In this episode we present more observations and insights taken from the experience of a Russian traveler to the UK.
Everyday’s a school day
Like a doting parent on the first day of school, ‘C’ drove his guest to language class; an attractive red brick building just a mere stone’s throw from Mary Shelley’s grave. Then, with the route memorised: ‘A’ would simply meander into town and back on a daily basis, with the tang of sea-salt in his nostrils and with minor sight-seeing discoveries en-route. “I learnt something new everyday,” he says – and not just of his official educational program.
“Not many floors,” he says of the architecture (there are three). That’s by Russian city standards of course. “A pleasant beach,” he adds. He notes, “Lots of churches and cemeteries,” Lots? Again, by Russian standards, perhaps. “Home has them but they are not used,” he says.
Interesting, but we’ll discuss where Russia lays its dead some other time. The climate is different here too: less humid even with the English Channel on the doorstep. Petrozavodsk, ‘A’s home, nestles against the mighty Lake Onega, whilst surrounded by solid Taiga forest – several hundred kilometres deep on the city’s remaining three sides. Scarce arterial roadways lace it to the outside world, lest it be consumed by the forest forever.
“Usually I like to walk around and discover new things,” ‘A’ reveals, adding that “the flora and fauna (in the UK) are surprising for me.” Perhaps England’s relatively diminutive size forces everything out in the open? He continues: “There are numerous types that I do not know, numerous varieties of trees and bushes -similar but with different variations.”
He then mentions the UK’s “wavy pines” – contrasting with home’s arboreal telegraph-poles. “On the one hand everything was the same, but the details are different.”
He then comments on the variety of birds, in subtly-unfamiliar forms, revealing themselves plainly -yet knowing when distance is safe enough, whilst Russia’s full range of cautious nature hides deep within the forest. Then there are the nonchalant foxes whom he chances upon during his post-sunset strolls through Bournemouth: “walking like dogs in Russia,” he says. By that he means, stray, casually confident and frequently patrolling the streets in search of food or trouble.
Down the (Russian) pub
There are humans to consider too of course -no modern town would be complete without them. The concept of the “English pub” has landed in Russia, but only just. First appearing in the late nineties they are found occasionally in major cities as expensive or ‘specialist’ hipster establishments, themed in a theatrically heavy-handed style. Some look the part -so I hear- but lack something in atmosphere.
Others set the English decor at odds with the decidedly non English clientele and tradition. Some (probably) come pretty close, though it’s hard to mimic an alien culture without falling (accidentally) into parody. At any rate: there are none in ‘A’s corner of Russia -where the usual bars prosper instead. He tells me of his UK findings :-
“I went to pubs and watched the local life. Sometimes it was noisy, sometimes not. Karaoke night was pleasant -listening to Beatles songs -and I saw the English relaxing. They drank beer and sang songs.” He familiarised himself with the minutiae of English public/social behaviour, as he describes it: “the small details; new colours of the whole picture.”
Nobody wants to hear your Karaoke (and other bad behaviours)
“Usually in Russia,” he continues: “We relax with friends in a not-so-public place; more closed. You don’t want others to see your Karaoke (which is also popular). We don’t shout or sing (in public). We keep to our social groups.” There’s a whole tangent here to pursue another time, – and we will, but for now just accept this reality.
“Some Russian colleagues behave very badly!” he reveals. “It’s like an adventure for them -it’s so different to Russia. They speak very loudly and laugh about stupid things. In a pub everybody can shout! Some behave in an uncultured way and I was embarrassed.” Unfortunately, there was worse to come. ‘A’ continues: “In a cafe it was quiet and colleagues began to shout -and laugh- at friends on the other table and (this continued) at bus stops and in the street.”
“They used very rough words,” he says, euphemistically referring to the highest level of Russian profanity. “They were sure that nobody understood them, so: ok! I feel shame when Russian do this. At that point” he adds: ”I did not want to be Russian!”.
We are not friends
It’s the sense of freedom whilst in a foreign culture that is to blame -so ‘A’ tells me. As if schoolboys in a sweet shop of profanity; they are all far away from home and its rules that bind them. “It’s not the work of the brain” ‘A’ reveals; “They think with their souls.” Of course, I am reminded of the behaviour of some Brits when doused in European sun and alcohol. ‘A’ would probably cringe.
“You cannot do this in Russia,” he informs me: “It is prohibited. Someone would call the police or hit you (!).” With occasional condemnation by ‘A’ and others, the ‘problem’ members are usually left to their antics, and given some distance, publicly. “We are not friends” ‘A’ states plainly. They are adults, it is not my duty to teach them. Some also have higher posts at work.”
Yes, to humiliatingly criticise a senior in front of home colleagues and foreign public will indeed store trouble for you back home. One day it will come to greet you. In summary, ‘A’ states: “You should understand that you are in a different country. Locals don’t like it when you behave differently (ie: badly!). We have a saying” he adds:-
“Do not go into another monastery with your own rules.”
It’s not your rules that apply there, of course. And it’s not your monastery either.