Saturday, August 4, 2012


I’m not sure I’m even aware of all the health rules I grew up with, but I can see that folks in the Slavic world have grown up with some rules we don’t follow. The bane of summer is the skvoznyak, or draft. Drafts are really bad here, and lots of people are sure that they’ll lead to death or disability. Alla doesn’t follow this particular rule, and it drives her completely nuts to get inside a bus on a hot day and find the passengers ahead of her closing the windows. I watched one of these negotiations yesterday. The elderly babushka two seats ahead of us closed her window. The next window didn’t open at all, so we weren’t getting a whole lot of moving air, though the sunlight warmed us just fine. I don’t know how hot it was in there, but cooler would have been better and Alla really wanted to feel a breeze on her face.

Alla asked Babushka to open her window. Babushka refused on account of the draft. Alla observed that a draft might actually result in increased comfort. Babushka didn’t care. She worried more about dying from the diseases she’d catch from breathing the draft. Alla tried to convince her that a draft in a bus would be no more dangerous than a breeze at the beach, and she tried to loan Babushka a scarf to protect herself in the service of society. Another passenger joined in. He was standing in the aisle, and I suspect the heat seemed even more oppressive with his head closer to the ceiling of the bus. Babushka covered her ears with her arms and hunkered down after batting his hands away from her window.

Most people don’t try so hard to get windows open on public transport. We all know how frightened people feel about drafts and we share a social covenant that the draft-dodger has priority over anybody else’s fear of heat stroke.

Slavs worry about heat stroke once they’re outside the bus. Kids seem to be at the greatest risk for this and few responsible mothers would allow a young child outdoors in hot weather without a hat. I found this interesting enough that I collected a few kid-in-hat photos my first springtime in Minsk, but I don’t even think about it any more.

I chatted with a friend about this last night. The conversation started when I invited her to sit on the lawn with me and have our English class outdoors. When she declined, I realized that I’d just asked her to violate another health rule. Girls and women should NEVER sit on the ground. Apparently sitting on the ground leads to infertility and possibly additional maladies. It’s hard for me to argue about this stuff because we all know that Americans spend vast amounts of money on fertility treatments but few of us know what’s behind it. I honestly don’t imagine it’s because the girls sat on the dirt in the playground, but I can’t prove it.

Generally I stay out of any battles over traditional beliefs, but I’m careful to follow one of them. I don’t think it relates to health, but for some reason people don’t want to give or receive a gift across the threshold of a door. In America, when I welcome guests I start the greeting the moment I see them. Open door, see guest, shake hand. Bring guest into house. I think most of us do it that way, but I don’t do it here. The handshake is a gift, and it loses its value when given over a threshold. I think I’m supposed to wait until the guest comes into the house to offer any greeting, but in our apartment building I step outside the door and wait for them after I buzz them in. That way I can greet them as soon as I see them but I’m not looking across a threshold.

No doubt I grew up with rules that seem just as strange to people from outside my culture. It's hard for me to say, because I probably don't even think about them.

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