Champagne, Chocolate Cake and Блины: Women’s Day and Men’s Day At the Office

March 7, 2012

I am personally taking up the responsibility for making International Women’s day an official holiday in the U.S. But seriously, when you finish reading this post, you will be signing my petitions and marching behind me. My boss asked about why we don’t celebrate it in America, and cracked a joke that it doesn’t really sit comfortably with feminism in the U.S. The men in the office presented all of the women (including me, hurrah) with yellow long-stemmed roses – gorgeous, and then toasted us with champagne and the most delectable chocolate cake I have eaten since I’ve been in Russia. Yes, we need to make this an official holiday in the U.S. The toast to us was to the beauty and light we bring into men’s lives – hence my boss’s comment about why the U.S. hasn’t rushed to adopt the day. Sure, Russian culture – both general and office culture – is more on the chauvinistic side, but I would argue that most women would not object to a toast to their beauty, although I would have included in the toast a bit about amazing capabilities, sense of humor, etc… The men were warmly thanked for their lovely gestures, and when the men returned to work all of the women in the office stayed at the table after lunch to chat. That was part of my feeling the holiday isn’t just about having men thank us and give us flowers. Part of it – the most important part, despite the chocolate cake – is women celebrating themselves and each other. On the metro this morning, I would say every third man was carrying a big bag of flower bouquets – i.e. it was his responsibility to buy them for his female coworkers. On the metro ride home, the women were now toting the bouquets. Russia presents such interesting dilemmas for me about what it means to be a woman and about women’s role in society (see Sarah’s sociology paper from the fall). Women here are gorgeous and graceful, but they’re also highly intelligent and talented. For me, the eight of March can be about both.

As kids, my generation was told that girls can do anything just as well as, or better than boys. We can pursue any career we want and can excel at whatever we put our minds to. We were encouraged to play sports to a much greater extent than previous generations, and Title 9 granted us the chance for equal opportunity in that realm. In Russia, girls, even of my generation, learn more stereotypically traditional modes of female behavior, especially in terms of relationships and home life. I notice the differences in conversations with my soccer friends – they have different views on what it means to be a young woman, about their responsibilities or duties are to their families, to society, to their boyfriend or husband. My upbringing and experience, and my current outlook are very different – but neither of us is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Women in Russia might be in large part absent from government or top positions in business, but honestly, our record in the U.S. isn’t necessarily something to brag about. (Check out the percent of women CEOs of major companies, for a start. And I don’t need to quote to you the continuing gap between women’s and men’s wages). So that leaves me wondering – how do they celebrate international women’s day in Sweden?

Yes, we need to celebrate women every day of the year, but it’s fortunate we only do it officially once – my productivity level plummeted post-champagne.

I also didn’t end up posting a bit I wrote after we celebrated Maslenitsa at the office…

[Two weeks ago] at the MacArthur office we celebrated two holidays – Maslenitsa and Armed Forces Day. Armed Forces Day ends up being the men’s equivalent of the very popular March 8, International Women’s Day. The women in the office bought the men gifts (at MacArthur, it was an assortment of really nice tea) and thanked/congratulated them for past/present/future defending the fatherland. The women joked that they bought tea so that the men would drink tea instead of coffee or alcohol. For Americans, tea as a gift might seem underwhelming, but tea is an institution in Russia, and a package of fine artisan teas is certainly a special gift.

To celebrate Maslenitsa, Zoya (the office manager, who makes us lunch every day) made блины (blini, see Sarah’s pictures and posts for Maslenitsa) for lunch. It was really interesting to eat блины with a group of Russians of different ages, genders and backgrounds, since they all eat блины in different manners. Of course I surreptitiously observed the various styles of блины consumption, since I didn’t want to a) appear rude or uncultured (which I automotically do, anyway, as a foreigner) and b) so that I could actually eat what was on my plate. The two main types of блины folding/combination with ingredients were: 1) folding the circular блины in half, and then in half again to get a pie-shaped wedge, and then stuffing caviar or jam into the folds. This is how the authoritatively older/cultured woman at the office demonstrated I should proceed – if my goal is appearing well-mannered, I will follow her advice in the future. 2) spreading caviar or jam (or cheese or smoked salmon) down the middle of the open блины, then folding in the sides to roll it into a tube – typical way crepes are served. This is how the office director proceeded – if I want optimal distribution of filling, this is the way to go.

One of the older women opted for the tube-roll strategy and ate it with her fingers, while the director still used his fork and knife. I tried both the pie-wedge and the roll technique, but then two of the блины were stuck together and I just cut pieces off to eat with the remaining cheese and salmon. Cultural fail but delicious. I clearly need to eat блины more often to perfect my technique!

Although I’ve eaten white caviar here – which is more salty than fishy, Masha serves it mixed with shallots in an avocado half – I only eat a few bites because it is a richly strange combination of flavors and textures. With блины at MacArthur was the first time I’ve tried red caviar. And it is delicious. It is a fishy/salty/luxurious flavor, although I can be a bit funny about textures – the little eggs pop in your mouth, which is rather disconcerting, but all mixed up inside a блины, all is well.

So there it is for your reading pleasure: the women’s holiday and the men’s holiday in Russia. Now, who wants some champagne?


One Response to “Champagne, Chocolate Cake and Блины: Women’s Day and Men’s Day At the Office”

  1. Karin Ames said

    Yes, please! This was a wonderful story of a cultural practice I can’t imagine ever happening here… but could hope for!

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