I have tried to point out some positive aspects of life in Russia compared to the impression given by Western reporters, politicians, and some others who have never lived here. In some cases the negative images and statements seem created out of thin air by someone who either has a political point to make or just wants to sell papers at the expense of researching the truth. Many of the descriptions I read are, for the most part, not what I and other Americans living here experience. Nevertheless, life experiences here do vary from what one experiences in America (and much of the West) in big and small ways, and anyone thinking of visiting, living in, or just knowing more about Russia needs to learn what to expect. This weeks blog is about some of the small ways life is different. I get a lot of the “what has Putin done to you lately” kind of questions, but frankly those are way off base when it comes to getting through the day with a sense of accomplishment and peace. I recognize what frustrates or irritates me may be of no consequence to someone else. And I may omit some things that seem insignificant to me, but they would be of major importance to someone else. So, with that disclaimer, I offer my observations.
I would like to mention first a few things about daily life that just make life a little more inconvenient than I selfishly wish. First, you cannot drink tap water. Now, I realize many Europeans are used to avoiding tap water as a way of life, but for the majority of Americans (like me) it is not the norm. I like being able to come in the house on a hot day, shove a glass in the freezer door for ice and then run some tap water for a quick and cold glass of water. Well, you don’t realize how nice it is until you cannot do that. The only potable water here is the water that you either buy at the grocery store or access from one of the underground pumps around town. Fortunately my father-in-law brings us water in large containers on a regular basis. Still it falls to me to fill up the smaller containers each day that we keep in the fridge that the kids can manage. The water does taste better, but how great can water taste? And there is always some spillage no matter how careful I am. Okay, that’s not something that ruins my life, but it is a part of my daily routine I have not yet accepted (without whining about it). I discovered that drinking small amounts of the tap water won’t do any immediate damage, however. I know because last week I asked my wife to hand me my glass of water on the counter. I drank it down and and then realized something was wrong. Turns out, I got the wrong glass. Roman had put some tap water in the glass that was to go in the iron. I just knew by daylight I’d be in a locked in an intense struggle with the death angel, possibly hoping he would win. But I got up fine the next morning.
Further, on the subject of water in Russia, I’m not sure if it has a lot of more iron in it or the pipes just have rust there, but a rust film gathers very quickly in our sinks and the bathtub. In one week the rust is clearly visible. You can even see it on the shower curtain. It makes cleaning the bathroom more of a task than any of us are used to.
Another inconvenience is that there are few automatic dishwashers here. I cannot say there are none. I’m sure some people somewhere in Russia have automatic dishwashers, but I’ve never seen one. For us, I am the dishwasher. We rarely eat fast food or food out of a box. My wife usually prepares a meal the old fashioned way, as do most people in Russia. So I think if she works like that to prepare the meal, I should be the one to wash the dishes. Roman was my helper, but now he has back trouble so the job is left to me. It’s not bad, but the sinks are small and the space is tight. There’s not really enough room in our kitchen for two people to work there anyway. So it is not a terrible job, but it is certainly not something I enjoy about Russian life. I had no idea how many dishes a family of five can dirty. Be prepared gentlemen.
Something else that most of us “individualistic” Westerners consider an inconvenience is that most Russian apartments have no individual controls for temperature. In the summer you open windows and you use fans. When the weather starts getting colder someone somewhere in the city makes the decision to turn on the heat. Remember, most apartments in Russia were built during the Communist period. We all get warm together at the same time, Comrade. You hope it does not get cold before they decide to turn on the heat. The good news is the stoves are natural gas and you can use those to heat with if it gets really cold too early. Our apartment is like most Russian apartments. Radiators provide the heat. Since the temperature is controlled centrally even in cold Russian winters you usually end up opening a window because it often gets too hot inside the apartment. Opening and closing the windows becomes a juggling act for the most part. It does reduce family conflicts over just where to set the thermostat, however.
The inconvenience that comes closest to being an irritant is the fact that many manufacturers of products in or for Russia have no idea what the concept “easy open” means. The brand of coffee sold here that I like comes in a vacuum sealed pack. (Forget those convenient plastic container of coffee you get in America.) You have to pull apart the top liners which are sealed tight. To do that your fingers need to be the size of my two year old daughter’s fingers, but you have to have the grip strength of a professional arm wrestler to open it. When you use a knife or scissors the moment the seal is broken the pressure is released and you have coffee on the counter or the floor or both. Further complicating this situation is the fact that we drink a lot of coffee and the packs are, generally speaking, quite small compared to those in America. Juice here comes mainly in boxes. The top is sealed tight with a screw-off top. But the top is small and on tight, so the adults are the only one who can open it. I have seen Russians put up shelves in a two room apartment so cleverly that you could get most of the stuff off the walls of a four bedroom home in America up with no problem. Then why are there no Russians who can design openings for coffee and juice in the morning that allow you to get through breakfast without wanting to curse out a bag or a box?
In addition to the inconveniences, there are some things that are irritations. These are more serious than the inconveniences. One I have mentioned earlier is dealing with workers in local government offices. Practically anything to do with official documents is a source of irritation. Rarely will you find a helpful local worker in a small town. I have been told that sometimes in the larger cities like St. Petersburg you will find helpful people. We didn’t find anyone like that here. So if and when you arrive don’t expect a, “Hello, how may I help you?” from the grouchy local apparatchik.
Second, the driving here is awful and, in my opinion, dangerous. People drive extremely fast in the city. And it makes no sense. They see the light ahead is red and still try to reach maximum speed before stopping quickly. I did see worse driving in Santo Domingo, but it is still quite dangerous here. There are a number of traffic accidents, and yet no one seems to think that if people would drive more slowly and carefully that would not happen as much. The police are out in force, but I’m not sure if they actually stop people for speeding. We like to walk as a family, and it is more than irritating sometimes. It is worse on the weekends. The locals say that is because people from St. Petersburg have dachas here and visit on the weekends. Maybe that is true, I cannot say. I can say there needs to be a cultural change toward safe and defensive driving, but I do not see that happening anytime soon.
There are other things about life here that are just, well, interesting. I find the manner of dress here quite interesting. The range is amazing. Walking to the market last week I saw three guys dressed in track shorts of various and sundry colors that were so short and looked so tacky that a Walmart greeter would bar them entrance. Then the next person I saw was a young lady that looked like she had stepped out of a fashion magazine. She was tall, attractive and her apparel was so perfect that I believe that most actresses in Hollywood would kill to look like that. Next to her in line was a babushka (grandmother) with a dress that reminded me of a potato sack. And she had on black socks. For those old enough to remember, it was like seeing Jaqueline Kennedy standing next to Nikita Khrushchev’s wife on their visit to America. Now, not all older ladies dress like that here anymore. One difference I have noticed from when I first came to Luga years ago is that many “seniors” dress quite nicely. The most interesting one was a lady I saw last week—again at the market. I don’t know her age, but I’m pretty sure she was north of 55. She had on a nice soft yellow plaid suit. Her shoes were a perfect match for the outfit, and even her glasses went well. But her hair was a light purple. I’m not kidding. Oksana was in line buying something, and I so wanted to scream, “Sweetie, look!!!” Of course I refrained. The fact that Russians dress like this does give one the freedom to wear whatever you want to the market and know you won’t stand out.
The other thing I find interesting in a good way is when you break through the rather firm Russian exterior in relationships. This happens slowly, cautiously. We have been buying fresh fruits from the same guy at the market. His name is Sasha, and he’s from Uzbekistan. At first he was all business. After a few times he would smile when he saw us coming. Now, for those who know anything of Russian culture, the smile is a big deal. So we just kept buying from Sasha. Then week before last we stopped and looked at his supply, but told him we really did not bring cash for buying any fruit that day. He said that was no problem, we could just take what we needed and bring the money tomorrow. So we took the fruit and paid him the next day. Then this week we bought a good bit from him because the days of getting fresh fruit are diminishing. Oksana gave him the 650 rubles we owed him, and he smiled and gave her 50 back. Today he sold us nectarines at his cost—100 rubles per kilogram cheaper than his usual price. Consistently I have found that in stores or shops they will tell you if their product or produce is not good. The ones you get to know will be very honest. We buy dairy products at the market at the same place from the same lady every time, and the lady carefully explains which ones have any preservatives or were prepared in a way she knows we do not like. If she does not have something she knows we prefer, then she tells us. They like return business, and it is nice to know they remember you and what kind of products you like. Then on Saturday Oksana stopped in a store looking for window treatments. They were more expensive than she thought they would be. Oksana told her we rent our apartment and do not really need the custom made treatments this store focuses on. So the lady just told her that her competitor down the street usually has more in stock and at a cheaper price. When she realized that we just rent our apartment and do not need expensive custom items she directed us to someone with better pricing.
There is one Russian tradition that my wife and I disagree on concerning the category to which it belongs. I opted for “interesting” or maybe “inconvenient.” She thinks it should go under “irritating.” So we’ll just leave this one for observation. The custom is that when one has a celebration, say, a birthday, and she is female (it really is sexist), then the “birthday girl” is expected to host the party. Now, the guests will bring gifts. It is up to the one having the birthday, however, to have the apartment or home spotless and do ALL the cooking. Birthdays are a big event here in Russia. It is regrettable that it sometimes can be quite difficult for the one who is to be the center of attention. I do not understand how someone doesn’t think, “You know the best present would be to prepare a meal for her and her family in our home.” So if you do not want to cook and clean for your birthday—don’t let the Russians know it is your birthday.
Then there are those experiences which just leave you feeling better about a place or an experience you dreaded. Today was such a day. Oksana took Gabriel to the dentist becaue of a “milk” (baby) tooth that has been bothering him. It was one of those toward the back of his lower jaw. The young lady was a pediatric dentist, and when she started talking to Gabriel Oksana explained he did not speak Russian. She asked what language he did speak and when she told her English, she spoke to him in English. Her English was not great, but she did not let that bother her and just kept chatting away! That made Gabriel feel more comfortable I’m sure. She took x-rays and examined the tooth and said it would be best for it to come out. He has had several absesses there from time to time. So she said he could come back if he didn’t feel comfortable doing it now. Gabriel was all for doing it now. He actually said, “I’m so excited! I can’t wait to have my tooth pulled!” The dentist was quite surprised to say the least. She spent a lot of time with him getting the area numb. She pulled the tooth and Gabriel never had any pain. She complimented him and Oksana on the fact that most children have a lot more dental problems or cavities at that age: Gabriel had only one problematic tooth in his whole mouth! Then she was clearly quite proud of having an American customer and told the others in the office, “I have an English patient today! Just like the movie.” The total cost was about $18.00. Then she asked Oksana if her husband taught at Erudite school. When Oksana said yes, the dentist explained a couple of the doctors from her dental clinic had teenagers in my English class. So Gabriel had a very positive experience, and Oksana came away quite happy as well. As with our medical treatment, we felt that we got very good care from a concerned and kind health care professional. And $18.00 to have a tooth pulled feels pretty good as well!
So life here, as in America, has good points and bad points. Life can be very inconvenient here sometimes. And, on occasion, it is more than inconvenient. I am aware of the image many have of life in Russia as tough, cold and unfriendly. And it is tough, cold and unfriendly sometimes. You can’t get into the other side of Russian life, however, by reading about it or watching the news. It takes time and effort. Nevertheless, there are some things and some people here that make you know that your life has been greatly enriched by becoming a part of life here and the people of this land.