Charting the terrain of a foreign gift culture

If I could make one definitive contribution to Russian culture, it would be this: The art of truly thoughtful gift giving.
Don't get me wrong: Russians are far from stingy when it comes to An Occasion. They pull out all the stops, combining expansive gesture with conspicuous financial outlay. An acerbic Maxine card and a poke on Facebook are not going to cut it with this crowd. But - and I am no doubt an ungrateful wretch - as I dug myself out of the debris at a recent birthday party, I was surrounded with irrefutable evidence that, in Russia, gift giving is often more about the giver than the give-ee.

"Do you mind," asked HRH (a.k.a. my Handsome Russian Husband) awkwardly, "if my parents give you a few more of those... um... terrace... ornaments?"

My heart sank. My Russian in-laws are very nice, but their style is Gothic Disney Clutter, which they live to impose on my Pared Down Clear Surfaces, particularly in the case of our elegant, landscaped roof garden. Last summer, they presented us with a plastic statuette of Happy from Disney's "Snow White" holding a "Welcome!" sign, and I wasn't at all sure I could stomach the idea of Bambi joining him.

"What I would really like," I said firmly, because the direct appeal has occasionally worked, "is a Jo Malone Lime Basil and Mandarin smelly candle, which they can pick up at GUM."

Alas, no. A jolly hedgehog and a set of survive-a-nuclear-holocaust plastic mushrooms joined Happy on the terrace: adding to a staggeringly scary number of unwanted objects. Like the two-tiered Romanov Imperial Crown vodka decanter HRH got for his 39th birthday, or the cobalt blue champagne flutes with the double-headed eagle crest of Russia etched in gold, which were not meant as an ironic gesture.

And then, Dear God, there are the flowers. If you got the monetary equivalent, you'd have the down payment for a small house in Connecticut. But it seems churlish to say "In lieu of flowers..." on a birthday invitation, and so you are left with stiff blocks of garishly colored, heart-stoppingly expensive Dutch flowers, suffocating under multiple layers of plastic wrap, which will last about 48 hours.

I take comfort in the present my foreign friends cooked up this year. They enjoy what I do with a bag of groceries and are good at picking up clues. One, let's call him The Good Listener, listened hard as I moaned about not being able to find a WEBER grill: the small "Q" model, which would suit the décor, and could be easily stored at the end of Russia's three-and-a-half week grilling window. The Good Listener shot an e-mail off to The Savvy Facilitator, who got busy, then together approached Ten Other Generous Souls and passed the hat, presenting me with something I wanted, and which I truly love.

The Russians, you could tell, were mystified as they watched me coo over the sleek metal lines of what appeared to be a device involved in food preparation. They exchanged mortified glances, coughed discreetly, and more than one pair of eyes rolled heavenwards. HRH once told me, "In Russia, kitchen appliances are not gifts, they are kitchen appliances."

Says who?

Jennifer Eremeeva, a longtime resident of Moscow, is currently at work on her first book.

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