I’ve never been in a fight. Jesse Coffey “accidentally” hit me in the face when I was in kindergarten or first grade while playing tag.  I couldn’t explain to my mother how that exactly happened, but I remember that it hurt. The entire left side of my face below my eye turned red and swelled up for about two weeks. But, until 2017, that had been the extent of my experience with fisticuffs. 

When I moved to Moscow, I really struggled to make new friends. It is  always difficult building a life after graduating from college, especially if you’re in a new city and essentially starting from zero. It’s even more difficult in a foreign land—even more so in Russia. While in recent years there’s been a growth in the use of internet resources and other mobile applications for dating, meeting people and making new friends, most of the Russians I initially met either spent their free time exlusively with the group of friends they had met way back in college or with long-time colleagues. I did have some acquaintances from work and a few friends I had connected with through my Uncle Jack. However, all of these acquaintances had a significant other, which meant that, for the most part, they wanted to spend their free time at home with their partners. Those who didn’t stay at home traveled on the weekends, either to meet up with friends or rendezvous with their significant others abroad.  I tried to connect with some other expats and foreigners, but this also proved surprisingly difficult. Most had no interest in meeting me for coffee or gathering after work. The result was that most Friday nights consisted of a simple routine: buy a small Domino’s pepperoni pizza, some wine, and watch a romantic comedy. (This is not actually as sad as it sounds. I like to be by myself.) Even being as introverted as I am, I was lonely. 

Then, in December 2016, a few days before flying home for the holidays, someone attempted to assault me in front of my apartment building. The situation understandably left me rattled and afraid to walk near my apartment at night. In light of that fear, coupled with my desire to make new friends, I decided to try boxing. My friend’s cousin had just recently opened up a boxing gym with two of his friends, so I knew exactly where to go. After just a few classes I was hooked, and I started attending group classes three times a week, even though the gym was an hour away from my apartment. I purchased wraps and bright pink Everest boxing gloves.  Beating the punching bag or “sparring” with the other girls in the class was a great way to vent much of my pent-up frustration.

Fast forward a few months to late summer. I was terribly unhappy. My job and office environment were both wholly unfulfilling. I was exhausted all the time. I was overburdened by the financial challenges of earning rubles while still paying bills in dollars. And I was still lonely, a feeling that had only become more acute after returning from a trip home where I had spent a wonderful weekend with my lifelong friends as one of the bridesmaids in my best friend’s wedding. Every day I contemplated calling it quits—just packing up my bags and flying home. 

In an effort to find some sort of release, I still went to boxing religiously, 2-3 days a week. A tall, redhead had started attending the same classes as me, and we were frequently paired as sparring partners. Her previous boxing experience consisted of private lessons at another gym with a trainer, so she didn’t have any prior experience sparring with a partner. She was nice, but an annoyance to spar with. She rarely followed the sequences provided by our trainer and would force me to chase after her. She was clearly petrified of being hit, so I made a concerted effort not to punch hard. However, she did not show me the same courtesy, often forcefully hitting me in response. 

One class, on a particularly bad day, in the middle of a three-minute round,  I suddenly felt the sting of a right upper-cut to the left side of my jaw. The pain was instantaneous and sharp, like I had fainted and hit the side of my face on a concrete sidewalk. Dazed, I stepped aside and quickly assessed the damage. I could taste some blood in my mouth from where I had cut my lip, and it was hard to fully open my mouth. When I tried to, it felt as if someone were trying to yank the left side of my jaw in the opposite direction, away from my face. All in all, the physical damage was minimal. But on that day, in that moment, that hit was just one more gut punch, one more entry in a long list of shit that had accumulated over the past few months.

I was determined to finish the class and not cry. I despise being vulnerable in front of others, particularly those I don’t know very well. I don’t like showing pain or sadness, and I can count on one hand the number of people I’m comfortable crying in front of. So, I held the tears back. Somehow, I made it through the class and was sitting down on the bench, rolling up my wraps. I was so close—so close to home where I could bawl in complete comfort. My trainer ruined my plans when he asked me how I was doing. As soon as I tried to talk, my words were muffled by sobs. The tears came fast and in rivulets. It was like I had fallen face-first into one of those street-wide puddles that inevitably pop up around the city after rain.

He thought I was crying because I had just been punched. It wasn’t. It was everything. It was the loneliness, the frustration, the exhaustion. It was every petty little annoyance about life in Moscow, from overcrowded metro trains to the curtains that kept falling that I couldn’t fix to the incessant potholes and dirt stains on my clothes to the impossibility of following simple conversations in Russian. Sometimes your heart breaks, and you don’t even really know why. As hard as you try, you can’t explain it, can’t provide a list of reasons. But how do you explain that to someone in broken Russian in between gasps of air? You can’t. And that just made me cry harder. 

I sulked home, bought a bottle of wine, called my mother, and watched “What’s Your Number?”, a ridiculous romantic comedy that I can’t help but love. And I cried some more. 

I think there is a kind of glamorous connotation when you speak of expat life, even in Russia. It conjures images of thrilling adventures amidst exotic lands, of fantastical landmarks and poetic languages, of walks along the streets of Paris and Rome. But expat life is hard, no matter where you are. You’re living in a land that isn’t your home, that is such a wild contrast to everything you knew growing up. A land with different slang, different pop culture references, and different standards of etiquette.

I don’t know what got me through the next few months. Perhaps it was getting involved more outside of work, the improvement in my Russian, or my efforts to be more social. Somehow, I’m still here, but it never gets easy. I still have days when I crave Chicago pizza and yearn for the ease of Amazon. I still hate bucket showers in the summer, and fights about wet hair in the winter and not wearing slippers indoors are interminable. But eventually, admidst these nuisances and culture shocks, you start to build a life filled with people and responsiblities you can’t bring yourself to simply abandon. And when the world around you starts to really suck—and believe me, sometimes it does—a bottle of wine, a good cry, and a tough workout can do wonders.