A common refrain among backpackers swashbuckling their way through Eastern Europe is the disheartening observation of “no one ever smiles.” Well, it’s kinda true. If you’ve ever tried to deal with bureaucracy in Eastern Europe, particularly the ex-Soviet states, you’re in for a hard-learned lesson in the meaning of “cursory.”
That’s right, kids. I give vocab lessons too!
But it’s not that they’re mean. In fact, Slavic people can be extraordinarily generous. This is especially true in regards to their liberal donations of vodka into your bloodstream.
Soviet Service Spectacularity
But get them behind a counter and it’s like they’ve become their own evil twin. Even just being there in front of them to buy a ticket which is their job to sell will resemble horribly unsuccessful peace negotiations between two sworn enemies locked in endless warfare. Ask them one too many questions, and they’ll act like you’ve slain their firstborn child.
The worst I’ve heard was from an Australian guy, who was buying a train ticket from a Russian woman in Latvia. She told him the ticket window closed at 2:30pm and it was too late. He pointed to the clock, which said 2:29. So she rested her head in her hand…waited one minute…pointed to the clock, shut the window, and walked away. Yup, It’s that bad.
It’s not always like this. Plenty of ticket booth operators were perfectly reasonable and straightforward, who dealt with service requests as professionally as would be expected. But I would never use the word “friendly” to describe the interaction.
Think smiles are universal? Think again!
There’s also the smiling issue. Slavic people don’t smile to be friendly. They’ll simply do friendly things, like give you vodka. Lots of vodka. Smiling, throughout most of Eastern Europe, is reserved for laughter. I was even asked why Americans smile so much, and if it means they’re laughing at people, and had to explain that when Westerners smile, it’s just a friendly hello. Imagine the confusion they feel when Americans come visit and smile at them. They’re constantly under the impression that they’re the target of condescension.
But even without the awkward smile confusion, they can still come off as though they’re just one step away from beating you over the head with a hammer and sickle. Watch out for those. They keep them behind the desk.
I spent plenty of time wondering how the entirety of Eastern Europe could have such a split personality, which could be so kind during personal interactions, but so curt and irritated when placed into any sort of official position. Is it merely a hangover from the Soviet days? Was the dysfunctional bureaucracy so awful that it left a legacy of annoyed employees for decades afterward? Is it due to salaries so insufficient for comfortable living that resentment builds like a dormant volcano, only to erupt in a fiery maelstrom at the first hapless English-speaking visitor?
Perhaps they are simply allergic to glass. Specifically, the particular formula most frequently used in ticket booth windows throughout the Eastern bloc. Perhaps a similar chemical is present in the countertops as well. It’s not their fault. We’d be irritable too, if our allergies were acting up and compounded with all that Chernobyl radiation. I mean, who wouldn’t?
In case of emergency, break glass (metaphorically)
But try your best to meet a few of them outside the confines of allergen-filled information desks and ticket booths, and it’s an altogether different story. They’ll be as nice as anyone you’ll find, particularly in regards to how much vodka they’ll give you.
It’s too bad most visitors don’t get to see this side of things. Instead they deal with touristy nonsense like visa applications, ticket purchases, ridiculous museum closing times, and random passport checks, aka the dreaded bribe request. This is the worst way to experience this part of the world, where the bureaucracy allergies are in full force.
On the other side of the looking glass resides an endless feast of freely given food, endless bottles of spectacular vodka, oceans of caviar, and drunken train rides. It is a spectacular wonderland where rainbows spring forth from the heavens, unicorns emerge from the forests, and angels escort you to paradise.
It is a wonderful world in which you could not possibly fathom the abundance of vodka they shall present to you.