Monday, July 26, 2010

Dacha

The Russian dacha has no real direct translation into English. Part cottage, part country-home, part mini-farm, the dacha can only best be described by using the Russian word for it.

A dacha is a small house on a little plot of land out in the country. During the warm seasons city dwellers flock to their peaceful little dachas to get away from the traffic and noise of urban living. Most people have gardens and fresh herbs and vegetables on their dacha, and although a hundred dachas can all be clustered together, it really is more peaceful and relaxed than the impersonal cities of Russia.

Historically only the ruling classes in St. Petersburg and Moscow enjoyed the use of a dacha. Even during Soviet times only a few of the elite were entitled to such privileges. During the 1990s policy started to change and real estate economics came into play: those who could afford a dacha could buy one. People who serve a certain length of time in the armed forces also receive a plot of land in the country for free, where most immediately build a dacha.

Katya's father, thanks to his 30 years of service in the Red Army, received just such a plot of land ten years ago, and this past weekend Katya and I went out to visit. I had never been to a dacha before although I have wanted to since before I came to Russia.

Katya's father and mother split up more than a year ago and while her mother stayed in their flat in Shyolkova, her father established a permanent residence at his dacha. Like all Russian men he is veritable handyman and has turned his plot of land into a rustic paradise.

Katya and I spent an hour on a bus and hopped off at a peaceful little village whose name I never learned, where her father met us in his Lada and, after purchasing some beer and cake, drove us the rest of the way.

He has built a two-story wooden cottage with a garage for his car, dug a well and built an outhouse, erected a fully-functioning banya (Russian sauna) complete with birch branches to thrash oneself with (a Russian tradition before entering the banya), a greenhouse and a garden, a chicken coup and a wooden honey bee contraption. He has also adopted two little puppies he found wandering around in the woods with no mother, who I named "Bitey" (on account of chewing on everything, incuding my toes) and "Stupid" (on account of being stupid).

The first thing I noticed at the dacha was that the oppressive heat of Moscow was nowhere to be found, and as the sun set in the west the temperature was a comfortable 25 C with a nice cool breeze blowing through the house. Needless to say I had the most comfortable sleep I've had in over a month, since this atrocious heatwave began.

I had been very excited to eat shashleek, a delicious kabob-style dish cooked over red coals. This mouth-watering meal comes from the Caucausus and is a favourite with Russians and anyone who tries it, really. Wonderpants and I ate a lot of shashleek during the spring, and our method of cooking it involved spearing some marinated pork and vegetables on a metal stick and placing it over the red-hot coals in a little metal grill Wonderpants had brought. We would, of course, add some beer to the meat during the cooking process. When it was finished we would peel the chunks of pork off the kabob into a piece of flatbread and chow down.

Shashleek, apparently, is a much more intricate meal and deserves a special cooking process, as Katya's father kept grabbing the meat from my hands while I speared the chunks onto the kabob. "Nyet! Nyet!" He kept shouting. Then he would gingerly show me how to spear meat properly. I honestly couldn't tell the difference between my method and his, but he took all the meat away from me and did it himself. Katya, who has been with me at previous shashleek cook-outs and never complained, make clucking sounds at me and told me I didn't know what I was doing. Rather than risk more loss of dignity in my shashleek-methodology, I sat back with a beer and let them cook the entire dinner for me. Who has the wrong methodology now?!

The food was delicious in the end, and we sat under the stars drinking beer with bad 80s pop playing while her father, through Katya's translations, berated me for my limited knowledge of the Russian language. I realized at this point that he doesn't really like me. I fired back when he tried teaching me the correct way of pronouncing the "Russian" words "escalator", "elevator" and "bizness lonch". He wouldn't believe me that those were English words (escalator and elevator borrowing from Latin) borrowed by the Russians, and that Russians were pronouncing "business lunch" incorrectly. Although I like the Russian language (it is a very poetic, passionate language full of creative idioms and interesting dictation), I was being linguistically abused and had to defend myself.

The next day we went off to a vast forest that surrounds the area. I grew up in and around forests and a year of living in one of the biggest metropolis' in the world was grinding me down, so it was such a pleasant treat to hike for a few hours among pines, birch, maple and all the other trees that I grew up with.

Finally, it was time to leave and her father drove us all the way back to Shyolkova. When we were about 30 km out of the city the temperature skyrocketted suddenly and we all immediately burst into sweat despite the wind through the car windows (concrete retains heat and doesn't let it off, thus large cities create a sort of bubble of heat around them, making them even more unbearable to live in than they already are. The heat from Moscow has expanded to nearly 50 km around the city in this record-breaking heatwave).

All in all the weekend was blissful and interesting. I am sincerely grateful to Katya's father for having us out there and although I can tell he doesn't like me, or at least he likes to torment me, I like him. He's an interesting character, stubborn and opinionated, but after everything he has done in his life I guess he's earned the right to be. Katya had a good time, too, and we both felt much more rejuvenated upon returning to the shittiness of city life.

We said our goodbyes and spaciba bolshoi to her father and came back to my place in Moscow, where I found that some of the plastic items in my room were actually melting! Welcome back to Moscow.

A farm on the way to the dacha

An angry rooster at the dacha


Bitey and Stupid, two of the cutest puppies I have ever met


Shashleek, PROPERLY skewered, unlike the barbaric ways of us ignorant westerners. See the difference? I don't.

Sunflowers at the dacha

Peaceful pond in the beautiful forest around the dacha. It felt like home.

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