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Russian Men Don’t Brown Bag

By October 27, 2011June 1st, 2017Uncategorized

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

HRH, my “handsome Russian husband” puts in on average, a 17-hour workday down at The Difficult Start Up.
He’s up at an ungodly hour in the pitch black dark (which admittedly, at this time of the year in Russia is not saying much) and comes home long after what I consider cocktail time and what many people feel is past dinner time.  I miss his company, of course, but what really sticks in my craw is that he’s not doing his fair share of consuming all the food I make, photograph, and write about.

HRH claims that he is also sorry he’s not home more since he often goes without lunch.

“You can’t skip lunch,” I said aghast.  When you work at home in your yoga pants as I do, lunch is a major highlight of the day.  “You have to eat something between 7 am and 10:30 pm.”

“Sometimes the Generalniy and I go for a steak,” he said, “but not every day.  And I can’t go to the canteen too often.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Too political and too complicated,” he said, “If I sit with one of my subordinates, I’ll have to sit with them all in a rotation.”

“Let me pack you a lunch,” I plead, “last night I made Pasta Norma, which is even better the next day:  I’ll put it in something to keep it warm—“

“We’ve had this discussion,” said HRH shaking his head, “I’m not taking lunch to work.”

Yes, we have had this discussion many times, and yet I still don’t get why Russian men don’t brown bag.   HRH refuses to expand beyond saying, “it would be misunderstood.”  I keep at it, though.  I’ve purchased innocuous-looking insulated lunchboxes and cool packs, which sit on the pantry shelf, unwrapped.  I’ve suggested slim thermoses and chic metal “Tiffin boxes,” and been given a scornful look.  But I was genuinely hurt when he vehemently rejected my attempts to get him to drink more water.

HRH definitely wears the sweatpants in our family.   He swims, he fences, and he’s run three marathons (a fourth, I have declared, there shall not be.)    He also loves to sauna, which, like all Russians, he believes is the generic cure-all for everything from the common cold to stage four cancer.   I worry HRH doesn’t drink enough water.  During a recent trip to the US, I noticed that everyone carried large stainless steel bottles, which looked sharp and seemed practical.  I bought a particularly manly gunmetal 40-oz bottle for HRH with both a  sports top and a sippy-cup lid so he could choose between the two.

“I cannot take that to work,” said HRH after I presented him with the water bottle, “It would be misunderstood.”

“In what way?” I wailed.  “You can fill it up with ice water and lemon and just have it on your desk!”

“People would not understand,” said HRH again without any explanation.

“People don’t drink water at The Difficult Start Up?” I asked.

“People drink tea,” responded HRH, “until lunchtime anyway.”

“And after that?” I pushed.

“After that,” said HRH, as he left for another 17-hour day, “we don’t need anything nearly so large.”

“And how about the morning after?” I prompted.

And HRH had the good grace to look thoughtful.

This post originally appeared in The Washington Post and  Russia Beyond The Headlines under the title “Nyet To the Brown Bag” on October 27, 2011.




  • Potty Mummy says:

    Well, this is odd, because my MDH (Manly Dutch Husband) tells me plenty of people in his Moscow office bring lunch – and most of them are Russian. This makes me suspect that his national trait of being famously careful with money coming to the fore – and that he is telling porkies in an effort to get me to make extra dinner for him to take to work…

  • jennifer says:

    Dear PM:
    Hmmmmm….or could it be that HRH is actually having Lunch Out every dat. Still doesn’t explain the water bottle thing though. More research!



    • Maureen says:

      Quite a few of my Russian colleagues (male and female) bring in something to heat up in the microwave for lunch and eat it in the kitchen. Maybe it is a seniority thing – OK only for junior staff.
      I’m bemused at the idea that a bottle of water would not be understood. What’s to understand?

      • Liz Lemon says:

        I agree with Maureen—the new wave of young Russian men bring their lunches.

        • jennifer says:

          Ah Liz Lemon!

          What you are telling me (gently, kindly, but firmly) is that HRH is now middle aged. And so he is, CHERT POBERI!!!! I’m going to change tactics and tell him that!


          How are things in the land of snow and ice?
          We miss you!

          • Liz Lemon says:

            Just saw your shopping list and was thinking how much I would love to go with you! There is not nearly so much snow and ice here—I think I will actually miss Russian winter.

            Wasn’t trying to be so harsh—but when those young men are running the companies, then bringing a lunch will be okay. Especially when the options are so bad.

            You will like this: at our cafeteria they served tongue. English translation “language”.

            Come visit! Vancouver is lovely.

      • jennifer says:

        This will send HRH round the bend…

  • Lindoid says:

    Love the new blog!

  • Lioness says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    Great writing -I loved this piece!

    I imagine that HRH’s bosses and staff are not modern in their dispositions. Therefore if HRH brought modern into the office, he could and maybe would be resented, which he likely fears, and I also imagine that he likes things just as he has always done them to some degree.

    On another note, Vovi just saw you on your site and said “There’s Jennifer!!!”

    I really, really love the new design

    • jennifer says:

      Dear Lioness,

      Here’s hoping Vovi becomes a confirmed brown bagger! Thank you, as always, for your kind encouragement and inspiration!


  • Vanessa says:

    I think it is more of a seniority thing–if the top brass is bringing lunch from home, then it must mean that the company is not doing well, since he cannot afford even a biznes lanch from an overpriced restaurant.

    New layout is great, but the social networking links at the side make it hard to read the text and comment, especially on a small screen. :/

    • jennifer says:

      Greetings, Vanessa and many thanks for your input and your ideas. I will see what we can do about the social tags. I’m intrigued by your idea that top brass has to set a tone. I think there is much to that.

  • Phoebe says:

    I am also married to a handsom Russian. When living in Russia he was absolutely the same as your HRH. Would hardly eat at all while gone to work for a forever long day. I was so worried and begged him to eat and drink. Now living in the US he lets me pack wonderful lunches. Sometimes he even takes my freshly made soup. He still will not drink much water at all. Tea and juice yes but water rarely.

    I have been reading your writing for awhile now. You always strike a chord for me. Thank you for sharing your unique perspective.

    • jennifer says:

      So Phoebe, what you are saying is you can take the man of out of Russia and he will brown bag. Intriguing…
      What is the water thing all about, I wonder.
      I have, of course, commandeered the 40 oz water bottle from him and I drink 80 oz a day now…
      His loss etc.
      I’m so pleased you like the blog and that you’ve identified yourself in the comment section!

  • Sharon says:

    Interestingly enough my husband (distinctly Scottish and therefore, one might expect, somewhat frugal) also regards the idea of taking lunch to work as somehow unmanly and odd. However, in our case, it can be easily explained by the dreadful options he gets offered – leftover soup with miscellaneous ingredients, sandwiches shaped like dinosaurs (accidentally), low fat nonsense etc.

  • kris says:

    Love this post. What a puzzle…that water could be misunderstood!

    Looking forward to you coming back to this time zone…we are getting somewhere around 6 inches of snow tomorrow evening. Madness, and a waste of a good snow storm on a Saturday night (says the teacher).

  • Miriam says:

    I have a theory about all this.

    Three male Russian friends vehemently explained to me (over vodka and unidentifiable pickled items) that if anyone in Russia, male of female, took a flask to work they would be accused of:

    a) Having a flask full of vodka
    b) Being a ‘western type’

    A fancy banker-type student of mine whose lunch didn’t arrive before he had to rush off to a meeting was QUITE shocked when I suggested he pop round to Kofe Haus for a biznes lanch. ‘A man in my position must not etc etc’, he said.

    Also, a far less fancy woman at work told me a lot of Muscovites don’t want to take food on the Metro, even if it’s sealed in plastic, due to Russian Fear Of Germs.

    • jennifer says:

      Miriam, Greetings! You hit (as ever) upon a really interesting point about the germs. Though, really, have you ever been to a Russian stolovaya? I can’t say they are dirty, but I would not call them a sterile environment eather.

      I think, however, that the image thing is at the heart of this. HRH and I have reached a compromise which is that I pack him a lunch and he gets his driver to carry it in to the office for him to consume when no one is looking. Hilarious!

  • Heather says:

    First: I love love LOVE the bit about the banya…so true. Next: there IS something to the water – personally, I never feel hydrated enough in Russia! All this tea-pushing; don’t get me wrong, I love tea as much as the next person, but it is not hydrating. I drink like 2 litres of bonaqua a day and people are always asking me if there is something wrong with me. I’m like, nope, it’s just good for you! And they all laugh. The joke is definitely on me. (I just don’t know what it is!)

    • jennifer says:

      Hi Heather!
      A friend of mine was pregnant (this is a long time ago, but still) and she was told not to drink too much water, nor to eat things like cucumbers or watermelon that had a high water content. And they wonder why the demographic numbers are a disappointment. I know I’m never hydrated enough in Russia, despite drinking 80 oz of water per day (2 x 40 ox gun metal, manly water bottle co-opted from HRH!!!)
      Thanks for your comment, I hope you’ll come by soon!

  • Heidi says:

    This is brilliant!!! you know your stuff!

  • Irina says:

    Stumbled across your blog by accident while searching for something Russia-related online… I was born and grew up in Russia and I think your husband’s unwillingness to drink water is a Russian thing. I don’t know anyone in Russia who drinks water unless they are really thirsty and there is nothing else to drink. (The only exception is my 8-year-old niece, who drinks lots of water – her parents have nicknamed her “vodokhlyobchik,” or “water guzzler.”) By now I’ve lived in the US longer that in Russia and I still don’t like to drink water! I’ll drink tea any time, though.. I also agree with the commenter who said that people seeing someone drinking from a water bottle are likely to assume there is alcohol inside. Also, it’s not very common in Russia to sip on a drink, be it water or something else, while working or doing stuff. As in much of Europe, you take a break to eat or drink rather than doing it on the go or multitasking.

    As far as not wanting to brown bag it, I think there are three major reasons: 1) For many people it brings back unpleasant memories of the Soviet days, when most people brought lunch from home either because the food in the workplace cafeteria was really bad or because there was no cafeteria at all (and nowhere else to eat). Anything Soviet is just too uncool with most Russians these days. Little do they know that every self-respecting American hipster packs their lunch in glass jars (with an extra glass jar brought to work to fill with office coffee) just like the ones that Soviet office workers lugged from home! 2) Conformity is a big deal in Russia – most people just don’t want to stand out and risk being perceived as weird. So, if no one else brings lunch from home, your husband won’t want to do it either. Also, if he brings lunch and no one else does, people might think that he is ill and is on some sort of a special diet. 3) Bringing your lunch can be seen as pinching pennies, which can be embarrassing because Russian culture values generosity. People might think that either your husband is being super-frugal or that his wife is so controlling that she forces him to bring homemade food, which would be embarrassing too.

  • Tatiana says:

    It just depends on company! In some companies people bring lunch from home easily, they have microwaves and fridge and can easily eat it and not to be afraid that something will not be fresh or cold. But in other companies just there is no such a tradition. My dad takes lunch from home, but at my work, for example, nobody does it.
    In company of your husband they just don’t do it that is why it is uncomfortable to eat when everybody around will look at you.

    As for water – we just like tea! What can we do with us? 🙂
    I believe, it is just a habit from chilhood.
    We say – what a reason to drink just “empty” water when you can drink something else?
    Just a weird national habit. I believe every country has strange and unexplainable for outsiders ways of doing things. In Russia tea is a big tradition 🙂 Especially in cold winters.

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