By Kayode Ogundare, who just returned from Moscow:
MY RUSSIAN FRIENDS AND I
One of the fears I had, going to Russia, was the widely told tale of racism and virulent homophobia of the people. I remember it even topped my reasons for objecting to the granting of World Cup hosting rights to the Russians when the announcement was first made.
I had pointed to the fans unrest which characterized the European Championships in Poland/Ukraine which had racial undertones. How will people of colour fare in Russia for a month-long competition like the World Cup, I wondered.
So, when duty called and I found myself on the flight to Russia, I knew I had to be very careful in my interactions with people by flying under the radar.
Fortunately, I was with Lolade Adewuyi, who’d done a year at the International Olympic University in Sochi and he continually allayed my fears. He assured me he didn’t experience and racial slur in his time in Sochi but, tried as much as I did, I was uneasy all through my first day in Moscow.
After running around all day long, I finally got to my hotel around 11pm. Fortunately, I had booked online before leaving Nigeria so I had minimal interaction with the people on my way, except the cab driver who took me at breakneck speed to the hotel.
After completing check-in formalities, I was shown to my room on the first floor but I kept tossing and turning on the bed. Weirdly, I kept imagining that someone was going to burst through the door at any moment to assault me.
And, true to my imagination, somebody did burst through the door first thing the following morning. But, rather than harm me, he brought me nothing but joy. From that moment until my last few moments in Moscow, I was happy I met someone like him.
His name is Alexis, 29 year old Russian from the city of Ekarintenburg, some 800 miles away from Moscow. He’s an IT Technician, atheist, fitness freak but not a fan of football. “It doesn’t make any sense to me,” he told me when I told him I’d come to cover the FIFA World Cup Draws. Incidentally, his city is one of the 11 host cities for the 2018 World Cup but he wasn’t excited about it.
From that morning introduction until my last moment, Alexis and I talked non-stop, sometimes staying up late at night until around 2am. We talked about everything under the sun from history (I was surprised at his profound knowledge of Russian and World history, particularly the Bolshevik Revolution), politics (he hates American president Donald Trump but cannot stand Russian president Vladmir Putin who he blames for every woe bedeviling the Russian people), health (he’s a huge fan of herbal medicine and recommended some herbs for me and, most importantly, he’s a bibliophile (loves books with a passion. He reads and quotes from philosophers with effortless ease).
However, let me shock you, Alexis doesn’t speak a word of English. I don’t speak a word of Russian. So, I know you’re dying to ask, how were we communicating?
Thanks to GoogleTranslate, we talked nineteen to the dozen. He would speak in Russian into his phone; Google would translate into English for me to listen to. Then I would do the same for him. We made a fine pair as we went out, holding hands and generally having a good time. We frequented McDonalds and KFC because, tried as he did, I refused to eat any of the Russian foods he wanted me to try.
He counted the days until I had to leave and was very sad at my departure. He followed me to the train station, took the first one with me and only went back when I got on the AeroExpress that took me to the Airport. We kept chatting on WhatsApp while I was in Turkey and we have not stopped since then. Even as I write this, we are chatting and I have told him I would send him a copy of the newspaper. He’s looking forward to it.
Of course there were also other people who made my stay very memorable. There was the delightful Ms Svetlana, manager of my hotel who made sure I had everything I wanted. When I went out and lost my way, she nearly cried her eyes out. And then there was Natasha, the housekeeper who spoke some English and was always teasing Alexis and I for our endless chit-chats without speaking the same language.
Thanks to Whatsapp, I’ve kept in touch with these wonderful people and I intend to keep the friendships for as long as possible.
ENCOUNTER AT THE MALL
I wished I wouldn’t have to report something unfortunate as this because of the wonderful people I came across but this one incident put a dent on my impression of Russia.
Alexis, ever hyperactive, had insisted we go to the Mall to get some stuff at 2am in the morning. It’s a 24-hour Self-Service Mall so you can afford to get there and get served at anytime of the day.
We got into the Mall and, after picking our needs, we approached the Cashier, a lovely old lady. After she tallied everything we had bought, I found out the money in my hand was not enough so I needed to reach inside my pocket for more money but my hands where already filled with groceries. I wanted to put them on the ground but Alexis stepped forward to take those things off me so I could easily get the money out.
That was when a lay-about, who I hadn’t noticed before spoke up from the other side of the aisle. Though I didn’t speak Russian, I didn’t need an interpreter to tell me that what he was saying was not complimentary. Even the old lady cashier looked up in surprise and shock.
I asked Alexis what the guy said but he waved it off and told me not to worry about it. He turned at the guy and let fly a string of choice expletives which brought a smile to the face of the lady cashier.
We paid up and left but when we got back to my room, I pressured Alexis to tell me what the incident was all about. Unsurprisingly, he said the guy was angry at him for holding my bag like a common slave when it was supposed to be the black man serving them.
I shrugged it off. One, because it was too late to do anything about it and, secondly, because Alexis had stood up for me and I couldn’t have asked for a better defence attorney.
My takeaway lesson from the incident was that there are good and bad people everywhere. Thank God for people like Alexis.
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