Reading internet reviews and guidebooks, you’ll get the impression that Russians are rude and mean. We’ve had a very different experience. Russians don’t smile much, if at all; and they speak loudly so it’s easy for people to mistake this behavior for rudeness. While not warm, we’ve found them to be very helpful to ignorant tourists such as ourselves.
We didn’t learn much Russian before coming here. Our vocabulary consists of “excuse me” (istbinitze), “I don’t understand” (yañipanimayo), and “thank you” (spaziba); on top of “da” (yes) and “nyet” (no). I am sure we’re constantly mispronouncing even these few words.
Nevertheless, whenever we tap people on the street to ask for directions, they always stop and try to help us. We use our hands a lot and when all else fails, we draw. We’re making our way thru Russia in the Pictionary fashion.
No one smiles while trying to help us and their voices are loud and stern, but you’ve got to look at their actions to realize they’re bending over backwards trying to be of help. They could just blow us off like people in NYC do, or even worse: simply pretend we don’t exist like Parisians do but instead, they walk us to where we need to go or get someone else involved who they think might be able to help. Passersby will stop and join in even when they also can’t understand us. And then, after they’ve helped, they turn around and continue with their business without waiting for our hurried “spaziba”s.
We had some very surprising help from a young man while trying to buy train tickets to visit Sudzal. Sudzal is a beautiful old village belonging to what is called the “Golden Circle”: a collection of historic villages around Moscow. Before I tell you about Sudzal, I’d like to tell you about Sharón.
Sudzal can be visited by taking an organized tour: bus picks you up, takes you there with a guide and brings you back to your hotel at night. Being the saver kind, we decided to do it on our own, how difficult could it be? Ghosts of guides past are probably still laughing at our naivete.
We took the Metro, easily enough by now, to the train station and headed straight for the information booth set in the center of it. There was a young man behind the counter working on his computer. We stood there for a few minutes but he didn’t acknowledge us. I finally asked him if he spoke English. He said a little and I told him I needed to buy train tickets to Sudzal. He told me to go to window 11 and they’d help me there before going back to his computer. Okaaay.
We joined the queue at window 11. Russian queues are more of a group affair than a line. Everyone kind of huddles around the window and it’s difficult to tell how many people are in line before you. We’ve tried to form a line but it only serves for people to try to cut us off. I think it’s more out of confusion at our way than anything else since as soon as we give an indication that they’re cutting us off, they’ll move back without a bother.
After waiting a long time, we finally made it to the window and I did my best to get what I needed across. The lady told me what I took to mean to go to window 3 but since she was pointing left and window 3 was on the right, I figured she meant 13. After another long group-line, we got to the window and I repeated my request. The man behind the window responded with a long tirade in Russian, got up and left. We waited a while but when he didn’t come back we headed back to the information booth.
“I don’t want to bother you but I already asked at window 11 and was told to go to window 13. The guy there left and I don’t know when or if he’s coming back. You’re the only one who speaks English and I need to buy tickets.” I said. The guy looked up, exasperated, and said: “I don’t have information. I am renting here.” Renting? An information booth with no information?, I thought. “Rent?”, I said. “Yes, you know? Rent.” I had to think for a bit. What could he be renting? What would someone want to rent at a train station? “Rent? Cars?” “Automobile”, he said. You might think me dumb but there were no pictures anywhere of a car, just a booth with a red roof and an information sign. I had nothing more to ask for and just stood there.
Then much to our surprise he says: “I be interpreter for 5 minutes ONLY.” I could have jumped for joy! He closed his booth, brought down the metallic screen and locked it down. Then he had us follow him to window 11. I was very conscious that we were taking him away from his job and didn’t want to waste his time so I told him that I had already asked the lady there and that we should head to window 13 instead. “No! I ask again!” Okaaay. See, he said it in a very stern voice and with a frown on his face that was almost scary, kinda mean. Looking at his actions though, it’s easy to know he was going out of his way to help us. I didn’t ask him to serve as interpreter and he didn’t have to volunteer, furthermore he had a very good reason not to do it: he was working.
After another long queue, he found out we were supposed to go to window 36, not 13. I thought he’d leave us then, instead he walked us all the way there. We found the window closed with a sign saying they’d open at 5, it being 4:30pm. I asked him if he would write for me what I needed so that I could come back at 5. His response was: “No! I come back at 5.” He turned around and left.
At 5, I didn’t want to bother him again so we joined the queue on our own. He suddenly appeared by our side. While we waited, Fernando made small talk with him, at first Sharón looked at him oddly but slowly he began to talk more. He asked us if this was our first time in Russia and then if we liked it. When both of us emphatically said yes, he uttered a very rare laugh. “We all hate it and you like it, hah” was more like it. His smile dissapeared as soon as it crossed his face.
When we finally made it to the window, we found out there were no more tickets for the following day. We were ready to give up when Sharón said we could take the local train and had us follow him to the other end of the station where he helped us buy those tickets and then explained where to wait for the train and how to look up departure info on the screen. If it hadn’t been for all his help we would have never made it to Sudzal, and he did it all with a very stern look on his face. Although we haven’t needed such involved help again, we’ve had many, many instances of people taking the time to get us out of a fix and further on our way. This is the reason I think Russian’s reputation as mean must be due to misunderstandings.
About Sudzal, I’ll tell you all about it next time but if you’re considering whether to go or not, you should know two things:
1)Yes, it is worth it, and
2)Do yourself a favor and take the organized tour.
For now, please enjoy Moscow’s Metro Stations: