Here we go. I’m sitting composed and excited about this first of the new Blogs, sipping a Guinness Stout and looking out one of the windows at the dacha as I start composing this first real entry in the revised Lynn Blog. We have morphed from talk of the Kazakh Oil Patch to Dacha Life in the Urals and other interesting things that will be unearthed as we move forward.
Tales from Toraphonic
Toraphonic is a mythical place and a real place. In reality it means burning ground. The Scots call toraphonic peat. Toraphonic is also a micro region on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg that is the cradle of local dacha life. For those who want the comforts of a dacha close to town, Toraphonic is an area holding several dacha communities geared (now) to a variety of life styles and pocket books. Who would have thunk it! Dachas for rich folks (nice cabins that would rival domiciles in the Boulder, CO foothills and places like “Village Iset” where my in laws have their place. This would be an “economy class” dacha community, complete with a property manager who is usually knocked out on vodka. Dachas have evolved since the collapse of the Soviet system and truly accommodate the needs and tastes of all economic strata. From protected gated communities to the wild west feel of keeping your own gun to keep “hooligans” out of your dacha………the latter is much more practical and fun than paying a security guard. Shooting hooligans who are stealing from your dacha is kind of like hanging horse thieves in the 19th century United States. If you shoot a hooligan, nothing much is going to happen to you. Shades of the “make my day” law in Colorado.
I perhaps should hold my tongue about Village Iset being economy. Just up the road two houses, a fellow is building a three story dacha house. Outside walls are nearly a foot thick with felt insulation between the timbers. He will have his banya in the house; clearly the sign of at least a middle class Russian if not an upper crust Russian (he owns 3 cars also, so I think he is probably upper crust). It is clearly a status symbol not having to go outside to reach the banya house.
As the subtitle of the revised Blog indicates “Perfecting Dacha Life in the Urals”, I will be chatting from time-to-time about the great Russian past time of being at the dacha. A dacha is a summer house for us in the west. A get away or place that serves as a safety valve from the pressures of work and city life. Activities at the dacha include:
- Gardening, raising both flowers and food stuffs (the latter a hold over from the bad old Soviet times when you had to rely on your private garden to insure that your family didn’t starve). “The Garden” is also another name for “Dacha”. “Lets go to the garden for the weekend”.
- Bar-b-queuing. Can it be that Russians are closet Americans? Well they don’t do tailgate parties yet, but certainly embrace braising meat over a fire. Here the favorite is shoshlic’ usually chunks of pork marinated in vinegar and spices. Like the short handled broom, the short-legged bar-b-que device is king here in Russia. I’ve inquired why Russian insist on stooping over or squatting to cook when you can have a gas fired or even a wood burning grill at waste height? The answer is usually something based on the fact they have always done it that way. The style for most chefs is to have low to the ground fires and to cook over wood coals. Wood can be problematic. Some bar-b-ques I’ve attended here left me wondering about the wood quality. Since Russians use everything at least three times before it is thrown away, wood is no exception. Wood use is pretty helter-skelter with painted wood being included when the chef runs short of natural forest material. Could you be eating lead paint marinated shoshlic? Yuk!
- Gossiping. Although there are getting to be more people commuting and living year round at their dachas, the usual mode is to be here principally during the late spring, summer and into the fall with mushroom season. People in the dacha community are folks you only see at the dacha; you don’t mix with them in the city. As dachas are passed down from generation to generation, children make summer time friendships that are rekindled each new dacha season but not carried on away from the dacha community. It is a right of spring when you return to the dacha in the spring to get together on the road and gossip; getting caught up with everyone and find out the latest scoop on who is doing what to who, who is pregnant (not missing the circumstances and whether the girl married or chose to have the next generation dacha dweller by herself.
- Building and mending. As noted everything a Russian possesses is re-used at least three different times before it is thrown away. Just today we went out walking through a particularly swampy area where some ingenious (but not very environmentally conscious) fellow had used an old gas tank out of a Lada automobile as a “stepping stone to help you get through the bog in the swamp. Problem was the tank was still oozing gasoline leaving a shimmering blue slick on the water. Most of the dachas are nothing more than shacks. Some places, like my in laws is listing badly to the point you have to put a ¾ inch block under two of the dining room table legs so things don’t go sliding off into the floor. The house is just so old it is not worth trying to make a real repair, jacking up the foundation and putting new piers underneath. Yet the expectation is to see the place handed down for at least two more generations before it collapses. My brother in law Sasha is very handy fabricating things out of wood. He has made any number of things that enhances his family’s dacha which is across the road and up two houses from my in laws. He is one of the rare ones who is putting work into his dacha, building an outside shower with water pump, sandbox for the kids and the ultimate for the new wave of dacha dwellers – a roof mounted antenna to pick up his GRPS and EDGE signals for remote access to the internet and email. He works from home quite a lot and during dacha season he will spend a whole week there whilst most people only come out on the weekends. He has the place wired for the 21st century.
- Banya talk. The banya is sacred to Russians. A good banya is more important than a toilet or a nice bathroom or for that matter a nicely decorated flat. The banya cleanses the soul. Men and women who don’t have private banyas will talk about building a banya “someday”. Out here in the sticks, it is certainly doable and there is no permitting process. Just get your old and new materials and put it together. Banyas become multi-year projects and take on implications of being for some guys, their life’s crowning achievement.
- Firing up the banya. Banyas are also places where you commune with your family or your buddies. A banya is not unlike a Swedish bath house in construction. Or as another example the states you have dry and wet saunas. A banya is like those, but it is nearly a religious experience for Russian. It fires the Russian soul to have had “a great banya”. A proper banya is really three rooms. The hot room which can get up to around 90 degrees Celsius – upwards of 200 degrees F – if your fire stoker is paying attention to his job. You have to be very careful not to overheat or to throw too much water on the hot rocks if you want more of a steamy effect. You go into the hot room with at least one other person – kind of like the buddy system in SCUBA diving. If you pass out the other one can drag you out; you also have to have a buddy to flog you with the wet birch branches. This gives a wonderful heat filled tingling sensation whereever you are hit with the branches. Next is the wet room/shower room where you keep large wooden buckets of ice cold water and buckets with a mix of hot and cold water. The ice water is used during the summer in lieu of being able to go outside and throw yourself in the snow, as is custom during the winter months. This shower room can become a very comfortable wet sauna simply by leaving the door to the dry hot room open. It’s like going from the extreme heat of Death Valley to the incessant humidity of Miami, Finally is the dining area where you can sit wrapped in your towel, eating smoked fish, drinking beer and vodka and tea. A large samovar of water for the tea is the center piece of the banya dining table. You usually make two or three trips back and forth heating, washing, eating; heating, washing, eating. This is kife – the good life – and if you can do it in your own personal banya, you are a rich Russian, even if your dacha is in Village Iset.
Toraphonic the Swamp. There was book I received prior to my first trip to Russia in 1995, about cyclists who make the trip across Russia and all the problems they encountered navigating so-called roads. It’s a bog pure and simple and my is hat is off to those who chose to build the city of Yekaterinburg back in the late 1700’s for it is all swamp. Once you get out of Moscow heading east there is an awful lot of the country that is swampy mixed forests of birch and pine wood with incessant rain, mosquitoes, and ticks. In the winter it is a frozen swamp. Weather patterns here in the Urals is not unlike Seattle. It rains frequently and is gloomily without sun.
Next time: Offensive Driving