A Tramp Abroad

The best hotel in Saratov

A sequence of unfortunate events landed me in Saratov without a place to stay. No, landing in Saratov was not unfortunate, but being homeless on a November night in Saratov could indeed be about as unfortunate as the sequence of events that triggered such.

Now the fact that the tourism infrastructure in Saratov does not (yet!) compete with “western” cities of nearly on million inhabitants could be construed as a drawback. Really, though, it is what you make of it.

So there I was with no place to stay and totally incapable of communicating even in rudimentary Russian to find a room. Friends in Saratov immediately rallied to my assistance. They found me a place at the best hotel in Saratov: Hotel Mama Nina. Okay, hotel might not be the right word. We would speak of a Pension in German-speaking countries and a bed-and-breakfast in Britain. And it was rounded out by an adoption agency. Really. Nina adopted me as her own son.


Did I say bed and breakfast? Sorry. I meant bed and breakfast and brunch at 10 and lunch at 12 and � This lady was great!!

Now you might reckon with a language barrier. Nope. Well, perhaps some of the details, but then they were seldom important. I can tell you all about her daughter and son-in-law and grandchild in the 11th grade, her late husband, etc.

Now y’all in ‘Bama and Florida listen up, y’ hear? Y’all talk about Southern hospitality?? (Notice that I did spell Southern with a capital S.) This lady puts all us Southerners to shame. (Yes “us”, although I’m from way up north in Virginia.) She set the table with the very best of all she had, in quality and quantity. She held nothing back. She was incredible!

I see this hospitality as a potential Russian export that could contribute to the well-being of the world. I have always been a person who is open to foreigners and tries to help them. However, since my Southern hospitality was dwarfed by Mama Nina, I have resolved to redouble my efforts to pass her gifts on to others (in the sense of karma).

Dangers of Travel in Russia

The Russians joke about it. They sell T-shirts in Moscow reading “There are no bears in Moscow”. But naive tourists who have never set foot outside of home, who were raised in the cold war, who read about Ivan the Terrible seem to harbor some fear of Russia.

Well, I have been there and I assure you that, while (because?) there are no bears in Moscow, it is quite bearable here. But don’t get me wrong. There are definitely dangers, including:

  • Feeling stupid, helpless, incompetent, “foreign”. If you have never been there (the feeling, I mean), don’t underestimate what it can do to your ego. You cannot even ask, “Where is the nearest toilet? It’s an emergency!” You cannot read the signs. You cannot ask directions. This is known as the language bear-ier. And it is indeed hard to bear.
  • Being ignorant, poorly educated. If being illiterate does not make you feel ignorant enough (You studied what? How many degrees?), then take a guided tour (in English please) of one of Russia’s many museums – and find out what you don’t know about history! When you hear about how long the Russians fought the Swedes, you will understand why there are almost no Volvos here. But somebody please tell me what all those Mercedes are doing here! And what about Ikea (Swedish furniture chain) in Moscow??
  • Missing your plane because you cannot understand the announcement advising “Last call for flight” If that does not work, rely on your radio-controlled watch to give you the right time. My high-grade Casio displayed times that were -2 hours, -4 hours and then -7 hours 10 minutes. Help!!
  • Getting hopelessly lost. Need I say more?
  • Distractions. In a city like Saratov, dangers lurk on every street corner. Dmitry calls it the Long Legs Phenomenon. Especially at street corners, beware of the distractions of these long legs, boots and high heels. Russian drivers are not used to stopping for crazy foreigners looking over their shoulders. (First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin, then on to Moscow!)
  • Security control. Well, this was not exactly the kind of security control that I was apprehensive about. But there is an indirect danger. At Domodedovo Airport in Moscow you will be frisked by female control agents. Warning: Please do not yell “Don’t stop!” They might understand you and send you to their male colleagues for further interrogation. By the way, I endured less friction with the security folks in Russia than I did on my last flight to the States!

Am I exaggerating? No. In fact, imagine that you are sitting there at the airport in Domodedovo Airport in Moscow on your way to Saratov (and in the process of missing your flight) with your brand-new Russian-English dictionary in your hand and your watch doing whatever it wants. Apart from the fact that you have no chance to translate the auditory input from the public address system into Cyrillic symbols, you observe that you are incapable of using this dictionary to look up words printed on the walls around you. Why? You don’t even know the Cyrillic alphabet and so the dictionary before you (for your purposes) is not even alphabetical (a librarian’s nightmare).

Now if you already speak Russian, this is much ado about nothing. Otherwise, you should consider a crash course. Pons has a nice one with two small books and a CD for only 21. Every word or phrase that you learn will be much appreciated by the Russians you meet.

If you do not speak Russian, do not let my warnings fend you off. Just bring along an adventurous spirit and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!! Expect surprises. If there are none, you are doing something wrong.

Culture in Russia

You are surprised that Russia has culture? Perhaps you think that “culture” is “the sweet Georgia peach and the boy from Tupelo” or Lynyrd Skynyrd. (But have you ever heard “Sweet Home Alabama” done by the Leningrad Cowboys? I am not trying to deceive anyone; I know they are from Finland.) Yes, world, there was (and is!) culture before America began exporting Coca Cola and MTV and McDonalds.

We Americans are hopelessly ignorant of culture and history. My perception of history was formed by alternating years of American History and Virginia History. I thought World War II began December 7, 1941. (Imagine my shock on the steps of the war memorial in Saratov.)


Nothing short of amazement suffices to describe a visit to a Russian museum of history or art. Yes, America, there was life on earth even before 1492. Again I emphasize that you should take the English tours. You came a long way to see things that you can never see at home; don’t save money at the wrong places by strolling through the museums independently. All the signs are in Russian.

The topic of culture in Russia is so vast that I feel completely overwhelmed by the task of describing it in a few lines. I refer you instead to many websites dedicated to Russian culture and events. Do a Google search and restrict it to Russian pages (in English please).

East meets West

My Russian friend and I were sitting in a restaurant in Moscow. Among the guests who strolled in was a Russian general, who sat with his wife and son at a table nearby. I was curious. Not wanting to embarrass my friend, I tactfully waited until we had left our table and put on our coats. Then I strolled over to the general and asked whether he speaks English. “A little bit.” It was enough.

I explained that my father was a career soldier in the American military, that I had experienced being on alert in Germany when the Berlin Wall was constructed, and had lived through the Cuban missile crisis and that it was a particular honor for me to shake his hand in the peaceful setting of a restaurant.

We had a short but friendly conversation. He explained that he is not a general but only a “small officer” (a lieutenant, I later learned). No matter, for me he was a general. His son understood my careful English as well and was learning English in school.

By the way, I finally deciphered the Cyrillic sign and found that we were in a Pizza Hut. 🙁

Turnaround is fair play. At the beautiful park facility overlooking Saratov, I was photographing the WWII monument commemorating the cities that were attacked (even before Pearl Harbor!) and apparently looking very much like a tourist. A gentleman walked up and (via the translation services of my Russian friends) announced that his wife had never seen a foreigner. She seemed shy and embarrassed by his forwardness. I was delighted and happily shook their hands.

Russian public transportation

In Moscow a friend kept hustling me into taxis, which is not my lifestyle. But in between we did use the subways, which I really did enjoy. I grant that the Moscow subway is not as modern as Washington’s Metro, but from all indicators it seemed safe, reliable and strongly frequented. I did not enjoy the same safe feeling on the streets of Moscow in the back of a taxi without seat belts. Was it just my illiteracy (guess what? all the signs are in Russian!) that made me glad that I was not driving?

In Saratov I made out just fine without taxis. My transportation there began with a bus ride from the airport (only a block away from the airport entrance) to downtown. I thoroughly enjoyed just being shoulder to shoulder with real Russians, smiling at people, feeling quite at home, catching a lady holding a child, and later an elderly lady, when the bus driver did his jack rabbit starts.

But the pinnacle of Russian public transportation was the 12-passenger van. These vans roll through Russian cities like Saratov quite frequently. You get in and then, somewhere along your route, pass a 100 ruble bill via multiple hands up to the driver. In multitasking mode, the driver navigates the city streets through heavy traffic while passing your change back through the multiple hands. Your correct change comes back to you. Russians are amazed that this practicality and honesty amazes the tourists; it is just a given.


We all harbor our stereotypes (good or bad) that filter our view of other people. There were two aspects of my experience that contradicted “the” (albeit not necessarily my) stereotype of Russians: sports and vodka.

Perhaps the Olympic Games have always been one of our very important windows to Russia. Naturally we would expect sports to play a central role in Russian daily life. Maybe it does and I just did not get to the gym. But in Moscow and Saratov I never encountered a sight like I was accustomed to in Washington: hundreds of bureaucrats out jogging on the Mall at lunch time. (Perhaps Washington has changed since 9/11.) The only incident of sports that I encountered in Russia was a soccer team running through the beautiful park overlooking Saratov for team training.

One aspect of the Russian stereotype that I very gratefully did not experience (I cannot say circumvented, as I did not experience it at all) was vodka. After reading Steve Brown’s “Real Russian Man” article, I had my defenses up. I am a strict teetotaler who would not even wash his (long) hair in beer (not to be confused with bear) nor cleanse a wound(ed heart) with vodka. But in fact I was only once (and I really mean once; not like in Austria, where they hound you) offered some home-made apple wine, and I was never offered vodka. So Steve, if drinking vodka defines your virility, I wonder what (expectations) you brought (brought you) to Saratov. 🙂


Do I recommend Russia, Moscow and Saratov? Definitely.
Would I do it again? Definitely.
My only regret: five days was not enough time.

Robert Bach


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