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|© Elena Popova, 2009. Contact the author.|
From the chapter "Serious Stuff: Food"
''WHAT do you usually have for breakfast?'' my future mother-in-law asked me over the phone, fussing about our visit.
''Oh, don’t you worry, please,'' I reassured her. ''Just regular Russian breakfast will be fine.''
''And what would that be?''
''Why, vodka and caviar, of course!''
(Do I have to stress that I was kidding? Go figure – you will understand my precautions when reading about cow's hooves.)
...Being widely discussed but not often practiced, the healthy diet theme could compete with another topic, which seems to have the same fate — with sex.
From "Legends of the Sex Drive"
THE OUTSIDE world gets its impression about American sexual habits mostly from blockbusters where men and women actively prove that lovemaking is on the top of their agenda – after all, war, sex, and violence make the box offices. So America's promotional sex-image is pretty robust. The reality is different.
...Reading Dave Barry Turns 40, I was already giggling understandingly: "Since 1984, their most intimate moment together was the warm embrace they shared when they found out that their homeowners' insurance covered the unexplained explosion in their septic tank."
Dave Barry as a journalist sure is aware, none better, how the masses live.
So does Ray Romano, star of the show "Everybody Loves Raymond," who told Newsweek, "After kids, everything changes. We're having sex about every three months. If I have sex, I know my quarterly estimated taxes must be due. And if it's oral sex, I know it's time to renew my driver's license."
..."Some of America’s best features," wrote Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity, "the belief in democracy, equality, consensus-building, compromise, fairness, and mutual tolerance – can, when carried too punctiliously into the bedroom, result in very boring sex."
From "Pets, the True Love"
I LOOKED at the couple through the bedroom window. They sat on the steps, side by side, my husband's arm on her shoulders, watching and listening, soaking in the freshness of the early morning before the fall of the excruciating heat. Something caught their attention – they looked upward simultaneously and followed a flying bird. The dog's large ears pricked, her pink nose twitched – she heard and smelled things beyond the human senses, but still the Man and the Beast were a perfect pair, an entity. Before getting into his car, Mark bent over and planted his lipless kiss on the top of the dog’s head while she bashfully kept quiet. Clearly, she was the most precious creature for him.
...Let’s face it: communication with a human being is a far more sophisticated task that brings risks and responsibilities. Much easier just to settle for a less disturbing object of adoration that won’t stir person's insecurities.
...Paradoxically, pets, which are supposed to teach people about compassion and understanding, seem to harm human relationships instead. A new trend is thriving in America: human partners are out, furry ones are in, and everyone is almost happy.
...Could the divorce rate decline, I wonder, if people started treating their spouses with the same endless indulgence and self-forgetful love as their pets from the animal kingdom?
From "Isn’t That Custom Strange?"
WITHOUT any observable reasons, my husband pulled over on the side of the road. We were on a state road – technically, on a North Carolina state highway, with a divider and a speed limit of 45 miles per hour through the town.
My Southerner pointed across a divider at the incoming traffic lane, partially obscured by trees, "There is a funeral."
Indeed, a hearse with a string of cars was proceeding.
"It's impolite not to stop and show respect."
"On a highway?"
I couldn't get it. I had witnessed local drivers' behavior during holiday shopping rush hour, when an ambulance, with blazing lights and blaring sirens, was trying to get through – people were ignoring it. Perhaps, that was the idea: if an ambulance arrives too late, then the remains will get undivided attention and respect. Later on, I read a letter from a Yankee in a local paper who said that he is not going to obey the strange custom of stopping for funerals when ambulances are so largely ignored.
From "Myths and Standards"
WHEN I was a child, I had a doll named Sally. Sally was black. When I was older, my mother told me that once, on the Red Square in Moscow, a young black tourist expressed his admiration that a young blond girl had a black-skinned doll. But that was just my Sally – I didn't give it a thought.
...When I saw for the first time a project, the federally subsidized mainly black neighborhood in a Southern city of Hickory, it sure looked unusual to me. Its office had bars on the windows, but the surrounding atmosphere was rather festive – shiny sedans were parked at the curbs, people were sauntering around, shouting to neighbors that were hanging out from the windows. It contrasted with nearby blue-collar neighborhood that looked deserted during the day, with all its battered trucks gone.
...A teacher from a local community college told me that his student, a 40-some year old immigrant from Japan who relocated to the South in the 70s, recalled a KKK parade in town. To me, it sounded like if she saw an alive dinosaur.
...Some double standards were conceived with the newborn American independence: the young nation, which stated that it breaks its oath to the crown because of its craving for liberty, nonetheless conventionally kept slaves – but democratically voted on the issue: "In 1784, congress considered a ban on slavery in the west, the measure lost by a single vote." Such a triple twist: liberty – slaves – and democratic vote on slavery. And "in 1840, a world anti-slavery meeting in London was split over the 'women’s question.' The male delegates banished the females to the balcony."
From "Several Horror Stories"
WHATEVER could be said about Boris Yeltsin, the man undeniably had that priceless for a politician ability to absorb and epitomize the information, doesn’t matter how alien it was for him. When he delivered a perfect summary on the mission of biological preserves – evidently, just being briefed on the subject by an expert during our helicopter ride to the preserve – I couldn’t resist.
"We thought you were red," I said, "But actually, you are green!"
The silence fell. The chief of protocol glared at me ferociously. Yeltsin, quickly recovering from surprise, laughed and gave me a squeeze. Attendants started to chuckle along.
I never expected any persecutions for my customary relaxed behavior – I had a history of disagreements with the "party line," censors from the Committee of Guardianship of State Secrets in Press were abhorrent of my articles – I used wording that couldn't be legally axed.
"But it's clear what you mean!" the censors complained, "That's a dig!"
Even in my master’s thesis on ecology I mischievously combined quotations from the dispensation of Taoism and a work of Karl Marx on fragile ecosystems of mountain forests after discovering how precisely they match. The result? An honors degree and an offer to explicate the work into a PhD thesis. And higher education was free in the Soviet Union.
...I opposed communist regime while living in the Soviet Union, but in the US, I started to appreciate some entities that in the USSR we took for granted, especially in housing, education, and healthcare – the USSR provided the best preventive care in the world, according to World Health Organization.
From "A Nation of Victims"
A STRANGE woman in a Southern store, spotting my accent, addressed to me out of blue, "My nephew is in Iraq."
"I am sorry," I said, "You must be worrying about him a lot."
"No, I am glad that he is there – we must punish those who attacked us!"
"Iraqis attacked you? When!?"
Don’t you know?" She looked at me incredulously, "[But what could one expect from those with accents?] On September, eleventh!"
I doubt that I would be giving the woman a valuable piece of information if I told her that the attackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia. The woman wasn’t after the knowledge – she wanted to relish the feeling of revenge, and official propaganda readily poured "stirred and shaken" cocktails for citizens like her.
..."War started!" a popular TV channel ran a slogan soon after the attack. Then the official clarification came that the United States had not declared any war, and the expression was officially assigned as inappropriately exaggerated. But it sure worked well for testing waters – in no time the term vernacularised, and evilness of attackers was soundly linked to the danger of Iraq by tying them together wantonly in politicians' speeches – just in the same manner the idea delenda est Carthago ("Carthage must be destroyed") was planted and eventually carried out. Simple but effective technique.
From "The Globe of America"
I HAD a memorable incident when a teacher from a Southern elementary school invited me to make a presentation about Russia for her young students. We discussed the topic beforehand, and I had to make a couple of geopolitical corrections. But unfortunately, the information didn’t stick, since the teacher energetically opened the presentation with a disarming statement. "As you know, Russia doesn’t exist anymore."
I tried to steer in the direction of the undisputed crumbling of the Soviet Union, but the young teacher didn’t give up easily.
"Okay, then it is Slovakia that is not part of Russia anymore."
I thought I understood the teacher’s logic: since Russians are the Slavs, then Slovakia must be a part of Russia. I showed Slovakia on the map, and it was evidently quite far away for being a part of the former Soviet Union. I decided not to muddle with Slovenia, the other potential candidate for a part of Russia, and just mentioned that the Old World map is quite a quilt, indeed.
After that experience, I’m not so sure that all of those members of the Yahoo community were kidding discussing hot news on May 30, 2005: Russian troops in Georgia.
bonnie_and_clydesdale, 28 year old female from St. Louis, Missouri: "I had no idea Russia had troops in Georgia. Never was a word ever said that communist soldiers were stationed in one of our Southern States. How did they get away with this? Why didn’t they tell us?"
kung_fu_at_you, 21 year old male, Chicago, Illinois: "Next we'll find out Chinese army in NYC."
jar_il2000, 26 year old male from Israel, "Americans r u dummy or just kidding!?"
usa_number11111: "We are dummy, you are not dummy, oh great world we are stuped that is why we the great super power."
From "The War of the Worlds"
WHEN Jay Leno interviewed young folks in Salt Lake City, they showed very little knowledge about the Olympic movement. One of his interviewees boiled it down perfectly. Just like others, he had no idea where the Olympic Games started but he defiantly added that to him, the Games started in Squaw Valley.
That was just brilliant! He was a poster child of the effective political recipe: substitute knowledge with plentiful exaggerated patriotism — and that will produce perfect cookie-cutter electorate. Modern Russian politicians employ this effective formula also, but the Soviet "brainwashers" were kindergarteners compare to their American counterparts. Communists cultivated knowledge and education, and they dealt with a nation that knew better than to gulp concoction of the official propaganda, in the Soviet Union as I remember it, the majority of the nation seemed to be in opposition to its government. In contrast with general American spread-eagle attitude, in communist countries people were used to thinking for themselves and drawing their own conclusions.
From "Moose and Squirrels!" or Images of Russians
"I KNOW how Russian women are supposed to look! They are burly and they wear dresses made from potato sacks, like it’s haute couture!" my friend Josh frolicked, remembering old TV shows.
Josh’ s favorites were Pottsylvanian spies, no-goodnik Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale from the cartoon about Rocky-the-squirrel and Bullwinkle-the-moose. Once the poor guy had a hysterical fit when I incautiously ordered mousse for dessert. Somehow, the satirical jokes about American life went over the head of the "moose and squirrels" lover:
Rocky: Do you know what an A-bomb is?
Bullwinkle: Certainly. A-bomb is what some people call our show.
Or this one:
Bullwinkle: You just leave that to my pal. He's the brains of the outfit.
General: What does that make you?
Bullwinkle: What else? An executive.
...Discovering what the American nation makes of Russians is quite interesting. Russian women, in particular, were pictured in such a wide range, from sexy women-spies to robust peasants, and now another seductive and confusing type has been added: Russian brides.
From "Demons She Fights: Adjustment Period"
IN ORDER to maintain sanity and to cope in a foreign country, far from family and friends, a newcomer has to shut some of the soul’s floodgates.
That sensation is eerie — it almost feels as if you are becoming less of a human and your soul palpably chars and shrivels into some strange leathery substance while you are hardening, surviving in this new life. For the sake of self-protection, the newcomers have to deprive themselves of natural emotions consciously, as if deliberately plunging into some sort of autism. Connections, roots, and nerve-endings are severed by relocation, and the stumps have to be anaesthetized.
...Going back and pretending that nothing happened simply won’t work — the ruins of old life cannot be restored easily. After moving into an alien land, a person eventually pays the price of turning into an alien: not for the citizens of the new homeland — for them, an immigrant will likely remain an alien forever — but for one's own nationals.
The Show Must Go on
I BELIEVE that the top prize among optimistic sufferers has to go not to immigrants but to the brave Brits, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men. The story of his expedition should be a crash course for those who think that they have put themselves in a strange land in the worst situation possible. Advertising vacancies for his Antarctic expedition, Sir Shackleton explained that he could not guarantee survival but suffering was certainly a part of the contract (making it similar, in that respect, to the immigration ordeal). Applicants swarmed the office, just like wannabe-immigrants swarm American consulates abroad.
Against all odds, those British were determined to hang on and see if things would get better. The same works for the newcomers in America.
...The next fact newcomers usually discover, sooner or later, to their proud surprise: "We tend to underestimate our own resilience. To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in suffering."
...But shouldn’t life be about joy and happiness? "A man is born for happiness as a bird is born for flight," said Maxim Gorky, yet another famous Russian expert on human misfortunes. Due to his poor health, he often wrote about Russian sufferers from his retreat on the cozy, sunny Italian island of Capri.
From "Watch Your Language"
ADVENTITIOUS and hence innocent, linguistic imperfections are perhaps the most delightful of all cultural collisions.
What a nice break the Seattle laboratory scientists had when a Russian researcher asked a male colleague to turn on a sophisticated device for her.
"Please, turn me on!" the woman insisted impatiently.
The laboratory grew silent in anticipation of amusement.
Trying his best to keep a straight face, the male colleague suavely offered, "Well, since your husband so conveniently works at the same building, don't you think it would be more appropriate to ask him?"
She didn’t disappoint the audience and delivered the punch line, "No, it’s none of his business — you turn me on!"
And wasn't it a memorable service when a pastor of German origin announced that two members of his flock are getting married and everybody is invited to the wedding and "to the parish hall afterward for the conception"?
...Sometimes Americans expect people in foreign countries to speak English indisputably. ...My husband was enraged that he could not get the instructions in "proper" English at a subway station in Italy. I teased him, "You were in a foreign country, so who has to adjust?" American newcomers, who have to go through the official procedure of adjustment of status, won’t debate on that.
To Execute or to Pardon?
FOR A RUSSIAN outsider, the relationship between sexes in the US seems to be in a tangle. Should he help her in order to show that he cares or would she take it as a sign of condescension? Will he be executed or pardoned if he tries?
That’s just one nuance — there are hundreds of others.
...[Men] found out that if women don’t show the desire to be protected and pursued, spoiled and adored, then what the heck – life is much easier that way. They won’t bother to check if you want to be treated as a buddy or not – sorry, the section "gallantry" is closed for an indefinite time, on demand of your very gender.
...I like this American anecdote: Would you like to have a boyfriend who likes poetry and music, who is sensitive and charming? Of course, you would! But unfortunately, he has a boyfriend already.
When a Russian man says, "Well, they’re women, what do you expect?" they mean that "a very special gender" must be indulged. I like the French saying even more: "If a woman is wrong — apologize." But if the French would only do as they say!
The forbearance of a Russian male isn't seen as deprecation, and a man preserves his dignity while indulging a woman without needing to have everything done his way – after all, men have other vast fields to practice their self-affirmation, to a traditional Russian man the idea of fighting with a woman over minor issues would be beneath him.
Caricatures © Vadim Bora Studio.
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