I really like this post in The New York Times travel section about visiting Moscow in the winter.
The author, first of all, is correct in this assessment (having been to Moscow in the winter myself):
It would be a stretch to say that Muscovites embrace the winter, but they come as close as human beings are able to outside a ski resort. Bitterly cold outside? No matter. Snow piles atop snow piles? Life marches on. Restaurants are full. Sidewalks are crowded. Theaters and opera houses are packed. Parks are crisscrossed by people on ice skates along with those who are simply taking a leisurely stroll as though at the height of spring.
The author explains that if you don’t know Russian, it’s tough getting around in the city (this is true):
Communication was difficult. The waitress, dressed in a sexy version of Georgian folk costume, offered little help. So we opted for the famous Georgian dishes we’d read about, a delicious chicken satsivi (cold chunks of white meat in a walnut sauce), some khachapuri (cheese-stuffed bread) and an assortment of grilled, skewered meats. It was very good. But other tables seemed to be having much grander, happier feasts — huge platters of meats and salads and toast after toast, sometimes with the kitchen staff scurrying out to serenade everyone.
On the infamous coat check person found in most Russian establishments:
This was also our first encounter with what we discovered to be a distinct Moscow character: the insistent coat check person. At many modest restaurants, and certainly at the top ones, customers are given no choice but to check their coats (it’s free, and tips are not expected). A dining room free of winter gear seems to be a sign of class, and the whole process becomes a little ceremony, a punctuation point between the cold world outside and the warmth within. It also provides a frame for that most frequent Russian winter activity: wrapping the scarf, putting the coat on, positioning the hat just so, checking to make sure your gloves are in the pocket.
Why don’t we see the coat check as a tradition in more American cities? It adds a grandeur to the dining experience, I think.
I like the author’s bravery to try the famous Russian sauna (banya):
Inside, men took turns pummeling one another with thick bundles of leafy birch branches soaked in water. I tried whipping myself with the things a few times — it’s supposed to make your skin feel great — but couldn’t quite get the angle right. Every now and then, one of the Russian men walked over to a giant steel door in the wall, opened it to reveal a glowing red inferno and slung in a giant ladle of water. By the time I left, the floor was strewn with leaves and debris, like a driveway after a storm.