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Bottles Under Table and Other Rules of Marital Bliss Posted by on Apr 28, 2011 in Culture, Russian life

I disagree with the classic who once wrote «Все счастливые семьи счастливы одинаково» [All happy families are alike].

Do you know who wrote this? How about the book that starts with this famous opening line?

Back to business, however. As the saying goes, «браки заключаются на небесах» [marriages are made in heaven] meaning that you can’t foretell with whom you’re going to end up. Or as some Russians would say, «любовь зла, полюбишь и козла» [love is blind; lit: love is cruel and one might end up falling in love with an ass].

Chances are high now for many Russians (both men and women) to meet, fall in love with and marry a foreigner. I’m speaking «по собственному опыту» [from my own experience] here.

After years of mostly happy and occasionally very happy marriage, we got used to many things that seems to be a bit odd to us when we first met. Like my husband actually liking and getting alone splendidly with my mom, his «тёща» [mother-in-law]. Or me refusing to say “beach” and instead preferring an accent-safe “seaside”.

The minor disagreements of the first couple of years have been settled to mutual satisfaction. Things like «кто выносит мусор» [who takes the trash out], «кто моет посуду» [who washes the dishes], and «в какой цвет покрасить гостиную» [what color to paint the living room].

But little cultural details keep popping up even now. Here are three things that «мой американский муж» [my American husband] still doesn’t get:

  1. «Пустые бутылки – под стол» [Empty bottles go under the table] – This goes for alcohol, but also in many cases for juices and bottles of water. Ask any Russian and they will tell you that leaving an empty bottle on a table is asking for trouble in form of bad luck. Why? Well, for most it’s just a superstition they’ve been brought up with and follow automatically. But originally, back in the 19th century, this weird custom was very practical. It was brought back by the «казаки» or «казаки» [Cossacks] returning from Paris in the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War of 1812. While they were toasting their victory in Parisian restaurants, they learned that the waiters charged them not for the number of the bottles ordered, but by the number of the empty bottles left on their tables. Soldiers resorted to «военная хитрость» [military cunning], hiding some of the empty bottles under the tables.
  2. «Возвращаться плохая примета» [Go back for something is a bad omen] – it happens to the best of us. Say I go «в магазин» [to a store], but once I get into the car realize that I forgot «кошелёк» in the house. My American husband calmly goes back in to retrieve it. I simply cancel the shopping trip. After all, no good would come out of it. «Всё пойдёт наперекосяк» [Everything will go wrong]. Fortunately, there are a few loopholes to those of us who really need to get going. Return for your item, but make sure «посмотреть в зеркало и показать себе язык» [to look in the mirror and stick the tongue out] on your way out. Or just sit down for a few seconds before going out again.
  3. «В доме не свистят» [No whistling in the house] – c’mon, everyone knows this! As kids we got scolded for this a lot as we tried «насвистывать песенки» [whistle little tunes]. Why is that? First of all, money will run out and you’ll be facing financial ruin. Secondly, «свистеть просто некультурно» [whistling is a sign of uncivilized behavior] and «культурность» [civility] is an important and much-regarded quality for Russians.

So my question is this – what other uniquely Russian traditions and customs our non-Russian significant others or friends don’t get? For those of us that have to live, work, or party with Russian spouses, roommates, colleagues, and friends, what habits do you find odd?

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Comments:

  1. Bob:

    Here’s a few I’ve picked up from my wife, who’s from Crimea:

    * Don’t take out the trash at night!

    * When leaving on a long trip, sit at the kitchen table for a minute before you depart.

    * I don’t remember the details on this one, but there are certain items you don’t leave on the table.

    * When talking about someone else’s ailments, don’t make physical references. For example, if you’re talking about your friend with a broken ankle, don’t point to or touch your own ankle, or you’ll bring the same malady on yourself.

  2. Karyn:

    Fun post! I love the story of the Kazaki bringing back the tradition of placing bottles under the table so they won’t get charged for them! I love when there’s an underlying reason for something that seems to “just be”.
    Thank you!

  3. dustin:

    what happened to the post i just submitted? I am not writing it all again… = (

  4. dustin:

    here is another one, not that many people would do this, but to wear an item of clothing inside out brings bad luck. In church, they do not pray out loud, they have new borns and baby’s, toddlers even, outside a lot, even in the winter, take shoes off in the house always… many many more facts I am full of!! = )

  5. Joerg:

    Exactly Bob! The last point you’ve mentioned is so true! In such situations, when talking about an injury or something, my Russian girlfriend always tries to keep me from pointing at myself… usually saying “На себе не показывают!”.
    Similarly, Russians are afraid of putting a jinx on something when speaking something bad out aloud. But I guess a similar believe can be found in almost any culture. While in Austria we would then knock on wood, Russians would turn their head to their left shoulder and kinda spit three times over it with the words “Тьфу, тьфу, тьфу (чтобы не сглазить)!”.
    Also when you talk about something good that’s going to happen, your Russian friend might call for caution asking you “Не каркай!”.

    I also liked the background story on why Russians insist on removing empty bottles from the table. Спасибо, Елена!

  6. David Roberts:

    Great post! The quotation in full is, I think, Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему. From Anna Karenina. A sentence not only full of insight but rich in grammatical subtleties, eg несчастливая and несчастлива – short and long forms of the adjective separated by only one word.

  7. Aurea F.:

    I’m not married to a russian, but since I’ve started learning the language I’ve meet a lot of them :D. One custom that did startle me (and a habit that was hard to get rid off), was putting money on the table or in any nearby furniture, instead of putting the money on their hands (when paying for a service, for example).
    My mom is from Spain and I have lived several years in latin america and it’s very disrespectful for latin americans to leave the money in the table, or in the counter, etc. One is taught to always emphasize contact while making the exchange. So it was VERY hard for me, not to do so when in the company of Russians. I didn’t understand why they made a face when I put the money in their hands until my teacher (born in moscow) explained to me that I was not supposed to do that 😛

    And btw, Спасибо! for writing this amazing entries. I feel that I know a bit more about Russia and it’s customs and it certainly has helped me to improve my vocabulary and the knowledge of the language!

  8. robert:

    i am thinking of beginning a relationship with a ukrainian woman and would like to hear of more superstitions i can expect.

  9. colin:

    A very good insight into Russian cultural etiquette. Perhaps you can tell us about some more another time. Thanks

  10. Dustin:

    My wife is from Ukraine. What else do you want to know? I have also been there, all over there, and now have other friends of ukraine and russia… = )

  11. robert:

    i am thinking of going to the ukraine this summer to meet up with 1 or 2 ladies.what type of customs did you observe that might throw most americans for a loop setting foot there the first time? are the women there really serious about finding a relationship outside the ukraine i have read other stories that they arent but have read many how happy the men were for taking a chance at love from abroad.i hope i have the same kind of luck.

  12. Minority:

    Robert, if you wanna date with girl from Russia or Ukraine, don’t be shy on being gentleman. Feminism isn’t very popular thing here. Yes, we can work and earn money, but we want to be delicate, aerial, tender and weak with our men. Men are defenders, so we used to expect some things from them, such as:
    * if you’re going to enter some cafe/restraunt/shop/cinema – open the door and wait while she comes in.
    * If lady has heavy package or something like that, suggest your help, and she’ll give it to you with great pleasure
    * If you’re in the bus/metro/so on and there’re only one free place to sit – let her sit there. 🙂
    * Usually if you’re going somewhere with lady, you’re paying for her (well, if she doesn’t insist to pay – but usually it’s not very good sign. As for me, I don’t allow guy to pay for me if I don’t like him or not sure that want to see him once again).
    * Some flowers are always welcome. Well, if she’s not allergic to these ones. 🙂

    —-
    Also, Russians are suspicious about strangers, that’s why foreigners can think that we’re quite gloomy. It’s a problem to chat with strangers in the street, we used to wait some dirty trick from any person we don’t know. But when we’re talking to our friends, we’re quite cheerful people. =)
    A lot of my friends do not talk about good events until they wouldn’t be sure for 100% that it will really happen. For example, marriage, buying a house, waiting for baby. Btw, it’s not very popular to show photos of small baby (at about first 3 months – “чтобы не сглазили”).

    —-
    Кстати, как насчет записи о письмах? Ведь подписи русских писем сильно отличаются от зарубежных. Какие бывают виды населенных пунктов (город, поселок, село, деревня, аул…) , какие бывают виды улиц (улица, проспект, бульвар, переулок, проезд – признаюсь, даже я особой разницы не знаю, мне было бы интересно)? Как приветствуют, как прощаются… 🙂

  13. William:

    I love to read your blogs.
    The one i know is: Never put your handbag on the floor: or your money will run away from you

  14. Stas:

    When Russian spit 3 times over left shoulder to avoid getting jinxed it is the similar to Westerns who throw salt over their left shoulder. And for the same reason.