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.


Rule 1: Don’t Bring Up Chechnya

Aka the biggest social blunder I’ve made so far

I made this mistake my fourth or fifth time socializing with Russians. There were five of us, including fellow American Sophia, in the Охотный Ряд (Hunter’s Row) shopping mall a stone’s throw or two from Red Square. The three Muscovites were helping us with our homework, translating six cryptic children’s poems dating from one of the rougher periods in Soviet history over terrible coffee at a Dunkin Donuts. (America runs on Dunkin, Sophia and I wondered aloud, does Russia as well? Maybe we aren’t so different…) Victor Kartinsky, seated across and to the left of the wobbly metal circle of a table, was quietest of the three though I’m sure it was not by choice. His English was the worst of our group, and my fitful, lurching Russian did little to make up the difference. He was clearly outgoing and it was easy to see that the forced distance bothered him. Though he was able, minutes after we were introduced, to gleefully scroll through an Instagram overflowing with portraits of a world traveler (skydiving, riding an elephant in Vietnam and a camel in Tunisia, scuba training in preparation for an upcoming solo trip to Costa Rica) to treat me to an eight-minute Go-Pro recording of his shaky attempt at motocrossing through a foot of snow in a park outside the city. I asked him how many years he’d ridden motorbikes. He met my question with a confused look. After an intervention from Lena, our translator, he replied with a guileless smile, “two weeks!”

Lena and Yanna made up the rest of our party, Sophia’s and my tutors non-respectively. Lena, Sophia’s partner but sitting directly across from me, is a 24-year-old Moscow native who goes to business school, works at a Best Western, and has dreams of New York. She shared with me a particularly tragic tale of losing her student’s visa just days before a flight to New Jersey after being interrogated at the United States embassy. Two intimidating Americans who knew no Russian blasted her for an apparently illegal money transfer to the States, which she swears never took place. “I knew no-one in your country,” she told me with genuine emotion and a touching accent, “who would I send money to?” The Americans said that they would temporarily confiscate her visa and she never heard from them again.

Yanna, reclining off to the right on her phone, seems more simple, but that’s only because of her quieter nature. She’s 19 and her English is somewhat overshadowed by Lena’s. I try to engage her in my new tongue as much as possible, but there’s only so much my vocabulary will permit. Originally from Irkutsk, a frozen city in central Siberia near the banks of the massive Lake Baikal, she moved here at 16 to study and hasn’t looked back. To Lena, apparently her best friend, she is coworker at the hotel and a fellow student in business, though Yanna seems more focused on Europe. She’s traveled as far west as Germany and her point of entry to the Anglosphere will be, she hopes, Britain. Writing this now reminds me of how much I still need to ask her about herself.

Sophia, my fellow American in the garish yellow seat to my right, is Georgian-born (the state, not the country) and a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as a blue belt (with two white stripes!) in jujitsu. She’s 22, she has a husband in the Air Force stationed in Kuwait, and she’s hoping to be a diplomat. Her Russian puts mine to shame in many ways, but I chock that up to her previous experience studying in Moscow over the summer of 2015. She was hospitalized yesterday for a severe case of food poisoning and is keeping a great sense of humor about it. Her last Facebook post: “That cultural experience got so real “.

Back in that impostor of a cafe, surrendering to a particularly indecipherable verse about four brave, possibly feline, sailors, the talk returned to a discussion which had naturally begun almost as soon as we met. It’s the most intriguing conversation two foreigners studying each other can engage in: what differences are there between our two cultures? How did those differences form? Why the hell don’t you just do it my way, it’s so much easier?! Victor made a quip about our treatment of the Native Americans, and I, till then considering myself the champion and figurehead of the American cultural experience, rushed to the defense. I caught myself before I could say a word, my fiery rationalizations exhaled out my nostrils, and sank back into my seat. I turned to Sophia, muttered about how much of an ace-in-the-hole for any critic of American history our experience with Indians is. Right up there with slavery. She nodded. The most difficult part: I was certain that the Russian Empire had skeletons bursting out of their closet from their expansionist days, but Russia had no ‘Manifest Destiny’ driving the common man eastward and, even more importantly, the diseases they brought with them in military expeditions had far less of an impact than ours. I mulled it over while others idly chatted. Exiles and gulags constituted much of the Russian migration to their territories seized from native tribes east of the Urals. The path to Russian dominance stretching to the Pacific has little cultural influence, outside of the country certainly, and the plight of their occupied hasn’t reached nearly as wide of an audience as our own beleaguered Natives. Not that that excuses any of the more sordid episodes in our history, but my mind was still racing with cultural competitiveness.

“The Chechens!” I burst out. They looked confused. “Yeah, you guys totally genocided them. Like a couple times.” Brows furrowed, and I hurriedly opened up Wikipedia on my phone. “Yeah, check it out. Operation Lentil.” I scrolled through the article, showing them the choicer bits. After a Chechen resistance campaign capitalized on the instability of World War Two, Stalin, in the interest of pacifying a region that had troubled Moscow with terrorism and civil unrest for nearly a century and a half, broadly labeled the Chechen nationalists as Nazi sympathizers. Under this justification, he led a bloody campaign of suppression and population transfer. As many as 700,000 Chechens, men, women, and children, were exiled as part of a forced resettlement program to Kazakhstan and Siberia in which an estimated 200,000 Chechens lost their lives. The European Parliament retroactively classified it as a genocide in 2004.

I regretted it almost immediately. The pained look in their eyes told me everything I needed to know. In the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has presented a uniquely difficult problem for Russian leadership. Wars on the scale of our invasion of Iraq, but within their own borders, off and on for two decades, with continued, though muted since 2009, terrorism and turmoil. In hushed tones, with furtive glances around the Dunkin’s, they explained to this ignorant American about horrible incidents of terrorism they had seen in their own lives, explained how sensitive of an issue this continued to be for the Russians. It was as if I had glibly brought up a 9/11 conspiracy theory in some New York cafe in 2002. Victor made an interesting comparison between the Spartans of ancient Greece and the current Chechen separatists, implying a measure of grudging, maybe frightened, respect. Luckily enough the conversation continued relatively smoothly, barely missing a beat, them brushing it off for what it was; an uncouth remark by a foreigner who knew no better. Curiously, I got more resistance from an angered Sophia, who brought up our nuking of Japan to close the Pacific front. So startled by my own misstep I couldn’t bring myself to respond, I simply mumbled something about us both having troubled histories. For the next half hour I thought of nothing but how wrong she was to compare the two, but my moment had assuredly passed. (C’mon. Way too many innocents died, and there are some very difficult questions about its necessity, but how could you call that a genocide of the Japanese? Do you know how many German civilians were killed in the Allied firebombing of their cities? Way more than the Japanese at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but we don’t call that a genocide. Anyway. Sorry, that’s rankled for a while.)

Nothing serious came of it, but I learned my first main rule of life here in Moscow. Don’t talk about Chechnya. It’s not worth it.

I’m gonna go watch a movie and procrastinate.