21 March 2007

Metro Babushkas

Last time it was metro dogs. Now it's metro babuskhas. Both have been known to bark at you if you step on their tail.

It has long been a tradition on the Moscow metro that younger passengers who have found a seat should give it up to the elderly when they board the train. In fact, the courtesy extends not just to the elderly but to invalids (a term that sounds harsh to American ears, but is the accepted term in Russian for those who are physically impaired) and passengers with small children.

Previously, passengers were reminded of this rule by a message stenciled on the wagon's windows in chipped white paint. Since I was last in Moscow 3 years ago, metro officials have added a recorded announcement over the train's PA system. The first time I heard it I was startled. Countless rides on the metro in years past had burned the two old standard announcements into my memory forever:

"Be careful! The doors are closing. Next station..."
"Respected Passengers! Upon exiting the train, do not forget your belongings."

I even memorized the little add-on at the Mayakovskaya metro station, which gives a warning to those exiting from the last car (if I recall correctly, the ceiling is low there, forcing passengers to duck down a bit while navigating a narrow passage. I once deliberately went to the end of the last car just to see what all the fuss was about):

"Respected Passengers! Be careful upon exiting the last door of the last wagon."

[Note: in case you were confused or concerned, these announcements are given in Russian, not English. I've taken the liberty of translating them for our non-Russian speakers, though I can't imagine why any of you would actually expect them to be delivered in English. This isn't London, after all!

As long as we're on metro announcement trivia, you may not know that on trains heading toward the city center the recorded announcements are delivered by a male's voice, while trains heading away from the center feature a woman's voice. The little device I heard to remember this is that "the boss calls you to work, and the wife calls you home." Isn't that cute?]

These announcements are so deeply ingrained in my brain that they are probably the only phrases in Russian that I can whip out with lightning speed and without thinking. 5 years of college-level Russian for that? I usually recite the announcements in my head at each stop, simply out of habit. And because I'm good at them. There are some stations where for some reason the requisite announcement is not made. At such times I've considered filling in for the electronic voice for the amusement and assistance of my fellow passengers, though I'm afraid I would get some dirty looks for that.

The metro announcements are also my standard showpiece whenever an annoying friend of a friend, upon learning that I study Russia, whines, "say something in Ruuuuuuuussssiaaaaaaaaaaan" (usually they're a bit drunk when they ask).

I fire off one of my metro phrases. "Oooh!" the young lady exclaims. "What does it mean?"

I usually tell her that it means "your beauty is surpassed only by the radiance of the rising sun." Or if it's a male, maybe "Russia's greatness lies in the strength of its soul." Either way, it gets the job done and the listener leaves feeling flattered or a bit wiser. How can you argue with that?

So where was I? Oh, right, metro announcements. Having recited the familiar phrases countless times in my head, you can imagine my shock (and awe) when I boarded the metro for the first time in several years and heard a new phrase:

"Respected passengers! Give up your place for invalids, elderly people, and passengers with children." My first few weeks in Moscow were distressing, as I thought I'd never get the hang of this new announcement. But not to worry, it has now entered my Russian "poetry" repository, ready for that slurring friend of a friend who just wants to be told, "if you seek love long enough, eventually love finds you." Doesn't that make you feel better already?

In fact, I think the announcements are unneccessary, as I've never found respect and kindness toward elderly passengers on the metro to be lacking. It's always heartwarming to see a teenage punk-looking kid with his headphones blaring jump up suddenly at the sight of a babushka entering the train, directing her toward his seat. The grateful babushka always smiles, says thank-you, and plants herself on the seat with a relieved and satisfied sigh. It's a moment of civility, a moment of courtesy, esteem, and goodwill for both parties. It's the kind of moment I wish I saw more of on the streets of Moscow.

Nevertheless, I've found that this practice raises a problem for me. How do you know when it's appropriate to offer an older woman your seat? The truly ancient babushkas are easy, but somebody usually beats me to the punch, bolting out of their seat before I can get to my feet. Sometimes the winning bidder is so enthusiastic in his launch that I'm afraid he's going to knock poor babuskha over, where she'll likely land on metro dog.

For me, the problem comes with the women who appear to be anywhere from 50-70. The fact of the matter is, many women in Russia look older than they really are, testament to the hard lives they've led and probably to the fact that they don't always take care of their health. Nonetheless, it makes deciding the proper course of action very difficult for the metro expat yearning to be polite.

On the one hand, I truly want to offer my seat to those who deserve it more than I do. On the other hand, I don't want to offend a 50-year old woman with such an offer, as it implictly implies that I consider her to be elderly. After all, telling a woman that she looks old is second only to telling her she looks fat when it comes to sure-fire ways to get slapped in the face. What's a person to do?

I've found a compromise by doing my best to take care of the real babushkas, while leaving the semi and pseudo-babushkas to be taken care of by the other young Russians on the train. I figure that if none of them budge, it's better for me to stay in my place too.

So if you find yourself roaming around Moscow like me, put off by the city's often cold and brusque shell, just remember that sometimes there are little moments where the goodness in these people shines through.

And to those of you scattered around the globe who are reading this: if you find yourself doubting the decency of your fellow human beings around you, just remember these words to live by:

Уважаемые пассажиры! При выходе из поездя, не забывайте свои вещи.

And believe me, dear friends, I mean every word of it...


ryan said...

Interesting post. I wrote a blog about my experience with several european metros awhile back. While I didn't know what the announcements were saying in moscow, what did stick in my head was that i thought the female voice sounded kind of sexy. Haha.

Robi said...

I laughed so hard at your great entry. I have been living in Moscow for two years and I can totally relate to "Metro Babushkas". I wonder when I should get up too. I am not a guy so it is a little different for me. I do have a thought for you on the question when to get up and when not to...ALL girls like it when you stand and offer them your seat - no matter their age. You would always be the hero of the wagon!
Keep the great stories coming...I love them!

Comrade Kartoshka said...

You just related a dilemma I faced while riding all forms of transport - what if they get OFFENDED? Even some babushki get offended, really old ones, when you offer them your seat. They, like, yell at you to sit back down in a really rude way. What's a polite American to do?