I have to admit to a few (severe) misconceptions I had about Russia before arriving in September.
OK, so I didn’t actually think, like my friend Ksenia (pictured above) insists, that bears casually traipse across the Red Square.
“Yes you did. All Westerners think that bears freely roam Russian streets. You are so ignorant about us it’s funny.” She laughed.
I did think that I would arrive in some apocalyptic post-Soviet era town, with grey buildings half-torn down, amidst an unsmiling, tough people.
I found a string of very old, very beautiful towns, with pastel-colored buildings (granted, with a bit of graffiti occasionally scribbled on the walls).
And while indeed, on the streets, the Russians won’t appear the cheeriest of people, once you are included within their circle, you will hardly find anyone more generous or better company.
Out of the unexpected and surprising Russia had to offer to me was the stylishness of the women, even in cities and towns beyond Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
In fact, there is a very French element in the way Russian women dress. Even for a quick trip to the supermarket, guaranteed you will find a Russian woman done up as though she were heading to a party immediately afterwards.
So while I thought that Russian women went through the -30 degree winter in huge puffer jackets and furry boots, which technically is what any sane person would do, I found the truth to be slightly different.
No puffer jackets but usually long, expensive fur coats. Either of a black or white color. This is pretty much a bipolar country after all, one of extremes. I mean, what kind of country has temperatures that can drop down to -40 in winter, and then go up to +40 in summer?
No fur snow boots. Instead, picture black boots with sky-high heels. Even on the iciest surface. My biggest source of frustration here is definitely slipping constantly on flats while the Russian women prance around without a problem on the black ice.
Lots of headscarves. Either bright red or heavily patterned. Wrapped around the hair as well. It makes it instantly practical to enter the Orthodox churches as well, where you must absolutely cover your hair. No weird fumbling around in your bag for a scarf and awkwardly covering your head in it ages before being able to come in – like I did.
You do get quite a few girls here who however manage to pull off bonnets stylishly. Long, very long, straight hair is the norm here. And much like the winter coat color issue, it’s generally either jet-black hair or platinum blonde.
Most Russian girls have very beautiful, light eyes, which are highlighted with make-up: generally thick black eyeliner, pale eye shadow, a bit of mascara.
In terms of accessories, the lovely church jewelry you can get in Russia (for, by the way, an excellent price) is popular. Silver or gold crosses, engraved rings with amethysts or aquamarines. Chunky jewelry as well is hip. Think statement necklaces or big rings.
The main thing – always – is to look impeccably groomed. I used to smugly think it was the French customs interlaced within Russian tradition – which is indeed present.
However, I think the typical conversation I had with a ‘babushka’ on the train to Moscow might point to another reason.
“I suppose you have a fiancé?” she asked.
I was too surprised to answer.
“Well, make sure you keep on dressing smartly – you need to catch those young men’s eyes!”