30 March 2009

The Casual American and The Accurate Russian

Once in our early years in St Petersburg we met a salesman from Boston in a cafe where we had stopped for tea. He came to Moscow ten years before and said he earned far more here selling copiers than in the States. He exemplified what he said... that Americans are easily spotted as loud, poorly dressed, and impulsive in gesture. This brash American was sprawled over the table while he talked. He felt characterizations by Russians are often true, and it was OK with him.

Generally Americans are casual about their looks, while it is typically Russian to give careful attention to personal appearance. This careful dressing may be one reason that St Petersburg has a high percentage of really beautiful women. Women past the teenage years look pretty, feminine, and poised.

In America I typically pulled on my coat while leaving the house. Outside of business hours when I dressed in a suit, I put on whatever was comfortable and in my eyes looked good. I wore old track shoes. l liked a rough and tumble look and had never heard accurate applied to how people dress. One collar of my coat might be up, the other down. My hair could be a mess and my glasses askew. To me a relaxed impression was just that, and represented a relaxed mind inside. What the hell, it didn't matter, I was happy!

Americans have usually no need to button and zip carefully, as they quickly go from heated house to cozy car to toasty school or office. Not so with people in St Petersburg, the majority of whom still use public transit. Staying warm and healthy after a walk to the bus stop, a stand in the cold wind, and a ride on a drafty conveyance requires that you give much more attention to how you dress than most Americans need to.

What passes for acceptable dress in the States is below the Russian standard. Here you are expected by the wife and others to be carefully groomed and completely dressed whenever you leave the apartment. In the hallway, off go the slippers and on go shined shoes. It's like old times for me... another Navy inspection!

Sailor! Is your hair clean and combed?
hat on straight?
collars uniform?
shoes shined?
belt on?

Well then... I'm ready for the elevator. Who knows, I might meet someone on it, although it's unlikely he will acknowledge me, smile or talk. I think these appearance concerns are typically European, along with the wish in Russian to show a good image... which stops below the neck, as Russians don't wear a smile the way Americans do. 1

1 Note...Wearing a smile. Refer to Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, American Secretaries of State, who didn't understand the inappropriate use of smiles in diplomacy with serious faced Russians.

In parts of the United States people dress in a neat spiffy way. When a student and sailor in the Carolinas, I noticed educated southerners dressed much better and neater than my friends back home in New Jersey. Still, most Americans love comfort and feel it's good to be casual in dress and behavior.

Russians value accurate dress more than comfort.

I used to pay our bills at the local bank. The outside windows were closed even though a little air would have helped the customers feel more comfortable while waiting in lines. In that bank I never saw a Russian take off his coat or sweater to cool down. Just me, the strange foreigner!

Continuing my quest for comfort in St Petersburg, if the supermarket is hot, nowadays I hang my coat on the cart handle , and Larissa has started to do the same.

I enjoy being myself and don't want to try to be what I'm not although in many ways I like to blend in to the Russian scene. But I am sure to follow my rule... Comfort first!.. and accurate attire second.

So, if you hear American accented English, see a slightly beshambled older man gesturing and talking loudly, you may again have seen this proud American!

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