Russian Dinner

broomfactory.jpg My co-worker Aaron and I had dinner tonight with six Russian guests at the Olde Broom Factory in Cedar Falls. It was a fun night, we took along our Russian grad student/programmer/hacker to act as translator. Driving to the restaurant, I answered many of their questions, some of which I wasn't at all suspecting. You forget how strange your country is until a visitor points it out to you. Here are a few things that I was asked about, and I'm not in any way belittling our guests, as I'm sure I'd have many more questions when in their country:

  • Seatbelts: My front-seat passenger asked if she had to wear the seatbelt, after she saw me put it on. i explained to her that yes, she did have to, because it was the law in the state of Iowa, and most (all?) other states as well.
  • Houses: I was asked why so many of our houses were made of wood. That's a good question, and it took me a bit to formulate an answer. I said mostly because wood was cheap and readily abundant when the neighborhoods we were driving through were built. I also pointed out that Cedar Falls had only been settled for around 150 years, so it was a much younger city than Moscow.
  • Porches: One of my visitors had been to Tennessee 10 years ago, and commented how many of the houses here had the same (the word eluded her) porches on them as the ones in the South. I explained to her that they were commonly used before air conditioning, and that there are some people who believe that the decline in American communities can be linked to air conditioning, as people used to spend a great deal of time on their porches during the summer, conversing with neighbors.
  • Fish: We had to explain what Orange Roughy was, on the menu, as well as Walleye. One of the visitors tried each. The Walleye was well liked, the Roughy was not.
  • Pecans: How do you explain what a Pecan is? We said it was a nut, but not like a peanut, and no, not really like a walnut either. Three of our guests tried the Pecan Pie for dessert, which they seemed to like. I realized afterwards that I had ordered Turtle Cheesecake, and they probably thought it had turtle in it, which explained why no one else wanted some.
  • Tornados: They don't have them in Russia, and we had a mild June thunderstorm roll in during dinner. We had to explain what to do if they heard the sirens go off, and what it meant. They were also a bit bewildered by the strength of the rain. According to our student/translator Artem, in Moscow it rains, but just drizzles. They don't get the force of a June thunderstorm rolling across the prairie like we do.
  • Politics: I was asked about how Iowans feel about George W. Bush. I explained that Iowa was very evenly divided between parties (Gore won Iowa by about 5,000 votes), but that Cedar Falls was somewhat more liberal, due to the presence of the University. I said that many Iowans, especially those who consider themselves Christians, tend to be more conservative, and support the President more. The woman who'd visited Tennessee remarked that it was similar to what she'd seen there 10 years ago, and I explained a bit about the political history of the South, and how it had been Democratic until the Civil Rights era. Our guests seemed somewhat surprised that you could switch political parties. I explained that it was very simple, you could just check a box on your voter registration card, and you could even change parties monthly, if you wanted to. I also tried to explain that despite what they were seeing on TV, not everyone thought that Ronald Reagan was our greatest President, but that most people aren't inclined to speak ill of the recently dead. The Russians praised him for forging a peace with the Soviet Union, and I pointed out that he had to run up giant deficits in our country during the Cold War, and that we were stilll paying on that debt, which greatly surprised them.

    All in all, we had a lot of fun, it was a great learning experience, and we're going to have lunch with this group again next week, in which case I may have to explain the Turtle Cheesecake.