It’s time to finish this little soiree with a quickfire round of hints and tips that should help your Russian trip go a little (or a lot) smoother. After all: “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”.
The “Babushki” rule, whether you like it or not. That word -ending in “i”- is the plural of “babushka”. Well, a babushka is literally a grandmother, but the term also refers both respectfully, endearingly and fearfully to women who have reached “a certain age”, passed it and continued upwards on the same trajectory. There’s something about them that is irrevocably associated with tight headscarves and voluminous outer-garments, also: age-old wisdom and a propensity for getting their own way (always). Incidentally those internally stacking souvenir figurines are called “Matrioshka Dolls”, not “Babushka Dolls” – their name derived from the word “mat”, meaning “mother” in Russian.
The art of detachment is a curious thing. We’ve mentioned it previously but the superficial (and ultimately meaningless) “have a nice day!” mentality that you may be used to just doesn’t wash. It’s not expected, needed or even wanted. Going around, grinning and/or making eye contact the whole time just makes you look mentally ill or may elicit puzzled responses such as “do I know you?”. It also marks you out as a tourist, and therefore especially attractive to pickpockets, scammers, the police or folks who “have a problem” with foreigners. Paradoxically it’s because Russians value smiles, that they don’t throw them around randomly amongst strangers. It’s no surprise really, as an article on the Life In Russia blog indicates:-
“Russians know from their own history that trusting the wrong person can lead to disastrous consequences (are you paying attention America). So, unless you want to be known as the susceptible and goofy foreigner when visiting, I’d recommend keeping a facial expression that matches the weather. Cold and frosty”.
Dress modestly and cover up when in places of worship. For women, this means headscarves, long skirts and sleeves, with little or no makeup. For men: all-over, conservative clothing is also required, with the exception of headwear. Heads should be exposed. These respectful concessions are all about maintaining an atmosphere of dedication, with no distractions from prayer or Christian devotion. In other words: don’t upstage (or distract from) the Divine in his own house – whether you believe in him or not. That kind of thing. Visiting a church or cathedral is definitely an occasion when it’s not all about you.
Watch out for creepers! It’s worth bearing in mind that night time may look like daytime during the summer months in Northern cities such as St. Petersburg – the White Nights Festival is built upon this very phenomenon. However: 1:00 am is still “night”, even though the sun is technically out (it’s actually an extended twilight), so the kind of creeps and lowlife that would crawl out into the darkness may still be found even though the night basks in its extended day.
Women, beware! The gender expectations/considerations in Russia are often not what the West may consider “progressive”, perhaps for better and for worse. But frankly, Russia does not care what the West thinks about this or many other issues. So: roll with it. Behaviour towards women is therefore something of a double edged sword. On the one hand you (women) will receive the considerations of vintage, almost quaint levels of manners and everyday chivalry with opened doors, offered seats, offers to carry bags etc. On the other hand; buoyed up by this apparent regard you may make the mistake of entering a nightclub alone (for example) to find yourself the recipient of the most blatant, overt approaches from men who zero in on your obviously telegraphed “available” or “fair game” status. Dressing up fabulously and being alone in such a venue may easily get you mistaken for a prostitute too – with all the madcap confusion (!) that would bring to the conversation.
There’s so much more to relate but I’ll have to save it for another time. I’ll leave you with: don’t turn up as a guest empty handed, and remember to take your shoes off at the door. Tread carefully.
[Photo by bluesnap]