This was my 12th visit to Chita in all these years, and for most of them leave-taking has been a wonderful comedy of scheduling, generosity, and impossible luggage. This time was no exception.
It begins with going mushrooming, which I finally did exactly one week before my departure date for Irkutsk on Thursday, August 10.
My host, Andrei Mikhailovich, took me with his wife and her sister (my friend), Tanya to a village an hour east of Chita, Ilyinka, a favorite mushrooming location of his. This was the site, or one of the sites, of gold mining around the turn of the century 100+ years ago by the Shumov brothers. Their operations ended with the revolution in 1917.
Andrei’s driver, Sergei Ivanovich, took us in the big Land Cruiser off the main road onto a small track into the woods and fields beyond the village and into an area where the mining took place. The evidence that remains now are sandy piles still bare after all these years, and large spring-filled pools that were once mine pits. There had been thundershowers in the last few days, so the road was muddy and the woods wet. Thunderstorms loomed that day, too.
After stopping at four spots and waiting out a shower, we gave it up. A bad mushrooming day. I found one good one and many bad ones (knowing almost nothing about mushrooming I just picked everything and let the experts see if I had anything good.) Andrei promised we would come again on Monday, four days later.
Meanwhile, Victor and Elena want me to come to their dacha one more time and I had proposed the next day, Friday, but they couldn’t, so suggested the next Monday, to which I said I must honor Andrei’s mushrooming invitation and could it be on Tuesday? This opened up Friday to go to Elena Pishcherskaya’s parents’ dacha, a wonderful visit, which I wrote about in the previous post. Victor and Elena said yes to Tuesday.
Meanwhile I texted my Gorod Detstva/City of Childhood friends I worked with at the beginning of my visit (see posts 1, 2 and 4), and they worked out that Tuesday would be good and I’d come for a banya at Elena Anatolievna’s (head of Gorod Detstva) dacha and all would assemble for dinner. I said Tuesday was taken and only daytimes and Wednesday evening looked possible. They took Wednesday, but that meant no banya and no visit to the neighboring dacha that I’d visited right at the beginning, the owner (Sergey?) having promised me some “samagon” to take home. Samagon is home-distilled spirits. I had had a taste of his production, one with lemon, the other with cedar nuts–tasty! What a shame to miss that!
Then a crisis arose when Tanya said Andrei suddenly switched mushrooming to Tuesday. Feeling that I owe him so much, I have never felt I can just say, “Oh well, I guess Andrei will have to do without me,” so I called Olga to see if Victor and Elena might be flexible. She thought not, and was quite worried about all this. They had made real preparations and their son, Vova, got time off from his highway police administrative job to come for the day, too. Though I told Olga to sit tight until I got definite news from Tanya, she nevertheless called Victor and Elena and they ended up switching the visit to Monday anyway, even though there was no concrete news that Andrei had switched to Tuesday yet. So I told Tanya about this so she could tell Andrei.
On Monday morning, I met one last time with Lyuda Sviridova, my pianist friend.
We intended one last session of reading duets, but instead she found we were given permission to use the Steinway concert grand in the main hall and their recording engineer ended up recording our 40 minute duet performance we had prepared for my parents’ 70th anniversary (August 2) on that beautiful instrument. While the sound was wonderful, neither Lyuda nor I were at our best and we made a lot of goofs. (I wish we’d had a little warning!). Still, it was fun, and afterwards Lyuda admonished me to send a publicity photo and a date next summer for our Philharmonia concert asap. She also sternly told me to get composing because they want something new from me for that concert. Yikes.
Monday afternoon was a beautiful day with banya and dinner in the new gazebo that Victor and Elena had just finished. There were showers every once in a while, cooling the air and limiting the strong sun–all enjoyed outside under the gazebo’s translucent plastic roof. But I still hadn’t heard about mushrooming on Tuesday.
The next morning Tanya called to say the mushrooming would indeed happen that afternoon. I asked if we’d have dinner, too, since in the whole summer Andrei and Lyuda had only gotten together with me once for dinner (unlike my previous two visits) and that was right at the beginning. Knowing a little bit about Russian hospitality and the joys/obligations of hosthood, I was certain Andrei would want to invite me, and with so little time left, thought that would be logical. But she said no, there was no dinner planned.
Tuesday’s mushrooming was another bust: another several beautiful strolls in the woods–and tailgate picnic–with less than two quarts of mushrooms among five pickers to show for it. As they dropped me off at the hotel afterwards, Andrei asked what day I was leaving and I told him Thursday, two days hence. He suddenly looked alarmed. He asked to take me to dinner the next evening–not possible–so he suggested lunch on Thursday–possible. And he asked how I was getting to the airport–Elena and Vitaly were driving me.
Wednesday morning was spent buying souvenirs and flowers for all the women who’d helped me during the stay. Besides friends, that included the cook and her staff in the brick factory cafeteria, and all hotel managers who rotated across the week and the hotel’s custodial staff. I also gave some keychains with tiny Minnesota license plates to the two men who cared for the beautiful car I was given by Andrei to drive while in Chita.
Wednesday evening I picked up Tanya for the dinner at a Buryat restaurant with the Gorod Detstva gang. She said Andrei and Lyuda had dropped by the hotel earlier, but I wasn’t there. They had brought gifts for me, and left them in the room. They assured Tanya that they would not be too heavy to carry home. We drove to the restaurant and saw that Elena Anatolievna and her husband Sergey had arrived at the same time. Elena started walking to our car, and I joked to Tanya, “Well her parting gift is either a very heavy coffee table book or a big jar of jam.” But it was worse: a quart of her neighbor’s cedar samagon, two jars of homemade preserved vegetables and two large plastic bags of cedar nuts, one for me and one for Marie, who taught there last year! She handed me the bag and with her best deadpan humor said, “It isn’t much. Feel the bag, it can’t be even 10 kilos.” Another great dinner, and it convinced me of the crucial need to learn Russian: to be able to understand why everyone is always cracking up when Elena Anatolievna tells stories!
When I got back to the hotel I saw the gifts from Andrei and Lyuda: a large presentation bottle of high class vodka in a beautiful box, two colorful tins of tea, one of them very large, and a framed painting of a winter scene of the historic 19th century fire station on Chkalova Street. Aaaa! Olga, Victor and Elena came by with small gifts for Chuck, Judy, and my parents.
How the hell @#%#…! No! I was determined that I would bring all of it home….!! Two years before I left behind with Tanya a very heavy bag of gifts–coffee table books and a music box–and she had given it back to me. That was coming home, too, Hang the excess baggage expense!! With a large hardshell suitcase with zipper expansion, parental and Boy Scout training, a cool head (and no one around to hear the curse words), the full power of my advanced academic degrees…and a whole free Thursday morning…I got [almost!] everything packed in that suitcase, my carry-on and my daypack. I only left behind two pairs of shoes, and the large tin of tea and the framed painting both of which will be sent by mail.
Before the packing efforts, I checked email in the hotel’s lounge where there was access to wifi. The cook for the brick factory, Olga Nikolaevna, found me there and gave me two bags with a large melon and various vegetables from the factory’s kitchen garden, all for the train trip she thought I was taking to Irkutsk that afternoon. Taking the train was always the logical choice for getting to Irkutsk from Chita. It was 18 hours through serene countryside, and the norm was to bring food and all compartment-mates would share what they brought. But I told her I was flying instead. Still, she gave me the bags, and then she gave me a message. She said she was very glad I came and was glad about Siberian Bridges. She said I must come again and bring people with me. She watched the news and was worried about the relations between our countries. She quoted the Bible, but my Russian was too limited to understand and I told her that. So she said, “No problem,” and then spread her arms wide and named, “Italy, Germany, United States, Russia, China, Africa…” and then drew her arms inward to make a circle. I said I understood her completely.
Lunch that afternoon with Andrei et al was at 2:30 in a very elegant restaurant. I asked Elena when it should be over so we’d get to the airport in time, but she wouldn’t name a time, only that she’d be waiting, staring at her phone. Lunch began to drag and more food was ordered. Andrei and Lyuda complained that we hadn’t done much this summer and it was a shame. Lyuda cited a pop song that said “leaving is hard, but it is harder for the ones who stay behind”. This was all getting pretty misty-eyed, me included. We talked about next year, about what a shame it was our countries were having such a bad relationship, about how they really hoped I was coming back–I assured them I was and that I felt like such a freeloader because they were so generous to me, and they said that was silly. And so on. Finally Elena called to say I really better get back to the hotel. It took another 20 minutes to get moving. Elena and Vitaly were sitting in their van in the hotel parking lot. I hustled up to get my bags. Andrei, Lyuda and Tanya and Andrei’s daughter Natasha, wanted to go the the airport, too. Oy vey! Traffic was horrendous at 5:30pm. We arrived with only an hour before flight time, and Tanya, Natasha, Olga, Elena, Vitaly, Pasha and Sasha all accompanied me to last security check before the departure lounge (“Expectation Hall”). Andrei and Lyuda stayed downstairs (enough was enough!). Last pictures, last hugs, last waves, last blown kisses.
I write this in my Hong Kong hotel room exactly one week later. I’m on the 25th floor of a skyscraper among a forest of skyscrapers in Hong Kong Central, near Causeway Bay, watching the endless coming and going of ferries, and just below a school’s sport field with tiny figures running tiny distances after soccer balls. The room is cool with stark white linens and walls, and white-noised with the endless blowing of the air conditioner (against the 91 degrees and high humidity on the other side of the glass).
Yesterday I visit two very old friends, Craig and Alison, in their apartment in the Mid Levels, a zone halfway up the steep mountain of Hong Kong Island, filled with highrise apartment buildings, approached by narrow roads snaking up canyons of highrises grounded by shop after shop, both simple and high style. Craig is an executive in a publishing company and a composer, Alison is an artist. Their apartment is crowded with old, dark, Chinese furniture worn smooth like river stones, with long shelves of books and old LPs from the 1950s-1980s, with Asian artwork, crafts, calligraphy and some Russian icons all in muted dark colors, and three quiet and shy orange cats…a lair. We talk about my visits to Chita and this 28 year relationship with it, and about music (Satie and Schumann and others, and Paul Zukofsky) about being an American abroad for longish visits and for career-long stays. Craig comments that my Chita stories are like a 350 page Russian novel. I wonder if I romanticize it all. As the slow unmarked day passes into dusk–a Hong Kong version, as Craig noted, of the “dacha” days I so liked this summer–he says that he thinks I do romanticize my time in Chita…
And just as he says that, I realize that I don’t.