When one meets Central Asians or Caucasians one will almost inevitably face a rapid-fire barrage of well intentioned but somewhat persistent questions: Where are you from, Married? How many kids? NO KIDS? Why Not?!!!
Russians are generally much more reserved. On trains or in bars one can often sense a niggling inquisitiveness from one's neighbours, but as in Europe, it will often take an hour or three (or a good excuse) before one's Russian neighbour plucks up the courage to politely enquire.
'So, you're not from these parts are you?' is a more Russian style gambit.
Or 'I couldn't help notice you writing in Latin script. Are you from Latvia?'
In obscure areas of Siberia the idea that I could come from somewhere so very exotic as the UK hasn't occurred to many enquirers.
Once it has been established that I am indeed an Englishman, one of the questions that is lurking in every mind is to discover what I earn.
Again, the Central Asians will ask straight out.
Russians edge tactfully towards the question.
Some travellers find answering these 'salary question' very embarrassing. After all, a very good Russian salary might be R12,000 per month (just over 300 Euros), and many pensioners scrape by on a few dacha potatoes.
The fact that I'm a writer and thus make little more than this myself is quite incomprehensible to many local people who tend to assume that anyone in the west will be loaded with 'buckses' (US$). Buckses are assumed to grow like weeds.
And few realise the west's improbably high cost of living, rent, tax and cigarettes (Russian brands cost as little as 15 US cents a packet for the roughest, though 40cents is more common).
Embarrassing as such conversations can be, they are always an interesting window into other people's lives and conceptions - and that is, after all, the main reason travel is interesting.
Last night I had just such a conversation but with an original twist. I was checking out a sweet little cottage style restaurant, a self-parodying recreation of 'olde' Siberia but obviously new, clean and aimed at the wealthy elite of new 'new Russians'. Old 'new Russians' are the black-shirted 'mafia' nouveau riche who still like blaring music, velour table cloths and disco balls. New new Russians are the well travelled types who holiday in Cyprus (where their money already lives) and for whom the only reason not to go to London for a Kylie Minogue concert is the visa problem. OK then Elton John in Rome instead!
The food had been fine, but hidden service and 'music' charges doubled the price of my very modest meal. The latter peeved me particularly as the excellent costumed minstrel duet for which I was being charged had only played one song in the whole time I'd been there. I paid my bill but decided to wait it out and see whether they'd play again. By the time the duet returned there was only one other table still dining -two effortlessly casual 20-something men looking deep in conversation and dressed like typical western businessmen. When at long last the musicians returned for a last song, this pair barked a quick complaint asking them not to bother. The morose accordionist brightened up at the let off. The mellifluous-voiced singer turned around and promptly headed back into the kitchen.
'Hang on!' I grumbled. 'I've been waiting ages for them to play!'
'Oh! You want the music?' enquired the pair of diners, genuinely surprised
They called back the musicians that they'd only just dismissed, asked for a specific song (tucking a wad of banknotes into the accordionist's hand for encouragement) then sang along enthusiastically as the music progressed.
The ice was broken and before long I was invited over to their table. Oleg even spoke some English. I parried his initially provocative jousts about Blair-Bush policies towards Georgia, Ukraine and Chechnya, and listened somewhat aghast as he declared that Russia was bound to win any war it ever fought as 'unlike Americans every Russian man is happy to die for his country'. Meanwhile they plied with drinks. Very expensive drinks. Cranberry scented vodka imported from Finland. Mexican beer replete with lime wedge.
'You're from England, right?'
'My phone is from England too. Do you have one like this?'
I had never even heard of the phone-making company he cited and the mobile he fished out to show me seemed utterly impractical - needlessly heavy, encased as it was in gold.
'It cost $25,000. It's my toy!'
'I don't even have a phone' I admitted. We were edging towards the salary question.
I explained that as an author I don't actually have any salary whatever, just tiny royalties from some publishers, or in other cases a fixed sum to write a book which generally covers the costs of trips but rarely does much more. On paper I live below the poverty line, below taxable thresholds and only survive as my wife has a house so I live rent free when not travelling...
Fortunately he cut short my drearily boring explanation demanding an idea of a typical British salary.
'I just want to know if I'd be rich or poor in England' he said with what appeared to be genuine inquisitiveness more than showy arrogance.
'I make about US$500,000 a year. Is that enough to live in London?'
'Well, I think you'd get by!!!!!!!!!!'