IT WAS Day Two of my visit to Moscow and I was alone at the New Stage, waiting for the start of Giselle, the renowned ballet by influential French composer Theophile Gautier in the mid-1800s.
After the stressful experience of trying to locate my seat, no thanks to the fact that tickets and seats are all in Cyrillic alphabets and the theatre ushers spoke a smattering of English, I was reminded of a friend's observation: "Muscovites seldom smile. They look fierce, and talk loudly."
How right he was, I thought, for my experience so far with Muscovites was that they scarcely paid any attention to foreigners. Even sales people did not attempt to make small talk to entice you to buy. In fact, when I touched down at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, I felt a little apprehensive and wary about whom I was going to meet during my trip.
Just as these thoughts were running through my head, a Russian couple hurriedly took the seats next to mine. A few moments of silence later, the woman pointed to my brochure of Giselle, signalling me to let her have a read. Then, she asked: "You from Japan?"
"Singapore," I replied.
"Sing-a-pore?" She registered a puzzled look, before breaking into giggles. Her husband was none the wiser where Singapore was. I figured that they had paid for tickets in the circle seats upstairs, but because the theatre was not full, they had moved closer to the stage 'illegally'.
Due to the language barrier, we did not manage to chat further. But during the break, the woman stuffed some cookies into my hands, and signalled to me to eat while I could. What a pleasant surprise!
When I shared this incident and my observations about Muscovites, my guide Irina Tayakina explained: "If Muscovites come across as unfriendly, that's only because they are shy and they don't speak English in general."
She should know. After all, Irina - born and bred in Moscow - is as Russian as can be. She is vivacious, speaks good English and is open about her thoughts on everything under the sun. Many times, she would share with me stories about her life, as she would with an old friend, while tucking into her bowl of borsch.
And like most old-school Russians, Irina was religious, even superstitious at times. Despite our packed itinerary, Irina was adamant that we should not miss the service at Novodevichy Convent, one of the most beautiful monastic ensembles in Russia, which was founded by Prince Vasily III in 1524.
At the end of my Moscow trip, my kindly guide gave me a pocket icon of a saint as a parting gift. "He is representative of an invisible force that will protect you and give you luck wherever you go," she said. And she meant every word.
Irina's warmth and concern for my welfare reminded me of an incident Mr Bounlert Loungdouangchanh, a Laotian who studied in the former Soviet Union, told me about. It threw some light on the Russian character. He said: "Once, I wanted to buy all the mushrooms from an elderly person at the Moscow subway station, and she said no. I asked why and her reply was "if you buy all the mushrooms, what will happen to other people? You should buy some and leave the rest for others."
A WARM AND HOSPITABLE PEOPLE
Russia is a land of extremes and, hence, the pervading myths about mystery and dread - huge country, severe sub-zero climate, skinheads, mafia, assassinations, Chechen terrorism, the much feared KGB (today known as FSB), Stalin, Chernobyl. The list could go on. Yet, in Russia, you will meet the warmest and most hospitable souls on earth. When you first encounter them on the walkways, they seem hostile and unfriendly, leather jackets and beer bottles in hand. Once you spend time with them, talking about life and society, laughing, eating and drinking into the hours of the morning, you begin to admire the steel in their character, the humour in their being and their rootedness to the motherland. How could Russians otherwise endure the hardships of the climate and the afflictions of history? Despite the odds, they have a passion for life and a constant yearning to stretch the limits. To really understand the Russian soul, you will need to appreciate the deep ironies of Russian humour and their ability to laugh at themselves.
Singapore Airlines flies three times weekly to Moscow. Visit singaporeair.com for more information
Photos: Leong Phei Phei