26 May 2009

A Sentimental Village

This is our last post until September. Here's why...

On a map of Eastern Europe draw a meridian of longitude south from St Petersburg. Then draw a parallel of latitude east from Riga, Latvia. Where they intersect is our refuge in Russia... Zaloza.

Flying the coop for three months...

We have relatives and friends in the Northern Capital, and enjoy the wonderful music, art, and architecture of St Petersburg center. We live comfortably on a large courtyard filled with trees, two schools, and several playgrounds. The traffic noise here is like the sound of far away surf, we can see a small lake towards the west, and get little dust from the busy prospect on the other side.

Every spring the population of St Petersburg decreases by over a million as people leave for dachas. Even earlier this year metro traffic was reported to have gone down 10%, the first decrease since its construction, apparently due to the financial crisis. It will be much easier to get around this summer.

So... Why leave the White Nights and easy summer living in St Petersburg?

Well, it's often hot and dusty. No one I know has air conditioning. And there is the old Soviet custom of no hot water for two or three weeks sometime in June or July.

Tell me, is there any other place in the world where plumbing maintenance means no hot showers or washing water for a few weeks? This is a normal part of the ebb and flow (more ebb than flow) of St Petersburg life. My alert daughter-in-law chooses her time at the dacha often to coincide with this cessation of warm comfort.

Besides the benefits of escaping the heat and no hot water, Russians regain some control of their lives when they spend time at the dacha.

St Petersburg has the usual challenges of a city... traffic, pollution, and the limitations of apartment living. Most apartments have windows on one side of the compass, your dacha can have them wherever you want... with cross ventilation yet! In the city, stepping outside isn't so easy if you live ten floors up...it's rather dangerous up there!... so trips are planned, not spontaneous.

If someone on the seventh floor decides to use a perforator at 6 pm Sunday you will hear it, but have trouble finding the source of the noise, or to get past a hallway steel door to complain to the user.

St Petersburg has the added drawback that unlike the neighborhoods of other European cities, there is little sense of community ... no neighborhood papers, minimal political activity, and few local churches. Really, people here have little chance to exercise initiative. Life for most people in St Petersburg starts when they shut their door. Friendliness and pleasantries are infrequent even in your own building.

Lack of control extends to politics. Since 2004 Russians cannot vote for governors (mayors) of major cities. TV is controlled, and there is a lot of self-censorship of newspapers and on the radio. Petersburgers are apathetic, not adept or interested in organizing to improve their lives, and have just plain given up on things getting better.

Escape to Utopia...

The overnight coupe allows you to wake up to a fresh beautiful land 180 degrees from city life. You can breathe deeply without bronchial danger! Stand in the main dirt road of the village and talk for 20 minutes... with no traffic but an occasional cow, chicken, or squirrel.

Lean a stick against your door and neighbors know you are out. True, here too there is no air conditioning and often no running water, but life is so much better! If the morning is chilly, we have two traditional wood stoves, one a golanka (dutch type).¹

¹ In Russian, h is often pronounced as a hard g, as in Gollan for Holland.

Stars appear at the end of July as our nights darken. We have long sunsets and plentiful rainbows. After our first trip to Zaloza, I told Larissa, "Now I know why people are so sentimental about Russia".

At the village there is a strong feeling of community not found in the city. People stop by to chat. Twice a week we meet at one of the grocery trucks which parks under the tree by our house... our lifeline to Pena.

People here are quick to speak up about their interests. A local politician came to lay out things to the village and was criticized by the audience. Now she refuses to return as she feels they were rude to disagree with her.

Older people and the young particularly enjoy country life. Neighbors share seedlings, and later their vegetables, mushrooms, and fish. Smiling and laughter are somehow easier here than in the city.

Our interests are special to the season and place. Dachniks like to share their opinions about gardening. Others read, meander, or go swimming in cool, clean, refreshing water.

I will be clicking photos of birds, the progress of the zuchinni, and pastoral shots from the hills. Our lake, an extension of the Volga, has three views from our log cabin, a short walk from its shores. I enjoy collecting small river stones, which I call rough gems, along the edge of the water.

This summer will be special, as great-grandma, 86, grandma and daughter will share the kitchen, with our granddaughter, 7, pitching in. Also the son-in-law, after years of hesitation, will join us for two weeks. I plan to stay out of the kitchen, read under the apple trees, swim some, walk the paths, collect more river stones, and study Russian. It will be so nice to wake up to a simple unpolluted sunny world!

Our diet is different in Zaloza, as fresh meat is rare. We are ready... with the essential tool for dacha meat... the can opener. Salads are bountiful, I'll cook spaghetti once a week, and we hope for some fish. Vegetables, with pasta or potatoes, will be the foundation for our dinner and supper. We have two electric burners, and a large traditional Russian oven in which to cook, and also to dry mushrooms. Say, how about some mushroom soup in late August? Throughout the day we will have tea and biscuit breaks. A simple, very pleasant life!

We have intermittent electricity, but no phone line, therefore no internet. I welcome a refreshing break from technology.

If our well is dry or our pump clogged, someone has to carry full pails with the old 2 pail yoke, our alternative water supply. After three months of digging, cutting, and carrying we are ready to return to the convenience of city life in September!
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