SOVIET HOSPIALITY Part 8
Thisis part 8. I have duly amended part 7 which is now there as such and not a repeat.
After a really good sleep we got up and all dressed up in warm layers of clothes. I was told to wear valenki instead of my wellies. Rosa and Rabfail both had rucksacks full of provisions, his camera and mine and my tape recorder. Rabfail also had his garmon. Then we set off to catch a trolleybus to a point in the woods from where we could walk to their сад . Sad is usually translated as garden but in fact for those houses that are individual as opposed to blocks of flats there is a different word for the attached garden. Caды (the plural of сад) are quite large enclosures either right out of town or on land between built up areas whither flat dwellers retire not only to grow whatever they want, but also to entertain friends and to celebrate, something which they excel at. They build their wooden houses. Big and small, called dachas.
We alighted from the trolleybus and set off on foot through the woods and soon began to descend by a winding woodland path. The snow was about waist high but had been compressed by skis and boots and, if one walked careully one did not sink. I realised why they made me wear vakenki (sort of felt socks); the soles gripped better. If I’d been in wellies I’d have had to accomplish the descent on my behind. After about half an hour we arrived at the River Ufa (Река Уфимская) a wide sweep of fast flowing water with snowy banks and great slabs of half submerged trees at the edges. Here waited an ancient ferry boat witha small crowd of people already aboard and we arrived just in time to board it. It crossed at quite a surprising pace, turned round and everyone climbed off. We set off on foot again past the little wooden houses of a hamlet where a few cows were chewing at hay-ricks and then through a big iron gate into the area where the sady are situated. Near the gate was a medium sized wooden house where a dog watched us from an open door considering, apparently, whether my prolonged stare merited a bark. This was the caretaker’s house and nearby was a half-built sturdy wooden construction that, I was told, would be his new ‘banya (bath house)’ Every sad had a wooden house, some tiny and some quite roomy with an attic on top. Most also have a banya. This is bath house – a kind of sauna, which is a favourite treat in these parts.The people build their own, both houses and bath houses.
Rabfail and Rosa have a small house , one room with an attic and a nearly finished banya. They built the house out of unwanted wood found lying around in the woodland and Rabfail and Gulya have been building the banya for nearly five years. Rabfail says it is their 5 year olan but that, unlike the government, they’ll finish theirs on time. They have 500 square metres. For the 400 they officially rent they pay 12 roubles ayear. The other 100 were lying idle so they helped themselves. To build the house Rabfail paid 5 roubles for a load of supposed firewood and for the banya 10 roubles for somewhat better wood. To each of these vast sums one has to add 5 roubles for a tractor to bring it. As their banya still requires a stove we were not stopping at their sad but going on to join the same friends with whom we celebrated the combined birthday – Lyuba and Anatoly plus Lyena. Anatoly and Lyuba and their som built the house to a reasonably complete condition during a month’s holiday and then did all the fiddly bits at weekends over two years. It is very sturdy and had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The outer downstairs one in winter is a kind of cold barrier; nothing happens there, one doesn’t even take off one’s coat until inside the second room. In summer all rooms are used as they sleep there and entertain over weekends.
Next came the real experience. The banya consists of two rooms and an enormous stove. One undresses, two at a time, in an antichambre and then enters the actual bathroom. This has big wooden plank shelves on which one can sit or lie and underneath of which steam is conveyed by pipes from the stove into which at intervals water is thrown. One lies on these steaming beds and takes turns with one’s partner at flapping the other with a bunch of birch leaves. These are dried but still green and under the influence of the steam give off a wonderful aroma. When one is thoroughly cooked one gets off the planks and washes (big tanks of hot and cold water are there to mix in big bowls) and then retires to the antechamber to dry oneself and dress. I was told that the thing to do before this was to roll or jump naked in the snow, but none of us did this as far as I know. Certainly Rosa and I did not. When we returned to the house glowing bright red and exceptionally clean we sat and drank tea while the next two went for their turn. All this finally made clear to me what Rabfail had been explaining on the way. I admired th intricate woodwork on Anatoly’s banya and asked who built it. Rabfail said,
‘The one who built it is probably inside lying on a shelf.’
When everyone had had their turn and we were all glowing and had cooled to a comfortable warmth we sat down to big bowls of soup, cold mutton, cheese, bread, butter, kolbas and vodka, followed by tea and jam, (made from uncooked strawberries mashed with sugar in summer an stored in an underground cellar in sealed jars). Then Rabfail played his garmon and they all sang old Russian songs. The tea was regularly replenished from a wood-fired samovar with a two foot chimney, stoked and heated outside and then brought in (minus the chimney) to stand on the table.
When eventually the need for exercise was felt everyone donned extra layers again and boots and we walked single file through the woods behind rabfail playing his garmon. Finally we returned to the house, re-stoked the samovar and Rose was dancing in the snow while Rabfail played. At this point we found on entering the house, to which out hosts had already repaired, that there were other guests! Yuri (young, tall and thin) and Tikhon (more than middle-aged and decidedly not thin) are Rabfail’s and Rosa’s garden neighbours. They had seen the opem door and heard music and so entered along with an offering of various foods including four long shashliks (rows of barbecued meat on two foot long extremely dangerous looking knives). They were a little less than sober but quite delightful. Tikhon and Rabfail greeted each other by rolling around on the sofa in a great bear hug. Rosa got nearly the same treatment. Apparently they had not realised that Rosa and Rabfail were part of the party. After more vodka, more tea and much merriment including Tikhon standing not very securely on his head to prove his sobriety, all was tidied up and we set off homewards, leaving the neighbours at their own ’sad’. The homeward journey, including the long upward haul from the river, was accomplished to Rabfai’s music. From the boat (kamer) onwards we had several fellow travellers and when Rabfail stopped playing they took his rucksack and said, ‘I’ll carry this. You go on playing.’ So he did all the way to the trolleybus stop. Most of the others went off the other way and Rosa, Lyuba and I got a lift in a taxi driven by a friend of Anatoly’s. They sang him a song by way of payment. Rabfail and Anatoly followed very shortly by trolleybus. These, like the busses, run very frequently and, like the buses, are full to a point that is difficult to believe even when seen or even experienced. Getting on such an overfull bus is called ‘storming’ and no one queues because everyone gets on.
After hot stew and tea we concluded the day with slides and TV.
In he morning we went to the teleraph office and sent a telegram to Sergei making an appointment for him to phone Rabfail (переговор) ie they will each go to their respective telegraph and phone points at the appointed time and thus, hopefully, we’ll be able to meet up with Sergei in Stavropl. He must be wondering who he knows in Ufa.
In the afternoon we went to the Bashkiria National Theatre and saw a play with songs. I had earphones with Russian translation but as it was quite a simple story I found it more enjoyable to watch and understand by pantomime. The songs wer beautiful and the two main characters had lovely voices.
By storming a couple of very full buses we went home to fetch money as Rabfail had left it in his other pocket. Rosa made us eat, which turned out to be a big mistake. Later en route to the flat of the English teacher we had a look in the bookshop and bought large portraits of Tolstoy for me and Mussorgsky for Denis. We also got a watch engraved for Denis and a mug for Doreen. I fulfilled an ambition by sitting on a heap of snow and eating an ice-cream. Rabfail snapped this scene no doubt to the bewilderment of passers-by to whom eating ice-cream outside in subzero temperatures is normal.
We arrived at Raisa’s flat to find a real welcome committee gathered and ,of course, a feast. At least this time all was served at once – zakuski (hors d’oeuvr) and roast duck – so I could try everything with impunity. Slightly more that half of those present understood English so my life was made fairly easy. The pretty, quiet girl (Julia) who had been so embarrassed to be picked on to talk to me at the school turned out to be the daughter of a different teacher, far less extrovert. Do Irather maligned Raisa whose daughter tonight was sitting next to her. We were all vastly entertained by one guest, Radik, who gave a long version of European history according to which the Bashkirs settled Hungary and then many other places including England and also decided that England would be safer as an island so one of their strongest heroes put one foot on Spain and pushed against England with his behind until it floated off into the sea. He asked me to explain this to the English who may have forgotten their ancestry. I told him I thought we’d better substitute France for Spain as a minor amendment. During the afternoon I’d been impressed by the similarity of Bashkiri vowel sounds to Hungarian I wanted to know if they were related. However I couldn’t tell if he was serious for a second so I have to take his assurance with a spoonful of salt.
When they were finally persuaded to let us go they took us by car tour next rendezvous with Rabfail’s neighbour who had a day or two accosted us and made us promise to come to her flat to see an exhibition of children’s art work that she was getting ready to send off to DDR. She is a lovely quietly scatty lady with an elderly boisterous husband. The first thing that struck us on entering the flat was a large Christmas tree reaching almost to the ceiling and fully decorated with Дедь Мороз (Grandfather Frost) and Снегушка ( a snow maiden who is his assistant) standing at its base. I asked if they were still celebrating New Year. Her husband said they kept it because it was pretty and kept the bucket in which it stood replenished with water so the needles were intact still in March. We sat on the floor of a nearly empty room looking at children’s drawings for nearly an hour and then were told firmly we must ‘drink tea’ before leaving.
The lady, who had told us this, was busy in the kitchen and the preparations took a long time and were followed by dish after dish appearing to accompany the tea. My protests that I had eaten had no effect on my hosts so I had to consume a bit of everything and have never felt so over fed in my life. Tea alternated with vodka. In Russian the glasses for vodka, which are small, have a different name (рюмки) to those for other drinks. Those used by our host could by no means be called riumki; they were tall enough to be used for champagne and he filled them to the brim. Then for each of the many toasts he downed the lot without pausing for breath. Not surprisingly he became amiably garrulous and we didn’t get home till midnight, by which time Rosa and Gulya thought we had met with bandits.