My brother-in-law had a house in Fallsburg, the Catskill Mountains.  The Kastilsky Mountains, as the saleswoman at the Russian deli in Brighton Beach called it.  She was busy ladling salad Olivier from a plastic bucket when a regular customer asked her where she was going for a vacation.  “Kastilsky Mountains!” she yelled back, giving me a false impression of a strong Slavic influence over American geography.

It was the first time I was going to meet my brother-in-law and his family, and I wanted to make a good impression.  They lived in a creaky house with a compost pile in the back, next to outcroppings of rhubarb and a grouping of tomato plants fighting for sunshine against tall weeds the size of small trees.  Patches of strawberry plants crept toward the woods and disappeared into a forest of nettles.  The word dacha – really nothing more than an overgrown plot of land my parents’ summer place had deteriorated into after my father’s death – floated up in my mind and made me think of mushrooms.

The timing and the place were perfect: it was late August, and all around the house stretched a forest of pines and aspens and even an occasional birch, the name of a foreign-currency store in Leningrad no Russian was allowed to enter.  There were no baskets in the house, so I picked up a Pathmark plastic bag and headed for the woods.

Through the loam of brown leaves and crumbling branches, as far as I could see, sprouted mushrooms: red caps on stout stems flecked with black; gray caps on long, skinny legs; and the best mushrooms called belye – the Zeus of the mushroom Olympus – with velvety tops the color of chocolate.  Some were in their prime, others – crumbling from age, a sight you never see in a Russian forest where every mushroom is picked before it has a chance to grow to its full size.  Twenty minutes later – a record for a mushroom hunt – my plastic bag was full.

Back in the house, I was ready for a frying pan and butter.  “What are these?” said my niece, 3, wrinkling up her nose.  Her mother gave my husband a startled look and pulled her daughter closer.  As I cleaned and diced the mushrooms and piled them into the pan, a small circle formed around me to watch: my husband, my brother-in-law, his wife, my husband’s parents, and someone who seemed to have walked in and stayed.  The familiar aroma of the dacha filled the kitchen as the mushrooms sizzled into a perfect, dark, meaty stew.  It tasted thick and foresty, just like it did back home.  “It’s ready,” I announced with a generous smile.  “Please have some.  Everyone should try it.”

No one moved.  They stood in a silent circle around the stove, staring at the steaming heap in the pan.  No one reached for a plate.  No one rushed to set the table in anticipation of a feast, as they would have done back in Russia.  The smell of wild mushrooms didn’t excite anyone but me.  A scary thought popped into my head: if these people had never heard of eating wild mushrooms, what other things in life that I knew how to do, were alien to them?  What else about me would frighten them, make them suspicious, turn them against me?

I felt pitiful and hopeless under the stare of seven people who wouldn’t try the mushrooms I’d gathered and cooked for them.  It dawned on me that my mother could have been right, after all, when she warned me that America was the mouth of a shark.  It was even worse, I thought: it was the mouth of an alien shark, odd and unknown, and I had no clue where to watch out for the teeth.

As we all stood there in silence, my husband took the fork from my hand, drove it deep into the pile of mushrooms I made, and filled his mouth with the fragrant stew.  “Excellent,” he announced as he chewed and swallowed.  “I highly recommend it,” he said as everyone looked away and promptly disappeared.

The Saga of Sandals

I came to the U.S. with one pair of shoes, the best pair I’d ever owned – thanks to a friend with connections – Hungarian and made of real leather.  They had black laces in the front and thick rubber soles perfect for April in Leningrad, when the snow turns into dirty porridge and walking becomes wading.  But now it was August, and with the 91 degree sun melting the asphalt behind the window, they looked out of place.

My new American husband’s mother took me to a shoe store.  Alarmingly, it was full of shoes.  Loafers, espadrilles, ballerina slippers, pumps, clogs, flip-flops, sandals – in colors that brought to mind Matisse paintings hanging in the Hermitage – with heels, skinny and solid, high and low, and with no heels at all – were perched on gleaming plastic stands that radiated from the center of the room as far as my eyes could see.

“What do you like?” my husband’s mother said, and as I realized she wanted me to make a choice, my heart sank.  I desperately looked around, and a saleswoman promptly sidled up to us.  “How may I help you?” she cooed in a sickening voice that made my stomach contract.  They were both looking at me now, waiting for an answer to a simple question, expecting me to choose one perfect drop in the glittering ocean of footwear.  They waited patiently as the ocean rose to my nostrils and threatened to drown me.  I took a deep breath as if it were my last.  What could I possibly say?  That Leningrad shoe stores had two models on the floor, both made from rubberized plastic and produced by the “Bolshevik Woman” factory?  That I had no idea how much any of these shimmering shoes cost or how they correlated with my husband’s mother’s budget?  That I didn’t even know what American shoe size I wore?

After what seemed like minutes of silence, my mother-in-law said something to the saleswoman, who vanished and then reappeared holding a hefty metal gauge with end pieces that looked like teeth.  The word “torture” floated to the surface of my mind and froze there.  The woman motioned for me to take off my Hungarian contraptions and step onto the cold surface of her metal instrument.  I cringed as I unlaced, baring my hot, sweaty foot.  The teeth lurched forward, then stopped.  Seven and a half, said the woman and grinned.  Back behind the Iron Curtain I wore size thirty-six, which made me think of a Russian joke: the Soviet Union proudly announced to the world that it owned the biggest of everything – the largest microchip, the tallest dwarf.  I saw my mother-in-law holding a pair of sandals – a half-an-inch sole with an elegant band across the instep – that wrapped perfectly around my feet.  The saleswoman curled her lips in a smile and nodded her head in satisfaction, as if she was the one who had cobbled those sandals together and made them fit.

“Why don’t you wear them out?” suggested my husband’s mother, a question I didn’t understand.  Wear them out?  They were new, American, leather, perfectly-fitting sandals that had to be revered.  How could I wear them out?  How could I trivialize a pair of shoes that were going to replace my Hungarian wonders?  These were shoes that had to be celebrated, relished, tried on in front of a mirror at home, admired, and exalted before I could slip my feet into their perfect straps and announce them to the world.

“No, let’s take them with us,” I said, putting back on my old shoes, which suddenly began to pinch.  I couldn’t see the saleswoman’s face, but I was sure she was smirking.  As my mother-in-law paid, I glanced in the mirror, conveniently attached to one of the shoe pedestals.  What I saw was sorrowful and depressing – my previously glamorous Hungarian shoes had instantly lost their luster; the words “Bolshevik Woman” might as well have been scrolled all over their surface.  I hobbled out of the store with the boxed sandals in my hands, my mother-in-law trotting behind me, probably questioning her son’s sanity as I was questioning my own.  Why, despite all logical reasons, couldn’t I bring myself to take the new sandals out of the box and wear them, as people obviously did here, as I should have done if I ever wanted to fit in?  Why was I so stubborn, so foolish, so unable to conform?  Why was I so utterly un-American?  My old shoes pulled on my feet like lead weights as I walked out into the foreign heat, doubting my whole future in this glimmering place of abundance.

The No Stop Bus Stop

Thirty years ago, I stepped off an Aeroflot plane into the 95-degree August of Washington, D.C.  The most shocking thing – after I recovered from a ride in an air-conditioned car on a 5-lane highway – was the absence of smells.  The air wasn’t heavy with the sweet, sickening fumes of unleaded gasoline; grocery stores didn’t reek of rotting potatoes and milk turning sour; and crowds in museums smelled of soap and deodorant instead of unwashed clothes and sweat.  The weather itself was foreign, too – a familiar dampness borne out of the proximity to a vast body of water oddly mixed with stagnant southern heat.

A few days later, after my first trip to a shoe store for a pair of sandals, I stood alone at a bus stop waiting for a bus that would take me to the Soviet Embassy to register my arrival and have my passport stamped with the words “admitted for permanent residence.”  It was late morning, and the bus shelter was empty.  I sat down on a bench inside, then got up and stood outside the glass wall, hoping to catch a limp sigh of hot wind.  A bus heaved from around the corner and roared past without slowing down.  That seemed odd, but maybe it was off duty, I thought.  Ten minutes later, another bus appeared and, just like the first one, rolled past the bus stop, washing the little shelter with scorching fumes.  A doubt crept into my head that something was wrong.  Was this really a bus stop and not simply a rain shelter?  Did American buses make their usual rounds on off-peak hours?  Did I look so different they didn’t want to allow me onboard?  When the third bus left me there standing in its wake, I felt desperate and defeated.  I thought I’d never make it to the Embassy to have my permanent status validated.  I saw myself wailing and kicking, being forced on the return Aeroflot flight to Moscow.  I imagined those bus drivers taking one look at me – standing there alone in a sundress my sister had sewn out of a batch of Soviet cotton with a corn flower print – and knowing immediately I looked suspicious and undeserving of being allowed on a good air-conditioned American bus.  Could they tell I just arrived from the USSR?  The word “alien,” or even worse – “enemy” –  might as well have been burned into my forehead.  Hot and hopeless, dripping with un-American sweat, I stood there and cried.

Spring and Spicy Stew

On the first day of spring, when the snow piles in St. Petersburg, Russia, are reaching up to the second floor windows, I’d like to offer a recipe for chanakhi, a spicy stew, perfect for both cold and warm weather.  Why is it that a favorite Russian dish, if you ask a Russian, almost always turns out to be a Georgian recipe?   Russians love Georgian food – unlike Russian dishes, it is spicy and bursting with flavor.

Ingredients: 1 lb of lamb cut into 1-inch cubes; 1,5 lbs of potatoes cut into pieces of any shape; 1/2 lb of tomatoes cut in half; 3/4 lb of eggplant chopped in cubes; 1/2 lb of cut string beans; 1 chopped-up onion; fresh cilantro

Preparation: Put the lamb and all other ingredients into a ceramic casserole, salt and pepper generously, pour in 2 cups of water, cover, and place into an oven for 1 1/2-2 hours.  Serve in the same ceramic dish.

I often turn this recipe into a soup, using the same ingredients but making it in a pot on top of the stove.  The lamb goes in first and cooks in 6-8 cups of water for about 45 min.  After that, you can add bay leaf, peppercorns, and all the rest.

All my friends and family (none of whom is from Georgia) have different recipes for chanakhi.  My sister, for example, never puts in tomatoes.  My friend Irina adds chickpeas.  My friend Anya adds a spoonful of adjika, or any hot sauce.

Does anyone out there have a different recipe for chanakhi, perhaps an old family recipe?   Or even better – do you have an interesting recipe you always thought would go to the grave with you?  I would love to hear stories of Russian meals that were special, funny, or meaningful to you and your family.  Please write them in the comment space after this post.  I also would love to hear from any of you who were born in Russia or went there as a visitor and might have interesting experiences you would like to share.  Thank you.  Spasibo!

International Women’s Day

March 8 is International Women’s Day, a day that used to be marked in red on our Soviet calendars, a day when branches of pussy willows sprouting little balls of fuzz – the first puffs of spring – migrated from kiosks scattered all over the city to the hands of men, who carefully carried awkward bunches on the tram and the metro back home to their wives.  In schools, the last period on March 7 was canceled, so that the boys could clumsily produce pencil sharpeners and pocket combs out of their bags and hand them to the girls, the future international women.

At home, the day was devoted to chopping, baking, and stewing, with heavenly aromas of food floating out of kitchens onto apartment building landings.  Women in aprons raced between refrigerators and stoves, as men in slippers lounged on divans with a Pravda article and a glass of beer next to the pussy willows they had brought a few hours earlier.  At night, when zakuski and the stews were ready and arranged on dishes allowed out of the cupboard only on major holidays, beer glasses were replaced with vodka shots to toast the beauty, talent, and endurance of women.  The women, in the meantime, raced between the kitchen and the divan, which now served as a bench for the table brimming with food.  Men made toasts and told jokes.  “What is the difference between the East and the West?  In the West, there is everything in the store and nothing on the table.  In the East, there is nothing in the store and everything on the table.”  We knew nothing about the West back then, but the part about the East was staring us in the face.  At the end of the night, after bending over a bathtub full of dirty plates, women could finally stop racing and drink to the day devoted entirely to them.