Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanksgiving - Russian Style!

It's funny how the farther I get from home, the closer I feel to the traditions of my homeland. Before I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, I never cared much for the city of Boston. I grew up in New Hampshire and, frankly, the "big city" of Boston scared me to pieces. But by the end of my time at College, I started calling Boston home. Now I live in Siberia, and today I found myself looking at a simple glass decorated with the landmarks of New York and thinking that New York really is, after all, the greatest city on earth. Wait, what? New York, the smelly, overcrowded, confusing, polluted, traffic clogged, crazy, confusing, city of the New York Yankees and Giants, is the greatest city on earth? This New England village boy can't really be thinking such a thing.

A similar phenomenon has occurred with holidays. Throughout my life I have done my best to avoid taking part in these so called "holiday traditions." When I was in  college, I took pride in not going home for the holidays, either out of a masochistic desire to be different or a masochistic desire to suffer, and therefore gather my victimization based strength. In any case, this week I presented to each of my classes the American holiday of Thanksgiving. I told about "American" traditions that I myself had simply researched ahead of the presentation. My fellow Americans, did you know that the president pardons a turkey on Thanksgiving? And do you all watch the Macy's Parade (I've literally never watched the Macy's Parade)? I don't like sweet potatoes and I've never tried cranberry sauce. Most sacrilegious of all, I don't like pie in general and only recently began eating apple pie. But here I was, standing in front of classes of Russians telling them what Americans do on Thanksgiving.

Invariably, a student or a professor will ask, "Are you going to celebrate Thanksgiving here in Siberia?" Under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn't bother celebrating. But hell, I'm the American representative in this town and I better show support for American cultural traditions. Besides, saying no to that question in front of a class is an indefensible position. Saying no would just be followed by a long pause with everyone confused as to what to do next. So I said, "Yes, I'm going to track down some turkey and have a Thanksgiving with my friends."

Another part of my past reluctance to celebrate holidays is that they stress me out. I hate making plans, such as finding a costume for Halloween, or buying a suitable present for each of my relatives for Christmas. It all stresses me out. So I almost decided to just forget the whole thing, except for a small group of my Russian students/friends who seemed excited about the whole thing. Nothing like a bit of peer pressure and responsibility to keep you on the "up and up".

So today I set out to the Russian version of a Walmart-BJ's hybrid in the hopes of finding some Turkey meat. It took a while, but I managed to track down 2 kg of turkey meat (there were no whole turkeys, and there was no way I was cooking a whole turkey anyway), some frozen corn and peas, and some nice looking white bread rolls. I even found some California wine. My friend, Lena, already had potatoes, carrots and onions at home from her family's dacha, so after picking up some Russian champagne and various pre-made salads, we had a nice hybrid Thanksgiving feast of sorts in the making. I even bought a Belgian chocolate cake (screw the pies ;-)...)

Also fortunately, Lena's mom was more than ready to help prepare the turkey. She injected a needed level of expertise to this venture, without which we probably would have all either been chewing on charcoal or fallen ill with salmonella. That said, the preparation was still not without a bit of chaos. At one point Lena noticed that the stove had stopped working. Strange... it seemed the circuits to the kitchen had blown. The problem was quickly fixed with a set of pliers, but a few minutes later there was a loud clicking sound from behind the refrigerator and the stove went out again. This wasn't a loud clicking sound like someone pressing on a mouse. This was the sound a spark makes when it jumps across from node to node like a little bolt of lightning. For a moment I thought the whole apartment was going to burst into flames.


Lena's mom quickly took control of the situation. It seemed to me that all of our preparation may have been done in vain, and Thanksgiving wouldn't be completed after all. However, Lena's mom quickly dug through a closet and emerged with a small gas powered hot plate, which was a little terrifying in itself. As she lit up the hot plate (which, when attached to its fuel, was unbalanced and leaned hazardously to the side) I again thought the kitchen might suffer a catastrophic explosion. There nearly was, as the flames lept around the frying pan and I began planning my escape from the kitchen, but the stalwart woman that Lena's mom is, she controlled the flame and brought the Thanksgiving turkey meat to a delicious finish.

Speaking of which, I've never had fried turkey before, but I wasn't about to interfere with the Russian cooking process. It looked delicious throughout, and tasted delicious in the end, so who cares if it wasn't baked in the classic fashion? This was Russian Thanksgiving, after all!

Besides the turkey, we all (myself, Lena, Zhenya, and Katya) helped prepare the food, almost like a little family! We pealed an obnoxious amount of potatoes, that ended up not fitting into all of the saucepans that the apartment could provide. In the end, we wound up boiling them in the microwave as the stove was doing it's best to explode.

I will say, only in Russia will the stove threaten to have an electrical fire, and only in Russia will a solution be so quickly thought up so as to avert disaster. Russia is a place where the plan never works quite how you think it will, everything is a little chaotic, but most things tend to work out in the end.  

Finally, the table was set, and we unceremoniously sat around the table and devoured our makeshift Thanksgiving feast. Everything was as tasty as I could have asked for. Even the Russian version of "So you think you've got talent" playing on the TV in the background was entertaining (it almost deserves a blog post in itself).

In honor of the spirit of the holiday, I must list a few things for which I am thankful. I am thankful for my new Russian friends, and that I was able to spend Thanksgiving with good company. I am thankful that this has been the warmest November in the history of Novosibirsk (although I feel like I'm not getting the true Siberian experience). I am thankful that we did not burst into flames along with the kitchen during the cooking process. Lastly, I am thankful that I am a free man living a free life.

In class I asked some of my students to say what they were thankful for. Most of them said things like family, friends, loved ones, and their mothers. One student said, "I am thankful that I am a man."

Gotta love Russia.


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