Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Coke And A Sneer: Smiles East To West

This journey began in St. Petersburg, Russia, and will be ending shortly in Amsterdam, Holland.  I’ve noticed some interesting differences in moving east to west over these past months.  Perhaps the most noticeable was this:  the smiles increase and grow larger as one progresses west from Russia through eastern Europe, down the western Balkans, and finally, to the extraordinarily friendly Holland. 

Skopje, Macedonia
Kosovar ballerina in Pristina.
Berat, Albania
I suppose I should have known something was up when I applied for my Russian visa.  The application specifically instructed me not to smile for my required visa photos.  When I took the pictures at the AAA in Redondo Beach, California, for the life of me I could not keep a straight face in front of that little blue screen.  I ended up with a bit of a smirk in my pictures, but the Russians approved my application nonetheless.  Months later, I arrived in the land of stone-faced non-smilers.

In Russia, my naturally-friendly countenance stood out.  I am, it would seem, a walking smiley-face; a chronic smiler; a goofy grinner.  Perhaps some of it’s reflexive—and inborn American thing.  In any event, I smile at practically everyone and everything.

But people in Russia didn’t respond to my smiling.  In fact, they’d return with my grin with stares, and sometimes even scowls.  Nowhere more was this true than on the St. Petersburg Metro. 

To get on the metro in St. Petersburg, you must descend what has to be the longest escalator in the world and take it down to somewhere near Middle Earth.  Seriously, you could get through War and Peace in the time it takes to ride up and down this thing.  The metro escalators are often jam packed, too, particularly during rush hour, so you must stand in one place and ride, while the people passing up or down the other side stare at you.

And when I say stare, I mean stare.  I’m talking full-on eye contact for lengthy swaths of time.  A Russian will take a long look directly at you, but never move a muscle in her face.  It’s like the people there are suffering universally from some sort of unfriendly-face paralysis.

At first, it really upset me, and made me want to leave.  But then I turned into a game.  My mission:  to turn at least one frown upside down on the St. Petersburg Metro.  I’d flash my grin the entire way, hoping to score just one.

It was, I learned, Mission Impossible.  I seriously could not get one person to smile.  Those Russians are tough ones to crack.

Later I was told—and I am not making this up—that Russians think people who smile in public are either simpletons or perhaps crazy.  So, basically, there are hundreds if not thousands of people who rode the St. Petersburg Metro between December 10 and 28, 2010 who got the wrong impression of me.  (Or perhaps not.)

In any event, I made friends with quite a few Russians, and when I felt comfortable enough, I would ask:  “Why don’t you guys smile?”  Always I got the same, seemingly-pat answer:  “In Russia,” they’d say, “life is hard.”  One girl expounded:  Russians work hard, often for little pay, so they don’t have much to smile about. 

Outwardly, I expressed sympathy and pretended to understand.  But on the inside, I was questioning. 

For one thing, the evidence pointed to the contrary.  I spied tons of Russians relaxing in coffee shops; tossing back vodka shots; crawling the new state-of-the-art Galeria; eating sushi.  And always dressed to the nines, in furs and stiletto boots and shiny rhinestone accessories.  The ladies are beyond Bullwinkle-Natasha posh, and the men are totally fashionable too.  All have the latest gadgets, and many drive fancy cars.  It just didn’t seem like a “Life Is Hard” kind of place to me.

And don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean to minimize the lasting effects living behind the Iron Curtain must have had.  But the curtain’s been pulled back for over twenty years now.  Where people used to line up for bread, they now line up for Big Macs.  In many respects, the new Russia is indistinguishable from the freedom-loving, capitalistic societies where it’s party, party, party all the time.  Isn’t it time to turn that Coke And A Sneer into a Coke And A Smile?

Also—and I don’t want to go too far down the Life-Is-Hard Relatively Road—but clearly the Russians have not been to Zimbabwe.  Now there’s a country where Life Is Hard.   Back in 2007, the grocery store shelves were largely bare, so people were busing in industrial-size boxes of Corn Flakes from neighboring Zambia just to get through breakfast.  You couldn’t get fruit, save for cans of Heinz Grapefruit segments, which—with rampant hyperinflation—cost over one million Zimbabwean dollars per can. 

One day, near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, a kid named “Happy” (for real) stopped me and asked if I would trade the used sneakers on my feet for some marble statues of elephants and lions.  He was not the first one there who begged me for my shoes.  Unfortunately, I still needed them to get around. 

I gave Happy my sunglasses instead.  And you know what he gave me?  A smile.

Life seemed hard in a lot of other places, like in Vietman, and Nepal, and Palestinian territory, and Uganda, and Rwanda, to name just some examples.  But still, people in all those places found it in them to share a smile with a stranger.

Now I do understand, perfectly now, that it’s cold as a bitch in Russia, and that makes life a little tougher in certain respects.  But you know where else it’s freaking freezing?   Alaska.  And they still manage to smile.  Even the ones working long hours for minimum wage. 

Cafe near Denali, Alaska, 2006

The Chicken Creek Cafe; Chicken, Alaska, 2006
[Side note speaking of Russia and Alaska:  I tried to see Sarah Palin’s house from Russia, and couldn’t.]

Here’s the other reason I silently called bullshit on the Russian Life-Is-Hard-No-Smiling meme.  I caught tons of Russians smiling behind closed doors, and on holidays.  In fact, I shared many smiles and laughs in private, and also with the thousands of Russians with whom I brought in New Year's in Red Square.  So my question is:  if the Russians know how to smile inside, and on holidays, why not smile in public, and on just-regular days?

Popping champagne at a farewell party for me in St. Pete, Russia.

Happy New Year in Red Square.

Despite its no-smiling quirk, Russia did give me a lot to smile about.  In fact, I’m smiling right now just thinking about it all.