New-comers be warned:
Palmetto bugs look nothing like palmettos. They are not a cute, endangered species clinging to existence, able to survive only on the furry, frond-covered columns of the South Carolina state tree. They are, in fact, roaches. We can dress our six-legged brethren up in floral titles all we want, but a roach by any other name…you get the point. And if you’re considering introducing your fiancée to your small, South Carolina hometown, and if she happens to be from Russia, let me warn you that the fragile ballet of cross-cultural love can be bowled to the floor by an insolent, two-inch insect.
Now, I thought I knew all of this very well. A native South Carolinian, I had grown up stomping on palmetto bugs as I walked down the sidewalk at night, sweeping them from the porches as we ate on summer evenings and hunting them when they entered the house (which was more often that my mother would like me to admit here). But fate took me away from my home and its unofficial state insect, carrying me to Russia as a recent college graduate, where I soon met a girl who wore the easy smile of an idyllic, roach-free existence. With her, I ventured into the heart of Russia, learning to pirouette around even the rudest of bus drivers or cashiers. I skied like a wobbly mantis down the roads of her grandparents’ village, and then warmed myself with my back pressed to the hot-water pipe that heated the home, watching the windows frost over with flowering crystals. I sat beneath one of the innumerable paintings her grandfather crafted over the long, slow winters, and I ate borscht and drank homemade juices squeezed from the previous summer’s forest berries. Oddly enough, this subtropical boy found himself at home in Russia, but when it came time to share my South Carolina roots with my Russian fiancée, I hesitated. Would Elena feel comfortable? I ran through a mental checklist: Did she enjoy 90% humidity in the summers? Did she forget how to drive when she saw a snowflake? How would she feel about our…wildlife?
My parents’ porch on a warm, June night. Peppery juices of a ribeye coating our tongues, blending surprisingly well with the red-caviar sandwiches Elena and I contributed as an appetizer. Later, I would get out the guitar and play a few Russian songs, but for now we were sipping my favorite red wine from Georgia (Tblisi, not Atlanta). The four of us relaxed, soaking in the methodical chirping of the crickets, the whirring buzz of the cicadas, and then the dreaded flap of something very large and alive flying right past my face. This UFO quickly landed on the shoulder of the one person who was least prepared for it, Elena. Her mouth opened in a yell. Her arms circled in swift, swatting motions. Her whirling fingers tore through the air. I leapt to my feet with emphatic stomp. Like the spinning lezginka sequence of a Russian folk show, it was all over within seconds, and perhaps my shocked parents would’ve applauded our artistry had it not been for the look of horror on their future daughter-in-law’s face. “What was it?” they asked her, and the next thing I knew, the girl I hoped to marry was pointing at the splattered carcass and searching for a word. “It was a—a—an animal!”
How did it end? Did we all laugh and pat each other on the back? Did the caviar blend with the palmettos after all? To be honest, I don’t remember. But as I write this my wife is buying groceries at one of Spartanburg’s Russian stores, on her way back from Zumba, and my kids are watching their favorite Russian cartoon, Nu pogodi!, while they eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (with shoes off inside the house, of course). The dance of the two cultures continues—a twist from here, a twirl from there—and every now and then a palmetto bug, literal or figurative, bursts in and livens things up.