Saturday, February 4, 2012

Observations About Russia

As many of you who follow our other blog know, Melissa and I spent a week in Moscow back in late January.

Anyway, a little history first. Melissa has spent considerable time in Western Europe but this was my first voyage off the North American continent. I have to say that a ten hour flight that crosses ten time zones is something of a rude awakening to international travel for someone who complains about the change from Central to Eastern time whenever I go anywhere east of Nashville. At any rate, I jotted down a number of observations while I was in country and which I will share for your reading pleasure here. For those who might be reading from Europe, please note everything here is written from someone with a rural North American perspective. Also please be aware that I wrote most of this while I was in Russia on very little sleep, so everything is very fresh but some of it might not make a lot of sense.

1. Some bathrooms are "pay" toilets, except here you pay a lady who sits at a desk outside the bathroom before you enter and you are given three squares of toilet tissue for your trouble. These bathrooms are typically very clean and it's usually worth the time it takes to find one and pay the small change required to enter. It's a real good idea to carry some extra tissue with you just to be safe.

2. When you buy something at stores they do NOT automatically bag it for you. You can get plastic bags, but you have to pay a small surcharge for them. This was kind of a revelation when I schlepped several bottles of water from the store back to our hotel by carrying them in my arms.

3. Most toilets have very high water pressure but they stop flushing when you release the handle and almost certainly use less water and do a more effective job of removing waste than our "low flow" toilets. I was most impressed with the toilets.

4. Fresh fruit, and especially berries are extremely expensive. I assume this is because the cost of importing those goods off season is very high. We are very spoiled everywhere in North America in terms of the year round inexpensive cost and high availability of every kind of produce and fruit.

5. Government offices, hotels, malls and larger stand alone stores almost all have security guards at the door and metal detectors that travellers have to pass through. Oddly, it seems as though you only rarely have to show ID's at these places.

6. In terms of entering the country for tourism, etc, I believe the US and Canada actually have Russia beat for difficulty in doing so.

7. Moscow can be an extremely expensive city for tourists and English is not widely spoken outside the main tourist sites. With a few exceptions, it makes sense to pay for a local translator in order to score better deals on things as well as to understand what the hell is going on around you. Even at $ 100 or more per day the cost of a traslator is worth the money in terms of what you save. Using our trip as a case in point, the rack rate on our room is $ 600 per night and the English bubble hotel restaurant buffet breakfast is $ 65 each which is convenient but EXTREMELY expensive. Two hamburgers from the same English bubble restaurant with soft drinks and coffee cost eighty US dollars as we found out on the night we arrived. A good, knowledgeable local translator can easily cut these costs by 50 to 75 % by showing you where the deals are and by bargaining on your behalf with most of the folks around you that don't speak English.

8. In most Western European countries if you stay on the tourist track, with minimal effort you can usually figure out what basic services are being offered even if you don't speak the language and no one around you speaks English. That is not the case here. We find that the Cyrillic alphabet is nearly impenetrable to our addled and jet lagged Western brains. After four days of trying I can now figure out which bathroom to use and where the exit is and that is the sum total of my knowledge.

By the way, EXIT is BblXOA. Easy, right.

9. Russian business hours are typically 9 or 10 am until 6 pm, making finding a spot to buy an early, cheap breakfast other than McDonalds very challenging. Even McD's doesn't open until 7 am.

10. I have never heard of most of the car models on the road here despite the fact that the manufacturers are the same as those found in the US. Most Russians who drive buy new cars and there isn't much of a used car market here yet.

11. Petrol is sold at very small gas stations....usually four pumpss at max....that might be located just about anywhere but that are most always right along the side of the road. The typical distance from the edge of the road to where the pump is located would be 8 feet or less with no barrier separating the road from the gas pump/station. Petrol cost is roughly the same as that found in the US.

12. Most Muscovites do not have cars and thus services (banks, restaurants, food, pharmacies) tend to be located very close together because the majority of people walk to them. Supermarkets here are tiny. There is no widespread equivalent to Super Wal-Mart/Target/Home Depot/etc and if you are used to having a car and these stores at your instant disposal it is an inconvenience not to have them available.

13. Russians are not big smilers unless they are greeting a personal friend. With exceptions, they tend not to understand that a quick smile from a North American is intended to put a stranger at their ease. Outside tourist circles I have found that it makes people uncomfortable when I smile or greet them on the street as I would do at home . Normally if I am greeting a stranger and I'm not smiling while doing so, that stranger had better be worried.

14. There are no supersize drinks and portion sizes tend to be considerably smaller than those found in the US. I ordered a large Sprite while we were eating supper and it was considerably smaller than a small Sprite found at most restaurants in the US. It also cost ten US dollars and refills are not free. Tap water is safe to drink but does cause difficulties for folks from overseas. Tap water isn't free either.

15. I find it very embarrassing that I can't speak a word of the local language nor can I understand more than a few basic words of script. A Russian who didn't speak or read English would have a much harder time in my neighbourhood than I am having here.

16 Russians speak very softly and it is rare to hear raised voices, sirens or honking horns even in the middle of traffic and pedestrian dense Moscow, a city of fifteen million people.

17. This one is really strange. The whole country....airport, hotel, cars, tourist sites, upscale malls, hell EVERYWHERE.....smelled like boiled cabbage. I like the smell so I didn't find it unpleasant but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think it was very different.


Gal Wednesday said...

Great read...we are paying for bags here in the Toronto area now as well, 5 cents each, though no one is quite sure where the money goes.

Bif said...

Thank you!
Now I'll go read it and everything...

Bif said...

Ok, now for real comments ;-)

1. BblXOA is something I say all the time, I never knew it meant anything.

2. Count on a man to note the awesomeness of a toilet and feel compelled to tell everyone about it.

3. I don't know about boiled cabbage, but I know for many many years after WWII Stalingrad/Leningrad/St. Petersburg stank due to the large number of bodies... hmmm. Where all did you go again?

Sounds like you all had an interesting (and expensive!) adventure.

I for one was not nosy enough to wonder why you went until you said you had lots of reasons you can't tell us. Ok, mr. covert operations.

Oh, sorry, shhhh.....

Jason said...

1. It's a little known fact that farmers are known for handling covert operations when travelling overseas, especially in former Cold War countries. :)

2. I'd have happily spent some time taking a Russian toilet apart so I could see how it worked from the inside out but Melissa didn't think this would be prudent at the Hotel National where we stayed.

3. We noticed the cabbage-y smell immediately on deplaning at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow and it persisted through our entire trip no matter where we were. I expected it to smell different but I wasn't expecting it to smell like cabbage.

Laura said...

interesting observations! Russia is on my list of places to visit. I actually studied Russian language and lit in university and while I don't remember much, I could at least read signs/menus and speak a few words.

Good to know that the plumbing is above standard!

We are charged here (Ottawa) for plastic bags in about 90% of stores...

Bif said...

1. VERY little known fact.

2. I'm not sure I would want to dismantle a toilet from a former communist country, particularly if was not a brand spanking new one... just saying.