15 February, 2006

Russia as a glass half-full

I promised a few days ago that I would write something about looking at Russia as a glass half-full. I spent a long time preparing something. I was very proud of it. Then I put it before my wife for fact-checking purposes, and she acted as if pretty much all of it was wrong. :-)

The only things that she didn't contradict were the things I wrote about her family and her home in Russia. :-) That's an awful lot to like, of course. Right now she's sitting innocently beside me, unaware that I'm writing this, and balancing our finances. Why? such things fascinate her. She does a good job, too. It must run in her genes; our son is also fascinated by money. I, on the other hand, would be bored to tears by such things. Without a doubt, I would be a failure in business.

Here are a few other sections that my wife didn't say were complete nonsense:

Many of my favorite memories of Russia involve nature. As with many American cities, trees abound once one leaves the city center of Kazan. My wife’s grandmother lives in a small, two-room apartment in a suburb of Kazan named Дербышки (Dyerbishky). Note that I write two rooms, not two bedrooms. As in many Russian homes, the bedroom, the living room, and the dining room are one and the same; the sofa converts into a bed. Tapestries hang on the walls to help insulate the house.

Several trees stand outside the windows; in the late afternoon sun of a cool summer day, they reflect a mild, beautiful light into бабуля's apartment. (That's "Babulya".) My wife tells me that two of the trees were planted by her grandparents many years ago. My wife remembers when they were just stems sprouting from the ground; today they have grown tall and magnificent. It was on a summer afternoon in бабуля's apartment that I realized I would miss Russia. Such sentiments are nearly impossible to explain.

The train from Moscow to Kazan passes through dense forests and rolling hills. Birch trees abound, and birch is considered something of a national tree in Russa.

Suburbs are filled with trees; from the apartment of my wife's parents in Dyerbishky, one can stroll out of one’s apartment, into a nearby wood, and out again into a village within the space of an hour. It is difficult to come by such places in the modern America I know, where a car and several hours are necessary even to find some woods.

Village houses are called избы (isbi). The isbi in good shape are beautiful; Others are in absolutely terrible condition, and appear to be falling apart. The situation appears to vary widely from village to village. My wife’s family owns an isba and a garden a few minutes’ walk away from their apartment. We visited it several times over the summer; her family typically visits it daily once the snow begins to melt.

The path winds through weedy suburbs, across a busy highway, over a dusty road, across a stream on a rickety bridge that I would never have trusted had they not told me to walk it, and finally into the village. They warned me several times not to touch certain plants along the way, whose sting you wouldn't believe. I tried not to touch them, but either I forgot or I was too clumsy, because I have a vivid memory of the plants' sting. It's not immediate, but rather something of a slow burn...
(Apparently this is still wrong. That was a different plant I had touched. I was, apparently, quite lucky not to have touched the plant they meant, because I would have remembered it "for months." My wife says that in a tone of voice that leaves me a little nervous.)
Here among the hills lie several homes, gardens, and even farms. ...The owners take nice care of them. Their homes are decorated with colorful wood or brick. I wanted to take some photos, but my wife wouldn’t allow it; she suggested that certain owners might take offense. Based on her comments, I gather that Russians are particular about who takes their photographs.

Some of the isbi are permanently inhabited, with plumbing, electric hookups, and television. Others, like my wife’s, are in rather ancient condition. The inside is dark, and the ceilings are low.

The entrance is especially low; my wife explains that it was built this way to force visitors to bow before an icon which would stand in a corner called the Red Corner. I saw only one room, which was large and spacious, but I believe there is an attic and another room, which they use to store tools, wood, and produce.

On a hot summer’s day, it was surprisingly cool inside. I asked my wife’s family about this curiosity, and they answered that the walls were made of thick stone. In addition, the low ceiling helps. During the winter, on the other hand, the construction helps keep the home warm.

On three or four occasions, they allowed me to work in their garden. They explained that it wasn’t right for me to have come all the way from the United States, only to waste my days in their garden. The truth is that I enjoyed it a great deal.

I can understand why most Westerners might think that Russians are unfriendly; they do not smile as often as we do. Indeed, Russians regard a common Western smile as rather shallow; idiotic, even. However, Russians are very warm with their guests, even those who are not friends or relatives. They'll even send an occasional smile your way, and you know that when they do, they really mean it.

One last note. My wife first watched the TV show Lost in Russia, and wanted to watch it here. Now I'm hooked on the thing... Is that good, or bad? ;-)

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