Couch Surfing: International lessons on cooking, hospitality, and why Dads will always be Dads

Reflecting on couch surfing, borscht, and the nature of dads…

I was tempted to call this week’s column “Adventures in Couch Surfing: Or now I can cross ‘Learning to cook Russian dishes from an ex-top secret Soviet tank engineer’ off my list of must-do’s”, but it was really just too cumbersome of a title. Toss in the fact that I also wanted to somehow incorporate how couch surfing means you get to do things you never even dreamed of, and well, we end up with a mangled mess of grammar that not even I am willing to put my name to.

For those who are not sure what couch surfing even is, it is an international web site where people place a profile of themselves on the site, and they invite other couch surfers (otherwise known as complete strangers) into their homes and give them a place to sleep. For those travelling on a budget it can be a great way to see the world (couch surfers do not charge for their floor or couch, but they do appreciate it when you cook or clean the dishes for them), but even without a budget, it can be one of the best ways to truly see a culture. For anyone going through a city it can mean the difference between being a spectator and getting to see the city through a local’s eyes.

In particular, it can help clear up cultural misunderstandings, and you learn that no matter where people are in the world, they have the same basic desires: to keep their family safe, to have good food to eat, and to keep their daughters off motorcycles.

Surfing with a tank designer

Anna is an amazing woman who has traveled the world, and has now returned to Siberia to start her own business. While her company is getting up and off the ground she’s moved back in with her parents, both of whom are phenomenal people. Ignoring the fact that her mother is the aforementioned engineer who worked on top secret tank designs, and that her father won awards for his excellence in teaching, neither think twice about allowing a steady stream of couch surfers through their doors. The week before me, it was a group of Swiss guys who were bicycling their way to China (from Switzerland). This week it was three smelly bikers (although not as smelly as we could have been, as we had stayed in a hostel in Samara just two days before)!
(Read: we had showered that week).

After that experience, culture shock never seemed quite as intense in other countries.

Her parents’ attitude seemed to be that if the world was good to Anna, then they would be good to the world. And that means feeding the world (to the point where if you see her father and weren’t feeling hungry, you’d be better off hiding) and it means her mother passing on cooking advice to the “devushka” or “girl” (aka me). I figure I became “girl” either because she kept forgetting my name, or because in Russian it’s just easier to call everyone “girl” and not have to worry about forgetting someone’s name!

I had already become somewhat used to this and did not take any offense, as none was meant. The first time I went to Russia I was 19 and it was with Memorial University’s Russian program. While there, I discovered it was not unusual for older women to march up the steps I was sitting on and scream at me: “GIRL! If you stay there your womb will freeze and you will not be able to have babies!” After that experience, culture shock never seemed quite as intense in other countries.

Cabbage soup

In fact, it really helped to temper my travel style, as that was the first time I had ever left Canada. At the time my father was convinced he was sending me back to 1982, and I would only have stale bread to eat (and that only if I stood in line for three hours). He even dug up a cabbage soup recipe somewhere in order to prove to me that I was about to set myself up for five weeks of starvation.

In order to understand the significance of digging up this recipe, you must understand that up until that point my father had firmly refused to cross over into the Internet age. In fact, my father had regarded the keyboard with abject terror and abhorrence. But last year my father presented my mother with a laptop and Internet connection for her birthday. He still steadfastly refuses an email account, but he has enthusiastically embraced Skype video and he is now the master of two-fingered typing when it comes to searches that involve beaches worldwide.

After cooking the soup he then cursed his culinary prowess…and resigned himself that his first born – and in fact only – daughter was going to spend the summer with communists.

But I digress. After cooking the soup he then cursed his culinary prowess, as it was delicious, and resigned himself that his first born – and in fact only – daughter was going to spend the summer with communists. That communism had fallen almost two decades previously was besides the point. And for that matter, all we actually did in Russia that summer was eat.

True to these early memories of Russia, staying with Anna ensured more yummy food than we could handle. Breakfast had just ended (literally) when we started my cooking lesson with stuffed dumplings (which we then sat down to eat with cold milk). In between insisting that we eat (and eat and eat and eat) Anna’s father wanted to know all about our trip: from how long we were on the road, to how many kilometers per hour we drove, before declaring that he thought our trip was nothing short of amazing, and he was glad such a trip was possible. I then pointed at Anna and declared: “So Anna should learn to ride a motorcycle and come with us!”

At which point he thumped the table and declared no daughter of his would ride a motorcycle.

Dads in Russia, dads in Newfoundland. Not so different after all.

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