Monday, May 11, 2009

I Wish I Were…

At the dacha

“The great pleasure of the people is drunkeness; in other words, forgetfulness.”
                                                                                  The Empire of the Czar
                                                                                   Marquis de Custine, 1839
First, a few floating memories of Russian arrivals:

We’ve just gotten off an endless flight from New York and we’re in the back of  P’s car. On the way to the dacha. (Not the new, very grand dacha but the old one that belonged to his parents.)
P’s English isn’t nearly as good as it is now. “We stop for a party,” he says. “Just one toast.” 
I roll my eyes. There’s no such as “just one toast” at a Russian party. 
“OK, just one,” I say as pull into a deserted industrial park. There’s grass sprouting up in the cracks of the asphalt. But there is a guard. There is always a gun-toting guard in Russia. There is also a red and white striped barrier.
P chats with the guard, the barrier rises (which also always happens in Russia when you’re with P) and we’re in . We’re in to a place that looks likes photographs of Priapat after Chernobyl. Pock marked concrete buildings, shutters banging in the wind, no people. Just abandoned. 

I am incurably attracted to the abandoned. Always have been. Abandoned persons and places, abandoned empires, even abandoned forms of transport like ships and trains. The emptiness gives the imagination more room to roam, I think.
“Is a friend,”P says, reassuringly as we stumble out of the car and begin to walk. “He is celebrating contract with the Kremlin.” 
We’re still walking ten minutes later when P opens the door into a courtyard where a very fat man with a mouthful of gold teeth, stands smoking a cigarette, turning a spit. The fat crackles, dripping into the make-shift fire beneath it. A fire made with twigs and shattered bits of green shutters. It smells good.  The man smiles and rubs his belly. 
“Uzbek,” P says, as if this explains such an absurdly incongruous picture, taking place ten minutes from the Kremlin. “They love lamb.”

The lamb’s innards are in a stinking heap next the spit. This man probably slung the lamb, alive, over his shoulders and brought it here. I can almost hear it bleating. He then slit its throat and gutted it. And I’m reminded of stories of London in the early 70′s when Arabs slaughtered goats in hotel bathtubs. But we’re none of us ever as far from the wild as we like to think we are. Maybe this is yet another reason why I can’t get enough of Russia. It reminds of that wildness; of lives lived to extremes.  I come from a country that appears so sane, tame. A country where everything but exercise and spending (at least, until recently) is done in moderation. No smoking. No drinking. No ageing permitted. 

For the next five hours, we huddle happily at the end of a long table in the old foreman’s office. Lost in a fug of smoke and sweat, we toast and eat ourselves into a euphorically, stuporous state. ”You’re not in Kansas, anymore,” I grin and whisper to my husband R. 

On the ride home, we hear the Uzbek is celebrating a contract to remove asbestos and fireproof the Kremlin. I laugh at my attempts to locate some American equivalent in terms of the size of this job. But it boggles the mind. I mean, the Kremlin may have started as a modest hunting lodge. Like back in the 11th century. But it is now a huge city, complete with palaces, cathedrals, an arsenal and armoury. In short, a very good gig for P’s friend, the Uzbek. Which first, makes me wonder who owes this guy a favor. And then makes me wonder what he did to earn the favor. Which is when I stop wondering because I’m home. And because this kind of wondering still isn’t healthy in Russia. 

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