Xenia, a young girl in Novgorod, Russia

Xenia, photographed outside Saint Sophia church in Novgorod, Russia.

Xenia, photographed outside Saint Sophia church in Novgorod, Russia.

At the altar of Saint Sofia Church within the Kremlin, husky women in babushkas genuflect and pray.  Thin red devotional candles illuminate the cavernous, damp interior, and diffused daylight streams in only through the huge, medieval central door and small arched windows.  The air is heavy with incense.  Here is a glimpse of the beauty I had hoped for:  the light, the Russian orthodox relics, the chanting.

I stand in a corner holding my camera waiting for a face that could somehow define Novgorod today, on Knowledge Day, the first day of school.  People are my favorite subject.  How better to illustrate a place than through its people?

As rain began to fall, students pour in to pray for the beginning of the school year.  Many arrived with their doting parents, and many are formally dressed – hair ribbons and lace, ties and jackets, dresses and hats.

Some of the older students come in alone.  A group of giggling teenage girls enter breathless all with scarves over their heads, brushing the rain drops from their shoulders and arms.  One girl runs in last and alone behind them, simultaneously smiling and loosening the knotted white scarf fastened under her chin.  She removes the scarf and shook it before quickly placing it back on her head.  She is slim and more simply dressed than the others.  Her smile is bright and mischievous; her rosy cheeks punctuate her radiant skin, exuding a magnetic, authentic beauty and a happiness which draw me toward her.

This is Xenia.

I approach her: “Do you speak English?” I ask.  “No” she giggles, shaking her head.  Her friends gather around as I stand before her.  Although she cannot speak English, I try to explain with my camera that I would like to take her picture.

She agrees.  I bring her outside the church to an underpass lit softly by the cloudy morning light.  She iss embarrassed by the attention, and at first will not let me shoot her alone unless I do so first her with her best friend who is standing nearby watching.

So I do.  I learn that she lives at a monastery I outside Novgorod,  studying to become a nun.  She is 14, from St. Petersburg,

I thank her profusely for her time.  In response she hugs me and kisses me three times.  Would I please have tea at her monastery anytime during my stay in Russia, she asks .  She would tell her Mother Superior that I’m expected, and exclaims before leaving that she has never met a woman from New York before.

Three days later I arrive for tea three days later at the as rain fell once again.  An elderly woman standing in a doorway gestures for me to come in and I rush inside with my dripping umbrella.  Inside there are three stocky women dressed in mismatched layers of wool and numerous scarves, their feet too large for their slippers . Slowly and in silence, except for the rain hitting the pavement outside, they peel baskets of potatoes with their rough, soiled hands.  The room smells of wet wool and rising bread; I sit and waited on small wooden chairs and peek into adjacent rooms filled with bunk beds and sleeping pilgrims.  The ladies seemed to know I am there to see Xenia, and smile at me often.

Xenia appears a few minutes later with those same rosy cheeks, as excited and breathless as she had been a few days before in church.  She greets me with her big, embarrassed smile, and leads me to another damp, cool room where her tea service was ready.  This was clearly the dining area for the monastery as it is filled with many long wooden tables.  As I enter and she leads me to the table, explaining apologetically that she isn’t allowed to show me her own room.  She has set a section of one of the long wooden banquettes; linden tea prepared with leaves picked on site, almond cake baked by another young nun who speaks a bit of English, fresh curdled cheese made from the milk from the monastery’s cows, a puree of green apples, and toast.

I sit across from her and we throw questions and answers back and forth at each other.  Both of us are pointed with our questions; why does she want to be a nun and when did she know?  Why do I travel so much?  What is her family like?  What is it like in New York?  We laugh and eat her homemade goodies with great relish, and she constantly fills my plate with more.  She seems to be worried that I’m hungry… I have to tell her to stop even though her almond cake is incredible!

I take out a gift I had bought her before arriving for tea.  I wanted to bring something to give her as a remembrance of me, and decided on a bracelet – a delicate silver link with multicolored stones.  I am excited to give this token to her and to see her reaction.  As I offer the box to her my eyes begin to water.  Her face explodes into a huge smile and giggle, and she blushes…”It’s so beautiful” she says, and thanks me with her 3 kisses just as she had at the church.  Her eyes water too, and for a minute we sit  in silence.  In exchange she give me a small icon from the church and her address with the hope that we will meet again.  We pose for some pictures as it continues to pour.  We stand under the over hang of the central church, laughing and giggling for the photos…..her lightness and mischievous glee are contagious.  And for the first time ever, I am sorry to leave Russia.