No Gods No Manners

I’ve always had trouble with etiquette. What’s really the point, y’know? Does it really revolutionize the dining experience to relegate the knife to a permanent position in the right hand, to limit the fork to the left? It feels excessively restrictive; codifying things that would better be left to personal choice. Not that I want to chew with my mouth open, belch with abandon, or otherwise disgust my fellow diners, but beyond the basic rules of being a pleasant person why bother with such rules and formalities, especially in the home setting? Live and let eat, right?

Guess I shouldn’t have moved to Europe if this is going to bother me so much.

Had some flak from my host ‘mom’ (that may be stretching it, she’s approaching 80, but calling her ‘grandma’ at seems a bit… patronizing?) at dinner today. It feels like she’s been more critical of me than usual recently, from questioning my Russian yesterday (fairly, one could argue) to scolding me for using one of her towels to dry my hair this morning. I understand that since I am a guest taking over some of her space I need to be as courteous as possible, especially in a country which takes formality with respect to elders more seriously than home. So I try to adapt and fit her lifestyle as much as I can without compromising behaviors than I need in order to feel myself, and I’ve been trying to only learn from those comments. Something about the nagging at dinner tonight put me off more than usual, though. Manners at the dinner table have been something of a sore subject since childhood for me. Living in California, raised in the mountains, with parents whose regard for such formalities was no match for my firm resistance, I have little skill or knowledge about them, relatively speaking, and have managed thus far in life without it being an issue. I hope I won’t have to change that now; I think studying etiquette and practicing it on my own time would kill me a little inside, but I’m worried it might have to happen at some point in my life. I’m worried that it might be the sooner the better.

Anyway, enough self-sorrow. Back to dinner.

I returned to the flat (apparently that’s different from an apartment here) late, around 7:15 pm, from my walk with Masha. A new friend, not the Masha I knew before arriving in Moscow. I’ll get into the walk later, if I feel up to it. So I opened the door, greeted my host mom (Здравствуйте, Инна Борисовна! Hello, Inna Borisovna!), and went into my room to change. That’s another thing I’ve learned from being here, there’s a serious distinction between indoor clothes and outdoor clothes, and never the twain shall mix. I got into my sweats and sat down on my bed to breathe for a bit. It’s been a long day and these interactions with Inna are often really stressful. There’s no ducking out of dinner, though, so I headed in, chin up, ready to brave the awkward tenseness of my jerky, hazy attempts at translation. She was off to the right of the dining table set up in the kitchen; a small thing which only two people could sit at comfortably, with one side pressed against the wall and the other open to the cramped kitchen; washing a dish in the sink. I took my seat, a stool with no back reaching approximately my upper shin. A lamp hangs over the table, dim then but when we occasionally take our tea together around 9 in the evening it’s our only source of slight. The first course, a vinegary салат of beets, pickles, and onions mixed together which I have come to love, sat waiting on the tarp of a tablecloth. The table covering is white and a damp, greyish brown. Checkered with ornamental hearts, snowflakes, and elk silhouettes, it’s at once kitsch and entirely culturally relevant. Inna, a slightly hunched older lady with faded blonde curls and drooping jowls, a shadowy impression of beauty remaining in her later years, turned her slight frame back towards the table and sat. She won’t let me do the dishes no matter how much I ask to help.

The salad was consumed in as much silence as I could hope for. I used a piece of bread as a scoop to push the vegetable chunks onto my fork, like I was taught last night. When I finished, the microwave beeped and the next course, chicken soup in a thin broth with carrot slices and rice, was ready. Very tasty, but no dunking the bread, as I learned last week! According to Inna, it’s bad for the digestion. Bites of bread must be taken dry and on the side. A bit inconvenient, as I’ve spend most of my life enjoying my soup and bread in conjunction, but I’m getting used to it. As I was finishing the soup more problems arose. Earlier in the meal, I’d gotten up to fill my mug with filtered water from the sink. I’ve done this for at least a couple weeks now, idly noticing that she never did the same. In fact, she never seemed to drink with her meals. Tonight she brought up the issue; confused, it seemed, as to why I needed more water than that in my bowl of soup. She said that water could be drank a half hour before or after meals, but to drink it while eating was no good. Usually when I hear comments like this, I nod along and say I understand, cataloging it with the other tips I’ve gotten for Russifying myself. This bothered me a bit, though. I rather like drinking during meals, and I’ve never considered it rude or unhealthy. I wasn’t–am still not–sure I want to adopt this tip, and managed only a ‘hmmm’ and an ‘интересный (interesting).’ She took this to mean I didn’t follow and pressed the issue, continuing for another couple minutes with ample gesturing and mimed drinking. Finally, I submitted and threw her a ‘понимаю (I understand).’ I could feel that tonight wasn’t gonna be a tea night.

This was only the beginning, it seemed, as the next course, plain pasta noodles and meatballs with ketchup (better than it sounds), allowed her to vent her confusion over me eating bread with my pasta. “They’re made of the same thing!” she emphasized. Particularly strange for her was this morning, when I had a breakfast of pasta (spaghetti, she calls it, along with every other Italian noodle) and egg with bread, cheese, and meat slices on the side. Inna made it for me, and I am certainly grateful, but I’m not sure why she found it so strange that I ate it all when she was the one who set it out for me. I guess tomorrow morning I’ll skimp on the bread. When I finished cutting the meatball (another necessary step I’ve learned), I dropped the knife while moving the fork into my right hand. This, I suppose, is the main benefit of a division of labor between hands; avoiding the jarring clang of a falling utensil. There’s something to be said for that, and Inna did indeed, with an extended, gesticulating dialogue about etiquette in general with what seemed like, if translation serves, some rather personal digs. It might be for the best. At 20, on the brink of semi-serious adulthood, I should probably know much of this stuff already. Why does it bother me so damn much? I gotta also wonder how much of this stuff is cultural, and how much an elderly woman back in the States would find to criticize me about. Suppose I’ll have to find one when I get back home to compare.

In many ways, though, this rant has been completely unfair. It’s late, it’s been a long day, and I’m taking out some of my frustrations about being surrounded by this unfamiliar culture on my helpful, diligent, caring, host mom. She even did my laundry today. I don’t think she wants me anywhere near her rather delicate laundry machine, but that’s besides the point. I owe her so much for fostering me as I adjust to this new place and these foreign customs, and I will be forever grateful, I’m sure. Despite all the earlier negativity I do enjoy spending time with her; it’s a strenuous kind of enjoyment, but enjoyment nonetheless. It’s clear she has much knowledge to share. She’s already told me stories ranging from exploring the volcanoes of the Kamchatka peninsula to the French invasion in 1812, much of which I couldn’t understand but the gist was magical enough. When I walked into the kitchen for dinner this evening, I saw a note card on the table scribbled over with chemical formulas and equations. In a past life she was a geochemist. I asked her about it. She was analyzing a chemical reaction, apparently just for fun.

All that said, it is sometimes aggravating to have so much of our interaction revolve around criticism. The Russians are a very open people, and though I’m sure she means no malice it can feel like I’m constantly making these embarrassing missteps, some of which I don’t want to stop making. It’s sometimes hard to know where to draw the line.

It’s late and I’m tired. I didn’t get to the new Masha, but hopefully I will have more stories in the future.

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