Tuesday, November 17, 2009

6. Eastern Orthodox Churches

Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the most widespread religion in Russia these days, followed by Islam*, with other religions and denominations being relatively rare. Most people, however, only go to church once in a while to light a candle for someone or say a vague (though generally heartfelt) prayer, and some visitors are only somewhat spiritual, or agnostic. Whatever the visitors are, Eastern Orthodox churches have a very memorable atmosphere -- tall ceilings, frescoes of large-eyed saints, dim lighting; incense and little old ladies in headscarves holding thin beeswax candles delicately. For all my being an atheist, I've always found them beautiful and rather impressive.

Which made my first visit to a U.S. church (Baptist, I think) all the more shocking.

When I was young and naive (i.e. a couple of years ago), I was pestered by a then-friend into going to church with her. I should mention that I was very intimidated by religious Americans -- they go to church every single Sunday! They wear special clothes for it! They encourage their children to watch "Veggie Tales"! Who wouldn't be intimidated, really? However, I figured this was my chance to observe American culture and try to figure out what's the big deal about Going to Church. So I put on a passable dress and off we went.

To my surprise, the church did NOT have gold onion-shaped tops. If anything, it looked like a large, plain house with a bit of pointy roof at the entrance. And the inside? Very disappointing -- no candles, no incense, just a strangely enthusiastic young woman asking me to sign a membership card. Instead of a high ceiling with golden chandeliers, there was what looked like a school gym. But then came the worst shock of all -- the sermon. Instead of solemn, sing-song reading in old Russian, it consisted of the priest asking everyone to dance to a Christian rock song, then teaching us that "our god is an awesome god". Then he broke a flag in a fit of righteous anger.

No honey-smelling candles. No quiet and solitude. No depressing, dark frescoes! You Puritans! Such were my thoughts as I sat awkwardly on the edge of a foldable chair, watching my friend jump around under the fluorescent lights.

We Russians require mystique and half-darkness, you see, like vampires. Our poetic souls cannot deal with plastic chairs and cheerfulness -- instead, we prefer marble and a nice, large line at the candle-selling counter. Lines in a church are what lets you know you are participating in a truly Russified religion -- a privilege that should probably only be accepted when you are wearing comfortable shoes. And of course, we must have incense to placate our sensitive Slavic noses and headscarves** for the women to add a nice touch of Biblical sexism.

So if you are to go to Russia anytime soon, I urge you to visit an Eastern Orthodox church, even if you are not religious, and particularly if you are an artist. The slightly melancholy grandness of it is quite inspiring, and the history of a country's religion (both pagan and not) often tells you quite a bit about the country itself -- just like in much of the rest of Europe, pagan and Christian rituals in Russia mix together and their history is intertwined. Most churches in Russia are quite old -- usually at least a century or two -- and walking into one is a bit like walking into Russia's past, complete with long-skirted old ladies and woolen or flowery headscarves.

Do remember, though, that neither old nor modern Russian churches approve of people grabbing the candles and dancing with them whilst singing about how awesome their god is. Please, don't ever do that. It is much too cheerfully Post-Puritan for the somber people of Russia.

*I can't really write much about Russian mosques since I've never been in one, but if there are any Russian Muslims around, I'd love to hear about what it's like.
**For the love of god, never call a headscarf a "babushka". "Babushka" means "grandmother," and no Russian I have known has ever worn a grandmother on her/his head. I have no idea who decided that the Russian name for a headscarf is "babushka," but I would like to make them carry around mine on their head so they can tell the difference. If you really want to use the Russian name for it, call it "platok".

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

5. Tea time

There's a stereotype that the British are obsessed with tea -- every afternoon, they supposedly sit down and have tea, delicately extending their pinky finger as they drink and exchanging snobby, proper conversation.

I highly doubt that's true -- I'll bet my own pinky finger that they're nowhere near as obsessed with tea as Russians are. Though one could hardly say that the Russian tea time is snobby and proper -- you'd have to search hard to find any proper Russian people, period. Personally, I like to flash or cuss at a stranger at least once a week. And without tea, I just wouldn't have the strength to fulfill my quota.

The Russian tea time is wonderfully ambiguous -- it may happen at noon, or at 3 (PM or AM-- pick your choice), or right after dinner. The table is set with any snacks around -- jam, chocolates, candy, cheese sandwiches, even salami. The water is heated and zavarka -- a very strong tea -- is brewed in the teapot. If it is too strong for your tastes, you are supposed to add in some more hot water to your cup -- or discreetly pour it onto your host's shoes, if you're so inclined. When the tea is too hot, many Russians will pour it into the saucer and sip it from there, usually with a fairly loud slurping noise -- if you want to avoid a burnt mouth, it would be wise to follow their example.

I should mention that Russia is currently in the throes of a nationwide, heated debate over whether one should drink loose leaf tea or tea from teabags. Some say that teabags make bland tea, as the tea leaves are mercilessly chopped and dried until they turn into a stale powder more suited to go up one's nose, and suggest that teabag-users move to the U.S. if they're so into convenience. The other side responds with, "YOU'RE unethical! We'll chop YOU to a powder!" Sadly, I suspect that much like the Lilliputs of "Gulliver's Travels," Russia will soon split into two nations -- one with teapots, and one with teabags.

The most popular tea in Russia is probably Assam -- a strong black tea grown in Assam, India (hence the name). It's usually sold in tins or boxes with "Indian" things on them -- you know, shahs riding around on elephants, belly dancing girls, belly dancing girls conversing with shahs, etc. One would think there are no people there other than shahs and belly dancers. Green and herbal teas have also become popular, as of late, particularly herbal teas claiming to be cleansing and weight-loss promoting. Of course, people in Russia have been gathering and drinking Willowherb tea for some centuries, but unfortunately Willowherb doesn't sort itself into convenient packages with the words "Ancient Wisdom Shaman Gypsy Herbal Cleansing Tea," and as such is no longer as popular as it used to be.

Since tea was first introduced to Russia in the 1600's, ways of drinking it have changed a great deal, mainly based on the availability of sugar. Originally, many people drank plain black tea (imported from China at the time), taking bites out of a sugar beet after each sip. Later, it became common to drink tea with sugar "on the side" -- that usually referred to either keeping a sugar cube in your mouth as you drank the tea, or biting pieces off it after each sip. When sugar became cheaper and easier to get, people started putting it in the tea by the teaspoon or cube, but tea itself became harder to get right before and after the splitting of the USSR. Fortunately, the situation improved, but even now it's still quite common to find horrid-tasting teas on the store shelves.

Tea time is a perfect time to relax, enjoy yourself, and talk about the depth of the Russian soul and the suffering it experiences. I strongly suggest you (dear reader) buy a tea set and start having regular tea time, Russian-style. A teapot is a must, as well as someone to drink tea with, jam, and chocolate -- sugar cubes are preferable, but not necessary. An even better suggestion would be to buy a nice samovar and use it regularly -- particularly if you live out in the country (like a dacha) and have too much firewood. But dachas and samovars are topics I will save for future posts.