Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Craziest Weekend You'll Never Have

But wow - i totally did. It started off around 9am on Friday morning...

...

wait. I just want to preface this with a promise of brevity. I don't know that i'll succeed in fulfilling this promise, but maybe having promised it i'll try harder to condense my ramblings.

----Part 1----
--Twilit Pizza--

So like i said: My weekend really started on Friday morning at 9am when i went to volunteer at a different school (school 90) until 1pm.

I met two of the students from the other school in front of my school - then we made our way onto the tram. The tram took a little while and we popped off a little past the furthest i'd walked into town.

It had snowed on Thursday night, so there was still a little around, but it had already started to melt. :-( I don't know that i'll see all the snow i thought i would at this point, but a guy can hope, can't he? Maybe if it snows all day tomorrow and Tuesday?

So anyways .... we got to the school and i did my thing. There was an entire class-full of students crammed into one room (probably about 20 of them) and we had a question and answer session that lasted for about 40 minutes. After that we went to another classroom where they were discussing Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and i chimed in every now and then when asked.

After that I switched teachers (Lena was the original) and answered questions for a classroom full of 5th (i think?) graders. Most of those questions involved the kids asking a question they remembered out of their textbooks, and then frowning a bit when i answered. I did get the feeling like they understood a lot, but it certainly wasn't all. (they were just kids after all!)

So after that i had lunch in the school cafeteria (rice and strogonoff, two waters called "compote" because they have fruit in them, and some bread) and then went to a question and answer session with the eleventh grade class. We ran out of questions eventually, though, so it got a little quiet.

There was one girl who was really interested in Brazil because she would like to go there and to learn Portuguese, so she had lots of questions about that :-)

I tried to leave my contact info for anyone who wanted it - i like the idea that even though i'm going home on Sunday, i can keep helping kids expand their knowledge of the world around them (and how to communicate with it) until they get bored of me :-)

So I left the school around 1 and walked back to school 27, which took about 40-odd minutes. As i was arriving, i met up with the little girl that i mentioned before. This was no big deal until i walked into the building and met with the students i was going to a movie with. At that point I said "ok, i have to go now - we're leaving" and she refused to let go of me. I tried being stern, but that didn't work, so i figured we'd walk up to Tatiana's room and maybe she could help. I don't know that Tatiana understood what i was asking, or maybe she figured i should get myself out of my own mess, but either way it didn't work.

We talked for a little bit about the other school, then i headed down/was dragged by the little girl back downstairs and out the building. We met back up with the people that i was going to the movie with (Anya, Andrei, and Irina - not hostmom Irina) and I tried again to get the little girl to go to class, all to no avail.

We all crossed the street to the trolley and i continued on to the other side of the street - the girl lives on that side, so i figured i could ask her to head home and cross back over to the tramvai. No dice. She *refused* to let go and was making a REALLY big commotion - i was convinced that people would think i was her dad and was just abandoning her on the street.

In fact, i started to think that that had happened because i started feeling people looking at me and hearing people speaking loudly. It took a second to realize that the people speaking loudly were doing so at the little girl - it was a gaggle of girls and they all seemed to know the little girl. They hurried over and tried prying her off me - and once they had succeeded i ran to the middle of the street to get on the tramvai which was just arriving.

From inside the tramvai which i believed would never start moving, i watched with no small amount of terror as the girls eventually relinquished their grip, and the little girl started trying to cross the road. The doors eventually closed, and as the tramvai trundled away i watched the girls leading the young girl away from the road and (hopefully) home.

I really don't know what to do in the future with this girl. I really feel bad for her, and i think maybe that she's placed some of her missing of her parents onto me. I think maybe i need to be a mean person the next time i see her, but that might just make things worse ... i hope that when i leave she just forgets about me entirely - i've only been here a little while, so maybe.

So anyways: we went to the movies.

We got off of the tramvai and got onto another one (in the "center" of town) which took us over the river, through the woods, past grandmother's house, and deposited us past a planted forest (fake trees! fake trees!) and somewhere around Moscow. (j/k)

We walked the rest of the way to the movie theater - dodging puddles and mud as best we could. This wasn't really possible, though, so it was kindof like trying to dodge bullets. Big, wet, dirty bullets that people drive through and splash you with right after you jumped over the last one.

We eventually got to the mall we were going to (about a 5 minute walk) and stomped our boots through the front doors. It was a very pretty mall, with a giant clock in the middle on the floor - you have to see the pic :-)

We went up and bought our tickets to Twilight (yes, Twilight - i won't say it again and you won't repeat it to and of my male friends) and decided to walk about the mall since we had about 40 minutes before the movie. We dropped off our coats at the coat room (yes coat room - they're everywhere... probably something about the sub-infinity degrees they usually have in the winter here)

The plan was actually to go to the supermarket which was accessible through the mall, but we couldn't actually remember how to do that, so "walking about" is what we did.

Eventually we found the way to the store and proceeded to ... gawk at the empty shelves. I guess they hadn't re-stocked yet after some major bigwig threw a huge kegger or something. We never found out why the shelves were empty, but after everyone but me grabbed a juice, we all headed back up.

I made a pit stop on the way, and the only reason i mention it is this: I followed about 50 feet of signs for the bathroom through a small service corridor.

It's not actually very funny. You can just forget that you read that. It was funny when i popped out from the bathroom and waved to my peeps from across the mall, but now ... well ... just pretend i said something funny, but you can't remember what.

Andrei also tried to go up the down escalator, and not on purpose, but i think i've regaled you with enough "funnier if you were there" moments. ;-)

So we get up to the movie theater (call Very Velly ... maybe a play on the mispronounced V? Wery Welly? But that doesn't make sense either unless they meant Very Welly ... ... have you fallen asleep yet?)

I made my way to the concession stand and figured we'd order a big popcorn to share ... ah! There's a combo! Big popcorn and big soda! Oh wait, but i also want to have a beer ... HOLY MOLY! There's Brahma! Why is there a Brazilian beer i can't even find in Phoenix here in Izhevsk?! OK ok, so let's see - Brahma, Soda, Popcorn ... wait - it's only a little more for two sodas ... somebody will want one!

So Anya helps me order, and we walk away from the concession stand with two large sodas, a beer in a plastic cup, and a tub of popcorn. Irina stifled a laugh and said (in the kindest way possible) "Now, you look very American."

We sat down in our seats (you choose them when you buy your tickets ... me likey!) just in time for the previews. Everything was in Russian, except for one thing:

"The following preview..." blah blah blah. But then the preview itself was in Russian! They totally got my hopes up! Grr. It was for a movie about Igor - animated ... looked Tim Burtony.

NEways - the movie was ... well ... i don't know that i missed much by not understanding most of it, but it was good listening practice! (and no, no subs) I will tell you that i understood one very deep and meaningful line, though:

"Sex ... money ... sex ... cat ..."

Now you must watch it, or you will forever wonder what the hell that means.

So the credits scrolled and we marched out of the theater, past the doors that said "Push to exit" in Russian AND English, and back out into the mall. Pretty soon we were out in the cold, then on a bus, then at our final destination... Pizza Hut.

Now it's at this point in the story that i have to ask all readers who have NOT had the good sense to watch Demolition Man to please come to their senses and do so. Immediately.

We'll wait here.

...

...

Go ahead, then! Those "..."s were meant to give you time! You weren't just supposed to read them and be on your merry way through the next block of text!

Heathen.

Anyway, assuming you'll know what i'm talking about (lord knows i gave you enough time to watch the movie three times over just now) the Pizza Hut in Izhevsk was akin to the Taco Bell in Demolition Man. There was a Maitre D'. There were facy tables. There were fancy walls. There were fancy prices.

It was the Mother of all Pizza Huts. There were even HOT WINGS. I didn't try them, becuase there were 3 for 6 dollars or something like that, but they were there. (EDIT: This is no big deal in the States, but this is the first and only time i've seen wings here. I mean, i don't think they even have buffaloes ...)

It was about a minute after we sat down that my phone rang. I should mention that before we got to the movie, i got a call from Dima, (one of my friends here) and he explained that Oleg would pick me up to go fishing not tomorrow, but tonight. "Oh" i said ... "i thought we were going tomorrow?" Dima told me that we would be leaving at some point tonight and then when we got back tomorrow, he and his wife Katya would like to have me over to her parents' house in the country and to a Russian banya.

I've been told several times that before i leave Russia, i have to go to a Russian banya, or bath house. I excitedly replied "Hells yeah!" And then my phone died.

My phone dies a lot. If cats have nine lives, my phone has 9 cats per day. It's recockulous.

Flash forward again to when my phone has just enough battery for me to pick up the phone and hear Oleg say "Are you ready to go?"

Flash back a day, and i was telling Irina (my hostmom) that i would be glad to talk with her friend's son Vlad, who was an 11th grader at a different school.

Sensing imminent doom (or at least that sinking promise-breaking feeling) I agreed to swap my SIM card into Anya's phone to try calling Oleg back. Anya played translator on two phone calls immediately after that. One confirming that Oleg and his friend Boris would pick me up at Pizza Hut, and the other telling Irina that i would be home at eight for five minutes to pick up my stuff and then i'd be gone.

This was NOT going as planned.

The Hawaiian pizza arrived, we ate our fill, (except for Irina-not-hostmom who didn't want pizza) and i unwittingly sentenced myself to 24 hours of stomach problems. And not the kind that are really good to have when you're going out of town to a hunting lodge, if you catch my meaning.

Oleg met me outside of the Pizza Hut at around 8pm and walked me over to the car we would be driving in - Eva. Eva was being piloted (and i don't use the word loosely) by Boris. We stopped off at my host family's apartment and i ran inside to get my stuff for the trip.

My host mom had warned me to bring the warmest clothes i had, and basically to wear them all. "You don't know cold" is basically how her warning translated. I started apologizing as soon as the door opened, and Vlad and i talked briefly while i packed my backpack and put on some more layers. We figured on meeting some time before i left, then i headed out the door as everyone said goodbye and wished me luck on my adventure :-)

The car sped off into the road and we were on our way.

----Part 2----
--Boy's Night Out (aka "Fishing") and the Problem of Passarat--

I want to re-iterate that word: sped. I want to re-iterate it because i want you to understand that when i say we careened down the streets of Izhevsk, I'm not just being flip. (which is something we thankfully did not do) Boris is by no means a bad driver, in fact he's a very good driver. So zipping down the roads and past traffic with sharp turns and fast changes wasn't a big deal to him - just me, who sat wide-eyed (except when they were clamped shut) and slack jawed (except when yelping in surprise) in the back of the car.

We took a route that followed along Izhevsk pond, and struck off to the north-east. We stopped first in a store to pick up some necessities. By necessities i mean a rotisserie chicken, 2 bottles of water, kielbasa, cheese, bread, and 2 bottles of vodka.

It was about when we were in line that i started thinking "Man ... i need to find a bathroom." I mentioned it to Oleg and he said the house wasn't too far from where we were. "No problem" i thought.

In about 5 minutes, there was a problem. I won't get too far into the details, but i think it's important to partially enlighten you: On the way to the house, there are train tracks. When you cross the train tracks, Oleg and Boris said that they have a tradition of drinking beer and waiting for the train to come, and then basically making a lot of noise as it passes by.

If you are offended by the word "bowel", skip the next three paragraphs.

Something i totally would find awesome and fun, but for the growing urgency with which i needed to make it to the house. "Screw it" i figured. "If there's an outhouse there, then the only difference between here and there is some wood." I grabbed the roll of TP which they had wisely bought at the store, grabbed a taplight that we were using as a flashlight, and stumbled off into the woods.

I sh!t you not (hahah) that five seconds after i'd found a spot and dropped trou, i saw Boris and Oleg hop into the car and drive off. Fortunately i'd heard one of them say "machina", which means "car", so i wasn't worried that they were ditching me. Unfortunately, they had said "machina", which means "car", and I was NOT that far from the road.

For the second time that night i though "screw it" and went about my business. When the car passed i hunkered down as best i could (in a bright red skiing jacket) and watched as the pool of light from the car passed just to the side of me at a (thankfully) brisk pace. "What the hell," i thought. "The worst that can happen is they see me and have some significant mental scarring for the rest of their lives."

OK, you can start reading again now.

I made my way back to the car (which was only a bit further down the road) and found Oleg and Boris both with beer in hand waiting for me. I handed back the flashlight, put away the TP, and cracked open a bottle of Baltika.

At this point it might be a good idea to point out that Oleg speaks very little English (though he's been speaking more and more of it every time we hang out) and Boris is at about the same place with his English skills. I also should remind the reader that I'm not exactly fluent in Russian. In point of fact, i think that Boris and Oleg may have had a leg up on me linguistically several times in the night.

The point is that all of our conversations took a lot of mimeing, mumbling, and a bit of swearing, but they were a hell of a lot of fun. We talked about Boris' past a little, and his family. We talked about my job, the crazy Russian weather we're having, and the day i leave for Moscow (Thursday) then home. (Sunday)

It was a very good time. (there are even pictures!)

After about 3 bottles each, we got back in the car and made our way the last mile or so to the place where we parked the car to walk the rest of the way. Basically it was a row of houses on the water, and Boris' was the 5th or so in.

As we started walking past the first house, a pair of dog-looking animals came out and started walking past and around us. "Wolves" joked Oleg. Or at least i hoped he was joking. I mean hey, some people keep alligators for pets - maybe these were like "dog wolves" or some craziness!

Round about the time i finished thinking that, my train of thought stopped at the next station, which was a little further down the line than it should have been.

"We bought a rotisserie chicken ... didn't we?" I asked as one of the dogs took a tentative nip at the bag Oleg was carrying.

"It's OK," Oleg said. "I know these dogs."

We walked along with the dogs keeping us company until we got to the house. Boris unlocked the gate and we walked in - the dogs were apparently a kind of fixture in the area, so there was no point in trying to keep them out. As we made it into the house, i snapped a shot of our company and found that they weren't ferocious wolf-dog-alligators at all, but long-haired Rottweiler mixes. (which were, btw, super freaking cute.)

Boris hit the switch on the main circuit to power the house and we went inside. The house consisted of 5 rooms on 2 floors. As I walked in, there was a dining area to my right with a table, which was next to a kitchen with a spare bed. To my left was a staicase leading up, and across from the staircase, a bedroom. Upstairs, there were two smaller rooms with beds as well which are used in the summer time.

As i took in the house, Boris had gotten out what looked like the thruster off the back of a small jet. This thruster was attached to a large tank of propane. This particular voluntourist was a bit flabbergasted.

Boris turned on the gas, cranked on the thruster (it had an ignitor) and a steady blast of heat started coming from the small red jet engine. It was pretty freaking awesome.

It didn't take long for the house to warm up while Oleg showed me around outside: Here's the old russian bath house, (you'll find out about these later) here a storage room, this is where you "Passat" (pee) and, (gesturing at the outhouse) here's where you "Passarat".

We went back inside and Oleg set about cutting up the meat and cheese, and nuking (yes, there was a microwave) the chicken.

Soon after, the drinking began. We all had one more beer to finish of the Baltika, but we didn't touch the other beer we had. We were too busy with the Vodka.

The vodka was, i believe, Taiga. As a general rule, i don't drink Vodka - not since the Vodka/Goldschlager/Tequila/Bathtub incident of '98. (no, i won't tell you unless you buy me beer) So it was with a grimace of anticipation that i poured our first shots, held up my glass, and sent the harsh liquid down the hatch.

Actually, it wasn't that bad. I think, though, that my recollection of the vodka was much improved by two things in reverse order of importance: pineapple juice chasers, and more vodka.

When we were about half way done with our food and drink we decided to head out and do some shooting. No, not with real guns - a pneumatic rifle that only shoots pellets. (you remember what happened the last time i had one of those, mom?)

We trooped outside and Boris set up a matchbox (A MATCHBOX) on the top of a fence about 15 yards away. Being the guest of honor (or because it would be funny) i went first. The rifle was pump action (no CO2) and had a scope on it. Shouldering the butt of the rifle, i took aim and plinked away a pellet into a very dark woods behind the fence. Oleg insisted on a second try, so i pumped the rifle, loaded a pellet, shouldered the rifle, and after taking a slightly lower bead on the matchbox, squeezed the trigger as gently as i could.

It goes without saying that i was very pleasantly surprised and extremely proud when that matchbox flew off the fence and plunked into the snow behind the fence.

It also goes without saying that one should never put one's eye right up to the scope of a rifle, because that sh!t will recoil like a mofo and smack you straight in the face. And so it was with a red tear of joy that i went trotting after the matchbox to show off the neat little hole i'd made from 15 yards away.

Remember that time i smacked my forehead on the corner of a shelf a week or so before the wedding? Well now that mark has a slowly fading brother just above my left eye.

::sigh::

Needless to say, i cared not a wit about my new injury, and we shot at the matchbox, a stick of wood, and the top of a can for at least an hour after that.

After all that work, we obviously needed some food and drink, so we all headed back in to finish what was left... and finish it we did.

By the time i collapsed into bed, it was around 1 or 2 am, almost all the food was gone, and all but two shots were left of the two bottles of vodka Boris and Oleg had bought. (they refused when i offered to pay them back)

Now there's one interesting thing that i've found out about drinking here - when you drink a lot, you crack open a bottle of pickle juice and take a drink before you go to sleep to fight off a hangover. I don't know if it worked for sure, but i certainly had no hangover when i woke up in the morning.

We had woken up late (i was supposed to be back by 10am to meet Dima and Katya) so we hurriedly ate some mandarin oranges, drank some juice and water, and headed out. Oleg and i went first while Boris stayed behind to clean/lock-up the house.

"Hm," i thought. "Maybe the outhouse wouldn't be a bad idea JIC."

Of course, why would i listen to myself? That would be crazy!

So Oleg and i went off and took some pictures of the lake on our way to the car. The car that wouldn't start. Well, not for about 15 minutes anyway! Finally Oleg managed to get her cranking and kept Eva from stalling when idle.

I was officially starting to think i should head back to the outhouse ... like NOW ... so i offered to find Boris, who still hadn't arrived. I started trucking down the path, wondering why i'd waited so long, and thinking "If i hurry, he'll still be there." So of course i wasn't the least bit surprised when i ran into Boris a little further down the path.

"OK, we're late, so i can wait it out" I thought to myself.

We piled into the car, and Boris let us know that we would be taking a passenger with us into town. An old man got into the car and I spent so much time focusing on not thinking about when i could "go" that i completely missed the opportunity to talk to him.

It was kinda funny though, when Boris told him to put his seat belt on, and the man started putting the lap belt across his lap, and the chest strap behind his back. I'm not sure, but it may have been his first time putting on a seat belt.

This time i was extremely glad that we were in a hurry. Every building we passed became a target of my attention as i focused on two things: Finding a toilet, and excusing the abruptness with which i would demand a quick stop.

Fortunately (in hind sight) no such opportunity arose. We dropped the older gentleman off at a bus stop in town, and a few turns later we were at the store where we were supposed to meet Dima and Katya.

I knew we were in a hurry, and i knew that Dima and Katya would be able to take me back to the apartment before we went off, (even though i had the sinking feeling that it was out of the way) but i couldn't wait.

"Oleg, minha nujna toilet."

"Dima and Katya take you you home."

"No no, minha NUJNA toilet, seechahss."

A perplexed look. "You walk a little and go...?"

"No no, passarat." A desperate look.

"Ahhh..."

I can imagine being in his shoes - toilets aren't everywhere, and we would have run into the same problem in the US. If you stop at a random corner in a city, half the places are only for customers and the other are only for employees.

I started pointing at every shop that looked big enough: "Tam?" (there?)

We started walking off toward some shops and i started feeling better, but by the third shop or so it was a bit worse, and on top of that, i could no longer curl up in the fetal position in the car.

Oleg popped into an internet club and explained the situation to the girl, who kinda laughed, nodded, and pointed at the door that said "Toilet." I'm pretty sure that Oleg said more than "do you have a toilet" but at that point i didn't really care.

I charged into the room ... where was the paper?? Walking back out i asked "do you have paper?" "Shto?" (what?)

... oh man ... what's the damn word for paper?!?!?! Thankfully my mind and eyes were in perfect health, so i spotted some paper (certificates on the wall) and pointed.

"Please God, don't let her think i want to borrow the certificate or see their bathroom service record ..."

The girl got me right off and said "bumagi?" "Yeah! Bumagi!" (please God, let it be bumagi ... it SOUNDS familiar ... WHY DIDN'T I LEARN FROM YEKATERINBURG?!)

She hurried off to the back room and came back with a roll of (allelujah) TP, and I (allelujah) hurried off into the bathroom.

When i came back out the girl had another girl with her and they were chatting. I was more than a little embarrassed as i handed her the paper and said "spahceeba," then turned quickly and walked as unabashedly as i could out the door.

It's at about this point that i developed a kind of motto for myself: "What the hell, why bother being embarrassed?" I mean realistically, every time i went somewhere (with a few exceptions) i would likely never see the people there again. Even assuming that i do go back to Izhevsk some day, what are the odds that a random person in a random store would remember me? So really, why bother being embarrassed about anything?!

When i got outside i saw Dima and Katya talking with Boris by his car, with Oleg close by. I'm not sure if i blushed, but laughs were shared and we struck off in Dima and Katya's car. I explained that i had to go back to the apartment first, because i had to get my phone. I'd left it charging at the apartment because i hadn't expected there to be outlets at the fishing/summer house.

I wanted to be able to call Irina or at least leave a note telling her that we got a late start, and that the only way i could go to a Russian banha (due to time constraints) was if we arrived between 8 and 10pm. This wouldn't normally be a problem, but we'd arranged to go to her parents' house around 5, which was a whole hour after i was originally supposed to be back with Dima and Katya.

We turned one street early and ended up at a dead end about 50 feet from the building where i'm living, so i jumped out and raced home from there. Once home, i quickly changed, grabbed a towel for the banha, my phone to call Irina, and my camera charger just in case.

As i headed out the door and locked it I started dialing Irina's mobile number, trying to figure out exactly how to tell her why i couldn't make it on time in Russian.

"Allo?"

"Uh, hello? Irina? It's Christian ..."

Not the smoothest of starts, but every conversation has to take off from somewhere. I got into Dima's car and closed the door as i started blurting out the half English and half Russian which has become kind of a norm with Irina and Sergei.

Irina understood what i was saying faster than i would have, and we hung up.

I looked at Dima and said "OK, let's do this!" And with that we were off to the country.

----PART 3----
--Good Place, Good People, Good Golly It's Hot in this Banha--

The car ride took about 30 minutes - not really so horrible. ... Well, on any other day when i wasn't suffering from "Pizza Hut's Revenge" it wouldn't have been too horrible. Also, there was the whole "beer before liquor" (never been sicker) thing from the night before ...

So maybe overall just not a great time to be in a car for 30 minutes.

About halfway through the ride the "beer before liquor" factor started kicking in and i asked Dima to crack the windows a little. The cool air made me feel a bit better, but the fact that i had my mouth practically IN the space between the door frame and the window made it a little difficult to talk.

This, of course, gave me plenty of time to think about how i would probably always be remembered in Izhevsk as "that sick American".

We pulled off of the main road onto a smaller one and stopped at a store so that Katya could pick up some food. As she went in the store, my insides started reminding me that now that my nausea had passed, it was about time to move back to paying attention to other matters. Like finding a bathroom.

I asked Dima as nonchalantly as i could (read: not at all) about whether there might be a lavatory in the store. He said no, but that the house wasn't too far. Anyone who's ever had stomach issues knows that "not too far" to the next bathroom is always going to feel like "way too !@#$ing far" by the time you get there. But i figured we'd burn that bridge when we got there.

Katya came out a bit later with the supplies (i eyed the package of kolbasa greedily) and we got back into the car.

The directions to Katya's house play back something like this in my head:

Turn off the highway of nausea and make your way onto a small, rustic road. Pass the store of incontinence on your left and go through a small country town. On your right, you'll see an old school that's been turned into a discotheque - make a left soon after that onto an unpaved road. Make another right, follow along for a bit, and come to a stop.

The reason you come to a stop at that particular point has nothing to do with arriving at the house. It has to do with what happens to an unpaved road with no gravel when the snow melts and the water has its way with the earth.

If you're not quite sure what i'm getting at, it's mud. A lot of mud. Anyone who's ever lived in a rural area knows what "mud you don't want to drive through" looks like - and that's what we were facing.

We only got about 20 feet in before our suspicion that the small 2-wheel drive car might get stuck became a reality. Katya and i got out to push.

The first step into the morass (if i could ever use that word and feel justified, it's right now) was fine. "No problem," i thought "I just have to watch my footing."

It was around when i thought the word "footing" to myself that my second step found one of the places where i should not have put my second step. My foot sank into the mud up to the top of my boots - which put it at about half-way up my calf. No mean feat considering my height.

With a bit of effort and a slightly disturbing slurping sound, my foot came out of the soggy mess i'd gotten it into. Laughing a bit to myself as i unstuck myself and investigated my new brown jeans, i started toward the back of the car.

After a few good shoves and a near faceplant into the mud (as my feet decided to check out the ground behind me instead of beneath me) we got the car going again ... 3 feet. Into some more mud.

We walked up again and started shoving, but to no avail. Dima asked us to get to the front of the car and he would try to reverse. Went off in my head, but i grabbed a desperate hold of my new motto "What the hell" and got in front of the car with Katya.

We pushed and shoved the car while Dima reversed but nothing happened. OK, well, not nothing. At one point the gas pedal went down a little further, the tires spun a little faster, and the mud flew a little higher. Time switched into slow motion as i realized that i was about to take part in a scene from some ridiculous comedy film.

The first glob of mud to hit me was probably somewhere on my jeans or my jacket, but the first one that i felt was the one that splatted itself on my forehead - just above the right eye, and halfway up my "Hooters" beanie.

Yes. I have a "Hooters" beanie.

Yes. I brought it to Russia.

No. I am not entirely ashamed of my gringovity.

(ok, maybe a little)

ANYWAYS. Getting back to the story: As i said, my beanie and forehead were now host to a quickly warming blob of cold mud. After the initial shock where Katya and I took in what had just happened we broke into a gail of laughter that almost made my new bath worth it.

"Banha," she said.

"Oh yeah. Definitely banha," i responded as we got back to work shoving.

The car wouldn't budge regardless of what we did. We tried shoving, rocking, cursing, (shown to work occasionally) and God knows what else, but no luck.

Katya called her parents to ask if they had something that i couldn't understand, let alone pronounce, but that i assumed would help us to get out of the mud. (something you shove under the tire, maybe?)

Unfortunately, her parents weren't at home. Fortunately, this was because they were just getting back from somewhere, and pulled up near us (but not stuck) within a minute or two.

After a hello and a laugh at my new fashion sense, Katya's mom wondered aloud about how my jeans were dragging on the ground (oh, so haute couture of me) and suggested that i roll them up. I've learned a lot in Russia. One of the things i've learned is that regardless of whether you're in the States or in Russia, when a mother "suggests" something, it's not because you have the option of not doing it. ;-) Katya said that it was too late, and her mother replied "It's never too late." (both were in Russian, but i'm 90% sure on the translation)

I half-heartedly rolled up my jeans (trying not to cover my hands in mud as well) and heard Katya's mom telling her to walk me up to the house while they took care of the car.

Normally i'd argue to stay and help, but between my desire to be polite and the now returning feeling that i should get to the house (and bathroom) sooner than later, we struck off across the field to the house. It was really hilarious how close we were, actually. The portion of the road we were on actually went out another 20 yards, turned left, went about 40 yards, turned left again, and went another 25 yards to the house.

If you're not catching what i'm saying here, we got stuck about 40-odd yards from the house. SO CLOSE!

The field we crossed was pretty frozen and we got to the house within just a few minutes. Katya's incredibly cute puppy, Lyma, was waiting as we went in the front gate. We got into the house, (leaving shoes outside, of course) Katya found me some temporary pants, and showed me where the bathroom was.

Soon after we were all seated in the kitchen of Katya's parents house playing the "feed the guest" game. I love this game. It starts with me being asked if i want to try something, and ends with me being completely stuffed.

I swear - i have no idea how i'm not 30 pounds heavier with all the incredible food i ate while i was in Russia. At Katya's parents' house, we had soup, salad, kolbasa, compote, (water with crushed fresh fruit = hella yummy) etc etc etc etc etc.

Dima asked if i wanted to walk around and get pictures before it got dark (which it does around 4:30pm) and i quickly agreed, if only to get some time to digest before the main dish was served.

We found me a new pair of boots (mine had been hosed down and were drying) and I swore that it was no problem - they would totally fit. They were the largest boots they had at any rate, so there wasn't much option. My feet are about 12 and a half to 13, depending on the shoe. These were NOT 13-size boots. I don't even think they were 12. As i jammed my feet into my new footwear i couldn't help but feel like i was having my feet wrapped ancient Chinese style.

We walked around the house and Dima and Katya showed me a bit of the property. The house had been built by Katya's father ("hand-made" was our word of the day) and the property around it was basically a small farm. We walked over to the far side of the house and over to a long wooden box which was raised off the ground and had a number of small wire mesh doors all along. Inside this long box were a number of adorable, fluffy, cute bunnies. AKA, the main plate for dinner tonight.

I held one of the cute bunnies and tried not to think about whether not i was hungry as i put it back. A comedy bit about "cute animals" came to mind:

"What are you?"
"I'm an otter."
"And what do you do?"
"I swim around on my back and play and do cute human things!"
"You can go."

"And what are you?"
"I'm a cow."
"Get on the truck."

Across from the fluffy bunny kennel there was another one-floor building which wrapped around toward the house a little bit. The segment of this building which was closest to the road was the garage, followed by a storage room where all the wood was kept.

I should elaborate a little on this room, because even though it's something that i'm sure exists in many places, it was the first time that i've ever seen a room filled entirely with logs of wood. I mean, we're talking at least ten feet from wall to wall, and 14 feet to the ceiling, and it was ALL WOOD. This was when the "hand-made" thing started to really kick in for me. This wood wasn't purchased - it was cut and stored. Of course there was probably help, but it's not like they went down to the local Costco, picked up a couple of logs of pretreated wood and a few bricks of Firestarters. It was really quite humbling.

From there we passed the banha (since i'd be going there later) and went into the last part of the building - the petting zoo. OK, it wasn't actually a petting zoo, but there were chickens, geese, and even a goat. I mean, this may not sound too crazy to anyone who's ever lived on a farm, but to a city slicking suburbanite like me, it was pretty wild. (especially the geese. heh heh ... get it? wild geese? wild goose chase? hah hah ... hah ... ::ahem::)

The next and last stop was the root cellar. I've never actually been in one of these, and i'm not even sure that i'm calling it the right thing. From the outside it looked like a house buried in the ground. There was a large mound in the soil as if a giant had been buried there, with what looked like a neck coming out of the ground and ending in a door. We opened the door and walked in slowly. It wasn't exactly sunny outside and we were going into a lightless tunnel, so looking forward all i could see were a few hints of steps and a black maw of nothingness beyond what seemed to be the square shape of a door frame.

It's not that i'm afraid of the dark - i just prefer the light. Chuckling a bit at this "preference" but otherwise without a second thought, i proceeded first down the steps toward the void below. The tunnel was steep and the ceiling very low - it was almost as small as those little short-range planes i get on sometimes. ... almost. The benefit here was that there were no annoying television screens for me to duck under.

The bottom was about 12 steps down (enough to be sober at the bottom, hah hah) and was not quite as unfathomably dark by the time i got down there. Well, at least it was light enough that i could see what looked like another step just beyond the door frame with absolutely nothing beyond that. After a moment's hesitation and a bleak imagining of what might happen if i was wrong about what lay below, i stepped solidly onto the ground i had hoped would be below the last step.

After a second or two of looking around in total darkness, i looked up the tunnel to see Katya following me down ... much more confidently, of course. She reached just inside the door frame and turned on the electric light. I was in a room about 20 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 8 or 9 feet high - enough that i had no need at all to duck.

The walls were lined with large wooden bins that went almost all the way to the middle of the room, leaving about a 2 foot corridor between them where you could walk. They were FILLED with foods that had been stockpiled for the winter. The most prominent were the potatoes, but there were also sacks with other veggies within the bins. On the walls there were several jars of jams, pickles, etc. When i say that almost everything i ate while i was in Russia was home made, i really mean it.

After a few more moments looking around, i turned back to the (now very bright!) tunnel and started back up.

While we had been in the house i had mentioned that the night before we'd been playing around with a pneumatic rifle. Katya's dad had one at the house, so Dima, Katya, and I took turns shooting at a big plastic bottle full of water.

After about 15 minutes, Katya's mom called us in for dinner, so we abandoned our sharpshootery (it's a word, now) and went on in. Dinner was delicious and consisted of potato puree, rabbit, salad, and a bunch of other things including some delicious compote. (water with fruit)

After we'd all had our fill (Katya's mom is a wonderful cook) we sat around talking for a while and looked at some pictures of Katya's family. It was Katya's mother's oldest brother's birthday, and they would be heading over to see him soon, which is i think why they had the pics out. Katya went ahead to the banha and not too long after that Dima followed and told me that when Katya came back it would be my turn to head into the banha.

A few minutes after Dima had left, Katya came back and told me it was time to go. Before i left, though, she gave me a warning: "Don't be worried, but Russian banha no clothes."

Well i sure as hell wasn't going to back out now just because of a lack of clothing. I came to Russia to experience Russia, so my motto sprang to mind ("What the hell") and i walked out the door to the banha. It wasn't dark yet, so i had no problem making my way back around the house to the banha. I think i must have cursed my boots about 10 times walking around the house, because they felt even smaller than the first time i put them on.

I reached the banha, knocked, and went in. Inside was a room about 5 feet by 8 feet and around 7 feet tall. There were wooden benches along the wall opposite the entrance as well as the one to the right. There was also a naked Dima. Well, with the exception of a large hat whose function i'm still a little unclear on ... all i know is that it was tall and looked woolen, so that it looked like a fuzzy wizard's hat.

I disrobed and followed Dima into a door just to the side of the one i came in. The door was much smaller (so that i had to duck quite a bit) and led into what may have been one of the hottest steam rooms i've ever been in.

There was a bench to my left where there were several large ladles as well as a number of soaps and shampoos. On the floor in front of this bench there were two large buckets full of water and two wooden stools. The wall across from the door i'd come in had a large multi-tiered bench which stood about 4 feet high at its tallest point. Across from that (and directly to my right) was a huge, cylindrical metal furnace with a square outcropping on its right side.

Dima took a ladle of water from the square on the right side of the furnace (which was apparently for warming water) and tossed it into the furnace. The room became perceptibly hotter. Dima took another ladle and tossed it in. The room became really freaking hot. Dima asked if it was OK or if he should put more, and of course (because i'm crazy) i said "Go ahead one more time."

As the water on the last ladle was tossed into the furnace, (and i thought my flesh would melt) Dima told me to lie on the top-most level of the bench i'd mentioned earlier. He explained that this was because it was hottest there, since it was high up and directly across from the opening in the furnace.

"Hottest? I'm not sure if i can handle any hotter," i whined, then got up on the bench, where Dima told me to lie face down. As i lay down (and became convinced that my children would have an unexplainable dislike of heat) Dima picked up what looked like an old fashioned broom with a very short handle. The difference was mainly that the broom itself was made of branches with leaves on them. I seem to recall remembering at this point that i'd seen these before, and that the leaves were very fragrant. That was about 2 seconds before Dima started hitting me (not too hard) with the ... well ... whatever it was. When he was done, he handed me the contraption and i did my front.

After that we hung out for a little bit, then went back out into the changing room. Dima explained that you normally do this many times - go in, overheat, go out, cool down. We ended up going through this process about 3 times, then on the last time we stayed in the banha and Dima showed me what the buckets and benches were for.

We each sat down on a bench and used the soap, shampoo, etc to wash off, taking ladles of water from the buckets to rinse. Once we were done, we dumped the remaining water in the buckets over our heads to finish rinsing. After that we walked back out to the changing/waiting room, toweled off, hung out for a bit, then dressed and went back to the house.

When we got back, Katya's family had left to go to her mother's brother's house. I was sad about that because i'd wanted to say goodbye and thank you for all their kindness and generosity. Katya's father had even cleaned all my clothes to get all the mud off them!

We sat around and talked and drank tea and ate a little more, then watched their wedding DVD. I'm not sure how representative their wedding is of a "normal" Russian wedding, but it was certainly different than what would be considered a "normal" American wedding.

There was a small reception outside of the room where the wedding was to take place. Then everyone walked into the wedding room except the bride and groom. They walked in together once everyone was settled in and were married by what looked like a non-religious officiant. After that, there was another reception for everyone to shake hands and kiss and hug. The bride and groom went off to take pictures after that (with a LOT of photographers!) and eventually met what looked like just their family at a restaurant.

Not too long after the video had ended, we decided to try our luck with the car and mud and see if we couldn't make it back to Izhevsk. We gathered our things and got changed, then made our way out into the dark outside. I decided that this time i would roll my jeans up of my own accord before we left.

Saying goodbye to Lima, we locked up the house, turned off all the lights, and got into the car. We idled for a little while to let the car warm up, then started off into the mud. Thankfully, we didn't get stuck again ... until about the same spot as we'd gotten stuck the first time.

To the left of where we'd gotten stuck, there were two wooden beams on several concrete blocks to keep people from avoiding the mud by driving on the side of the road. We cleared those out of the way (rules? bah humbug!) and gave the car a good shove. Dima didn't stop the car until it was well safe of the mud, and Katya and i put the "road block" back up.

Still feeling wonderfully good after the banha, but officially exhausted from the weekend, I silently lamented that this was my last weekend in town as we rode off to Izhevsk. As we went, we passed a wedding party on one of the bridges that we drove over and Dima explained that there is a tradition of visiting/crossing seven bridges after the wedding for good luck.

We eventually got back to Izhevsk and i finally managed to guide Dima to the correct road to get me to the entrance of the apartment. When the car was stopped and everyone was out, i gave Dima and Katya hugs and thanks for everything they'd done, and asked them to please thank Katya's family for me as well.

Reluctantly i turned away and opened the door to the apartment building, waving goodbye again as i turned and walked in.

The weekend was by no means over, but i felt like i'd just had enough weekend to last me for a while. And i mean really, are your eyes even still working?

I definitely have to mention that on Sunday Irina and Sergey and I walked around downtown a little and went to the zoo, then we went to Irina's parents' house and i was ridiculously well fed again. I also had the pleasure of Irina's parents' company - they're really great people!

Pictures of most of what you've read here can be found at my Picasa site - link on the right side of the page. (as well as right here)

OK, that's enough writing for now. Next stop on the blog train? My last day in Izhevsk and two days in Moscow!

2 comments:

Sydni said...

Wow, the mother of all pizza huts! Awesome. The hot wings are not an anomaly though. Pizza Hut and Wing Stop combined a few years ago and now most Pizza Huts have a variety of wing offerings.

Can't that little girl's teacher do something about her clinging problem?

Christian said...

Response to wings above, but i most definitely appreciate the trivia bit :-D

And yeah, Tatiana's advice was to go with a stern "No." (which i've thus far been SO effective at)

No worries, it'll all work out :)