From Russia . . . with respect: How I learned to admire the British, by Anna Voznessenskaya, a student visitor

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1. AT THE LOO

I can be even more precise: in the loos at Westminster Tube station, the cubicle in the left-hand corner. This is my first day in England so I have been devouring the printed word: advertisements on the streets, newspapers and inscriptions casually scribbled on the walls. Now I am stuck in the loo reading the graffiti.

'Kate loves John]' Informative but not exactly stimulating. The English are not very original.

'Sex is pleasure'. I would not dare argue the point. It might even be an understatement. My eyes slide down the wall.

'F--- the Nazis. Nazis are arseholes]' I would have been proud of my fellow men if I had ever found such words on the wall of a public lavatory back in Russia. But I bet it will never happen. 'F--- the Jews' maybe, but never the Nazis. Good old Britain. Thank you]

2. ON THE TUBE

Rush-hour. The Victoria Line. The train comes, the doors open. According to my Russian standards, the carriage is almost empty. People stand in the passage without touching each other. Somehow I can't get on to the train; too many people are blocking the doorway. I want to shout: 'Move closer to each other] Can't you see that people are left on the platform and you stand here like a bunch of puppets . . .' But I don't shout. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. I understand that they have to keep their distance. You can't trespass on their own private space.

Again, I start comparing with similar incidents in my own country. 'Breathe in everyone', they yell, 'only three people left. Great] Only one left. Good]' You can lift your feet and remain hanging in the air, supported only by the people flanking you. Maybe this only goes to prove that public transport is not so efficient as in England. Or maybe it demonstrates a great sense of humour and public-spiritedness, harder to come by on the English Tube.

3. IN TRAFALGAR SQUARE

At last, I'm sitting on a bench facing Nelson's column and the lions. A typically English gentleman (at least as I had imagined them from my textbook chapter: 'Businessmen in the City'), occupies a bench near me. Calm, absorbed in meditation, smoking melancholically. Next to him, a girl sitting in a strange position - bent forward so that her head nearly touches the ground, as if she had a very strong pain or were crying. I suppress an instinctive desire to rush up to her and ask: 'What's happened? Can I help you?' The gentleman doesn't seem to notice his neighbour. Ten, 20, 30 minutes pass. Suddenly, the man puts his hand on the girl's shoulder. He doesn't turn his head or utter a single word. He just starts stroking her back. I relax. So, they are not cruel or indifferent after all. But it takes a great effort for them to interfere. In Russia (it doesn't matter if you want it or not), you'll get advice, consolation, reproach or reassurance everywhere and from everyone.

4. ON THE TUBE AGAIN

'All services are suspended due to a security alert. We apologise for the delay'. Bomb scare again. Stuffy, full carriage. I start fidgeting in my seat, bubbling with irritation. Why can't they restore law and order? I look around, searching for the same emotions in other people. But they are calm, some of them are smiling: 'Those games again.' I can't see faces distorted with hatred or clenched fists. I can't hear anyone shouting: 'The damned Irish. We have to kill the lot of them]' They seem to have enough common sense and self control not to blame the whole nation for the crimes of a bunch of extremists. The next day, after bombs explode in Oxford Street or Manchester, nobody is going out with pogroms for their Irish neighbours.

In my country, if any Georgian, Armenian, Jew, Tartar or Estonian ever dared do the same, the next day all his fellow men would be heavily beaten in the streets. Recently, a taxi driver was murdered by a Georgian in St Petersburg. The following day, any Georgian who had the misfortune to wander the streets was persecuted. We are now as used to violence as we are to long queues for food and overcrowded buses.

6. HOW ARE YOU?

I'm teaching Russian. I've given my student the Russian expression: Kak dyela? (How are you?). 'And what about an answer?' my student asks. I'm puzzled. 'Well, there is no fixed answer. You are supposed to say how you really are.' Astonishment and disbelief on the face. I strain my memory trying to recollect the answers of my friends to such a question back home. 'Terrible. Worse than ever.' 'Go to hell with your stupid questions.' Not very appropriate samples for the lesson. 'I think the most optimistic answer you can afford is 'Nichevo', which means 'nothing'. If you say 'Fine' or 'Very well', you can expect a counter question: 'What's happened?' ' 'But if I'm in a hurry, or not interested?' 'Don't ask then]' 'But won't it be rude?' It's my turn to be surprised. 'No, it won't be rude. Why should you ask a question if you aren't interested in the answer? In my country (this time I pronounce the words with a shade of pride), communication is not just etiquette.'

7. AT THE DOCTOR'S

Soon after coming to London I have some strong pains and my friends take me to a medical centre.

'What's your name and address, please. Thank you. Take your seat, please. I'll call you.'

No, it can't be so simple. No passport? No official proof of my identity? I'm amazed and ashamed of myself. It's my old Soviet mentality again. Why do I feel so insecure without a sheet of paper with a stamp on it?

The doctor sends me to the hospital to do some tests. Over the next few days I feel better and with typical Russian carelessness don't go back for the results. In a week I receive a letter that reads: 'Dear Anna. Your results are now back. Could you please make an appointment to see your doctor.'

My God. They care about my health more than I do and I'm not even a citizen of this country. In Russia, I could be lying on my death bed and nobody except parents and friends would bother to come to my aid.

This sheet of paper, a letter from the medical centre, impressed me more than the majestic silhouette of Westminster Abbey or the lights of Piccadilly Circus. Soon the time will come to return to my tormented country, which I love desperately but fear that I will never be able to respect. I'll take home all my memories and the letter that almost reduced me to tears. I can't say that I have fallen in love with this country, but I respect it greatly.

(Photograph omitted)

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