September 11, 2012 by dsalkowski
My Russian skills are still pretty rudimentary, but I’m proud to say that I speak well enough to deal with the Russian police with sufficient results. I was a good boy and made it to school in plenty of time my first day. The second day, Tadhg and I were a few minutes late, but we avoided playing our US Consulate pocket ace with the cops.
Our school is located in a wing of a beautiful old Russian Cathedral (although it was never actually used as a church), so when we saw the spires above us a few blocks away, we decided to take a more direct route through a nearby park. It was probably Tadhg’s decision. Could have been mine; its hard to say. Anyways, we decided to cut across this park. Beautiful fountains. Green grass, people with dogs. Typical public park. Rustic old cast-iron fence adorned with pointy spikes. Perfect shortcut to our school, which is also essentially a public space.
Well, as we approached the side of the park next to our school, couldn’t find an exit, but we did notice that the fence was pretty low. Again, my memory fails me as to whose decision it was to hop over the spiked fence. It was an easy climb – then came the whistle and, “Oy!”
Now, our group’s director spent a long time telling us that if we got in trouble with these guys, it was our problem, not his, and not Uncle Sam’s. But, he also proceeded to tell us how everyone ignores rules in Russia, and it’s not a problem unless the cops are just really bored. So you can imagine the feeling we had when a couple of bored cops started yelling at us. They approached, and Tadhg pulled a brilliant page out of Dave Chappelle’s book: “I’m sorry officer, I didn’t know I couldn’t do that.” “Of course you can’t do that.” I explained that we were just trying to get to Smolny, where we study. They told us to follow them to their booth.
Fortunately, this story is rather anti-climactic. As soon as we got to the police booth, their phone rang, and suddenly our bored cops had a real job to do, and basically just gave us directions and told us to get lost.
[General Kutuzov, hero of the campaign against Napoleon of 1812 – the ultimate Russian. The police also use this gesture rather effectively.
The cops are probably one of the only unsavory encounters I have had with people here so far. The typical attitude is that people don’t really care about you until you give them a reason to, good or bad, and then they really warm up. My professors are great – they are patient, knowledgeable, and are not negatively predisposed towards Americans. In general, I think we are not as uncool as we would be in France or London. Of course how could we be uncool; we come from the country of Карлс Джюнер – Carl’s Junior, in cyrillic – which is everywhere.
Our orientation summed the Russian disposition up pretty well with one clever phrase: Metro face. Eye contact is quite a rarity here, and greetings are limited to acquaintances, so the metro is a pretty solemn little sardine can. That being said, the metro here is pretty awesome; it is the deepest in the world, do to the necessity to cross under the river and canals, and it is fast and clean. When the communists took over, they pumped all the money and marble from the bourgeois mansions into the metro stations, so they tend to be pretty swank little tunnels. Its also pretty simple to navigate, so it certainly easing the adjustment process.
[escalator to the netherworlds]
I am starting to develop a routine, now that classes have started, and my Russian can only improve from here. I had a nice long walk with a friend of my host brother, and we talked a lot of politics, which was interesting (from what I could understand). Most of the Russian ideas of America are pretty predictable, but the one that has surprised me on a couple of occasions is their idea of Native Americans. Apparently they believe for some reason that we are still in some sort of open warfare with the Native Americans. Right. I guess its an easier topic to televise than Chechnya. Misinformation aside, however, I haven’t really met any Russians that I didn’t much care for. Except for those cops, maybe.