Tyler's cousin, an ex-pat working as a journalist and English teacher in Moscow, lives less than a kilometer from Evgeniy. They haven't seen each other since they were twelve, and we're all going to meet here in Russia! Unsurprisingly, a series of wrong turns stretch what should be a short jaunt into an eight kilometer drive. Oh well; confused navigation is practically a way of life for us these days. It takes some time, but we manage to find her apartment!
Meeting Elizabeth, Tyler and I both feel immediately at ease. We haven't spent more than a few minutes with an American since my parents visited us in Italy. Having grown up in the same country, even the same area, there is some basic unspoken understanding between us. There are no cultural divides to navigate, and we feel right at home.
A few minutes after we've met, Elizabeth comments on how we seem very soft spoken for Americans. This comes as a complete surprise. Apparently, our time on the road has changed us more than we realized! Upon reflection, we decide she is right. We definitely do operate in "quiet observation mode" a lot these days. As well, we're used to being together, just the two of us.
Elizabeth's comment gives us a bit of a jump-start, and we spend most of the afternoon peppering her with questions. She's been visiting Russia regularly for ten years, has lived here for three, and has recently married a Russian man (congratulations, Elizabeth!), and she is as eager as we are to discuss our impressions of this vast country.
As we ride the metro all over the city, from her work to the quaint old Arbat street which we missed yesterday, we talk. It is cathartic for all three of us to laugh and vent about our experiences with culture shock. Yes, there is very overt racism and misogyny and classism in Russia. Obviously, America has it's fair share of problems, but as outsiders, we are able to see them here much, much more clearly.
At the same time, we talk about Russian social norms, and what is valued here. Speaking one's mind without holding anything back is high on the list. There's a common gripe about Americans: we seem fake and disingenuous, and we smile for no reason, even at people we don't like. Sure, people won't smile at you here. Why would they? They don't know you, and they don't care about you—smiles are for friends. There is even a saying in Russia: “Смех без причины – признак дурачины,” or "Laughter without reason is a sign of imbecility.”
As well, this public face of neutrality could be a remnant of Stalinist Russia, when it was hard to trust anyone. People even covered the books they were reading so prying eyes on the metro couldn't see.
Here in Russia, it is perhaps easier to avoid friends who will let you down. People are more apt tell the unvarnished truth, even if it is hard to hear. This manifests itself in both positive and negative ways. In one way, you know that people are being genuine. In the other sense, many have no filter whatsoever, and spew whatever pops into their heads, as if they were 13 years old.
As we're walking from the souvenir stalls of Arbat street back to the metro, Tyler and I realize that we've left our active metro card at her apartment. We only have our used-up ones, and have been placing them to no avail over the sensor. Loud beeps fill the subway, and the woman guarding the area comes over to us. She looks very displeased, and she speaks 'harshly' in Russian as if she is upset with us. Elizabeth handles the situation, and when we're far away she explains:
It took me two years to figure out that that isn't yelling. It sounds really harsh, you know? But she's not yelling at you, she's actually being really nice. She's going out of her way to inform you how the system works!
When Elizabeth's husband Max returns home from work, he greets us with a warm smile and genuine handshake. After a bit of talking, we realize that he is soft-spoken, kind, polite and genuine: a complete 180 from the people we've stayed with thus far.
If there is a singly apt word for Russia, as we've seen it so far, it would extreme. Drivers, policies, bureaucracy, interactions between people. We have a lot to learn, and we're only at the tip of the iceberg. It certainly seems like it'll be an exciting ride!