A Touch of Frost
The word 'stereotype' is thrown around far too often when describing nationalities, food types, cultures and even sporting codes.
Quite often stereotypes are an over exaggeration but fortunately or unfortunately more often than not, a stereotype is surprisingly accurate, hence why stereotypes are formed.
Before I go on, this blog post is not meant to offend in any way, shape or form, it is purely a reflection on my personal experience whilst travelling through Russia. And yes I understand I am a foreign traveller who does not speak Russian and who does not know the rules of buying a train ticket so of course my experience in this 'cold' country is due to being a 'dumb tourist.' But seriously.... Come on Russia.
Flying into Russia is exactly how I imagined it. Bleak, dreary and the landscape is in greyscale. The buildings I can see are square and all in proportion to one another. Grey Lego blocks I think to myself. The airport skeleton has a cold military soviet and serious appearance to it.
The customs officials are as expected. I am greeted with a short abrupt yell 'One at a time!' 'Get behind the red line!' and 'Look at me!' in fierce icy tones.
No one smiles, no one says please or thank you. No one has wrinkles because their faces are frozen like stone. Perhaps the only blessing? The women are spectacularly overdressed. Fur coats, designer hand bags, short skirts, blood red lips and hair perfectly manicured by what could only be a done by a stylist.
The men loiter in groups. Bent over at sharp angles, whispering harshly, their eyes darting from side to side suspiciously or is that just my imagination?
They wear faded 80's style jeans with 12 inch flies with well-worn black leather jackets. They all seem to have those weird too short haircuts with a fringe that is a weird mid forehead level.
The younger generation wait impatiently at the arrivals gate with long stemmed roses of all colours. There are at least 7 men performing this act, pacing and checking their phones every 30 seconds. I think back to my time in Ecuador as we drove past the rose farms and were told that the Russians are very fussy with their rose selection and will only accept long stem roses with ‘strong and sturdy’ stems to represent the men who are gifting them. Typical.
Other men who stand on their lonesome, stare creepily at you, scanning, sussing, judging, before selecting random individuals to follow. They creep uncomfortably close to you, mirroring your footsteps, before leaning in, making you jump as they hoarsely whisper 'taxi?' a little too close to your ear. As soon as you say no, they quickly disappear, scuttling off like a rat, and search for their next victim.
I quickly jump to conclusion and name St Petersburg the city of the Non Smile.
To further enhance the Russians seemingly disgust at having western foreigners infest their cities, here are some experiences encountered by myself and my fellow travellers:
An Aussie bloke on my tour is pushed forcefully; or has he puts is 'bullied' by a female who shoved him with two hands straight in the back, out of the way because he stood where she wanted to walk.
Whilst standing in line waiting to purchase subway tickets patiently (the line was massive - it was peak hour,) a lady with a baby in a pram enters the station and starts literally ramming her pram into people's legs back and forth so she can push in and go straight to the front of the line. Apparently this is normal I am told....?
As I finally approach the ticket counter, I ask in my best Russia for "two tickets please." I hand over the exact money for two tickets. The lady throws one ticket back at me as well as the money for the second ticket which bounces out of the tray and is lost on the floor amongst the crowd. No apology. Apparently you can only buy one ticket per person. Back to the back of the line for hubby who had been standing with me the entire half an hour we were in queue. It's not possible for him to just slip in behind me and purchase his own. Maybe he needs a pram.....??
A Scottish lass in our group pauses in the middle of the path for less than two seconds to snap a photo (there was hardly anyone around so she was not blocking foot traffic.) A local man walks up to her, shakes his head and tuts at her before continuing on.
A group of us enjoyed a delicious Italian meal (in Russia) and asked the waiter where the bathrooms were. He advised that there are none within the restaurant but if we take our receipt to the restrooms just outside, we won't have to pay and can use those. We walk over to the toilet coin collecting lady (who is probably already grumpy due to her riveting job) and present her with our receipt. “No!! You pay!” She yells abruptly. We gently explain we just ate at the restaurant and the guy said that if we.... “Noooo!!!! You pay!!” She starts banging the plastic sign that shows the price of the toilet up and down, up and down on the counter and then it cracks... In half... She has snapped the sign. Ok............ We pay to pee. Walk away from the psycho toilet lady.
Travelling on the subway in Moscow, like London, the escalators back to the surface of the earth can be quite long. I decide to do an experiment.
I count how many people I pass going the opposite direction and how many are smiling.
The journey takes three minutes. I pass 92 people. Only two are smiling. They were probably foreigners.
Our guide explains to us that when being brought up in Russia, your parents teach you to always show a cold hard as steel, stern face. This exudes power. To the Russian people, we are told that emotion is seen as a weakness.
Well then if that's the case, this is definitely the most powerful country I've ever visited.
In saying that, I did witness two acts of kindness in my time travelling throughout Russia.
A man on the local subway gave up his seat for an elderly lady. So he should I hear you say. Oh no. Not here. I saw many frail lady's being rocked back and forth in the shaking carriages where no-one offered their seat or assistance for stability as the trains come to a screaming halt. I’m pretty sure the word courtesy does not translate here.
In my Moscow hotel, I was walking around like a 'stupid tourist' trying to find the breakfast room. The lady who worked in the cloak room came over to me and asked with a kind smile and crinkles in the corners of her eyes (meaning she must have smiled previously at some point in her life) if I needed assistance. She escorted me three floors to the right place and made sure I was seated before she left.
The lady who worked in the vodka museum and drank vodka with us smiled as she escorted us through the museum. Fair enough she was probably drunk, but when someone in Russia smiles, you notice it big time! It's like the elephant in the room.
Our tour guide smiled - perhaps spending too much time with westerners has softened her?? Don't let her parents find out!
Within a cold country with a cold history, cold climate and cold people, there is some warmth slowly melting the ice.
As the country begins to thaw, perhaps in time, Russia will join the rest of the world with smiles, laughter and open arms to make tourists feel welcome and accepted when visiting their fascinatingly, culturally and historically rich country.
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