Netherlands versus Russia
Question: “How do you recognize a Dutch fishing vessel returning to port?” Answer: “There are no seagulls flying behind it.”
This is a Dutch joke referring to the famous Dutch stinginess. Dutch fishermen throw nothing overboard, not even fish waste. Having lived the first half of my life in the country that gave birth to this joke, and to the expression “going Dutch”, it was quite a culture shock for me when I first encountered Russian generosity. As Garfield, the famous cartoon cat, once said: “There is so much month left after the end of my money!” I usually say in Russia: “There is so much generosity left after the end of my appetite.”
What I love about Russians is that they have only a faint sense of limits or proportions. When I first came to Russia I often made the mistake of eating well of what I thought was the main course but which afterwards turned out only to have been the starter. Even when visiting my Russian friends who have little money, I never cease to be surprised by the welcome they prepare. Obviously, they serve Sovetskoye Shampan- skoye instead of Moët & Chandon and boiled and filtered tap water instead of San Pellegrino, but you would never suspect that they had counted out their last roubles to be able to host you. And very often a toast (not the roasted bread but the little table speeches that accompany every glass raised) with Sovetskoye Shampanskoye leaves more of an impression than one accompanied by Moët & Chandon.
If a Russian has something to give to a friend he will give it, even when it means he won’t have anything himself afterwards. And he will never ask for a receipt. If you have a Russian friend you will never be without lodging because they are always happy to let you stay in their houses or apartments, no matter how small their home may be. Even after twenty years, I am still learning what it means to give without restraint, without calculation and without expecting any return. It is one of the great lessons I am still learning in Russia.
When you don’t expect it
I spent last New Year’s Eve with some Portuguese friends at the beach bar of my good friend Pedro close to Lisbon. And there I understood that I made what would have been a beginner’s mistake in Russia. I brought three litres of beluga vodka with me from Moscow with the idea that my Portuguese friends would take the bottles home to enjoy them there. When a minute later I saw the three litres of vodka opened on the table I understood that sometimes in Europe you can find a little bit of Russia too, and that the party would last until the morning.