Life, Russian Style

It’s no secret about my family’s motherland. I’m not sure what gives it away most: the Boris and Natasha accents or the amount of radish salad my mother will try to stuff down your throat the second you walk in through our door. Either way, the fact is that I was raised in a tremendously rich culture, a culture that washes vodka down with smoked salmon, never smiles, and is constantly bellowing. Everything I know, I learned how to do it the Russian way.

1. There is a natural remedy for everything, obviously.

When I was six years old, I drove a spoon into a beehive. I’m not totally sure what came over me to commit such a sadistic act, but I was stung by multiple bees. My grandmother’s solution for that hot mess? Sugar. Never underestimate the potency of sugar. She rubbed a tablespoon of sugar into my scalp (where I was stung) and that alleviated the pain, supposedly. Some other quick home remedies: when sick with a cold, boil some potatoes. Cover your head with a towel or blanket to prevent steam from escaping. Inhale the steam to clear toxins and sinuses. Stomach ache? Eat some turkey guts.

2. Don’t be so sensitive about your weight.

Ever since I was a little girl, my relatives would painfully grab my arms and legs and tell me to eat more dumplings. In fact, if you are skinny, your mother is clearly neglecting you and thus, you are probably starving. A happy child is one that is eating. On the flip side, my parents will never be shy about implying that I have gained a few pounds. “Are you going to the gym?” My dad will raise his hands to his sides and clench his fists as if he is jogging to bring home his point. Eat or don’t eat, you will never win.

3. The party never actually ends.

You think just because you’re in a frat or sorority you know how to get down? Try going to a Russian party. I was raised on these wild nights, usually in restaurants with smoky basements. Typically, a Russian party begins around 10pm, and this is when “zakuski” (aka appetizers) and drinks are served. After a few hours, the first course is served, and then the second course follows. Meanwhile, Russian electro is blasting through the speakers, and usually there is a live performance. Pretty much everyone eats, dances and drinks until 5am.

4. There is a special hangover cure… not that Russians get hangovers.

Normally, after a night of one too many cocktails, one settles for eggs and bacon, maybe orange juice or coffee. After a Russian “over-drinks” (if you are hungover, you aren’t a real Russian, sorry), a common remedy is to drink the brine from pickles, aka pickle juice. It’ll do the trick!

5. Don’t smile.

If you’ve ever come across Russian family photographs, you will notice that no one is ever smiling. In fact, everyone looks like their pet cat is being strangled in front of their very eyes while the photographer is taking their picture. The reason is because Russians feel self-conscious when smiling and being smiled at. If someone is smiling at us, it could mean we are wearing our t-shirt inside out. Or it could be that we look like the perfect bait for an insidious crime. Who knows? In any case, smile lightly, if at all.

6. “Disposable” is not a word that exists in our vocabulary.

My parents do not waste anything. In fact, we have had the exact same furniture for the last 40 years. When our kitchen table started falling apart, my dad took it upon himself to re-finish it with a high-gloss lacquer; it became forever sticky and shiny. We couldn’t rest our arms on the table without our arm hairs immediately and permanently adhering to the table. However, it functioned, so we kept it. This rule also applies to food. Never throw away a black banana, and heaven forbid you think about tossing a moldy piece of cheese. It’s not that my parents can’t spend money, it’s just morally painful for them to do so when what they have is still, uh, technically useable.

7. Superstition is a way of life.

Russians are superstitious. They just are, and don’t argue with them because they will seriously kick you out of their house if you fail to follow some important guidelines. For example, don’t ever get anyone an even number of flowers. Even-numbered bouquets are for funerals only. Never speak too positively about something, since you will certainly jinx it. Never celebrate a birthday too early, and never, and I mean never, whistle inside a house. You will whistle your money away.

8. Santa doesn’t exist.

But Father Frost, or “Ded Moroz”, does! Unlike Santa, Father Frost arrives with presents on New Year’s Day. And instead of trusty elves, he has his spunky sidekick Snow Girl, or “Snegurochka”, to help with delivering presents and other invaluable holiday duties. Father Frost basically wears the same thing as Santa Claus, but much more glamorously, and he always can be spotted walking with his long, magical staff. Father Frost actually originated as a cruel and vindictive sorcerer who liked to freeze people and kidnap children, but as Russia’s communist values thawed, the loving and warm religion transformed “Ded Moroz” into a big old softy.

9. Sleepover? What is sleep over?

I wasn’t popular when I was a kid, but I was invited over for a couple of sleepovers. Unfortunately, even after I begged to attend one, just one! my parents would always say, “ ‘Shto?!’ What? Your own bed isn’t good enough for you?” For Russians, sleeping over at someone else’s house is weird and unnecessary. Also, when my mom heard about the popularity of bunk beds in American households, sleepovers became dangerous.

10. Have some manners.

In sixth grade, I had lunch with one of my classmates at her house. She simply said, “Let’s eat,” and proceeded to open the fridge and make herself a sandwich. I sat there, expecting her mom or dad to lay out food for me, because how else could I feed myself in someone else’s home? It was never, ever okay to just open someone else’s fridge and take food for yourself. My parents told me this was the epitome of rude, and when in turn, a friend of mine would meander over to the fridge for a Diet Coke, I would sprint over to the kitchen at full speed and stop them before anyone knew what was going on. “I can get you whatever you want,” I would say, panting heavily. Other extreme etiquette that Russian moms and dads will expect you to follow includes calling them “Mr. and Mrs. So-And-So,” bringing a plant or box of chocolates when meeting the family for the first time and always, ALWAYS asking for a second helping of whatever the Russians have prepared for dinner.

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