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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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Art
A Beached Whale Sculpture Popped Up on the Banks of Paris's Seine River
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In Paris, dozens of fish varieties live in the Seine River. Now, the Associated Press reports that the famous waterway is home to a beached whale.

Rest assured, eco-warriors: The sperm whale is actually a lifelike sculpture, installed on an embankment next to Notre Dame Cathedral by Belgian artists’ collective Captain Boomer. It’s meant to raise environmental awareness, and evoke "the child in everyone who still is puzzled about what is real and what is not,” collective member Bart Van Peel told the Associated Press.

The 65-foot sculpture has reportedly startled and confused many Parisians, thanks in part to a team of fake scientists deployed to “survey” the whale. One collective member even posted a video on social media, warning Parisians that there “may be others in the water” if they opt to take a dip in the river, The Local reported.

The whale sculpture is only temporary—but as for Captain Boomer, this isn’t their first whale-related stunt. Last summer, the collective installed a similar riverside artwork in Rennes, France, and they also once strapped a large-scale whale sculpture to the back of a truck and drove it around France.

[h/t Associated Press]

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9 Notable Buildings With Secret Floors
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Secret floors have long captured the imagination; conspiracy theorists love to imagine that government buildings keep their darkest secrets within sealed-off stories. In the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “The After Hours,” the ninth floor of a department store is where the mannequins mysteriously come to life. Meanwhile, the hidden 7th-and-a-half floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building in New York was a portal for John Cusack into the actual brain of John Malkovich in the movie Being John Malkovich.

While these mysteries may have come from a writer’s imagination, there are notable buildings that have whole secret floors right under your nose—if you know where to look.

1. THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING, NEW YORK

One of the world’s most iconic and recognizable skyscrapers, the Empire State building is also one of Manhattan’s premiere tourist destinations. The gleaming Art Deco elevators speed thousands of visitors to the observation deck on the 86th floor every day, and there’s also an observation pod on the 102nd floor. But just above, hidden out of sight, is the secret 103rd floor. Off-limits to the public, there is no glass protecting visitors from the elements, just a narrow walkway surrounding the top of the building. Original plans are thought to have allowed airships to dock to the top of the Empire State building, with passengers disembarking on the 103rd floor, and the 102nd being their official port of entry into the United States. The plan never came to fruition, however, and the hidden 103rd floor remains sealed off high above New York City.

2. THE FIFTH FLOOR OF THE YANGGAKDO HOTEL, PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA

For Calvin Sun, of the adventurous travel blog Monsoon Diaries, a hotel in the world’s most isolated nation held a particularly odd secret. The hotel Yanggakdo’s elevator has no 5th floor. Getting out of the elevator on the 6th and walking down, his group reached something peculiar: an entire concreted hidden floor, filled with locked doors and no people. The floor was covered with what looked to be government-issued propaganda posters, with messages like “Let’s prepare thoroughly in order to defeat the invaders” and “Our General is the best.” Other intrepid adventurers have reported bunkers, steel doors, official-looking men with computers, and others listening to headphones. Some have speculated that there is another floor hidden within the 5th, but its purpose remains unknown.

3. THE GREENBRIER RESORT, WEST VIRGINIA

The Greenbrier is a luxury hotel and resort located amid the mountains of West Virginia. The local waters have been attracting guests since 1778, and the glittering guest list of the hotel, now a National Historic Landmark, has included 26 presidents. But hidden under the glamorous rooms and sprawling grounds is a massive underground complex, codenamed Project Greek Island. During the Cold War, it was built to hold the entire United States Congress in safety—just in case Washington was attacked by a Soviet nuclear strike.

The 112,000-square-foot bunker was big enough to hold both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and came complete with six months’ worth of food, 25-ton blast doors, decontamination chambers, water purification equipment, and its own hospital. The government’s construction of Project Greek Island was covered up by the building of a new west wing added to the existing hotel. To avoid detection, the huge amounts of land unearthed in the creation of the project were used in a new golf course, while the army of workers posed as employees of a fake audiovisual company called the Forsythe Associates, who “maintained” the hotel's 1000 television sets.

Project Greek Island fortunately remained unused, and was never officially acknowledged until a story in the Washington Post in 1992 exposed the secret. Today tours of this remarkable relic of the Cold War are given at the hotel, which still operates as a luxury resort.

4. OUR LORD IN THE ATTIC, AMSTERDAM

Luke Spencer

There’s an old house in Amsterdam that looks much like the other Queen Anne-style homes along the canals that give this old part of the city its distinctive character. This particular house, however, holds a remarkable secret hidden away in the attic: a miniature, fully functioning church. Complete with marble altar, pews enough for 150 worshippers, and elaborate gilt decoration, the church was hidden due to the persecution of Dutch Catholics in the 17th century. Access to the clandestine church is gained by a false wall in the living room that leads to a narrow spiral staircase. Today the church is a museum, but still regularly holds services hidden away in the attic, as they have done for nearly 400 years.

5. THE NEW YORKER HOTEL, MANHATTAN

Luke Spencer

When the New Yorker Hotel opened on 8th Avenue and 34th Street in 1930, it was one of the most technologically advanced hotels in the world. It came complete with its own in-house radio station, printing press, 50-chair barber salon, and a dining room that featured a retractable ice rink and skating show to entertain the guests. With 2500 rooms, it was promoted as a “vertical village.”

Underneath the lobby was a giant power plant, occupying a hidden floor around 80 feet below the sidewalk. The DC generating plant was so huge, it was powerful enough to provide electricity for a city of around 35,000 people. The plant was also so sophisticated that one of the hotel’s most famous long-term residents, the inventor Nikola Tesla, who lived there for the last decade of his life, is reported to have wandered down under the lobby to tinker with the plant and talk with the engineers. Remarkably, the plant is still down there, the switches for the old skating rink, coffee shop lights, and ballroom silent and unused. (Much of the plant was modernized in the 1960s, however, and switched over to the alternating current Tesla championed.)

6. WALT DISNEY WORLD, FLORIDA 

Observant visitors to the Magic Kingdom, upon disembarking from the monorail and heading toward Main Street, USA, may notice that they are walking on a slight incline. Indeed Cinderella’s Castle, which lies ahead, appears to be on a hill. In reality, the thousands of daily guests are unknowingly climbing over a vast hidden complex of secret floors, rooms, walkways, and tunnels. Disney World itself is built on top of an intricate hidden infrastructure that Cast Members consider the first floor. (The entire Magic Kingdom itself is technically the second and third floor.)

The story goes that Walt Disney was walking through the original Disneyland in California, and saw a Cast Member dressed as a cowboy walking from Frontierland through to Tomorrowland. Thinking that this would ruin the fantasy illusion for the visiting children, Disney World was designed on top of a hidden 9-acre system that would house walkways for Cast Members, trash collectors, kitchens, and break rooms. Today, tours are available for adults to see behind the curtain of the Magic Kingdom.

7. JOHN HANCOCK CENTER’S 44TH FLOOR, CHICAGO

The John Hancock Center on North Michigan Avenue is one of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks. When it was completed in 1969, it was the tallest building in the world, second only to the Empire State Building in New York. But what many people don’t realize is that it is actually possible to live inside one of America’s most famous skyscrapers. The residential floors run from the 45th to the 92nd floor, but it is the 44th floor that holds all the secrets. Off-limits to all but the residents, the 44th floor is home to a vast 5200-square-foot supermarket. There is also a library, concierge service, a high-ceilinged sky lounge, and the highest swimming pool in the United States. During elections it even has its own polling station.

8. PLYMOUTH CHURCH OF THE PILGRIMS, BROOKLYN

Luke Spencer

Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights is a church steeped in history. One of the oldest Congregationalist Churches in New York, it was once presided over by the inspirational orator, minister, and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Described then as “the most famous man in America,” his fiery anti-slavery rhetoric was so renowned that Plymouth was the only church in New York visited by Abraham Lincoln. Beecher would hold mock slave auctions on the site, where parishioners would raise money to free slaves.

But the extraordinary events on the church floor covered a remarkable secret below it: a hidden floor, with the entrance through a door behind the organ. Dry, dusty chambers, brick archways, and tunnels are all that remain of one of the principal stops on the Underground Railroad. This hidden floor provided a sanctuary for so many escaping slaves that it became known in hushed voices as the Grand Central Depot. At great risk to themselves, the brave parishioners of Plymouth Church, led by Beecher, vowed to help as many slaves as possible. “I will both shelter them,” Beecher said, “conceal them or speed their flight.” The church is still vibrantly active today, and tours are available to visit what was once one of the most secret places in America.

Luke Spencer

9. THE OLD OPERATING THEATRE AND HERB GARRET, LONDON

Luke Spencer

Hidden in the roof of St. Thomas’ church in London is something as chilling as it is fascinating. Climbing the circular staircase of the old church to the garret (or attic) there lies one of the oldest known operating theaters still in existence. Once part of the ancient St. Thomas’ hospital, visitors today can crowd into the tiny theater and stand on steep wooden terraces overlooking the operating table. Here 19th-century medical students would watch the pre-eminent surgeons of the day practice their craft; one notable surgeon was said to be able to amputate and cauterize a limb in under a minute.

In the attic above the theater is the old herb apothecary and garden where herbs were stored and cured. Still well-stocked today, the Herb Garret resembles a Victorian cabinet of peculiar curiosities, featuring wormwood, poppies for opium, and a “bath of sheep heads for Woman suffering from unknown illness.” After St. Thomas relocated, the church garret was sealed up and forgotten for decades, until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. Today operating as a museum, tours are available for those who want to experience the lancets, blades, and bone saws of over a hundred years ago. 

Luke Spencer

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