“Isn’t Russia dangerous?”
“But the politics are terrible!”
“Don’t they dislike Americans?”
“But isn’t it really cold?”
These are the primary concerns expressed whenever I tell Americans that I live in Russia, what Americans assume must be the biggest sticking points among the vast array of differences that exist between the two countries. With regard to the fourth, “Hello, I’m from Chicago.” The third is patently false, and the first is irrelevant to me, given the fact that I don’t get involved in the second. I’ve never been a particularly politically-minded sort (I do note the irony given where I work). I have always preferred volunteering over protesting, and I have been given wonderful opportunities to do just that in Moscow. In fact, the government and politics are far from being the main source of my annoyances about life in Russia. What bothers me most are those little quirks that you inevitably encounter in your everyday life as a result of cultural differences.
The Paper Problem: I am in a constant battle with Russian paper. One of my friends used to frequently laugh at me, because whenever we went out to eat, I would always complain about how tiny the napkins were. In general, they’re about the same thickness as a tissue and the same size as an invidual sheet of toilet paper. I’m a messy eater, and I just fail to comprehend how these so-called “napkins” are adequate for eating purposes. In general, any “hand-based” food order results in about 10 shriveled up napkins on the table by the end of the meal.
Russians also have an obsession with “scenting” any and all paper products, perhaps in an effort to match the yellow, blue, and red dyes they also frequently use. While living in Nizhny, I remember waking in the middle of the night and needing to use the restroom. I was opening a new package of yellow-colored toilet paper (I hadn’t been able to find white paper) when a pungent, flower-tinged scent wafted towards me. It was like I had been sprayed by some cheap perfume from the makeup aisle at Jewel. Since then, I’ve had yellow, floral-scented tissues, green, apple-scented toilet paper, and aloe vera scented feminine products—none of which have been particularly pleasant. Most of the scents tend to be overpowering. They’re more akin to a car refreshner than to a nice Yankee candle.
However, most upsetting is the complete lack of infrastructure set up for recycling. Plastic water bottles, alumninum cans, glass beer bottles, and paper, whether it’s office paper, notebook paper or newspaper, all gets thrown directly into the trash. Given that Russia is also a country that adores paperwork and insists on keeping massive file drawers stuffed with various contracts, memos, reports, etc., on any given workday, hundreds of individual sheets of paper get tossed into the nearest wastebasket. I cringe every time I have to clean out my desk.
Stuffing Sheets: Russians have an entirely different system for bedsheets. For starters, fitted sheets are rare. I remember shopping for sheets in Nizhny at the local OVI (like an Ikea) and asking the store clerk for a set of sheets that included a fitted layer. At first, she didn’t seem to understand my question at all, so I began attempting to illustrate with my hands, mimicking the gesture of tucking in the ends. “Are you sure you need a sheet with corners?” she asked, clearly skeptical. I nodded yes, and she handed me the only option—a flimsy, candy-colored pink set that turned out to be far too big. Russians normally just place a regular sheet (minus corners) on top of the mattress.
On top of the bottom sheet is a quilt/blanket that then is wrapped with a washable cover. And herein lies the biggest frustration of all
—stuffing the blanket/quilt inside the cover. It’s the last thing you want to have to do when boarding a train in the middle of the night and your bunk is on the top level. It’s the reason you put off washing and/or changing your sheets. It’s the bane of my OCD existence that insists on a completely even distribution of all blankets and sheets across both sides of the bed. But most of all, it’s incredibly difficult, especially for someone tiny in stature.
My bed is between an American double and queen, so you can imagine the size of the blanket. At 5’2″, there is simply no way for me to hold out the cover in front of my arms, at least not unless I want most of it forming a misshapen heap on the floor. That means, in order to actually fit the cover over the quilt and evenly distribute the sides, I have to first shove the majority of the quilt inside the cover and then crawl inside myself. That’s right, I crawl, like a bear crawling into his cave to hibernate for the winter or a groundhog burrowing into the ground. I crawl from side to side, pushing the quilt corners into the appropriate places, the top of the cover completely hiding me from anyone’s view. Once I crawl out, sweaty and exhausted, I shake and flatten and hope beyond hope that one side of the cover isn’t overstuffed while another third is empty. God help me if, throughout the night, the whole thing gets dislodged.
Slim Pickings: I am often asked which traditional Russian foods I like. The answer is: very few. During my first four months studying abroad in Moscow I lost about 15 pounds. I was so terrified of contracting food poisoning that I subsisted on a diet of drinkable Activia, white meat chicken, potatoes, cookies, and these hotdogs wrapped in bread. At one point, my host mom stood over the stove, looking down at yet another dish she had prepared that I did not wish to eat, and broke down in tears, bemoaning the fact that I didn’t like anything. Fortunately, my palette has broadened quite a bit since I moved to Moscow after college. I even started liking tomatoes, a fruit I had long hated, after being introduced to these deliciously sweet Uzbekistani tomatoes. However, in general, I dislike the vast majority of traditional Russian food.
You have “kotlety” which is basically meat mushed together and then fried on the stove. And when I say “meat”, I literally mean “meat”. Many Russians products often use the generic term “myaso”, which encompasses all meat, when describing a dish. I always ask, “But what kind of meat? Pork? Lamb? Beef?” Most of the time, they just answer, “It’s meat.” Russians have never heard of salad dressing other than olive oil and sour cream. There are no vinaigrettes, no poppyseed dressings, no Thousand Island. Most Caesar salad dressings taste like some kind of nondescript cream. Instead of dressing, Russians put sour cream on most of their salads, and, if not sour cream, then mayannoise. In fact, one of the quintessential Russian salads is “olivier”, which consists of potatoes, a bunch of other vegetables, chicken, and…you guessed it—mayonnaise. And forget cilantro (which is not that great to begin with); dill is all the rage. Russian use dill like it’s salt; they put it on potatoes, salmon, vegetables, in soup. It’s EVERYWHERE. Other staples are pickled cabbage and cucumbers, regular cabbage, and buckweat, none of which I particularly care for. Now, I should emphasize that this is the more “mainstream” traditional Russian food. I won’t begin to dive into the exotic world of Far Eastern cuisine, with its herring, pig fat, and meat jelly. My personal diet in Russia mostly consists of white meat chicken, with turkey and fish thrown in for good measure, salads with balsamic, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, and the can of peanut butter I always have handy. It does get tiring, but, fortunately, Russians share my giant sweet tooth.
Oh the cold..: I remember watching Friends with one of my Russian friends. Suddenly, she gasped in horror, “Are they wearing their shoes indoors?”
“Why yes, yes they are,” I replied. To my friend, this was scandalous.
Taking more than two steps into a Russian home with your shoes on is forbidden. To be fair, there is valid reasoning behind this: Russian streets are DIRTY, particularly in the winter and spring. Snowfall turns to mush which then turns into mud, and, because of the poorly constructed streets, puddles the size of small ponds pop up everywhere after any kind of precipitation. Cars get so dirty it becomes nearly impossible to make out license plate numbers. When I returned home after my first stint studying abroad, my mom took one look at the UGG boots I had worn and tossed them in the garbage. That’s why shoe cleaners can be found at the entrances to most office buildings and hotels, and nearly every Russian home has at least one shoe polisher. The last thing any homeowner wants is for you to be traipsing about on their hardwood floors with your grimy shoes. But, in the summer, the streets are clean. Some days it’s easier to place your giant grocery bags on the kitchen table before taking off your shoes. Sometimes, you are about to walk out the door but realize you have forgotten something. Are you supposed to take off your shoes to take those five steps into the kitchen to pick up your keys? The Russian answer would be yes. Mine is no.
Let’s say it is the summertime. You’re not wearing socks, but you also can’t be barefoot. Your feet will get cold, and then you will get sick! The solution? Slippers. Russians always keep several pairs of slippers handy by the front door, and it is considered polite to offer your guests a pair when they arrive. I’ve never worn slippers. In general, my body runs hot, and I enjoy walking barefoot. Back in Nizhny, I was taking Russian lessons at my tutor’s apartment, as was my fellow Fulbrighter’s wife, Miranda. We made Maria very uncomfortable walking around in her home with just some socks. To her, it felt unnatural and rude on her part. To appease her, we went to Ashan (think a bigger, cheaper, dirtier Walmart) to purchase some truly unstylish, cheap slippers—one bright blue pair and one bright red pair, both decked out in paisley flowers.
Part of the logic behind the slippers is the reasoning that cold and being cold leads to illness. It’s like Russians believe viruses are little fairies that fly in with cold air. As hard as I might try to explain that colds are spread by germs and staying inside all day in recycled, heated air is more likely to induce illness than opening a window for five minutes, it’s a lost cause. To be fair, there is some logic to this reasoning. Studies have suggested that cold weather can possibly weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections. However, that is just one of many factors that can lead to illness, and the process by some has been far too simplified. I’ve been told while wearing ballet flats in October that I am bound to fall ill. Ditto if I sit by an open window for too long. If I say I’ve caught a cold, responses will vary from “Well, it’s been very cold outside” to “You didn’t wear a hat or dress warm enough.” The biggest battle, however, by far, is my refusal to use a hair dryer. I don’t like hair dryers. It damages my hair, and frankly, I just don’t have the patience. I’d rather just cover myself in a hood, hat, and scarf till I get inside the metro where the heat generated by the deluge of other riders will quickly dry out my hair. To many, this is seen as sheer idiocy, an open invitation to those fairy viruses. As an aside, walking in short skirts in the middle of winter is completely acceptable, as long as you wear tights as well. Go figure.
Are these minor annoyances? Yes, they are. Why do I even notice them? Because that’s how deeply a particular country’s culture permeates every aspect of your daily life. Societal differences aren’t just large, overarching ideas or particular philosophies. The term “culture” doesn’t just refer to goverments, politics, religious beliefs, or holidays. A country’s “culture”
—a term that’s hard to define to begin with—consists of thousands of tiny, separate elements. You constantly encounter differences, some small, some large, in every aspect of your daily routine. And, it’s these days—the days when I crave pizza but my only options for delivery are Papa John’s or Domino’s, the days when I’ve had yet another fight with my boyfriend about walking into the bathroom with my shoes on (“How is this not obvious?” he asks incredulously), the days when I just give up having sheets on my bed at all, the days that I can’t open a window in our 78 degree office because the cold wind will inevitably spread a cold virus, the days that I send 200 sheets of computer paper to a landfill—these are the days that I miss America.