome their shyness.
In every room we entered, the students leapt to their feet and remained standing until their teachers invited them to sit again. You couldn't help but notice, though, that all their necks were slightly craned to get a better glimpse of the unexpected guests.
If their eyes seemed to grow larger at meeting "the American," they couldn't fathom how much more stunned I was to see such innocence. A purity filled their eyes and faces - faces that resembled those of little children, rather than the teenagers they were.
You sensed itin the kind way they spoke to one another and in their simple, tidy clothes. There was a freshness about them that you could only assume came from the fact that the remoteness of this village had spared them from rubbing elbows with a rougher world.
Unfortunately, I couldn't tell them how much their innocence touched me or how valuable I thought it was. At that point, I still didn't know the word "innocence" in Russian.
It was very quiet as they listened, first to Nikolai and then to me. My thoughts were racing as I wondered how I could bridge the language and cultural divide and find a way to connect with them.
From the start of our project we had felt that, as important as new books were, it was equally important to find a way to reach people. It was a simple conviction that it is possible to touch one another in a way that, like leaven in dough, would continue to work in the heart, changing misconceptions.
Suddenly, the thought came to me that children everywhere like to be helpful. So I said that I was just learning Russian and so if I made a mistake, would they please correct me?
It worked. I made a mistake in my first sentence, they giggled, and a girl in the front raised her hand. She said that the word "mistake" should have been pronounced "a-sheb-KU" and not "a-sheb-KA."
As the object of the sentence, she continued, the word should have been in the accusative case. I thanked her warmly, without admitting that I wasn't sure what the accusative case was. In any case, she left a big impression on me. So did the children's book requests: They asked for Shakespeare, Twain, Hemingway, Conan Doyle, and all the Russian greats.
In the end, the children spoke easily with me and even came by the house that afternoon, sitting around the large wood-burning stove, chatting away happily and teaching me a score of new words. The word for innocent turned out to be easy to remember, sounding similar in Russian to how you say Winnie (of Winnie the Pooh).
More than once in traveling across Russia since then, I've been touched by the innocence of even the oldest children and have become more conscious of words I haven't learned. I still don't know, for instance, how to say "hatred" or "threat" or "guilty."
I also feel a certain freedom in not having had a need to use them.