Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Six months ago I stepped off a Singapore Airlines flight from Taipei and found myself in an unfamiliar place. A quite strange land, where the sun shines at different hours and where citizens don’t give out smiles for free. That was Moscow, and they call this Russia.

The limited knowledge I had of Russia prior to my arrival had been acquired through books and articles I had read during my studies, as well as from friends’ accounts. A quick summary of what I thought Russia had in store for me at the time would look something like this:

  • Vodka (and the need to say “за здоровье!”)
  • Unfriendliness
  • Putin
  • Bribery
  • Hardcore
  • No small change
  • Evil dormitory wardens
  • Nuclear winters

When I arrived in Moscow, the simply humongous megalopolis had my head turning left and right while walking its long streets under the August sun. I donned a grey v-neck, white shorts and a pair of new Havaianas. Life was bright then. Sunglasses were on; skirts were worn, and I started secretly ticking off items on my stereotypical check-list of Russia – yes. No. Sort of.

“Rule number one:” I was told, “never by any food from the Moscow underground.” Look, we’d been to India together, and if someone who’s been to India tells me not to buy food from kiosks in the Moscow underground, my hands are well and truly staying in my pockets.
My next observation was of the way women dressed – glamorous. It was almost as if every woman was in competition with the next passerby. Don’t her feet hurt in that? I made a list of observations, some of which are still fresh in my memory, while others have simply faded away or lost importance.

I would visit Moscow twice more before and after the new year, each time returning with softer, more accustomed eyes. Moscow hasn’t changed, it is I who has changed. And not only my impression of Moscow, but also my general impression of Russia has changed. I actually like her. Odd, I know.

When I first stepped foot in Nizhny, summer was in full flow. It was so green and so blue that it even hurt my eyes, as if I were part of a Photoshop project and someone had slipped on the saturation slider. Little did I know, two months after arriving, I would quickly regret not spending more time out on the streets and along the riverbank. There was a long period of adjustment for me, and by the time I was ready to step out, what awaited me was autumn, and later bare, snowy winter.

That was a different time, and that was a different me. I have spent my last week revisiting parts of the city I had been to before, occasionally discovering something new here and there. All in all, though, nothing much has changed. I now walk the streets looking more often at the sludge below my feet than at the road ahead of me, for fear of accidentally winding up in a giant puddle of unwelcoming sorts. The seasons changed quickly, and even though it is not yet spring, the unpredictable weather is showing me the brown and muddy side of Russian winters. There will be plenty more of these in store for me, I am sure.

Being in Nizhny Novgorod these past six months has served to make me somewhat mellower than when I first arrived in Moscow excited and adventurous. I am being dead honest when I say I came bearing no expectations. That said, I have had my fair share of disappointments here waiting for 30 minutes in the cold for a trams that never come. I have woken up to mornings with no hot water, or indeed no water at all, but lived through it without a squeak or a croak. I’ve learnt to take things on the chin, just as I’ve learnt not to argue with people who could potentially make my life unpleasant (yes, crazy security lady, I’m looking at you), and perhaps most important of all, I’ve achieved a whole new level of patience. I didn’t have any false fantasies of Russia, but even if I did, they would have been long gone by now.

Looking back at my list of initial impressions, I’d wager most of them have at least an ounce of truth in them. However, I can now (happily) set the record straight and respond like this:

  • Vodka (and the need to say “за здоровье!”) – Champagne. No, really. Russia offers an endless variety of affordable ‘drunk’, but many (really, many, many) find the smell and taste of vodka revolting. And за здоровье ([to drink] to health) is only one of many possible variants to drink to.
  • Unfriendliness – Honesty. Russians are direct in their demeanour, but if you give them a reason to smile, they’ll most certainly do it. And perhaps a little known fact: a true Russian friend is probably as loyal a friend as you could ever find.
  • Putin – Yes. His influence is ubiquitous, but there are some who courageously oppose him.
  • Bribery – Yes. There’s no two ways about it. There exists two types, one involving money and one involving status. Although it could be said that the younger generation isn’t affected too much by the money side of things, the latter variant often hinders their chances of development (at work, on the playing field, at the olympics).
  • Hardcore – Yes. But not just for the sake of being hardcore. Russians live with conditions that sometimes require them to be extra tolerant and more enduring than most of us would be comfortable with. Sure, they complain, but they get on with it afterwards.
  • No small change – No. Well, yes, they like it when people pay in exact amounts (then again, don’t we all?). In some cases the lack of small change is simply due to poor business, but more often than not, they’ll have change for you.
  • Evil dormitory wardens – No. But if you give them a reason to moan, they’ll moan.
  • Nuclear winters – Yes. But not for as long as most people think. Temperatures drop to scary lows, even in major cities, but it never continues for more than 10 days. I would say the average winter temperature is around -8º Celsius to -15º Celsius.

I am well aware that Russia is nothing close to perfect. But as I said before, I don’t come from perfection. I do, however, try my best to be perfect, consciously admitting I will never achieve it, but also recognising that every human being deserves to be the best he or she can be. I am in transition and so is Russia. I understand that Russians don’t like fixing things that aren’t broken, even if it means more effectiveness, more efficiency and better for the wallet. But like me, Russia also enjoys being in its lazy comfort zone, timid, afraid almost, to move forward, even for her own good. But it’s time. It’s time to cross the threshold from mediocracy into greatness, and I want to be here to witness this metamorphosis. JSF. 

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