As the winter comes, a new brand of hospitality emerges in Russia. Since I owned a car, I needed to make my way through two harsh winters as a driver. I quickly learned that driving in winter was easy. PARKING in the winter was hard!
The Nizhny Novgorod Public Works system manages to clear the streets effectively. However, the snow frequently goes uncollected or pushed off the main thoroughfares and piles up onto the sidewalks, side streets, and driveways. Parking spaces essentially become snow storage facilities. Bit by bit, as the winter snow slithers into every nook and cranny, parking spaces grow fewer and fewer. It gets extremely more difficult to find a space with less than two feet of snow or ice on it. Harder still is to get OUT of the space once you’re in it. At least three times, I had to take the bus or taxi to work because I couldn’t get the car out of my space. Many other times, I made it out but through significant effort. What to do? Let Russian hospitality enter the scene.
After living through at least one Russian winter, it is simply common knowledge that Russians are extraordinarily helpful in pushing a stuck driver out of their icy predicament. I was a benefactor of this generosity multiple times. For instance, I became stuck in my parking space near home late at night. Suddenly two darkly clad men ran up to my car. It felt like a carjacking. All they were doing was jumping in to push my car. I hadn’t even asked.
A second time, I found a wonderful spot in front of my apartment building and soon found out why. Concealed by the snow, an open manhole sat waiting to inhale my front tire. Nobody can push you out of that one. Have no fear, though, a married couple approached me and offered to tow me out with a rope they had in their trunk. Again, I didn’t ask.
My favorite example of winter hospitality occurred on one particularly cold and crisp night. I was forced to park in a thorny space filled with snow. Knowing my predicament, I tried to get the car out at night since I didn’t want to risk being late for work the next day. I popped the car into the lowest gear and immediately began spinning my wheels. The soft, white snow condensed into a thick sheet of ice below me. Often, the parking spaces are a foot higher than the road. Once your tires spin on this ice, there’s no way out. Even after you press the brake, the tires continue to spin. Your tire buffs the condensed snow into a shiny sheet of ice. You can’t rock back and forth, you can’t take it slow and ease your way out… you can’t do anything.
Within minutes, an elderly man and his wife approached me, offering their help. Once overcoming the surprise that this poor victim didn’t speak Russian, they began to lend a hand and a shoulder to push me out. Language was a small matter. They knew the drill. He gave me a few pushes but it was obvious that this would not be enough.
Out of the dark, a friend of his appeared. Clad in a long black frock coat, displaying a full black beard, and wearing a black fedora hat, I knew this man was an Orthodox Jew. In the following minutes, a few more of the same showed up. Suddenly I had a crew. Everything connected at that moment. A synagogue was only a half block away and these were actually my neighbors. I had never noticed them before.
I can’t recall exactly, but I think the crew grew to a size of about six people. I was in the midst of the Jews, but we were a long way off from Israel. The men quickly took charge and grabbed the two shovels I had in my trunk. Each quickly identified a role for himself and began the laborious task of digging me out. They were the teachers, I was the pupil. Instructions were bellowed out to me from every direction. I had to learn a whole new fleet of commands in Russian on the fly. Resorting to hand gestures became the most effective way to continue. Suddenly the completely undocumented international signs of “press the gas slowly”, turn the wheel to the right,” “rock back and forth” became the lingua franca. Sometimes, all I could do was stand and watch. It never seemed to be culturally acceptable for the driver to contribute to the hard labor.
I slinked up to the elder and introduced myself. That I was American, he seemed very curious. That I had the name “David”, he seemed very pleased. I was desperately seeking an additional bond beyond that of being the helpless bozo and they the benevolent rescuer. That I had a Jewish name couldn’t hurt, right?
Bit by bit, after several failures, we eased the car out of the space. At last! Unfortunately, we weren’t finished yet. All we managed to do was get the car out of the space. It was now sitting parallel atop the icy driveway with the front end pointing closely to the side of the apartment building. Now what? This was where they taught me a really neat trick. They told me to simply press on the gas and spin the wheels. As I did that, they all pushed the back side fender of the car. The spinning wheels lessened the dead weight of the car and caused it to magically pivot ninety degrees. Just like that, my car was pointed in the right direction on the driveway. Clever, clever, clever!
I was finally free. I made every physical effort to show my appreciation since I could never say it in words. To me, this was the zenith of generosity. There they stood, sweaty, wet, and muddy, and still needing to go to synagogue. As typical, they brushed off my showering of praise and considered it nothing. My heart swelled at the true winter hospitality of Russia with the Orthodox twist.
As a postscript, I need to add one extra detail. Recall from the beginning of the story: my goal was merely to remove my car from a difficult parking spot. After all the hard work of getting it out by my comrades, I felt an enormous guilt for simply driving the car a few feet away and parking it in a better spot. I felt obligated to actually go somewhere. As of this writing, I honestly can’t remember what I did. What would you have done?