Understanding Russians

Ever since we started dating … over a DOZEN years ago, Evan’s been fascinated by and embraced my Russian heritage. He had already been exposed to Russian culture and language to a limited extent before he had met me, but I think his fascination gradually increased as he discovered how close-knit my family was and how we get together regularly with our cousins and share unbelievably delicious food and loads of drinks, cakes, fresh fruits and great, great company. The food at those summer get-togethers might be what wooed him, but the people are what probably keeps him coming back. To this day, despite having a little one, we still try to come back for at least a few get-togethers back home in the Philadelphia area and have been labeled “Road Warriors” more than once for sometimes making back-to-back visits for birthdays that are a week apart. But I digress…

The food… the food… hand-made dumplings stuffed with meat and cheese and sometimes, when we consider ourselves very fortunate, sour cherries. Handmade blintzes with farmer’s cheese drizzled with berry sauce made from fresh berries, layered cakes, grilled shashliks, home-made Russian potato salad, pickled herring, smoked & pickled fish, vibrant salads, grilled veggies and cold borsht… (queue … these are my our favorite things). There are more, but I don’t want to tease without being able to offer a taste.

While the food is delicious, the thing Evan enjoys equally as much is the company and the flow of a traditional russian grill/bbq/gettogether. There is a great sense of community and a unique set of traditions. That said, partaking in parties is not a complete Russian experience and we don’t live just by attending one party after another. Since marrying into the family, Evan has learned about many different other Russian traditions, quirks, and shenanigans. These include, but are not limited to, things like enduring my mother’s scolding when either of us doesn’t wear a hat in the autumn because being cold will clearly infect you with a cold… or sitting down for a moment before leaving on a big trip.

All these traditions and quirks can be quite difficult to navigate and, since I’ve inherently been exposed to them since an early age, I too sometimes do not realize that something may present itself as a cultural conundrum. Thank goodness for MOOCs (Mass Open Online Courses). Much to my surprise and secret pleasure, Coursera is now offering an online course called “Understanding Russians“. That’s right, not understanding Russian, but understanding RussianS as in the people. Maybe we (Russians) are really that complicated that a whole course is necessary, or maybe there are just so many nuances. Either way, Evan found this class on his own, has signed up and is taking it. I am looking forward to hearing about his experience.

On a separate note, a rather entertaining situation (at least to me) has evolved with Evan and our local Russian grocery store. (Well, Evan would call them “Soviet-style” food stores, but that’s getting technical.) First, I am as surprised as you are to find out that there are Russian food stores in our neck of the woods. Sure, we occasionally hear Russian speech out in public, but not often. Either way, there are two small grocery stores that offer delicacies essential to any Russian household: smoked fish, cold cuts, excellent dairy products, cakes made in Kiev and Moscow, Russian candies, drinks like kvass and tarhun, cookies, ice cream, caviar, and preserves.

I, being a self-confessed sweet tooth, have indoctrinated Sophia into my love of my favorite Russian candies from my childhood. I personally like Strela, but I wouldn’t turn down a Mishka, either. Sophia has really taken to the Mishka candy, which happens to be her father’s favorite, too. There are many other varieties of candies, but those are some our favorites probably because I grew up with them. Both are now made in Brooklyn, NY by Russian expats and are even better than they were when they were made in Russia. Since they are so cherished at home, we like to re-supply quite often and it has so happened that Evan frequently has to make the dash to the Russian store to pick them up. Apparently, since he only picks up these two necessities, Evan has decided that he has made an impression on the owner and is now known as the candy-man. He’s now boycotting the store … I suppose I’ll have to trek there myself to re-supply. It doesn’t help matters that the surly owner keeps trying to ascertain if Evan is Russian by vigilantly scanning Evan’s face for the slightest hint of a smile (which would be a dead giveaway that he is American), and by presenting him with various Russian shibboleths.  Most recently,

[Evan plops a couple kilos of candy onto the scale at the checkout counter.]

Surly shop-owner, in Russian: “You sure you don’t want any kielbasa to go with all that candy?

Evan, in Russian: NO.

He may have passed the language test, but no true Russian would have left that store without cured meat.

One Comment

  1. […] and enjoy the outdoors. The week is starting off hot and very humid and that calls for one of my favorite things: a summer borscht. Admittedly, I have not cooked this batch or any other batch. For whatever […]

    June 17, 2014

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