There are certain sights, sounds and smells that immediately take me back in time. When the smell of burning rubber permeates the air I think of Kenya. I am transported to sitting in Nairobi traffic, windows down and diesel fuel pouring in through the windows. It’s the smell of earth, dirt and sweat that drips off in terracotta-tainted water at night when you wash your face.
My travels in Russia bring back similar memories and there’s a common, everyday item that brings me back to a little restaurant in a small town in Siberia. It was in this little restaurant that my husband and I had some memorable dates and we learned the value of etiquette in Russian culture. Allow me to explain.
I spent five weeks in Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuvan Republic in Siberia, Russia. The city is unique as it advertises itself as the “Center of Asia” with a striking monument in the heart of the city to mark the claim. The monument is a tall, pointed structure with a stone earth at its base. The land markings on the earth are red in color as Kyzyl is the Russian word for “Red”.
Kyzyl is an eclectic town, a mixture of both European and Asian Russians. It is close to the border of Mongolia and thus filled with a variety of cultures. Perhaps that is why the little Chinese restaurant opened. Whatever the reason, we were grateful to have stumbled upon this unique find as we settled in for a lovely evening.
The restaurant itself was what one might describe as “hole in the wall”, a dingy little dive of a place that had various Asian wall hangings spread out among the peeling wallpaper. As soon as we walked in they politely asked my husband to remove his hat stating, “Это этикет.” My husband looked perplexed and then smiled, removed his hat at the reminder that “It’s etiquette” to remove ones hat when dining in a nice restaurant.
What the restaurant lacked in décor they made up in taste as we were spoiled with various dishes, washed down with “Воды без газa”, non-carbonated water. We had ordered way too much food and, like good Americans, asked for a takeout container to bring the leftovers home.
“Есть ли у вас в сумке?” my husband (then boyfriend) asked. (Do you have a bag?) He was returned with a blank stare that began a very comical conversation in broken Russian.
Our next mistake was asking for a doggie bag, “Может у меня есть собака пакет?” This was received with even more confusion. A bag for our dog? I can only imagine what was going through this waiter’s head as we were so obviously American and so obviously lost in this moment of language.
Finally, with a lot of pantomime we finally got our point across (or so we thought). The waiter took the food away and came back with a plastic bag, the kind that you get when you pay for groceries at the supermarket. At the bottom of the bag he had dumped all of leftover food, tied the handles into a neat little bow and politely placed the bag on the table. “Cпасибо!” we replied among stifled laughter, picked up our to-go bag and left.
And that’s how we learned that you don’t typically ask to take your leftovers home in Russia. Every time I see a plastic bag I chuckle as my memory takes me back to that little Chinese restaurant in the Center of Asia with impeccable etiquette and enough tact to humor the foreigners who wanted a bag for their food!