No matter how different a culture is, there are some standard approaches to making memorable friendships on the road.
Russians are often stereotyped to be a serious, cold and unfriendly bunch. To a large extent this appears to be true on the surface and strengthened by our preconceived notions that the western media has cultivated since the Cold War era. In addition, the communist days were very harsh on most people, with people choosing to limit their expression in public. I’ve also heard that Russians are, to some extent, uneasy around foreigners particular when it comes to conversing in English! No wonder travel forums are full of grumpy tourists who don’t think that Russians are warm or hospitable.
But I had the opposite experience in Russia! Not only were the people helpful, but some went out of their way to help me out of serious situations like running out of money, being chased by prostitute, getting cornered on a train, etc. I travelled in Russia for almost 4 weeks during which I tried various ways of conversing with strangers. Russians seem so reserved for the first couple of days, I thought that would never change but it certainly did:
1. INITIATE CONVERSATIONS
Russians, unlike Indians or Mexicans, are shy of foreigners and will not show any obvious signs of curiosity about your movements. Ask a question to a random stranger and most likely you’ll get a curt “nyet,” a shrug or the person may simply run away. Many older people give you a strong I-won’t-smile,-ever look.
When I am travelling, I am constantly looking at people’s body language, trying to figure out who would be open to a conversation. Sadly this conventional conversation-radar breaks down in Russia because I found people’s body language quite different.. more controlled and masked. Who the heck do I talk to?
One of the tricks is to strike up an initial conversation, something that serves as an icebreaker and makes you seem more approachable. For example, commenting on how late the bus is. The other person will most likely respond. Everything is also different when you initiate a conversation with a big smile, or start with an obvious joke, “Do you speak Russian?” The chuckle will prompt the stranger to converse in whatever broken English they know. For a family with kids, the formula is different, oranges and cameras seem to work. Finally, I often ask strangers to take my picture and end up talking to them.
I found that people were always curious and interested in chatting with a foreigner but a bit of apprehension held them back. So take charge!
2. LEARN SOME RUSSIAN
Somehow I seem to pickup languages quickly and that serves as a huge asset. I am of the opinion that every traveller should learn atleast the basic phrases in foreign language. Learning the local language serves a multitude of purposes, from teaching basic survival skills to preparing you for the cultural differences. Many Russians, especially the younger population in large cities, speak English but are shy to converse with you. Older folks probably don’t speak anything but Russian.
Babushkas – older Russian women – seem to control everything in Russia, from the extensive Moscow metro to the cash counters in grocery stores. Getting the babushkas to smile is one of the trickiest challenges in the world but the rewards of keeping a babushka happy are fabulous, and for a foreigner it means loads of goodies.
Therefore, if you are travelling for few weeks in Russia, I strongly suggest learning basic conversations in Russian. On more occasions than I can remember I was able to get into museums and tourist sites either free or for the “domestic price” which is less than half the price of a foreigner ticket. I did this by talking to the ticket office ladies in broken Russian, much to their surprise and entertainment. I also received rounds of free tea, access to electrical charging points and a packet of instant noodles just by buttering up the Provodnitsa, the supervisor, on Russian trains. In another story, people in my train cabin were so worried about my lack of planning, that they started randomly calling friends and family to arrange accommodation for me. Evidently they were more worried than I was (and I also got a slap on the wrist from a babushka).
Admittedly I overdid it when I struck up a conversation with a pretty lady and then she wouldn’t let me go…
3. ACCEPT VODKA… RATHER TEA
Contrary to the popular perception, Vodka is not the only drink that the Russians enjoy. Tea is big, so is coffee, wine and beer. “Vodka is for getting drunk, tea is for socializing” someone told me wisely. Sharing tea over a conversation makes great friends in many countries, I experienced that in India and Turkey as well. If you are travelling in a train, take the platzkartny (third class) coach where you will automatically end up having tea (or vodka) and meals together. All because you accepted the initial offer.
If there is one system that hasn’t failed me it’s the couchsurfing system. I couch surfed extensively in Russia, meeting people and going to interesting places with them, meeting large families only because the relatives were curious to see a foreigner and having a great time with someone who was not a tourist. I still chat with my CS hosts and acquaintances from Russia. I always encourage people to Couch surf, there is nothing better for making great local connections.
With all this chit chat, it was no surprise that by the end of my trip I was able to hold a casual conversation in Russian. It comes as a pleasant surprise to many strangers who will first respond and then look at you with suspicion or burst out laughing at the accent and add a mandatory “pa-russkiy khorosho govorite!” (you speak good Russian!) compliment at the end. 😐
Try these tried and tested tricks when you are in Russia next time. If you have more tips, share them below!