Like HSBC, I try never to underestimate the importance of local knowledge. My interest in the weight afforded to certain cultural idiosyncrasies is not born out of the needs of my customers, however, but the desire not to end up on the wrong side of The Iron Curtain.
While I’d like to believe that I could count my preconceptions of Russian society on one hand, I have inevitably been influenced by a lifetime’s intake of media that has painted Russia as a nation of fur-clad, wodka-drinking communists. At least slightly.
Although the origins of many such stereotypes (with the slightest basis in reality) are obviously tied to the cold climate –push-sledges instead of push-chairs, cloakrooms in almost every building — there are other cultural quirks that have proven far more surprising.
I have already told you about the local tendency to serve lattes with a straw, attach safety-pins to cars for luck, and whip oneself after a simple sauna, but there are many more unusual traits that have caught me off-guard since my arrival than the aforementioned three.
Remaining with coffee for a moment, there is a small but nonetheless striking discrepancy in the way that we open packets of sugar. In Russia, the sachets have been specifically designed to be snapped in two, down the middle. There is even an urban legend that the creator hung himself when his patrons continued to tear off only the very tip.
Furthermore, in cafés, as in anywhere else where currency changes hands, it seems that nobody is the least bit willing to risk physical contact during a transaction. Instead, wherever you go, a small square dish is provided at the cash desk into which you are expected to deposit your charge, and collect your change.
As for superstitions, I have also been informed of the apparently prevalent tendency to make daily wishes at eleven minutes past eleven. Others believe that if you find a leaf in your soup you are to place it on your tongue and make individual wishes for all of your fellow diners, and that good luck can be derived from eating your bus ticket if the first three digits add up to the same number as the last three. Admittedly, I have yet to see any of these in action.
Then there is the fact that almost everybody I have spoken to owns more than one pet. Attitudes towards animals on the whole are different here, and not just in that there is a travelling zoo located across the road from my flat. Whereas in Australia you might hand-feed parrots, here people are regularly seen purposefully swarmed with pigeons, unprejudiced towards the characteristically diseased and dirty birds.
Also fascinating is the popular music. While in Britain you can’t go anywhere without hearing the latest X-Factor fodder blasted out from every available speaker, here you get an apparently random playlist sourced from music throughout the ages, from around the world. I have already heard Scooter, System of a Down, traditional Irish folk music, Lou Bega’s Mumbo Number 5 on numerous occasions, as well as King Julien’s rendition of I Like To Move It from the Madagascar series, interrupted only occasionally by actual Russian releases.
From my work with the school (one of very few in Syktyvkar to have a name rather than a designatory number), I have also noted that children here are far more willing to learn. Whereas in Britain doctors’ notes are sought after excuses to avoid a day of school, here they are eagerly pursued to prove that a child is actually well enough to return to the classroom. Perhaps “eagerly” is too a strong word, however, as it turns out there is no Russian language equivalent for the word “excited”.
Of course, I have only been here for three weeks (as of today, actually), and I will likely come across many more cultural differences before I return to Britain in time for Christmas (celebrated here on January 7th, but with much less emphasis on decoration). But when I do, I’ll be sure to let you know.