Extreme for Us, Normal for Russians

As Bilbo the Hobbit is known to say, “Dangerous thing leaving your front door. You never know what adventure might await you.” I have always loved this combination of the momentous with the ordinary, of a risky adventure with something as commonplace as closing the front door.

The Russian definition of adventure is very different from the American one. When our cousin invited me for a walk through the forest to see a waterfall, I knew my American visions of well-traveled paths, safe overlooks, and points of easy return were all illusions. It was more like a bush-wack than a stroll. What made it more difficult is the very steep landscape in this mountainous, seaside region.

We started on a relatively easy path, jumping rocks along a half-dried up stream. The teen-agers we brought along with us were leading the pace. When we arrived at our destination, a trickling waterfall, I thought, “Great, now we can just find our way back via the stream by which we came.” I knew something was up (figuratively and literally) when my travel companions kept making reference to the position of the sun. Next thing I know, we are scaling one of the steep banks, following a path of our own making. Fifteen to twenty minutes of grabbing for trees, roots, and anything else that did not slide into the deep ravine (two of us including yours truly almost lost footing), we emerged onto a road and one of the last places the bus stops on its travels to the top of the mountain. We were amazed that we really had climbed all that ways.

Drenched with sweat, but happy to make it together in one piece, we called back to headquarters to arrange a pick-up by car (This was most likely an accommodation for the one yankee on this little excursion). There was a time when I would have interpreted such an adventure as extreme, but I have come to understand that many such things happen to Russians every day, especially those living in the country and in the villages. It makes me realize that I have to adjust my own definition of extreme adventure and dig deeper into the soul of this great nation.

3 thoughts on “Extreme for Us, Normal for Russians

  1. Ah, Aaron, right on as usual. Laura and I identify the source of this peculiarly Russian conception of “normal” behavior as a seemingly genetic lack of a sense of physical risk. Things that Americans would tend to shy away from as “risky” (such as dodging in and out of traffic driving 140 kph down a rain-drenched, relatively busy two lane road) often don’t seem to register on the “risk scale” for many Russians I knew.

    However, though rules or (the American conception of) common sense don’t make a dent in their risk-taking behavior, superstitions seem to be one of the few limiters on Russian riskiness. Supernatural injunctions such as “Don’t sit at the corner of the table or you won’t get married,” “Don’t shake hands over a threshold,” and “Don’t let some object (such as a telephone pole or parking meter) come between you and the person you’re walking with on the street” were heeded with extreme rigor.

    I know we’re generalizing, and that’s frowned on now-a-days, but that’s been my experience time and again.

    • Haven’t experienced Russians being overly superstitious myself. Only the great fear of the cold and illness causing DRAFT (which I almost posted on, but refrained). Then again, I haven’t been here as long as you have (yet).

      • Yes, the draft is a malicious entity for many in Russia. I’ve also had female college students on my summer projects scolded by babuskas for sitting on the cement steps of a university – they were going to freeze their eggs and thus not be able to have children. The list seems endless…

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