Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Stories from Russia - My Second Home

A week after I arrived in Chelyabinsk, my AIESEC manager informed that I could shift to a comfortable house closer to my workplace than the one I stayed at initially. Though I was taken aback by the overly modest settings of the apartment I first set my foot in, I had gotten used to its diminutive structure and begun to enjoy the babushka's hospitality and genuine warmth. However, I decided to take a look at the new home. Sveta, my second host, was a final year design student at the university I worked with. She took me home one evening to give a preview of what she had to offer. Her parents were away on a two week vacation and she wished for some company in their absence.

The most popular and fastest means of public transport in the city is the marshrutka - tempo travelers which charge 18 rubles for one trip regardless of the distance traveled. Sveta and I boarded the marshrutka in front of a discount mall, a short walk from the campus. "Na Astanofkya, Pazhausta" (at the stop, please), Sveta called out to the driver as the marshrutka drew into the Gorodok Magazine bus stop adjacent to a department store (Magazine in Russian means shop). Contrary to what I was told, the house was away from the city, quietly nestled in a neighborhood in which most people owned small plots of land where they grew vegetables and tended to pigs and cows. At the gate, a huge German Shepherd welcomed us from inside his kennel. He peeped through the hole on the side wall and kissed his master's hands.

The foyer opened to the toilet and store room on one side and the kitchen and bed rooms, on the other. As we entered, Bushinka aka Busa, a toy terrier, welcomed us with great zeal, going around in circles and licking our feet. Busa had three puppies - toy terrier and chihuahua mixes, which were hardly a month old. Keisa, the Russian Blue cat, was relaxing in the bedroom, her silky grey fur camouflaging against the animal print of the velvet blanket. A narrow walkway lined by coat hangers extended to the master bedroom. It was large and spacious with a bunker bed cum storage and a plush leather sofa which doubled as the second bed. The windows were on one side, looking out to the kennels in the front yard. The television set sat on a wall cabinet that displayed a motley of elephant figurines. Sveta had a fetish for the gentle giant and she was excited to know that I hailed from the land of elephants. Her parents occupied the bedroom adjacent to the kitchen. A bushy white cat lived on the other side of the foyer but unlike Keisa, he was fearful and cranky. The house was nestled in the middle of a vegetable garden, a pig sty, a chicken pen and a cow shed. Kittens played hide and seek in the yard and rabbits munched on greens inside their crate. I was amused by the rustic vibes of country living in this forsaken corner of the city.

I shifted to Sveta's house during the weekend and from that day on, my life flipped. It was a welcome change from the rudimentary comforts offered by my first host. Sveta acquainted me with her friends and my social life improved drastically. Though her parents returned from their trip two weeks after I moved in, it wasn't too often that everybody was in the house together. They worked in shifts on alternate days and Sveta stayed over at her boyfriend's most of the week. Busa, the toy terrier, was quick to embrace me into her fold. Keisa, however, had feline inhibitions that prevented her from being as expressive as her canine counterpart. Yet she would sleep with me on the sofa and brush her fur against my legs when I returned home from work. While I was there, one pig was slaughtered; many were born. I learnt that the gestation period of pigs is 3 months 3 weeks and 3 days - the rule of threes as it is called. With the coming of winter, I faced the challenges of living in a remote locality off the main road. The entire area was buried in layers of snow and hardened ice, making it incredibly difficult to walk. I suffered at least five falls in those two months, but luckily, none too serious.

A strong and independent lady with a friendly demeanor, Sveta's mother welcomed me to the warmth of her home with hot soups and fresh salads. Her father was an affable middle-aged man whose positivism spilled over to those around him. He would joke at the dinner table and offer me vodka shots and Russian beer. Despite his cripplingly weak English, he rambled endlessly about Russian and American politics. He would play the accordion and strum the guitar to the tunes of the Beatles classic, Yesterday. Through music, we transcended the boundaries of language and culture. 'We are a crazy family', mother would say. They were hardworking people who led a simple life filled with love and laughter. I learnt to cook borscht from my hosts and in return, introduced them to the spice of Indian cuisine. They gave me a sense of belonging, notwithstanding the glaring ethnical contrast. Sveta's elder sister lived nearby with her husband and daughter, Vervara. A party was organized at her house when the baby turned six months old. I had grown so comfortable with them that I drank Cognac with Sveta's grandmother at Vara's half birthday celebrations.

Beautiful, intelligent and immensely talented, Sveta left an indelible mark on my mind with her enigmatic personality. An upcoming model with a lot of potential, she was well connected in the fashion world. Having posed for the camera from an early age, her attitude and expressions were effortless like a pro. I always felt that there was a lot going on within her. With a rich and fiery inner life, her emotions were intense and they shone out of her eyes. Probably, that's where she drew inspiration from. When she was not at college, she was either away on a modeling assignment or working part time at an architectural firm. At other times, she was staying over at her wealthy, 34 year-old boyfriend's apartment or visiting her grandmother who lived in the city with a dog. Sveta introduced me to her photographer friends who seemed interested in clicking my pictures. Thanks to her, I got a couple of opportunities to test my modeling skills. Professional makeup artists and seasoned photographers played with my earthy skin tone and full-bodied figure to create a visual ensemble. I also got a chance to go clubbing, the Russian way. She became my official guardian, stylist and fashion adviser. She also introduced me to Cyrillic script, taught me how to read Russian and gifted me a letter book. Her less-than-average English skills never became a hindrance in our relationship. Sveta would ask me to type out whatever I wanted to communicate and she would translate it using Google. The reply also took the same convoluted route. Though the process was tedious, we developed a close relationship in those few weeks and shared some heart-to-heart conversations. 

I am deeply indebted to this amazing family for giving me a home in Russia. 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Stories from Russia - Welcome to Chelyabinsk!

On 26th September 2014, I stepped foot in Chelyabinsk before the sun rose above the horizon. Exhausted by all the travel, I was partly dazed when the AIESEC volunteers picked me up from the airport. We drove for about 30 mins before the car pulled up in front of an old building. Daylight hadn’t crept in yet. Upon dialing the flat number at the building entry point, we were let into a dingy stairway that led to my host's apartment on the fourth floor. A young girl opened the door for us. As she welcomed us in, exchanging pleasantries, my eyes drifted across the unusually small living space. Behind the door, there was a coat cabinet and to its left, the toilet and kitchen. A few steps down the walkway were two rooms, one on either side. That was it. It ended where it began. While we were getting introduced, an old lady appeared from one of the rooms, muttering “Dobraye Ootra” as her light eyes fell upon my foreign countenance. 

With no phone or net connection, I was literally disconnected from the world I had known all along. The AIESEC volunteers left me to absorb the new reality with a promise to meet the next day. My host Svetlana was in her mid twenties, with a fragile body and a courteous yet reserved air about her. She was preoccupied in her own world, coming across as someone who was afraid to truly connect with another being. The old lady was her grandmother - her only companion in that big city. Svetlana showed me my room – a carpeted living space with a cupboard, table, chair and a recliner sofa. There was no bed. When I inquired about it, she handed me a blanket and pillow and said that I could make myself comfortable on the sofa. And then she went to sleep. The strangeness was getting to me. The toilet was so small that it could barely accommodate one person. The flush wasn’t working. Tired and distraught, I tried to get some shut eye. 

A few hours later I woke up when Svetlana came into my room to iron her clothes. After she left for work, I spent my time with her grandmother who could not speak or understand English. Babushka, in Russian, means grandmother. The fact that my ability to communicate in Russian was as poor as her English skills, did not deter her from conversing with me. She asked me a lot of questions, all of which I answered with a sheepish smile. When it eventually dawned upon her that the conversation wasn’t moving any forward, she resorted to theatrics. And Voila! It worked. She would pretend to touch the steaming vessel on the stove and go, “hoo..hoo..gariyachi!” and then she would do a little shiver act and ask “holdna?”. Thus, I got my first Russian language lessons; I learnt that “gariyachi” means hot and “holdna” means cold. Soon, we struck a rapport and became genuinely fond of each other. I would even play Hindi songs on my phone and she would dance in the kitchen. She is the sweetest babushka I have ever met.

As time went by, I got used to the toilet. The flush started working and the sofa felt as good as a bed. In the evening, Svetlana and I took a stroll around the neighborhood awash in autumn hues. Though lacking in resourcefulness, she was fluent in English. That in itself was comforting. The AIESEC volunteer never turned up but he arranged my pick up for the welcome party two days after my arrival and I got a new phone connection on the same day. The party was packed with ice breaker games and cultural entertainment. I met more AIESECers and interns from other countries. My life until then seemed hazy and distant, almost like a blurry dream.  We danced without a care in the world into the wee hours of the morning. That night, I shared my bed with an Egyptian, a Chinese and a Russian. Cheers to Global Citizenship!

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Stories from Russia - Stepping into a Banya

"The day you spend in the Banya is the day you do not age." 
  (В кото́рый день па́ришься, тот день не ста́ришься.)

Banya or the traditional Russian steam bath is a unique cultural element which dates back centuries. Besides providing amazing health benefits like detoxification and removal of dead skin, it serves as an avenue for up-close and personal interactions. Russians love to relax in the banya with their friends and family, sipping a glass of kompot (fruits boiled in water and preserved in masor jars for the next season) and engaging in candid conversations with the least trace of pretense. A typical banya is a wooden bathhouse which has at least two rooms - a pre-bath for hanging clothes and resting, and a hot room with wooden benches for steaming and washing. Full-fledged banyas have a separate washing room with hot and cold water taps. The steam inside a banya is generated by pouring water on rocks heated in a stove. Bathers warm themselves up in the steam room and cool off in the outer chamber, repeating this process for as long as they wish to. After a good sweat, they lash each other using a bunch of birch or oak leaves (venik) to promote blood circulation. Sometimes they jump into a cold lake or simply roll around in snow. Shuttling between hot and cold is believed to strengthen the natural resistances of the body.

"Banya Wait U" - my host whatsapp-ed me while I was at school
My first experience in a banya was at my host’s house. Friends were coming over and the banya was being readied for them. Unsure about a communal bath, I chose to go alone. Though I had familiarized myself with the concept, I was a gawky first-timer feeding on curiosity rather than a sense of purpose. I fooled around, showered and got out. 

A few weeks later I got invited to a banya party at a friend’s country house. There were four of us including one young man. It was past 10 pm when we entered the bath. Winter was setting in and the temperature had dropped to -5 degree Celsius. The only male among us decided to skip the banya and doze off on the sofa. So it turned out to be a girls' night out at the banya. We went in with spare clothes and towels and bottles of apple kompot for refreshment. My friends quickly undressed as if it was the most normal thing to do. Not wanting to look stupid, I followed suit. We were three naked girls – all different sizes yet perfectly at ease with our bodies. As beads of sweat dripped from our skins, the topics of discussion swung from career to culture. We helped each other with the venik, taking turns to get our juices flowing. 

There was no concept of shame and for good reason. Why should anyone be ashamed of his or her body when there is little unnatural about it. Yet I come from a world where piety and modesty are indirectly proportional to the amount of skin revealed, where it is not normal or acceptable for friends to hang out in their birthday suit. I could only smile at the polar opposite ideals of morality. The steam started getting to us after a while. And guess what happened next? We dived into the snow that had piled up outside. Like little children oblivious to the portentous powers of the human body, we made snow balls under the starlit sky. Rejuvenated after the banya date, we drank tea and ate cookies and laughed about silly nothings. 

That is one night I will never forget in my life. 

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Stories from Russia - Visiting the culture capital: Saint Petersburg

During my Russian sojourn, many people raved to me about the inexplicable beauty of Saint Petersburg - the culture capital of Russia founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. Perceptibly the most westernized city in the country with strong European influence in art and architecture, it is an important port on the Baltic sea. When I decided to visit this magnificent city, one of my acquaintances in Chelyabinsk connected me to her friends in Saint Petersburg who happily hosted me. So a week before returning to India, I traveled from Chelyabinsk to Saint Petersburg and back by the Trans-Siberian Railway.

First week of December 2014. My host family dropped me off to the railway station early in the morning. The station (vokzal) was apparently posher and better maintained than the airport. The train was fully air-conditioned and the berths were cushioned. On a stool near the door stood a samovar which provided a continuous supply of hot water that could be used for making soup and tea. I shared my compartment with a middle aged lady who proved to be my angel in disguise during the trip. When we reached Saint Petersburg, she rang up the girl who was expected to pick me up and informed her that I was waiting inside the station. During my stay in Saint Petersburg, I ran into her again. I was lost then, looking for the nearest metro. Funnily enough, I met her once more in the train back to Chelyabinsk four days later. She bought me an ice cream from one of the intermediate stations and even gifted me a tiny wooden box with a personal message scrawled on it. I also made friends with a playful six year old girl from Ukraine. She and her family were moving to Saint Petersburg in the hope of building a new life.

I stayed with two young girls who had come from Chelyabinsk to Saint Petersburg to pursue their dreams for a better life. They were contagiously jovial and kind-hearted and I felt completely at ease around them. Working alternate days, they showed me around the city during their off times. One of them picked me up from the station early in the morning and accompanied me back to their apartment. She fixed a hearty breakfast consisting of quinoa, chicken nuggets and fried eggs before rushing off to work. That's when a handsome young guy appeared from one of the bedrooms. He made himself comfortable in the kitchen and started working on his laptop. I later came to know that he had come in as a guest but ended up as a freeloader. The girls didn't really mind it as they had grown fond of him. I took down some directions from them and decided to venture out on my own that day. The metro station was only a five minute walk from the apartment.

I was completely lost the first day. The weather was quite pleasant unlike Chelyabinsk. Though I got off at the correct station, I roamed around in circles without really seeing anything I wanted to see. Eventually, I walked into a mall and ate a burger before heading home. But I did get a taste of the city streets and it's hidden alleys sporting enigmatic graffitis. Unlike Moscow, getting around Saint Petersburg was a breeze. The city seemed to be designed to attract tourists. The metro network is extensive and there are signboards in English. On the second day, I managed to find the major landmarks in the city clustered around the central area adjoining Nevsky Prospekt. The age old buildings lining the street were strikingly European in their style and design. From the archaic Kazan Cathedral, I walked down to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood - a monument so richly embellished inside out that it almost seemed unreal. The museum of stone located behind the church showcased the entire range of ornamental rocks and minerals used in the construction of these monuments. I walked past the Hermitage buildings on Palace Embankment stretching along the Neva River and spent the entire day strolling down the various lanes and by lanes of this awe-inspiring city steeped in history. During my walking tour, I came across famous sculptures such as The Bronze Horseman, The Tsar Carpenter, Monument to Catherine the Great, Monument to Nicholas I, Rostral Columns and the Lions on Palace Pier. Late in the afternoon, I took the subway back to my host's apartment from a station close to Saint Isaac's Cathedral.

The next day was better planned. In the morning, I visited the Alexander Nevsky Lavra and met up with a Couchsurfing member in a different part of the town before joining one of my hosts on a tour of the city centre. The ascetic vibes of the lavra were accentuated by the thick vegetation encompassing the monastery complex. When I entered the church, a priest was performing funeral rites while the family of the deceased grieved in silence. I stood behind, trying to take in what was happening. From the lavra, I headed to Moscovsky Prospekt to say hello to my CS friend, Alexey. An IT engineer by profession, he moved from a smaller town to Saint Petersburg to enhance his career prospects. He was kind enough to meet me during his lunch hour and give a tour of the Victory Square, Moscow Triumphal Gate and the Russian National Library - the oldest public library in the country that is ranked among the world's major libraries. He also took me to an unusually designed church which looked more like a pink and white doll house.

After the brief rendezvous, I headed back to Nevsky Prospekt. Katya (Catherine), one of the girls from the apartment, joined me outside the metro station. After a light meal, we proceeded to Anichkov bridge running over the Fontanka river. The four equestrian sculptures in the vicinity of the bridge, collectively known as The Horse Tamers, caught my fancy. Afterwards, we visited the Peter and Paul fortress overlooking the Neva. By the time we were finished, the moon had begun playing truant behind the obscure clouds staying afloat in the Prussian blue sky. After getting home, we took a midnight stroll to a river bridge located a few miles away from our apartment. That is when Katya told me about the drawbridges which open for a few hours in the night during the navigation season (April to November).

Katya and I visited the State Hermitage museum, the next morning. It is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world with a formidable collection of paintings, sculptures, porcelain and other articles of historic and artistic significance. The complex comprises of six buildings including the Winter Palace and the Hermitage theatre. We spent the whole morning admiring the finest works of art from across the globe. To say the least, the experience was quite overwhelming. I shopped for some souvenirs at the Udelnaya flea market that evening. Katya dropped me off at the railway station the next day, just in time for my train back to Chelyabinsk. We hugged goodbye and I left that beautiful city with my heart full. I had grown truly fond of that girl - she was simple and dignified with a penchant for music. She assured me that once she had saved enough, she would buy a harp and find time to practise it. In those few days, we shared a kind of understanding that did not need many words.

During the return journey, a Bashkir lady occupied the seat opposite mine. She offered me meat cutlets and eggs and tea, showering a kind of motherly affection. The train lugged past monochrome landscapes donning layers of pearly white snow. Two days and two nights passed. I arrived in Chelyabinsk on the third morning with vivid memories of my trip to the second capital of Russia.