Other things that surprised me as a Soviet teenager in the UK in 1990 included:
– Tampons. When I discovered their existence, I realized that nothing and nobody would ever convince me that there is anything even remotely redeeming about Communism. And if you find this silly, it means you have never experienced menstruation in the Soviet Union. I will not go into unsavory details but I’ll just say that I sincerely thought of it as “the Curse” because that’s what it is when you have absolutely no hygienic means available to you. Seriously, you try doing it, and then we’ll talk.
– Men shook women’s hands. I’d never seen men and women greet each other by shaking hands, so I never knew what to do when men extended their hands towards me. At first, I thought they wanted gifts, so I’d start rummaging in my bag for souvenirs. The problem was that even after I’d stick a souvenir in their extended hands, they’d take it, express gratitude, and then stick out their hand at me once again. So I eventually realized that this was not a form of wheedling gifts out of me but a way of greeting me.
– There was a men’s only pub. “So do you see that building over there?” my host asked me. “This is a male-only pub. They don’t allow women in there.” “Why?” I asked, feeling completely mystified. “Because that’s a place where men go to be away from women.” “Why would they want to do something like that?” I asked in shock, but nobody could answer.
– Everybody was excruciatingly polite. When I heard a 10-year-old boy say to his sister, “Excuse me, would you mind passing me an orange? Thank you”, I almost fell off my chair. At first, I thought people were faking it to impress me, but then I started noticing complete strangers exchanging “Pardon me”s and “I’m sorry to bother you”s, so I had to accept that this came naturally to them.
– The intonations people used were very expressive and emotional but people were not. In my culture, we have the opposite phenomenon: the language sounds very flat and inexpressive, but people are more emotional than people in many other cultures. I could see that everybody extremely kind but it was much easier for the British people to do kind things for you than to say kind words.
To give an example, there was a table in the hallway of my hosts’ house that was gradually filling with packages people left there. Neighbors and friends were curious to see a Soviet child, so they’d come by to meet me. Every one of them would quietly leave a package in the hallway. At the end of my stay, it turned out that those packages contained gifts for me. And those were very carefully selected and lovingly packaged gifts tailored to my personal needs and tastes. I found it unbelievable that people just left them quietly without waiting for me to thank them. We are also a gift-giving culture but we organize a production around every gift. Nobody does things in such a quite and unassuming way.
(To be continued. . .)