The Ruski In All Of Us
Another one of the great entries for ‘Best Written Piece’ in our Vodkatrain Traveller Awards. This account of our Vodkatrain journey is written by Ryan Rogers.
The Ruski In All Of Us; Vodkatrain Journey by Ryan Rogers
Melatonin is a hormone secreted in our brain that regulates our sleep cycles. Light hampers how much melatonin our body makes so it is produced more in the evening, causing drowsiness, and tapers off in the morning, helping us feel alert and awake.
Each year from approximately May to July, Russia experiences what is known as ‘White Nights’ where the sun sets for only a few hours and it never really gets dark. The somnambulant countryside transcends itself into a luminous land that seethes splendor as the earth tilts on its axis for the summer solstice and endless nights pervade the country.
If your body chemically tells you that you should be awake when it’s light outside, it’s light outside for 20+ hours a day and you are in a land known for their copious amounts of alcohol…well, you can see where I’m going with this.
My Vodka(train) jaunt afforded me the opportunity to experience Russia for approximately a fortnight. While the cliché escapade to Mother Russia is replete with a few vodka nights (and one or two afternoons), there is a very real issue of alcoholism that suffuses the country. So as much as I’d like to regal you with “Hangover”-esque tales of debauchery, I think it’s important to recognize the linchpin of the Motherland: the Ruski people themselves.
Known for their resplendent architecture and biting cold, I found the Russian people to be quite affable. One rambunctious night in Moscow we stumbled into a club where the booze flowed freely, bass dropped deeply and the bartenders flaunted dominatrix attire. As the salacious scene slapped me in the face, I sunk into a booth and prepared myself for a fun filled evening of watching others dance and fist pump the night away while I hung out with my Vodkatrain counterparts, James and Sarah. I relish the opportunity to meet new people and experience new cultures but I’ve never been the dashing, debonair guy at the bar. I typically take the more reticent route and talk with my friends while wallowing in shyness as the cute girl dances 10 meters away. But in the proverbial, stereotypical twist of fate, this evening would shatter my bubble. A few people overheard me ordering at the bar and recognized my American accent immediately. They gregariously invited me back to their table for a few drinks and some conversation. My amiable Russian friends inspired a new confidence in me; an aura of extroversion (which can either be attributed to their outgoing, friendly nature or the increasing amount of booze I consumed…probably both). I was ignorant of their language and incognizant of the culture but strangers welcomed me into their lives with open arms and wide smiles. Regardless of my naiveté, I don’t recall ever being received so warmly at a bar in Chicago. In reflecting on the hospitality showered upon me, I can easily see why the capital of Russia seduces so many travelers.
The lure of peeking behind the former Iron Curtain sings to us like a Siren amid the blustery world we find ourselves in. Are the Kremlin and Red Square soaked in as much military stench as the media portrays? Is St. Basil’s Cathedral as majestic up close as it is in pop culture? Are the people as cold as the harsh Siberian winters we see in movies? While I had no idea what direction my excursion would lead me, the camaraderie I felt in Moscow calmed my uneasiness.
While I’m sure the alcohol played a (cough-large-cough) part in my sociable character at the aforementioned bar, I noticed people of all colors, shapes and sizes were just as congenial towards me as the lush crowd I encountered in Moscow. In our St. Petersburg hostel, I met a cute, young blonde girl who was no more than 4 years old.
Her effervescent nature was infectious and her smile contagious. The only Russian I knew at the time was “privet” (hello) and “spasibo” (thank you) while the only English she knew was “I like to eat, eat, eat apples and bananas” from the children’s song. Despite the enormous language barrier that divided our lives, we managed to connect through other channels. We would draw pictures for each other and use hand language to communicate. She liked to make a house-like structure where her finger tips from each arm touched and formed a peak just above the top of her head and her arms angled out to form the downward sloping roof (like using your arms to make the accent circonflexe used in the French language). I replicated her actions and our bond was cemented. Her jovial personality and hearty giggling far outreached her small stature and our interactions touched a part of the heart that only children can reach.
When I travel, I try to learn “hello”, “thank you” and “cheers” in the local language. I’ve found that a little effort goes a long way and people appreciate your attempt, despite the conspicuous mispronunciations. Plus, it can be fun when you’re with a gaggle of fellow globetrotters to see how many different ways of saying “cheers” you can produce as a group. One of the first toasts I remember hearing was one that personifies the familiarity and cordialness of the Russians to a tee. Engulfed in a sea of smiling strangers, my new Ruski comrade threw his arm around me, raised his shot glass and said “za nas…which means ‘to us’ ”. So the here’s to the Ruski in all of us; may our hearts be forever open and our friendly nature always be on display for a new friend is just a shot away…za nas.