Mushroom Picking, Naked Saunas and Vodka Exchange Rates: Life in the Russian Countryside (1992)

One of the major benefits of growing up in a Western city is the seemingly unlimited availability of everything, with a choice of food that is obscene. I fondly remember a Russian friend's first visit to Sainsbury's, as she stared incredulously at the potato section.

"There are TEN different types of potato! Why so many? In Russia, a potato is a potato."

"Until it becomes vodka," I replied.

One of the major disadvantages of growing up in a Western city is the disassociation at birth from the ways of Mother Nature. Coming from a culture where 'fresh' tomatoes, pineapples and kiwi are available all year, it was perhaps not surprising to hear the musings of a fellow expat on my idyllic Croatian island:

"There don't seem to be any tomatoes. They have been really hard to find since the Summer. I wonder why?"

Russian Cultural Experiences - In Search of the Perfect Mushroom

My culinary inadequacies were perhaps most lastingly highlighted in my psyche by the withering look of a six-year old Russian girl, whose total contempt at my triumphant find of my first Russian mushroom, in a forest north of St. Petersburg, informed me there was a massive void in knowledge on how things grow:

"Those are poisonous. Everyone knows that." I will try anything once (although the dog kebab in Seoul and the rat cutlet in Guyana are not top of my list for repeats), but it took more than the usual ration of distilled potato to convince me that I really wanted to spend my first free weekend in weeks trekking round a monastery as a prelude to the main event - the Russian national pastime of mushroom picking.

A whole morning was allocated to the event, which consisted of wandering through the forest, scouring the ground for mushrooms. I stopped listening at that point, but Fiona, my partner in crime in this Russian adventure, sat politely through a detailed explanation on the subtleties of mushroom picking.

Although not keen, we entered into the spirit of things and set off enthusiastically into the woods, wondering once again how we ended up in situations like this. We were eight in total, aged from six to sixty, and attacked the forest as if de-mining it, or as part of a forensics team: each had his own patch and progress was slow, cautious and focused.

Fiona and I were the crappest mushroom pickers ever seen in the region, and a little like the incident with the milkless American cows, the locals looked at us with curiosity - if these two were the pride of the West, perhaps Communism and the Soviet Union weren't so bad after all?

As the rest of the team picked up numerous mushrooms, we were lagging behind until Fiona and I had a simultaneous find - two juicy mushrooms! We screamed out joyously, announcing our find. Whether to humour or encourage us, I am not sure, but the whole posse headed in our direction to celebrate our find, and we watched as each cheerful face turned incredulous that we could have interrupted their sport for such an obviously poisonous mushroom. Westerners!

Russian Cultural Experiences - The Weekend Dacha Visit

We were on a mission and decided to avail ourselves of every opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the earthy nature of Mother Russia, so when we were invited to spend the weekend at a friend's dacha, some 80km south of Petersburg, we jumped at the chance.

Asking what we needed to bring, we were told to bring as many half litre bottles of vodka as we could carry, not for drinking (well not all of it), for vodka was gorodski dyengi, or 'city money' - we were soon to find out why.

As Volodya's battered pale blue Lada took more punishment on the final approach on a rough road to the hamlet where they had bought a dacha, Natasha took great delight in pointing out the various local landmarks - fruit and vegetable related of course. Cranberries were divine in that forest, the mushrooms should be ready over there and so on. She was looking forward to all the potatoes and apples they would be returning with. That sounded like hard work to us, for even I, with my city background, had worked out that kilos of apples and potatoes don't magically appear in sacks.

I needn't have worried. Within minutes of our arrival at the decidedly rustic two-storey wooden house, there was a grunt from outside. Volodya disappeared with a bottle of city money, chatted with the grunter and reappeared with the bottle. He had just negotiated the purchase of twenty kilos of potatoes and had shown the seller that the currency was genuine. Volodya had learned from experience that paying in advance in these situations adversely affected delivery.

Russian Cultural Experiences - The Russian Sauna

More grunters appeared and were dispatched to different parts of the surrounding countryside, while Volodya was focusing on what was for him the main event of the weekend, our private banya, or Russian sauna.

We found the little hamlet enchanting, with its full-time population of two old ladies, abandoned by the young who had left long ago for life in the city. Volodya's pride and joy was the banya he had built behind his house, and it quickly dawned on us both that the real reason for the weekend invitation was so that he and Fiona could spend some time in the sauna.

We had heard about the Russian banya, with its birch tree branches immersed in hot water before being used to lightly beat the body in what was allegedly a very enjoyable and therapeutic experience. Fiona and I were debating the etiquette of the Russian banya - girls first, boys second, or all together, in which case what to wear? - when any further questions were pre-empted by our hosts, who both stripped naked and then invited us to do the same, with Volodya's gaze firmly fixed on my friend.

We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and went native, and within seconds found ourselves sat in surreal naked sweltering silence in the sauna, which was very hot indeed. "Who's first?" enquired Volodya.

"Paul", answered Fiona, before asking what was on the agenda. I was told to lie down on the wooden bench, while Fiona was invited to choose some birch branches which had been quietly soaking in hot water in the corner. Under Volodya's keen instruction, she then proceeded to beat me from my neck down.

This was my first banya, in July, and an experience I will never forget, but for an added twist, a banya in a Siberian winter is worth the effort. Having been beaten with the birch branches in the heat of the sauna, my colleagues then tossed me stark naked out into the snow and, for twenty seconds - no more - the feeling of rolling around naked in the snow in temperatures of minus twenty after the intense heat, was exquisite. By second twenty-one, the body told me it was time to beat a hasty retreat to the salt fish and beer inside.

Russian Cultural Experiences - Home Delivery Service

Having survived Volodya's attentions, we dressed and returned to the house, to find two huge sacks of apples, 40kg in all, by the front door, with an anxious-looking peasant looking for his payment. Our host disappeared into the house and fetched four half litres of city money.

And here's an interesting cultural difference between home delivery in the UK and the Russian countryside: ordering for home delivery is a simple process - order placed by phone, deliveryman paid on delivery, end of transaction, except in Russia, where the deliveryman was so desperate to cash in that he simply opened the first bottle and settled in to a solo session in our front garden.

We left him to it and he was still there the next morning. He was not alone. We were woken at 3am by another grunter, who had stolen 20kg of potatoes from a farm 10km away, hauled his illicit cache through the forest and demanded instant payment and gratification. The front garden was a war zone in the morning.

I thoroughly enjoyed my forays into Russian nature, and I often raise a smile, as I pick up my nicely packed mushrooms or choose from a variety of potatoes at the supermarket. You get what you pay for but Sainsbury's is quite handy, isn't it?

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