Wednesday, October 17, 2007

You Know You've Been in Russia for a Long Time When....

I came across this list on the internet a few months ago and it really struck a chord with me and my friends. This entry was in "rough draft" form since June and I'm finally adding it here with revisions. Another note: my computer will be gone for repairs for the next few days, so I won't have e-mail or access to my blog.

You know you've been in Russia for a long time wh
  • You don't think things are that bad right now.
  • You just assume that accomplishing anything will take much longer than expected and be more complicated than envisioned—and you’re delighted when, in fact, things can be done easily.
  • You expect lengthy traffic jams and include them in your schedule.
  • You have to think twice about throwing away any empty plastic bag. (There’s no such thing as formal recycling here; people tend to use items as many times as they can, though—and sometimes in unexpected ways).
  • You carry a plastic shopping bag with you "just in case".
  • You don’t mind at all having to pay for your plastic shopping bags. In fact, you stock up on them when they’re of good quality because they’ll make good trash bags. (You often have to walk a bit to get to the dumpster for your building, and I’ve yet to find a basic trash bag for less than $1 per bag that doesn’t instantly rip).
  • You think that plastic trash bags are of enough significance that you’d even write about them in this list.
  • You answer the phone by saying, “Allo, allo, allo” before giving the caller a chance to respond. You’ve got your old lady/old man annoyed telephone voice so refined that your closest friends sometimes think they’ve dialed a wrong number because they can’t tell it’s you.
  • You get excited when the dentist smiles and has all his own teeth. (I think it says something that this was the fifth image to come up under the search "russian + man" at Google images...)
  • When crossing the street, you sprint.
  • You ponder the United States Postal System and think, “Wow… People actually get their mail—all of it—delivered directly to their house in a timely fashion!! !”, as if it were a new invention.
  • In winter, you choose your route by determining which icicles are least likely to impale you in the head/falling compacted icy snow is least likely to crush you--as it did this Lexus.

  • You are impressed with the new model Lada or Volga car.
  • You let the telephone ring at least 4 times before you pick it up because it is probably a misconnection or electrical fault.
  • You are pleasantly surprised (truly--enough to actually smile!) when there is toilet paper in the bathroom at work—or ANYWHERE. (This isn’t true in Western companies, but it sure is everywhere else…)
  • You’re no longer surprised when you use a public toilet somewhere to see the sign instructing you to put any toilet paper you use into the trash can—and NOT into the actual toilet (plumbing is really old and bad in much of the city).

  • You notice that a friend’s cell phone is smaller than yours and you're jealous. You actually care what kind of cell phone you have. (Not true for me, but for most other people I know…).
  • You look at people's shoes to determine where they are from. It used to be that old, ugly, bad shoes meant the person was Russian. Nowadays things have changed so much that if the shoe isn’t of the latest style or expensive, you know the person is probably from America! (Muscovites would never sacrifice style for comfort. Any self-respecting woman—and many men—under the age of fifty would NEVER wear “comfort” shoes such as you’d find on 99% of the American population)
  • Your day seems brighter after seeing that some goon's luxury car has been scratched up.
  • You are thrown off- guard when anyone in the service industry actually smiles at you.
  • You're not sure what to do when the GAI (traffic cop) only asks you to pay the official fine.
  • It doesn't seem strange to pay the GAI $2.25 for crossing the double line while making an illegal U-turn, and $35 for a mediocre entrée at a mediocre restaurant.
  • Your kids automatically know to start crying that they have to pee as soon as the traffic cop approaches. (Don't get me wrong; I'm not a bad driver getting stopped all the time for violations I've made. Here they just stop you all the time to ostensibly check your documents--but it's actually to get bribes. Click here to see what Natalia think of them...).
  • You’re surprised when in the USA that you don’t need to present your passport (or even your driver’s license) in order make a return—and that you needn’t fill out pages of forms to do so.
  • You plan your vacation around those times of the year when the hot water is turned off. (Even if you have a hot water heater in your apartment, many others don’t, and it really smells on the subway at those times… Just look how crowded it can get at rush hour! Keep in mind that this all takes place deep underground, without fresh air.)

  • You are relieved when the guy standing next to you on the bus actually uses a handkerchief—or has taken a shower in the last few days.
  • You are envious because your expatriate friend has smaller door keys than you do.
  • You are surprised when you go back to the USA and your drink comes with ice in it.
  • You get off the plane in the USA and the sunshine in winter blinds you; you haven’t seen it for so long that you forgot what it was like. (That is so true!!!!)

  • You develop a liking for beetroot and cabbage.
  • You know seven people whose favorite novel is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
  • You change into tapki (slippers) and wash your hands as soon as you walk into your apartment.
  • You actually own tapki (slippers) that other people can put on when they visit you.
  • You take a trip to Budapest or Prague and think you've been to heaven.
  • You can read barcodes, and you start shopping for products by their country of production.
  • You know more than 20 Olgas, 25 Lenas and 25 Katyas.
  • You put the empty bottle of wine on the floor in a restaurant.
  • You kick young people out of their seats on the subway to make way for the elderly and mothers with small children, slowly morphing into a harsh babushka...
  • You have to check your passport for an arrival-in-Russia date (necessary when filling out certain paperwork).
  • Remont (repair) becomes an integral part of your vocabulary.
  • It seems odd to you that when back in the USA, cashiers don't rip the top of your sales receipt approximately 1/2 inch before handing it you. (It's a very odd custom here that NO salesclerk will dare violate. They will NOT hand you a receipt w/o tearing it first for fear of some harsh punishment by their bosses. No one, however, can explain to me why this must be done...)
  • Cigarette smoke becomes tolerable; it shocks you to be in the USA and not smell it everywhere.
  • You think metal doors are a necessity.
  • You speak to other expats in your native language, but forget a few of the simplest words and throw in some Russian ones.
  • You remember how many kilos you weigh - but forget how many pounds.
  • A gallon of gasoline or milk seems like a foreign concept.
  • You no longer miss the foods you grew up with, and pass them up at foreign-owned supermarkets.
  • You look for black bread, kvas and kefir in the supermarket, and ask to buy half a head of cabbage.
  • You see a car behind you with flashing lights and think it's some politician.
  • You don't feel guilty about not paying on the trolleybus. (It can be impossible to get a ticket from the driver—who should be driving—if the bus is crowded, you have kids with you, and you don’t have exact change. The fine is only 200 rubles/$4 if you’re caught, and the ticket is only 25 rubles to begin with).

  • The elevator aroma seems reassuring somehow.
  • You no longer think living without a clothes dryer is an inconvenience. (I can’t believe I did it for two and half years…I actually got used to it!)
  • You can heat water on the stove and shower with it in less than 10 minutes.
  • You know the Moscow Metro better than you know the subway system back home. If you don’t have a subway system back home, you realize how much you’d miss good public transportation. (For those here who live and work right near a subway stop, it truly is fantastic! And the stations are gorgeous!)

  • A weekend anywhere in the Baltics (Eastern Europe) qualifies as a trip to the West.
  • A week at a family resort in Turkey qualifies as a luxury vacation (really!!!).

  • You sit in silence with your eyes shut for a few moments before leaving on any long journey. (Check out my July entry on Russian superstitions for mention of this and the items below).
  • You look in the mirror to turn away bad luck if you have to return home to pick up something you've forgotten.
  • You feel queasy when someone tries to shake your hand over a threshold.
  • You catch yourself whistling indoors and feel guilty.
  • You never smile in public when you're alone.
  • You know the official at the metro station/airport/border post/post office/railway station etc. etc. is going to say “Nyet!”, but you argue anyway.
  • That strange pungent mix of odours of stale sawdust, sweat and grime in the metro makes you feel safe and at home...
  • You are in awe that after 3 days home in the USA, your shoes are still clean.
  • You’re thrilled if there actually is a coatcheck in the USA, but then offended that you’re asked to pay.
  • For Women: You get dressed up to simply go grocery shopping when you’re back in the USA.
  • The word 'salad' ceases for you to have anything to do with lettuce. (It can be any mixture that has some veggies in it, often containing lots of mayonnaise and some meat).
  • You can recite in Russian all the words to the “please wait” telephone recording you hear when ordering a taxi, the recordings in the metro and on the bus, and random commercials from radio and TV—ads for items you never even buy.
  • You begin paying attention to peoples' floors and can distinguish the quality of linoleum and/or parquet, and thus determine social status, taste, and income (e.g. embezzled, earned, pension, unpaid, etc.).
  • You can spark a debate by asking for a decent Mexican restaurant (There isn’t one).
  • You hear the radio say it is zero degrees outside and you think it is a nice day for a change.
  • You voluntarily take a stroll in the park, and get an ice cream, on a sub-zero day.
  • When pulled over by a policeman, you pretend not to speak Russian and say Ya ne ponedelnik instead of Ya ne ponimayu on purpose. (“I’m not Monday” instead of “I don’t understand”).
  • You pretend not to speak Russian when you walk in to a restaurant and ask to use their bathroom without buying anything.
  • You are no longer surprised when your taxi driver tells you that before Perestroika he worked as a rocket scientist or surgeon. (The most common way of getting around here after the subway is to hitchhike—“private cabs” that you thumb down and negotiate a price with. There aren’t enough legitimate cabs to meet the city’s need. The economy is so bad that many highly-trained professionals instead drive their own cars as taxis; they make more that way. That’s what the man who drives for us does; being a physicist just didn’t pay…)
  • You’ve lived here long enough that Ramstore (a Turkish supermarket that is crummy in comparison to any successful, large US chain) seems amazing to you! ( Before the one near us opened, my shopping was so much harder… I still need to visit at least two or three shops/outdoor markets to do my weekly shopping, but it’s MUCH easier).
  • You know which kiosks (metal shacks lining street corners and in underground street passageways) sell the odds and ends you need for your home (electrical supplies, lightbulbs, etc).

  • You laugh at Russian jokes.
  • You actually get these jokes.
  • You no longer feel like going to your 'home' country. Somehow the hassle of the travel takes away from the vacation… And since you’re used to living here, you don’t feel a regular craving to leave—although you’re glad to go home when you do.
  • You continue to 'cross' the number 7 back at home.
  • You think it's too hot, no matter what season you return home. And you think it's too cold indoors. (Well… Global warming has changed this some… We can get such intense hot spells here that it’s unbearable, especially since there’s almost no air-conditioning and older windows can’t be opened if you have kids in the house—they could fall right out. Just picture being a PACKED subway car when it’s 100 degrees plus humidity … It seems too cold indoors when you're back in the USA because in Moscow heat is controlled by the city for most buildings--and you can't really regulate the temperature inside your apartment other than by opening the windows).
  • You dress in layers in all seasons, particularly in August-June. Oh... OK... that's all seasons if you just skip July... Those other months the weather can really vary (June and August can be both really hot or quite cool). During the rest of the year, the contrast between the cold weather and overheated indoors demands layers. My friend Rachael's daughter, who was adopted from St. Petersburg at age 7 this past April, is still clinging to her layerly ways even now that she's American...
  • When in the USA, you specify 'no gas' when asking for mineral water. (Here there’s always a choice of carbonated or still water and they’re distinguished by “c gazom” or “byez gaza”—with or without carbonation).
  • You’re dumbfounded that you can get water to drink at a US restaurant that’s free—and that didn’t cost 1/3 of your lunch tab (You can’t drink tap water here and bottled water is expensive).
  • You are dumbstruck back at home when high school or college students wait on you with a smile, reciting a 90 second spiel on the 'specials of the day' and display complete knowledge of the contents of each menu item...
  • Your kids who didn’t speak a word of Russian when you moved here are now embarrassed by your accent, vocabulary and grammatical mistakes.
  • Your kids assume that you can bribe anyone to get what you need. (Click here to see how Katya figured she could bribe the US Customs & Immigration official to put a stamp in her stuffed animal's passport).
  • You think it’s normal for kids in kindergarten and elementary school to go to bed at 9 p.m. or later (Kids get home later here, nap more, and start going to bed much later than in the USA by age 3). The most popular show for children is called "Good Night, Children" and it's on from 8:50 to 9 p.m.

  • You think it's perfectly normal to slip 1,000 rubles ($40) to your son's teachers each month so they'll be nice to him, overlooking certain behaviors or helping in extra ways. (Then again, wouldn't it be nice if you could somehow make some teachers in the USA a little bit nicer sometimes??)
  • Your kids confuse the words “library” and “bookstore” when in the USA because they’re used to seeing you have to buy every English-language book they read (which you bring back to Russia for them).
  • As you do your internet shopping prior to a trip back to the USA, you can rather successfully run a tally in your head of how much bulk and how many pounds you have accumulated—separated into 50 lb. piles (the basic suitcase limit).
  • You can’t remember what life was like in the USA when you regularly watched certain TV shows on certain days. Now you probably don’t watch TV at all except for the occasional dvd or shows off of your ipod.
  • You realize that all the observations above are what you love about Russia, that you've been here long enough to feel at home, and wonder whether you'll ever able to fit back in when you return to your country of origin.
Well... I wouldn't say that all of those above topics are what I love about Russia... or that I wonder if I'll fit back in when we return to the USA... (Stop the panicking, Mom; those words were included in the original list I found). I would say, however, that the country does kind of grow on you--especially when you've lived here long enough to see just how far it has come. I also know that the "big move" expats make back to the USA is often quite difficult. One tends to think of "culture shock" only hitting you when you move overseas--but many of our friends have found that it's often just as hard when you move back (perhaps it ends up being that way when one naively assumes that the move back, unlike the original move overseas, will be a piece of cake). Good friends of ours left Moscow in May and they are often bored to death now in Iowa, missing the intensity of life here, the excitement, the hustle...

I've been having a few rough weeks of "ARGH! MOS-COW!!!" troubles
(I'll get to that some other day) and I wouldn't say by any stretch of the imagination that I'm blindly swept away by Russia's wonders... BUT, even in the gloom, there are things that sway you and make you appreciate aspects of life here. As I look over that list, I'm amazed by humans' ability to adapt. I never would have thought four years ago that much of this list would now be normal behavior for me.


kate said...

Okay, honestly, I didn't finish reading your list. I think I know I've been in Russia long enough. (Actually, I don't mind Russia. It's my school that's got me packing my mental bags...)

It seems odd to you that when back in the USA, cashiers don't rip the top of your sales receipt approximately 1/2 inch before handing it you. (It's a very odd custom here that NO salesclerk will dare violate. They will NOT hand you a receipt w/o tearing it first for fear of some harsh punishment by their bosses. No one, however, can explain to me why this must be done...)

This is done to prove that you've paid for and received your goods. You've noticed in the shops where you pay one cashier and she gives you the receipt that she does not tear it. When you present it to the second clerk who gives you your goods, SHE tears it to indicate that your purchase is complete. These shops are declining in St. P. That means that you get your goods and receipt all at once. Hence the torn receipt.

This was just my theory, but I checked it with some Russian friends who confirm that this is the reason for the torn receipt. Hope it helped solve a little mystery for you!

Dyspraxic Fundamentalist said...

I think the Russian custom of wearing slippers at home is excellent.

I do wish more westerners would get into the habit of taking their filthy shoes off.