On my recent journey to Sochi I was very fortunate to have stumbled upon a group of Russians while watching the Russia-USA hockey game. They were a group of surgeons from 500 kilometres up the Black Sea coast volunteering as medical staff at the speed-skating arena. They took amazing care of this lone-traveling Canadian. Over my week in Russia we became good friends and they showed me what it's like to live in Russia. Below are some of the lessons I learned in tagging along with them for a week.
How to Drink Vodka Like a Russian
1. Take your time finding the right table at the right restaurant. You'll be there awhile -- might as well get comfortable. The smoking section was always livelier than the non-smoking section, and Alex, Max, and Dimitri smoked a lot of cigarettes.
2. Expect slow service.
3. Once a waitress does arrive, take at least 20 minutes to flirt with her while ordering vodka and a table full of appetizers. This time spent will bear fruits with improved service over the entirety of your sitting.
4. The bottle of vodka is to be served cold and of high quality. The person that picks up the first bottle is in charge of pouring and pacing shots for the entire night, even once you change venues. He pours a half-shot of vodka every seven minutes or so as though he's on some kind of a timer. Someone always offers a small toast with every round (ie. To Good Health! To Good Friends! To Canada! To Biathlon Gold!).
5. Eat small amounts often. The Russians were all over me to eat after every shot. When all the food came I was surprised at how no one touched it; in North America we would have devoured the table and been too full to drink anymore. Instead, they slowly picked at it for hours. Dishes were typically very pickled and/or salty, and included Salotca (pickled herring), Salo (like bacon but basically pure fat and cured stronger), Yazyk (boiled beef tongue), Zebra-Goldfish (like a type of fish jerky), pickled tomatoes and mushrooms, plus regular appetizers like pizza, cheese plates, and lots of sushi (throughout Russia they love sushi). It was all really good.
6. Once you start drinking vodka don't drink anything else. I made the mistake of ordering a beer after we'd had a couple shots, and the Russians wouldn't let me drink it (they had been drinking beer on a patio just prior). It make sick tomorrow, no drink, Alex told me and the beer sat on the table all night.
7. Repeat steps one through six until around five in the morning (Russian bars and cafes are open very late).
9. Take home a bottle of kvas, a Russian hangover remedy (pictured in the slide show).
Follow this formula and you'll drink significant volumes of vodka, have an incredible time, and feel surprisingly good the next day.
A few other life and Russian lessons learned:
Russians man-hug differently than Canadians. You know when guys shake hands then do the little half-hug thing to say hello or good-bye? In North America your head always goes to the left of the other guys' head. In Russia your head goes to the right. This took me 2.5 man-hugs to figure out. Mr. Putin would not have appreciated the awkward moments this cultural confusion created.
Russian coffee is really bad. If anything, often all you can order is instant coffee and it costs a lot. I made this worse by mistakenly putting 2 per cent yogurt in my morning instant coffee for three days thinking it was milk.
Russia is not as cold as I thought. Sochi was much warmer than Vancouver, and Novosibirsk -- the main city in Siberia -- has a climate very similar to Edmonton.
My arms resemble those of a Siberian bear. A picture I posted on Facebook (see slide show) next to the Molson Passport Fridge received a ton of social shares, many of them helpfully pointing out that I have considerably more arm hair than the typical modern homosapien. These comments were not lost on my new Russian Facebook friends (the Russians are very quick to add you to Facebook).
Russia has Interesting Holidays. One of our nights together, February 23, was a national holiday called Man's Day (or Defender of the Fatherland Day) celebrating the servicemen of the country. This got conversation going about what other holidays Russians celebrate. There is no Mother's or Father's Day, but they celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, which has a history that involves Russian women campaigning for peace on the eve of WWI.
New Years in Russia is a 10-day holiday that resembles the vacation we take between Christmas and New Years (they have Christmas on January 7). January 14 is Old New Years, a vacation that confuses most foreigners. Before 1918, the Russian Orthodox Church used the Julian calendar and January 14 was the New Year. When they adopted the Gregorian calendar, Russians continued to celebrate both days. And May 9 is Victory World War II Day. Alex told me this is a very special day, as every family in Russia lost someone in that war.
Traditional Russian Dancing Games. One evening I walked into a group of about 20 young adults playing some sort of traditional dance games on the sea walk. I stopped to take a picture and upon noticing my Canadian hat they sucked me right in. There was lots of holding hands while running in a circle and singing and laughing in Russian. Having no clue what was going on made it even more fun. I was told later this is part of a larger youth group that has a presence in all the major Russian cities. The dance games are called Русская вечерка (Russian Vecherka).
Putting a Wrap on Russia
And with this note, written on an airplane headed (eventually) home to Vancouver, my trip to Russia is over. The experience was incredible on so many levels. I got to experience my first ever Olympic games, but also separate myself from the international festivities and feel a real appreciation for what's it's like to live in Russia and hang with the locals.
The Russians were extremely kind and hospitable; they loved having a random Canadian walking the streets in their neighbourhood. Often people would just stare at me with a big smile for a few seconds trying to conjure up something in English to say. Eventually they'd usually point at my Canada hat, give me a huge grin, a thumbs up, and a loud cheer: Canada! Hockey!