I am sorry to all my fans if I have been a bit delinquent in answering my webmail, but I have been traveling in Russia to all sorts of small towns and big cities—some with limited web access. As it takes sometimes 6-8 hours for me to answer all of my mail and questions on the site, I have not had that kind of time in any one place for the last month.
However, I thought that perhaps you would forgive me for this fact if I would share my experiences in Russia with you.
I am still a bit of a technical “loser” as I forgot to check my webmail until I got a pleading email from Vlad (my webmaster at Attention Interactive) asking for me to please check my mail and answer.
Actually, I love to answer my mail, but half the time I’m in disbelief I’m actually getting any mail at all, and half the time I forget. And what mail I get! You guys really ask good questions! You are paying attention and I am proud of you all…..
Anyway, I will take you along on the journey that is Russia and when I have more than just one hour I will answer the questions that were posted in the last month! (I am writing this offline at 4:30-6am St Petersburg time! Imagine? And I will post it when I get web access.)
First of all, I have been traveling in some of the smallest towns and cities in Russia because since I was a kid, Russia has just fascinated me! And for good reason, I believe. The History is just amazing and incredible; especially to an American who has only 200 or so years of history to drawn on. For me, WWI and WWII were another generation and fought a world away. The Russians, on the other hand, were front and center and absolutely the object of Hitler’s lust. Russians tell me they lost over 20 MILLION people in WWII to Hitler’s war machine. Neighborly, Hitler was NOT! It is hard to think that Hitler wanted to raze St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) and flood it to make a big lake! When you see the beautiful buildings and architecture you understand what a loss this would have been. (Just think Le Hermitage!) But he also wanted to kill most of the residents and keep only a few hundred-thousand Russians as SLAVES!
He already had the invitations to his Victory Party in the famed St Petersburg Astoria Hotel made up! The Astoria Hotel was across from the German Embassy in the city, and Hitler wanted a full victory-worthy reception!
What a different world it would have been had Hitler succeeded!
I don’t think as Americans we have ever come that close to being annihilated.
Anyway, I believe that some of the towns I have visited have not changed since pre-communist days! That is really amazing to a person like me, who was born in NYC, as the city that changes while you sleep at night!
But it’s the people that make this country so fascinating!!
I mean, they look like us. For example, my boyfriend (who is a Russian) has my coloring: big, round, blue eyes, and brown hair. You could mistake him on the street for an average Caucasian American male until he opens his mouth. They just don’t think like us!
Besides the fact that he is extremely intelligent, he looks at a situation without empathy and without emotion. He looks at the actual center of the problem. I, on the other hand, look at everything the problem is; the emotion, who is involved and the relationships of the people involved. In reality, most of the time when I look at the situation as he looks at it, I am able to resolve it immediately. If I look at it my way, I get bogged down by the relationships and the emotion. It takes me longer to figure out the resolution!
Maybe it is just me and maybe I am too empathetic. But, man, being able to clear out some of the emotion of a problem and to just see the actual problem has been a relief.
It is also interesting to see how a non-American/non-Canadian is able to see our country and put to use English words. This is cute and charming and sometimes really funny. And it certainly sets Russians apart! In Russia most people don’t speak English so don’t think you are going to go to Russia and it is easy to get along. Even if they take English in school, the theory is way different than the practice. When you do get a Russian who speaks English or who will try to speak English, it is disarming.
Alexei, my boyfriend, is the perfect example. He eats “smashed” potatoes, and asks me to do him a ‘Favorite’-instead of a favor! And well, if you think about it he is correct, too, as he takes things literally! We do smash the potatoes and he is special to me so I will do something for him because he IS my favorite! I mean, he asks me to do him a favorite and I just about melt. He could ask me to do anything for him…..and well, he knows it.
But also, it took him being his “literal” self in Whole Foods Market for me to see how important it is to BE Literal.
One day he kept asking me: how do they have ORGANIC SEEDLESS GRAPES?
Well, here we go I thought, I have told him how organic works- why is he asking me again?
“Well,” I start out in that wisecracking way that I am when I think I have answered a question for him more than once and I think it is a language problem, “I told you what organic is: they do not use conventional DDT’s or chemicals on the plants. They are as found in nature.”
“But, Organic seedless grapes….” He kept quietly repeating.
“What do you not understand?” I am thinking and I try to placate him: “They grow them in clean soil. Soil that has been fallow without chemicals for 7 years-“
“But ORGANIC SEEDLESS grapes,” he kept repeating patiently.
What is he driving at??
He is making me crazy; I have answered this question so many times….”as found in nature…”
“But, Organic SEEDLESS grapes.” He patiently repeats again!
Oh my gosh! He is right because he is taking everything he sees on a literal basis, he is asking how can grapes be SEEDLESS and ORGANIC when the very definition of organic is “as found in nature” and, well, God did not make seedless grapes—man created them in a hybrid fashion! He was right and, of course, I had to apologize because I was not ‘getting’ what he was asking.
I am not so literal and I am used to Marketing practices which mislead the consumer. Therefore, he has become my consumer barometer because he picks out the inconsistencies of marketing that his literal sense of the English language makes apparent to him but not to me……
But this is just language.
There are so many customs in Russia that I find so incredibly different. For example, do not pass the salt from one person to another directly to their hand. This will make a Russian “rewind” like a video and force your hand to the table where you MUST put the salt down on the table so that they can pick it up. No matter how many times I tell my boyfriend that this is a superstition that is a left-over from the days where salt was an instrument of trade (like gold). To pass it from one hand to another without a bag meant that you could be cheated as salt could stick in the cracks of your hand and you could short change someone.
It does not matter. Drop the salt or drive your Russian dinner guest from the table.
Another rather strange custom is that you can drink alcohol right on the street! You can walk down the street or hang out on a street corner with an open bottle of whatever you wish: beer, vodka, or wine! No one stops you. The police do not care. It is amazing to see people at the end of the workday walking home with an open beer and a cigarette.
Which reminds me—they smoke everywhere. Even in Italy, which is THE smoking capital of the world where babies are practically born with a pack in their hand, they have No Smoking Laws. But Russia just won’t give in and every time I arrive back in Russia and I walk into the lobby of the hotel I am startled to see people walking around smoking in the elevators and even at dinner. Just as I am about to say something to the people I am with, I remember and catch my breath (mostly because I’ve got a lungful of smoke) and remember: they CAN smoke everywhere.
This includes their cars, buses, taxi’s…..which reminds me: Russian drivers are not like any drivers in the world.
I mean, I grew up in NYC! We are THE “he who hesitates is lost” city of the East! But we do not compare….
I have driven Mercedes in Italy and motorbikes in India; Audi’s in Brazil and Ferrari’s in France, but my managers and friends will not allow me to drive in Russia. Russian drivers bring new meaning to the idea of “your heart pounding in your ears.” Where in other countries it is the joy of a FAB car that makes your heart pound, here it is the experience of kamikaze driving that is not for the faint of heart.
Even Russians who have been in America for a bit of time who come back to Russia and drive end up cursing under their breathe for being stuck in one spot for half an hour as no one waits in a line.
If you want to turn left, first, you have to fight the cars that come from behind you and cut you off turning left in front of you. Then you have to battle the drivers who just push through the red light.
Police are everywhere, but Russians tell me you just pay them and move on. No points on your license…..so no real incentive to follow rules…..
Most people (at least 50%) of the country have LADA’s that are pre-World War II anyway, so one more scratch does not matter. But the fact that they have these cars, and they still are in good shape and they still run, is unbelievable. Their motto is: if it runs and gets you there, it is a car. And anyone is a taxi. If you have a car, you can be a taxi. They have taxis, for sure. But you can just step into the street and wave your hand and anyone can stop and pull over and if they are going your way, they will negotiate a price and give you a ride. Hitchhiking, it is called in America, and we warn our teenagers NOT to do it. In Russia, it is an art form: to pick the right car and the right time to step into the street to flag down that car, to wear the right clothes that will make a driver pull over (not every driver pulls over) but that does not scream money so that you can negotiate a fair price for the ride….
And believe me, on a cold Russian winter night, you WILL dress the part to get a ride. Either that or you freeze to death in the street. Nothing like getting home quickly when it is cold out.
Speaking of home, I have noticed that Americans are very interested in what the outside of the house or apt looks like. “Curb appeal” is the technical term. Russians, on the other hand, take painstaking care of the inside of their house. I have been in buildings that actually look condemned from the outside only to find the most brilliant apartments done with painstaking care inside.
And their sense of History is unrivalled! They do not take down a building because it is old. In fact, it becomes a celebrated part of their history, unlike Americans who take down a building the minute it celebrates its 20th year or if it is sitting on a great parcel of land, even more reason to clear it off and build new.
Speaking of Old and New. It is amazing to see little old Russian women selling pickles and cabbage on the streets of major cities in plastic baggies—right in front of huge new futuristic shopping malls.
This is really where the past meets the future in Russia.
100 rubles, less than $4 American, is a tip worthy of a hotel housekeeper going to a dictionary to learn to say “God Bless You” in English. While the bag of choice for Russian women with money is the $10,000.00 Birkin by Hermes. The difference between the have and have-nots is as wide as Russia is BIG!
It takes 10 hours to go from St Petersburg to Harbinsk. (In America NY to LA is only 4.5 hours)
I haven’t yet figured out North to South yet. Or if they go from Sun to Snow like we do in America from Florida to Maine.
Oh and speaking of Snow. Have I yet mentioned the SNOW? Or how about shoveling snow?
In a country that manufactures snow from September to May, it is unbelievable that they do not shovel the sidewalk. To see these little 90-year-old babushkas (Russian for grandmothers) walking on ice and snow to sell their pickles for 50 rubles in little rubber boots on dreary winter days is just beyond belief. I say ‘beyond belief’ because if they fall, there is no recourse. In America an un-shoveled sidewalk would be a lawsuit waiting to happen. Here there are NO lawsuits, which is somewhat of a relief because they have a greater sense of personal responsibility than we do in America but at the same time they care less about some public safety issues: stairs to metros and icy sidewalks being just a couple of examples.
How about plowing the streets you ask? What’s the matter, can’t you drive?
Russians drive on snow, ice, rain, sleet-if it is in the road they will drive over it. (See paragraph above on Russian drivers!)
No right or wrong on either side, just different; just one thing in a long line of little things that makes us so different from each other.
But these are just outwardly things. I am constantly amazed how differently they think, and the food they eat (they juice everywhere!) and how they view the cold war with America (this has led to some lively discussions with Russian ex-military), and how they celebrate holidays (chicken is the bird of holiday feasting for example)
Oh and how- just for the record: Russians hardly EVER say sorry or thank you. So don’t feel bad if they don’t thank you when you do something! It is just not the custom.
But I think THAT blog is for next week—right AFTER I answer my webmail.
See ya then!