Thursday, May 11, 2006

Back Home - Notes on Living with a Russian Woman

Katja and I arrived back home in quiet Exeter, New Hampshire at about 11:30 pm last night. Our flight back from Charlotte, North Carolina was delayed by approximately 90 minutes, so our return home was later than planned. It was a bit longish as a business trip for me, with our departing Boston at 6:45 a.m. on Sunday morning and late return on Wednesday. Oh yes, and the internet access at the hotel was terrible to non-existent. Basically, I couldn't use my laptop while there. My dependence upon the internet for work and personal business is humbling.

Since Katja's arrival in the US on April 26th, life has kept me away from writing as much for the blog. It will likely remain that way for the next few weeks, at least until our return from Las Vegas after Memorial Day.

Now, as much as I felt I knew about Russian culture, there is really no substitute for living full-time with a Russian for learning about the differences between the US and Russia. I have a list of points from conversations and life over the last few weeks to illustrate some of this:
  • One of the first things Katja and I did together upon her arrival was to go grocery shopping. Lots of suspicion and label reading. I found myself explaining (or attempting to explain) ingredients such as "enriched flour", carrageenan, xantham gum, whey, various hydrogenated oils, etc. I had always considered myself a bit of a whole foods guy and I almost never keep various snack foods or quick foods in the house. If I want pilaf, I cook the rice and flavor it with spices myself. If I want cookies, brownies, or cake, I bake it from scratch and not from a mix. However, since Katja's arrival I've become even more selective in what food items I am willing to buy and eat.
  • Restaurants are incredibly wasteful with the huge portions of food they provide, and deceitful in their ingredients described on the menu. Fast food joints are generally even worse, of course.
  • You really have to look a bit to find suitable bread here in the US. Luckily, Katja and I already had some agreement on this, and we generally like the same sorts of breads.
  • Continuing on this theme, throwing away bread is very bad. You better feed it to the birds instead.
  • Sour cream. Butter. Cheese. Cream cheese. Cottage cheese. Farmer's cheese. Yogurt (at least the stuff that isn't full of food color and sugar and small bits of fruit). Katja doesn't like mayonnaise (this is rare among Russians) and she says that Russian news and TV recommend Russians eat less mayo. However, anything else that is white and made from milk is a staple.
  • Bob Evan's strawberry-banana crepes are ok, although the crepes don't taste 100% authentic (the batter is too sweet, we decided). IHOP cheese-blintzes might have been ok, but there is an over-abundance of "cheese" inside disguising what the blini might actually taste like. Better that we just make them at home - however, when traveling that isn't always an option.
  • Over-the-counter medications are very limited here in the US.
  • No whistling indoors.
  • Scratching a cross on your fingernails will help cure or heal hangnails. Don't ask why it works, she doesn't know.
  • There are white witches and their cures really work. However, it is difficult to find a real one who isn't just a fraud looking to make money - real ones won't take money anyway and you provide them with some gift, perhaps food, in trade for their services.
  • If anyone other than Katja were to speak to me about these topics, I probably wouldn't listen to them very well. I give her lots of room and respect for her beliefs in these areas and see nothing wrong with them. I find the topics interesting when we discuss them.
  • Shoes are filthy dirty and shouldn't be placed on furniture or countertops or tables - ever. I had an old pair of black dress shoes I was tossing, and I momentarily set them upon the countertop next to the front door, as I was taking out the trash. Horrified gasps ensued. The shoes weren't filthy and the countertop can be easily wiped clean afterwards - but somehow the filth of shoes is too enduring. If you haven't actually walked the streets of Russia, you might never understand the horror of dirty shoes in a clean house in the Russian mind.
  • I wear an orthodox cross already, having bought a rather nice silver one in October. Katja has the cross, but also carries a small icon that she has had since she was a little girl. She lost it in the bathroom at Baltimore-Washington International Airport last night (Teminal D) and only realized it once we were onboard the plane. She was very upset - and she doesn't particularly consider herself religious and rarely goes to church.
  • What Katja considers to be fashionable for men's clothing is often what I consider to be metrosexual or borderline G - A - Y. This is much more my problem than hers, although I've tried to explain US male fashion sense (or the lack there-of).
  • Katja thinks "Leave it to Beaver" is great. She found it a bit surprising that American's used to dress so nicely around the home.
  • Suntan lotions are for preventing sunburn and suntans, and not for promoting a good tan. SPF? I had to explain what it is ... the ingredients label wasn't comforting.
  • Despite the fact that US tap-water is perfectly fine, Katja uses the Brita Filter on my faucet and then boils the water before she finds it suitable. She isn't reassured by the presence of flouride and the slight chlorine taste of treated water straight from the faucet is troubling. However, there is no debating that US tap water is generally better than Russian tap water (especially that nasty Yaroslavl water). She doesn't find that water tastes right unless it is boiled first.
  • Dumping a big bucket of cold water on yourself after your morning shower is actually rather refreshing, although I can't say that I am convinced it has health benefits. Russian healthiness is often described in rather vague touchy-feely terms, such as "it is good for the nerves".
There are many other points and topics that occur daily. I'm sure to continue on this theme from time to time, with more focused topics for discussion. My hope for the primary focus of this blog has always been cultural, and these themes certainly allow for some good topics for future articles.


tomjkiehn said...

Wow. Thanks for sharing all these wonderful observations. I lived with a Russian family for a year when I first moved to Moscow and I had similar situations as you described. The bit about westerners not taking shoes off in their homes was a point where my host family expressed great shock and horror. I've assimilated in that respect, but mostly because I can see how filthy these Russian streets are. I'll stick with it even if I move back to the States.

I look forward to hearing more about your intercultural living situation if you ever feel like sharing.

Veronica Khokhlova said...

"No whistling indoors" - a to deneg ne budet :)))))))))

Good luck you two!

Sean Guillory said...

Where the hell do you find a good знахаре or колдун in New Hampshire!?

Anonymous said...

Being in the midst of reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, Katja's reaction to the grocery labels struck home.

Sorry, but not knowing anything about Russia or Russians, I don't get the whistling indoors reference. Superstition or what?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the informative and amusing post!

About not whistling indoors, I was taught by my parents (and my grandma) that it betrays bad manners. Why, I don't know. I'm sure it had it reason that now are unknown to most of us. Rather similar to why wearing a hat indoors, especially while sitting at a table, is considered disrepectful.

And yes, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is an excellent book!


michael said...

Enjoyed reading this. As I live in Scotland with my Russian wife, I have experienced all the same things.

James said...

Hi loved the article, I too married a Russian woman, and I have noticed many of the same things - although I've started to ween my better half off of her addiction to mayonaise ;-)

Dyspraxic Fundamentalist said...

I am English, but I have an horror of dirty shoes in a clean house.

I wish more of us British would adopt the Russian view of the matter.

Linda said...

But if you have really hot shoes, why should you take them off?

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