I feel enchanted, overwhelmed and incredibly happy! Everything I saw and experienced in the last weeks was so unusual that I decided to dedicate an entire blog entry to it. The promised homage to Zurich will have to wait.
This one is all about Russia! I see my homeland with new eyes. It’s as if I cleaned the windows after a long winter; “I can see clearly now” is playing from remote outdoor speakers and I just can’t get enough.
I always enjoyed spending time in Russia, but this time was different. So much that I postponed my return ticket and ended up spending a total of 3 weeks over there and can’t wait to be back.
As always, let me share with you the interesting moments and realizations.
- Russia is so much more than Moscow and St. Petersburg. So far, I considered only those two cities worthwhile visiting. Naturally, this was also encouraged by my parents and all my Russian friends. Just to quote one of them: “Hey, where I should live in Sochi?” – “Ehm, how about Barcelona instead?” I guess this happens to all of us, we don’t cherish enough the country we live in, or we come from. This time, I saw the Anapa region and Nizhny Novgorod, and it was fantastic. Never will I ignore Russia as a travel destination again; in fact, I will make it my priority.
- Friendlier people live further away from mega towns. I was totally blown away by the kindness, ease, and confidence of the people living in Nizhny Novgorod. Despite being quite big and industrial, there was no toxic rush and no anger in this town. Every single person was so nice and friendly and smiling from within. Reflecting, I had a similar impression in other countries – Sydney vs. Brisbane, San Francisco vs. Austin, Barcelona vs. Valencia.
- FIFA can transform nations – in a couple of weeks. Since I had my own agenda, I arrived in Moscow just the day after the soccer games. Still, the town was full of tourists, melting naturally with locals, even in more remote areas. I was buying a local SIM card, and I was positively shocked seeing the Megafon employee multi-tasking me (speaking Russian) and a Spanish couple (speaking Spanish English). The same story almost anywhere I went. Either the Russians were just hiding away their skills under the mattress, or they learned English very quickly. Russia feels more international than ever, and I am convinced the soccer games were a key driver. It was similar with Germany in 2008. Thank you, FIFA!
- When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. There are still sanctions on Russia. Cheese, or the non-availability of it, is a common joke amongst Russians. But things are changing. We had delicious burrata cheese manufactured locally in Moscow, great steaks from cows raised in Voronezh (Russia’s new meat capital, I need to visit!), fresh fish from the Black Sea, and lots of local vegetables, fruits, and berries with an intense, rich taste. Seems like “if you can’t import – produce yourself, but better” works very well.
- Incentives drive behavior. Well, this one isn’t new, but still, surprising how well it works. For example, in a very short time period, Moscow got equipped with credit card terminals. Every small shop, be it a coffee store or a supermarket, has a terminal. Curious as I am, I asked who is paying the fees – not the stores. Hardly surprising, that you can go cashless in Moscow or Nizhny Novgorod, while many taxi drivers in Germany still do not accept credit cards. Another example: the municipal authorities. The staff was super friendly and knowledgeable, and I suspect it’s because they are paid based on customer feedback.
- Living in a culturally and internationally diverse environment does not save you from obvious pitfalls. I have a favorite summer shirt which I bought in Greece, with the typical Greek stitching. As I wanted to put in on when going for a day trip to Novorossiysk, my Russian company was very surprised by my outfit and mentioned jokingly “I didn’t know you are into politics.” Turns out the shirt looks very much like Ukrainian traditional wear. I am not into politics indeed and opted for a summer dress instead. Much more appropriate for a day walk along the seaside anyhow.
- Russians love coffee, health products, and flowers. Let me go one by one. Coffee: so many coffee stores popped out of nowhere, I can’t even pick my favorite, the coffee was delicious everywhere. Russian baristas rule! Health products: you will find at least one pharmacy on every block, and most of them will operate 24/7. Well, health is the most important thing in your life and Russians seem to have figured that one out! Flowers: another 24/7 case. Yes, Russians love flowers, it’s the basic kit: chocolate and flowers, you cannot be wrong with this one. But maybe everyone cares about coffee, health, and flowers, not just Russians.
I’ll spare you all the culture stuff. Also, I didn’t do much of it this time. I just walked a lot and enjoyed the feeling of pure freedom: no expectations, no plans, no obligations. Life can be so simple and beautiful.
My dear Russia, I will be back in September for more. I am addicted, and I just can’t get enough.