Russia is a vast country with many strange cultural aspects that often seem to contradict each other. Despite all the technological progress, it’s still home to many superstitions. Being a tourist in Russia is not always an easy thing. However, in most cases, it turns out to be a rather enjoyable experience.
True, Russians may seem a bit grumpy at first, but behind that façade often hides hilarious and easy-going personalities. Making friends with Russians is much easier than some may imagine, particularly when it comes to the century-old ritual of joining together at the table: «застолье».
If you already know a thing or two about Russian culture, you probably won’t be too surprised to learn that in ancient times, the table wasn’t just a piece of furniture, but a palm of God Himself. For example, slamming your fist on the table was seen as a huge insult, one that might even result in the offender being killed. Problems were solved and important decisions were made at the table, accompanied by an array of foods and traditional drinks.
The table has kept its significance thoughout the years, although some things got lost in time. Now, if you slam your fist on its wooden surface (on purpose or by accident), you’ll merely be considered hot-headed or probably a bit rude. The point is, no matter what your reason for visiting Russia, at some point you’ll find yourself sitting at a table, surrounded by people you don’t know who are acting like they already know you.
In order to feel comfortable and natural during such an occasion, here are some things you should know.
First of all, you should keep in mind that if you’ve been invited to somebody’s house for dinner, you’re not obliged to bring anything. However, it would be nice to «принести что-нибудь к чаю» (get something for tea). This can be a box of chocolates or a small cake. If your host is a lady, you could bring flowers. However, it’s important to note that giving red roses to a woman means that you would like to spend a night with her. Also, be sure to count your flowers; their amount should always be uneven. In Russia, even amounts of flowers are only used for funerals.
When you arrive and your host opens the door, smile politely and say this:
- Добрый день (вечер)! Это вам! Good day (evening)! This is for you!
Then, hand them the gift. They will probably react with either a loud exclamation of delight, a tight bone-crushing hug, or possibly both. In any case, do your best to look equally elated.
Secondly, be sure to take off your shoes! When visiting a Russian home, you will normally be offered a pair of cosy slippers called «тапочки». However, you may disregard this advice if the host tells you otherwise. In any case, you can always ask:
- У вас есть тапочки? Have you got any slippers?
Also, you should know that as soon as you seat yourself at the table, you’re in the danger zone. If the elderly are present, make sure to keep your elbows off the table because it’s considered bad manners! Even if you’re not very hungry, stare at the food with great enthusiasm and ask for more, even before it touches your plate. You don’t have to eat it all, of course, but once you’ve taken a bite it should look as if you’ve never tried anything so divine before. Here are some conventional phrases you can use to compliment the food:
- Восхитительно! Прекрасно! Грандиозно! Amazing! Splendid! Grandiose!)
This one has to be said loudly and with a slightly exalted undertone.
- В жизни такого не едал(а)! I haven’t had the pleasure of tasting that in my entire life!
- Можно мне добавки? Can I have some more?
- Пожалуйста, скажите мне рецепт! Please tell me the recipe!
Finally, alcohol takes an important role in the life of the average Russian. During holiday times, hardly any table is without wine, cognac and (of course) vodka. However, nobody likes to drink without a justifiable reason. Thus, every time the glasses are filled, it’s somebody’s turn to say a toast. It must be said that giving a toast is really an art form; it takes skill for someone to come up with a short impromptu speech that will inspire others to empty their glasses. If you’re new to a group, giving a good toast can instantly increase your authority and make other members treat you with respect. So, here’s how “toasting” works:
When the food is served and everybody is ready to dig in, make a spiritual face and stand up suddenly, making everybody slightly uncomfortable. Ignore annoyed looks and say loudly and clearly:
- Друзья! Я хочу сказать тост Friends! I want to say a toast.
The rest depends on you. Some people prefer to tell actual stories that they believe are somehow related to the occasion. Other times, the person even forgets the purpose of the story and, to everyone’s relief, suddenly stops and drinks.
Luckily, there’s a simple phrase that will help you give a good impression and look savvy without boring everyone:
- Выпьем за любовь! Let’s drink for love!
If it’s somebody’s birthday, then you should wish them all the best and describe in detail what a great person you think they are, even if you’ve never met them before. If their parents or children are also at the table, make sure to praise them on being related to this wonderful person. For example:
- Дорогой(ая)...! (скажите имя) Поздравляю тебя с днем рождения и желаю тебе всего самого наилучшего. Спасибо маме и папе за такого замечательного сына/такую замечательную дочь! Dear…! (say the person’s name). Happy birthday to you and I wish you all the best. Thanks to mum and dad for such a wonderful son/daughter!
It turns out that the best toasts are reserved for older people. Here’s a perfect demonstration of why brevity is the soul of wit (or, as we Russians say, «сестра таланта», “a sister of wit”):
- Дед! Живи сто лет! Old man! Live a hundred years!
After all the toasts are said and the food is eaten, it’s time for a song. Here you’re given two options. You may excuse yourself, saying politely:
- Было очень здорово, но мне нужно идти. Большое спасибо! It was great, but I have to go now. Thank you very much!
…or you can stay and enjoy Russian hospitality to its fullest. In any case, you’ll need to drink some cucumber marinade the next morning to help with your hangover… but that’s a topic for another time.