Russia – Part 3: Winter’s End

Last time I posted was right after the first New Year celebrations. I did not write anything about it since I wanted to experience the New Year’s Eve celebrated worldwide and the Russian New Year’s. Let me say, I have been in some patriotic countries, but never was I in a country where people turned on the TV in the middle to watch their president give a speech. But let me go back a bit.

I was supposed to get ready for the New Year by going to a Russian bath. But I  had a very high fever, so… I could not go. But my host still wanted me to go to his house for the evening meal and celebration. He asked me how high a fever I had and when I told him, he turned around and asked why I had not requested a doctor. My answer was that my mother had confirmed I was still ok. He laughed saying that my mother was not in Russia and the doctor was. I tried explaining to him about having a Jewish mother but I could see it confused him a bit.

At his house, his girlfriend made me tea whilst he was giving me cognac. The meal lasted a few hours and was mostly typical Russian food, better than I had had since my arrival. So far, everything was normal to me despite some of the funny rituals the girls engaged in (such as writing down a wish and putting it in your drink). The part that was really interesting was when they quieted down and listened to a speech by Putin for the New Year’s. After that, we had a bit more food and went for a walk around the city center. The next week or so, the country was completely shut down. I had been told it would be this way, but actually experiencing it was surreal. Practically nothing was open. In my client’s office building, no one was there except one guard and even he did not have access to the computer system. I have experience Yom Kippur in Israel and while that experience is completely surreal it lasts just one day. Here it was at a lower level but for more than a week!

Russian pride goes along with their patriotism. Russia truly is an incredible country and every public building has incredible architecture. There is no way to look at it up close and not be in awe. It explains a lot about the way they feel about their country. I tested the waters a few times by mentioning the great sacrifices they had made as individuals and none ever denied it but there was always a moment of pause with this as an afterthought “but look at what it gave us!”

When traveling I like to experience the local traditions and cuisines. But my hosts were so intent on showing me how international Moscow is, that only three times did I have authentic Russian food. The first was New Year’s, the second was a dinner with friends at a house (most amazing Borsch ever!) and the third was on my last day there when I want to a Ukrainian restaurant where they grow their own vegetables. It was absolutely incredible. The decor, the food and the uniforms.

One of the reasons I was able to deal with the cold so well is that it is so dry. Weather is easier to deal with when dry than when humid. The down side of it is constant static electricity. I would get in bed and I’d see a little light from the friction of the sheets. When picking up my phone while charging I would first lightly tap it to get rid of any static electricity. But the strangest thing related to this was washing my hands or the shower. Sometimes the first touch of the water would include a tiny little jolt.

But by the time I left I was walking around only in a t-shirt and a hoodie. On my last day, I even ventured only in a t-shirt. Essentially, within 10 weeks I had become more Russian than a Russian. And I was proud of it.

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!