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An outsider’s guide to Russian New Year

If the various cold salads don’t scare you away, the mandatory adult dress-up might. It’s the fuckin’ Catalina.. Russian New Years.

If you’ve never heard of or seen the debauchery that occurs during a traditional Russian New Years celebration, I’m sorry.

This piece should, however, provide you with some insight on how to behave and what to bring/wear/say if you ever find yourself at a Russian friend’s or future Russian significant other’s New Years party, aka the most important night of the year.

Do not refuse slippers, under any circumstances

If the lady of the house offers you slippers for your feet–no matter how dank or beat up they may look–put them on. If you refuse, she, along with every other slipper-obsessed member of the family will look at you like you like you have an ass on your face. Put. Them. On. And don’t even try to understand how or why the family is equipped with enough for an entire party.

Never come empty handed

Standard etiquette for any Russian gathering usually requires bringing something; anything so that you’re not the putz who came empty handed. But, on New Years, asking what to bring first might be your best bet. If the hosts say “nothing,” don’t be fooled. They’re expecting alcohol.

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The look that will plague you for the rest of your days if you come with nothing.

Look away from the TV

You are going to see some things on the screen that will make you think you’re hallucinating. You’re not. It’s just your standard New Years concert–featuring an abundance of Russian celebs, singers and actors putting on skits and performances that will literally make you think you dropped Acid.

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Exhibit A.

It’s not a Christmas tree

It’s a Yolka and they are a New Years tradition for Russians. Call it a Christmas tree one time, see what happens.

Be careful where you sit

You might not have a choice in the matter, but if you can avoid sitting near someone who is dressed like this woman, avoid it all costs.

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Dressing up is a thing

Usually the man of the house–and his friends–take on the various roles of traditional New Years characters, this includes but is not limited to: Grandfather Frost (or Santa’s distant Jewish relative as my father likes to call him), Snigurachka (a helper of sorts that, at our New Years parties at least, almost always involves a man in a bra), and an assortment of other random costumed characters that help give out presents to the children.

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Grandfather Frost and his helper circa 2012.

Stop looking at the TV

Shits gettin’ real weird now.

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Exhibit B.

Drink

No one cares that you “just” took a shot with uncle Boris, if cousin Nikolay asks you to drink, you drink.

Know when to go home

Normally, the hosts–who have been drinking for hours on end–will never tell you when it’s time to leave. It’s up to you to decide when the proper time has come. Usually it’s somewhere around there’s-no-more-vodka.

Embrace it

It’s weird, it’s fun, and it’s the norm for a lot of Russian folk out there. And, if by the end of the night, you find yourself hugging a grandma who is trying to give you food to take home, you know you’re in.

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S’ Novym Godom ya’ll!


			
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Tough Love: A compilation

Russians have a way with words.

Maybe not so much the English ones, but when it comes to expressing love, fear, hate, praise and a whole mess of other emotions, it all comes out sounding pretty much the same: “did you gain weight?”

My parents, who love me very much, learned early on that I don’t take to constructive criticism well. In any situation. My other relatives and family friends, however, give no shits.

So, this compilation–featuring some very sweet friends who offered up  a few of their own encounters with loved ones–sets out to highlight a certain style of communication common among Russians; off-the-cuff, honest, tough love.

  • “You look full in the face” – My aunt to me after I came back from study abroad.
  • “Where is boyfriend?” – Every family member ever in the history of my life and probable previous lives.
  • “Yes, my daughter feeds poor people for a living” – My dad to someone after I covered a food pantry event for the NEWSPAPER I work for.
  • “I hope the baby has her body and your face” – My cousin’s grandma to him before his son was born.
  • “Are you the older sister?” – Some random woman at a family event to my (clearly) younger sister.
  • “Where are your boobs?” – Something a friend’s mother once said to her.
  • “You need the fur to distract from your face” – Something another friend’s mom once said to her.
  • “Is that the size or the price?” – Grandpa to grandma when she said her shirt was “20.”
  • “Only dogs love you” – Dad.
  • “When do I have to drop you off at camp?” – Dad asking me when we had to drive back up to SUNY Albany, my college of choice.
  • “Find a husband” – How grandma says goodbye.

Special thanks to: Eleonora Tron, Ashley Dalle, Marina Makarevich and Rebecca Sereda.

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Clearly not a dog, dad.

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How to not math 101

In the Russian community (yes, the same people who gargle vodka and use a boiling pot of potatoes to cure a cold), school-centric, vunderkind like tendencies are unequivocally expected from children across the board.

Math in particular, ask any Russian you know, is a subject widely revered and celebrated across households–often involving the whole family,  sitting across the dinner table, laughing about a math problem, enjoying one another and their freakish superspeed subtraction abilities (at least in my mind).

I, on the other (unfortunately only five-fingered) hand, was never bestowed with “the gift.”

Math to me was always bullshit.

My parents–“the gift” thrust upon them at a young age in the old country–never really believed or understood my aversion.

This is because, excelling in most other subjects in school, I refused to accept the fact that I was bad at something, therefore never really disclosing to them how severe the problem was.

This is when I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Having coasted by in grade and elementary schools by my sheer likability and willingness to “try,” I knew high school would be my Math Everest.

So I, once again, did something I’m not proud of.

In my freshman year, I befriended one of the math teachers. He was a sweet, older gentleman who I knew from an after school club I participated in. We’ll call him Mr. F.

Mr. F was nice enough to let me sit in the math office during my free period. This is where the downward spiral began.

Since the office doubled as a tutoring center throughout the week, some sweet, unknowing students–who strolled in for some casual math tips–saw me sitting there one day and assumed I was a tutor.

Now, going back to me not admitting that I’m bad at things, I did not correct these innocents. I led them to believe that I was in fact a math tutor, a Russian one.

Would you trust this pretentious animal to teach you math? Ever? (This was on a cruise, I don't even think I drank that beer, apologize to your eyes for me).

Would you trust this pretentious animal to teach you math? Ever? (This was on a cruise, I don’t even think I drank that beer, apologize to your eyes for me).

I sat there the entire school year, parading around the office with my ruler and my “casual pants,” pawning myself off as an un-stumpable math tutor.

Math B? You got it, Papi. Pshh, common denominators, cake Ma.

I made it all up. Everything. I “taught” them all the wrong things and then went about my day like some sociopath messiah of math.

I don’t know why I did it. To this day, I chalk it up to just trying to swerve the curve in my favor. If I was going down, I was taking the whole misinformed posse with me.

I’m sorry, Mr. F.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How to not English 101

The year is 1996. The clan, fresh out of Bensonhurst, set up shop in Staten Island.

Lucky for five-year-old me, the quaint little neighborhood we moved to on the Island’s South Shore was choc full of cheery-faced peers, ready to accept me with open arms.

I on the other hand, even with my fascist days as a babysitter abuser behind me, was not so open to the experience.

The problem here was that I spoke no English.

My mother, gem that she is, happened to be watching as I had my first real encounter with American children (the children I had spent time with prior were all speakers of my native tongue, either from inside the confines of my Brooklyn apartment complex or my Russian-ass Pre-K).

So you can imagine my surprise when, learning that a new kid had moved in next door, a welcome wagon of a few other children around my age rang the doorbell.

I was confident. Why, I don’t know.

When they began speaking to me, I decided to rattle off all of the English words I knew to form a sentence. I imagine it went something like this:

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The stank eye I would give you if you acted like you didn’t know what I was saying.

Neighborhood Child 1: “Hi! My name is Stacey, what’s your name?”

Me: “MOM, DAD, COUCH, POTATO, DOG, CAR, BLUE.”

Neighborhood Child 2 to Neighborhood Child 1: “Fuck is wrong with this bitch?”

So follow me as I take you through some adorably mispronounced words, completely ridiculous sentences and other nonsensical things my sweet, unknowing, immigrant family have all at one point (thought we) said:

  • “Hello, can I have Burger King?” – Dad to McDonald’s cashier.
  • “Do yew have candy with nooch?” – Dad to deli cashier, asking for candy with nuts in it.
  • “I think the robin took it,” – Jane referring to a robber.
  • “Hello, can you help me?” – The way an employee at my dad’s old store used to answer the telephone.
  • “Do you speak English?” – Grandma to her English teacher.
  • Dad not being able to pronounce “socks” so, naturally, he would just lift his leg up and point.
  • “Shrimi” = Shrimp to grandma.
  • Not a pronunciation problem, but, dad once put a lemon scented wet nap into hot water because he saw lemons and thought: this is tea.
  • “Bitch” = Beach, across the board.

More recent:

  • “Saliva.com” = Dad’s way of saying SILive.com, the Staten Island Advance’s website.
  • Jon Tuffer = “Bar Rescue” host, Jon Taffer. No excuse for this one, I think dad just likes saying Tuffer.
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A third grade, English-speaking me with all my friends. I don’t know who that hand-me-down jacket belonged to but what were you thinking, mom?

 

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An open apology to my babysitter

Disclaimer: I have never been, nor will I ever be proud of what you’re about to read. 

If you’ve ever contemplated having children, or, adding to your collection of them, the following story might sway you in a particular direction.

At the tender age of three, I, the same person who now winces at the sight of elderly people trying to pick things up, made my very sweet, very adult babysitter cry.

Now, how you may ask did a three-year-old drive an otherwise completely rational, adult woman to crocodile tears every time she came to work? I will tell you.

Being the mini Stalin that I was for the better part of 1993–a side of me that I tried to keep hidden from some of the more fortunate folk in my life; my parents, people with candy–I had put this woman through a special kind of hell.

My now 21-year-old sister, an infant at the time, was to be the star of the show; the baby in need of sitting. Not me, no way, not lil Stalin.

Now, before you mistake my torturing this woman for a jealousy-driven cry for attention, let me set you straight.

I did not let her come near my sister. Which in turn, made her job very difficult. I would scream and violently shoo her away from the baby,–now a fully-matured little thing with a septum ring called Jane–yelling things like, “GET AWAY FROM MY SISTER” and “DON’T TOUCH HER.”

This, however, was only the tip of the freezing cold iceberg she hadn’t realized could live within a toddler.

Next came this poor woman’s lunch. I refused to let her eat the sandwiches she brought with her to work–because being the wonderful woman that she was, she would not so much as eat a tomato from my parents’ fridge.

Again, I would yell, “PUT THAT SANDWICH BACK, THAT’S MY DAD’S SANDWICH.”

Now, the icing on the horrible cake of shit I threw at this poor woman, was what I said to her when she accidentally broke a glass cup.

First, you should know that for whatever reason, at this age,  I was obsessed with the number four. Everything was four. The check in mine and dad’s imaginary game of restaurant, always $4; the number of Disney princesses I decided were stupid, four.

So what a coincidence indeed that my parents, who could barely afford to pay this woman $4 an hour at the time, were absolutely and irrevocably mortified when they came home and learned that I screamed at the babysitter, and asked her “how DARE she come here and break glasses for $4?”

What I meant, in my rage-filled, three-year-old rant, was that the glass she broke had a price-tag of $4, obviously, because what else would it cost?

The babysitter, rightfully so, took grave offense to this; thinking that my parents had shared her hourly wage with me.

Safe to say, from that day on–a day that I’m going to say helped mold me into the (most of the time) non-fascist that I am today–I never stepped to another babysitter. In fact, to ensure this, my parents made sure I was terrified of the next one–a broad-shouldered, stern as they come, Miss Trunchbull.*

Today, I rarely yell at people. I also refuse to buy anything that costs exactly $4.

*Her name was Katya and we actually ended up getting along famously as I got older. Turns out it was Jane who would come to be so terrified by her, she had nightmares into her middle school years.

 

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Although I’m not three in this picture, this look most closely replicates the stone-cold verbal attacker that was me in my younger years.


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Introduction

In 1991, I was a baby on a plane.

Not like a lone, escape-artist baby or anything. I’m told my parents–two foreigners who married after one month of courtship and the exchange of some gifts that included sturdy pots and pans–were there.

The gang was headed to America from an Eastern European country called Moldova that was, at the time, still a part of the Soviet Union.

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Upon our arrival – a story my mother loves to tell at dinner parties, by the way – I had shit myself. Literally. As soon as we landed on American soil, I had soiled the poor excuse for a “home-made diaper” they used in the old country, aka a fitted sheet, that my mother also won’t let me forget she had to hand wash after every use.

In the days following our touch-down she would come to be mystified by an invention called pampers, or POM-PERZ, as already well-adjusted Russian lady immigrants would teach her about.

Anyway, I am now, and impressively have been since before I was 11 months old, potty trained. Not that I’m embarrassed by the shit parade that followed the 11-hour flight we were on–I’ve been telling this story at parties ever since.