French travel magazine on samovar, 1889
I accidentally stumbled upon this little article from an 1889 French illustrated travel magazine and decided I’d translate it just for fun. Comments and and any feedback on typos/errors are always welcome.
original: Émile Meyerson (1889), Le Magasin Pittoresque, 7(2), pp 85–86
Carefully preserved by the University of Minnesota Library; scanned and made publicly accessible by Google Books.
At fairs in Paris and elsewhere, you’ve undoubtedly seen a young woman in red, neck adorned with a five-strand pearl necklace, offering passersby to taste for a modest sum some “real russian tea”. And jaded to the exotic displays though you may be, it won’t occur to you that your cuppa isn’t the real thing, because it comes out of a samovar. Samovar is, in fact, a perfect epitome of the Russian way of life, from the izba dweller to the créme de la créme of the high society. Come from the cold into a Russian home, and you will always find one on the table, no matter the hour. And just like it’s a grave insult to refuse a papelito rolled for you by a Spaniard, it’s quite impolite to refuse the glass of tea that you’re handed the moment you cross the threshold. Equally scandalous would be to only have one. For a foreigner obliged to make a number of calls, this creates a bit of a problem. Russians, to the contrary, appear to require this boiling liquid like air. In a restaurant, I once saw a man drain a good fifteen glasses in the course of no more than an hour. Copiously sweating—as you would expect from such an exercise—he dealt with this little inconvenience by the means of a napkin brought by the garçon. In doing so, he personified an idiom: “to drink tea with a napkin”.
Evenings, it’s around the samovar that the family gathers. They listen to its purring in the same blissful repose in which we watch the flames, feet propped up on the andirons. Young ladies of the house are charged with keeping an eye on the apparatus, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Russian demoiselle unskilled in the art of gracefully serving tea.
So here it is, in the dining or the living room. Before it gets here, you need to light it up, a rather involved procedure. A samovar (which, by the way, literally means itself-boils) has a sort of a chamber that contains the coals. You need to expose them to a steady airflow, but not before you make sure they’re fully lit up, or that very airstream will put out the fire entirely. Russian domestics accomplish this in the blink of an eye with the help of small bellows. Absent bellows (see illustration), a soldier makes do with a contraption which, bizarre though it may look to French eyes, is nevertheless extremely practical. It’s a boot with a punctured sole. He pumps it, alternately covering and uncovering the punctured hole with his hand, ingeniously fashioning an old boot into extremely functional bellows.