Russian hospitality has always impressed me. There are so many wonderful stories to tell. I wasn’t sure how I’d be treated as an American once I reached our former Cold War enemy. Would they look at me suspiciously or with resentment? It was a cause for concern upon my first visit.
I traveled to Russia three times as a tourist before I moved there for professional purposes. Each type of purpose provided similar but distinct attributes. As a tourist, I was lost at sea most of the time. I didn’t know where I was going frequently and the language barrier was stultifying. However, whenever I reached even the grimmest of outposts, a Russian seemed to swoop in and rescue me. Even when the moment wasn’t grim, I experienced tiny yet magnanimous gestures of kindness. It surprised me honestly, but then again Russia is full of surprises. It did not take long to dispel the concern of being American in Russia. In fact, I often received generosity BECAUSE I was American. I can honestly say that I was treated better as an American in Russia than I was in Germany and the U.K.
Let me give you some examples of the hospitality I received. Not all of it was given because I was American, but simply because there were kind Russians popping up everywhere.
During one of my first visits, I needed to go to the airport to leave. I didn’t ask anyone for directions since I got it in my head how to get there by Metro. (this over-confidence bit me many times) Basically, I saw a Metro station called “Airport” and concluded without controversy, that this was all I had to do. Unfortunately, this “Airport” station did NOT go to the airport. Apparently, it had one time been an airport but not anymore. Furthermore, the Moscow Metro did NOT go to the airport here or anywhere. I panicked… big time. I only had so much time before my flight left and I was terrified of all the ramifications I’d face if I missed it.
I was racing around in sheer panic trying to recover from my mistake. Somwhow, a random woman sensed the problem and offered to help. She knew no English and I knew no Russian. I had to extend my arms like an airplane to explain what I was after. Ultimately, she figured it out and walked me a fair distance to a bus stop that would take me to the proper airport. What a savior.
Another moment, I was pulling my wheeled suitcase up the escalator of a Moscow Metro station. I could hear a clamor behind me but tuned it out. Finally, I realized that the voice was targeted at me. I put it all together and realized he was saying “Glasnost! Glasnost!” I turned to look at a very old man pointing at my bag that had a pocket dangerously wide open. I love moments like that when you see people show concern for a random stranger. It could certainly happen anywhere in the world, but those moments always rattled the stereotype that Russians are closed and unfriendly.
There were two incidents that really showed how generous Russians are but are embarrassing to talk about. I got my wallet stolen from me in the Moscow Metro once. It was stupid and humiliating on my part, so I hate to bring it up. I also lost my wallet another time. I still don’t know how it happened though. Considering the circumstances I was in at the time, I could not see how anyone could have swiped it from me. Nobody had been physically near me at all, so I’ve concluded that I must have dropped it or left it somewhere. Anybody who knows me well enough understands that this possibility has been all too characteristic of me.
The point of this set up is that I got my wallet back both times. This is not necessarily a Russian thing since I wouldn’t have expected this to happen anywhere… but twice?
Having my wallet stolen for the first time in my life was a surreal experience. I purchased a Metro ticket but dropped the coins given to me when the cashier gave me the ticket and change. I leaned over to pick them up and left my wallet on the counter. Dumb, dumb, dumb. There was a strange feeling about the situation since it seemed that people deliberately blocked my ability to get the coins. Who knows, the Moscow Metro is a crazy, crowded place, and it isn’t for sissies. I got burned. When straightened back up, my wallet was gone. I still had the bills and coins in my hand from the change given to me, but no wallet. I was stunned. It felt like everything got quiet and that I was the only one there. I must have fruitlessly checked my pockets and the ground 100 times in complete shock at what happened. I stood to the side and tried to absorb it all. That had to be the most humiliated I had ever felt. If I walked away, I was admitting defeat, but I had to. I still had to return to the office and then take an overnight train to Nizhny. I felt naked without that wallet. If someone wanted the money, fine, go ahead, there wasn’t that much in the wallet anyway. It was just the loss of my credit cards, drivers license, and all the other bits in there that make up a life. I’d have to get all of that replaced. What a pain in the ass. I canceled my credit cards and returned to Nizhny with my tail between my legs.
I worked the following day at the Nizhny office. About mid-morning, I received a phone call. The person only spoke Russian and I began to assume that it was a wrong number. But then I started to absorb the word, “dokument, dokument, Molinari.” Suddenly I realized that there was something significent happening. I thrust the phone to my colleagues and he unwrapped the mystery. This caller had found my wallet on the ground in the Moscow Metro! She had my damn wallet. I couldn’t believe it! Nobody really does that, do they? She found my business card in my wallet and just called me up. She told my colleagues the address where she worked. I asked a friend in Moscow to get it and the deal was done. Within a couple days, I had my wallet in my own hands. It was an overwhelmingly comforting feeling. A part of my identity, literally and figuratively, was back sans money, of course. Wow, that blew my mind. Thank you Russia, there’s good in the world after all.
The second incident occurred in Nizhny. I went with my personal assistant to pay a telephone bill at a bank, if memory serves me correctly. I don’t think we did it successfully, but at some point, I returned to the office without my wallet. The whole thing was a fog. Perhaps only two hours later, my American friend Wade, who also lived in Nizhny called. He said, “Dude, did you lose your wallet?” I said, “Uh, yeah, but how the hell did you know that? I haven’t even told anyone yet.” He replied that a woman had called him and said she found a wallet at the train station. She found Wade’s business card and called him up to report the finding. Just like that, my wallet was back. Since I was still puzzled by its disappearance, thinking I may have dropped in my assistant’s car. I hadn’t even caceled my credit cards yet. The woman gave her address and my driver and I drove to a very small town well outside of Nizhny to pick it up. The woman lived in a decrepit community in a decrepit Soviet apartment building. It looked like time had stopped there and that all progress had come to a screeching halt sometime around 1992. We knocked on the door and found a pleasant woman with a children’s book in her hand, having been reading to her son. She humbly gave me my wallet back. Upon offering a reward for her deed, she gently refused. It all ended so anti-climactically. I said my thank yous, she brushed it off, closed the door, and the whole thing was over just like that. Didn’t she know what miracle she performed? Didn’t she know how she bailed me out of a lot of hassle? She simply didn’t need to. She just followed the ancient rule of integrity, return a lost item. One of the greatest services expected of humanity but too seldomly performed. I’d have to write about that moment some day.
Many more to come…