Julia, Russian

Julia is an alumna of the NSLI-Y Russian Summer Program from Wisconsin. Julia currently goes to college in Boston.

I go to college in Boston, but I’m a fourth-generation Wisconsinite, and the cheese state pride runs in my veins. When I went to Russia, I followed NSLI-Y’s advice and brought a lot of Wisconsin-themed things for my host family. I knew I was going to have 3 host siblings, the youngest a 6-year-old girl, and my mom hunted down a child-sized yellow foam cheesehead for me to bring. It was huge. The thing took up half of my carry-on. When I took it out of my bag with the rest of the gifts, my host mom laughed until she cried. But Evelina, my host sister, fell in love.

Girl with cheese hat and friends.

She wore the cheesehead everywhere. No outfit was complete without it. She wore it to march in the parade at the Истобенскиӣ огурец, the cucumber festival hosted by my host grandparent’s town. My family at home thought it was hilarious, watching her in her hat holding hands with two people dressed as enormous squeezable packets of mayonnaise. One night, my host mom took us to a music festival out in the countryside, and Evelina insisted on wearing her prized new possession. All night, people waved at us, calling out “сыр! сыр!” (cheese! cheese!)

The hat was not the end of my cheese-themed efforts at citizen diplomacy. We were each supposed to make a point of cooking an American dish, so one night I made mac and cheese for my host family, after spending an hour huddled around the kitchen table with my host mom trying to figure out which Russian cheese would be the best substitute for cheddar. I also got my host mom to show me how to make сырники, fried cottage cheese patties. I’ve attempted them a couple of times since coming home, but haven’t managed to make them turn out like hers.

Student and host sister holding hands while wearing cheese hat.

It’s been 4 years since my summer in Russia. Evelina is ten now, and when I see pictures of her on my host mom’s VK I barely recognize her. I have to admit that I haven’t been great about keeping in touch with my host family. Every year on New Year’s Day, I text my host mom to wish her “с новым годом”, a Happy New Year, but other than that we haven’t really been in touch.

But one should never underestimate the power of cheese diplomacy. Last March, my older host sister sent me an Instagram DM. She was fourteen the summer I was in Russia, and had helped guide me all around the city. It was a tense time, and the world seemed very uncertain, but she just wanted “your family recipe of pasta with cheese in the oven.” Of course, I was happy to share.