Dec 14, 2007

Денег не будет (On superstition)

Enjoy today's post, everyone - I'm headed west for over a month, leaving tomorrow, and it's gonna get awfully quiet here on the blog. And "west" is a relative term, so don't expect any visits.

Today's story, believe it or not, takes place in Russia:

Like most days, yesterday I ate dinner. My señora and I were talking about transportation and directions and weather again, over a bowl of god knows what. Not important really, so assume it was some combination of fat and salt. But in addition, there was bread on the table, and delicious raspberry jam. So after powering my way through some of the fat-salt, I reached for the jam, and started to spread it on my bread. Pretty standard, right? But I noticed that Natalya was staring at my hands, and paused. Then she said "What are you doing?? You're like a two-year-old!"

And I said, "your mother told me the exact same thing a few weeks ago! Why?!" (It's true, she really did, though I think it was "four-year-old"). She said that sweet always comes last, and you can't mix it with salty, especially if your drink is sweet. And we were drinking kompot, which if you've been reading closely, you know means "aguas de frutas." So jam, at that point in the meal, was out of the question.

Three months ago, I'd have rolled right over, taken note of the new rule, and shut my mouth. Not today, though... today I'm a new man. So I said to myself, "You know what, Djjjozef? You know Russian well enough to defend yourself. This is your chance!"

So you know what I did? I looked her right in the eye, pointed my finger and said "You listen here, pinko - If we'd bought every crazy theory you Russians have spat out over the years, I'd still be in Maine right now, toiling away on the kolkhoz with 10000 of my closest comrades, waiting for instructions from Moscow. And you'd like that, wouldn't you!" Then I slammed my red, white and blue fist down on the table, and took a huge bite of my bread, jam and all.


Alright fine, I don't speak Russian that well. Yet. But I did say, "why can't I eat bread and jam with dinner?" I might have even said it without a mistake, maybe. As it turns out, in the Russian parallel universe, you have to eat sweet last at dinner, because its easier on your system and you'll sleep better. At other meals its not as important. Also, you have to begin eating with a fork, but if your at home, you can then transition to the spoon, which allows you to eat more efficiently, but is too crude for restaurants or other peoples' homes. When you're a guest, you have to eat only with the fork and knife, except for chicken, which you can eat with your hands, but only after you've eaten the easiest parts with silverware. Tea, of course, you drink all the time everywhere, but you can't have honey in your tea in the morning, because its dangerous to go out in the Siberian cold with honey in your system, for reasons I didn't quite understand. And although you might think that the sweetness of honey before bed might keep you up, its not true, because "believe it or not, there's no sugar in honey."

So today's lesson, is that Russians fall on the superstitious side of the spectrum. I've been yelled at for taking the trash out at night, because it condemns you to money-problems. I've been yelled at for talking across the doorway, because it condemns the whole household to arguments. I've walked through cold, deep snow, in order to keep a safe distance from a cat with black spots. Not even black, by our american standards, but with some black trim. And wanna hear my favorite? In Russia, you can't whistle indoors, 'cause its just plain bad luck. That in itself isn't too weird, so keep reading.

I'd actually read about that superstition before I got here, so I tried to be careful, but a few weeks in I got caught. After that, though, I never did it... when Natalya was around. And in the mornings, when I was on my own, I would whistle alllll the best American songs I could think of, whistle and whistle to my freedom-loving heart's content. But Nina Nikolaevna, who lives next door and is a friend of my babushka, had been listening through our soviet-made, mass-produced, paper-thin walls... and one day, she broke the news to my babushka. Then i got yelled at again. You can't fool these people!

So I sat down with the babushka to sort out all the rules. We talked a long time, too, 'cause there's no shortage of them. I'm not to shake hands in gloves, even with friends, even on the street in the cold, because thats just downright impolite. I'm never to give an even number of flowers to anyone, that's only for funerals. When drinking, don't drink without food, don't pour into a glass while its in your hand, and once a bottle is opened, you have to finish it. And don't put the empty bottle on the table. Presumably because it doesn't leave enough room for more, fuller bottles, but thats just my guess. Never point with your finger (use your whole hand), never sit at the corner of the table if you're unmarried, especially for girls. Don't photograph your baby for the first few months, and hide it from strangers for much longer. Girls aren't allows to sit on stone, or generally anything cold - they'll go sterile. But everyone knows that.

So that was an unusually large dose of culture. And I even joined in the conversation, and said "am I allowed to open an umbrella indoors? In America it's bad luck." I thought she'd find that pretty interesting. Right?

And she looked at me, completely serious, as she had been the whole time... and said "Djjjjjozef, how do you dry it, if you can't open it indoors?"

and I said "you know... that's a good question."

and she said... and I promise I'm not putting words in her mouth.... "Djjjjjjjjjjjjozef, that doesn't make sense. You need to open an umbrella indoors, to dry it. It's a reality of modern life."

Touché, communist. That doesn't make sense.


So it's my last entry for a while. I'm headed west, on the trans-Siberian railroad, for a crazily long voyage across a crazily enormous country. I'm stopping in mountainous Ekaterinburg (translation: Denver) and historic Kazan (translation: ...whichever American city has all the beautiful old mosques and all the turkic/mongolian/muslim people in it). Then I briefly escape to Copenhagen, then another train (whoo-hoo) to Stockholm, and then back where I came from. Moscow for new years, then the train to St. Petersburg. And I just might run into some family members in the process. I'm particularly excited for that, of course... not just because they speak English, but also because they're my family.

Then, I take the train back, and I just might bypass Irkutsk and head all the way to the Pacific ocean, to Vladivostok. I've got a month and a half off... so life is pretty good. From Vladivostok, its only a short bus ride to North Korea for my official 'guided' tour, then I turn around and ride the rails back back to Irkutsk, my Siberian home-away-from-home. In all... I think I might spend a full two weeks sitting on a train. As you might guess, I'm very, very, very excited, and i'm sure there will be enough amazingness/unforseen disasters to write a semester's worth of blogs when I come back. Things are looking up for Djjjjozef, that's for sure.


Half of our group is headed home today or tomorrow. One of them invited us out to see Lake Baikal, 'for their last time.' And I realized... that I would not be ready to leave Russia yet. Our all-knowing program orientation packet said, that after three or four months, when the langauge/culture shock really start to fade... there's a good long period of euphoria/comfort. I think I'm there now - Russia feels more or less like home at the moment. More or less. It helps that the square in the center of the city has a million amazing ice sculptures/igloos/slides for kids and silly Americans who don't know the slides are for kids. And there are lights and new years trees (translation: godless communist christmas trees) everywhere.

There were times this month, when i felt I'd really had enough culture, and I was only sticking around to learn langauge. But that's passed... now that classes are over, I get to reflect on the whole semester, and the final, official opinion is really, really positive. I don't know how it happened, but Russia stole my camera, and my heart, at the same exact time!

And, so says the pamphlet, right around april or may my morale will come crashing down, just in time for me to come home to all of you, broken and silent. So things are going according to plan.


So thank you all for reading, and stick around for Semester Number Two: THE VENGEANCE. If you thought you knew Russia, think again. Spring 2008 will have twice the gut-wrenching suspense, twice the window-rattling action, twice the mind-blowing special effects. Our hero will brave the coldest months in the world's most distant, infamous outpost, and show these reds what Americans are made of. He'll find newer, harder words to mispronounce, memorize even longer lists of verbs, eat more tvorog then he once thought possible, and write even bigger paragraphs about his weekends for class.

And who knows.... he might even find true love. Of course, she would have to be deaf and/or desperate to leave, but anything can happen in this crazy foreign land. It's the must-read event of ... yeah alright it probably won't be all that different. But nobody is forcing you to read it, pal.

And also, don't make any phone calls, mom - one of the destinations on my travel list wasn't for real.


beth said...



Adam said...

My nanny always hated whistling. But they've got us with the umbrella thing, that's for sure.

Sounds like a great time--safe travels.

Kam said...

DUUUUUUDEE!! This blog is amazing! Wow, your posts are so much longer than mine... in a good way! And they're actually funny! The superstition anecdotes are bonkers (remember that cartoon show?) and furthermore, I am extremely jealous that you're on the trans-Siberian railway. That is truly on my life list. Too bad Pinochet tore up all the train lines in Chile. There are like 2. But they have these luxury busses that are the "estandar" (Chilean bastardization of "standard") for getting around the country. But 40 hours on a bus is a lot less comf' than 40 hours on a train. And a 2-week bus ride would be... well, Chile's not a big enough country for that.
- Kam -