Jello And Other Strange American Customs -- Russians Savor First Thanksgiving

It wasn't the turkey, the pumpkin pie or the cranberries that really fascinated the three young Russian sailors sharing Thanksgiving dinner with their American hosts in Ballard.

It was Aunt Inez's orange jello - a wonderfully jiggly concoction of apricot nectar, cream cheese and pecans - that had them going back for seconds.

Yuri Petrick, 20, said he liked the orange stuff even though he didn't know what it was. "If you found yourself on my ship during one supper, you would understand I am telling the truth," said Petrick, speaking through a translator.

Their trip from Pier 42 in downtown Seattle, where the Russian missile-tracking ship Marshal Krylov is docked, to the Sunset Hill Community Hall in the Ballard neighborhood wasn't far, but it might have been around the world for all the differences.

There, they were surrounded by about 40 members of the extended families of Bob Ramborger and John Claus, a member of the Rotary Club's ROAD project, which works for the advancement of a free-market economy in the former Soviet Union.

The project, working with Bob Walsh and Associates, arranged for Rotary families to host more than 100 sailors on Thanksgiving Day. From noon until 11 p.m., they were cleared to leave the ship, a very unusual event.

But Petrick and the other sailors, Dimitri Shirshov and Vladimir Petuhof, had few ideas for what to see or do in Seattle.

"As far as this region, the only thing we know about it is that it was off-limits," said Petuhof, 20, referring to Puget Sound's many military installations.

After a few hours at the Thanksgiving gathering, the three agreed that things were both more strange and more comfortable than they had expected.

One strange custom, but one they warmed to easily, was the buffet dinner.

"They didn't know what to do - this way of getting up and walking around the table and piling up food on their plate is like another world for them," said translator Gene Fruchtma, who, like Claus, belongs to the Lake City Rotary Club.

But the young sailors quickly got the knack and had no trouble learning another important Thanksgiving custom - returning for seconds.

Community center

The Russians also were curious about the hall, rented for the occasion because the family has outgrown the capacity of any of their homes.

Such a hall - a gathering place for the people - struck them as odd, said Fruchtma.

"I have never seen anything like this, where people get together and everyone is so friendly and things are so clean," Petrick told Fruchtma.

But Dimitri Shirshov, from a smaller town in Siberia, said such community centers are springing up in his area, initiated by the people.

Many things are changing these days in their homeland, they said.

Even so, they said they feel secure about their jobs. The Russian government guarantees they'll be able to return to their jobs after they finish their two-year stints in the military. Petrick worked assembling turbines for electrical plants, Petuhof in television technology and Shirshov in telegraphic communications.

But they know that their society is changing very fast.

"Particularly for us, since we haven't been home for a year, it will be very difficult for us to fit into the rhythm of life," said Shirshov.

Society ran well before, but now things are "falling apart," said Petrick. "Now things are bad, and I'm hoping that someone proposes something that will stabilize it."

Many things are amazingly expensive at home, they said, compared with salaries. People can spend a whole day just trying to buy one item of food or clothing.

Material things

But while he was surprised to find that everything is for sale in America, he said he didn't find Americans to be overly preoccupied with material things.

"In our country, if you put . . . on (clothing) that's not right, all of these eyeballs are piercing you, whereas here, things are more casual."

Generally speaking, Americans were different than they had expected, said the trio.

"Before, I felt Americans were fairly indifferent," said Petrick. "But now, I feel completely the opposite. They're very warm and compassionate people."

The sailors also said they'd been told Americans were very formal, very concerned with proper behavior. But watching a Thanksgiving-day celebration by the Claus and Remborger families - a mix of rambunctious youngsters, industrious adults and sedate older folks - apparently had changed their minds.

"On the way over, we were warned about our etiquette and told not to take a whole piece of bread," said Petrick. "But I see that Americans are simple people, just like us."