London is the capital of Great Britain and the United Kingdom

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…

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The Sausage Saga

I had a strange, somewhat uncomfortable experience the other week. I happened to meet a certain woman. Like most people here, she was interested to know that I was English (“I’ve never seen one before,” she said, before taking hold of my shoulders and examining me from every angle, including looking in my ears).

We happened to be sitting at a dinner table at the time, and when I declined her kind offer of some bread and salami on the grounds that I can’t eat pork, she asked “what, English people don’t eat pork?” I explained that it’s not because I’m English, but because I’m Jewish, and that’s when the madness started.

“You’re Jewish? How interesting. You don’t look like a Jew.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Well…you’re pretty. Jews aren’t usually pretty.”
When pushed for justification, all she gave me was,
“Well…okay, maybe they’re not so ugly. But they’re not usually very attractive.They usually all look the same. Trust me, I know – I’ve worked with lots of Jewish people. They’re not so nice. You’re so much nicer, and so much prettier.”
The conversation went on in this vein for a while. Then (of course) she asked me if I had a boyfriend. When I answered that, no, I don’t she said:
“Well, great, you can find yourself a Russian boyfriend! But wait…are Jews allowed to date non-Jews?”
I explained that it really depends on the individual – some do and some don’t – but personally, I have no problem dating non-Jews. As a matter of fact, I’ve never gone out with a Jewish guy.
“Oh, good,” she said, “you don’t want to date a Jewish guy. Really. Much better not to. Find yourself a Russian.”

The strange thing about this conversation was that she seemed to think she was being really nice to me. I don’t think she was malicious – just ignorant, and I found that sad. She couldn’t see why her comments might be considered hurtful, or even accept that they weren’t the objective truth. She insisted on telling me about my own people, as if she knew best – she has, after all, worked with lots of Jewish people. I almost felt like a child being scolded at school.

I feel like I ought to add that this is the first such experience I’ve had in Samara (or indeed elsewhere). There is a sizeable Jewish community here, and although not all that many people know much about Judaism, in general, most are interested to learn and understand.

However, I often hear similar comments from well-educated people about other groups: muslims, homosexuals, black people and – most often of all – people from the North Caucasus. As with the lady from my anecdote, I think that deep down it doesn’t stem from malice, but rather, from a lack of understanding (cliche though it might sound) and a deeply troubled history.

I don’t yet know enough about the nature of this hostility to make a reasoned judgement. Nonetheless, I do find these kinds of comments very hard to stomach, and I frequently find myself in a position where I have to choose between keeping quiet on an issue that bothers me and risking alienating people I respect.

I don’t expect to be able to provide any answers yet; but I do have a lot of questions. To what extent are these attitudes prevalent? Or founded? Or mutual (people from the North Caucasus can be just as hostile to Russians as the other way round, it seems)? Maybe the nine months that I have left in Russia will shed some light on the issue. But then again, maybe not.

Where’s your boyfriend?

One of the most common questions I’ve received since being here (after “You left London? For Samara? Why?!”) is: “Where’s your boyfriend?”. It seems to be a standard conversation-opener in all sorts of situations: at work; in my host family; with new friends; pretty much everywhere.

I knew that Russians had different attitudes towards relationships from us – people tend to get married at around 21 or 22, for instance, and if a person (read: woman) isn’t married by the time they’re in their late twenties, then they’re considered old. Nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared for quite how often the question would be raised in seemingly unrelated conversations.

Today, for example, I taught an English conversation class at one of Samara’s many universities, whilst the teacher sat and observed, occasionally interjecting. And so, this conversation occurred:

Me: Well, you see, the English education system differs vastly from the Russian one in that…
Teacher: But where’s your boyfriend?
Me: I’m sorry…what?
Teacher: Where’s your boyfriend?
Me: I don’t have one.
Teacher: No, no. I mean…where’s your boyfriend?
Me: But I don’t have one.
Teacher: But your boyfriend, where is he? Is he also a volunteer in Samara?
Me: No, I don’t have a boyfriend.
Teacher: What, not at all?
Me: Not at all.
Teacher: How old are you?
Me: 22
Teacher: Shame on you! Here, you can go out with Dima (one of the students in the class who had the misfortune to arrive late at that moment)

People are genuinely surprised, sometimes even shocked, to learn that the average marriage age in the UK is 30 for women, and they don’t understand why I’m not actively looking for a husband. I’ve met many beautiful, intelligent women in their late twenties and early thirties who have told me that their families put them under enourmous pressure, even sometimes make them feel like failures, because they are not yet married. For me this is completely alien – how can these women, who have learnt foreign languages, travelled, studied, forged successful careers for themselves, be seen as failures purely because they have orbited the sun thirty times and not signed a piece of paper binding them to another person? It seems especially ironic since Russia has, allegedly, the highest divorce rates in the world (in terms of crude numbers, although not as a marriage:divorce ratio). Tellingly, those I spoke to found nothing shocking in men waiting until 30 or older to marry; only women.

Still, I am very aware that I cannot come to Russia and simply impose my British ideals on the country, and I do recognise lots of advantages in relationships “po russkii”.

For one thing, children have the luxury of young, active parents and even young, active grandparents who are alive well into their children and grandchildrens’ adulthoods.

There is also a sense of mutual respect between men and women that I really like: relationships tend to be serious, long-term commitments. While this might frighten a young, flighty, Guardian-reading British graduate like me, I have to admit that there is a great deal to be said for making a commitment to another person and sticking with it through thick and thin.

I’ve wondered many times who’s got it right, the Russians or the Brits, and I still don’t know the answer. That said, I don’t see myself rushing to the altar any time soon…Dima from the English lesson, don’t hold your breath!