Published: March 3rd 2009March 3rd 2009
Monday was “Men’s Day.” This is an important Russian holiday, so I didn’t work. Leading up to and following my day, women would approach me and say “I’d like to congratulate you on this Men’s Day." They had previously congratulated me on both Thanksgiving and Christmas, as if it had been me who had fed the Pilgrims or lay in the manger. Anyway, for my first Men’s day, my colleagues gave me a pack of vitamins. DYNAMISM brand. Then midway through my Tuesday night class, the students left. This wasn’t unexpected. We normally take a break. But they returned with a cake, coffee, and a bottle of champagne. Like that guy in “Lola,” I was glad I’m a man.
Officially Men’s Day is “Defenders of the Fatherland Day,” and it used to be Red Army Day. But someone figured that if there’s a Women’s Day (and there is an international women’s day on March 8) then why should men go without? So everyone with a “Y” chromosome is currently living within the borders of the Russian Federation is an honorary friend to the Fatherland. Including me. The cards for Man’s day retain the holiday’s martial heritage and are covered with
ribbons, camouflage, and blue crosses. I prefer cake and champagne.
On Men’s Day proper, Monday, Sveta and I went skiing through the town of Barda. Barda is about 200 kilometers south of us, near Bashkortostan. There I heard Tatari spoken for the first time. Sveta’s aunt Lena and her husband Ismail hosted us and stuffed us full of Tatari dishes. These were spicy, and everything I had ate came wrapped up like pot pies. But unlike pot pies, I ate them with my fingers. Sveta and I need to start making Tatari dishes. The only thing I didn’t take to was the curd cheese pie. But then the following course, the potato pie, was delicious.
I discovered that I love cross country skiing and have decided that while I’m here I need to do as much of it as I can. I fell a lot, especially when skiing downhill, but once I got the feel, I really began to cover a lot of ground. Everything was silent and white. Good for thinking. Or blanking. The skiing was tiring (especially going uphill and making the “fur tree”) but in the good way. Like after a hard run.
weeks before Barda, Sveta and I travelled North to Kudymkar. Kudymkar is the capital of the Komi district and center of Komi culture. The Komi are a Finno-Ugric speaking people. “Perm” is a Finno-Ugric word. We had been invited as guests of the college there, and some of the best students showed us around town. The student leader, Kolya, was featured on billboards and posters. A great host, he had the additional advantage of possessing an uncanny resemblance to a young Paul Sanchez-Masi. Kudymkar has about 20,000 inhabitants, but not one traffic light. We walked the entire town in an afternoon. I was charmed; it was one of the most delightful days I’ve had here. Komi art featured prominently at the museum. The most fascinating pieces were wood sculptures depicting anatomically correct bathouse spirits.
For our anniversary (Sveta and I were officially married in February 2008) we traveled to Damydkova, a resort/spa to the north. We got a deal on a weekend tour; it was the coldest two days of the winter and no one but us wanted to travel. Damydkova boasted a fancy spa, bowling alley, beach front, discotech all enclosed and guarded. Sveta noticed that male guests
The students take Sveta and I up the big hill
had younger women with them. Middle-aged women brought their children. Lots of quiet desperation, but at least the -20 F temps kept the place relatively empty. The spa was nice, and the bowling alley better.
I have been snowboarding. In the mountain town of Gubaha, I was the star. A number of people approached me for autographs and photos. Lots congratulations. Why? Not because of my inverted aerials, but because I’m an American. Of course the smiling Gubahians did not see my behaviour on the mountain, like when I split open the lip of the guy who had graciously taken me boarding. There was this monstrous lift at Gubaha, one of those things snowboarders have to snake between their legs, hang on, and try to keep the board straight while the entire apparatus pulls it to the side. I struggled with the lift from the start, and toward the end of the day I began to tire. The fall itself occurred in slow motion. My board moved farther and farther off the path, my body went sideways, and I drug Nick to the ground. My wrist buckled under me. And I don’t know why, but I tried to hold
Kudym, the founder of Kudymkar, watches over us and his legendary bear.
on even though it hurt and even though there was no way I was going to make it. While the lift was still pulling us up, our boards remained stuck firmly in the snow embankment. Finally, I could stretch no more and let go, releasing all the built-up tension. My board flew back, right into Nick’s face. There was some blood and many apologies. My wrist is still weird. So we only did a few more runs before heading up to the lodge, joining our friends and resuming our drinking.
The drinking started early, while we were all still on the bus from Perm. The bus had left Perm at six and for two hours we travelled in the darkness and in silence. But as we approached the mountain, someone got out a bottle of cognac. Someone else made sandwiches. The food and drinks then made the rounds. The bus came alive. Russians were laughing and yelling, preparing themselves for great deeds on snows of Gubaha. In the thirty minutes before we reached the resort, the twelve of us put away a bottle of cognac and another of vodka.
Following the lip-splitting incident, an old engineer treated Nick
and I to samogon, Russian moonshine and plenty of toasts. And on the ride back multiple stops were made to resupply or stock of vodka and sandwiches. I was forced to sing Frank Sinatra songs. Or at least they tried to force me. I sang “Moon River.”
Currently, Nick is in California boarding at Tahoe. He even invited me on the trip. English lessons, however, don’t quite cover the costs.
There are more photos below