Kama in winter
Everything blended into white, and in the photo, blue. Sveta and I walked out to the river. The wind made it hard and a little painful. But it was worth it.
It was the night of Russian Christmas, January 7, and the bathhouse anteroom was freezing. As I disrobed I noticed that the black furry thing hanging on the wall was not a fur hat at all, but a severed cow head - perfectly preserved. I was too cold to feel surprised. I turned away, threw open the door and entered the bathhouse proper.
Sveta and I celebrated Christmas in the village of Stashkova at her Aunt Vala’s farmhouse. Joining us were Aunt Vera and two of Vala’s five children plus their assorted friends, family, and hangers-on. The number of guests relative to the number of rooms made for interesting sleeping arrangements that night.
Vala kept a good table, and I ate well into the early morning, before heading out to the bathhouse. Vodka, champagne, and Carlsburg accompanied the food, but the best of the booze was the Garilka. Garilka is a traditional Ukrainian drink, spiced up with red peppers. Our Garilka was handmade by our other host, Vladimir, Vala’s man-friend. It was seventy percent alcohol - tough stuff. I snored a lot that night.
The Bathhouse is the place for conversation. Vala loves telling stories, and she told
We wore woolen boots. They're not like boots at all, more like stiff Christmas stockings made of wool. They give you great traction and are fuzzy on the inside and out.
Sveta one that explained something both Sveta and I had been wondering about: how she met man-friend, Vladimir. Vladimir is 30 years older than Vala so this relationship had always been somewhat of a mystery. Following the breakup of her first marriage, Vala left Azerbaijan with her children, and settled near Kirov before coming back to the Perm Region. Back in the home region, she got a job at a kids camp. It gave her a paycheck and a place for her and her children to stay. On one cold winter day Vala was hitchhiking back into town from her parent’s village without gloves and without luck. The road was empty, and the few cars that did pass by did not stop. Vala now says that she and Vova (the short name for Vladimir agree that it was fate that Vladimir stopped because he did not usually pick up hitchhikers.
In the car, Vladimir told Vala that he wanted to kill his milk cow because he was tired of milking it. Vala replied that his wife must be lucky because he was not making her work too hard. Vladmir said no, he milked the cow himself.
surprised. “So why do you milk the cow yourself?
“My wife lives in town.”
Vala explained that she lived at the kids camp with her children, and Vladimir took her there. From that frozen beginning, a friendship grew. On his weekly visits into town, Vladimir would stop by the kids camp and bring Vala whatever supplies she needed. Eventually he invited her to his house in Stashkova.
“It is a palace to me.” Vala said recounting her impressions.
And by village standards, it is a big house with big grounds. More than that it is well cared for and clean. Of course there’s no running water and you have to use the outdoor toilet no matter how cold it is outside, but that’s life in a Russian village.
Vala’s only concern was that Vladimir did not like children. And it’s true he does not care for having too many visitors at once. When Sveta and I arrived at Christmas, he offered me some Garilka and jellied lard (holodetz) along with some conversation, but by the time Vala’s son Ruslan and his noisy family arrived, Vladimir had vanished.
Fate intervened in the Vala and Vladimir
story again when develpments left Vala without a home or job. The owners of the kids’ camp told Vala that they had hired a man to take her place and that she was to leave immediately. Vladimir came that evening, and Vala told him everything. Without a word he took her things and rounded up the kids and they left for his home in Stashkova.
And that’s where we were, enjoying Vala’s hospitality. Unlike her man-friend, Vala loves guests. When Sveta’s grandmother died, Vala had an idea.
“Why don’t you bring her here and we’ll bury her, and you’ll get the documents later?”
To which her daughter-in-law replied “You’re so eager to entertain people that you’ll even welcome the dead to your place!”
After turning in around 2 am, Sveta and I made our bed. It was on top of the wood burning stove. We roasted. The bathhouse had been very hot, a preparation of sorts for the frying pan that awaited. The assorted eleven others, including three comicly obese cats, slept below our hot loft on the sofa, on the bed, and in Vera’s and Vala’s case on the floor. All of them, cats excepted,
Sveta is wearing her fur coat. People in fur coats, especially when they also have fur hats, look like bears.
suffered from the cold. Meanwhile, Sveta and I hoarded blankets to protect us from the hot tiles. Only in the morning, after we realized that the blankets were less effective protection than were fur coats, did we offer them to the poor guys beneath us.
The next morning, Vala was the first up and was out shovelling snow with this giant shovel, the likes of which I had never seen. Sveta joined her and a little later while still shaking off the effects of the Garilka so did I. Sveta got a normal sized shovel, and I got a medium sized one, a cross between Vala’s giant sled/shovel and Sveta’s. It was hard work, pushing snow around in sub-zero weather and I tired quickly. Vala did not and at the end of the job was singing a Great Patriotic War song, the gist of which was the war’s over, let’s go home. Sveta joined in. I was no longer hung over.
I had to work that day and needed to get home. Initially, we were to take a bus back into Perm, but Vala insured us that Ruslan would drive us back to a bus station that would
be better than one nearby. Hours passed and we ate breakfast: rabbit with onions and salt. It was delicious. I had some more holodetz and washed it down with compote and tea. More time went by and Ruslan didn’t move from the table. Sveta took matters into her own hands and put on her coat and hat, which sprung Vala into action. She got us some preserves: mushrooms and pickles. I sat at the table and watched as one of the rabbits that had been hanging in the barn was brought in. Ruslan removed the hook and Vala bagged the bunny. She gave it to Sveta and now it is in our freezer. Rabbit is delicious, but it can also be a dangerous buy. When it’s sold in the market, the fur and claws on the paws are not removed. This is the guarantee that the creature is really a rabbit and not a cat. I don’t know if cat meat is delicious.
Ruslan did take us to a bus stop, but the bus had long since left and the next one would not arrive until well after I was supposed to be at work. So, he took
us to a prime hitchhiking spot and deposited us. We waved and waited. Russian hitchhikers do not put the thumbs up. It’s not easy to spot a thumb in a mitten. Russian hitchhikers hold out their arms with the hand slightly raised, sort of like a gentle “stop.” We were freezing but a hunter, or maybe he was a hiker, pulled over and we gratefully got in. And on our ride home, our hunter/hiker/deliverer treated us to some of the best of the soft hits: Bonnie Tyler, Wham, Celine Dion, Bangles, and I think El DeBarge. I find it strange and somewhat depressing that I can no longer recognize El DeBarge. When I was six, El DeBarge’s voice had great power ov. There are some songs that when played on the radio are not merely good songs - they are your songs. So anything by Mr. DeBarge was mine, once upon a time. No more.
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