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Exchange August 29, 2008

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

The best thing about having a beloved from another world, apart from realising that, not surprisingly, the similarities outweigh the differences, though I’m sticking with my snobbery about British humour and am yet to laugh at a single Russian joke – though the ones about Finns aren’t too bad – about people falling over – nothing will make the Russian laugh more uncontrollably than mention of someone falling over (or, if he’s extra lucky, actually seeing it happen. I had to look on slightly bollockingly as he saw an old babushka unable to negotiate the St. Petersburg metro ticket machines getting mangled by metal and laughed hysterically rather than running to her aid) or a pun that produces anything vaguely similar to the word fart – is the quid pro quo cultural exchange. Like many a Westerner, I’d embarked on my foray into the Russian world prompted by the times I grew up in and the deserved fame of their literary canon. And then having the most private of access to a real Russian soul could only help deepen my acquaintance. “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” my arse. Churchill should have got out more.

But the terrifying part of the equation, from a responsibility point of view, is that I could have had almost total power to shape the Russian’s cultural learnings of Vyest for make benefit of his glorious Russian soul. He can rightly claim that he has made more available, more accessible, more comprehensible to me the wonders of Dostoevsky. Would I have bothered my arse reading Rozanov – a shit of the first order – were it not for him? Would I have made myself sit on an elektrichka and visit some out-of-town palace if I didn’t think the Russian might take his shirt off as my reward? Would I have put my suit on to go and see/hear Tchaikovsky at the Mariinsky if I hadn’t thought it was my duty to integrate in my new surroundings? Would I be intimate with the secrets of the Russian kitchen – I’m serious, by the way. Best food on the planet. Perhaps – if I hadn’t found the love of a local? Look at all he’s done for me, culturally. Literature! Music! Man-made beauty! Cuisine!

Russians younger than the Russian are as exposed now to the Anglo-Saxon West’s cultural offerings as much as everyone else on the planet. But when the Russian was a youngster, the West was still heavily culturally sieved for impurities. Germany was ideologically OK because half of it had come to consciousness and seen the political light and its philosophy and romanticism had been very influential on Russia. France, though politically wicked, was always seen as the height of sophistication. The aristocratic cachet of French as a second language hung on in some circles. French films and music were popular. Indeed, in its attempt to filter out much of popular culture from the West, popular culture in the Soviet Union could be very open to areas which, when I was a youngster growing up in London, would have seemed arcane and otherworldly. Indian cinema was popular. Italian film and music got an airing. And Central Asia and the Caucasus weren’t foreign at all. Mainstream Anglo-Saxon western stuff came through in drips and drabs. The Beatles were popular enough. Soviet citizens chortled happily at Some Like It Hot.

But now that we’ve sunk into the morass of degradation that is Berlin, the Russian has put all that is noble behind him and decided to make up for lost time. I’d had a head-start by learning his language and studying his country before I’d met him. For him, the West, beyond what he’d been given access to by his kindly Soviet cultural guardians, was a blank spot on the map. He hadn’t learnt any English. (German and French were far preferable.) Paul McCartney was a living byword for everything the Anglo-Saxon West was about. And the UK was a place where the soot-covered proletariat toiled for a slave’s wage while posh aristocrats in bowler hats and dripping in jewels flung the crusts off their cucumber sandwiches into their ungrateful mouths.

I’ve been lazy. Let the Russian decipher his own way through the cultural menu of my childhood. And the internet and TV do most of my job for me. Somehow he finds the music I grew up surrounded by on last.fm. Trips to the UK at Christmas mean he is exposed to all TV classics in one fell swoop. And it’s lovely to watch those programmes or listen to that music with a fresh set of eyes and ears. With a different set of prejudices. Heavenly to watch Steptoe and Son with him in a hotel bedroom with the subtitles on and him pissing himself with unprejudiced laughter. Wonderful, as I curl up in bed in the daytime to hide from a translation, to witness him enjoying Sister Sledge – Sister fucking Sledge! – as if they were the new, um, Sister Sledge. Or putting on Bananarama to encourage me back to work.

It slightly makes me wish he wouldn’t fuck off to Russia for half the cunting summer/autumn every year to stock up on new cultural goods to meet his side of the bargain.



1. red - August 29, 2008

I don’t really have much to add but just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post and am happy to have found your blog.

2. bowleserised - August 29, 2008

Me too!

At least he’ll watch ’em. My Russian ex looked positively affronted at the suggestion that we watched Wizard of Oz together.

3. oyebilly - August 29, 2008

Fascinating stuff. I’ve long had a similar fascination with the Russians, although I never got as far as learning the language. Properly.

4. BiB - August 29, 2008

Billy, what are you doing here on your birthday? Shouldn’t you be out playing football or skateboarding or drinking, like what all 29-year-olds do? I remember my 29th birthday well. I was just about to set off for Russia, in fact, and dragged folk to a gay bar, including my mother, who refused to go in in case she instantly became a lesbian. Met the Russian under a month later. Happy Birthday!

B., he’s softened with age. He was certainly disgusted by some initial attempts. The Acid House was not a good place to start, for example, and he wondered whether we were all so vulgar. And there was indignation at the state of western morals. Within a year, I saw him dancing topless on a Berlin dancefloor, which I have never done.

Red, thank you. What a very nice thing to say. And, hurray, a new blog. I am going to go and have a right good old trawl through your blog and its archives (have already begun. Thank you for helping me avoid work). I haven’t trodden on pastures new for ages.

5. suburbanlife - August 30, 2008

I like this post – and you are so right. It’s fascinating to get a fresh look at the culture we have been surrounded in, by someone to whom everithing is novel, strange and fresh. I remember the first time I met my half-brother (German from Berlin) 40 years ago and how stunned i was to hear him say how anal North American Humour was, but on reconsideration his point was driven home with me appreciating afresh how odd we here can be or to be perceived to be. I love intercultural exchange – it forces me to grow and consider. G

6. BiB - August 30, 2008

G, thank you. And I am wondering, if I have a good old rummage through your archives, whether I’ll find anything about you and your half-brother. That sounds like quite a tale.

And, yes, it’s also one of the things I value about having lived abroad. Good to see the rest of the world. That goes without saying. But equally important, I think, to denormalise, as it were, your normal. This probably happens with age anyway, or at least I hoped it would have, but I’m so glad not to think, though I hope I never really did, that the English/London/British/whatever way is the norm and everything else, to some degree, a deviation from it.

7. Liukchik - August 30, 2008

Introducing the oddities of British culture is an unadulterated joy. Dr Who and Blackadder have proven to be very popular, as has pub food (seemingly you cannot get burgers or curries in Czech pubs). And pantomime. Likewise archaic Anglicisms that linger in modern English. Like haberdasher. And trying to explain why syrup is at once a sticky foodstuff and a hairpiece. And why we have the greatest diversity of cakes and desserts of any nation on the earth. And why our custard is yellow and runny, whilst everyone else’s is like blancmange. In fact, there are several books written on these very things.
British eccentricity is a wonderful thing. But then all other nations are equally bonkers, just in different ways. That sounds like the start of “War and Peace”.
Was that really your 29th? I wandered past the Edge the other day (I think I may have mailed you about this…)

8. Ed Ward - August 31, 2008

Y’know, Liukchik, if I *could* get a curry in a Czech pub, I think I’d be smart enough not to…

9. Liukchik - August 31, 2008

I would try a Czech curry – the importation/mutation of dishes across national boundaries is always intriguing – a Chinese takeaway menu in Prague has very little in common with one in Ealing. And neither bear any relation to real Chinese dishes.
And Czech national staples like ‘hemendeks’ – a culinary and linguistic import are a delight. Any others from our non-UK/US-based comrades?

10. Sexless Berlin - August 31, 2008

BiB, your first sentence leaves me breathless as you have taken the term “run-on” to an entirely new dimension — where’s my oxygen mask — and while I’m at it, although I’m currently contemplating a post roughly titled “The Look of Bad Teeth” (although do let me clarify that it’s not exactly the teeth, somehow, but something else) to explain to you why I just don’t GET the Northern European male thing, I do have to say that you have most definitely conjured up a nice little image in my mind of a new and exciting boundary that for some reason not until just now, reading your post, had it occurred to me could be crossed; however, I can only sigh when I think of the pure, uncorrupted creature I still was when the wall fell, and with a quick Hail Mary and the sign of a cross, log off now as ever CaThoLIC.

11. Marsha Klein - September 1, 2008

Does this mean that the Russian is in Russia at the moment?

I feel quite jealous that Brian and I have not had the benefit of this type of cultural exchange (although an Englishman living in Scotland needs a surprising number of things to be explained to him, even after 25+ years).

You are right to avoid the “the British way is the right way” approach (although I don’t think it’s an attitude that you would have ever adopted). It is deeply embarrassing to witness, and I speak here from experience.

12. pip - September 1, 2008

Today at breakfast the dregs of Irish morning TV offered up the murky canteen slop of cultural stereotypes that was ‘Allo, Allo’. It’s difficult not to gasp at the multi-levelled layers of offensiveness…

I like Liukchik’s comment about cross-cultural exchange (or whatever you might want to call it) through food – it really is amazing how food is a way to take in and accept the world. I’d say it was about a decade ago that olives came to Ireland, and sure there’s been no stopping us since.

13. Arabella - September 2, 2008

I had the devil of a time trying to explain a dalek to the American Husband.
This post of yours almost had me reaching for a hankie, you know.

14. d.z. bodenberg - September 2, 2008

Surely you’d just use youtube, Arabella? It makes such things easier.
And pip: ‘allo ‘allo has been bought by a (private, mainstream) German channel. They’re giving “the fallen Madonna with the big boobies” a teutonic-faux-French-voiceover as we type.

15. LC - September 2, 2008

>>>nothing will make the Russian laugh more uncontrollably than mention of someone falling over

Shame – I fell down a flight of stairs in a shopping centre just off Red Square a few years ago, my hands were wedged firmly in my jeans pockets so I couldn’t get them out to cushion my fall and I just toppled down the stairs like a skittle. According to my best friend it was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen, but sadly there were no Russians around to enjoy my work of comedic genius.

16. Arabella - September 3, 2008

D.Z – d’you know that never occurred to me? But then, I lug a great big edition of the oed around the house with my laptop. It’s a scary thought – if everyone uses You Tube, will the ability to play Charades be lost for ever?

17. BiB - September 6, 2008

Arabella, may I just say again, for the record, how thrilled I am that you are back in the blogging way? But, really, you shouldn’t terrify your husband with the Daleks. Those things ruined my childhood, which would otherwise have been 100% idyll. Even more terrifying when they took their lids off and had those loathsome, turtle-like heads.

LC, you have my sympathies. But count your blessings that this didn’t happen to you on the Metro. As you probably remember, the escalators there have a woman sitting in a booth at the top and the bottom whose job it is to bollock folk for getting escalator etiquette wrong. Falling would have got you a top-grade bollocking, and maybe even a fine which, because you’re a foreigner, would have been multiplied by a factor of a thousand.

d.z., is ‘Allo ‘Allo already on TV here, then? Or has it already been? I don’t think I ever chortled at the original, but maybe it’d be worth giving it a shot with germanised eyes.

Pip, your ‘sure’ actually made me snigger. When I was a nipper, I would hear old – they were probably in their 20s, of course, but seemed ancient – Irish relatives say sure and wondered what this ‘sha’ that they used to insert everywhere meant. Took me years to realise what it really was. Anyway, yes, those Celtic tigers need their grub.

Marshypops, yup, he’s upped and abandoned me again, the nasty old stinker. It’s too early for me to tell if this is what it’s been like every other year. I always claim I love being alone so will see if this is true or, as is more likely the case, out-and-out bollocks. … And my sister always claims being in Scotland is as good as being abroad so I say you and Brian should big up your bi-national credentials.

Katchita, yes, attraction is a bit of a mystery. Horses for courses, I suppose. Though, in a way, perhaps it can be simplified to being willing to give ‘the other’ a shot or sticking with what you know, to another version of one’s own cultural self. I don’t think I was specifically looking to find a beloved from another world but circumstances dictated I did. When I’m being lazy, I think it would be easier to be with someone from the same world – this might be less the case for the Russian, as at least we speak his language – but then, ultimately, once you’ve been together for ever, as we have, identity begins to fall away. You just become you and you. Each other.

Lukeski, it’s a very nice thought for me that you are in an Anglo-Czech couple. What a learning curve you’ve got ahead of you, although at least your contact with Russia might have given you some head-start when it comes to the personal. Mind you, I knew a Russian who lived in Prague and he insisted the nations had nothing at all in common. On the food front, the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten was in St. Petersburg. I think it was unintentional fusion. Bloody brilliant.

Ed, I’ve only been to the Czech Republic once, in 1992, and it was, indeed, semi-famous at the time for not having good food. I remember eating lots of peas. I think I was vegetarian at the time and have a feeling the Czechs are not a nation to pander to foody softies. Think I probably had lots of nice beer and wine though.

18. redneckarts - October 1, 2008

sister sledge…purrrrfect, jest purrrrrfect. lovely indeed.

19. BiB - October 24, 2008

Redneck, I’m even having a comforting and wintry old mooch through youtube’s annals of their songs. Not enough visuals though. Just audio and a photo of them. What do they think this is? The bloody radio? Er, with a photo stuck on the front of it?

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