Things I Wondered: Russia

Here are 19 thoughts on my two weeks in Russia.

Before Twitter allowed me to make short, quippy musings all day every day, I used to do this gimmick on Facebook called “Things I Wondered.” I’d keep a week’s worth of unrelated, tweet-like bullet points and then publish them all in one giant note (Facebook Notes!) every Sunday. 

Twitter rendered that obsolete because I can just tweet things in realtime now. But I still find it fun to dust off the old format to recap big events or travels. And it doesn’t get much bigger than spending the last two weeks in Russia for the FIFA World Cup.

If you’d like specific thoughts on the soccer experience, check my separate blog here. This post will focus on the travel experience.

For context, I visited Sochi, Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Saransk. Now here you go, in no particular order: “Things I Wondered: Russia.”

-The most incredible thing about Russia? Hot take: how massive it is. Flying over it is one thing — you see emptiness for hundreds of miles, but that’s no different than flying over the Midwest. What shook me was taking an overnight train from Moscow to Saransk. Here’s where I started that ride.

And after 9.5 hours, enjoying literally a full night’s sleep, and two meals…here’s where I ended up.

I spent almost half a day moving across the country and it barely registered on the map. My mind’s still not over it.

-Russian food: unremarkable. Russian beer: fine, though I’m a noted Bud Light aficionado, so take that review how you’d like.

-Customer service in Russia: not the best! Anybody hired specifically for the event (or who volunteered through FIFA) was incredibly nice and accommodating. But any native Russians — especially those in positions of authority, e.g. police, customs officials, train company reps — certainly seemed aggravated to deal with yet another person asking them questions in a language they didn’t understand.

-About that: unlike European/South American/East Asian countries, Russia doesn’t give a shit about helping you out in English, or even trying to learn or use it. Which I don’t begrudge them: it’s their country and their alphabet, and they’re under no obligation to indulge an American. I definitely tried, but I’m terrible when it comes to non-Romance languages (DMs are open ladies @mikejanela). So you feel pretty stranded when the only words you know are “thank you,” “water,” and “beer.”

-I also found it hilarious being on the other side of what I see Americans ignorantly do to foreigners all the time. I would tell someone I don’t speak Russian. They would then continue speaking Russian, asking me questions. I would repeat I only speak English. Then they would keep talking, just slower and l-o-n-g-e-r like I was an idiot baby. Don’t do this guys.

-It also scared me a bit for America’s future vis-à-vis how isolated so many of our citizens wish the U.S. was. Don’t trade with Europe, don’t work with foreigners, close our borders, “you’re in America, speak English,” etc. Russia wouldn’t let me book train tickets or use their ride-sharing apps without a Russian-based credit card. Tour guides at bustling sites rolled their eyes when I had to pantomime my questions instead of speak them. Nobody really seemed thrilled to be hosting THE WORLD CUP. I felt like a bother and not very welcome at all.

-Not to get too political, but situations like those are the only time I — as a middle class white dude — ever know what it’s like to feel even a fraction of what marginalized groups go through every day here at home. It’s a different, more global world today than during the Cold War and I don’t want my America to be a place where any group feels ostracized or victimized for anything perceived to be an “outsider” characteristic.

-All that said, the everyday Russian people were very nice and helpful once you broke down the Resting Bitch Face wall that felt endemic to the country. Like the young woman who shared long-distance train seats with my group and, realizing the train’s Wi-Fi was down, voluntarily offered us her phone hotspot to get online. We got to chatting and she was super sweet! Might’ve been a ploy to hack our MacBooks but ¯\_()_/¯

-For real, literally every person in the country looks pissed off until they start talking, and I could see why: it starts young. At a mall food court, I saw a dad playing peekaboo with his infant daughter. Now where I come from, you smile or laugh or stick out your tongue when you make The Big Reveal. But this guy just kept a straight face. Every time! And so it goes.

Priority Pass for airports is amazing. You should get it. Or you shouldn’t, to avoid overcrowding for those of us that have it. This bullet was just an excuse to make myself sound important.

-How do people watch movies like Phantom Thread or Schindler’s List on a plane?

-Not unique to Russia, but it amazes me how restaurants can still serve people in a group their food at such wildly different times. You don’t know how blessed we are as Americans to get everything within 5 minutes of each other until your friend’s beef stroganoff comes out and he’s already done eating before your chicken Kiev even hits the table.

-When I’m home, I will take a Lyft to a bus to a subway to a transfer to avoid walking as much as possible. But something about being on vacation makes me want to walk EVERYWHERE. At home, it’s Uber or GTFO. In Russia, I *averaged* 21,000 steps a day. Related: I’m back home and writing this from my couch.

-They’re called tourist traps for a reason, but I was most excited to get a picture in front of “the onion church” and check out Red Square. I’m an unabashed tourist trap seeker (if I wasn’t from here, Times Square would be the first place I’d go on a visit to New York sorry not sorry), and these two did not disappoint, as cliche as visiting them felt.

-But of course my first thought seeing St. Basil’s was “Ok, what should I do for a fun Insta pic?!” Here’s an outtake because it took me five different poses to find what I liked. Millennials ruin everything.

-Let’s stick with tech. A.) I don’t know how anybody managed visiting this place with its different alphabet/crazy streets/disdain for English before Google Maps or Google Translate or Uber. I mean, I know how they did, but it had to be a lot less efficient. B.) Still, I miss the days of going away meaning being away. I may be romanticizing a truly inconvenient past, but vacations used to feel like true escapes. Now I get free LTE data and messaging literally around the world (thanks T-Mobile!) and never disconnect. Always plugged in, always posting, always reachable. Sigh.

-The coldest, lukewarmest take: Saint Petersburg > Moscow. Beautiful, vibrant city.

-I will die on the hill of defending New York’s subway (it runs 24 hours!), but the Moscow Metro served as yet another reminder of how outdated our system is. Why are we still swiping MetroCards instead of offering touchpad or contactless entry? Why do speaker announcements sound like shitty LimeWire downloads when other countries deliver crystal clear, Bose-quality messages — in multiple languages?! Why can nobody tell me when this 7-train will be “moving again shortly” while Moscow literally airs live soccer games in HD hundreds of feet below ground moving 35 MPH?

-This has already gone on way too long, and I could keep rambling for thousands more words. So if there’s anything specific you’d like to hear about Russia in general or my time there in particular, hit me up on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook and we can talk.

-What I’ll leave you with, then, is how this trip — like every international one I take — reminded me yet again of the importance of seeing the world. And I don’t just mean the landmarks and scenery and different McDonald’s menus. I mean the people. And their viewpoints. And how those are different than yours. And how that might challenge your worldview. That’s. A. Good. Thing. If you live in a bubble of your own making, you’ll never learn that “Other people: they’re just like me!” And Americans are traditionally the worst at looking past their own backyard, arguably out of some misplaced guise of insecurity masked as exceptionalism. I realize not everyone has the money or time or circumstance to travel the world. If you need to pick between student loans or Sri Lanka, do what you gotta do. But get out there when you can. You’ll meet people like my plane’s seat mate, Félix: a Mexican going to his fifth (!) World Cup who came to America for his MBA and, despite the way our country consistently treats his people these days, was still more upbeat about society than he had any business being. Or the 70-something Portuguese guy who sat next to me at our match against Spain. I never even got his name, but he was at the game alone and so was I. We hugged for 30 straight seconds after our beloved Ronaldo equalized, then he told me to cherish my ability to keep traveling the country and “support our boys” because he had to fly back home the next day. Or Varvara, the English-speaking Moscow acting student who had a friend working at the local version of Eataly. When her friend told her how many tourists were struggling with ordering, Varvara took it upon herself to come spend the day, walk around, and offer to translate for anybody who looked confused, my group included. For nothing more than a thank you. How fucking amazing is that? Humans dude; people can wow you if you give them the chance. And there’s a whole world of them out there, just waiting to meet you. Спасибо за прочтение.

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