“Meet me at the Diner for lunch,” said Joe Kelly over the phone “I need to ask you something.”
I was happy to take a break from writing and oblige: lunch with Joe is always a treat. A former linebacker from Ohio, he fills the strategically positioned hexagonal booth at the Starlight Diner with his effusive bonhomie most afternoons, massaging his iPhone and running his business between a cheeseburger and jovial encounters with his many friends.
“So,” he said after I slid into the booth next to him, “here is what I want to know – what is it like to spend New Year’s in Russia?”
“Armageddon,” I responded automatically. “You aren’t really considering staying here, are you?”
“I might be,” said Joe, talking a restorative sip of his Diet Pepsi. “Tanya would like to go to her mother’s dacha, and she’s made it clear she’d like me to stay.”
Tanya, Joe’s longtime girlfriend is the original tough cookie — like a titanium chip cookie. If Tanya wanted a Russian New Year’s, she was likely to get it.
“Spending New Year’s in Russia,” I said, shaking the ketchup bottle vigorously, “is very much like working for a Russian company: most expats try it once, and then give it up because it’s way too dysfunctional and the food is terrible.”
“Tell me what you really think,” said Joe mournfully, dropping his head in his hands.
“I spent New Year’s in Russia once,” I said, “and almost got divorced as a result.”
“Seriously?” he asked.
“Seriously,” I said snitching one of his French fries and pointing it at him for emphasis, “It’s like Narnia – ‘always winter and never Christmas.’ No stockings, no carols, no wassail, no eight tiny reindeer – none of that. Christmas, when it happens is in January and it is no big deal. Do you really want to sit here on December 25th while the civilized world sips Bloody Mary’s and egg nog and opens presents, and you are at work where some beefy accountant called Olga makes you do your expense report –?”
“Jen,” said Joe carefully as I was in mid-harangue, “I am self-employed, that wouldn’t be my experience.”
“– And then when you finally get to December 31st, you have to spend the entire day with your mother-in-law cleaning the entire apartment while she makes herring under a fur coat.”
“Is that the one with potatoes and carrots?”
“No, Joe,” I responded sternly, “herring under a fur coat is the one made from layers of beets, chopped hardboiled eggs, pickled herring, potatoes, glued together with polyester mayonnaise, all topped with grated cheese.”
“Yuck,” said Joe.
“Yuck doesn’t even crack the surface, my friend. And then, when your husband finally – finally — comes home after an afternoon of racketing around Moscow congratulating government ministers and police chiefs – he falls senseless onto the couch for about four hours until its time to get up and turn on the TV. And what’s on TV? Russian variety musical shows, that’s what – hours and hours of cheesy Russian rock stars singing horrible music.”
“Well, Tanya doesn’t know any police chiefs,” said Joe grasping at straws.
“Not that you know of,” I cautioned, “but come New Year’s Eve, she’ll unearth some. And then, just when you’ve had about enough, the horrible sister will arrive: the most self-centered narcissist in the galaxy, not lift a finger to help, and proceed take a four-hour nap. And then you will begin to get why everyone is taking all these four hour naps around 9:30 pm, because you aren’t going to eat anything until 11 pm, and when you do eat, it will be herring under a fur coat and sweet champagne, and trust me – those two aren’t a culinary match made in heaven.”
“What happens at midnight?” asked Joe.
“Ah well,” I said, “the big dénouement is that President of Russia comes on and makes a five minute toast.”
I racked my brain. “I think so,” I said, “Yes, that’s all, but you know I’m not sure. I was so knackered from it all that I fell fast asleep at 12:01.”
This article first appeared in Russia Beyond The Headlines on December 14, 2010 online.
Do you stay in Russia during what passes for Christmas and then through New Year? What’s been your experience? Or do you sensibly flee? Where to?
Is it just me or have the ends of all but the shortest paragraphs disappeared from view? The text is not wrapping, so only the first line of any paragraph longer than a single line is visible. Which makes the text really confusing as there are gaps (e.g., how did the police chief enter the conversation or herring under a fur coat?).
Ah, the Russian Variety Musical shows. Occasionally I watch a little when my TV remote chooses to ignore the second number that I’ve diligently and obviously entered for the BBC. It’s hypnotic. Clearly opium for the masses to steal a quote from some German idiot.
I participated in an expat Russian NYE celebration in Montreal a few years ago. That pretty much sums it up, except that we didn’t get food until midnight (but we did have decent champagne & vodka). And the variety show was live…. I swear there were transvestite elves and “Santa” had hasidic curls.
I got REALLY drunk and passed out.
How come you didn’t mention the ungodly length of Russian NY holidays?
Alexey Kortnev and his band sum it up pretty much:
It is all about herring under a fur coat and sweet champagne! This combination will unquestionably make you stay up all night! Happy New Year!!!
Christmas in anglo-saxon countries = shop till you drop till Christmas eve, eat turkey and other boring food + get very drunk on the 25th, then go shopping again on the 26th! After experiencing it once I said never again. Much prefer Poland where on Christmas people get decent 2 days of holidays and celebration is not about shopping and getting drunk but spending time with your family. Russians at least get a lot of holidays and their food is amazing (‘shuba’ salad with herring and beetroot and eggs? absolutely love it!)
Well, Christmas is the joyous time of the year. We are able to spend it with family and friends or even our loved ones. This is a great opportunity that each of us around the globe has the chance to celebrate this festivity. I must say that this Holiday season has been a source of happiness and peace to each other. Thanks a lot for the post and more power.
Hilarious! Americans expecting Christmas may not get what they need from a Russian New Year’s celebration, but somehow this wonderfully acerbic (and accurate) post makes me – an American – nostalgic for the few New Year’s Eves I’ve spent with my Russian friends. And those celebrations always included herring, champagne, and televised presidents. I wouldn’t have it any other way.