30 September 2007

Out in the Cold

Today's post is dedicated to one of the cultural differences between Russia and America that I have real trouble coping with: the Russian attitude toward cold.

Or, more accurately, it's the Russian attitude toward cold combined with the Russian concept of where the line is between one's personal business and everyone's business. If it were just Russians being fanatical about staying warm, I wouldn't mind – it's the fact that they're fanatical about ME staying warm.

One might expect that a northerly country such as our fair Russia would face cold weather with aplomb, much like the alleged Alaskan schoolchildren who go outside to play without jackets on as soon as the mercury inches its way up past 32 degrees Fahrenheit. But one would be wrong. Russians fear cold and its effects on human health much more than any other culture I've encountered (which, granted, isn't all that many). Cold weather is always something to talk about, and occasionally something to brag about, but it's never, ever something to laugh about.

Why? Of course, I don’t know, but considering that the attitude seems outdated rather than completely foreign (that is to say, it belongs to the American past as much as to the Russian present), I suppose it's because people always take a keen interest in whatever aspects of their health they feel like they can control. For example, fad diets will always loop in and out of fashion in any society that believes that controlling your weight is the key to good health. As the harmful effects of chemicals and additives have been getting more and more press in Western society, there's been an upswing in interest in organic foods and homeopathic medicine. And in a society where most people have either limited financial resources or limited medical knowledge, the very simplest means of ensuring one's health – like staying warm – are the ones that get the most attention.

Being a little cold doesn't bother me, so in college I wore flip-flops and skirts without stockings as long as I could get away with it in the fall, and the flip-flops usually came out again sometime in March. I don't think that's especially abnormal for college students. No one ever bothered me about it, except maybe the occasional, "Hey, aren't your toes cold?"; in that sense, at least, Americans stay out of each other's business. But here, just by getting onto a public bus in flip-flops on a chilly day, I've been cowed into shame so deep that I turned around and went home to change instead of going on to my destination. No one said anything – people don't really converse on public transport here – but the looks were so withering I couldn't take it.

A few other examples of how this attitude plays out:

1. Yesterday, I didn't have time to dry my hair before getting to my 9 a.m. yoga class. It was probably about 60 degrees out, so I put a bandana over my head before leaving the apartment That's more than I would do if I were in the States, but again, there would have been the withering looks. Anyway, I got to yoga and a friend who takes the same class exclaimed in horror, "You have wet hair!" I calmly replied, "Yes, that's why I'm wearing the bandana." (Note, dear reader, that my hair is not even chin-length, so the bandana almost completely covers it.) She eyed me with doubt and said, "Well, be careful. The weather this time of year is really dangerous."

What makes 60-degree weather more dangerous than 20-degree weather, I have yet to determine. I think it has something to do with temperature fluctuations, which is another thing Russians fear.

2. A grantee from a few years ago had significant trouble with her hosts. We heard a lot about this at last year's orientation, and I sort of came to believe that her hosts were some kind of ogres. The story I got from the hosts, who I met while working at a summer camp (they weren't ogres), was that one of the things they fought about was that this girl refused to wear a hat in cold weather. To a Russian, that is tantamount to, say, voluntarily infecting yourself with tuberculosis, and after that display of carelessness, the university never could stop doubting the girl's common sense.

3. In August, Amara and I went to the Armory in the Kremlin to check out the coronation gowns and Faberge eggs. Standing in line for tickets, we were behind a funny little group of two young moms and two or three kids. One of the kids, Aslan*, was about a year old, and cute as a bug's ear. But on this hot August day, the poor child was dressed head-to-toe in a fuzzy polar fleece sweatsuit. He didn't make a fuss about it, which I think must be because young Russian children are ALWAYS overdressed. Come September first, I'm sure his mom stuck a hat and knitted stockings on him no matter what the temperature. If she hadn't, both she and her son would have been subject to scolding by whatever babushki were in the vicinity. (Everyone's business is a babushka's business.)

4. Last year, teaching Slava (my balalaika teacher's son) English, we were playing "Memory" on the floor, because there weren’t any tables big enough for all the cards. I should have known better, because halfway through the game his mom walked in. Uh-oh. "WHAT are you DOING?" she cried. "Get up off the floor RIGHT NOW! Do you want to get SICK?" The floor, you see, is cold. Sitting on it will either a) give you the flu or b) render you infertile (only if you're female, though). I'm pretty sure if either of those were true, there'd be no human race by now, but whatever. By now, I've been completely broken of sitting on the floor, because you'll definitely get withering looks for it. Better to stand, or lean against a wall.

But I'll never forget getting into Moscow from Petersburg at 4 a.m. and having to wait in the train station for the Metro to open at 5:30. I still had my crutches, and after three days of walking around Petersburg all day (after not really walking anywhere for two months), my legs were exhausted. But I just couldn't bring myself to sit on the floor with all those people around. After one of the worst half hours of my life, I caved and sat on my luggage.

5. In a similar vein, I was sitting outside the consulate in Vlad on a cold June day, waiting to be let in to say goodbye to the consulate folk before I left. There was a long line because it was a visa interview day. The only thing to sit on was the concrete road blocks that surround the front entrance, so I sat there. After casting me sidelong glances for a minute or two, the consulate guard came up to me and said, "Hey, what are you doing? That block is cold and dirty!" "It's ok," I assured him, demonstrating that I was sitting on a grocery bag. "I brought a plastic bag." This pacified him; apparently a plastic bag is a better barrier between the cold and my internal organs than is the part of my body that was specially designed for sitting.

6. This one's so common it's almost a cliché, but Russians don't put ice in their drinks. Cold drinks are believed to cause sore throats (which are called ангина/"angina" in Russian – another interesting word history). I've heard the same thing about ice cream, but I've also heard that it's good for sore throats. And I recently saw an ice cube tray for sale in a kitchen store, so maybe this attitude is slowly dying.

7. My most positive experience with Russians and cold – after swimming in frigid Lake Baikal (for about thirty seconds) this summer, my host insisted on putting a couple of shots of vodka in me to warm my internal organs back up. Hmm, not a bad tradition...

I could go on. Oh, how I could go on. The endless conversations about apartment temperature, the endless debates about whether my American winter coat will be warm enough. But this is already pretty long, it's noon and I'm still in my pajamas, and writing it has made me cold, so I think I'll go get dressed.

*I don't know where the families were from – maybe one of the –stans, maybe Tatarstan (which doesn't count as of the –stans, because it's inside Russia) – but Aslan is a name from one of those central Asian Muslim cultures. Isn't it ironic?


Christina said...

I think there are quite a few similarities between Greek grandmothers and Russian grandmothers. In Greece the temperature almost never gets below 50 but grandmothers freak out about flu-causing drafts through churches in the middle of July. Also, if a girl goes swimming it will cause her to become infertile because her sensitive organs will got cold, and don't even think about going near water if you have your period, oh holy virgin save her from herself!

Lisa said...

It's kind of ironic to drink vodka to warm up. I believe that alcohol actually lowers your body temperature (thus you feel warm, since the outside gets comparatively warmer)...

Mike said...

1. The first part of what Lisa said is true, that alcohol makes your core temperature lower, but that is because it is a vasodilator, which means it causes your peripheral capillaries (for example, in your skin) to get bigger. However, you feel warmer not because of the relative temperature difference between body core and environment, but more because your peripheral nerves (again, in your skin) are now surrounded by warm blood. Normally, when your body needs to conserve heat your peripheral capillaries will constrict, so more warm blood remains in the central structures; by lowering the amount of blood that gets to the skin and limbs, you minimize the surface area of heat radiation from your blood. But you feel cold because temperature sensing nerves only are found in skin (e.g. your stomach or brain can never really "feel" cold the way your muscles and skin can)...but feeling cold is good, because then you'll try to find a warmer place.
2. Like Christina, I also get asked "are you cold" a lot from my grandmother, but I think that may be because it is one of two Cantonese sentences which I can actually answer in more than one way (the other being "have you eaten yet?").
3. Isn't Aslan the name of the lion/ the Jesus figure in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?
4. How about benches? Are you allowed to sit on outside benches in the winter? How is that distinguished from a concrete block?

Leslie said...

Woo, gold star for all of you for reading such a long post!

Yes, I think the Greeks and the Russians have more in common than a few letters of the alphabet and Orthodoxy... Russians are also very, very concerned about drafts, even (especially?) in summer. I think it's more of that temperature fluctuation thing. No one's ever warned me about water and menstruation, but I think that's just because I don't have anyone here who's willing to get quite that personal with me. I'd bet there's some kind of similar belief.

Well, it definitely feels warm going down! But I believe you're right, and Dr. Chan apparently confirms it. :) Also, I STILL owe you an email. Sorry I'm lame!

1. Someone's a med student, eh?
2. Maybe it's a universal grandma thing. My grandma always puts like 7 blankets on the bed when I stay over at her house, and she's a "chistaya amerikanka" (red-blooded American), as the Russians say.
3. Yes, Aslan = the thinly-veiled Christ figure of the Chronic(what?)cles of Narnia, which is why I was suggesting that it's ironic that it's a Muslim name. Wonder where C.S. Lewis got it...
4. As for benches, there's no rule against it, so I think that's one of those questions you're not supposed to ask. :)

Celine said...

Oh, I feel for you Leslie! I'm so happy that now, back on my own without a slightly nuts roommate (NOT ANNA!) who thinks we'll all die a slow and painful death if you let some fresh air in....
About the danger of 60 degrees: I must admit that over here tons of people get ill when it's that type of wheather. Most Dutch think it's because people are too positive about the temperature then (right after winter), and feel they don't have to wear a coat at all, rather than just a light one.

julia said...

you've reminded me of the deadly russian draft. my study abroad host mom was bed-ridden for several days with "draft-related" back pain. i myself almost died during a dance class in a sauna-like room because the teacher refused to crack a window, for fear of the draft. yet it's also unhealthy to be somewhere "dushno." a medical anthropologist really needs to get on this.

nice blog, by the way.


Anonymous said...

first, how was iceland on the cold issue?
oh bozhe moi. Did I tell you about when I was having a bad day in Krasnodar and I sat on the floor in the hallway of the univeristy and closed my eyes. When I opened them, there was a semi-circle of people standing around me, staring. I made my meanest face and said my meanest "SHTO?!" and they got the point and moved on. I stayed, and enjoyed the cold cold concrete!

And to Celines comment: Ne govori! No kidding!


Paul said...

I have to agree with the Russians that Westerners are crazy to go around hatless all the time. Hats are brilliant -- keep the sun off in the summer (skin cancer is bad) and keep you warm in the winter. And a good felt hat and a raincoat obviate the need for an umbrella, though they might provoke calls of 'Inspector Gadget!' (This has happened to me three times now...) And of course it opens up the door to the lost art of doffing!

Bless bless,

Justin said...

Huh. Here, in Korea, they look at you funny if you DON'T sit/sleep on the floor. With "ondol," the floors are the warmest part of the house! Also: ajumma = babushka. I have decreed. Let it be spoken!

We miss you, Leslie!
-Justin (& Nana)