Sneering on the street
When I start to try to write about one topic of interest that I’ve found in St. Petersburg, I find that I invariably end up writing about another. In an e-mail to my mom, I started out writing about how there is no such thing as customer service in Russia, and ended up writing about the Soviet Union and last Saturday’s breakfast. They all connect, trust me, but for anyone not jet-lagged by a twelve hour time difference, let me explain.
When I come back to California in May, I know that I’m going to be happy to see pleasant salespeople. It’s a city of DMV’s over here. That’s not exactly true, the younger people are noticeably more friendly, and by ‘more friendly’ I mean ‘less murdery.’ You will never appreciate that your barista (and banker, and supermarket teller, and bus conductor, and librarian, and lady at coat check, and person sitting there specifically so that you can ask them questions) doesn’t treat you like you are the reason cancer exists until you try and have a pleasant interaction with a customer service worker in Russia. I realize that I’m not completely in the right here, Californians must sometimes look nice…a little too nice, to some tourists. Since I know that my well-practiced “Be nice to me, stranger” Californian smile will get me nothing but suspicion and spit flavored borsch while I’m here, I’ve decided to treat these daily interactions as anthropological research, and see where that takes me.
So far, it has taken me back to the Soviet Union, especially when I meet with a salesperson who is old enough to remember it. Anyone being to overtly friendly at the get-go was a threat, or probably an informant, and I think those fears have carried over. Also, no one seems worried about losing their job, and if they did it wouldn’t be because of someone complaining about their manner. That’s how Russians treat people they don’t know all the time. Secondly, this is a country and a city that is used to being deprived of resources for one reason or another, starved to the point that you could only scrape together enough for you and yours. That kind of history has to drastically change whom in your life you think of as important, and give you reservation for the future. America has had over two hundred years of democracy, I wonder if living in a country anywhere in the world that has had such a tumultuous history might feel like living under an active volcano.
That being said, once you’re ‘in’ with a Russian, you are in for life, and they are crushingly generous. It’s the kind of generosity that can only come from someone who remembers a time when they had so little, and sat on their mother’s lap as she told stories of the nine hundred days she lived in a starving city under siege by the Nazis. I use the example of the Siege of Leningrad because this generosity is so deeply connected to food. Here’s one of the many examples that the American students here have noticed so far;
As part of this study abroad program, each student lives with a Russian family that is expected to feed the student everyday and provide packed lunches for weekend trips. Last Saturday we left St. Petersburg to visit the ancient city of Novgorod, and even though these families did not need to provide packed breakfasts, everyone on the bus had a hamper so big that they had to rearrange their luggage to take it. People had yogurt, pastries, fruit, meat and cheese sandwiches. Mine lasted me so long I finished it for lunch on Monday. One might think that that this was a gesture of vanity instead of good-will, as in, each host mother knows that all of the other students are going see what a great breakfast everyone else has, and you don’t want to look like the stingy host family. I might even agree that that could be a motivation, were it not for the fact that they are consistently and genuinely generous in private.
I heard the stereotype that Russians are a harsh, unfriendly, and unsmiling people so many times before I came here. Since I’ve come here, I’ve seen it enforced everyday, but I also know it isn’t true. Seeing a dower looking Russian on the street and then assuming that he or she is a hateful person is like saying that a man probably showers in his jeans, since that’s what he was wearing to work today. While there might be grey skies and grey faces on the streets of St. Petersburg, as soon as the apartment door closes there is a fully different Russian culture, and it is full of a warmth and generosity that boggles the overtly friendly mind.