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Reflections From An American in Russia

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Moscow may be cold in February, but Sochi's downright balmy. (Photograph by Bobylev Sergey/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis)

As an American who grew up during the tail end of the Cold War, it was difficult to avoid developing a few stereotypes about Russia. And from Rocky Balboa’s Russian rival Ivan Drago to the nefarious Rocky and Bullwinkle ‘toon Boris Badenov, who can blame me? Could Russia really be how it’s portrayed in popular culture–or how I imagined it?

Now that I’ve been living in Sochi for nearly a month, let’s examine four preconceived notions I brought with me along with my luggage–and how they’ve panned out:

1. Russia is cold.

Russia is a big country that occupies a good chunk of the northern hemisphere, so parts of it are going to be cold. Especially in February. But could the whole country be so cold?  Here’s a photo from a few days ago:

Wow, frigid, right? Turns out that’s actually Queens, New York, where it’s been snowing nearly every day since I’ve been gone. While it has barely crawled above freezing back at home, I’ve been enjoying temperatures in the 60s (F) here in Sochi. And there are palm trees. Just like in America, it can be tropical in one place, and absolutely freezing in another. That’s what happens when you’re talking about two of the top five countries in the world in terms of sheer land mass. One down, three to go.

2. Russians hate Americans.

Sure, Americans have a good laugh at Russia’s expense every now and again, but would you really dislike a person you met just because they were Russian? Of course not. This feeling goes both ways. Rivalries in politics, technology, and sports aside, at the end of the day, we’re all just people.

During my time here I’ve found that Russians have an unexpected soft spot for Americans. I have not experienced any negativity upon identifying my nationality; on the contrary, Russians seem even more interested in me when they learn I’m American. Everyone here is eager to practice their English and, all jokes aside, I think both Americans and Russians have a mutual respect for one another as a people.

3. Russians aren’t friendly.

Well, it’s all how you look at it.

In America, we are superficially nice to one other. We smile at strangers, ask people in the service profession how they’re doing, and hand out a “Have a great day” at the drop of a hat. But do we really mean any of these things? Not literally, most of the time. We’ve adopted these pleasantries to be polite, to grease the social wheel.

While you shouldn’t expect this kind of behavior in kind from Russians, that doesn’t mean they aren’t friendly. They’re just more deliberate about their emotions. When a Russian offers a smile or takes interest in you, it’s because he or she really means it. The more time I spent there, the more I realized how rarely Americans actually mean what they say. My encounters with Russians, on the other hand, have been nothing but genuine. In fact, several people here have gone above and beyond for me in ways that no American I know ever would have.

4. Russian food is gross.

I had really hoped to dispel this one with tales and photographs of the fabulous culinary delights I’ve enjoyed here. But after a month in Sochi, I can’t quite say that’s the case. The food definitely isn’t bad; it just lacks the variety that many Americans may be used to. That’s my biggest issue with it, at least. At home, I eat a lot of Japanese, Thai, Indian, and Mexican food. “Ethnic cuisine” just doesn’t exist here, and it tends to disappoint when it does.

If you like meats, heavy grains, and serious soups (staples here include buckwheat, raviolis filled with meat, and, of course, borscht) you’ll love Russian food. But if you prefer flavorful sauces, strong spices, and loads of international options, you may find the pickings bland.

The Verdict

Russia may not be the easiest place to adjust to, at least for Westerners like me, but that’s a big part of what makes it so fascinating. In Sochi, the simplest of tasks may prove difficult and the prideful behavior of the people may come off as arrogant. But once you peel back the layers, you begin to discover that Russia has more to offer than you could have ever imagined.

David DiGregorio is a travel industry professional, co-editor of the travel blog Style Hi Club, and author of How to Work in Travel. His adventures have taken him to 70 different countries, often with his family in tow. Follow David on Twitter @Darodi.

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