Published: January 6th 2011January 1st 2011
Do not touch this mushroom, and certainly don't consider eating it. Even taking a photo is risky.
I spent my birthday building a fence around some compost in Belarus, which, as strange as it sounds, is stranger still as the compost heap didn't look like it was about to escape.
We were in the middle of a visit to the capital city, Minsk, when it was decided that a sojourn out of the big smoke and into the countryside was in order. Karina's Grandmother had a cottage out there somewhere and the prospect of digging up vegetables and eating them too was delightfully foreign and appealing to me. (Back home, I rely on an excellent fruit and veg supermarket just down the road...) What's more, the house had no heating, no running water, no phone, and no internet. I've experienced this once before after not paying the bills in a London share house, but never intentionally, and I couldn't wait.
I can't imagine what the typical, well-dressed, sensible Belarussian would have thought upon seeing us running for the train the next morning: dressed like scarecrows in our gardening clothes, carrying a week's worth of meat, bread and alcohol in overflowing shopping bags, yelling in English, with Alice, the sick cat, poking his little head out of
(My spelling... and my hand)
a carry-bag asking what he'd done to deserve this. And yes, Alice is male. Don't ask.
Minsk itself had been fine, but very curious indeed, and not very accessible for an English speaking tourist. The people are proud and solidified after such a troubled history which included losing at least one in every four people during the second world war. The majority of the city was destroyed as well, and rebuilt with large, modern buildings which I found to be rather rigid and daunting. Of course, there is a lot to be said of Lukashenko, the controversial president (some say Dictator) for the past 17 (!) years, but this is not the time or place for politics.
Anyway, after an hour or so on the train we arrived, and trotted off ahead of everyone so we could ensure ourselves a seat in one of the 'black taxis' that was waiting for passengers. Somehow, 6 adults squeezed into the tiny old car (to say nothing of the cat) and we were off, driving through the green Belarusian countryside. The cottage was in a very secluded little farming community, with a vegetable filled garden and shadowed by some dense forests
Well well well
Another day finished for the Barefoot Bushman
to the back. We settled in quickly with some microwaved tea.
For a week, this was my typical day:
MORNING: Straight into the garden to hear what needs to be done. Grab an apple off the tree, eat it. As I found the whole apple pinching such an enjoyable experience, I took the smaller ones so I could repeat the process.
Come in for a big Russian Fry Up meal. Heavy use of smetana, which is like creme fraiche but twice as fat-filled, and can be cooked without curdling. Maybe some Borsch - a deep red coloured soup, containing mostly beetroot.
AFTERNOON: Take some time to go for a walk, usually into the forest, or off along the 'main road'. Maybe pick up some essentials from the local shop if it was open.
See snakes and frogs and try to pick them up, depending on size and fear factor. Trust local farmer who insists all snakes are non-venomous. Consider stealing an apple from the lady next door, who has exceptionally red apples due to chemical enhancements. Decide against.
Back to the garden, dig up some vegetables for dinner, maybe a spot of weeding, some
Note the particularly large, red apple above our heads. Probably didn't last long.
topsoiling, another apple.
EARLY EVENING: head into the forest to pick mushrooms, being careful not to pick the deceivingly attractively red spotty ones which kill you instantly.
Head to the well for a freezing cold wash of the old hands and feet, which were filthy from working barefoot. My feet were too big for all available work shoes.
For dinner, we usually had something which would sound very basic on paper (fish, meat, potatoes, soup, bread) but which always defied all expectations and had me coming back for more. It was probably just typical Russian food, but it was made with love and heart (and sometimes liver and kidney) and in short, it was delicious. Many of the ingredients can't be found in Western Supermarkets, so you can forget about asking me for recipes.
A few Russian language lessons after dinner, then off to bed.
My birthday was an exception to the program as we spent the day building The Fence. Armed with shovels, hammers, old nails, a saw, and scrapwood, we fashioned the fine specimen of fence you can see here over the course of one day.
There was a great sense of
A Harmless Snake
The mushrooms are more dangerous than the reptiles
accomplishment as we put the final piece in place. After visiting so many buildings around the world of such mammoth proportions and reputations, we realized how pleasant it was to have our picture taken beside something that was actually relevant to ourselves. Sure, it probably won't stand as long as the Parthenon, it's perhaps not as pretty as the Hermitage, but we made it with our own hands and we were proud. And with Russian Champagne, a chicken-kidney feast and birthday presents waiting inside, I couldn't have asked for a better day - or indeed a better stay.
On a sadder note, Alice, the gender confused cat, passed away recently in his sleep. It was a good death.
There are more photos below