My apologies for the radio silence these past couple of months!
I went back home for Christmas and New Year (the journey there was a story in itself, but perhaps a story for another time…) and so there wasn’t much by way of pithy observations about Russia to be had.
My time at home did get me thinking, though. I spend so much time trying to understand the Russians; but the Russians are also having a hard time trying to understand me.
Here are some of the commonest and best things that people I’ve met think about the UK. Some of them are to be expected, but some really took me by surprise:
1. Tea-time is 5 o’clock. (5 o’clock? Not where I come from!) Apparently Russians learn this at school – I’ve had it said to me on many an occasion. Some believe it more seriously than others. There is some truth in the notion of tea-time, especially as a relic of the past, but plenty of people really do believe that we still regularly uphold all the ceremony surrounding tea – perhaps because the Russians do. The tea-drinking culture here is much more prominent than in the UK, but both Russians and Brits are in disbelief when I say so.
2. It rains a lot. Fair point, I suppose.
3. Everything is cheaper. I was sent home to London – one of the world’s most expensive cities – with a long shopping list that included cheese, sausages, “genuine English Bailey’s” (for anyone who’s uncertain, Bailey’s is as English as marmite is Swedish), a leather iphone cover – to be got for no more than £10 – books, and mascara. To be fair, one or two of those items really are cheaper in the UK, but plenty of people seem to think that you can get anything you want for any price you want, in any shop.
4. British people are polite…
5. …but when we smile, it’s meaningless. A lot of Brits complain that Russians don’t smile enough, that they’re cold and unfriendly. Well, the flipside of that is that for them, we smile unnecessarily, and it makes us seem a bit daft and insincere. When a Russian smiles (excluding some of the younger “internationalised” generations), you know (s)he really means it.
6. The UK is full of dogs. I really have no explanation for this one…
7. We all love the queen. Like, really love her. People have a hard time believing me when I say that we don’t all think of the queen as our national hero and that she’s just sort of…there.
8. The UK is full of foreigners. This is true to some extent, but it also comes down to a difference in our perception of what makes a “foreigner”. For me, if someone moves to the UK from, say, India, that person remains Indian and not British; his or her children, however, will be British. Not so for the Russians. Here, national identity is more often perceived in terms of your background than in terms of where you grew up. I guess this must be largely due to the mass movement of people between the different states of the Soviet Union. I have a friend from Kazakhstan, for instance. His parents are Belarusian. Although he has a Kazakh passport, and not a Belarusian one, and has never lived in Belarusia, he considers himself nationally Belarusian and not nationally Kazakh. (I say “nationally” to distinguish between being “nationally” Kazakh and “ethnically” Kazakh, which he is not.) Likewise, when I tell people I am “еврейка” (that’s the Russian word for “Jewish” by ethnicity, as opposed to “Иудейка” which would refer only to the religion) they often see that as mutually exclusive to being English.
9. We really need to be told that “London is the capital of Great Britain and the United Kingdom”. I mean, really. If I had a pound for every time a Russian reeled that sentence off at me as if I didn’t know…