I set down my bag and, 5 minutes later, was blind-sided by two girls jumping onto the back of me & nearly knocking me over my backpack. Woo hoo! I successfully made it & was now in the hands of my friends of yore, whom would serve as my guides for the next month. They are Anastasia, from Moscow, and Svitlana, from Kiev. Our first destination was Anastasia's dacha (country house) somewhere outside of Moscow... I'm not quite sure where, exactly. We took a slow train... then a bus... and then another bus (really a van, called a marshrutka) that eventually started driving along unpaved roads.
My backpack barely even fit into the van. It was quite uncomfortable trying to get on, as my backpack was hitting everybody; and the only seat was in the back; and Svitlana and Anastasia were blocking my way to swing about the backpack. I later mastered the technique of backpacks in confined spaces (carry it with your arms, holding it in front of you; and clasp the main belt), but at this time I was bumping into everybody.
We arrived and were met by Anastasia's aunt, whom escorted us toward the dacha. This walking trip included traveling from the bus stop, through town. While the town is small – only a couple thousand people – the Le Corbusier architectural stylings were readily apparent in that it had tall apartment blocks all about. The streets were paved only in the loosest of definitions, mongrel dogs wandered about, and the town had a very rustic industrial feel to it. We eventually began walking on top of wooden & sheet-metal planks in what I could best describe as a "swampy alley". Emerging on the other end of this a couple minutes later, it was as if we left the town completely behind. Now I was in a little tiny neighborhood that could almost fit right into the more rustic parts of Pennsylvania.
The dacha was beautiful – every fruit you could ever want was growing there, right alongside a variety of flowers. There was a well for drawing water (it was clean here), an outhouse, and three buildings consisting of one room each. Ahh, and the banya – the Russian sauna, which consists of lots and lots of steam (as opposed to a Finnish sauna, which is dry).
I was introduced to Anastasia's grandmother, also named Anastasia, whom was quite nice – albeit didn't speak a word of English. Anastasia's aunt, Ira, was unbelievably friendly and excitedly showed me about the garden, telling me about everything. Catch is, she also spoke only Russian... and when I clearly didn't understand what she was saying, she just spoke louder. I'm guilty of doing this, too... Svitlana and Anastasia quickly took on roles of translating for me, though I at least tried to say the basic greetings & thank you's in Russian. I owe this to the Kaliningrad girls back in Maryland whom, after 2 months, successfully taught me how to say "thank you".
Anastasia's sister (Nagya), cousin (Vova), & cousin's girlfriend arrived later on for dinner. It was fun meeting everybody, though these new arrivals also only spoke limited English. Vova graduated from a major in coastal policies, basically referring to the territorial disputes arising over the warming North Sea. As the ice disappears and more waters become accessible, countries like Russia, Canada, America, and the Scandinavian countries are all claiming resource rights.
The food was excellent – I sampled a whole variety of fruits and veggies, we ate shashlyk (Ukrainian shish kabobs), and I drank concurrent juice (I forget if that's spelled correctly). Svitlana brought a cake which she referred to as Kyivan Torte – it looked like a conglomeration of every imaginable tasty concoction; and it was good.
We visited the banya, where I very nearly performed what would have been my greatest social faux-pas ever. OK so I’ve never been to a banya before. Saunas, sure, but not a banya. And it was running through my head that there wasn’t any shower or bath here. So when the two girls handed me a scrunchy, some body wash, and told me to scrub myself with it, I asked Svitlana “like a shower?” just to be sure. She said yes, and both girls left the banya. So now here I am – in my swimshorts – holding a scrunchy in one hand and body wash in the other.
I go ahead and scrub everything but that which was hidden by the swimshorts. I lather up my head, my face, my neck, my chest, my belly, my legs… and I contemplate: am I supposed to remove my swimsuit? The door is closed, but there’s nothing to latch it with. What if they come back and I have no clothes on? Or alternatively, I could just leave my swimshorts on and pretend I washed thoroughly. As I was pondering this, the door opened up and the look on Svitlana’s face was priceless.
Fortunately, I still had my swimsuit on. That’s very fortunate because I had already gone too far – I wasn’t supposed to completely lather my entire body from head to toe. I guess I also wasn’t supposed to use the vats of hot and cold water to directly wash off the soap. Oops… at least I successfully covered up a major faux-pas with a lesser one.
It was during the banya that I also learned that my guidebook was telling the truth when it said that Russians whip each other with birch branches. It was certainly amusing in the sense that it was something you just don't see in America. It is exactly what it is: branches – right off the birch tree – that you smack yourself with. Or someone else smacks you with them. Regardless, there’s no denying that it really does feel unbelievably good, and you get a nice birch scent permeated into your skin. We wrapped it up by throwing cold water on each other – right up my alley since I do that whenever I get a chance to combine my love of hottubs with my love of snow.
Sleeping arrangements consisted of the three of us sharing a room. Anastasia and Svitlana shared a tiny bed on one side of the room, and I had a bed all to myself. The bed was about 6 inches too small, however, and a dresser on one end and a wall on the other end limited my ability to put my feet up over the end of the bed. I managed to angle myself a bit and had quite a comfortable sleep.