1. Invitation as a Guest to a Russian home
Last night my roommate and I ventured to an acquaintance's home for a welcoming dinner through a distant connection--her boyfriend's mother went to university in Ukraine (during the USSR) with this woman, who lives and works in St. Petersburg and was more than generous to have us over!
For more than four hours, we only spoke Russian to the mother, her 16-year old son who is learning English, and her sister-in-law's family of a husband and one son who is around the same age. For Russia, the hostess's family situation is characteristic of the current demographics: widowed, with one or no children. After all, the average lifespan for males in Russia is a mere 59 years old.
The family toasted to us a good four times with the most delicious vodka I have ever tasted--a very high quality blend of vodka and blackberry infusion. In addition, we had the Russian version of cheesecake, soup, bread, fruit, Russian candy, chocolate, and so on. A true feast!
Nevertheless, being invited as a guest into a Russian's home is exactly as Nachalo described during our first year of Russian: 1) take off your shoes, 2) you are given slippers (tuflie), 3) do not shake hands over a threshold, 4) drink to the bottom during every toasted shot, and 5) keep accepting food after pretending to reject a number of times. All in all, it was an incredibly rewarding experience with some surprisingly friendly Russians!
2. Maslenitsa / Мaсленица
Maslenitsa most closely resembles the Western Christian tradition of Mardis Gras or Carnivale, but it lasts a week instead of just one day. It is an ancient Slavic festival that marks the end of the winter (untrue this year) and the coming of spring. Thus, our group went on an excursion to Zelenogorskoe ("Green City") about an hour away from the city center to enjoy the blini (similar to crepes) and the Gulf of Finland.
Not surprisingly, the warmest we were during the entire trip was standing in the sun on the frozen solid Gulf of Finland. But I came prepared with the hand and foot warmers that Mike got me for my birthday!
The last day of the week-long festival is called "Forgiveness Sunday," in which Russians flock to the local Orthodox Church and prostrate themselves before one another asking for forgiveness for their sins. According to Igor, the son from the dinner last night, it is expected that you will respond "God will forgive you." After this, the great fast of Lent ("Post") before Easter ("Pascha") beings. For devout Orthodox Christians, this means no meat and dairy products, fish, wine and oil.