One big temptation travel bloggers face is to lean heavily on moments which, though amusing, reflect badly on their host country. If “This is Russia” becomes a series, which it might, it may well be dominated by those weird moments where something strange happens and I’m left thinking “This is Russia”. On a day when Putin pretty much confirmed his intention to be President until 2024, I hope this edition of This is Russia will cast the country in a more positive, hopeful light.
In Russia there is a saying “sto drusyej lusche sta rublej” (100 friends are better than 100 roubles). When the phrase was coined, 100 roubles was quite a lot of money. Now, although 100 roubles is barely enough to get you a meal in MacDak, Russia’s dire McDonalds spin off, the same spirit remains. Russians take friendship seriously.
This is not to say that the stereotype which portrays Russians as unfriendly, cold and rude is completely unfounded. People don’t seem to talk to their neighbours. They certainly don’t chat on buses or in the street, and you’ll be lucky if you get a smile from a stranger. When I first went to church, noone came up and spoke to me. However, once you get past this, and it doesn’t take much, the coldness seems to melt away.
For example, last Sunday I met a guy called Stepan, who is friends with two girls I met at church the week before. As it was his birthday, they were going to spend the afternoon together, preparing a meal to eat in the evening. Though I’d previously spent about 2 hours in total with them, they gladly let me come along, and even moved the meal forward so I could eat it!
Then, on Wednesday there was a performance with the choir. It had been explained to us that the choir wore black for performances. Although I don’t have any black clothes, I hoped that borrowing a friend’s black jumper to go with my jeans would do the trick. The look on the conductor’s (who was dressed in suit and bow tie) face when I showed up told me I was wrong. Feeling a bit embarrassed, my friend and I apologized and suggested that we didn’t sing, but they were having none of it. One guy was made to hand over his black shirt, and bit by bit a suit materialized. It even fitted! I’d love to say that they were desperate to dress me up because my singing ability was sorely needed, but that is far from the case. In fact, I didn’t even know 2 out of the 3 songs we sang. Instead, they were keen to include their enthusiastic but slightly buffoonish foreign guests!
On Friday I took two English lessons at a school. Since my lesson the previous Friday, the second group, which I only taught for 20 minutes, had been on a day trip to a “nearby” “canyon”. Both those terms need qualifying – ‘nearby’ means 4 hours drive, and the ‘canyon’ is only 35 metres deep! Anyway, they not only presented me with a pretty rock which they found there, they also bought me a giant ornamental pencil. Too kind!
Finally, today was my birthday. Before I arrived in Russia, I’d been semi-expecting to let my birthday slip by unnoticed, not daring to hope that I would have made friends in time for a party. However, this morning I hosted a birthday brunch in my flat (Tamara is still at the dacha, and I asked her permission!) and 6 of my new Russian friends came – 3 from choir and 3 from church. They gave me a cake, a Revolutionary war hat, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (in Russian – might manage a chapter a year!) and another book (also Russian…), and they didn’t mind putting up balloons and cooking sausages, eggs and bacon once they’d arrived. Three friends from the UK came as well and we had a lovely, bilingual time eating breakfast butties for lunch.
One Russian friend asked me this evening if I was tired of Russia yet. I was surprised to be asked – of course I’m not! Actually, I’m quite overwhelmed by how good these first three weeks have been – even though it has rained for most of every day. And it has been so great because of the warmth and friendliness of the Russian people I’ve met. “This is Russia”, and I love it.