August 4, 2008

The Dacha

July 5, 2008

The weekend was free from presentations and excursions and was to be spent with host families.

My Saturday started out with a call from my husband - we're officially at the halfway point of the trip, and though the trip has been an excellent adventure, I do miss Dean, the girls, the cats, cooking, etc.

Andrei cooked breakfast and lunch today - what a nice break for Ira, who prefers to sleep in, but has been up getting me ready to leave the house every day. I had a different type of kasha - more like oatmeal than the semolina variety or the buckwheat type. Lunch was soup with pel'meni and really good sausages that were quite like bratwurst.

A note about Russian condiments: the dispensing mechanisms for both mayonnaise and mustard are terrific. Mayo comes in foil pouches which have spouts and a lot of mustard comes in toothpaste-type tubes - I guess we have some squeeze bottles, but at the very least, they are bigger and waste more space in the fridge. Anyhow, these streamlined containers and precision spouts allow condiments to be used as the ultimate garnishing tools. In the same way that pastry chefs decorate cakes with icing designs, Russians decorate salads with mayonnaise designs, or squeeze mayo onto fish or meat before baking. I was also surprised to see that there are no less than fifteen types of mayo to choose from in the supermarket, from "plain" varieties to those made from quail eggs or with additions of lemon juice or hot pepper or olive oil. Astonishing. In short, Russians take their condiments very seriously, especially their mayonnaise.

After lunch, Ira, Ksyusha and I ran around town souvenir shopping and scoping out bookstores for good books on Russian culture. I found a good one on Russian traditional dress and about a hundred others I would have loved to own, but already my luggage was pushing the weight limits.

After the shopping spree, we returned home so that Ksenia and I could pack for a short jaunt to the country.

I may have already mentioned that I had the luxury of having an "extended" host family. In addition to the nuclear family (Andrei, Irina, Yaroslav and Ksenia), I was "adopted" by the family of Ira's best friend (Lena, Misha, and Dasha). The ladies sort of shared me, which maximized my adventure and made the babysitting of the crazy American not so arduous for any one family. We also did lots of things together - Ira, Lena, me and the young ladies - while the men were working.

At any rate, Lena and Misha picked us up at about 4:00 p.m. to head to the country home where Lena's parents spend the months from May through October. We first stopped at a large "Spar" supermarket on the outskirts of Vladimir to stock up on food and booze for the weekend and then we headed west out of the city. Misha would fit in perfectly on the roads of Chicago - he's a very aggressive driver. Either that, or he was REALLY excited about getting to the dacha and drove as quickly as possible to get there - upon arrival, this seemed very likely.

I immediately fell in love with the country - the air was fresh, the dacha was a masterpiece of samizdat construction, having obviously been expanded several times as the family grew and building materials became available, and the gardens were absolutely amazing. The dacha's facade is green with decorative blue trim, with the traditional fancy carved designs around the windows and along the eaves and the inside was a maze of rooms for preparing food, resting, sleeping, and - of course - sitting and enjoying food and good company. The look and feel of the place reminded me of our own family campground in Springwater, New York where everyone congregates during the summers and contributes to the upkeep of the property, pond, trails, and then gets to reap the rewards of the FUN and EATING that take place when all the aunts, uncles, and cousins get together.

I actually stayed in a second structure - the "domik" or little house - behind the main house and vegetable gardens. It was perhaps the first structure on the property - a main room with a table and benches, one bedroom downstairs, and an upstairs "loft" with several couches and beds that also serves as a sitting room. The view from the balcony off this loft showed the back of the main house and all of the raised beds, fruit trees and shrubs.

Lena's parents are - not surprisingly - wonderfully kind and generous people. Baba Lusya was more than happy to show me around the yard and we talked about growing vegetables and flowers and she could describe having a veritable orchard at her disposal. The raised beds were filled with carrots, onions, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, garlic, dill, parsley, lettuces, radishes, beets, and an entire field of potatoes. They also have apple and pear trees, at least one cherry tree, and berry bushes galore. I had the experience of eating several types of currants right off the bush and tasted some berries whose names I promptly forgot but have never seen in the U.S.

And, as you might expect, there was a plethora of delicious prepared food as well. When we arrived, we sat down to borscht, fresh vegetables, and several shots of vodka. After exploring the yard, the men started the fire in the fire pit and we snacked on beer and dried fish as the shashlik was marinating and the coals were getting prepared to grill our supper. The big supermarkets have actual kegs of beer and people can dispense a liter or two and have "fresh" beer rather than bottled. After we had enjoyed the fire for a while and the coals were ready, Misha grilled chicken shashlik and we had a feast before bed.

Oh, I would be remiss if I didn't mention my new friend Dusya, the guinea pig. She's very sweet and I knew that I must be growing on Dasha when she brought Dusya to me to hold.

After shashlik and a few more toasts to US-Russian relations, I sloshed out the to the domik in a full-fledged food coma.

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