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Surprising, invasive, funny, and terrifying

Q: Allison, what were your first impressions of Russia/Moscow?

A: I was first introduced to Moscow when I arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport, where a security agent insisted on opening my guitar case to assess the value of my guitar, and then proceeded to strum a few bars, laughing with his coworker and speaking too quickly for me to understand. He then grumpily gave it back to me and waved me on, without helping me clean up the mess my belongings were everywhere! That was my first impression of Moscow: surprising, invasive, funny, and terrifying. Overall I was impressed with the stark beauty of the city and its architecture, and the pride and tenacity of the Russians I met. However, my first impressions held firm throughout my stay.

Q: How long did you stay here?

A: I stayed in Moscow for four months. I was studying abroad through my university and I took classes in Russian language, film, and culture. Unfortunately my classes were made up entirely of other Americans, which did not help with assimilation. However, I lived with a Russian host family and learned a lot through their daily routines. My favorite experience with my host family was celebrating my host dedushka's seventy-fifth birthday. He brought out from a cupboard the biggest bottle of vodka I have ever seen, with an actual pump-top for easier pouring!

Q: How good was your Russian then?

A: My Russian was not very advanced at that time. I had taken one year of Russian in college, but it was not enough. I never felt comfortable with my communication skills, and because Russians were often very impatient and cold, I was scared to try. At the time I wished I had known more Russian, but looking back I simply wish I had been more aggressive to learn.

Q: What were the most difficult things to get used to?

A: I found it very difficult to get used to a diet devoid of the wide array of tasty fruits and vegetables to which I was accustomed in California. In Moscow, a salad usually consisted of sliced tomato and sliced cucumber swimming in oil. Although once the cold set in, I realized why I had to eat like a Russian! I also found it difficult interacting with strangers on a day-to-day basis. As an American, I was used to a common level of courtesy that I did not find in Moscow. I learned that I had to fight for things like a spot in line at the store or the attention of a server.

Besides that, there is this strange phenomenon of daily life in Moscow that is the hardest to get used to: unpredictability. I found that it's the most unpredictable place I've ever been. Whether it's looking under your subway seat and finding a sleeping homeless dog, only to see the same homeless dog at your local hot dog vendor the next day, or wandering around Oxotny Ryad in the winter and stumbling upon the enormous honey emporium that is hiding in Moscow is multifarious.

Q: What was your impression of Russians?

A: Russians could be very off-putting. In general, I found them to be proud, unfriendly, and unyielding. However, after breaking the ice, there is a loyalty and deep connection between people that is quite moving. I found that once I got to know someone, I could definitely count on that person to be my ally. Unfortunately I did not get to know very many people, and I mostly had to deal with the hard exteriors. I think it is important, though, to note the difference between the older generation and the youth of Moscow. Generally, older Russians were distrustful with me and stubborn, but the young people I met were eager to talk about the United States, music, MTV, and cell phones. There was a big contrast between the older Russians and the younger.

Q: Have you been to other places other than Moscow? Which place did you like best?

A: My very favorite stop in my travels was Prague, where I studied after studying in Moscow. Perhaps it was because I had just come from Moscow, but I loved Prague and I loved the Czech people. They were much more easy-going and less xenophobic than those in Moscow. Also, the city was much friendlier to outsiders; easier access to bars and restaurants, not as expensive, and walk-able. And there is quite an international community. If I could return to anywhere in my travels, it would be Prague.

Q: What did you like and what you didn't like about Moscow?

A: I loved the architecture in Moscow, the sights, and the attention to and pride in history. Russian culture is rich and prevalent in Moscow, even amid the wealth and modernism of the city. As a student of literature, I loved that Russians are so proud of their literary tradition. In the United States, we build statues of generals. In Moscow, they build statues of writers and poets. What I didn't like was the daily grind of the city, which can be debilitating at times, added to the surliness of strangers. I often just wanted to relax, and never felt I was able to.

Q: What advice would you give to those traveling to Russia?

A: If you are going to Moscow for just a week or so, have fun. Save up the money so that you can take advantage of some of the classier, friendlier hotels and restaurants, and live it up. But if you want to go on a budget, or if you are interested in assimilating, know that the city can be expensive and brutal. It takes a lot to stay positive, and you need to take things day by day. Anything can happen in a day, and you need to be aggressive in order to get what you want and need. Also, there is a racism and a xenophobia that exists there that is very serious. Think ahead and make sure you can handle it all before you go.

November 26, 2008 13:10

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