Visiting Russia and meeting locals
At some point during the planning stages of our Russian trip, the question of ‘getting along’ with the locals will arise. Just what will they think of us? The nature of our impending reception is especially mysterious if we have never met any of “them” before, of course.
I visited St.Petersburg and was curious about this very issue beforehand. Fortunately I had taken some preparatory steps, followed advice from the wise, done some research of my own -and was already in contact with some native Russian speakers. Anyone can be equally blessed with my “good fortune” of course: by simply doing a little work beforehand. I wanted to learn the language (and I’m still trying!), so I was already studying the culture. The phrase “you get out what you put in” is pertinent here.
At the most extreme, you may never need to deal with the locals directly -except perhaps for a brief exchange at passport-control or a courteous sentence or two with cabin crew. Trips exist where herds of foreigners (that’s us) are chaperoned by an all-knowing tour guide in a school-outing style experience. This way, you can simply stare at what they point at whilst leaving them to handle the local logistics and negotiations.
Adventures ‘on rails’ such as these tend to cost a premium as the work is essentially being done for you. I’d argue that paradoxically; you may well be paying more for less of an experience -that’s if immersing yourself in the “real” Russia is important. If not, then don’t worry: relax and enjoy the views. I feel out of place in “swanky” surroundings, which automatically pushes me towards ground-level culture (for better and worse), whilst saving money too!
At the Zoo
The oddest thing about wandering around St.Petersburg was the frequent unapologetic gazes that surveyed me on every outing -as if they knew (and they did) that I “wasn’t from here”. I felt -weirdly- on display, without looking particularly outlandish (?). I subsequently heard that it’s a cultural thing: that casual staring doesn’t automatically carry the same provocative sense of intrusion -even rudeness- that it does here in the west. It’s complicated though, even seemingly contradictory. Theirs is also a culture that doesn’t tend towards eye contact with strangers. How does that combination work?
Sure enough: I felt surveyed, though at a psychological distance and with no intent. Again, contradictorily: hostile staring between males (typically) is also a possibility when things are about to ‘go south’ -something to bear in mind as backing-down is not the Russian thing to do.
Formal and beyond
You have probably heard the usual cliches about Russians not smiling, not laughing and not being friendly. Such claims indicate the most superficial brush with Russians and their culture. Deeper in, you certainly won’t be shunned (without good reason) or be ignored. Their curiosity (rarely animosity) can often be quite open and unguarded.
First of all; the element of truth behind those cliches exists only in the context of dealing with strangers. Formality is a factor in russia -it’s even delineated and engrained in the language. However, once you are accepted: the stereotypes evaporate. It’s like night and day -and perhaps more than you may be ready for; if you are an (equally stereotypically) “reserved Brit” of course.
The Russians that I have gotten to know (at least to some degree) are some of the most likeable and friendly people that I have ever met. The ‘hit’ ratio certainly exceeds the one I’ve experienced amongst my fellow Brits -if Im honest. I’ll leave you with that minor bombshell.
More next time.