An American at a Russian Bliny Tasting Party

The day’s itinerary read Russian Language Lessons in Salon C at 9:30. I left Marv on the upper deck to watch the Volga River banks glide by with their dense coniferous forests. It felt as though we were sailing through the wooded Straits of Mackinac in the Upper Peninsula instead of on a two-week Russian Waterways tour.

I walked sideways down the narrow outside steps from the top deck to the fourth deck where I went inside to take the stairs down to Salon C at the far end of the second level. When I entered the windowed reading room, 27 of our 29-member tour group—all over sixty—were seated in comfortable brown chairs under the windows and at round tables in the middle of the room. Leonid (Leo), our tall, 30ish, thin, brown-haired guide, was standing by the door.

“Good, now you are all here,” Leo said in his clipped sing-song Russian accent. “I count you. One, two, three…”

“Marv’s not here,” I said before he’d come up one number short. “He’ll be coming shortly.”

Marv had missed the first language lesson—he thought it was going to be some stuffy lecture. Afterwards, Leo ran into him in the hallway and asked where he’d been. Told Marv in his good-natured commanding fashion that he was expected to come. Now Marv was coming, in his own good time.

“Okay, then. We start. We have business first to conduct,” Leo said, red T-shirt hanging outside his Levis, matching his red leather, gym shoes.

He told our group of another optional we could sign up for. I’d already signed us up for three at the meeting Marv didn’t attend—a tour of Catherine the Great’s palace with its famous Amber Room in Pushkin, a suburb of St. Petersburg; a Russian folk dance concert; and a boat tour of St. Petersburg. I’d peeled off 244 from our supply of 300 crisp, clean American singles to pay the required cash.

This time Leo was offering a bliny tasting party. Several wondered what a bliny tasting was.

“You taste bliny and cavier and vodlka. For twelve dollars, 360 rubles,” Leo said, stretching the s sound of rubles. “Your waitress dresses up, then does some dancing.”

“How long does it last?” someone asked. “Is it worth it?”

“One hour, “Leo said, decisively, eyes darting left and right to take in the whole room. “You want my opinion? Yes?” Leo laughed four times, inwardly. He’d told us earlier he laughed this way because in Russia there are so many people there is not enough room for everyone to laugh outwardly. “My opinion is you had caviar at the intermission if you went to the folk music concert. You will have vodka at the captain’s dinner if you’ve not already visited the ship’s bar. You see your waitress everyday three times. Save your money.”

Along with six others from our group, I signed Marv and me up for the bliny tasting. I took 24 bills from our dwindled supply of singles to once again pay the required cash. Money was becoming an issue. Neither our boat nor the small islands where we were stopping on this journey between St. Petersburg and Moscow had ATMs or honored travelers’ checks.

We decided not to dress up for the bliny tasting. Or I should say, I decided it would be okay for Marv to leave on his jeans, T-shirt, and tennis shoes. He hates dressing up, even if dressing up for him never means a suit and only means khakis and a cotton print button-down shirt. So I left behind my new white tunic-length shirt and long black skirt from Chico’s that I’d taken along for such occasions and wore my jean capris, white T-shirt, and sandals.

When we entered the small dining room, it was jammed with rectangular tables at angles to the side walls enclosing a little dance floor. Each table seated five people, the end being vacant so we could all see the dancers. Leo had reserved two tables for the ten of us Americans from tour group number seven. The other four couples (dressed up like church) were already seated. I became the fifth member at the first table and Marv at the second. We had noticed from the first day of this waterways cruise that we were the only couple who did not mind sitting separately at odd-numbered seating arrangements.

As I sat down, Mary, a 72-year-old woman from Boston, asked, “Is it all right that you sit apart from Marv, Lois?”

“Oh, absolutely,” I said. “We survive without each other very well.” Immediately I regretted what I’d said, implying that she probably wouldn’t survive well without her Tom at her side or that Marv and I had major problems getting along.

Our waitress, dressed in a long red dress with embroidered trim and hat to match, delivered a plate of bliny resembling flat, six-inch, round pancakes. Leo appeared right behind her. “Take one at a time,” he said, “and fill it one at a time with these five things. Here, I show you.” He flipped a blin with a fork on to my plate. He scooped out all the orange caviar—about two heaping tablespoons—from a small dish on to the center of the blin. “Now you roll it like this,” he said as he formed a jelly-like roll. “Now you eat it and wash it down with vodka.” He pointed to the vodka glass holding about two ounces. “After that, you take another one and the same way the other things.” He gestured to small dishes of thinly-flaked salmon, honey, red jam, and sour cream. Before he left to join the line-up of three guides starting to make announcements in four languages—German, French, and Portuguese—Leo provided the English version, he cautioned, “You do not mix.”

My four tablemates put a scant teaspoon of orange caviar on their first blin and cut a small slice of their roll-up with their forks. “No fair,” I said. “We paid $12.00 for this party. I want to get every penny’s worth of this Russian experience.” With our money disappearing, I worried this may be the last time I ate outside the “included” meals. I chopped off a piece holding at least one heaping tablespoon of the glistening orange beads and filled my mouth. I bit down, not at all expecting the slightly sour taste and chewy slippery texture of the flat pancake. Or the sudden oily feel of pop-it beads bursting in my mouth “Uh…gh,” I moaned. A memory assaulted my mind. At once I was a five-year-old standing on a linoleum floor by the kitchen sink in our Long Island parsonage wearing a tulip-print dress sewed by my mother from feed sacks, swallowing a teaspoon of cod liver oil that my mother had poured into the one oddly designed teaspoon in our silverware drawer.

My tablemates agreed this tasted dreadful. While they shoved the rest of that blin aside to start on the salmon, I finished my caviar. “I’ve paid for it. I’ll eat it,” I said as I gagged and swallowed what tasted like the Atlantic Ocean seashore of dead fish I’d played among as a child. I grabbed for the vodka. Straight. One swig. A mouthwash of boiling hot, salty, black licorice burned its way down to my stomach. My introduction to vodka. I breathed deeply and reached for the water glass.

The salmon wasn’t much better. I decided my deteriorating attitude toward this party was probably due to my distaste of fish in general. I’d had enough on this trip—several noontime salads of salty, beheaded, glistening gray herring atop lettuce had filled my lifetime quota.

However, the party began to perk up after I stomached the thick, too-sweet honey on a blin, even while obsessing over the unneeded calories all for the sake of money, when I noticed that my tablemates were cheating. They were mixing the jam and sour cream. I accused them of cheating, checked to see that Leo was not watching, and joined them. I filled the center of my next blin with jam and smothered it in sour cream and rolled it up. Bliss. Just like a cheese blintz at The Original Pancake House in Chicago. Not as fluffy a pancake, of course. And, to make sure I got every penny’s worth, I finished the last drips of vodka. By barely wetting my tongue and by imagining it was black licorice, I managed to recreate pleasant memories of sucking such sticks as a child.

With my palate finally enjoying itself, I hadn’t noticed the boat’s entertainment group, Divo, getting in position to play: Sergei with his accordion and another Sergei with his balalaika. Alexi, the group’s vocalist, was absent. Strains of the folk song Kalinka were starting to fill the room. I turned from my corner table to see people from other tables behind and across from me gathering on the dance floor. Our interpreters began their announcement. Leo was fourth. “Now you will have time to dance. Our waitresses will lead us.”

Two waitresses stood side-by-side. The people—probably German, French, and Portuguese—were lining up two by two behind them. No one from our group of Americans. The soon-to-be dancers clasped their hands, then raised their arms to form an arch over an empty space.

Suddenly, Mary at my table said, “Lois, look. Marv is getting up.” And like an aside to the rest of our table, she added, “Look at that. He’s the last person I’d expect to go. He’s been so quiet all week.”

I immediately wished he’d stayed quiet. Up until now, Mary was right; Marv had not attended most group functions on the boat except for meals. As far as I could tell his goals for the trip were two-fold: observe on deck every one of the nineteen lock changes and share my trough-like bed in our tiny cabin. The latter being an experience of claustrophobia as my narrow cot was sided on three sides by walls—my head, left side, and feet touched them—and lined on the outside by a wooden railing that cut into my right side as I lay on my back. Each time I was blessed with his presence, the writer within me worked up another title: “When is Sharing One’s Bed Not a Fun Thing?”

I didn’t share my thoughts.

Now there Marv was bouncing out on the dance floor, snapping his fingers. I knew the look. The same one he insists on doing at weddings when it is dance time. He doesn’t really know how to dance, me either—for that matter—but he does anyway. He calls his dancing a polka. I call it jumping up and down in stiff randomness with arms locked at a 45-degree angle forward and fingers snapping. He says he has fun, and that’s all that counts.

To avoid this wedding-time-only embarrassment (for me), I once dragged Marv to dancing lessons. Near the end of the first lesson, when Marv and I were heatedly disagreeing at the far end of the dance floor about how he should or should not try to lead me, the dance instructor walked over to us and said, “I don’t think you’re ready for this class.” We did not return.

But I have learned to join him on the dance floor at weddings, and, in my ignorance, to have fun too. So now, when I saw Marv’s look, I jumped up to join him at the end of the line of about eight couples. We joined hands and formed an arch. More instructions were given, but only by the other three interpreters. None in English; Leo was silent. Maybe he hadn’t seen us join the procession.

The ship’s culinary director—CD for short, an ample middle-aged woman with a large voice, motioned for us to let go of our hands and duck single file forward under the tent of outstretched arms. I followed Marv. When I got to the end, Marv was gone. I stood there a minute, dazed. The CD yelled something unintelligible at me and motioned for me to go back to the beginning of the line. Which I did. Over and over. Alone. Marv had somehow picked up another partner. And everyone else somehow kept or picked up partners. I couldn’t figure it out. And each time I emerged from the archway, the CD was there to yell at me: “Shish, hish, babushka, mushka,” or something like that.

Whenever I caught sight of Marv, wildly flinging on some woman’s arm, he’d yell at me too. “Hit someone.” Then, as he was disappearing, he’d yell louder, “Honey, hit someone.”

What did he mean? What was CD trying to say? I kept flying through and around the arch so fast that I simply could not catch on to what I was supposed to do to get a partner. Especially when there were no spare people. I was laughing so hard I could barely see. I caught the glimpses of my American tour mates at the two corner tables and they looked to be in hysterics. One had a camera focused on me.

Thankfully, the song finally ended.

“Why didn’t you hit someone?” Marv demanded to know as he walked with me back to our respective tables.

Breathless, I said, “I didn’t get it. Who was I supposed to hit?”

“Anyone. As you went through the tunnel, you were supposed to hit anyone’s arm overhead and they would break from the line and follow you and become your partner.”

“How was I supposed to know that?” I asked, blood simmering at his impatience with me.

“You were just supposed to catch on,” he said. “I did.”

Well, of course. Isn’t he always the smarter? He joined his table, while I walked to the next one which was mine. I sat down, flushed and sweating from the race. My pedometer read 750 steps more than when I had arrived at this bliny tasting party. Another title: “Waltzing Off Bliny Calories 750 Steps at a Time.”

“I got your picture with your camera,” Mary said. “I hope you don’t mind. You were a stitch to watch. You made this whole party worth the twelve bucks we spent.”

Another title: “Twelve Dollars of Fun: A Bliny Tasting Gone Wild.” Some topics: five bliny—caviar, salmon, honey, jam, and sour cream; five swigs of vodka; a dance of 750 steps; my forever dance partner of life, Marv. Theme: Dancing into another culture along the Volga. And, along the way, learning in Russian Language Lessons some basics of conversation and passing the verbal test:

Marv: ZDRASTVUITYE (pronounced dras-tui-che) How do you do?
Lois: ZDRASTVUITYE? (dras-tui-che) How do you do?
Marv: KARK VARS ZARVUT (Clark bars-zarvut ) What is your name?
Lois: MYENYA ZARVUT (min-ya zarvut) My name is…Lois.
Marv: KARK DYELA? (kark de-la) How are you?
Lois: KHOROSHO! (cor-o-sho) Good!

“You’ve earned an excellent minus,” Leo said to the group at the final meeting on the boat, scanning all of us and inhaling one last inward laugh. “There was some hesitation which I can’t give credit for. I warned you. Some of you didn’t do the studying.”

As we left Salon C for the last time, I winked at Marv whom I’d tutored minutes before the test. We walked up to the deck, stood snugly side by side along the railing, and marveled that we were here, sobering as we approached the dense skyline of Moscow’s somber, gray brick, high rises.

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