Since I've moved to Saint-Petersburg, I've been getting a lot of the same request: "Tell us about all the weird stuff you see there!"
Americans generally have a confusing view of Russia. A lot of us base our entire opinions of this country on movie villains from cold war-era US films like Rocky and Red Dawn. Russians--all named Ivan and Natasha, we assume--are spooky robotic characters hell-bent on bringing on the red storm. Regardless of the fact that the USSR fell 25 years ago or that Russians are, above anything else, just people.
That being said, yeah, there are some things here that are a little weird for me. Things that I have had to ask my husband to explain. Things that he doesn't understand why he's explaining because they're perfectly normal to him. So here's what I've noticed so far:
• No one smiles at you: This is the one thing I think every western foreigner says about Russia. It was not a shock to me because I'd been well prepared for it beforehand. But that didn't make it any easier to deal with. For a quarter of a century, when I walked down a street and made eye-contact with someone passing by, I would smile at them. It shows friendliness and labels you as not being a threat. That's the best way I can explain why we do it. We want strangers to like us, we're taught that we should like (or at least pretend to like) everyone. In Russia, you only smile at people you actually do know and like. Strangers on the street are just that: strange. Don't meddle with them; don't look at them; don't talk to them. Of course, around the big tourist destinations, you'll get some smiles; but they're all from foreigners. At first it just appears that all Russians are rude and heartless. It makes the smiling American feel like everyone hates you (because, according to your culture, that's what they're telling you with their faces). But, Russians aren't rude, they're just pragmatic. If you're going through a transaction with someone (like a cashier and customer), there is not point to smile and be falsely happy. No one is particularly happy about being a cashier or doing the weekly food shopping. Why pretend that it's an exciting thing? But if you're meeting up with friends or making new friends, Russians are incredibly friendly and kind. Even if you're asking for help (sometimes), or being asked for help, there will be kindness.
• Taking your shoes off right after you enter a home: My husband has complained to me at least 3 times so far when I've forgotten to remove my shoes and have just walked in to the house. "I don't want to have to clean the floor so soon!" He argues. This one isn't strictly Russian, I know Americans who do this, but no one close to me does. Apparently it's very rude to track the outside filth through the house after entering.
• Grocery stores don't generally sell bath items: I've only been to a few grocery stores so far, but, aside from things like deodorant and shampoo, you won't find bath items in a grocery here. I've been searching for hair ties and a brush for an eternity.
• Cars don't stop for pedestrians and pedestrians don't stop for cars: I hate crossing the street without a signal. If you wait patiently on the curb, no one will stop for you; but if you walk out in the road they probably won't either. You take everyone's life in your hands when you cross a street here.
• You cannot win when it comes to conducting business: No matter what. I tried everything on my own: speaking bad Russian; speaking English; using only hand gestures; and pretending I was deaf: it doesn't matter. You will not squeeze a more pleasant interaction out of business. Be it buying entrance tickets; souvenirs; or food, you will always feel like you are the worst. I quickly learned, though, that literally NO ONE can win this, even my native Russian husband. They seemed just as inconvenienced by him as they did by me. It goes back to the first point. Business is business. It's not supposed to be fun. Get what you need and the shut the fuck up. It is the one thing I could never get used to.
• "Isn't that illegal?" "Yeah, but no one cares:" This exchange happened a lot between my husband and I. Things such a public drinking; bringing dogs inside supermarkets; and, well, basically anything that happens on the subway. There were also things that I couldn't believe were happening not because they were illegal, but because in the USA, I was always being bothered by the cops for such things. Sitting around with your friends after dark in a park or playground, for example. It's not illegal in either country, but it seems everyone I know knows NOT to do that unless you want to be pestered by police.
• All food is Russian food even if they say it isn't: Russians like certain tastes. Mostly the taste of potatoes, dill, and smetana (sour cream). Those ingredients are put in everything in some way. If the recipe doesn't call for it, they'll find a way. My husband was very excited to find a Mexican restaurant for us to eat at as Mexican food is so popular in the USA and he'd never tried it. And, while US restaurants can be called out over plenty of americanising; Russian Mexican food was the funniest thing I'd ever experienced. It tasted like any other Russian meal. Like a potato cutlet or schi. The nachos were, for example, not from tortilla but from baked potato chips; and the cheese (Russian cheese. Traditional Mexican or just North American cheeses are much more expensive over there.) was sprinkled lightly over and not melted. Not to mention, dill was heavily powdered across the top. I'm not saying it was bad! I'm saying that it was Russian. And all Russian food is like this. You can get borsch at a Chinese restaurant if you want. Gotta love it. It's like how Americans can always order a hamburger.
• They have shops from the future: Because my view of Russia was full of stereotypes and blatant racism for so long, I assumed that Russia and all of Eastern Europe were living their 2016 life in a way that we Americans knew life to be in 1986. I half expected VHS to be a big hit and, basically for it to be like the Bratislava scene from the film Eurotrip. Okay, really, I'm not so bad, I knew a little bit more about the world than that, but I didn't know that Russia would have department stores from the future! (Well, they've been in Russia for years, but it seems like science fiction magic to me). I'm talking about stores that you go in; stand at a computer; add stuff to your virtual cart; press "order"; sit around and watch tv and have a drink while you wait; and go to the window to pick up all the stuff you just ordered. I'd heard of such things in the UK, but was much too frightened to tamper with the dark arts when I was there. Seeing it in action was mind-blowing. Like the first time I saw a touchscreen soda machine.
• Bags are not free and you weigh your own produce: I know that in big US cities, you'll have to cough up 5-10 cents for a bag if you don't bring your own. But, where I lived in the suburbs, you could basically triple-bag every item in your weeks-worth of groceries for free. In Russia, you either bring your own bag, fumble through saying "Один пакет пожалуйста." and pray the cashier doesn't ask follow-up questions; or look like an asshole trying to carry everything in your arms. Also, in the US, a cashier at a grocery store must memorize or manually search for a code every time you buy some fruits or veg; but in Russia, you bag your apples, put them on a scale, press a button (with the picture of the item you're weighing thank god), and it prints out a barcode sticker for the cashier to scan. I think it's a way better system, personally.
• Things are cheap: This one isn't actually relevant, because, if you adjust for average income, everything basically evens out. But, from my perspective, everything was 1/4 the price it was in the US. Or better! My husband paid about $6/month for cellphone service and data and all that jazz. We only paid maybe $400/month for rent/utilities. In Saint Petersburg. Of course, it was a one room apartment, but still, same thing in Denver is about $1400 last time I checked and you aren't right next to a metro station like we were. And, speaking of metro stations:
• Public transportation is king: This is true of a lot of big cities. Even New York City is mostly public transport, but still, you can get anywhere you need to be by the metro in Saint Petersburg. Still not as impressive as the system here in Prague, but 10,000x better than where I last lived in the US, where the nearest and only bus stop in town was five miles down the highway from my house and only ran twice a day to get you to the next town 50 miles away. Good stuff.
• Post offices are not just used for sending and receiving mail: This is something that was carried down from the USSR and any country that was involved in the USSR still has this system. The post offices in Russia are used for all sorts of government things. Old people getting money; paying bills; buying stationary; and, of course, mail. Also, unless you live in the countryside or are super rich, you will never get a package to your door. You will get a slip of paper in the mailbox which you take to the post office and show your passport and sign a form and get your package. It's almost the worst thing I can imagine. And, being such a fan of sending postcards and packages to my family, I had to deal with this nightmare on several occasions. All I can say is, again, thank god for my husband. And the internet. With enough research, I found a way to order stamps online (when you buy postcards).
• English doesn't exist: Sure, plenty of young Russians can speak English. How do you think I communicate with my husband? But, when it comes to the average Russian--even in a big city--you have to be able to speak and read Russian. This isn't bad, of course: Russian is their language. Of course they speak Russian! It's like in the US where nobody can speak anything but English (and now some Spanish which is cool), but it must make tourism pretty tough. Then again, in order to be a tourist, you have to go through the whole visa thing, so you have to really want to visit Russia. If you want it that bad, you may as well learn a few Russian phrases. But, still, it was odd to see the lack of English. The only time you'll hear it will be on the bus from the airport. I think some restaurants on the Nevsky Prospekt (where you'll spend most of your time if you're a tourist) offer English menus (we even had an English menu ourselves once), but for the most part, it's Russian or die. And, as it's been explained to me, Russian people and French people have some things in common in the sense that, even if a Russian does speak English, if you assume that they speak it and start going off in English to them, they'll pretend that they don't. I even saw this in action when an American woman came up to my husband in an art gallery and started talking to him. He stared at her like he didn't understand. When she finally asked if he spoke English, he suddenly had a very thick accent and said "a little only." It's a form of cultural pride. But a simple "Извините, говорите по-английски?" can go a long way. Respect, really. I hate assuming people speak English, but that's another story for another time.
• Even if you can communicate, no one will know what you're talking about.:As with most of my weird cultural things, these don’t apply to everyone. But Russia has it's own everything. They have their own film stars and musicians and tv shows (they even have a legitimate version of "The Voice."). They don't need Hollywood and American pop music. This one was weird to me because, every other country I have been to (mostly Europe) has had American films in the cinema and American music playing on the radio in every shop. But my husband didn't know who Beyoncé was. Furthermore, Russians have their own internet. They have their own Facebook (called VK) and their own image boards and everything. There is no need for a Russian to acquire American culture at all. They are self-sufficient in all aspects of media. So, what this basically boils down to is that my marriage is just a series of explaining to each other why something is funny or interesting. For example, I know all about who Ostop Bender is and what Brat 2 is. Things you'd never ever ever ever hear of in English.
• Ketchup: There are like 75 different flavours of ketchup in the condiment aisle of any Russian supermarket. Made by Heinz, even. You can (and they often do) put ketchup on goddamned anything. You can cook with it!
• Dairy: By far, the biggest aisle of the supermarket is the diary aisle. It's not even an aisle in most cases, it's an entire section. Russians have found very creative ways to use milk, let me tell you. And most of them my brain could not fathom. Кефир (kefir) and ряженка (ryazenka) are a few weird ones. They're just varying degrees of spoiling milk. Or souring it. But they're thick and they're bitter and they just felt like they were going to assault my stomach to the 10th degree. Oddly enough, though, whereas I always thought I was allergic to dairy products, it seems that I am only affected by US dairy. Maybe it's the pasteurisation?
• Sandwiches and bread: In Russia, sandwiches only use one slice of bread, like what we call an "open face" sandwich. Well, they call 2 slices of bread on a sandwich an "American Sandwich." Also, American bread is considered desert bread in Russia. Russian bread is what I so adoringly call "shitty bread" whenever my husband would bring it home from the store. It tastes like cardboard and I hate it. But, to be fair, our bread tastes like a slice of birthday cake to my husband.
• "Ethnic food:" Okay, so I know I said all food is Russian food no matter what they try and tell you. That's true, but there are a couple exceptions and that is Uzebeki, Georgian, and Armenian food. There are a lot of immigrants from those countries living in Russia and some of them own their own bakeries/restaurants/street food stalls. Though you can still usually find borsch on the menu, there are some authentic 'ethnic' foods available. At least, that's what they say. For all I know, it could be Russianised as well because I've never been to any of those countries, but it definitely tastes different than Russian food. Good different. There is also some Indian street food that I would probably sell my little finger to eat again. A place in Saint-Petersburg called Laor. It's run by people from India, so I'm assuming they know what they're doing.
Surely I'll make a follow-up to this post, as there were lots of things that were different and weird. It was my family's favourite passtime after a while, to ask me "Do they have this in Russia? What about this? Is this different? How do you do this?" And I'm sure on my next trip to Russia (yes, I actually loved it there), I'll find even more weird things.