And then, two months later, my trip to Russia ended.
I think I know this to be true, now, on the other side of my adventure: that the things we never think to worry about are the things that oft-time change us beyond belief, and the things we prepare to shape us seldom do. Or, at least, not in the way we thought they might.
Basically: fuck if I know what life has in store.
I JUST SPENT TWO MONTHS IN SIBERIA! That was never in my plans. So much never is.
I was so nervous about coming here. Terrified wouldn’t be too strong a word. And yet, it has been fine. Life… just in Siberia. Waking up, fixing breakfast, writing, teaching, emailing home. I didn’t hate it. (I didn’t love it, either.) It just was. So I’m coming home more aware than ever before that the things that scare you? Go do ‘em. Because you’re only uncomfortable until you’re not.
I’m in Moscow now, halfway to Heathrow, taking pictures of the Kremlin and searching for Christmas gifts. Thinking about these past eight weeks. Such a short time, and yet so very much has happened. I started to list the things I’d noticed here with my co-worker, Annabel, who has been by my side the whole time. 24/7. Want to bond hard and fast with a stranger? Live with them in the arse-end of nowhere for 60 days. Friends for life.
Because I’ve not really talked about the things that make Russia, Russia, here’s what we decided stuck out most in our minds, and will be the stuff we tell our grandkids when they were so old nobody will ever believe we once got on that plane. All in all, nice place for a visit…couldn’t live here, though.
There really is a right way to drink vodka
Neat, of course. A bottle for the table. Eat something savoury – a bread roll or some pickles with dill. Fucking dill! It’s everywhere. Make a toast (every shot comes with a toast) and down it. Pour another shot. Make another toast. Shot it again, like a big girl. Then, rest. Eat more food. Fish or meat, inevitably with potatoes. Do another two shots. If it stops going down easy, you’ve had enough. Until then, rinse. Repeat.
Everything is out of date
I don’t just mean the techno-beats most restaurants and cafes and schools and anywhere else you can think of play. I mean like, literally. At the supermarket. Food. It isn’t unusual to have everything in your basket labelled with a best before date of about 2012, and when you ask Russians why they sell old food, they simply laugh.
They don’t smile first
They’re not an outwardly friendly people, but that doesn’t mean they’re not wonderful. I’ve found that if I smile first and initiate contact, Russians are very receptive. They tend to keep their distance to strangers as a sort of polite courtesy – they don’t like to be all up in everyone’s business. They’re quite private people, not wanting to be intrusive. But they’re also like small gardens flowers: water them with warmth and they open into full bloom.
They really don’t understand America
They love Putin here, genuinely, because they perceive him as a strong leader who will stand up for Russia on a global scale. But they don’t want to rule the world – they just want to be secure, as a nation, and left alone, really. They don’t understand why America, in particular, positions itself as “The Greatest Nation On Earth!” because, they tell me, aren’t we all different and equal and worthy? Why do America always have to be the best? It makes them a bit like bullies, more than one Russian has said to me. Related: they fucking love us Brits, though. Think we’re dead classy.
There is no such thing as poor weather, just poor clothing choices
I went out almost everyday wearing my biggest winter jacket and skiing salopettes, as well as a hat, scarf, and mittens, and I can’t honestly say the cold never got to me once. Well, maybe it did by the time minus thirty degrees hit. But generally, I dressed warm, so I was warm. And Russians tend to heat their buildings to the max, so once inside I’d often be in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt all, “Oh!” Even in London I have to wear more than that indoors, which is what makes winter at home so shitty.
I couldn’t like, live this way forever, though. I’m a summer baby for sure. Grey skies kill my spirit.
OHMYGOD RUSSIANS GIVE PRESENTS ALL THE TIME. They are so thoughtful. An apple for teacher here, a box of special tea there. They don’t just do it for visitors, but for each other, too. It’s really nice to see, and definitely makes me want to take more care in demonstrating to the ones I love that I think about them when they’re not around.
To conclude: Russia isn’t shit! Who knew?