Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dacha Weekend!

This evening we set out for the dachas. My host, having none nearby herself, arranged for my stay to be with another girl by the name of Ksenija. I would meet her for the first time that day over tea and peroshkis. After a long walk to the bus station we procured tickets and found ourselves on a very bumpy and neglected road to the village of Derevnya.

Our destination was remote, completely removed of city sounds and smells. Tall red pines towered over the roads and seemed to glow orange with the twilight sun, late as it was. After navigating the large potholes, we came to a tiny village whose single store had closed from lack of business many years before.

The village and its many dachas made for a completely different world. Time slowed to a pace where it could barely be recognized as passing by. Where the inner bowels of the city were bleak and grey, the dachas and sheds were bright pops of colour against the greenery. Fences typically embraced each dacha and were a variety of materials, styles, and heights. Many of the yards displayed beautiful flower and vegetable gardens evidently tended to with a relaxed but purposeful care. It was as if the dull and identical nature of city apartments only fostered the desire to create a colourful and elegant world through the paint and decor of the dachas.

After walking a ways, we came to a dacha brown and orange in palette. A great deal of barking greeted us before we even saw the owner of such excited declaration. A wolfish dog appeared around the corner with almost cinnamon coloured fur that matched well with the dacha. The dog was called Illyusha after the granddaughter practically begged her family to adopt from the streets. Despite the grandparent's initial reluctance, the canine squirmed his way into the family, living with them at the dacha during the summer.

I soon learned that Ludmilla and Sergei lived at the dacha for the short summer months. Having both retired, Sergei bought an acre of tall grass in the village, eventually single-handedly building an entire estate from nothing, complete with dacha, banya, garage, sheds, and an outhouse. The amount of effort and resolve proving exceptionally impressive given his lack of any construction experience.

Neither of the grandparents knew much English, so communicating with them was quite the task when the granddaughter was not around to translate. The grandmother was your typical Russian babushka, constantly offering food and prodding us to eat all of the delicious dishes and sweets eternally being replenished on the table. The babushka's hands and face were tanned and weathered, revealing a life of hard work and self-sustainability. Even though her hand were calloused from tending to her gardens, they moved with a deliberate grace. Many of the dishes that were prepared for us featured pickled vegetables or jams that she had preserved. With years of experience, the babushka had managed to perfect traditional Russian dishes, cooking kasha, peroshkis, and stews that even the pickiest of tongues would have to call delicious.

What struck me most about the dacha was its air of simplicity. Even though there was running water and electricity, the living room was heated to a toasty temperature using a wood stove, the heat-sink and chimney painted a soft yellow. The walls and ceilings were covered with wooden panels and pieces of art created by the babushka's daughter and granddaughter along with a variety of rugs that were dispersed along them. A TV in the corner was often on and it became something of a game for me guessing the stories and relationships behind the characters who spoke too quickly for me to understand.

Babushka Ludmilla proudly showed me her garden full of future berries and vegetables: potatoes, carrots, cabbage, squash, beans, onions, and radishes. She took me on a tour of the entire yard including the inside of the garage despite protests from her grandaughter that such a place was hardly interesting. On a nearby bush I saw a snail (ulitka) and delighted by the opportunity, I bent down to take a picture. Before I could finish focusing, the babushka exclaimed something, grabbed the subject matter, and threw it over the fence with a sound effect I couldn't even explain. I soon learned these snails (despite being a little cute) were big fans of eating her vegetables. I asked the babushka if I could take pictures of the dacha and gardens. She happily obliged and even pointed out dozens of snails for me to photograph. She would point to each and every snail she found with "Alina, smotri. Ulitka, ulitka, ulitka, tam, tam, tam."

After our fill of warm milk, we slept rather soundly enveloped in the heat of beds behind the chimney.

The grandfather (dedushka), granddaughter, Illyusha, and I made a trip to the store the following day to pick up some groceries. Illyusha loved to ride in the back of the car and was tall enough to poke his head over the back seat to lick the ears of any unsuspecting passengers. The dedushka came back from the tiny market with 3 ice cream cones. One for me, one for his granddaughter, and after taking a bite of one himself, he gave the third cone to Illyusha who apparently loves ice cream.

We then went to the shore of Lake Onega to walk along the beach. Although it was too windy and cold to swim or take a rowboat out, the place was gorgeous to behold. The long expanse of sandy shore was broken by periodic boat sheds that leaned and tipped from storms and age. The nails and hinges were rusty and the walls comprised of wooden boards were often painted with a variety of lichens and mosses. The beach was littered with broken glass and charred pieces of wood. Ksenija said that the village and lake shores were much cleaner when she was a little girl. The place felt very familiar, akin to the more stony shores of Lake Superior. Only yards from the lake grew giant red pines that sheltered smaller, softer plants, fungi, and moss beneath. The sun could barely permeate the thick canopy and the atmosphere of the forest reminded me of an old Russian fairytale (сказка)

The entirety of my stay felt as though it took place in a very different time, where the connection with the land was not yet completely severed. Hours wandered by, but no one seemed to take much notice. Warm food was always ready and the dacha was filled with warmth from conversation and wood stove alike. I think the dachas are a wonderful--and maybe even essential--apsect of Russian and human culture. The break-neck pace of our lives in cities, businesses, and universities drains us and we forget that the life we have now is hardly the only way of living.

By Alina Peter

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