5 Things You Wouldn’t Wanna Get Wrong If You Were a Spy in Russia
Or else you’d be found out 🙂
Although semena means seeds in Russian and can refer to any kind of seeds, semechki is used in 99% of instances to denote sunflower seeds. There is a long-lasting tradition among Russian folks to crack and eat sunflower seeds or shchelkat semechki as they say. That is, while a Western person would grab a pack of chips and watch TV, a Russian person may as well munch on a pack of sunflower seeds.
There is certain art to it, too. Basically, you position one sunflower seed between your front teeth in such a way that its sharp sides are fixed by the 2 pairs of teeth (top and bottom). Then you close your mouth and the seed cracks easily.
Usually, semechki would be sold whole and fried. Sometimes salt is added. Some vendors had tried to sell pre-cracked sunflower seeds, but the product didn’t get too popular, because it defeats the purpose – it’s the relaxing process people enjoy, not the result.
2. Drivers flashing headlights at you on the road
In Russia, the law exists on paper, but a different kind of law is in effect in reality. So, if you are driving and suddenly the drivers moving in opposite direction start flashing headlights at you, this means there is road police nearby. They won’t do it if the police is on their side of the road – only if they’ve seen it on your side of the road.
It is considered polite to raise your hand and wave at the drivers who have warned you. If you don’t, they will think you’re either blind or rude. Likewise, if you pass by a road police car on the other side of the road, you are supposed to warn other drivers by flashing headlights at them (or flickering high beams for a second if it’s night-time).
3. Olivier is not a person, it’s a salad
If someone asks you “would you like some Olivier”, they’re not talking about a person, they mean a salad. Olivier (the salad) runs so deep in the archetypical memory of the people in Russia, when you say to a Russian person “his name is Olivier”, what they probably think automatically is “oh, like the salad”.
Olivier is an indispensable dish at New Year’s – it has to be on the table. This and many other things made it synonymous with the Russian (or rather Soviet) culture. You may want to read this anthropological study by Anna Kushkova – At the Center of the Table: The Rise and Fall of the Olivier Salad.
They say the Olivier salad was invented by Moscow’s Hermitage Restaurant of 1860, which was a French cuisine restaurant. But I’ve heard a different version of the story o how the Olivier salad came to be.
They say when Napoleon was headed to Moscow, to conquer it of course, his army was experiencing food supply scarcity. One day, Napoleon’s cook who name was Olivier had really no products left to be able to cook any known traditional dish. So, he just used up the products that were left to prepare a salad and serve it to the Emperor. This was how the Olivier salad was born.
And, in case you need a recipe, here is one from Honest Cooking by Elizabeth Lokhova.
4. Never whistle indoors in Russia
This is considered bad luck. If you whistle indoors, like in a house or an office building, people will look at you indignantly. For this is believed to attract lack of financial funds (=money).
At the same time, opening an umbrella and putting it to dry indoors is totally OK in Russia (unlike in the US – one day I got yelled at by my colleagues for trying to do this in NYC :)).
Also, if you break a mirror, you are supposed to have 7 years of bad luck (or rather – “no sight of happiness for 7 years”). While breaking a glass or a plate is on the contrary very good and is supposed to maximize your happiness.
5. Show respect to bread
In Russia they say hleb vsemu golova, which means bread is the head [of all]. By the way, the word hleb is related to hlaef in Old English. The English word lord originates from hlaeford (loaf ward) who was the person in charge of keeping and guarding bread in a settlement in those times. While hlaefdige was his wife – which later evolved into lady.
Bread is present everywhere in the Russian culture. There is a saying “a dinner without bread is no dinner”. Honorable guests are traditionally welcomed with a big round pie of bread and some salt.
Hence, many households still treat bread as something sacred, and you shouldn’t do things like sit on bread, throw it around or anything like that.
So, as they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do 🙂