Friday, July 30, 2010

"If You Like Something, You Need to Drink it"

Some sage words I received from my host father Sasha last night. I've been asked to write a little bit more about food culture in Russia, and I am all too happy to oblige. Food and drinking are, in my opinion, vital parts of the 'Russian experience', and some of my favorite times here have been spent over a good meal or a bottle of vodka. Russian food is often considered by foodies to be pretty damn horrible, but like their opinion about German cuisine, I have to disagree. I have found Russian food to be on the whole to be quite tasty. Unlike in America, Russian cuisine is still very much seasonal, the time of year very much dictates what one will find in the продукты (grocery store) or киоск (roadside kiosk, of which there are hundreds). Being the summer, I have eaten a lot of fish, and vegetables, and by vegetables I mean tomatoes, cucumbers, and the ever present dill. Meat, usually chicken fish or sausage, is in soup form, even in the hottest of weather. Борщ (borscht) is always a possibility, since everything seems to go well with beets, though often times soup will have barley or some other grain in it. Russians are positively obsessed with mushrooms, and they are considered quite the treat. One can often find them in the traditional Russian блины (a crepe like pancake) or served over rice or meat. I have eaten, (and also cleaned and gutted I am proud to say) quite a bit of fish, which can be a soup, served on its own, smoked, or salted. I quite enjoy salted and smoked fish, especially with a can of beer. In the summer, strawberries and raspberries round out my diet.
What is most fascinating in Russia however is the drinking culture. The American stereotype is that all Russians are drunk all the time, and that is partially true. A large segment of the Russian population, especially men, drink to excess. Drinking, as well as drugs such as heroine, are an escape from what for some is a rather miserable existence in the new Russia. As such, the average life expectancy for Russian men hovers right around 50, and Russia's ethnic Russian population is nosediving. Among 'cultured' Russians however, drinking is quite different. Russians really only drink on special occasions, what they don't tell you however, is that anything can be made into a special occasion. For example, a special occasion was the day after my first rabies shot, when I felt good enough to drink again. And let me tell you, when Russians drink, they drink. If I have learned one thing in Russia it is never try to out drink a Russian, you will lose, and in embarrassing style. My first Sunday here (at 6 am mind you) was spent in near horror as I was almost drunk under the table by a 16 year old Russian girl. Traditionally in Russia, special occasions were celebrated with vodka, and it was considered rude not to finish a bottle of vodka once it was opened (many old Russian vodka bottles can't be resealed once opened). This tradition still survives, and Russians will sit and make toasts (as I was told by one Russian, "You don't have a drinking problem if you aren't drinking alone or can still make a toast to something.") to one another with shots of vodka (no mixers here) chased with pickles or cucumbers, until they have drained one or more bottles. After the fall of the Soviet Union however, the price of vodka has skyrocketed (a bottle of Russian Standard will cost you at least 900 rubles, which for most Russians is quite a bit) and as such, beer and wine (often with a very high percentage of alcohol per volume) have become staples of Russian drinking culture. Russian food and drinking culture have deep roots in the Russian psyche. In the days of the Russian Empire, Russian Orthodoxy was a mainstay of peasant life. The bible preaches against wealth and the hording of wealth, and as such, Russians viewed, and still do, frugality and wise spending as negative character traits. This, coupled with a environment that was often times too hostile to grow food to eat, Russians came to become a culture of consumption. If Russians came into a large sum of money, food, or drink, it was immediately consumed, anything else would be un-Christian and un-Russian. That mentality, with a few exceptions, survives until this day. Russians don't save money, and good food is consumed almost immediately, the one exception I have seen being rare fruits like lemon, which are often rationed out in thin slices over many days, and even weeks!
Andrew, I hope you found this informative/coherent, I'll gladly chat with you about it more, Russian culture (food and drinking culture included) is so multi-faceted that it is almost too hard to describe in such a small amount of space.
In other news, I'm done with classes!!! Today was my last day of exams, and now I can officially say I have completed courses at an elite Russian university. Our last day was celebrated with a banquet, where every group did a small presentation, such as singing a song, or reading poetry. Our group did a short play of Pushkin's "Queen of Spades" with a script I borrowed from my Second Year Russian class at home. I reduxed my role as Lisa, the beautiful (?) grand daughter of the old campus. Once again, as seems to happen far too often in my time as a Russian student, I ended in a dress, much to the enjoyment of our classmates. The rest of the evening was spent with Lyuda, exploring the half of the water museum that was open. It was fascinating, and it was great to see Lyuda again. Our tutors had been payed for the time they had spent with us earlier in the semester, but it was really touching to learn that she considers me a friend, and wants to spend time with me on her own accord. That about does it from here, I'll hopefully post once more before we leave for the Arctic. Our first stop is going to be the Solovetsky Islands, then the island of Kizhi, and lastly the city of Petrazavodsk (in case anyone was interested in looking those places up).

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