Saturday, 19 January 2013

Pick the Mushrooms - Don't Drink the Water.

                                                                             Black Sea coast below Krymsk.

On the internal Russian flight with Ural Airways we are offered sweets and sick-bags before take-off. It's not a good sign. The plane is a rather old Boeing, because planes in Russia have a much longer shelf-life than in many other countries. However, my son assures me, there are positive aspects; the planes have been proved to work and their pilots have many years of experience in flying the same models.

It's a good flight. The Russian couple sitting beside me see that I'm writing in my notebook and assume I'm a famous author from England.
London, they know,
Kate Middleton, they know.
Manchester United the husband thinks I must know.
Manchester City? No?
Mobile phones with lots of photos save the day for their communication with me. I see their summer-house, their daughters, sons-in-law, grandson.
I see their fishing trips. The fish.....amazing! I am suitably impressed. I do this in England? No? No lady fishing? That is strange.
I see the mushrooms, baskets full of them. I go to forest for mushrooms? No? No mushrooms? England is strange.
I am strange. I do not know Kate Middleton, I know nothing about football, I do not catch my own fish nor pick my own mushrooms, I don't live in London. Strange!

Between  discussions of fishing trips I've been able to glimpse great rectangular areas of rich black earth, vineyards stretching out the horizon. It's like the Vale of Evesham on steriods. The Krasnodar region is rich, fertile, productive.
Then we land. Many people applaud. It's traditional on internal flights, like the sick-bags.
After the bitter cold of Moscow the air feels soft and balmy.

We drive through a golden sunset into the darkness of Cossack country, full of wines and fruits and people passionate about their land, their heritage.

                                                                                War memorial, Novorossiysk.

Terrible battles were fought here, not only over the valuable land, but over the even more valuable access from the sea. There are war memorials on so many streets. War is vivid in so many memories, such an intrinsic part of family history that it feels as if it happened a few weeks ago.

                                                                             Novorossiysk - view of the port.

In the morning I pull back the curtains and there is the Black Sea, not black at all, but green and golden, the distant horizon dotted with oil tankers.
Novorossiysk where I am now, is Russia's second largest port. There is massive development. High rise flats tower over tin and wooden houses, great glass and marble palaces spread along the coast line.
Nearly everyone also has a summer-house, a plot outside the town where they can grow fruit and vegetables, an apartment near the sea, where they can swim, a wooden cottage in the hills where the summer air is cooler than the 40 degrees common in town.
We are invited to one such summer-house, not far from town, but in a little ravine with views out to sea and cool breezes blowing in from the hills behind it.
Last summer there were severe floods in the area. This summer-house lost part of its garden as waters from the mountain rushed out to sea. Fish from the carp pool ended up on the roof. They are rebuilding and restocking. We ate fish from the new pool.

There is great pride in the produce of the area. People know where all their food originates: carp from the pond at the bottom of the garden, vegetables from the rich earth, wines from home-grown grapes, champagne from the lake-side vineyard in the hills nearby.
Our dairy food, raw milk, butter, cheeses, sour cream, the eggs and meat all came from the family farm. The goose we ate at Russian Orthodox Christmas had been plodding around there a little earlier. Mushrooms, if you want them you go into the forest and pick them, or you go to the local market where they are piled in succulent baskets full.
But don't drink the water. In a land of richness and plenty the water may be unreliable. A land of paradox.

My flight companions found me strange. I find their country mystifying, magical, somewhat alarming.It's a country on a vast scale. Tragic things happen.
 A short distance away last summer, in the town of  Kryrmsk a devastating flood swept down the valley in the night, washing away homes and people. There had been weeks of rain in the mountains, and there were rumours that a reservoir above the town had been breached or even opened to protect the dam. These rumours have been strongly denied, and there remains no clear evidence about what actually happened. One of my Russian companions believes it is possible that a tornado out at sea picked up a huge volume of water and dropped it inland.

Death and violence come from the sky, from the sea, from the mountains, just as so many of the good things in life do.
No wonder my Russian friends knock on wood, cross their fingers, believe in astrology, and respect the spirits of nature.


Saturday, 12 January 2013

Signs of the Times

My first visit to Moscow was over forty years ago, deep in the Soviet era, completely controlled and supervised by the Intourist Organisation. We were not free to visit anywhere independently, nor to attempt to speak to anyone other than the Intourist guides.Self expression was dangerous, faith was underground.
I remember drawing back the curtains in the splendidly faded Metropol Hotel, just off Red Square and looking out over a small area of garden. The snow lay deep and crisp and even and no adult or child, nor even a dog had deviated from the assigned paths.
Some seven years ago my husband and I visited again, and were yelled at by police for not using a pedestrian crossing in the gardens of the Kremlin. The road was completely free of traffic, but we were made to walk back and use the official crossing point.

On this visit I sensed a tentative freedom in the city, even a slight lifting of the rules.
We visited the hauntingly beautiful Novodevichy Convent on a glitteringly cold afternoon. This, one of the city's oldest religious centres, developed from the 15th century, part of the city's defences as well as a convent and a sort of prison for ladies of high rank.There is an extensive lake outside the high, fortified walls, and muffled figures slid and tottered around on its frozen surface. Small children were being drawn along in little padded sleighs, the children themselves so engagingly padded that they looked like TeleTubbies. A couple of people sped along more efficiently on skis.

The signs at the edge of the lake forbade people to go on the ice.

Near to the main entrance of the convent the base of a buttress was covered in graffiti, admittedly most of it in  beautiful script.

Petitions to Saint Cyprian; 'A better job for Ludmilla', 'Health for my son'. The guards stand by, but the petitions are not removed, nor are people punished for making them.

On a little ornamental bridge there are dozens of brightly coloured padlocks clasped to the decorative railings. They bear the names of those recently married, or otherwise wishing to announce a relationship.

In a couple of places the railings have been broken, presumably to remove the padlock of those no longer locked in love. I wonder if these padlocks come with two keys, or perhaps no key at all, as an emblem of permanence?

High in the hills in the countryside a multitude of little flags flutter in the wind. Scraps of fabric tied to twigs and fencing, like Buddhist prayer flags. They are a sort of prayer flag, signs of hopes and dreams and wishes.

My kind Russian host rips up a perfectly good handkerchief and I tie on a few flags of my own for family members back in England. Grand-daughter now has her own little flag flying in Russia!

Then I notice that among the little flags are scraps of knicker elastic, lace and fragments of someone's tights.
Humour and the expressions of new freedoms.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

A Moving Time in Moscow

During my travels I have not had full access to Blogger and have not been able to post or comment, so my greetings are belated.

The Metro train rattles through darkness and stops at stations gleaming rose and grey, white and amber, marble and polished granite, bronze and brass, mosaic and elaborate plasterwork.
I cannot read their names, I cannot even recognise their names when they are announced, but I can recognise some of them visually. They are all different, all differently striking.

This is underground Moscow on New Year's Eve and we are heading for Red Square. So are thousands of others, many of them young men in thickly padded black jackets and furry black hats - Asiatic young men who come from Tashkent and other Central Asian towns to work in Moscow for a few years, perhaps to earn enough to return home.
So many young men, so similarly dressed seem frightening to my English eyes. Is it a protest, a potential riot?
'No,' says my son. 'It's their one night off and they're going to enjoy it'.

New Year in Russia is all the Winterfests rolled into one. Santa is here, the Madonna and Child are here if you look carefully; so are Mickey Mouse and Tom and Jerry and look-alikes of Lenin and Stalin.
Father Frost is here, big-time, in blue and silver with stuck-on stars and a big white beard. His helper, the Snow Maiden is also here, generally explained as his grand-daughter, but we all know that rich older men bearing gifts may have their nubile female attendants.

We have to push our way through the crowds. Red Square is closed in preparation for this most significant of Russian nights. Big screens are erected. President Putin will speak to the people at midnight and then....then there will be fireworks!

The snow starts and grows heavier. It is late, but all the shops are open and busy and the illuminated Kremlin buildings glow and glitter golden against the slanting snow. We duck into a maze of side-streets where my Russian companions know of a charming little restaurant hosted by a resident cat and dog. The cat, who is much larger than the dog, wears a bow-tie in honour of the occasion. The dog, a chihuahua, trots about anxiously - the risk of being trodden on is high. I greet him in English. He acknowledges me politely and sits beside me in the alcove. The cat in the bow-tie ignores me.

We return home through emptying streets and flying snow. Shop keepers are trying to hasten the last customers out. The Metro rattles us back to the suburbs. Father Frost and his lady-friend must visit every child in Russia tonight.
In every main road and quite a few side ones the snowploughs wait in silent ranks, ten, fifteen at a time, their drivers chatting and smoking in groups, waiting for the call to action.
In the meantime the gritting lorries are out in force, spraying a corrosive mix that turns the snow to brown sludge. Night or day, ice or snow, Moscow keeps moving.

There is no time to be lost, for we need to be ready at ten o'clock to bid farewell to 2012, with all its joys and pains and tedious bits. We raise our glasses of champagne to what is past.
The food is ready; smoked salmon, a cold roast, slabs of white fat, black bread, pickled herring and salads, beetroot and vegetables in vinaigrette dressing.

Friends arrive bringing more delicacies. There are very special mushroom gathered deep in a forest in Belarus....Cossack mushrooms. There are gherkins and fruits and then there are chocolates made locally and bought fresh from the factory. There is vodka, of course.
We eat and drink. There are many toasts, to our families, our children especially. There are photos on mobile phones and a few tears. The vodka flows. Ah, the past has been good to us.....and

On the television a hush falls over the vast crowds in Red Square and President Putin speaks to the people.
He says what all great leaders say, 'Be good, work hard, be kind to your family, be proud of your glorious nation.' Then the great bell of the Spaski Tower in the Kremlin strikes midnight. The national anthem plays out over scenes of beautiful Moscow in the snow. It is dignified and proud and moving.

Then the fireworks start, great earth-shattering detonations of colour and fire exploding into the night.
They go on....................
all night.

Happy New Year to us all - everywhere.