“You cannot understand Russia with your mind”. This well known Russian proverb came from Fyodor Tyutchev, a 19thcentury Russian poet and Slavophile. Now, I’m usually not one to be taken in by ‘deep and meaningful’ philosophical one-liners just because they look clever and sound nice. Take the proverb “Laughter is the best medicine”. The person who came up with this clearly had never experienced the worst of the ailments nature can fling at you: the hangover. Everyone knows the best cure for this groggy, nauseous and debilitating affliction is a strict diet of water, sleep and self-pity. Laughter, with all the movement involved, not only exacerbates these symptoms but also opens your mouth. And all this does is to create the perfect conditions should you wish to take another look at the refreshments you consumed the night before.
However, having just spent a year in Russia on my Year Abroad trying desperately to understand Russians and their way of life, I can safely say it is impossible to get your head round their bizarre habits and completely contradictory principles.
So, for the select few who are thinking of going to Russia next year seeking to master this gruelling language and integrate yourselves into their society, I thought I’d pass on a few words of wisdom and (hopefully) ease your adjustment to life in this unique land:
The chances are that, when you go to Russia, you’ll be living with an old retired grandmother (‘babushka’ – for those who know about these things) in a very small flat in a very large apartment block. Some can be very kind and welcoming, often happy to treat you to snacks and do your washing for free; others, well, they see you more as an ATM machine.
Even if you’re going to Russia for the winter months, take plenty of pairs of shorts and T-shirts. This is not so much for the pleasant riverside jogs past grey facades of Soviet admin buildings, rather for wear inside: Russian central heating is controlled centrally (excuse the pun), and, in order to combat potential arctic lows of -30°, has only has one temperature – high! It will be switched on from September right up until May, regardless of the weather outside.
Any motorist driving a car is a potential taxi. Although in the cities most main roads are clogged with traffic, many of the cars are being driven by guys looking for a bit of extra income. It is standard practice for native and foreigner alike to hail any vehicle in many instances resembling the end result of a Top Gear experiment. I know this seems to go against all common sense, but as long as you’re two or more, there won’t be any problems. Plus you’ll pay fares five times cheaper than through private firms.
Like pizza or sushi? Then Russia’s the place for you! Every other restaurant along Nevsky Prospekt, the main street of St Petersburg, is either Italian or Japanese. Or course, if you are looking for traditional Russian cuisine, there are still plenty of places to go; just expect any dish you have to be covered (and I mean covered) in dill. Once you have tried the local delicacies however, you will start to understand why foreign cuisine is so popular.
On a more cultural note, if you’re into architecture, museums, plays, concerts, and the like, you’re in for a treat. Every Russian town is littered with magnificent churches, and in the many cities you will find museums housing collections of absolutely anything you could think of. The quality of performances too, be they musical, theatrical or both, are unrivalled. The even better news is that it is all so cheap! I don’t reckon there is anywhere else in the world where you could see a flawless production of Swan Lake on a Saturday night for a tenner!
I’m afraid that’s all for this edition, but there’ll be 5 more steps to follow next time. If, however, you’re jetting off to the land of eternal corruption before you manage to get a copy of the next issue, I’ll leave you with a last very important piece of advice: if the local authorities decide that there needs to be work done to your apartment block’s hot water supply, expect to be having cold baths for a week … minimum.