The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 27 April

Dear Thomas

We planned our trip to Russia a long time ago. Now it’s too difficult to cancel. I wonder if you could inform me of the etiquette of visiting countries that are a bit… well… hostile. Also, I understand that Russian manners are very ‘different’, to say the least. Also, I understand that Russian manners are very ‘different’, to say the least.

Fiona Hamley, Sheffield

Dear Fiona

We make all sorts of assumptions about other countries, however hard we try not to. But it’s good manners to be better informed. You must follow the advice on travel to Russia on the Foreign Office website, of course, although, in my experience, many ‘awkward’ destinations are perfectly agreeable to visit. I was in Croatia just after the Kosovo War in the 1990s, when simply everybody had cancelled. Would they reduce the astronomical prices in the empty hotel at Dubrovnik? Would they buffalo… In 1999 I visited Lebanon with my mother and a friend of mine. They accepted a lift in the back of a road-mender’s truck at dusk in quest of the Cedar of the Lebanon – which was not what the British Foreign Office would have recommended. I was lucky. I was lying ill in the hotel.

As it happens, I can tell you quite plainly you’ll have a perfectly nice time. I’ve just been there, you see. So I know. The Russians aren’t rude, as is commonly assumed. English is not much spoken and they seem embarrassed about being unable to communicate. I thought they were a shy people, really, although with a warrior element, no doubt. Striking up conversations with strangers and banter, in any case, don’t seem to be normal practice. At the opera several people smiled back when I caught their eye. My travelling companion and I were deciphering the Cyrillic script at the Fabergé Museum (it said, ‘Garderobe’ which is Russian via French for ‘Cloakroom’), which amused the attendant hovering nearby.

Street conduct is orderly, even if there are crowds. I saw no rowdiness, loud talking or pushing. The same on the metro in St Petersburg. Traffic stops at pedestrian crossings. In restaurants, the central catering school of Russia must have taught waiters to remove all plates and glasses the second they are finished with, even if others at the table are still eating. Disconcerting to the foreigner, but they think it’s good service, so one must be accommodating. The food arrives promptly; courses follow on swiftly. It can feel a little rushed. But they’re never in a hurry to bring the bill.

Low-slung dining is a feature and they are troubled if you refuse a sofa and choose instead an upright chair so as to have some chance of reaching the table. In Russia, banquettes and sofas are thought heaven, even if they’re way below table height. The only hazards: steps more like cliffs; also protrusions in the street over which you might trip.

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