‘S’ is a Russian engineer based in Moscow; a relaxed and friendly character possessed of a seemingly indefatigable pragmatism and a matter-of-fact nature. When he’s not grinding away at the working day, he’s immersed in family life at his apartment home or planning another trip to Europe or the middle east.
There he will collect memories with his capable photography skills; adding to a mass of images – of which I have just received the latest batch; snippets of time spent further afield on this occasion: in the USA.
We’re always considering westerners heading east, that is the nature of the business after all, but once in a while it’s interesting to take a view from the other side. The gulf is equally as wide from both viewpoints of course. ‘S’ flew via Seattle to Phoenix, Arizona, where he spent 3 weeks as a guest of his American friend ‘B’ and his wife ‘G’.
“It was an interesting experience. I think my opinion of Americans has changed,” he states as an opener to our conversation. Fortunately change in this instance was for the better. He was prepared for culture shock and worse. “I thought it would be very strange (and) I didn’t think they would trust me,” he continues.
Bearing in mind some of the recent sensationalist negativity in the world press, he also had doubts how “pleasant” his temporary host nation would be towards him. Not only was he an outsider, but also a Russian too – touching down at the apex of America’s Trump/Russian Collusion scandal.
International relations could be better, currently, but fortunately world events did not cast a shadow over ‘S’s stay. Not only did his hosts trust him implicitly, they asked him to share some of the driving on extended treks across country, to the Grand Canyon. Santa Monica and Hollywood L.A. – but we’ll get into that next week.
Probation and detection
“I like American friendliness – how they get along with each other” he reflects; “but I still can’t understand how they related to me”. This could be one of the key cultural differences, and something that we’ve touched upon numerous times. Here, in the west we usually have an immediate surface-layer of amenability and approachability – a contrived friendliness even; to get us successfully through our everyday encounters with each other – and with strangers.
In Russia, the trappings of familiarity – a welcoming smile for example – is more likely to be earnt, especially when it comes to encounters with those who are unfamiliar. I’ve heard it referred to in terms of a probationary period, sometimes lasting for months. Of course there are shortcuts wherever you are from: having a native friend or contact breaks some of the ice with his or her friends in turn, naturally.
How much of the familiarity that ‘S’ experienced was sincere -or would last under duress? He may never know, absolutely, but his skills of detection have improved since communicating with ‘B’: “I’m used to Americans” he reveals, “I know when they are genuine and it’s not just ‘rules of behaviour’”. He remarks on the pleasant relationship and hospitality that he shared with ‘B’ and his ‘G’, the general disinterest of those milling about in the local store and the genuine curiosity about life (and money) in Russia demonstrated by one of ‘B’s relatives. Just a sample of everyday, drama-free life, by anyone’s standards.
Noticeable differences – in ‘S’s eyes – were often in the circumstances that his hosts would take for granted, not least the environment itself: “Arizona is a big beach without the sea” he declares, as if the tide went out long ago, never to return. It did of course: early in our ongoing Cenozoic Era – but most contemporary residents don’t remember back that far.
What else? “Driving in America is safer – better than in Russia” he admits. “They (the Americans) drive fast but they are careful”. Perhaps there is some validity in the raft of comedically nightmarish Russian road videos on Youtube after all. As well as approving of American driving skills – their domestic circumstances also found favour.
Most urban Russians live in apartment blocks and have done so since the Soviets sought to find a solution to the burgeoning housing problem. Notwithstanding the towering blocks of our western cities- we still favour separate dwellings, usually of two stories in height.”I noticed the difference” he remarks, on something to which we would not give a second thought. “I’m used to high buildings, not ground floor houses – but I like the plan and design of American homes, their layout and facilities, barbecues, tennis courts and swimming pools”. It appears that ‘S’ stayed in relatively well-appointed surroundings. That’s the life.