It is not so in keeping with most of my blog posts which focus on people, organisations and initiatives tackling environmental issues, but I wanted to write on this topic because it is so important – one of the reasons I enjoy travelling so much is experiencing the support provided and friendliness shown by so many strangers along the way. It restores my faith in humanity and reiterates how differences between nationalities are only really superficial – human emotions are the same the world over in my experience, and stereotypes usually just that.
As a case in point, I have been struck by the helping hand of so many of the Russian people we have met on our journey so far. The UK stereotype of Russia and Russian people is often one of cold, unfriendly faces, corruption and hidden dangers, sometimes one of ‘other’, perpetrated by the media – it is definitely not seen as a place or people conducive to “can I help you?”s and friendly smiles, which has been my experience in innumerable cases now.
Right from the offset Russian helpfulness has made my journey what it is – I met Elena at the Judge Business School back in June, who is from Moscow but lives with her family in Cambridge while she studies for her Masters. She connected me with lots of her colleagues, who then in turn went out of their way to introduce me to people involved in environmental initiatives in different places I would be stopping.
When we got on the train from Vilnius to St Petersburg, the lady sat opposite us was so smily, warm and friendly and we managed to chat quite a lot despite not speaking each others’ languages. On our way back from Peterhof, the bus driver got out specially to show us where to go to the train station; and then as we got off the train in St Petersburg a young woman smiled as we got out our map, asked us where we were from and proceeded to show us exactly how the metro system works and gave us her number to call if we had any problems during the rest of the trip through Russia. The examples do not stop there…
On the train to Moscow, the man opposite me didn’t return my smile…until two hours in when he produced food out of his bag to share with us and then we chatted (with the help of my phrase book and google translate!) for a good couple of hours. The check out man in the supermarket started talking to us about English football clubs when he found out where we were from, and on three different occasions using the Moscow metro people asked us if we needed any help. The couple we were in a carriage with to Novosibirsk gave us a lift to the bus station. That still doesn’t cover the number of instances of help but you get the picture! Yes there are still some rather strict, unsmiling people around, like anywhere, but the help offered to us and the positive interactions we have had so far has blown me away.
Visiting a place, and going beyond that to meet the people who live and work there, does so much to help alter pre-conceived ideas and realise that people really are not so different, no matter where they are from or what their context. Especially now with the news of political relations between Russia and certain other countries, it has done wonders for reminding me that media and reporting of politics hides so much warmth, friendliness and common ground that becomes even more important to remember.
A couple on holiday from Moscow who shared their meal with us the first night in Suzdal