Travel in Russia

March 22, 2007

You know how you'll sometimes run into a foreign student and tourist, and they have something about them -- either in appearance or action -- which is incredibly foreign, nerdy, and funny? The best example I can think of is the wearing of socks with sandals.

When you travel to another country, you can be acting normally, speaking normally, and dressed normally, but still get laughed at for some reason unbeknownst to you. You're the one to them who's wearing socks with sandals, and you can't even identify what it is that makes you a source of ridicule.

We got laughed at for some unkown reason at the Roman Holiday restaurant.

All part of the fun of travel to another country.

I haven't done a lot of travel to other countries, and Russia is the first place that I've visited where most of the people that I encounter -- whether in stores, restaurants, or just in the street -- speak little or no English at all.

Fortunately, I've been listening to Pimsleur's Russian Language Lessons as I walk the dogs at night. I haven't been a religious devotee of my lessons, but I've averaged about one a week. I had gone through 41 of 90 lessons by the time we left.

This was indeed helpful. I definitely wasn't able to speak full conversations with the natives, but I could pick out words and phrases. Combined with frantic gesturing, we were able to discern people's meanings without too much trouble.

There were a couple of instances where I was able to approach a Russian, ask a question, and get an answer. The more interesting time was as we walked toward Red Square and the Kremlin. It hadn't showed up yet, and I had expected it would. I approached a guy directing traffic in a uniform and asked "Where is Red Square?" This sounded something like "G'dere grasnaya bloeshit?" I remember laughing out loud while walking the dog at the thought of a neighbor coming out of the house and observing me walking along practicing the word "bloeshit" all by myself. It's a wonder that I haven't been arrested.

(My other favorite Russian word is the one for "sixteen." It sounds almost just like the English sentence, "She snots it.")

I don't know if Peg Bundy is the inspiration, but red hair (although often tinted toward purple) is very popular with Russian women.

It's unbelievably fun to learn about other countries' different cultures. Who are their celebrities? What movies do they watch? What sports are popular? I think in many western countries, their stars and ours are the same. That didn't seem to be the case in Russia. Their MTV showed some videos that I knew, but more that I didn't. Their pop music tended to be really bad, cheesy pop. Think Enrique Igasias in Russian. I saw a number of episodes of dubbed "The Simpsons," and a Russian "Married With Children," recognizable by a similar set, similar-looking cast members, and a similar red wig.

Elsewhere on TV, we saw a lot of Winter Olympic sports. I remember seeing curling, biathlon (cross-country skiing + rifle shooting), and a lot of hockey.

Moscow is a huge city -- a large business center with a population that's perhaps a little smaller, but on the same order of magnitude as London, Tokyo, or New York. But for all of that, their airport is only a bit bigger than Baton Rouge. It's about the same size as Raleigh/Durham. I imagine it's because of the availability of a decent rail system, and a vestige of the generation where their citizens were mostly prohibited from journeys abroad.

A good portion of that small airport is dedicated to security. To catch the plane home, we had to go through the following checkpoints:

Comfortable train travel means less need for the hassle of airports.
  • All bags (check and carry-on) x-rayed. Mrs. theskinnyonbenny claims that the woman watching the screen was actually busy doing her nails.
  • A quick interview along the lines of, "did you pack your own bags?" plus ticket and passport check.
  • A manual search of all bags to be checked.
  • After all of this, we got to the Delta counter to check in to our flight.
  • We then went through passport control to have our identity and visas scrutinized. Given the cultural and language barrier, I'm not sure about this, but I think my passport control officer flirted with me. She gave me a Russian, "my pleasure," as she gave me back my passport, along with an exceedingly friendly (for a Russian) smile.
  • Before getting to our gate, there was the normal shoes-off, bag x-ray, metal detector walk-through.
  • After that, everyone got a manual search of the contents of their carry-on bags. They must not have much trust in their x-ray equipment.

By contrast, when we got to American customs, a passport officer verified our identity and put the information from our declaration into a computer. We picked up our checked bags, and a cute little beagle gave everything a quick sniff. His handler surprised me by allowing him to pause to have his ears scratched by Mrs. theskinnyonbenny. We dragged the checked bags from one carousel to another without any other obvious scrutiny. And then a pass through the normal shoes-off, bag x-ray, metal detector walk-through.

One last observation about Russians, that I haven't been able to work in cleanly. I hope this doesn't offend any Russian readers or friends, but Russians age amazingly poorly. The young Russians are -- almost without exception -- quite beautiful. I can't think of anywhere else I've been where so many of the young are so attractive.

On the other hand, the looks of old people will curdle your milk.

I don't know if it's the weather, the drinking or genetics that leads to such an extreme loss of attractiveness.

I was talking about this phenomenon to someone who mentioned that Italian ladies have the same propensity. This leads me to believe that the weather is a big factor, since my Italian friend Stacey's mother is the most attractive "lady of advanced years" that I know.