6 July 2009

Not ashamed

Friends, last Thursday, July 2nd, I turned twenty-five (25!). This was my first grand anniversary. The next one, I was told, is usually celebrated at the age of fifty, and then seventy-five. Then, if determined, diligent and persistent enough, one hits the road to centenary. But let’s not go that far. Not yet. As of today, my mileage is only a quarter-century. To praise the occasion, there was lots of chocolate chip gelato in the afternoon; as much wine and pizza shared with my friends Cortney and Martijn, and Katharina at radiant sunset; and giggle after giggle after giggle in between. Besides, as all grand anniversaries go, mine was full of reminiscing of times bygone and tastes forgotten. Then, between hearty laughs and numerous ‘cheers!’, there was sadness. And even tears, the ones that mischievously wet your eyes when your parents call you to congratulate their daughter with her first ‘big’ birthday, and you try to sound frolicking and cheerful telling them about your plans for the evening (like I said, wine and pizza) while the treacherous tears drop-drop-drop along your cheeks as if beads of water dripping from a thawing icicle. And despite the black, ink-ish stains of mascara all over my face (the performance like that I usually reserve for the end of the day, not for the nascent morning), I kind of liked those tears. I welcomed them. In my world, they were the heralds of the end of the cold war I silently announced to myself years ago.

I’ll tell you the fable. In my thirteenth summer, I decided that to be Russian was not actually so nice. There was nothing to be proud of, I’m sure you’d hear me say so at the time. My current understanding is that it had something to do with the dark communist past, the way a newly-born post-soviet Russia was portrayed in the western media as a country where wild, pigeon-footed bears tumbled along city streets, not to mention villages and small towns; where people drank vodka as if it were pure water and even fed it to babies; where mafia governs the authorities; and some such stuff. Nobody in my family, nobody I knew, was anything of those things. Yet it did not prevent me from feeling uber-guilty for crimes others had made (there is always the black sheep in the family, you know). I was a hyper-sensitive adolescent, so no wonder that after hearing such stories from the western travelers I developed a deep national shame soon enough. I made sure everybody in my surroundings knew my then newly-acquired wisdom according to which being Russian equaled being inferior. I informed my school mates, my parents, all my extended family members, even my neighbours about the situation. I was relentless. I can’t stress enough how much I would cringe when asked where I hail from. I can’t be certain, but I sometimes think some mass murderers would not feel as guilty about their bloody misdeeds as I felt about my country of origin. Since I turned twelve, the national blame was gnawing on me for the successive thirteen years.

A slow change was set in motion last fall. I arrived in Amsterdam to do my master studies in English Linguistics. In Amsterdam, I bought a book of short stories by Chekhov, one of the most prominent Russian authors of the 19th century onwards. The book was in English. (Did I tell you that irony and I, we live next-door to each other?) From it, I didn’t find the answers to the questions who’s guilty and what to do. Rather, the beauty and meaningfulness of Chekov’s word and his insights into Russian life, and the fact that Chekhov and I, we both, although centuries apart, were born in Rostov oblast, he in Taganrog, I in Shakhty, got me thinking, ‘Wow, I come from a country of this man… Blimey, I come from Russia.’

And then there is food.

In Russian South, sour cherries, sun-drenched and plump, are in season now. Them I miss painfully, since as I was growing up, I developed a habit of eating the goodness straight from a tree -- my family used to own a small country house with a tiny garden/orchard -- and spitting the cherry pits in air. From summer to summer, the ritual was sacred. In Amsterdam, I can afford these cherries only by the pound, or even less. I buy them now not so much for eating (5 euro per pound is just crazy) as for my yearning to remember the sunny days in the country house on the bank of the river Don, my grandmother’s pleasantly tart turnovers with sour cherries, eaten piping hot, at a wooden table with a plastic poppy-patterned tablecloth on the veranda…Talk about Proustian memory flashbacks.

More than the cherries, I miss my parents. In times long gone, they would bend over my bed early in the morning on my birthday, holding a plateful of dewy straw- and rasp berries, red currants and, you guessed it right, sour cherries, along with a bunch of meadow chamomiles from a market, and congratulate me, still sleepy. I, of course, would at first make a scene, pretending to be angry for being awaken at such an ungodly hour, but then, as soon as I’d recall it was my birthday, I’d show a sunny disposition and accept the birthday gifts. Oh memories!

All this is to say that I finally got it: for me, Russia isn’t anymore a piece of land, or a political regime. It’s solely my memories – of my childhood; of my father and mother, and my extended family; of people whose gardens I polluted with cherry pits…

So today, as somebody – and abroad, there is always such somebody -- addresses to me their dislikes of present Russian politicians or of past communist regime, I say, Sorry, can’t help it. I am not responsible for those. If you want to speak about Chekhov, or about Russian food, or about ordinary Russians, I am at your service. For the rest, direct your quarries elsewhere. Yes, I would say as much. Like I said, I am relentless.

With that, I think I’m going to have a bowl of sour cherries now.

[My Dear Reader, please take my apologies for not offering you any recipe today; I am still recovering after my birthday pizza marathon. Four of us – Cortney, Martijn, Katharina, and I -- we had five pizzas in a space of one sunny evening, on a bench by the best Italian pizzeria in Amsterdam. For those of you who may be interested, the place is called da Portare Via, which is on Leliegracht 34. Before I forget, did I tell you I burnt my tongue when dealing with pizza number five, Quattro Formaggi, the one with four smelly cheeses atop? Cheese, it seems, is going to be the story of my life.]


toni said...

Happy Birthday, Anya! (Belated, but still heartfelt.)

I love, love, love this post! I love your memories and how you relate to your childhood self. And the details of spitting cherry pits. For you, those memories are Russia, but reading them I was back in our childhood home on Long Island.

And yes - you come from the land of Chekov, and Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky, just as I come from the land of Mark Twain and Tenessee Williams and William Faulkner - not just the land of George Bush! (Thank heavens THOSE days are over!!)

Anna said...

happy birthday! it's a big one. sending you a warm gooey chocolate cake from seattle...

anya said...

Toni - thanks! The fact that my memories reminded you of your own memories proves once again that, nationalities aside, we are all human.

Anna - thank you, thank you, thank you! A big 'warm gooey chocolate cake' for a big birthday! Yay! :)

Tiina said...

Many Happy Returns, Anya! And be proud of who you are! As a belated virtual birthday present I would like to share with you the pastries you see on the plate in the second picture on my latest post on my blog! Half of them are yours!:)