I am here for you


This is my entry for this week’s What pegman saw, a writing prompt based on Google Streetview. Stories have to be 150 words or fewer.  This week’s location is the Red Square in Moscow. See here to join in and to read the other stories.


You did not think I would come here to find you, all the way to Moscow.  You thought you were safe.

Your sweet looks deceived me at first.  Like St. Basil’s Cathedral, your face was a swirl of colors: blue, yellow, red.  Like the cathedral with its swirls of frosting and candy cane stripes, you looked so cheerful, so playful, so harmless.

Ivan the Terrible commissioned St. Basil’s.  After its completion, Ivan had the architect blinded. That way, he could not replicate the design for anyone else.   I suppose that is a compliment of sorts.  Did you know that Ivan killed his own son in a fit of rage?

After the first time, you swore it would never happen again.  It was just because you were jealous.  Because you loved me so much.  Of course it happened again.

I am no longer blind.  I am here now. I am ready.




Georgia on My Mind: “Tangerines”

Lembit Ulfsak in "Tangerines"
Lembit Ulfsak in “Tangerines”

One of the highlights of the cultural scene in Minneapolis-St. Paul is the annual International Film Festival.  This year’s festival boasts over 200 films from around the world with a great diversity of themes, styles, and tones.

This last weekend, I was fortunate to see “Tangerines,” a 2014 film that was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar award, and rightly so in my opinion.  The director is Zaza Urushadze, the producer is Ivo Felt, and the main character is played by Lembit Ulfsak.

The film is a joint Estonian-Georgian production.  It takes place in Georgia (the country, not the state) in 1992 when the Abkhazian-Georgian civil war was raging.  (Am I the only one who was unaware of this war???).   If I understand correctly, Abkhazia wanted their own country, separate from Georgia, and I believe the Soviet Union supported Abkhazia’s desire.  To make things more complicated, there was a large Estonian population in Georgia.  They had been living there over 100 years.  After the conflicts broke out, though, most of them fled back to Estonia.

The main character, Ivo, is an elderly Estonian carpenter who lives alone because his family had all returned to Estonia.  He builds crates to hold tangerines and helps his neighbor Markus with his tangerine crop.  One day, there is a shoot-out between the two factions in front of his home.  Some of the men die, but two of them live, although badly injured.  Ivo cares for both of these men—Achmed and Nika—in his home.

If the ethnic conflict were not already confusing enough, it turns out that Achmed, who is fighting on the side of the Abkhazians, is actually Chechen.  He is fighting the Georgians as a mercenary to help support his family.

Most of the film showcases the tensions between the Achmed and Nika, who threaten to kill each other while recuperating in Ivo’s house.  At the same time, Ivo and Markus are just trying to live and worry about how they are going to get the tangerine harvest picked in a timely manner.  The intense focus on a few characters going through mundane daily rituals, punctuated by occasional bursts of military grandstanding and violence, is an effective and deeply moving way to showcase the horrors and ultimate senselessness of war.

Watching the movie, I had no idea who the “good guys” and who the “bad guys” were supposed to be, which I think was the point.  Ultimately, the director is saying, it really doesn’t matter.

The scenery was gorgeous, the music moving, and the acting was superb.  I especially enjoyed the world-weary yet compassionate Ulfsak as Ivo and Giorgi Nakashidze as the hot-headed Achmed.   I am not sure what ever happened with the Abkhazian/Georgian conflict.  From what I can tell in my brief internet research, the conflict is still not totally resolved.

If you have a chance to see this film, I highly recommend it

Zaza Urushadze, Lembit Ulfsak, and Ivo Felt at the Academy Awards
Zaza Urushadze, Lembit Ulfsak, and Ivo Felt at the Academy Awards

Banya Time

banya painting

This is not me.

I was lying naked on a bench. The room was steamy hot, approaching 200 degrees. A stranger was beating me with a venik, while keeping up a steady stream of conversation in a language I didn’t understand.

“You seem tense,” said this stranger (according to my translator).

While this may seem like a scene of torture, in fact I was just taking a bath—Russian style. I was staying at Kitezh, an intentional community in rural Russia designed to adopt and raise orphans. I was the co-leader of a group of ten university students on a study abroad trip. The community was tiny and had little money. The founders intentionally built the community to reflect traditional Russian customs. One of these customs was the banya (bath house-plus-sauna).

When we arrived at Kitezh, we were nervous to discover that the cabin-style homes we stayed in did not have showers or bathtubs. If we wanted to clean ourselves, the only choice was to go to the banya, which only operated twice a week.

The banya was a separate wooden building, somewhat like a log cabin.   Upon first entering the banya, we saw the entry room where we were instructed to disrobe completely and assemble our bathing supplies. The banyas were sex segregated, but still, we Americans were extremely uncomfortable cavorting naked with each other. We tried to cover ourselves with our towels as best we could. The Russian women found our modesty puzzling and amusing. They seemed completely unfazed by communal nakedness.

The next room was the largest—the actual bathing room. There was no running water, but there was a large barrel of very hot water and a large barrel of cold water.   We all had pails and scooped up the right amount of hot and cold water with which to bath ourselves and wash our hair. While I was scrubbing myself, a Russian woman came up to me and gently washed my back for me and murmured soothing words. For those of you with a prurient mind, please know that there was nothing remotely sexual about this scene.   Helping each other bathe was a common custom. I felt nurtured, not seduced. I was quite near-sighted at this time (before my Lasik surgery), so I could not see much of anything—just a steamy, hazy, pleasant fuzz. It looked very much like this Russian painting.

MAC_0411a_ 145

 After the first round of bathing, I was led to the sauna room. It was very steamy and very hot. I was instructed to lie down so that I could get a massage.   A lovely, maternal woman named Natasha was my masseuse. Before the actual massage, however, Natasha first took a fragrant bundle of leafy birch tree trigs and beat me lightly with it. This bundle is called venik, and is an important part of the Russian bathing ritual. Apparently the beating warms up the body and improves circulation. The twigs have been soaked in scented water, so what I felt and heard was a “swishing” sound. It did not hurt; rather it felt invigorating.


After the beating, Natasha gave me a brisk massage, all the while murmuring in Russian. I did not know what she was saying, but the way she talked was very soothing and maternal.

After the massage, I was taken back into the main bathing room. I was very hot, so hot it was difficult to breathe.   After I entered the main room, somebody took a pain of cold water and splashed it all over me. I literally screamed from the shock, but it definitely woke me from my stupor. If it had been winter, we might have gone outside and jumped into the snow instead.

I thought my banya ritual was done at that point, but I was wrong. The final, and most important, part of the ritual was to retire to the tea room (one big table with benches all around it). There, the women sat for a long time (sometimes hours) drinking tea and talking. This was all great, except that everybody was still stark naked.

It would be fair to say I felt a little awkward.  Just a little.

But again, the Russians thought chatting with each other while naked was the most natural thing in the world. They could not understand our weird American hang-ups.

At the end of this whole experience, I was certainly clean. Not only that, but I do believe the experience knocked those toxins right out of me.   One day I started the process feeling like I had a cold coming on. Afterwards, I felt wiped out for a while, but after a few hours, the cold was completely gone.

It has been several years since I’ve been in a banya, and I really miss it. Sure, I appreciate my daily quick—and private—shower. But I miss the banya ritual. In particular, I miss the feeling of being part of a community that takes the time to care for each other.

Freedom of Speech

"I've just been scolded by a babushka."
“I’ve just been scolded by a babushka.”

It was not until my first trip to Russia, in the summer of 1998, that I realized that shopping for cabbage could be such a harrowing adventure. Learning how to cook schi (traditional Russian cabbage soup) required the development of a tougher psychological hide than my wimpy Midwestern existence had prepared me for.
My initiation into the dangers of shopping began on my first day in Russia. My companion picked me up at the airport and escorted me to central Moscow. Before we even entered the apartment, I asked him if we could first check out the mom and pop grocery store across from his building. Even though I was exhausted from the flight, I was intensely curious about everything Russian. I knew that in this post-Soviet period, Russia was no longer the evil empire it had been in the Reagan years. Still, I was hoping it was still a wee bit wicked, at least enough to make my trip halfway around the world worthwhile. Also, on the practical side, I assumed that I would be shopping at this store frequently, and I was curious to see what kind of goods it contained.
It took a few moments after entering the burrow of a shop for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. We were the only customers. The owner, a burly middle-aged man, stood behind a long counter with his arms crossed. He glared suspiciously at us. Most of the goods were stored on the shelves behind the counter, so browsing was not an option. We stood near the doorway for a few moments while I looked around. Although we were not there for long, maybe only a minute or two, the owner was clearly getting impatient with us.

It wasn’t long before he barked: “Sashamashadashabaryshnikovbrezhnevharascho.”

“Let’s go,” my companion muttered to me, and we turned around and left.

Except for a few words and phrases, I did not speak Russian, so I had no idea what the bark meant. I asked my companion to translate for me, so he did, somewhat reluctantly. If we were not going to buy anything, the burgeoning capitalist had yelled at us, then we should get the fuck out of his store. Apparently the idea that the customer is king had not yet caught on in Russia.
Although I decided not to go back to that shop, I was, on some level, pleased with the encounter. It suggested that perhaps Russia would live up to its scary reputation and that my trip would be worth the fare.
For the rest of my stay, I frequented a shop two or three blocks away, a leftover from the Soviet times. As with the Barker’s shop, all of the goods in this store were placed behind the counters, which were zealously guarded by the clerks, like so many Cerberuses guarding the gates of hell. To buy anything, customers had to ask the clerk to get whatever they wanted for them. And to make the process as inefficient as possible, customers had to stand in separate lines to order each type of food (produce, meats, etc). After a customer ordered the products, the cashier told them how much the food costs. Next, the customers had to move to a separate line so that they could pay the cashier for the food. After paying for the food, customers had to stand in yet another line to show the clerk the receipt and collect the goods. This procedure was then repeated for every category of food. This system not only maximized inefficiency, it also maximized the amount of customer contact with the clerks. Thus, the potential for scary encounters was high.
I remember one day in particular, after having been in Moscow for a few days, when I decided to make shchi (a traditional cabbage soup). First, I stood in the produce line. Given my extremely limited Russian and my frightening experience with the Barker, I was intimidated by the rotund, middle-aged woman behind the counter. I felt a little bit like Dorothy trembling in supplication before the Wizard of Oz.

“Please,” I said in my garbled Russian when it was my turn to order. “Threes carrot and thank you two cabbage.”

The clerk gave me a disapproving look and barked out the price: “yapeeshuperom.”

I did not understand and looked blankly at her.

She repeated the price: “yapeeshuperom.” Seeing me stand there dumbly set her off on a harangue: “Sashamashadasha baryshnikovbrezhnev dvapivapazhaloosta.”

Although this dressing down was not as scary as the Barker’s had been, it was frightening enough to give me a little bit of a thrill. Perhaps this is what it feels like to ski down a steep mountain slope.

“To write, excuse me,” I mumbled, and made writing motions with my hand.

She rolled her eyes, but understood and wrote down the price on a slip and handed it to me.

Grateful for her condescension, I scuttled off to wait in a second line—the cashier’s—to pay for my produce. When it was my turn, I handed the young brunette a fifty-ruble note for my 24.85 ruble purchase. In response, the cashier replied, “Bolshpriviborsch.”
Here we go again, I thought. I knew by now that my blank look would be enough to get her going, and I was right.

“Tchaikovskyrimskykorsikov yapishuperom yanepaneemayonichevo,” she went on, this time in a louder voice. Eventually, the cashier gave up trying to explain anything to me and instead pointed to the 85 cents in the price and held out small coins in her palm. Now I understood that she was expecting me to give her the exact change. I did not have the change, so I simply shook my head and continued to look at her in mute supplication. Finally, with an exaggerated sigh and a rolling of her eyes, she gave up on me and gave me back my change, counting it out slowly and loudly to signal her displeasure.

By this time, I was so intimidated that my adrenaline was starting to climb and my heartbeat was almost in the aerobic zone. I started to understand the appeal of extreme sports. I was frightened, but in a thrilling way. This was getting good. I walked back to the previous counter, eager to claim my hard-won cabbages and carrots. I was puzzled, however, to notice that the lights were off and the produce clerk was no longer there. I looked around the store, confused, wanting to know where my cabbages were. A woman was sweeping the floor. Seeing the confused look on my face, she started in on me. “Dvapivapazhaloosta bolshoischiborscht mishadachadostoevsy!” she yelled.

Wow. Three scoldings within the course of maybe fifteen minutes. Could bungee jumping be better than this? I began to feel my moral fiber toughen. I could get through this adventure and would be the stronger person for it. I noticed that there was nobody left in the store and I realized that the store was closing for lunch.

“Please,” I said to the woman. “Cabbage and carrot?”

“Sashamashadasha baryshnikovbrezhnev” she replied, but went behind the counter and retrieved my package.

Although I still had other purchases to make, I had to leave because the store was closed. As I walked out the door, I was tempted to raise my vegetables over my head in a sign of victory. In the soundtrack to my life, the theme song from Rocky should have been playing.

I had maneuvered the minefields of the evil empire and emerged victorious. This was fun.

As I stayed longer in Moscow, I realized that the denizens of this store were not particularly surly by Russian standards. They were quite ordinary, in fact. Although at first I thought they were yelling at me because I was a foreigner, I realized this was not the case. (In fact, many times, the scolders did not know I was foreign. They simply thought I was a feeble-minded Russian.) Russians will scold anyone. And although any Russian—young, old, male, female–feels entitled to yell at strangers, scolding is the particular specialty of older women—the babushki. It does not matter that the scoldees are strangers, or—like me—might not even understand what our offense is. The important thing for the babushki is to let us know we are wrong. I believe they consider it their civic duty to keep the idiots in line.

They have their jobs cut out for them.

When I told Americans about getting yelled at in Russia, they were appalled. “What a horrible place,” they said. They don’t get it, I thought. At least for me, it was not a horrible experience. In fact, after awhile, I felt a little disappointed if I went out in Russia and did not get scolded. Why is this? Am I a masochist? I don’t think so. Rather, I realize in retrospect that on some level I envy these women their freedom of speech. Living as I do in the land of Minnesota Nice, I am obligated by social custom and the law of capitalism (to always please the customer) to be polite at all times. I could never get away with calling someone a blathering idiot, no matter how blatheringly idiotic he may be.

The older I get, and the more fools and knaves I encounter, the more painful I find the constraints of politeness. I fear that one day I will snap. I will don a Russian scarf, sit in my office and tell whoever comes by what romanovpushkinblinis they really are. I know that if I do this, I will lose my job and the entire capitalist system will come crumbling down. I will become a minion of the new evil empire of Minnesota. It might be kind of fun.


"You're doing it all wrong."
“You’re doing it all wrong.”