This site’s Russian Week sadly nears its end, but today’s linked article is fun. Ellen Barry writes about Nikolai V. Zlobin’s middlebrow guide for Russians, America — What a Life!, in “A Hunger for Tales of Life in the American Cul-de-Sac.” I especially enjoyed this passage:
He devotes many pages to privacy, a word that does not exist in the Russian language, or in the airless human mass that forms when Russians wait in line. Americans, he reports, prefer to converse at a distance of at least four feet.
“I suppose that in a typical Russian line, your average American would lose consciousness,” he writes. “Any touch to an American is taken as a violation of his personal space, so in the U.S., as a rule, people do not take each other by the elbow and do not tap each other on the shoulder if they want attention, they do not embrace each other like brothers.”
I find the Russians similar to the French in many respects. They are often cold, suspicious of, and even hostile toward strangers, but once they know you, you may as well be a member of their family. You enter into their circle of trust—and protection.
When I lived in Paris, I would go daily to one of the neighborhood boulangeries or pâtisseries for food—restaurants were far trop cher for me except on special occasions. I did not complain—a fresh baguette with some butter, cheese, or hazelnut spread from the local grocery made a fine meal. I did buy sandwiches au Jardin de Luxembourg frequently after class, but they were good deals. Anyway, I noticed that the service at these establishments fell well short of cordial for a few weeks. Then, as the workers saw that I was not just passing through, they started to treat me ever more hospitably. The bakery ladies would even save certain loaves for me when they knew that I would not make it in until evening. I spent the first summer in a girls’ dormitory in Montparnasse, which was co-ed during the summer months. Then, when the school year proper started, I moved to the Latin Quarter. So, I had to go through the same thawing process with the local shops. Just as in Montparnasse, after a few weeks, I became one of theirs.
Aaron and I experienced something similar in Moscow. The market by our hotel was staffed by a colorful Russian family. The daughter vacillated between icy and angry at the beginning of our stay in the capital. After a few weeks, though, my brother and I had become welcome guests in the store. We did not know the woman’s real name, but we decided to call her Ivana Petrovna. When one travels in a foreign country, he compiles certain moments, stock images, and a cast of characters in a mental collage whereby he remembers that land. “Ivana Petrovna” forms a part of Russia’s impression on me. Many blessings to her, whoever she is.