Russia – Part 2

As my adventures in Russia continue, I am discovering things I never thought could happen and the hilarity of limited communication skills and unmet expectations.

I have gone to a few friendly business dinners while I’ve been here. The first time, I was told that we would be meeting at a bar. Knowing the Russian capacity for drinking, I spent a lot of my day eating really fatty foods to prepare myself for this meeting at a bar. We went to a place called Baga Bar. An Indian style bar-restaurant with incredible decorations. And we spent the entire evening drinking. Whenever we were running low, a hand shot up for the waiter to bring us more. As I have come to find out this may be the most common drink in Russia. It was not Vodka. Truth be told, it was not any type of alcohol. It was tea. You can find so many different types of tea everywhere, it’s incredible. Everyone has the basics of green and black, but then you’ve got so many other types. It has been an absolute pleasure.

Most of the countries I’ve lived in have never had outrageously cold weather. So imagine my surprise one day when I found out the unexpected effect this can have. In an office building, I go looking for the men’s room. I see a sign in Russian that says that the WC doesn’t work because there is no water. I was a bit confused by this sign so I go back to my host and ask what happened. He explains to me that the water in the pipes connected to the men’s room froze because of the cold weather. This is not something I ever thought of as a possibility. I’m not entirely sure how they fixed it but I do know that they brought big electrical machines into the bathroom (it took a few hours for them to bring them) and did something to the pipes.

After a few weeks here my understanding of Russian has improved greatly. Speaking though is still not an easy endeavour. Everyone I’ve come across though greatly appreciates my efforts, which has gotten them to open up to me even more than they normally would do a stranger. At the supermarket, they realize that it’s in my nature to smile at them when I say hello, goodbye, thanks, etc. and so they have started to smile back. This may seem like nothing to an outsider but keep in mind that there’s a Russian saying that anyone who smiles without reason is an idiot. In the office building that I go to the most, the ladies at reception see me and immediately start chiming “Hello Ludovic” (the Russian way of saying my name is charming! It sounds like ‘lyu-DO-vic’) and when I leave in the evening, I get a wave goodbye. This is so uncommon that is sincerely surprised my host when he saw it happen. Going back to the supermarket, the people there keep their sentences short and simple.

An adventure I had was ordering a camera. One of my hosts helped me with that and put his phone number so that the delivery guy could call him and tell him that he’s at my building, where my host in turn would call me and let me know to go downstairs. I found myself at 19:00 walking out in my pyjamas that were not made for cold weather, looking for the delivery truck. The scene had the makings of a drug deal. There I was standing in the freezing cold, wearing my pyjamas, handing the delivery guy cash and making sure he count it correctly. He laughed at my horrible accent as I found the words for the amount I was paying. He half slid out of his truck (based on his expression, I presume this was a common occurrence) and handed me my camera.

The last example of making do with limited language skills has to do with going to the doctor. I fell on a doctor who thankfully spoke English. Before he started what he had to do I asked him if it was going to hurt. He looked at me and said “hurt?”. Thinking about the best way to explain what I meant, I saw his left forearm right in front of me. I pinched it and say “ouch”. The look of surprise on his face was priceless. I don’t think he ever had a patient pinch him before. He smiled and said “No, no hurt”.

If you’re going to use cash, make sure you have every type of denomination. Since most transactions are done by card, the cash reserves tend to be limited.

One thing that I find hilarious is that they are certain that all Israelis speak Russian. When I asked why they think this, they say because there are so many Russians in Israel that of course everyone speaks the language. It was very hard for them to accept that this is not the case.

Russia – Part 1

Talk about a difference in culture.

Nothing could have prepared me for Russia. Not the movies, not my Russian friends and acquaintances and no website. The moment I landed I felt it would be different than any other place I had been to. Two things I knew – knowledge of the English language is very very limited and the people don’t smile without a good reason. Especially to strangers. In the airport, when I found a nice lady who worked there and spoke English, I latched on and did not let go, so to speak. She helped me navigate the required paperwork I needed and proved to me once again, that once you break that initial barrier of a cold appearance, Russians are very warm and generous people. Also, never get in a fight with a Russian woman. Let’s put it this way, I was very happy to have her on my side. It reminded me of my ex. Very delicate looking but get her mad and you would have to deal with a force of nature that would get the Hulk to back down.

When dealing in Rubles, it takes a while to get used to the prices. 1000 Rubles is about 14 Euros. Going shopping for anything is scary when you look at the numbers on the price tickets and are used to Euros.

In the winter, outside is cold. I did not know this about myself, but apparently my body handles the cold pretty well. The tips of my ears though… that’s my delicate point. That and my weird issue with the lower jaw which last happened when I was in Latvia (again, in the winter). My jaw freezes in the cold and so when speaking, pronunciation issues come up. Also, I may drool. As an adult, drooling is frowned upon. So if you see me in a very cold place, even if I’m wearing a t-shirt, do not be surprised to see a scarf around my neck and jawline. Please do not start a verbal discussion with me at that point.

The buildings are very well heated so life inside is comfortable. Every building I’ve been to has double doors. This keeps the cold out in the winter. The outer door is usually heavy. I was surprised at how heavy. I asked one of my hosts why this was and he explained that during times that were less good, it was to keep people out.

The first tip I was given was to have my passport on me at all times. As a foreigner in a country I do not know well, this to me is a given. But apparently, this is something everyone is recommended to do. Being a foreigner from a European country though gives additional protection. The one thing I was not expecting though was having a potential problem with my beard. I usually enjoy the privilege of my country of origin when I travel without giving a second thought to many things. However, it appears that in Russia having a beard is not great. I knew tattoos could be a problem which is why I was happy that due to the cold I would be covered up anyway, but I had not given a second thought to the beard. The one time, I got recognized for my religious origin though was exactly where I wanted it to happen. Not sure if it was the beard or what, but going to Synagogue, there were two security guards at the door who did pat me down since they didn’t know me but when my host explained that I would like to go in because I am Jewish, the guard looked at me, half smiled and said “Obviously”.

Incredibly, the Jewish kids that I met spoke Hebrew perfectly and even had an Israeli accent!

Lastly (for today). My spoken Russian is very limited but I make an effort to put together some words and make sentences. As someone who is used to speaking fluently a few languages, it is disheartening to see that I apparently have such a horrible French accent (as I’ve been told) that it is very hard to understand my words. I will aspire to improve. Till next time!


Hospitality, Texas style

I went to Austin, Texas expecting some Southern hospitality but I was also careful not to expect too much knowing it’s a big city. From the moment I arrived until the day I left, I had the pleasure of experiencing the niceness of the city’s people.

It started with Stephen at the airport who waited for me to exit (instead of hurrying home) so that he could say goodbye one last time after having shared a row with me on the flight. And then the first of many bus drivers who realized I would easily get lost. His solution was to pull out a map of the city’s public transportation and explain to me the basics of the city’s public transportation system.

The next instance was at the ER. Due to a lab mistake, my doctor called me and told me to get to the nearest ER. I arrived at Westlake. The entire staff was amazing, but the one that really blew me away was the attending doctor. Once I was released, I requested that they call a cab for me. Twice the cab company flaked out (my only bad experience in Austin). Since by this point, I had been waiting in the lobby for over an hour, it was raining outside and I was after a very long and stressful day, the doctor ordered me an Uber to the other side of town where I was staying and paid for it on his dime. As I’m sure you can imagine I was flabbergasted.

Here is where I should also bring up the generous constable. Waiting at the bus station, I noticed I had the correct change for a ride but not for a daily pass. I saw a constable and asked if there was a store nearby where I could purchase something so as to receive change which I could use to buy a day pass (for anyone who does not know, the buses require exact payment as they do not give out change). As we were chatting about where I’m from, what I’m doing there (Texas is amazing! Of course I needed to come visit!), etc. I see him fishing in his pockets. Since he was holding what appeared to be an electronic cigarette (to my untrained eyes as a non-smoker), I thought he was looking for something related. As our conversation ended, he pulled out some notes, handed them to me and said “Welcome to Texas!”. I offered him my large note as exchange. He would not accept and just repeated “No, no. Welcome to Texas!”

On another day, I stopped at a MacDonald’s for a quick drink, rest and some wifi. A gentleman there waved at me to come over. This man had ordered two breakfasts and was looking for someone to share it with. Though we hardly spoke the same language (my Spanish really is not up to par), I sat with him to have a chat with him as he appeared to be a truly special man. We decided he should give the second breakfast to someone who needs it. After a long conversation (yes, we managed) I found out that he habitually orders a second breakfast to share with someone. He does not do this because he is wealthy (he is not) but because it’s a good thing to do.

I had many other incredible experiences while there but these were the ones that stuck out the most (except for the talk with the Travel Club of a local high school – but that’s a post for another time).

All in all, Austin – you are awesome and you definitely know how to show hospitality!

Cypriot quirks

Now that Cyprus is behind me I look back at some of its quirks and smile. They were sometimes confusing and sometimes frustrating but oftentimes I would look at them and secretly be jealous of this island life.

Here are just some of the quirks and funny moments I had while there.

  • Turkish coffee is called Greek coffee. People on both sides will try to tell you that there is a difference between them. There isn’t. The reason for the different names is political.
  • I once had a prescription sent to me by post. After weeks of waiting (they had forgotten to put the note in the mailbox), they said the local pharmacist with whom they worked had to approve the release of the package and that he only worked on Wednesdays. A few days later I came back with all of the documentation he required. But he wasn’t there, because he only works with the post office once a week. So that I wouldn’t have to come back into the city just for that, the local customs manager in the post office sent one of her team to the pharmacists place of work so he could sign off on it.
  • Buildings don’t always have numbers. But they all have names. So when giving you an address, Cypriots will often tell you the building name instead of the exact address.
  • Cypriots don’t hitchhike, but if you do hitchhike they will generally stop for you. One of my generous drivers once told me about his sheep. I recognized the sheep farm he was talking about and showed him selfies I had taken with the sheep in his background. If you think the world is small, come to Cyprus and you’ll realize just how small.
  • Traffic lights. Go to a crosswalk (as a pedestrian) and try to find the traffic light that tells you when to cross and when to wait. 9 times out of 10 you won’t find it. You know why? Because they aren’t there. So how do you know when to cross as a pedestrian? You look around and gauge when is the least likely time you’ll be run over based on the traffic patterns. Here is why this is tricky. Reason number one is that Cypriots are not the best drivers. Keep in mind I’m trying to stay polite as I say this, so that says a lot. Reason number two is that if you are from a country where people drive on the right side of the road (aka most countries in the world) you need to remember that people here drive on the left side. So gauging the traffic patterns can be confusing.
  • Bringing me to another point about the roads. People drive on the left side. The island is Greek and Turkish. In both these countries people drive on the right side. So why do the Cypriots drive on the left? Because for a few decades the island was under British rule. Really.
  • In Limassol there is a part of town that is under British law. You are driving up a street and without any signs, notifications, barriers, etc. you all of a sudden go from being under Cypriot law to British law. This change in ruling law happens in the middle of a residential area. I kid you not.

All in all, with all its quirks it’s a place I look forward to visiting again.


Leaving Cyprus

As my time in Cyprus nears its end, I look back on the months spent here with mixed feelings. There was some heartache (it’s hard to say goodbye to a loved being) but there were also a lot of smiles and laughs.

I spent time on both sides of the island. The Turkish side and the Greek side. Overall, the people on both sides were very nice. There are differences of course between both cultures, but as an outsider, I found more things in common than not.

Cypriots in general tend to be very laid back and generous. Hitchhiking is not a common thing – at all, yet, never did more than 10 cars pass without someone stopping for me. The one time I thought I might get stuck was simply because I was in a rush. It was an area with no cabs passing by since it was by a tiny village and I was just at the outskirts. I walked to the nearest coffee shop, asked the two girls working there where I could find a cab and one of the girls called her boyfriend who then drove me to where I needed.

The food was good, the music was good, the weather (for the most part) was good and the people charming.

All in all, some great memories were made here.