This time I didn't want to leave Russia. It's all rather interesting, you see, because when I go there I habitually count the days -- and then feel very guilty about it -- until I'm finally on the plane back to fairy-tale Amsterdam, away, away, away. Of course this time I counted the days too, but only because I wanted none of them to end. And that, dear Reader, came to me as a surprise of the size of an elephant, no, a jumbo jet.
We started our Russian vacation in the south where I'm from. We hadn't yet boarded our flight, but I was already rolling my eyes and warning Anthony about Shakhty's limited number of sights: four main streets, an obligatory Lenin stature (every city and town in Russia has one) and a green park (that goes by the name The Park of Culture and Relaxation). What else is there to see? Maybe that newly rebuilt church, its walls whiter than white, that once was wiped out (the Bolsheviks) and the plot converted into a tram depot? What else? Overgrown playgrounds, and beat-up buses, and heavily dented roads, perhaps?
We landed in Rostov-Don at midnight. When the air suddenly turns into velvet -- sultry, fragrant, green velvet -- you know you are in the southern Russia. I always forget how luscious and scented the late spring there can be, in fact, alway is. My parents met us at the airport, and off with a taxi we went to Shakhty. You can rely on me to arrive with a bang, by which I mean I'm such a idiot. I managed to lose my phone when the taxi driver stopped to fill up on gas and we had to get out of the car and my phone slipped off my lap and none of us heard it drop on the gravel. The next morning, ratracing our steps, my mother and I again took a taxi and went to the gas station in question. The phone lay untouched (!) on the ground, only by then it had been run over by a fleet of cars. I'm such an idiot! Or was it an early misfortune for the fortune later? And what fortune that was, Reader! Our week and a half in Shakhty was a ton of fun, and cake, and family dinners, not to mention sun, and short-sleeve weather, and more food!
I'm loving it, Anthony didn't fail to say every day. Russia may be rough arounds the edges, but there is something so charming about it. Like that colorful make-shift stage next to my parents' apartment block where, back in the 80s, children could act out their performances, only by now the benches for spectators were almost all long gone, the rusty thills in their place fully consumed by grass. Or that iron play house where I kicked it as a child, it still stands there hiding now under the canopy of trees. And that old man's little patch of soil next to the rusty garage fenced off by the bushes of tea roses the color of the fire engine and filled to the brim with garden plants, each row a geometric line. And what about my grandparents' next-door neighbour who turned her patch into an open-air exhibition of garden statuary, that is, if one can call statuary the swan figurines made of frayed car tires. All those things I had, worryingly, overlooked but Anthony took notice of. And you said there is nothing to see!
Did I mention that neither of my parents speak English -- although my father did extraordinarily good this past year in regards of mastering the ABC's of English grammar and the beginner's vocabulary -- and Anthony is only starting on his textbook Learn Russian the Fast and Fun Way? What would they do when I wasn't there? I don't know if you can tell, but I was worried about that too. Indeed, what would they do? Here is what: they would watch The '80s: The Decade That Made Us on National Geographic, the Russian voice-over for my father and the English original in the background for Anthony. They say vodka connects people? I say television! (There also were Goodfellas and Rambo: First Blood Part II.)
My seventy-eight-year-old grandfather outdid everybody on the language front. I mean, he cracked everybody up when he limped towards Anthony and, combining his microscopic knowledge of German with even smaller expertise in English, introduced himself as the gross father. We all bursted out in laughter, each probably giggling for different reasons. I chuckled from the realization that we were together at the time, and it was all that mattered, god damn the unswept side-streets, and dented roads, and other such things! My favorite moment every day was sitting down across the open balcony in the living room after everybody had gone to sleep and, one lung-ful after another of the sullen and soft air filled with the scent of acacia blossom, find comfort in the fact that Anthony snoozed in one room and my parents in another, and for the time being I didn't have to miss either.
I'm not even going to start on the food we had had. It's the subject for another post or two or three. We sat down for a full-scale dinner -- zakuski, first course, main, and desert -- every night. One thing Anthony thought could be bad, or mediocre in the least, was Russian food -- and this I don't know where he got from! -- but it only took him a day to fall head over heels with the local fare. Stay tuned!
On our last night in Shakhty we all went to a restaurant to celebrate my mother's birthday. We sat down and raised our glasses, and then a band started playing and a red-faced woman the shape of a watermelon from the table next to ours ran up to Anthony, grabbed him by his shirt, and swirled him into a dance. Don't scare him, mom said rushing after her. Let me dance with a foreigner!, cried the red-faced woman the shape of a watermelon. Rough around the edges but charming.
Next afternoon we flew to Moscow -- the city of 24/7 everything: weight loss clinics and breweries next door (!) -- to see my uncle's family. When we weren't at my uncle's devouring the crayfish he expertly cooked in a heavily salted broth with dill and bay leaf, and washing it down with beer, we walked.
I sprained my foot and it swelled, but we walked on! We did the obligatory saunter around Red Square, and through Kitay-Gorod, and down the Boulevard Ring. We took a boat ride along the Moskva river and saw beautiful things like the new Cathedral of Christ the Savior that had been demolished by the Bolsheviks and in its place came a public swimming pool.
One late evening we returned to Red Square to see it in the lights, and it was special. By which I mean there were hundreds of people and more flash lights coming off every second wherever you looked, and yet somehow I found myself standing there a few meters off the stone gate leading to Red Square and there was not a soul around me, a soft breeze the only disturbance. It felt quiet and comfortable, as if the whole world just folded itself up and I had nothing to do other than to feel the breeze in my face, and look at the colorful onion domes of Saint Basil's Cathedral on the horizon, and at Anthony ahead of me taking pictures with the enthusiasm of an American who finds himself at Red Square. And I felt very glad about where I was and where I'd just been. As if there were cracks in me, and now, for an instant, I was whole. I remember saying to myself: Please do not forget this moment. A second later -- hundreds of voices around me again and even more thoughts.
I've been thinking about that moment everyday since. But most of all, I've been thinking how I can't wait to go back.