12 March 2014

Views of Russia which may surprise you!


You’ll never see these flowers in a

Russian Hospital !



Optician stores... that don’t adjust what they sell. We assumed the people who sold us glasses would adjust them, but they can’t... and don’t worry about it.  Typical of many people here who don’t want to expand their knowledge to gain more customers.

Pharmacies rarely have a pharmacist on site, just clerks.  A written prescriptions is only necessary for some psychological drugs.  What’s good is that there’s no charade of professionalism by placing a personalized label on a vial... pills are sold in the same package they are shipped in to the pharmacy from elsewhere in Russia, Germany, India, wherever.

Supermarket managers feel in an elevated position, but are not eager to talk to customers.  They don’t have a badge with a photo and have no customer desk to welcome you.   

Russians favor black more than most Americans.  It’s easier to keep your clothes looking clean when you have a car.  Now I see splashes of color more, including orange, which is surprisingly popular.

Apartment hallways are often drab, dirty, and poorly maintained.  I’ve never seen an inspection form posted in an elevator. Elevators are often vandalized and have graffiti.  Russians often don’t seem to care much about poor and unsafe building conditions outside of their own apartments.  Exterior appearance, what realtors call Curb Appeal, gets little attention.

Flowers are not welcome at hospitals (they’re considered unsanitary).  Are Cut Flowers Really Bad for Hospital Rooms? refutes this belief. Russians don’t send Get Well cards but telephone instead.

Russian cities don’t have good and bad neighborhoods... no ghettos as in America.

A thought... Russians mostly live in vertical villages, in apartments, Americans horizontally in houses.

Laundry soap is sold in small boxes, the size of a large paperback.  Large economy sizes don’t attract Russians.  Small sizes remain popular perhaps partly because many people carry groceries home from the store.


  60% of Russian men smoke, 20% of the women... but younger women smoke 10 times more than older women, so this is trending up.  In contrast, 20.5% of American men smoke, 15.8 of American women. smoking United States  (If you figure that Russia has 1/2 the population of the US, but their men smoke three times as much...  the result is more deaths from cigarettes in the Russian male population than in American men).

  You can buy smokes for 60 rubles, around $1.50.  Cigarette prices 2013 Bloomberg.com  A pack of 20 Marlboro cigarettes costs $1.74 in Russia, compared with $6.36 in the U.S.  Soon an increase will make an average pack price double to $3.00.

  The Russian government has banned smoking at work, at theatres, museums, beaches, parks, playgrounds, restaurants, hotels, markets,  government offices, apartment lobbies, schools, hospitals, clinics, all trains, buses, planes, within 10 meters of bus stops, and railroad stations. 

  Cigarettes cannot be displayed in stores, only a price list.  No cigarette advertising is allowed, no more sponsored events, TV and movies may no longer show smoking, unless artistically necessary.  The ban on smoking in restaurants, trains and hotels will be effective this June.  RIA NOVOSTI  The Russian prison system will have separate sections for smokers.

  I was surprised to see that unified steps to discourage smoking haven’t been possible in the US because smoking regulation is left to each of the 50 states, local towns and cities, territories, and tribal areas.  European countries are well ahead of Russia with smoking bans. 


Prepared food generally has fewer or no additives than that sold in America.  Russia has stricter rules about healthy food... Little or no GMO grain imports.  Medicated and bleached chicken,  and beef with hormones are frequently refused from the USA and elsewhere.

Most mayonnaise is sold in squeeze bags, not bottles or jars... ketchup, too.  Russian mayonnaise has sunflower oil.

Butter in Russia has no salt.  That’s good for lower blood pressure, but the missing iodization means higher levels of retardation.

Bread has no sodium propionate to retard spoilage.   An extra loaf lasts a long time if placed in the freezer. 

Cheese is more likely to get mold because of few or no preservatives.  You can keep it fresh by putting a piece of cloth soaked with vinegar in the holder.

Russian behavior...

Men shake hands, but usually look away while doing so.  My mother’s advice to ‘smile, look them in the eye, and use a firm  handshake’ doesn’t seem to apply.

Russians mind their own business.  They aren’t quick to call the police to complain as many do in America.  In America the police seem to be everywhere, but police in Russia are often absent, don’t swagger, don’t feel they are paramilitaries on terrorism alert.  However, they may not be available when you need them.  They respond to a crime, but usually have no interest in prevention, or detection.

It’s very hard to scare a Russian.  They are sympathetic about 9/11 but have seen much worse without panicking.

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12 January 2014

Ups and Downs of Vacation Time in the USA and Russia


The peaceful waters of our summer lake


Trying to sort out your life?  If you want to know your own values, why not consider what vacation time has meant to you.  The years click by and you can easily get in a no vacation rut.

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A surfeit of vacation time in Russia...

This year we haven’t had the cold snowy weather of other years.  Temperatures are often below freezing, but we’ve had more rain than snow... a discouraging situation for the average Russian who loves bracing weather closer to –10 degrees centigrade.  This crummy weather provides little to do this year, but want it or not the government mandates an extra 8 days off from January 1 through January 8 for salaried workers.

Back in the USSR, and now...

Larissa in Soviet times had month  long vacations every summer along with holidays during the year.  Month vacations continue now, with

added paid time off from New Years to the day after Russian Christmas, January 8th, and a complex system of two and three day weekends, adding up to another 20 days off.  Sometimes working days are switched to a Saturday or Sunday.

Workers who have their own little grocery store, or fruit stand, or work day to day, miss out on a lot of this paid time off, just as in the US.

USA The No Vacation Nation

The American worker has lost a lot of vacation ground compared to Europeans the last 30 years.  Americans have no legislation guaranteeing any time off, and now have much shorter vacation time than most other developed countries, in the statistical basement with Canada and Mexico.  What’s all the more sad is that Americans are likely to not use all the days coming to them. 

You can’t recover lost vacation time

1965 to 1976... Lots of vacation

I taught in public schools before and after the Navy from 1965 to 1983.   The Navy gave us 30 days vacation a year, and lots of other days off by request.  New Jersey public schools were closed for 10 weeks during the summer, and for 3 one week vacations during the school year... Christmas, February, and Easter, along with a day or two for Thanksgiving, and personal days. 

1976 to 1999... 23 Years straight of No vacation...

Carefree summers ended when I married, taking on a family of wife and soon five children. A teacher’s summer off is without pay, and replacing this lost income was a yearly anxiety as summer jobs usually were not even comparable to a teacher’s pay.  Eventually I saw that living poor as a burned out teacher was worse than trying to get by doing something that might have more future.

I quit teaching and got a position as a life and health insurance salesman with a local agency.  The results were a lot more freedom and a real opportunity to make more money.  For the next several years I had no paid vacation time and little money to enjoy any time off. 

This situation continued after I started my own small agency in 1993.  I could find no one who was willing or able to run the agency in my absence.  In 1999 I had money to spend, and a new wife to enjoy it with, so we took a few weeks honeymoon at a New Jersey mountain lake and at the Jersey shore.

2000 to 2014... Proclaimed myself Retired !

We left American in June 2000.  For a few years we had both time and money to enjoy extensive travel in Europe and two trips when we covered a lot of the USA.  But with advancing age, illness, and less vigor we spend the warm months at our village house and occasionally go to a sanatorium for a week.

One of several of my life’s missteps which maybe you can learn from...

I left the Navy in 1970, and with the aid of the GI bill I started my graduate classes to become a history college professor but within a few months that life became unattractive to me.  I should have switched plans to some practical way to make a living, such as school administrator, but instead I took courses to get a Masters in Education, guaranteeing poverty if I ever had a family.  If you want good vacations throughout your life, you have to be practical and realistic in your career plans.


Click these hot links for further information...

Americans Receive Half the Vacation Time as Russians... Hotels.com

The average American worker got 14 vacation days last year but only used 10 of them, according to a survey by Expedia.

The U.S. is the only developed country without a federal mandate for a minimum number of vacation days.  International Business Times


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20 November 2013

Kopek Pandemonium on a Russian Bus


Kopeks are more than three times smaller than this

image, and three times less valuable than in 2000.

Using money can be tricky. 

Sometime in my first years in Russia, a store clerk said Nyet and waved me towards the door.  She didn’t or wouldn’t accept my my 500 ruble bill.  Understandable, but I missed the patient explanation as to why, and the apology that I would likely have received back home in America.

Now with a better sales attitude, more currency in circulation, and computerized registers, stores accept ruble notes with no problem... but kopeks are another story!

Kopeks are worth less and less...

100 kopeks are equal to one ruble.  You can use the dime-size 10 kopek coin or the penny-size 50 kopek coin to get  to the equivalent of 100 kopeks.  These copper coins are worth much less than the American penny.  It would take 3,255 kopeks, the same value as 32.55 rubles, to equal one US  dollar.

Older people often have difficulty grasping how quickly rubles and kopeks have lost value.  A compound inflation rate of 312.11% since June of 2000 is hard to get used to.  In comparison, the US compound inflation was 31.54%.  *fxtop.com Inflation Calculator. 10/06/2000 to 10/11/2013


Babuskas find kopeks and checkouts magnetic!

Babuskas love counting out kopeks from their little change purses while at the supermarket checkout.  This causes aggravation and restlessness among those in line, which I find sort of endearing.  Men, meanwhile, often do not use kopeks, not even taking them from the change tray.

Only little children get kopeks off the ground. 

The Russian Central Bank announced recently that they will stop minting all kopek coins.Pravda.ru

My Story...  true, with fuzzy details sharpened for effect...


The scene of the crime.

One day some years ago Larissa rushed off to the local shopping mall.  Soon I got a call from her asking that I grab a bus and come quickly. On getting off the phone I realized I had no bills and insufficient change for the 12 ruble bus fare.  I grabbed a small plastic bag in which we kept kopeks so as to not clog up our pockets, and hurried to catch any of the three buses that went to where Larissa was waiting.

Breathless, I climbed on an autobus, sat, and counted my few ruble coins up to six rubles, planning to pay the balance with kopeks.  Before I was ready, a tall thin conductress weaved towards me, with a tired exasperated grimace.  I explained in my broken Russian that I needed to pay part of my fare in kopeks.  

I gave her a few rubles which added to half the fare, and then showed her my handful of kopeks  which I was counting to get to the 12 ruble fare.  The poor woman was in a hurry, took my handful of kopeks, and started counting them while she lurched to the front of the bus to another  passenger.  Some people watching shook their heads in commiseration with this hard working woman.

She lunged back, red in the face, and exploded!  ‘You not only gave me a head ache with all this counting, but you’re short 20 kopeks.  I’ll have you arrested.  Get off the bus!’

I told her I would give her the 20 kopeks the next time I saw her, but being kopeks she took that as a further insult.  Fortunately the bus arrived at my stop.

A few days later Larissa asked me why I didn’t want to take the 172 autobus, preferring to wait for another.  I confessed my trepidation that there would be an angry woman looking to kill me, all because of Russian kopeks!


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20 October 2013

A Russian Feat About Feet

Gymnastics of switching between slippers and shoes.

We Americans were raised on flag worship, where it approaches a mortal sin to let the Stars and Stripes touch the ground.  Here in Russia there are serious concerns about feet.  Many people are aware that Russians never wear shoes at home, but switch to slippers at the door. 

We Americans blessed with Russian wives are stressed with a higher expectation... to balance so well that you can switch foot apparel without socks hitting the ground.  Heaven help you if you are spotted out of your shoes and taking the unnecessary step of standing in your stocking feet before donning your slippers...  or vice versa!  People here worry that the sock bottoms will get dirty... as if anyone back in the USA cares.

Now approaching age 71,  an attempt to gracefully move from shoes to slippers has become gradually more difficult for me... This performance anxiety in my creeping old age is something I wouldn’t have to manage in the States. To cope I’ve been known to use my head, putting it against a wall to maintain my balance during the Great Transition. 

Knowing that I am expected to at least attempt this footwear switch has encouraged moments of rank dishonesty, as I warily glance to see if I am being observed by a Russian before I cheat.  It also has inspired a new level of curmudgeonly expletives, most of which are fortunately not understood by the wife and neighbors. 

On asked about this phenomenon, Larissa suggested I find a seat when switching footwear, and observed that only Americans would think of putting socks or other clothes on the floor.

Footnotes about the foot towel, and the leg cross

Most Russian bathrooms have a hook low on the wall for a foot towel.  Whether you just finished a bath or shower, or follow the custom to at least wash your lower legs and feet before bedtime, this extra towel is waiting for you.  To dry your feet with a large bath towel is considered gross.

It’s very rare to see a man on TV crossing his legs as they do in America, wide open.  The main concern about the wide leg cross is that the sole of one shoe flashes out for all to see.  I’ve heard this is profoundly offensive to Arabs but why does it upset Russians?

My views...

There is still some residual prudishness more than 22 years after the end of the Moral Code of the Soviet Union.  Some American men esteem casual or sloppy behavior as Rough and Ready and are known to put their boots on chairs and railings.  Russian culture, less flexible, is quick to stop behavior that may threaten cultural norms.

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20 September 2013

When Russians Covet Their Neighbors’ Apples

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The grey days of a St Petersburg autumn have arrived early.  The parakeets are back from their summer place too and respond to the weather by being unusually silent for spells.  It seems more than three weeks since we left summer in Zaloze where....

something unexpected happened.  Our apple trees grew the most abundant and beautiful fruit anyone has ever seen in our little village.  One of the trees had apples of a surprising soft red color which seemed new this year.

Our yellow-green apples, Antonovka, are called ‘The Peoples’ Apple’ as they have been popular at dachas for many years.  I couldn’t identify our special red hued apples.  Russian apple trees survive cold winters, and are used as tough root stock on which other types of apples can be grafted.

Other people have an apple tree or two, but we have the remains of an orchard which with little trimming and care usually gives an adequate amount of fruit for us, our neighbors, and the cows.  Cows run free in the village, and humans must have secure fences to keep them out of their gardens. Each year we collect our fallen apples and deliver them to the cows for their nutrition and enjoyment.

It’s the custom in Zaloze that when we leave for St Petersburg in early September people walk onto our property and help themselves to apples and plums.  Most people are considerate, but sometimes we see some damaged branches from the activity of the occasional lout. 

This year the striking colors of the apples... and so many... seemed to bend peoples’ minds.  Many didn’t want to wait, so asked permission to get some before we left. 

We harvest apples still on the trees until shortly before we leave.  Before then we gathered those on the ground, the drops, to dry, use for  applesauce, or eat the original Garden of Eden way  (The apples naked but we are clothed.)  Some say apples fall from the trees because of a Worm-In-Residence.  With practice, it’s easy to spot where the worm probably is ... so neither you or the critter is surprised.  

Larissa agrees with those neighbors who say they don’t like walking on property when the owners aren’t present.  But I felt one neighbor used this argument as a way to jump the gun - three weeks before we left – to take the best apples right off the trees.  I had just settled in to read by my favorite tree, and here he came with wheel barrow and bag to denude part of the scenery I thought I would be able to enjoy for a while longer.

Others had a knowing light in their eyes.  I was strolling around and one lady said, “Taking your last walk?”  I said we were leaving September 1.  She said, “We know!” with enthusiasm.  A couple strolling by stopped and stared at our trees, leaving the impression they would be back the first of the month.

This summer our beautiful and tasty apples made us feel special.  It was good to share them with most of those who asked first, and even with the lurking anonymous mob of ladder and bag toting people ready to invade our property.  Now that we have your appetite stimulated, how about a trip to the fridge for a crisp red apple?

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