What to expect if your Russian friends invited you to their place? How to prepare for your visit? First of all – prepare to enjoy the Russian hospitality and arrive hungry. About all the rest – read the post!
In Soviet time there were few restaurants, it was difficult to book a table in a restaurant and going out was expensive for most people. So, people invited friends to their places all the time. Actually, friends could just pop in without invitation and that was considered normal. People really enjoyed home visits. On regular days that was usually an informal gathering, around a kitchen table. On a big holidays – people gathered around a big table in a living room. I still remember that my parents had a convertible dining table, that was used only for special occasions. These are good memories – mom cooking in a kitchen, dad setting up a dining table in a living room. Then guests arrive, sit around the table and I sit with them for some time, but get bored with their conversations and play nearby.
Russians still very much like both visiting friends and inviting friends over. In the recent years the pace of life and heavy traffic in big cities and thousands of cafes and restaurants have made going out easier, but people still enjoy relaxing time at friends’ places a lot.
Expect to eat. A LOT! For us hospitality equals good food and plenty of it. If you are a foreigner – you should expect even more food. You are a special guest, your friends will make a lot of effort to make sure you enjoy the evening. To be a good guest – please be hungry, when you visit us. Nothing can make us more upset than a guest, who does not have a good appetite. We will think that you did not like the food. In the same time that does not mean that you have to finish everything on your plate. We will not be offended by that. (so if you do not like an unusual dish – just pretend you tried it and leave the rest on your plate).
What kind of food to expect? My post about a festive Soviet dinner would give you a good clue. Nowadays a lot of Russians are good at cooking international meals, but knowing that you are a foreigner, most will probably cook the beloved dishes from the Soviet past. We do think that those are the best dishes.
You will be invited for a dinner. Breakfast or lunch meetings at people’s homes are not typical. It will be a seated dinner with “zakuski” or appetizers, which are enough to feed you hunger, but there might be a soup and there certainly will be a main course and tea and cakes in the end of the evening. Make sure you have enough room in your stomach for all that!
A good guest might bring flowers for the lady of the house or a bottle of wine or something sweet for dessert (a cake or a box of chocolates). Or you can bring something that is popular in your country – that will be much appreciated. Choose the most typical thing – what your country is famous for. If you are Swiss – bring some cheese or chocolate, if you are French – bring some wine, if you are from Scandinavia – bring some salmon etc. Whatever you bring with you does not have to be expensive at all, your Russian hosts will enjoy the story you tell about the gift. Bringing a small souvenir for the house instead of wine or sweets is also a good option. Most Russians love “good luck” souvenirs, since we are quite superstitious, or will be happy to receive a nice handcrafted item – a decorative plate or a textile souvenir. Actually, the value of the present is not important – we really value the time you spent selecting a gift for us and your thoughtfulness.
Russians do not wear street shoes at home. You need to know that. Although your hosts may be shy to ask the foreigner to take the shoes off, it is the custom you should be aware of. In many cases, you will be offered “home shoes to wear”. Those home shoes may be old, generations of guests wore them already. You have three options – a) accept the offer, b) tell that you will walk in socks (place is spotless, they cleaned it thoroughly before your visit) and c) that you have your own “change shoes” with you. I do recommend the latter option, but please make sure you do not bring stilettos (most Russian home have wooden floors, which are the pride of the host and stilettos damage them).
After you give your coats to the host, change into “home shoes” and give your gifts – your host will show “where you can wash hands?” It will be a long evening, so it is useful to know where the bathroom is right away.
After that you will be offered a drink (btw, we do not say “Na Zdorovye” (only people in movies do say that). When raising a glass – just say what you think – that you are happy to be here, that you are happy to have found Russian friends, that you enjoy their hospitality and wish them happiness, prosperity, luck, love etc. If you have to say that in Russian – here is the formula – Let’s drink for: Za… vstrechu (for our meeting), za uspeh (for success), za hozyaev (for the hosts), za hozyaiku (for the lady of the house, who spent hours preparing the meal) etc.
Since you are a foreigner, your hosts will most likely make a tour of their place. It will be interesting for you – a chance to see the entire apartment of a real Russian family. You may be surprised to see that the place is smaller than your home abroad. But you can always say that it is very cozy. That will be very proper and will make the hosts happy.
The official part is over, congratulations! You have done everything right and are a great guest. Most likely you already noticed a dinner table, with overwhelming amount of food on it. That is you destination for the next 4-6 hours. Relax, enjoy, eat, drink and be yourself!
If you are new to the Russian food – food may be your main concern. What if they offer something that you never tried before and do not want to try? For foreigners that could be such items as meat jelly, “herring under a fur coat” (mayo salad with lots of ingredients and salted herring) and some other items. As I said – be yourself. It is ok to say that you are not used to such dish and you will try just a little. Try it – you might be surprised that it tastes great! But if you are a vegetarian or vegan or have other dietary needs – it is better to tell your hosts about that when you accept the invitation, so that they adjust the menu accordingly.
You will have no problems announcing that you are a vegetarian. People do get that. Gluten free is more tricky. Russians do not believe in gluten-free, this condition is unheard of and the majority of Russians eat everything with bread (and add flour and grains in the food). You will need to explain to your hosts that you have a medical condition that prevents you from eating a long list of ingredients in advance. Be careful about mixed dishes, they may still contain gluten, since local people are not trained to cook gluten-free meals.
Be ready to talk and listen a lot. Russians love telling stories. Also, be ready to engage in a deep conversation. Russians love to talk about serious matters at the dinner table, they will want to hear your opinion on politics, economy, science and other subjects. And they will care about what you say.
If you are friends with the hosts – it is likely that you already know them quite well and know their political views. If you do not – given the current events it may be better to avoid political topics. Ask your hosts questions about their life and you will learn a lot of interesting things. Share your stories – they will be listened to with a lot of attention. Do not be afraid to sound silly or to ask too many questions, being yourself, being open and honest is the best strategy.
You may be offered to drink a lot. A good hospitality means that the guest’s glass should never be empty. But if you are not used to drink much or you are offered vodka and you are not used to drink vodka – it is absolutely ok to say that as a foreigner you did not have enough training and you will take it easy. You will be surprised to see that most young Russians do not drink vodka themselves. If you do not drink at all – my suggestion – just say that you have a medical condition that prevents you from drinking. That should be respected.
I hope you enjoy the evening! Friends in Russia are friends forever. That is very valuable. You can be very open with Russian friends, you can speak on any topics (aside politics), you can complain about your hard life, you can be yourself. Bond with Russians, you will never regret that!
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.