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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

SAY WHAT? :Russia's Little Contradictions In Cleanliness




I hated the apartment as soon as I walked in. It wasn't the low ceilings, and it wasn't the dark-brown glossy shelves. It was n't even the gloomy couches in the living room - fake velvet, with deep purple and maroon flowers on a black background. It was the smell.


The entire three-room apartment, seductively located just two blocks away from work, smelled like sweat, women's sweat - the landlady's sweat, to be precise. The smell was nauseatingly sour and penetrating. It was also stale. It was the smell of at least a few days' worth of excessive perspiration. I was hurting for an apartment to rent, but the smell was overwhelming. I turned the offer down.


The Russian understanding of hygiene is a marvel, and I will never comprehend the logic of it. We don't change our clothes for days and we shower once a week, yet we scrub our floors clean every day with a wet cloth, and we change out of our street shoes into slippers as soon as we come home. Deodorants are a foreign species for many of us, and there is no Russian word for dental floss, yet I swear I've seen people meticulously shine their shoes with handkerchiefs on the metro.


And do you know why, in our public toilets, the seats are always splashed with urine and there are pieces of digested food inevitably hanging from the back of the toilet pan? This is because generations upon generations of Russians were instructed by their parents never to sit on public toilet seats, or else infection will climb onto our bare buttocks.


But of course there will be infection all over the place if we stand on top of the toilet seats while we go about our business, not caring about our aim! However, this has never occurred to us.


Yet, we think it perfectly fine to go to public banyas once a week to wash - wash - with a dozen of other people in the same room, a mixture of dirty water, sweat and soap seeping on the floor under their toes. Banyas are apparently infection-free.


But while we Russians are so particular about maintaining the appearance of cleanliness, the concept of actually washing is somehow foreign to our culture. I remember feeling utterly offended once, as a kid, when I saw an American friend sitting on my couch with her feet up, dirt dripping from her shoes onto the bed sheets - my bed sheets. Only later did it occur to me that it would only take a single trip to the washing machine to make the bed sheets perfectly clean again.


Just like it only takes one trip to the washing machine to wash one's clothes. I have been repeatedly attacked by nervous old ladies who were alarmed by the fact that my child was playing in the dirt.


"Look at his clothes!" the ladies, their eyes big with terror, told me.


"So what?" I would say. "Clothes can be washed."


Same goes for the body, by the way, and too bad that not many of us realize that. Washing would make our lives so much easier - take, for example, mine. Had the owner of the apartment I looked at realized the importance of washing regularly, I wouldn't still be looking desperately for a place to live.