Russian Drinks (and no, it’s probably not what you think)

Disclaimer required by the title: Aside from this disclaimer, this post contains no reference to alcohol, drunkards, or vodka. I’ve only actually met one drunk person here in Russia (we asked her for directions at about 11:00 one night before we realized she wasn’t quite sober. I still can’t believe she didn’t trip on the several curbs she navigated. Points for Russian balance), and I’ve seen about a dozen fliers for the Russian equivalent of an Alcoholics Anonymous group. And, on the nation’s biggest holiday, May 9th, Victory Day, stores in Moscow weren’t selling alcohol. That day was about more than just getting drunk, and so is all of Russia, contrary to almost every Russian ethnic joke out there.

On to the actual post.

Did you know that last Friday (I’m pretty sure…some time last week) I had a half hour discussion with Anna about Russian water? Just drinking water, not even the ocean or lake kind. Actually, that’s a ridiculous question. Of course you didn’t know. I think what I meant to ask was this: Did you know it is in fact possible to have a half an hour discussion in broken Russian about the different options available to thirsty Russians? Me either. And did you know that doctors here in Russia prescribe different waters (identified by numbers) with different chemicals like potassium or calcium to patients? (That chemistry course from years ago was finally useful. Boy am I glad that Mendeleev’s chart and it’s abbreviations are universal. (Small side note: when I asked her, Anna said that Mendeleev was the dead person from history she would most like to meet. It actually made me feel uncultured.)) Also, did you know that in Russia, like most of Europe I’m told, it is actually easier to buy carbonated water than non-carbonated water? And (you probably already knew this one) the Russian government tells everyone that the tap water is safe to drink, but my host family still filters it then boils it then filters it again before drinking it (alright, you probably didn’t know that last part). I’d been advised before I’d even left the States not to drink the water here, so every other day here (at least) I buy a 1.5 liter water bottle (I seriously drink way more water than anyone I know). The best thing is that these water bottles, besides being stretchy-backpack-side-pouch compatible, are under a dollar each. Closer to 50 cents on sale, and at least one of the seven popularly stocked brands always is (there are probably not actually seven brands, but there are a lot). Here’s my collection thus far, minus two or three that I’ve thrown away. The propel bottle on the left is supposed to work as a scale–it’s one of the larger 24 oz. ones:

I’d like to bring one or two home (stuffed with chocolate eggs so as not to waste space in the suitcase of course) to use at home, but we’ll see if that actually happens (read: I maybe over-packed and also bought souvenirs, so suitcase space will be at a premium when I leave for home).

And on the subject of Russian beverages, tea is wonderful. (See how nice that transition was?) Coming here, I underestimated just how much tea Russians drink. For my first few weeks, after hearing that I don’t drink “chai,” Irina, my host mother, would get me a glass of juice after every meal while she and Anna had tea. After having many, many glasses of grapefruit (as sour as ever), apple (pretty much the same as American), orange (different than American, but I can’t quite put my finger on how), and pumpkin juice (surprisingly unpleasant, but I’ve never been one for pumpkin pie either), I decided to try some herbal tea. Chamomile to be precise. Jessica recommended it to me, and I find that I quite enjoy it. I tried mint tea a while back, and found that I like that too. I’m not sure if it’s that I really like tea or am just craving something that doesn’t taste so…Russian. No mayonnaise or oil or kolbasa or cabbage (although I love me some cooked cabbage). Last week I bought some rosehip tea at the closet thing I’ve seen to a Walmart in the city. I was mostly curious about the name (it’s so romantic sounding), but it didn’t quite live up to it’s ethereal moniker. I’ve been told the problem may be that I bought Lipton, which, apparently, is not really all the commercials crack it up to be (what really is, though?).

Today (which was actually Monday, but was “today” when I first drafted this post) was a very tea-full day.

First Tea: Today, I visited a little tea shop with Kylie, Jessica, and Chiarra. It sold mostly loose leaf tea (which sounds altogether much too complicated for me) and had very adorable (and Japanese) tea cups and sets. (Update: Irina actually went to the store later and bought me some loose leaf hisbiscus tea. How nice of her! It’s a touch bitter but still delicious and much easier to prepare than I thought…and maybe more fun.)

Second Tea: After the tea shop, I went to a Spar grocery store and bought six different types of Greenfield herbals teas. Testing time! I’m going to give a few of each to the other girls in the program who love tea, so we can can all try as many as possible. I’m excited to try them all!

Third Tea: I made my very own cup of tea today. Which means that I lit the gas stove with a match for the first time (only took me two matches) and put the kettle on (wow…that phrase has never actually been useful to me before…who’d have thought) and poured hot water into a cup without burning or spilling anything and then swilled a tea bag around in the cup for five minutes. I tried a tea called “Festive Grape,” which is worth having again. Then I gave in and had a second cup, this one of “Creamy Rooibos,” which is a tea made from an African bush as Irina was telling me.

Tip for new tea drinkers: the best part is when you first put the tea bag in the steaming hot water and watch the colors leech out of the bag and into the water. This is most satisfying with darker red or purple teas, but a nice burnt orange is also fun to watch. (Wow, that sentence sounded much more experienced than I meant it to. I’ve only had about 7 types of tea in my life; I promise.)

I shall definitely be bringing this tea tradition back with me to the states, along with these charming teacups and spoons I bought in Cemonov last week.

James likes chamomile tea too! Or at least he did in Peru. Hence the second cup. In addition to these cups and the tea tradition, I shall also bring home between 50 and 500 individual tea bags of Greenfield tea that you can only buy in England, Russia, or online. They won’t take up much suitcase room, especially in vacuum-sealed bags.