Glimpses from behind the marble columns

Jonathan: I’m a vegetarian.
Alex: You’re a what?
Jonathan: I don’t eat meat.
Alex: How can you not eat meat?
Jonathan: I just don’t.
Alex: [to Grandfather, in Ukranian] He says he does not eat meat.
Grandfather: [to Alex, in Ukranian] What?
Alex: No meat?
Jonathan: No meat.
Alex: Steak?
Jonathan: No…
Alex: Chickens!
Jonathan: No…
Alex: And what about the sausage?
Jonathan: No, no sausage, no meat!
Alex: [to Grandfather, in Ukranian] He says he does not eat any meat.
Grandfather: [to Alex, in Ukranian] Not even sausage?
Alex: [to Grandfather, in Ukranian] I know!
Grandfather: [to Alex, in Ukranian] What is wrong with him?
Alex: What is wrong with you?
Jonathan: Nothing, I just don’t eat meat!

This hilarious exchange from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated isn’t just here to prove to you that he is one of the best modern writers. If you substitute “in Ukrainian” with “in Kazakh/Russian” it probably reflects very aptly what the horrified sanatorium waitresses whispered to each other as they peeked at us from behind the marble columns.

I speak Polish. According to these not entirely proven statistics, Polish vocabulary is 60 % similar to Russian, and learning Russian grammar would be as hard as 2 cacti  for me (click to the page if you don’t believe me).  So in a crowd of non-Slavic speaking conference organizers, I quickly became the go-to language expert. Although communicating in Russian/Polish/Kazakh was as prickly and hard to do as 2 cacti, it was our only solution, as most of the staff spoke less English than a cactus would (what languages would a cactus speak if a cactus could speak? Interesting question).

So in spite of what the aproned ladies thought, there was someone in that strange group of mostly overweight and mostly middle-aged Anglo-Saxons who understood them.

“They keep wanting more coffee.”

“ The bowl of instant coffee by the hot water machine this morning wasn’t enough?”

“No! And they used it ALL up! But now they asked for it for  dinner.”

“What? For dinner? Are they crazy? Everybody knows you drink coffee only in the morning.”

“Well not these crazy Americans. They want coffee for dinner. I think they are addicted”. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I even saw one of the ladies breaking into the dining hall yesterday morning to make herself a cup.”

“What’s wrong with tea ? They can have that with milk if they want.”

“I don’t know. I think they are crazy. They want so much of everything! They even fill their tea cups up to the brim.”

Apparently, Kazakhs  traditionally drink  tea in small wide-mouthed saucers (kasirs) that are filled a quarter full, or at most half full. The logic behind this? The amount of tea you receive is inversely proportional to the respect the person pouring shows  you. In other words, the less tea you are poured, the more you are respected. The idea is that the tea should always be hot, and  the guest passing the empty cup  to the person (usually woman) pouring tea is seen as a respectful mode of interaction with the host.

“I have an even better story for you.”

“What have they done now?”

“The first day, they took the two bottles of water standing on the side. And drank a whole bottle! One of them took the bottle with the rest of the water in it TO HIS ROOM.”

“What did he want to do with that water? Use it for washing? Do they think we don’t have water in the bathrooms here?”

They giggled.

“No, actually they drink it all.”

“Water? But they have fermented milk. And fruit compote.”

“They want water. So now we have to put a bottle per person aside for each meal.”

And that’s what they did. At each meal, we would grab a bottle of water from the table by the entrance which had my company’s name very indiscreetly displayed on it, and carry it with us to the table.

The fermented milk I drank was actually delicious, although I have no idea if it was Kumiss – fermented mare’s milk, or Kumyran (Shubat)- fermented camel’s milk. But again I think my Polish background kicked in; it’s true the rest of my companions viewed it with mistrust.

I don’t actually know what the waitresses, who probably doubled as massage therapists, salt bath attendants and groundskeepers in the time they weren’t serving us, actually whispered to each other. The 60 % wasn’t enough.

But I always think cultural differences are most visible – and painful – at the dining table.

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