Don't Sit On The Ground Or You'll Be Infertile!!!!! And Other Cultural Tales of Russia

Today, I thought I'd share with you some interesting cultural differences I've noticed since being in Russia. The first one:

1. Cold Ground Makes You Infertile

Russians have a lot of superstitions, especially among the older generation.  We've encountered a couple here and there, but one of the most prevalent superstitions is never, EVER sit on the cold ground.  Or even lukewarm ground, for that matter.

If you get your uterus cold, you'll become infertile.

Didn't you know that?

This is such a strong superstition in Russia that babushkas think nothing of coming over to yell at you for sitting on concrete or rocks--even in the middle of the summer.  Last week, when I was painting on Ulitsa Varvarka, I had a babushka come over to me and start saying something in Russian.  She gestured at me, then patted the concrete divider I was sitting on.

(Now, keep in mind, it is 85 degrees outside, hot and humid, and I already had a big sunburn on my neck from painting.)

She said, "In Russia..." patted the concrete again, "cold." I thanked her and showed her I was sitting on a little towel (mostly to keep my butt from getting dirty, but I suppose it was double-duty now).  She didn't seem to buy it and still seemed pretty worried about me, but eventually she left.  I guess she thought I was just a crazy American lady who was doomed to be infertile.

If I can't have babies, then we will know why.

Also, Tim told me a funny story about this superstition: he said that during the 1985 Goodwill Games in Russia, this guy named Ted Turner was accused of plotting to render all Russian women infertile because he had designed a stadium with concrete seats.  I don't know how true that is, but it certainly would make sense.

2. Watch Your Step. For Multiple Reasons.

Another thing Russians don't mind doing is hawking hucking haughcking loogies.  Everywhere.


They are so common that you have to watch your step constantly on the street, to make sure you don't step into someone else's...phlegm.  It is disgusting.  Between that and smoking, that is 90% of the grossness on the streets of Moscow.

Speaking of smoking, they smoke pretty much everywhere. And everyone smokes.  Putin passed a law saying that smoking is now illegal outside the Metro entrances, but if I had 10 rubles for every time I saw someone smoking outside the Metro...let's just say I'd have a LOT of rubles.

Also, you cannot take the sidewalk for granted.  It is not straight.  So, not only are you beseiged by sudden ups and downs, but you also have to watch for random nubs sticking up from the concrete.  I've seen bits of rebar, pipes, and other miscellaneous riff raff too.

You pretty much just have to be on your guard, all the time.

It's kiiiinda like Ninja Warrior.

3. Take a Moment of Silence When You Leave on a Trip.

Another interesting thing we got to witness last summer was their tradition of leaving for a trip.  You always take a moment of silence before you leave, presumably so that you can collect your thoughts and remember anything you've forgotten.  We did this last time we were visiting Sasha and Marina in St. Petersburg.  They explained the tradition to us, then we all sat down in silence for a couple of moments in the living room.  Then, Alexandr stood up and said, "Davai! (let's go!)" and off we went.

I think it's such a great idea. We all know how frazzled you feel when you leave for a trip.  How much better it would be if you had a moment to regroup and think about anything you might be leaving behind!

4. Don't Bother Waiting In Line.

I've talked a little bit about lines in Russia before, but I'll just tell you again: they don't exist.  I just don't bother waiting patiently in lines anymore, because if you do, you're sure to go last.  I don't know if it's a leftover from the Communist lines era or what, but nobody waits their turn in line.  So, if you're going on an escalator with a huge crowd of people, just stay to the left and you can cut in front of virtually everybody.  The best part is, they really don't care--they probably wish they had done the same thing.

I was thinking about this last night as Tim and I were leaving the ballet, and I actually have grown to like this system.  Here's what happened: Tim and I were in no particular hurry, and we were just waiting patiently behind someone else to get up the escalator.  A girl came up suddenly and jumped in front of us because she was in a hurry.  I didn't mind because I wasn't in a hurry, and if I had been in a hurry, I could have been at the front of the line, too.  I would have just done exactly what she did. But, since I didn't mind waiting because I wasn't in a rush, I let the faster people go in front.

Once you get over the supposed "injustice" of having been skipped in line, and you realize that you can get to the front of the line too if you really need to, it makes it seem a lot more democratic and fair than making everyone wait in line, regardless of their needs.

(This philosophical eureka moment is how you can definitely tell I spend too much time alone over here.)

5. Walking Is Important.

Walking.  People walk almost everywhere.  It's pretty rare to drive a car, mostly because the Metro is so extensive and efficient.  It just makes more sense.  But boy, do people walk fast.  That is one way you can learn to spot an American right away--they just mosey along.  Russians walk with purpose and a destination in mind, unless they're on a walk in the park with their friends.  And they have no patience if you stop or you're in their way.  And, of course, they always stand to the right on escalators, just in case someone else in a hurry wants to skip up or down. I'm pretty sure America should start doing this. (See aforementioned philosophical point about letting people in a hurry get where they need to go.)

We're also conditioned, as Americans, that right-sided escalators will always go up, while left-sided ones come down.  But that's not always the case in Russia.  If you want a surreal feeling, ride a left-sided elevator UP.  I can't tell you how many times I naturally go to the "up" side, only to find it coming down.

On that note: I can't tell you how many times I have literally bumped right into someone on the street.  It was really puzzling me at first--I just couldn't figure out why I was so clumsy. Obviously I can walk in a straight line, and I was looking where I was going.  But every time I got into a game of chicken with an oncoming Russian, we invariably ended up colliding.

I finally figured out what it was.  In America, if someone were walking directly toward you, what direction would you shift?

Right, right? Because we all know subconsciously that you should stay to the right, whether you're walking, riding a bike, or driving.

It is not that way in Russia.  I'm not sure why (they drive on the right side of the road, for instance), but almost every time I bump into a Russian it's because he went left while I went right.

In any case, I've started turning to the left to avoid collisions, and it's eliminated 90% of my pedestrian crashes.  Go figure.

6. Your Feet Are Dirty.

Oh, another thing they do here--they do NOT wear shoes inside the house.  Shoes and feet are considered very, very dirty (and considering the state of the loogie sidewalks, it's not surprising).  So, when you come to someone's house, they usually have some тапочки (tapochki, house slippers) for you to put on.  You wear them any time you're inside the apartment, and you switch from your street shoes to your tapochki as soon as you walk through the door.

7. Everyone Dresses Nicely.

I love, love, love this about Russia! You don't see women on the street unless they are fully dressed.  No velour tracksuits, no PINK butt sweatpants, no "just rolled out of bed" looks--everyone you see is dressed and ready for the day.  Women don't even wear t-shirts over here.  They all look so polished and put-together.

Tim and I had to leave the apartment one time in gym shorts and t-shirts to meet some of our friends just outside our building, and let me tell you: it felt weeeeeeird.  Like, I felt completely underdressed.  I wouldn't have even given it a second thought in America, but here, that is one way you are sure to get stares.

It's also a quick and easy way to spot tourists.  If you see a woman wearing sneakers or walking shoes over here, she's sure to be visiting.  Women wear flats, sandals, or high heels (I don't know HOW they do it--it must be so uncomfortable, not to mention the fact that walking on the streets could break their ankles), but never such pedestrian shoes as sneakers.

Part of me gets a little tired of it sometimes--especially when I just want to get out the door and not spend a lot of time getting ready. But it's teaching me how to look presentable in as short a time as possible, so I guess there's a silver lining.

So there you go: your cultural immersion in Russia is complete.  If When you come to Russia with me, you will feel right at home and not stick out like a sore thumb. Yay!

If you want to read a little bit more about some superstitions in Russia, here's a great article by the Moscow News. 

This blog post was also a fun read.  She's an expat living in Moscow with her family.