UK Impressions Circa 1990, Part III

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. . .)

What’s the Weather in London?

I just looked online and it says that the weather in London is at 7 degrees Celsius right now. And that it will not raise above 14 C all next week. Is that possible? Does such a paradise exist? Here we are at 32 C and it will only go up.

And it seems that in Berlin the weather isn’t going above 20 C next week.

I have a feeling that I will not be able to force myself to come back home after this trip. In this extremely hot climate, I will be in hell until October, locked up at home and terrified of going outside even to check the mail. In the meanwhile, some lucky people are enjoying 7 C weather.

UK Impressions Circa 1990, Part II

To continue with the list of things that I found surprising when I first visited the UK in 1990:

  • how little people drank. In my family, nobody drank alcohol. I knew, however, that we were exceptional in that sense. In works of English literature, the word “whiskey” appeared on every other page, so I expected all Brits to be heavy drinkers. When the girl from my host family came to visit us previous December, we gave her a bottle of vodka to take home as a gift for her father. That was actually the first bottle of vodka I had ever seen in my life. When I came to visit them in Birmingham in March, the girl’s father told me, “Thank you for this wonderful gift of vodka! I drink it all the time!” After which he took out the bottle of vodka that was still 2/3 full and showed me how he added a few drops of alcohol to a glass of orange juice. I had no idea that this way of imbibing alcohol even existed. As you can imagine, the story of an Englishman who spent months incapable of finishing one puny bottle of vodka was especially popular with Soviet people back home. I’m now guessing that my host probably had bottles with other alcoholic beverages at home. But at that time, I couldn’t have possibly conceived of a reality so complex that one would have different alcoholic beverages at home to choose from.
  • the dearth of books. The family I stayed with did not have a single book at home. They had a huge house, two cars, big and beautiful TV sets but no bookshelves. In my social class back home, everybody had a home library. At least one (and normally more) room in the house would have its walls completely lined with books. So I was shocked to see that the middle class family I stayed with did not have a single book in the house.
  • class divisions. I have no idea why class divisions (that I observed in my own country as well) surprised me so much. I stayed with a middle-class and what I think had to have been an upper middle-class family in the UK. I’m guessing they had to be upper middle class because they lived in a very huge house, one of them drove a Rolls-Royce, and they had two boys in public schools. The differences between these two families were huge. The upper middle-class family would sit down to dinner in the dining-room. And the table was laid according to all of the rules of the etiquette. The middle-class family had a beautiful dining room but it was reserved for special occasions. Normally, people just ate in the kitchen or in front of the TV. The middle-class family ate a lot of what they called “crisps” and drank soda. The other family looked horrified when I asked for a Coke and gave me some fresh juice instead. And they did have a home library. I also visited a police officer’s family (what are they supposed to be? Lower middle class?) And they were very different still. They were rowdy and emotional, like we are in Ukraine, so I felt the most comfortable with them. The three families were visibly uncomfortable around each other.

(To be continued. . .)