US versus RU

Daniel Brooks

I’m just back from a week in the US, a country that lives in a media bubble. It is in its own world. When you land, planet US is all around you. Coming back to Moscow, I had a four-hour layover in Amsterdam. I was back in the world again.   

The USA is constantly seeking ways to make improvements. To achieve a better state of existence, Americans are devoted to making life better. This is evident on the radio. I took a three-hour drive from Portland to Eugene, Oregon and switched from channel to channel on the radio. There are more religious radio stations in the US than ever before, providing the ultimate improvement, eternal bliss. Other stations take one political position or another and are selling each view with the same consistency of purpose as the religious stations. Other kinds of radio stations talk about various formulas to achieve happiness, better health, savings.

Such things exist in Russia, to a much lesser extent. The news on the radio and in the media is without any political drama in Russia at all. In the US, both sides are locked in battle, fed by an almost evangelical devotion to converting new believers as opposed to reporting the news. There is a belief that change is possible if only people would buy into the right strategy. In Russia, this kind of dialog is largely non-existent. Russia doesn’t seem very dedicated to efficiency or political battle. Few believe it will do any good. Instead, it’s a country more interested in tradition, keeping a low profile or simply grumbling about things that won’t change.

In Russia, some things are done inefficiently on purpose. A day to day example is getting your car washed. Russian roads and weather produce vast quantities of grime that cover everyone’s vehicles to the point where the colour of your car turns to grey. Visits to the car wash are frequent. Cars here are washed using high powered hoses and by hand, taking about 20 minutes to get the job done. Often long lines form. It can take an hour for a car wash, sometimes two or more. I go to the same car wash near our house and know the owners. Today, heavily jet lagged, I washed my absolutely filthy car and while I was waiting, I asked why automatic car washes aren’t widespread. One reason is Russians don’t trust automatic car washing systems. More importantly, Russians prefer to wait for their cars to be washed by hand because they like standing around with other people. My own car wash has built a business around this need. They put up a small coffee shop where people can spend time with one another while their cars are being washed. Some people go to this car wash for a long chat. I do it all the time. Such a thing wouldn’t happen in the US. The goal for any red-blooded American is to get your car washed as quickly as possible, get a cup of coffee to go and drink it in your car on the way to somewhere else.

Americans exercise by going to the gym or similar. If they walk, they are usually going from their parked car to their destination or walking their dogs. Many people who walk do it for exercise with their arms pumping to get their heart rate up.  Russians work out as well at the gym, but they walk around a lot more than Americans, often slowly, or at a brisk pace, whatever strikes their fancy.

The sense of time in the US and Russia differs from childhood. I stayed with my relatives on this trip to the US. They have twin boys, about two years old. By 6:30 p.m., the children were in bed, sound asleep. Afterwards, the parents would have dinner. The children would wake up at 6 a.m. and by 7, they were having breakfast. By that time, the entire adult household was up and fully dressed, drinking coffee. Meals and bedtime took place at the same time, every day. Such a schedule is almost unheard of in Russia. Children stay up late in this country and the older they get, the later they go to sleep. Small children, in their infancy, rarely go to bed before 9 or even 10 pm. Meals can happen when people get around to eating at times that vary, as can bedtime. It’s considered to be a bad idea to wake children up in Russia. Instead, they sleep as long as they want to. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but it often is. It’s no wonder that Russian employees habitually show up late to work every day. In this country, having a varied schedule seems like a form of freedom. Perhaps it is compensation for not having enough freedom of speech.

Coffee plays a crucial role in America. The minute the alarm goes off, an American household reaches for coffee. Until coffee is consumed, nary a word is spoken. Two cups are better than one. People might drink tea, but it’s usually consumed later in the day or in the evening. Not in Russia where tea is the drink that most people swear by at home. Although coffee is becoming more widespread, Russians still have five or six cups of tea every day, without fail. Americans also drink water, straight out of the tap. This is unheard of in Russia where tap water is not trusted. Instead, tea is preferred. I no longer drink tap water and couldn’t find myself to do it, in Portland. I suppose I’ve gone off the deep end.

It’s now considered acceptable in America to dress and go outdoors in ways that would seem unusual in Moscow. In Portland, Oregon casual wear is king. It has become the norm for people who are older. I noticed several men, well past their prime, walking around outside wearing pajamas instead of pants in freezing cold temperatures. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone in downtown Moscow in their pajamas. Casual, though, isn’t bad. I enjoyed it and could see how such a practice could spread. Perhaps it will, in places like Russia. Stranger things have happened.

Sometimes my fellow Americans do things in public that I found surprising, after living in Moscow. I stood in line in a bank behind a man who was about 60. At one point, the conversation he was having with the person in front of him turned to money. The guy broke into song with his rendition of “Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” at the top of his lungs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen in Russia, unless the person was out of his mind. Russians might grumble while standing in line about whatever bureaucratic process they were going through. Otherwise, Russians are stoic in public and tend to keep their thought processes and musical preferences to themselves. 

Of course, the US is very friendly. Everyone smiles, says thank you and is eager to help. I can see why Russians have a reputation of being unfriendly, even if it is only on the surface. As soon as I landed back in Russia, the woman at passport control gave me a very stern look to see if my facial features matched the photo on my passport. After that, I did joke around with her and she transformed into a person who wasn’t stern at all. That wouldn’t happen in the US. While the folks at passport control in the US might not eyeball you as fiercely as in Russia, they don’t joke around much. Russian passport control makes you think your passport photo is out of date. US passport control gives you the distinct impression that you’ve done something wrong. 

It was good to be in the US and I enjoy being back in Moscow. It made me feel fortunate that both worlds seem like home.

Copyright, Daniel Brooks, 9 March 2019