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17 Russian Travel Tips for Visiting America

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Here are some things Russians think other Russians who are preparing to visit the U.S. should know.

1. Don't Worry About Bringing Gifts to Americans ...

Gift giving isn't a big deal to Americans. In fact, according to the site Деловой этикет по-американски, "Americans do not expect them. On the contrary, an unexpected gift while conducting business can put an American in an awkward position. Such things for Americans suggest reciprocity." But not all gifts will make Americans feel awful. They love gifts that are "purely Russian," with some caveats:

If you do gift, it is desirable to bring something purely Russian when you visit the United States. But make it 'purely Russian' for modern America—not nesting dolls and samovar. Instead bring a good book about Moscow or Russian history, art and culture. Americans appreciate a good education and have great respect for cognitive literature.

2. ... And definitely don't bring business gifts.

“Business gifts in the U.S. are not acceptable," the site Национальные особенности этикета в США cautions. "[T]hey often cause suspicion. Americans fear that they could be construed as a bribe, and in the United States that is strictly punishable by law.”

3. If you're a man, be careful when dealing with American ladies.

According to the Russian site Этикет США, “U.S. etiquette prohibits flirting with a woman who is not your girlfriend or wife. If you are not acquainted with a woman, whether she be in a restaurant, on the street, or on the subway, do not look at her legs, etc. Americans could easily call the police on you, even for just ogling her.”

When it comes to introducing yourself to a woman, the site Национальные особенности этикета в США advises caution. You shouldn't kiss her, not even her hand:

Welcome and introductions: men and women tend to shake hands. Mutual kissing and kissing ladies' hands is not accepted. Also, women play a greater role in business. Often they insist to be treated exactly as an equal and not as a lady. In this regard, it is not acceptable to be excessively gallant, and you should avoid personal questions (do not find out whether she is married).

See Also: 10 Japanese Travel Tips for Visiting America

4. They'd prefer it if you got to the point …

"Americans generally do not like long intros and prefer to go directly to the subject matter, especially if it's a phone conversation," says the site Американский речевой этикет. "In Russia we talk about general topics before moving on to the reason for the call."

That said, once you're having a phone conversation, Americans won't be thrilled if you just hang up on them. "Americans are often surprised by the Russian habit of quickly breaking off a conversation and hanging up," the site notes. "Phone etiquette in America usually involves the gradual end of the conversation, confirmation agreements and standard closing remarks. By the way, 'see you later' should not be taken literally. That is a courtesy, and no more."

5. … But would like you to avoid pointed statements.

According to Американский речевой этикет, "Russian conversational patterns often sound harsh to Americans. Statements such as, 'You’re wrong,' can be offensive. This can be interpreted as 'You are telling lies!'" Instead, soften it up: "[I]t is better to say, 'I do not think I can agree with this.'"

6. You Can Only Talk About Health in Certain Situations.

And that situation is when your friend is in the hospital. Otherwise, according to the site Американский речевой этикет, “What seems caring can be regarded as an invasion of privacy, lack of tact. You have to have some justification to show interest in their health." Finally, the site notes, "Do not ask the effect of a magnetic storm (not many Americans know what that is) on their well-being.”

7. When your American friend invites you to a picnic, bring something sporty (and maybe a flask).

The site Деловой этикет по-американски discusses a hypothetical situation in which a Russian visitor to the United States is invited on the most American of outings: The Picnic. (This will only happen "if you’ve known each other for several years and are social outside the office," though, so probably won't be an option for the novice traveler.) According to the site, "As a rule, the invitation will be only on a weekend, and you don’t have to prepare for something extravagant. Everything is the same as ours, only with far less booze. Bring something sporty—ball, badminton, Americans are certainly fervent fans of these things.” Our tip: Russians concerned about the dearth of booze should bring their own in a flask.

8. Don't be weirded out if Americans put their feet up on stuff.

“When Americans are talking, they might put their foot on a nearby chair, or even a table," says the site Национальные особенности этикета в США. "They might cross their legs so that one foot rests on the opposite knee. In American culture, it is considered an acceptable norm, but often causes irritation in other countries.”

See Also: 11 French Travel Tips for Visiting America

9. Americans are very optimistic ...

“Americans and Russians say different things when faced with the same situation," notes the site Американский речевой этикет. "Seeing the man who had fallen in the street, an American asks, 'Are you all right?' Russians will inquire: 'Are you ill?' We see a victim of the incident; they see survivors. Survivors are perceived as heroes. Where we 'aren’t sick,' they 'stay well.' We discuss the problem. They discuss issues and items on the agenda."

10. ... And you should keep it positive, too. The Americans demand it.

It all starts with a smile. “U.S. etiquette requires that you smile in each and every situation," says the site Этикет США. "If you want to travel to America, be prepared to give a smile not only to friends and acquaintances, but also to all passers-by, in shops, to the staff at the hotel, police on the streets, etc." Don't whine about your problems or the troubles in your life, either: "Sharing in this country can only be positive emotions—sorrows and frustrations are impermissible. In the U.S. you only complain to acquaintances in the most extreme cases. Serious problems are for close friends and relatives only."

This cheerfulness isn't a put-on, the site notes. "Americans: they are a nation that truly feels happy. These people get used to smiling from the cradle onwards, so they do not pretend to be cheerful. The desire for a successful happy life is inculcated from childhood.”

11. Americans are very competitive ...

According to an academic essay about the ethics of American etiquette at Bibliofond, "Americans love competition. They appreciate achievement records, and are constantly competing with each other. Although this behavior is natural for them, to us it may seem overbearing and intrusive. They are autonomous and independent. From early childhood, the Americans are accustomed to ‘stand on their own feet’ that is, rely only on themselves."

A writer on the commercial export site Экспортеры России agrees: “A resident of this country will never complain and talk about their failures. Regardless of the situation, the American will always look confident, healthy, radiating success.”

12. ... And are taught from a young age that they're awesome.

If you're a Russian visiting the U.S. and notice that Americans seem to have an overwhelming sense of superiority, know that that's been ingrained in them since they were little, according to Экспортеры России: “The Americans have a strong sense of independence, self-reliance; they are able to compete and win anywhere, anytime. This is due to perceptions of citizens about the dominant position of the U.S. in the world, which is laid at an early age and is at the heart of the education system.”

13. Formality isn’t necessary.

Formality and overt classicism of any kind makes Americans uncomfortable. According to Экспортеры России, “The Americans, having a friendly nature, always seek to establish an informal atmosphere. So they prefer to communicate with people by first name, regardless of their age and position.”

Adds Bibliofond, “The Americans are straight people who appreciate honesty and candor, quickly move to the point of conversation and do not spend time on formalities. Americans do not like stiffness, and prefer comfortable, casual clothes. They refer to each other simply, informally, even if between the interlocutors there is a big difference in age and social position.”

14. Be very careful not to sound snooty.

Экспортеры России advises Russians visiting the U.S. to “Insert jokes into the conversations, it is considered a sign of good taste. And remember they speak American English. They consider London pronunciation an arrogant version of their language.”

15. Follow the Rules.

The travel site tonkosti knows that to many a Russian tourist, an American’s dedication to following rules will appear almost childish:

There is too much law-abiding in Americans. It makes them seem naïve to Russians. But it is due to the fact that almost everywhere is installed hidden cameras; in the shops, on the streets, in restaurants, hotels and so on. Hence, any offense cannot go unnoticed. It is better to stick to the letter of U.S. law than to escape from its clutches and reduce to zero the probability of re-visiting the American continent.

Walking against the light? Littering? Taking up two parking spaces? All against the rules. And you better make sure you recycle, too:

Modern cowboys do not smoke in public, i.e. restaurants, bars and other places where a zone is not provided for smokers. For smoking in the wrong place you could be fined, as well as for incorrect disposal of waste: for each type of waste (glass, plastic, paper) in the United States, there are separate boxes.

16. Don’t joke about being a terrorist. Americans will not laugh.

Tonkosti prepares would-be travelers for the ordeal of arriving at an American airport, which will likely involve a search of the traveler and his belongings and questions about terrorism:

You will be asked about the purpose of your visit to the United States (business travel, tourism, etc.), and—do not be surprised—airport employees may ask whether you have any relation to terrorist groups. In no case do you joke on the topic of terrorism—for the Americans it is a serious issue. If the person asking you questions on your arrival does not like your responses, you will be invited to the office of the security services at the airport. This is serious: you could be sent home, and never set foot on American soil.

17. Don't call people ugly.

This should probably be filed under "commonsense things to avoid," but Bibliofond warns travelers anyway:

At the table is better to avoid talking about politics and religion, as the United States is a country of Puritan values. In the straight-line American culture there is a taboo forbidding calling out the physical defects of another person. This is probably due to the constant desire of Americans to always be in great shape and look young.

Yeah. That’s probably the reason.

A version of this post appeared in 2014.

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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers
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Animals
Inside Crumbs & Whiskers, the Bicoastal Cat Cafe That's Saving Kitties' Lives
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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

It took a backpacking trip to Thailand and a bit of serendipity for Kanchan Singh to realize her life goal of saving cats while serving lattes. “I met these two guys on the road [in 2014], and we became friends,” Singh tells Mental Floss about Crumbs & Whiskers, the bicoastal cat cafe she founded in Washington, D.C. in 2015 which, in addition to selling coffee and snacks, fosters adoptable felines from shelters. “They soon noticed that I was feeding every stray dog and cat in sight," and quickly picked up on the fact that their traveling companion was crazy about all things furry and fluffy.

On Singh’s final day in Thailand, which happened to be her birthday, her friends surprised her with a celebratory trip to a cat cafe in the city of Chiang Mai. “I remember walking in there being like, ‘This is the coolest, most amazing, weirdest thing I’ve ever done,'” Singh recalls. “I just connected with it so much on a spiritual level.”

Singh informed her friends that she planned to return to the U.S., quit her corporate consulting job, and open up her own cat cafe in the nation’s capital. They thought she was joking. But three years and two storefronts later, the joke is on everyone except for Singh—and the kitties she and her team have helped to rescue.

A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Crumbs & Whiskers—which, in addition to its flagship D.C. location, also has a Los Angeles outpost—keeps a running count of the cats they've saved from risk of euthanasia and those who have been adopted. At press time, those numbers were 776 and 388, respectively, between the brand’s two locations.

Prices and services vary between establishments, but customers can typically expect to shell out anywhere from $6.50 to $35 to enjoy coffee time with cats (food and drinks are prepared off-site for health and safety reasons), activities like cat yoga sessions, or, in D.C., an entire day of coworking with—you guessed it—cats. Patrons can also participate in the occasional promotion or campaign, ranging from Black Friday fundraisers for shelter kitties to writing an ex-flame's name inside a litter box around Valentine's Day (where the cats will then do their business).

Cat cafes have existed in Asia for nearly 20 years, with the world’s first known one, Cat Flower Garden, opening in Taipei, Taiwan in 1998. The trend gained traction in Japan during the mid 2000s, and quickly spread across Asia. But when Singh visited Chiang Mai, the cat cafe craze—while alive and thriving in Thailand—had not yet hit the U.S. "Why does Thailand get this, but not the U.S.?" Singh remembers thinking.

Once she arrived back home in D.C., Singh set her sights on founding the nation’s first official cat cafe, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped her secure a two-story space in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood. Ultimately, though, she was beat to the punch by the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California, which opened to the public in 2014, followed shortly after by establishments like New York City’s Meow Parlour.

LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Still, Crumbs & Whiskers—which officially launched in D.C. in the summer of 2015—was among the nation’s first wave of businesses (and the District's first) to offer customers the chance to enjoy feline companionship with a side of java, along with the opportunity to maybe even save a tiny life. Ultimately, the altruistic concept proved to be so successful that Singh, sensing a market for a similar storefront in Los Angeles, opened up a second location there in the fall of 2016. "I always felt like what L.A. is, culturally, just fits with the type of person that would go to a cat café," she says.

Someday, Singh hopes to bring Crumbs & Whiskers to Chicago and New York, and “for cat cafes as a concept, as an industry, to grow,” she says. “I think that it would be great for this to be the future of adoptions and animal rescues.” Until then, you can learn more about Crumbs & Whiskers (and the animals they rescue) by stopping by if you're in D.C. and LA, or by visiting their website.

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The Hospital in the Rock
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History
Budapest’s Former Top-Secret Hospital Inside a Cave
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The Hospital in the Rock

At the top of a hill in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River, sits Buda Castle, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site visited by thousands of tourists every year. Directly underneath the castle, however, lies a less-frequented tourist attraction: a series of ancient, naturally formed caves with a colorful and sometimes disturbing history.

The entire cave system is over six miles long, and most of that has been left unchanged since it was used as cold storage (and a rumored dungeon) in the Middle Ages. Between 1939 and 2008, however, a half-mile stretch of those caves was built up and repurposed many times over. Known as Sziklakorhaz or The Hospital in the Rock, its many uses are a testament to the area’s involvement in World War II and the Cold War.

At the start of World War II, the location served as a single-room air raid center, but operating theaters, corridors, and wards were quickly added to create a much-needed hospital. By early 1944, the hospital had officially opened inside the cave, tending to wounded Hungarian and Nazi soldiers. After less than a year of operation, the facility found itself facing its largest challenge—the Siege of Budapest, which lasted seven weeks and was eventually won by Allied forces on their way to Berlin.

As one of the few area hospitals still operational, the Hospital in the Rock was well over capacity during the siege. Originally built to treat around 70 patients, close to 700 ended up crammed into the claustrophobic caves. The wounded lay three to a bed—if they were lucky enough to get a bed at all. Unsurprisingly, heat from all those bodies raised the ambient temperature to around 95°F, and smoking cigarettes was the number one way to pass the time. Add that to the putrid mix of death, decay, and infection and you’ve got an incredibly unpleasant wartime cocktail.

A recreation inside the museum. Image credit: The Hospital in the Rock 

After the siege, the Soviets took control of the caves (and Budapest itself) and gutted the hospital of most of its supplies. Between 1945 and 1948, the hospital produced a vaccination for typhus. As the icy grasp of the Cold War began to tighten, new wards were built, new equipment was installed, and the hospital was designated top-secret by the Soviets, referred to only by its official codename LOSK 0101/1.

Eleven years after facing the horrors of the Siege of Budapest, in 1956, the hospital hosted the casualties of another battle: The Hungarian Uprising. Thousands of Hungarians revolted against the Soviet policies of the Hungarian People’s Republic in a fierce, prolonged battle. Civilians and soldiers alike lay side-by-side in wards as surgeons attempted to save them. During the uprising, seven babies were also born in the hospital.

Surgeons lived on-site and rarely surfaced from the caves. The hospital’s chief surgeon at the time, Dr. András Máthé, famously had a strict "no amputation" rule, which seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in the end reportedly saved many patients' lives. (Máthé also reportedly wore a bullet that he’d removed from a patient’s head on a chain around his neck.)

The Hospital in the Rock ceased normal operations in December 1956, after the Soviets squashed the uprising, as the Soviets had new plans for the caves. With the Cold War now in full swing, the still-secret site was converted into a bunker that could serve as a hospital in case of nuclear attack. Diesel engines and an air conditioning system were added in the early '60s, so that even during a blackout, the hospital could still function for a couple of days.

The Hospital in the Rock

The official plan for the bunker was as follows: In the event of a nuclear attack, a selection of doctors and nurses would retreat to the bunker, where they would remain for 72 hours. Afterward, they were to go out and search for survivors. Special quarantined rooms, showering facilities, and even a barbershop were on site for survivors brought back to the site. (The only haircut available to them, however, was a shaved head; radioactive material is notoriously difficult to remove from hair.)

Thankfully, none of these nuclear procedures were ever put into practice. But the hospital was never formally decommissioned, and it wasn’t relieved of its top-secret status until the mid-2000s. For a while, it was still being used as a storage facility by Hungary’s Civil Defense Force. The bunker was maintained by a nearby family, who were sworn to secrecy. In 2004, it was decided that responsibility for the site fell solely on St. John’s Hospital in Budapest, who were seen as the de facto owners in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By 2008 the bunker was renovated, refurbished, and ready to be opened to the public. Today it operates as a museum, with exhibits detailing life in the hospital from various periods of its history, as well as the history of combat medicine as a whole. The sobering hour-long walk around the hospital concludes with a cautionary gaze into the atrocities of nuclear attacks, with the final walk to the exit featuring a gallery of art created by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Another part of the caves beneath Buda Castle. Image credit:Sahil Jatana via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The caves beneath Buda Castle have certainly had a bumpy history, and walking through them now is chilling (and not just because they keep the temperature at around 60°F). A tour through the narrow, oppressive hallways is a glimpse at our narrowly avoided nuclear future—definitely a sobering way to spend an afternoon.

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