Sunday, 5th July: Knowing I would otherwise be alone in Moscow for the weekend, Maxim very kindly invited me to spend it with his family at his dacha. I’ll admit I was a bit worried, as his English is good but, as far as I knew, his wife and children have none at all – so I would be hard work for Maxim and probably a bit of a nuisance to everyone else. But he assured me it would be fine and, anyway, he had bought himself a fishing boat and could do with some help.
Perhaps I should say something about “dachas” before continuing. The dacha is a uniquely Russian concept. You often hear about Russian politicians escaping to their dachas for the summer, so you might be inclined to think that I had been invited to some sort of luxury country pad. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. This article explains that, during the 60’s, the government allowed every Russian to claim a small plot of land and build a ‘summer house’, for leisure and/or for raising their own fruit and vegetables.
A taxi collected me from the motel on Saturday morning and I arrived at Maxim’s Moscow home to find him hooking up the “fishing boat” to his 6-wheel V8 Ford truck, onto which he had already loaded an appropriately muscular-looking ATV quad bike. His wife, Valeria, and children, Max2 and Dascha, and their Yorkie dog, occupied the bone-jarring back seat, leaving me the (infinitely) more comfortable front passenger seat. I didn’t argue. We stopped to pick up food and fuel and were quickly on our way.
Maxim’s dacha, on the banks of the Volga River, about 100 miles north of Moscow, doesn’t quite measure up to the picture-postcard image from the article. Bought over an internet auction, it comprises about a hectare of land in the middle of a forest, on which stand the dilapidated remains of a railway workers’ holiday resort. Our journey was slightly delayed by traffic to Russia’s answer to the Glastonbury Festival. Traffic stopped while hordes of pedestrians, already in varying states of intoxication and undress, trooped to and from the car park, blocking the route to the ferry.
Once over the river, the tarmac ran out and the road became sand until we suddenly turned off into a field, where the only evidence of traffic was a pair of ATV tracks disappearing into a thick wood – and we were in a vast SUV-type truck, towing a 20’ boat! We had to wind the windows up to stop the tree branches slapping us in the face and populating the cab with bugs and spiders! The trail passed two or three ramshackle flat-roofed buildings. Maxim smiled and said “This is where you are sleeping.” I nodded and smiled back. “You think I am joking”, he said, and paused before adding, still smiling, “I’m not.”
He wasn’t. The place did, in fact, have windows at the front, but no electricity or running water and consisted of two rooms with several beds in each. Maxim’s family took one room and I got the huge ‘kitchen’ and a choice of 6 single day beds/sofas.
But, first things first, the most important thing was to get the boat in the water. There were a few other families with boats at the river bank, so there were plenty of men around, only too pleased to help launch Maxim’s shiny new speed boat. No matter that no one seemed to have the first clue what they were doing. As with everything this weekend, it was all good humoured and there was a lot of laughter. Despite having been brought up around power boats, sailing dinghies are more my thing recently but, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King!
One of the guys pushed us off the shore and threw the painter rope back into the boat, while Maxim tried to start it. He looked to the crew, but I couldn’t help. We drifted out. The other men started shouting instructions from the shore. A phone call was made to the previous owner and, after a couple of minutes, the engine burbled to life. With no further ado, Maxim opened the throttle and we sped off up river for a few practice runs before coming back to collect the family. Valeria and Dascha didn’t seem wild about the boat to start with, but Max2 loved it, “Buistra, Papa! Buistra!”
I don’t think I’ve been in a powerboat of any kind since long before my father died in 1982. The boat, thumping across the slightly choppy water at speed, brought back so many happy memories. I wondered whether the fact that I was a) used to the motion of a powerboat, and b) clearly enjoying it, helped Valeria relax a bit … even if Dascha continued to cling to her like a limpet!
We stopped to let the children play on a little artificial island that was being used commercially for the extraction of sand. It wasn’t hard to imagine the excitement for a small boy, arriving by boat on the shores of a giant sandcastle. All he needed was a cutlass and a Jolly Roger flag! I had completely lost track of time, but was vaguely aware of lengthening shadows. I looked at my watch and was surprised to find it had already gone 7pm. Valeria signalled that it was time to light the barbeque back at base.
This was my first proper look at our accommodation. Behind the featureless backs of the ramshackle buildings we had seen on the way to the riverbank, there were a dozen or so other small wooden houses that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Bembridge Forelands. They were rather charming in a dilapidated sort of a way, but terribly overgrown with nettles, shrubs and small saplings. There were also some rusty children’s swings and a little playground roundabout. When Maxim bought the land, he understood that the buildings had been abandoned for about 10 years but, in fact, there were three or four other families using them. He greeted everyone like an old friend, but confessed he hadn’t a clue who most of them were.
A rusty metal box on wobbly legs was retrieved from the undergrowth and filled with charcoal, twigs, broken roof shingles, and any other combustible material, onto which barbeque fuel was liberally sprinkled, creating a reasonably-sized inferno. We applied mosquito repellent and opened some slightly warm bottled beer and white wine and waited for the charcoal to reach cooking temperature. Dinner consisted of barbequed marinated chicken pieces, ‘cakes’, bread, tomatoes and cheese, and the obligatory cold tea. By 10pm, we were all exhausted and I retired to my dormitory room, where I chose one of two beds that appeared to have been made up with sheets and a blanket. It had a thin, slightly hollow, mattress, and I slept like a log.
On Sunday morning, I was woken at 6.30am by movements in the room next door, which sounded as if some sort of breakfast was being prepared. I don’t know Maxim terribly well, and had no idea whether they might be early risers. In any event, I didn’t want to be the annoying guest who one is forever having to wait for, so I thought I’d better get up. I gave myself a bit of a wash with baby wipes and got dressed. I was well and truly awake by the time I realised that there was another family in the adjoining part of the building. Maxim and his family were still fast asleep and the other buildings were quiet, so I took advantage of my solitude to visit the outhouse. Mercifully, faced with a smelly, dark, spider-infested ‘dunny’, my normally all-too-regular plumbing had gone into emergency shut-down mode, and I could only manage a pee.
Breakfast consisted of tea or coffee, croissants, small doughnut-like cakes, and the leftover sausages from last night’s dinner. We didn’t waste much time on it, as there were more important things to do. Max2 was clearly wanting a ride on the ATV, so it was unloaded from the truck. He’s too young to use it on his own, of course, but that doesn’t prevent him sitting astride it twisting the handlebars and making revving noises – much as you would expect from any small boy.
Valeria wanted mushrooms, so the two Maxims were delegated to collect them. I haven’t yet mentioned that I am still using a stick, as walking any distance is still a bit of an effort. Maxim asked me whether I could ride the ATV. “Err, no”, I said. “There is first time”, he said, to which I couldn’t argue, and he gave me a 30-second run-down of the controls. Max2 gleefully jumped aboard and pushed the starting button, at which point I suggested to Maxim that maybe taking his son and heir for a ride on my first attempt might not be altogether safe. He agreed and asked Max2 to get down.
At this point, I really must mention that Max2 is one of the nicest, most unselfish, children I’ve ever met. There had been absolutely no doubt that what he wanted, more than anything else, was for Papa to give him a ride on the ATV – and, once it was unloaded from the truck, he must have been sure that he was going to get one. In my limited experience, almost any other child his age would have gone into meltdown, but not Max2. He and Maxim set off down the track on foot, while I took a first test run to the riverbank on the ATV.
On my way back, Maxim directed me to turn left onto an almost invisible trail through thick woodland and told me to follow it to the creek. Well, I’m guessing that most people would learn to handle an ATV riding in circles, graduating to figures-of-eight, in a safe open space. Not me. I found myself riding up and down steep dips and ducking under branches, and having to reverse every now and again to manoeuvre around fallen branches and other obstacles. I quickly got used to the machine, but not without a few ‘oh shit’ moments! The small bridge over the creek was broken so we made our way back to the trail, coming across a patch of tiny wild strawberries on our way. We collected as many as we could find and I was dispatched back to base with the haul, while the two Maxims went to find some mushrooms for Mama.
Actually, the strawberries weren’t quite sweet enough to appeal to the children, leaving all the more for the grown-ups, but the mushrooms were spectacular in anyone’s book.
Initially, the children hadn’t known quite what to make of me – this strange foreign woman who doesn’t understand anything! Dascha was overcome with shyness at any hint of eye contact, but Max2 seemed relatively at ease with the whole idea … until I tried out my three or four Russian words, which completely threw him! My saving grace was my folding walking stick, which Max2 found a dozen uses for: Jedi light sabre, Pirate’s cutlass, Samurai sword, Gondolier’s oar… Maxim said, rather apologetically, that Max2 was a “very active” boy, but I didn’t find him abnormally so. He’s a polite and thoughtful child, and always gave my stick straight back if I asked. He took a shine to my camera too, so I let him try it out.
Later, Maxim asked me if I had a shortened ‘familiar’ version of my name and suggested “Biddy”. I had to laugh. I don’t think he could have possibly known how appropriate a nickname that would have been, given that most ‘old biddies’ in the UK have flowery folding walking sticks, just like mine. Maxim explained that Max2 wanted to call me “Aunt Biddy”. Old biddy or not, I couldn’t have been more flattered.
We took the boat to a local restaurant for lunch, after which I was expecting that we would drive back to Moscow. Instead, we went back to our riverbank, where the children learned to swim in their life jackets. Max2 did, anyway. Dascha was true to type. Papa led her into the shallow water, where she splashed about a bit until she decided it was too cold. Then she ran back to the safety of Mama. Maxim then waded out to supervise Max2’s swimming lesson, only for Dascha to race back into the water shouting “Papa, Papa!” So Maxim would leave Max2 and offer his hand to Dascha, who would then scream “Niet, Niet!” and rush back to Mama. I’m sure parents everywhere will recognise this routine.
Eventually, it was time to pack up and head back to the City … or so I thought. For it was now about 5pm, well after lunchtime, and I was aware that drive back into Moscow would be particularly dire with thousands of festival goers adding to the normal weight of Sunday traffic. But no, another picnic was laid out: more bread and cakes and the reheated remains of last night’s barbequed chicken. Then we cleared away the debris, packed up our things and prepared to lock up the house. But there was one important thing left to do. Before he loaded the ATV back into the truck, Maxim took Max2 for a quick spin around the woods.
Both children slept soundly in the back seat of the truck all the way back to Moscow. The weekend had been a magical experience for me, like taking a step back 40 years into my childhood. I really can’t thank Maxim and his family enough for making me feel so welcome.