Each Wednesday at 1 p.m. is teatime in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Russian teatime. A table laden with baked goods, decadent chocolates, and cold and hot tea beckons partygoers inside Room 737 in Williams Hall. Any Penn student can attend. Faculty and staff are welcome, too, as long as they follow one rule: Speak only Russian.
The weekly teas are opportunities to improve conversational Russian in an informal setting. Typically, tea partygoers speak in Russian between sips of black tea and nibbles of cheese-filled pastry, a ginger honey cake cookie (or pryanik in Russian), or chocolate delights like fudge soufflé or black currents dipped in chocolate wrapped in festive colored foil.
Department Chair Ilya Vinitsky, who came to Penn in 2003, says the tea parties were already a well-established part of the Slavic Languages and Literatures culture when he arrived.
“This is a good forum for students in an informal and delicious environment,” he says. “Most don’t have a mastery of Russian. There are traditional students and heritage students. Heritage students speak Russian at home. They may not come from Russia, but they’re fluent. At the tea parties, we play games like Scrabble and the Russian students from Kazakhstan talk to other students about Russia.”
Penn’s tea parties are modeled after the traditional social gatherings in Russia. There, tea is a much larger meal shared by friends and dominated by unrestrained conversation. It’s not uncommon for hosts to spend a day or two preparing for a tea, which can sometimes stretch into the wee hours of the morning and is often marked by guests breaking into song.
Maria Alley, the Russian language program coordinator, is the department’s “Russian tea head.” She says the largest tea party held so far attracted about 17 socializers eager to enjoy good conversation and treats.
Julia Verkholantsev, an assistant professor of Russian languages and literature, says the tea parties provide a relaxed and informal environment. “Penn students are so intense in class,” she says. “Here nothing prevents them from freely speaking.”
Originally published on March 22, 2012