New columnist ALEX BOWER finds living in Moscow is all riding fire extinguishers like a Nimbus 2000 and no smiles.
The first thing everyone notices when they arrive in Russia is that no one smiles in the street. Everyone on the metro looks like they’re in a protracted game of poker with themselves, until someone mental comes along and rides a fire extinguisher down your train, defying the laws of Russia and physics in a Youtube-friendly double blow.
It’s this combination of the super-serious and the super-mental co-existing that makes this place so different and interesting. As we Year Abroaders leave for the land of ice, snow and the world’s most sexually devastating leader, we have no idea what to expect.
Of course, I do ‘The Year Abroad Thing’ and religiously imitate the Russian hatred of smiling, obstinately refusing to beam, smirk or even grin in any public situation. This obviously at least doubles the difficulty of meeting new people. It’s hard enough, because my banter in Russian is as floppy as a limp gherkin, partially because my vocabulary leaves absolutely everything to be desired, and partially because a lot of Russian banter does initially seem to revolve around “what, you gay or something?”. I also can’t drink enough Red Bull in one day to do this, which seems to work.
As time has passed, I’ve come to realise that the reason I’ve been ‘trying to fit in’ is because I’m shy. I’m living in a foreign country, and if people come up to me and blabber consonants I generally don’t understand what they’re on about. So I started to hide away in plain sight, in my Russian-style leather jacket, with my Russian-style poker face, pretending that I was just another unfriendly-looking Russian on the metro.
I tried telling myself that I was getting into the Year Abroad Spirit, feeling the “Russian soul” or whatever, but what I was really doing was not helping my Russian, being counter-productive and wasting my time.
I discovered pretty quickly that the easiest way to meet people is to make it known that you’re foreign, and that you speak Russian (however bad it may be). Then, all of a sudden, everyone wants to hang out with you in their own Russian way (read: get really, really smashed with you).
It’s the little quirks that I have as an Englishman that interest them: my comparative politeness, or my constant apologies. I can be completely and brutally honest about myself all of the time, because it won’t matter. I’ll still be kinda cool to them.
And when I realised this, I was shocked. It took an excessive amount of grimacing and leather jacket-wearing for me to realise that I’d actually spent a lot of my life couching my tastes, opinions and desires just because I was afraid of being uncomfortable. I might be here to learn Russian, but what I’m really learning is how I act out of my comfort zone in a profoundly alien place, and then in a very familiar one. This is where it begins.