Tuesday, March 26, 2013

“Borscht isn’t borscht without Sour Cream!” ~ my babushka


Now that I’ve been to Moscow and purchased my own stylin fur hat, I feel like a real Russian. Really, I’m far from that ... but in the less than 2 months that I’ve lived in the largest country on Earth, I’ve been able to experience some aspects of life that can only be described as quintessentially Russian. The obsession with сметана (sour cream) is just one of these cultural aspects. The other day my babushka sighed loudly and said that I was going to have to eat my soup without сметана because we had unfortunately run out. At first I thought “thank goodness!” Then it dawned on me, she bought a package 3 days ago. How is it even possible that we have gone through an entire container in 3 days? I’m on sour cream overload, I don’t think I will ever put sour cream on my enchiladas again. 

Me with the Maslenitsa doll
Following along with Russian superstitions has also become apart of my daily life. For instance, I have been yelled at several time thus far for sitting on the floor. Not because it’s unlady-like, nope it’s because Russians truly believe (their parents have ingrained them with this little tidbit) that a woman’s ovaries will freeze if she chooses to sit on the ground or any cold surface. Guess I’m not going to have any kids :/ Superstitions regarding medicine are also surprising. Currently in Moscow there is a flu epidemic, and the week preceding my trip to Moscow I received about a half an onion, cut into pieces, and distributed in my salad, my soup, and even my pasta. Apparently, Russians believe that eating onions will stop the flu. Who knew? It’s was even more surprising when one of my friend’s babushka lit an onion on fire and stuck it under her nose when she had a cold. 

A burning Maslenitsa Doll
So this past weekend, I was lucky enough to participate in one of the greatest Russian cultural experiences: Maslenitsa. Essentially Maslenitsa is the Russian version of Mardi Gras. It’s a full week long celebration that culminates with the Orthodox Church’s Lent Season. On the final day of Maslenitsa, there are festivals celebrated throughout the entire nation. People dress in traditional peasant clothing. There’s dancing, singing, games for children, and a wonderfully delicious snack known as a blini! Blini are the Russian versions of crepes and can be stuffed with anything from caviar (a Russian favorite), mushrooms, and potatoes to cherries and apricots. On the day of Maslenitsa I choose a yummy ham and cheese blini. Blini are symbolically essential to the celebration of Maslenitsa- they represent the sun and the approaching presence of spring. My favorite part of the celebration has got to be the burning of the чучело, the maslenitsa doll. This large doll made of straw represents winter. Spring comes when they burn this gigantic symbol of winter. All in all, the festival was a blast and highly ironic. How can it be spring when it’s -10 Celsius outside with snow covering the ground?

So I never mentioned a the uniquely Russian experience I had about a month ago with our entire group of American students: the Russian banya. We made our way out to the very outskirts of St. Petersburg where we were introduced to the luxuries of the Russian version of a sauna. Except, in the banya, there are certain traditions that must be upheld. The first step in the experience is to enter the steam room called a parilka. The steam room is made entirely out of wood and is extraordinarily hot. Russians recommend only to stay in this room for a maximum of seven minutes. I doubt I was able to stay in there even that long. In the parilka, it’s tradition to whack other bathers with birch tree branches called veniki in order to increase body circulation. I participated in the tree branch beating, but boy was it strange. I don’t know if my circulation got any better, but the branches made the banya smell really woodsy. And the final step in the banya process? leave the parilka and immediately jump in an ice cold pool or dump a bucket of freezing cold water on your body (see pic to the right... I thought it was actually a bit refreshing after being in the unbearably hot parilka). Hundreds of years ago it was common for Russians to roll around in the snow after exiting the parilka. Afterwards, it’s time to repeat the process.

Even though I’ve been able to visit some of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to (the Tsar’s Winter Palace and Red Square come immediately to mind), some of my most memorable experiences in this country have been enjoying the cultural interactions. In many ways, Russia is a world away from America, but that’s what makes this journey all the more special. 

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