I've been spending a few fistfuls of time, lately, studying what I can find on Russian culture, history, and language (which pretty much covers Ukraine as well).
Currently, with the language, I'm focusing on recognizing the alphabet (ohhh Cyrillic) so I can pronounce things out loud and not learn Russian through transliteration.
Then there’s history. I found a history book and try and go through a chapter every other day, complete with notes. I was doing swell until.. I forget what happened. Oh yeah! I ran out of paper and couldn’t find any. But that problem is solved now so it’s time to get back to work.
Then there’s there’s the culture. I’ve been cross-checking a lot of things I’ve heard about Russia. When I bought my plane ticket to Russia as a stop on my way to Ukraine, I wasn’t prepared at all. I didn’t have a clue about Russian culture beyond borscht (which I hope I get to eat when there!). I started out with A Weak American in Russia & Ukraine: Adventures and Misadventures Living among the Natives by Dr. Walter Parchomenko (Georgetown University Ph.D + Fulbright Scholar + Published in New York Times and Wall Street Journal and...) who was born in a German refugee camp to Ukrainian parents. He has lived a bounty in Russia and Ukraine. I wanted to read it because it was someone who could speak the language fluently, so he could slip in and understand their language, yet was raised in an American setting. It was also published in 2012, so I knew it wouldn’t be too out of date. It was an easy read with chapters devoted to many important topics like "Mayo Heaven," "A Proud Tradition of Stealing & Cheating," and "Slavic Public Toilets."
And, what I read rather surprised me. Russia was not going to be anything like my trip to Switzerland.
What I read pretty much lead me to believe that my world was about to get turned upside down. Completely upside down.
But in read, I was cautious. I figured that, perhaps he was sensationalizing his experiences in order to make a better read. Maybe he was exaggerating?
I started to consult different sources - those who had grown up in Russia, an American who lived in Russia and married a Russian, someone with many Russian friends along with a deep wealth of knowledge of the culture, and a stack of guidebooks.
And, you know what? They didn’t contradict each other! Each different source reconfirmed what I had read and gone, “Really? Seriously?”
They all did a solid job putting emphasis on the same aspects of culture and my plans of action began.
In all that I’m writing, when I say Russia, I also mean Ukraine - as I’m going there as well and for even longer than Russia. Ukraine and Russia have very similar cultures, from what I’ve read. I’ve also heard, from Pete, that the Ukrainians have the superior food.
Here I am going to lay out some things I have learned. This is me spitting out what I’ve come to understand by compiling the knowledge of a handful of references (once again, natives, travels, learned folks, and books). It’s in my own words. These are sort of what I’ve been told to expect and prepare for. I’m not one for setting up expectations (hello disappointment!) but, in this case, it is wise for me to be educated. Later on I’ll come back and read my preconceived ideas and see how they settle with my new reality.
I will be listing this as “This is what is and what can happen,” and not as, “This is what Pete, Denis, Byrne, Nataliya and other Nataliya said.”
1. They don’t like backpacks. Apparently they really don’t like them and will physically move them and verbally criticize you for carrying one about.
I will still carry a backpack. I am still American. I will respect their culture, but backpacks are a swell way to get things from Point A to Point B.
2. They don’t smile when they walk about on the streets and I shouldn’t either. If you’re smiling, they’ll figure you’re a crazy person (according to multiple sources) and might even verbally calling you out on it.
Imagine being in Seattle and having this happen? Say you’re walking down Union Street, get a happy thought, and let out a smile and then someone yells, “Hey YOU! What are you smiling for? You’ve got NO reason to smile!”
I’ve been working on my neutral face.
3. The police are NOT your friend. They are corrupt. They may ask for your paperwork.
4. Alcohol is a mighty large part of culture. Since I’m a girl, it won’t be as intense as with the men. I will be offered many beverages, it’s the norm, and, since I do drink, I should accept them.
I looked into if they would accept my limits and not wanting to drink too much since I am a lightweight in terms of drinking. I was told that the first drink would be expected, but after that, they would understand. But I still ought to be mighty prepared to consume.
5. Good luck to vegetarians...
Vegetables aren’t as available but when they are, they’re amazing, fresh, organic, and legit. Need to buy things that are in season. Since I’ll be there in April, there won’t be much there that is in season.
They don’t have beans. They don’t sell beans.
They love mayonnaise and lots of dairy (besides straight up milk).
They don’t go shopping in a supermarket - lots of smaller markets instead.
6. They dress mighty nice. Mighty fine. Super nice. Dress up! If I came to Russia dressed as I do now, they would simpler consider me to be either a “Western slob” if I was lucky or “homeless” and not let me in certain stores.
They put a huge emphasis on dress and appearance. Girls are totally feminine and high heels are the norm, even in the rain. Keep shoes looking nice. No bare legs.
My plan of action for this is to have one “Russian disguise” or costume. I’ll get a nice pair of shoes, a nice coat, a skirt with some tights (I hate jeans which is the norm there - so uncomfortable!), and shirt. Luckily, they’re like Switzerland in the sense that they dress really nice but they will wear the same outfit for an entire week. One costume will get me through my time there. I’ll bring a balance of Magi-clothes and costume - although not too much as I’ll only have my backpack.
They’ll know I’m a foreigner and I’m not trying to fool them. I’ll stand out blatantly (and not just because I don’t wear makeup and will have a backpack) as I should. I am an American. I’ve been living in Alaska. We wear Xtratufs. But I do want to dress nicely as to not have doors closed on me because of my appearances (both literally and figuratively).
7. Don’t even bother with the postal system. Packages? Forget it. I mean, it’s worth a try - but half of your stuff will likely be taken from the package before it reaches you. Letters will cost about $3 each and maybe make it. Corrupt like most of the systems in Russia.
I got a letter from a Russian that had posted it to me around 3 months prior. This is not a system that is functional or reliable. My penpal habits may have to end for a while or get reduced to postcards. My thoughts of, “Oh! I can have my parents ship it to me!” might have to be put on hold. Maybe I can get my stuff shipped to Poland and go there to pick it up?
8. I need to be prepared to have no respect for my personal space. That’s a foreign concept to them. Prepared to be jostled, smashed, and slammed, perhaps.
9. The Russia on the streets is altogether opposite of the Russia inside a home. I want to get myself inside a Russian home - that’s where I’ll have the opportunity to connect and understand more of the inner-workings of their culture. My plans for this will come in another blog.
10. Moscow is ‘spensive. Moscow is scary. Moscow isn’t necessarily where I want to spend my 30 days in Russia. Fly in there then get out, pronto. I want to stay there for 2-3 days.
11. Flowers are a big deal. Always even number of them unless someone died.