Delicious fruit from former southern republics and local potatoes

My life here in the small town of Luga is certainly at a slower pace than it was when I lived in the much, much larger city of St. Petersburg. The nature of a small town and the fact that I’m retired gives me the opportunity to observe people a bit more closely. Of course, since I’m the only American most of them have ever met, I wonder what impression I leave with them. It’s interesting not only observing and getting to know them but noticing their reactions to me as well. Here’s my “take” on five citizens of Luga. (I added a brief description of one more after my original draft.) I chose them primarily because they are fairly typical folks but also because my relationship with each of them is at a different level.

THE BUTCHER LADY. We buy a lot of our groceries at the open market. Adjacent to the open area where fruits, vegetables, dairy and other products are sold is a rather large building that looks like a warehouse. A number of vendors sell fresh meat inside. We found a lady there who consistently has very good meat.

We dropped in the other day to get some meat for grilling. She usually has a young man there helping her, but that day she was working her counter alone. When we approached, her back was to us. She had a huge meat cleaver and was working on a side of pork. You could hear the loud “whack” all over the building when her cleaver made contact. I was quite amazed at how she separated meat from bone and then divided huge chunks of meat into smaller portions so efficiently. She is a rather small, thin lady probably in her 50s, so that made it even more impressive.

She quickly finished cutting the meat and turned to face us with her usual kind smile. She removed her head covering, and her slightly tinted auburn hair was still somehow perfectly in place. As Oksana was describing to her what we needed I noticed her lovely pearl necklace and matching earrings. She removed her large gloves while they were talking so she could put on the thin clear ones needed to show us the various meats. Her finger nails were trimmed and polished to perfection. The color of the polish matched her auburn hair. After the lady secured and weighed the meat we needed, Oksana asked if she had some small chunks of meat we could purchase for the homeless cats around our new home. (Russians call such animals “homeless,” not “strays.”) The butcher lady immediately retrieved a small bag with small portions of meat. She handed the bag to Oksana and said, “Бесплатно,” (“It’s free”) with a smile. Oksana paid her for our meat, and we moved on.

I find Butcher Lady to be very interesting. I would not say she is typical, but she is certainly not unusual for the women of Luga. She is obviously quite strong physically and wields that cleaver in a way that I certainly could never match. Yet, she maintains a traditional feminine manner and dress. And she does it in a very casual manner. She did not strike me as trying to draw attention to herself. She smiles at me, but never speaks directly to me. I am quite sure I have never met a butcher like her in America.

THE DAIRY LADY. In the open section of the market is the lady who sells dairy products. Her driver brings them in from the dairy plant in Mezhozerny, a rural village not far from Luga. I feel very comfortable speaking with her on my own. I love her dairy. All her products have a fresh and rich taste. I drop by about twice a week and get pretty much the same thing: four bottles of milk, two kilograms of tvorog (farmer’s cheese), a large container of smetana (sour-cream), and maybe three or four bottles of yogurt. I love to freeze her yogurt and eat it like ice cream. Sometimes I get a half-kilo of cheese and butter. There is no comparison in taste to what I get here in the open market with what we got at the grocery store in the U.S. I can’t eat Kraft cheese or its other products after eating what I get from this lady. I mix fruit with my tvorog and smetana pretty much every day for breakfast. I never ate farmers cheese in America, but what she sells here is a favorite of mine.

I don’t know Dairy Lady’s name, but she is always friendly. I’d like to think the reason she smiles broadly at me when I come to the counter is because of my good looks and charming personality, but I suspect it is because I am a regular customer who tends to buy a lot. Nevertheless, it is always good to hear her greeting and see her face light up when she sees me. A couple of times I have not had the right amount of money, and she sent me on my way and told me to pay next time. She doesn’t have to ask me what “percent” of products I want (meaning fat content). She gets me what tastes good.

The Russian word for “thank you” is transliterated, “spacebo.” But Russians love to make diminutives out of names and words. After my purchase she says, “Spacebochki.” I had never heard that word before, but I knew immediately what it was. She was saying it to me the way she would say it to a friend. The first time she said it to me that way I came home and I told Oksana that Dairy Lady must like me. Now Oksana calls her my “girlfriend.” When you’re a foreigner in a small city you really appreciate being accepted as a “regular.”

VADIM THE FURNITURE GUY. When we moved in our apartment after arriving in Russia we bought some furniture from a local store. In Russia a lot of the furniture is delivered in boxes, unassembled. We met Vadim at the store and learned his specialty was assembling furniture, so we hired him to come after hours and put ours together. Last month, when we moved from that apartment to our new house, we took the furniture apart to transport it. Oksana happened to run into Vadim in town and asked if he would be willing to come over to our new place and reassemble the furniture for us. He agreed. He is building a new house for his family himself and the extra money helps.

Vadim looks to be in his mid-thirties. He is cordial when he comes over, but he never attempts to chat with me. He goes straight to work and is very efficient. I don’t know how he puts all the furniture together with absolutely no help. There are dozens of screws of different kinds, and the boards for certain pieces can be very awkward to handle. Yet he never asks anyone for help while he fastens everything together. He is obviously very proud of his work. When he finished the last day Oksana called me in to see everything. I bragged on his workmanship and told him what an amazing good job he did. He didn’t say anything, but for the first time he smiled broadly and just stood there basking in the praise. He had worked hard and was glad to have his skills appreciated. We paid him, and he parted with a hearty handshake and smile.

After he left I commented to Oksana on how he seldom spoke and how shy he was. She said, “He’s quiet with you, but when it’s just me he talks a lot. Before leaving he always shows me photos of his wife and children, the house he’s building and tells me all about what is going on in their lives. Sometimes I thought I would never get away.” Vadim chose not to ask me anything or strike up any conversation with me, although he was never rude or discourteous. I think the fact I am an American is just too odd for him.

SERGEY THE PLUMBER. Shortly after moving in our new home we noticed something was not right about the way our water heated. Despite having purchased a new water heater [boiler], our water did not get very hot. We assumed that something was wrong with the heater. The company we purchased it from said to drain it, bring it back, and they would check it. Oksana had already called a plumber she knew to come install our washing machine and dryer. We had placed them upstairs in a large bathroom, and there were no pipes to connect them. So we decided we would wait and get him to look about the water heater.

Sergey arrived on a Thursday evening and introduced himself. I spoke to him in Russian and said, “My name is Hal.” He immediately fixed his gaze on me and tried repeating “Hal” under his breath. Russians have a terribly difficult time trying to pronounce my name since the “a” sound in Russian is never pronounced like it is in “Hal.” Many Russians just can’t make that sound. They can pronounce long Russian names with numerous consonants and few vowels quite effortlessly, but the monosyllabic “Hal” leaves them confused. My wife told him just to call me either “Hel” (as most Russians do) or Maxim, which is my “Orthodox” name.

Sergey is 50 years old, but he walks like an older man, slightly bent over with his back a bit arched. He is quite thin and wears his trousers pulled up very high. We followed Sergey around explaining what we needed him to do. He was baffled at the clothes dryer. He had never seen one before. Eventually he figured out what was needed to get it hooked up. Also, it turned out the water heating problem was easily fixed.

I was the first American Sergey had ever met, and he began asking me questions immediately. Oksana would make sure I understood everything. He started with the general question of how I liked Russia and Luga, but moved on to more personal issues. He asked, “How has Russia changed your mentality?” Later, when Oksana was not present he asked, “How is your soul different after living in Russia?” We Americans talk of our inner feelings as being from “the heart.” Russians prefer to talk of one’s soul.

I told him that I had been treated well by the people in Luga. I also said I came here first in 2002, and I was very impressed with all the improvements in the city. To his question about my “soul,” I told him that living here had reminded me of how my small town in America used to be when I was young. The majority of people from where I was raised in America were like most people in Luga I have met: They valued honesty, hard work and being helpful. The pace of life was slower—like it still is in Luga. I said I had gotten back to appreciating the simple life and kind gestures from people. I repeated that no one here judged me by the political conflicts between our countries, and I thought this spoke well of the Russian people. I told him I live very peaceably here.

He was clearly quite pleased with what I said. To hear that an American has good things to say about his town and its people seemed to give him a sense of relief. He came back the next day. Over coffee, he started telling me about how Russia had been involved with America during the American Civil War. (I decided not to protest, “Yeah, but they sided with the Northerners!”) I said, “True, and America joined the ‘Whites’ in their battles against the Bolsheviks during Russia’s civil war.” His eyes lit up, and he said, “Yes!” and then named all the northern cities of Russia where Americans fought. He is a manual laborer, but he is well read and, like many Russians, again proud of the history of his country. He was obviously delighted I knew some Russian history.

As we concluded our conversation and his visit he told me that we had to talk more. When he gave us our bill I was quite surprised. He had been here on Thursday night and then spent most of the day Friday changing some pipes and other things and charged us the equivalent of $31 for labor. I don’t think I’d get off that cheap with an American plumber even for the Thursday night visit! It is not just Sergey, I have noticed the people like Vadim and Sergey we have hired to do various jobs for us in finishing up our house are remarkably cheaper, and yet are hard workers who are committed to doing a good job. We hired an I.T. worker to get us connected to mobile internet through a special antenna since we are not in the city “loop.” He stayed here over two hours and charged us 700 rubles ($11.00).

A couple of days later Sergey called Oksana and told her he had picked some mushrooms in the woods and wanted to bring some over for me. They were chanterelles–my favorite. Knowing how Russians prize their mushrooms it meant a lot to me that he brought them over. He clearly enjoyed telling me all the medicinal advantages of mushrooms when he brought them. I could tell he felt comfortable talking with me, although I could not understand everything he said. As I was writing the rough draft of this blog entry he brought over more mushrooms and some wild berries [“zemlyanika”] for Marina Grace.

What was interesting to me was the difference between Sergey and Vadim. Neither had ever met an American before me. Neither man speaks any English and both work hard with their hands. But whereas Sergey wanted to “pick my brain” about what I thought of Russia and life here in Luga, Vadim asked me no questions. Based on Oksana’s experience, Vadim was just as talkative and outgoing as Sergey. Yet he responded quite differently to me.

DR. SMOLA. I have mentioned before that when they gave me my physical after we moved to Russia they discovered I have a slight degeneration in a disc in my neck. It was causing some pain at that time. I began weekly treatments from the doctor there who specializes in joint problems. Such a doctor is called a “manual therapist,” because he treats the problem with hands-on realignment therapy. Since it cost less than $8.00 for a 40 minute session, and the treatments have completely relieved my pain, I have kept up my weekly treatments.

Dr. Smola is my manual therapist. After all these weekly treatments we have gotten to know each other quite well. He’s in his early 60s. He is a retired physician from the Soviet military. He was a surgeon at one time, but changed his specialty. He speaks a little English, so during my treatments we communicate pretty well. We speak in Russian, but when he uses words I don’t understand I stop him, and we try to figure things out together. It’s actually a great time of practicing my Russian. I’ve learned a lot! It is so much easier talking to persons who have studied other languages, even if they do not know English well. They do know what it is like to try to communicate in a language other than their native tongue. It’s not awkward for me to stop him and ask for explanations. He does the same with me. The last visit it was raining, and when I mentioned needing my “zontik,” he paused and then slapped his hand down on the desk in frustration because he could not remember the English word “umbrella.” It’s comfortable talking with someone like that.

Dr. Smola lives with his aging mother who is in poor health. He is very active physically, but his mother is very demanding of his time after work so he has little social life. He is always interested in how my family is doing and asks about Oksana and then goes down the list asking about each of my children here.

He is from Ukraine, but was stationed here in Luga while he was in the Soviet military and ended up staying. He says he can’t go back to Ukraine. He is a “left-bank” Ukrainian, meaning he is from the Russian speaking area in the east which has become a place of horrible conflict. Early on I mentioned to him a couple of books I had read on Ukraine, and he sensed that my perspective on the events in Ukraine were not those of a typical American who just watches the Western news outlets.

Last week when I was in for my appointment he opened up a lot. He can’t go back to Ukraine because of what the Nazi leaning Ukrainians in Kiev have done to the country. When I said I am sad that those violent people have been helped with money and weapons from the American government, he looked at me with a sense of gratitude for saying that. We have discussed the heart-breaking manner in which the U.S. handled the situation in Ukraine. Victoria Nuland placed her famous intercepted phone call declaring the U.S. “pick” of who would lead Ukraine. Then Senator John McCain appeared on stage supporting Ukrainian rebels widely known for their neo-Nazi associates and sympathies. After the people of Crimea overwhelmingly voted to return to Russia, President Obama declared sanctions against Russia. Although Crimea had been Russian for most of its history and voted to return to Russia for its own security, the U.S. declared it a Putin ordered “invasion,” and Obama launched the sanctions. Since then the Ukrainian political leaders have been heavily influenced by the United States, and it is now the poorest country in Europe and one of the poorest countries in the world.

I think we talked for about 15 minutes before Dr. Smola actually started working on my neck. We do that a lot. He likes bouncing his ideas and frustrations off an American he can trust I guess. I like hearing his perspective as one who knows people in Ukraine and knows first hand what is going on. He and I have developed a real friendship.

There are others space does not allow me to describe in depth. The market is an interesting mixture of folks from different cultures. Quite a number of the vendors there are from the countries around the Caucasus mountain areas. (Hence the word “Caucasian” in Russian refers to people from these areas.) We buy fruit from one lady there from Azerbaijan named Sveta. Her father is Armenian and her mother Azerbaijani. She laughs that she is the only person in her family with a Russian name.

Her family, like many others at the market, spends the winters in their home country down south, then come live in Russia and sell their produce here in the growing seasons. The funniest incident (to me anyway) was when Sveta asked Oksana, “What kind of accent is that you have?” Apparently Oksana picked up a bit of an American accent after 8 years in America. She loves Sveta but was upset that someone with a thick Caucasian accent would ask such a question of her–a native born Russian!

We love buying fruit and vegetables there. Russia forbids GMOs. That means that if you leave the fruit out a long time, it turns brown and rots. But, like with the dairy, you can discern a more natural flavor. I love South Carolina tomatoes, but I thought the tomatoes we bought from Sveta last week were the best I have ever eaten.

We noticed that Sveta’s prices were clearly lower for the same fruit than other market vendors’, who, in addition, have a reputation for using weighted scales. Sveta emphatically told us several times, “My prices are lower, because I want you to keep coming back to me! Also I could never cheat and put weights on my scales! God forbids that! He would punish me!” Lower prices and delicious fruits and vegetables—we like Sveta even if she does talk about Oksana’s accent.

Living outside my own home country I treasure the friendships I have. Little things that make me feel a part of life here mean a lot to me. The other day after my appointment with Dr. Smola I paid my bill and was getting my coat and umbrella out of the locker when I heard someone call, “Maxim!” I knew immediately it was my priest, Batyushka Nicolai. He was dressed in street clothes, but we greeted each other in the traditional Orthodox manner right there in the waiting room. He was bringing his son in for a physical for school. Later he called and asked Oksana if he could come over and see our house while he was in town. He apologized for inviting himself over, but was dying to see our new home. He came and we showed him the house and had a cup of tea together. It was a good day. I hope my readers can sense from this blog entry why it is I see Russia and Russians so differently from how they are usually presented to the West–and how relationships really could be different between my two worlds.