Russian to the Sea

This whole thing started when my 21-year-old Russian friend Dasha turned to me a few weeks ago and said, “I have never seen the ocean.”

As somebody who has spent every summer of her life on a beach, I was shocked into silence (which, for those who know me, is saying a lot).

Maybe none of this would have happened if she had not continued. “I’ve seen a sea,” she explained. “But not the ocean. I just don’t know what the big deal is. It’s just water.”

Now, for anyone who studies history, you know that every country has a pretty consistent goal across the centuries. Italy’s, for example, is usually to gain territory— in fact, most countries’ goals are. But Russia doesn’t need territory. It has always needed a warm water port. And most of its wars have been started in pursuit of this goal (Hint: that’s why they invaded the Ukraine— though if you asked my Russian friend, they invaded because the Ukraine was always Russian but that’s neither here nor there). Centuries of this endless and fruitless search for water has led us to this moment, a grown Russian woman telling me she’s never seen the ocean.

So when my friends suggested going to Dunkirk for the annual carnaval, I insisted that Dasha come with us. She had not seen the movie and didn’t know the history of the beach so I made sure nobody told her because she hated being in places where a lot of people died.

For those who are going to try to tell me that Dunkirk does not face an ocean but rather part of the English Channel, I did look it up and it does technically sit on the border between where the English Channel ends and the North Sea begins. And some of you will try to tell me that if that’s the case, then Dasha didn’t see the ocean at all, but rather the North Sea. And to that I say that on that day, it did not matter in the least. We all believed it was the ocean because we all suck at geography and we all walked like thirty minutes in the cold because we all wanted her to see it.

So just let us have this. (And rest assured we’ll go visit Nantes in the spring so she can see the actual Atlantic Ocean.)


Like two days before we were scheduled to go to Dunkirk, Dasha said she might not go at all, that she wasn’t feeling up to it. To which I nearly caused a scene on the metro.

I told her that I am never happier than when I’m looking at the ocean and that I wanted her to feel that.

She caved pretty quickly, probably to stop me from shouting more on the metro than is really necessary.

The day came in a flash. We all got dressed up, painted up, bejeweled and bedazzled and befeathered for the carnaval.

Quick history on the carnaval that we learned from a cross-dressing man in the crowd waiting for fish outside the town hall.

Dunkirk is primarily a fishing town, and fishing is super dangerous on the North Sea (which is about when we learned that we hadn’t seen the ocean after all but only Katia had the heart to tell Dasha that and even then, she didn’t care). So when the fisherman have to leave, they have a huge party where they dress up as women and going around kissing men who aren’t dressed up as women because it’s a way to blow off steam and forget that you could totally die before you see another woman again. Everybody dresses up like it’s a Halloween-inspired rave and a few pop-up bars serve super cheap beer and some men get too drunk and join the parade just to push people too much, which we figured out after trying to join the parade and having to fight our way back out. They all get these super tall, crazily decorated umbrellas of which none of us could understand the meaning. And at the end of the parade, some people (government officials, I’m assuming, but honestly it was the kind of thing where I don’t think it mattered) stand on the balcony of the town hall and throw fish at the boisterous crowd below.

But that’s later in the day. Right now, we’ve just arrived to Dunkirk and we’re all drinking beer at 11 AM because apparently that’s just what you do at carnaval and I’m painting everybody’s face with stars and hearts and a David Bowie stripe for my Mexican friend George and the Russian flag for Dasha.

That’s when we decided to look for the beach. When we saw it was thirty minutes away, we weren’t totally sure we would go at all. But then we raided a costume shop (and by raided I mean we respectfully selected a few costume items and left with a thank-you after paying for them) for flower crowns, feather boas, and masquerade masks and that’s when we decided hell, let’s just start walking and see where we end up.

Well we ended up at the beach.

We turned a corner and there it was, just sitting there. I halted the group so I could pull out my phone and record the moment Dasha saw the ocean for the first time.

This is what I caught:

This moment was easily my favorite part of carnaval. I have a fear of crowds and I don’t love beer but I got to witness the first time someone saw the ocean. Even if yes, I know, it wasn’t really the ocean. It didn’t matter. Do you know why it doesn’t matter? Because if you watched that video, you could hear Dasha say, “I have never been so happy in my life.”

That’s all that mattered to me.



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