3 different countries. 2 mysterious men. 1 girl with low-alcohol tolerance and a deadline.
LIST OF INGREDIENTS: MEMORY LOSS, KITCHEN SINK DRAMA, HOMO SOVIETICUS. THIS IS NEO-CHICK LIT. WITH A DARKER SIDE, A VODKA TWIST AND A GENEROUS SLICE OF POST-SOVIET LIVING.
Step into the former Soviet Union through the door of Ivy's kitchen...
It is the 1990s and Russian-speaking English Ph.D. student Ivy Scarlett Stone wakes up in a Moscow flat with a hangover and a vague sense of unease... Unable to remember what she did last night, or why there is a cryptic Post-it note on her fridge, she begins an emotional, alcohol-fuelled journey via an Uzbek wedding, an Estonian sauna, a Georgian serenade, and back to her own kitchen. What dark past haunts her new Russian man? And will she ever find the author of the mystery Post-it?
It's only her first night in Moscow, but are things meant to be quite this strange?
Chapter One - They keep secrets
Wash and stand small cucumbers in cold water for 4-5 hours. Place horse radish and wild cherry leaves (er, not available in supermarkets?) on bottom of jar and sprinkle with garlic cloves and salt. Lay cucumbers in and fill up jar with boiled warm water. Seal with paper or material (spare pair of pants?). Leave in warm room for 2 days and wait for fermenting process to begin...
Dec. 22 (mid 90s), Day 1.
"I could easily marry you," I say out loud.
It is the middle of the morning and I have just had the strangest dream. At least I think it was a dream. Since most of my blood seems to be in my face and my brain is only semi-operational, I have no idea what's real and what isn't. But the dream ended with me getting engaged and that bit's obviously not true.
Sitting upright now, I find myself face to face with speckled brown plumage, bird wings at eye-level. But where's the rest of it? Has bird's head burrowed through wall? This taxidermy trophy reminds me that I am in Moscow, renting a 1970s-era ex-Soviet flat.1
Ow! Fur bomb. Spitfire cat.
I inch myself out from under the kitty, as well as something heavy and scratchy with brown tassels. Why am I sleeping under hessian upholstery? The answer soon presents itself: the bedroom curtains are only half drawn because one of them is missing. In their heavy-handed attempts to yank them across the window somebody has managed to pull one curtain off. For simplicity's sake, I must have decided to sleep under it. But now I have a more pressing problem to deal with. Why, it dawns on me in a delayed-reaction time-lapse way, am I naked? Was that also for simplicity's sake or did something more substantial - such as the man of my dream - happen? This is more than the usual hangover unease, it definitely feels like there's a situation here. Draped across the outer edge of my pillow is a coarse hair. Coarser and browner than mine. Clue No.1?
Uh-oh, what is that gushing waterfall sound? Must get up. Must get serious. It's difficult to achieve a sense of purpose with no clothes on so I go in search. I stagger like a cave woman, swinging both arms for balance, to the living room. In the corridor I rebound off a wooden chair, which would never have happened if it had just stuck to its customary routine and stayed on the floor. What it thinks it's doing hanging from the wall I have no idea. And is that a bicycle behind the living room TV? For a moment I stare in stupefaction and wonder if there's a conspiracy at work here - Heavyweight Soviet Furniture vs. Flyweight English Newcomer.
As I bend down to collect a faded navy top saying 'I Support Gorillas' on it from the living-room floor, the tractor engine inside my head slumps forward and crashes into my skull. And look! Here's a pair of pants - mine as well, I notice with relief. I stand up too quickly and whoah, Hangover Hotel. I've never had one like this before, but then I don't normally drink vodka in wine-glass units.
I stare stupidly around. In the underbelly of the sofa bed I see that a brother- hood of glasses has gathered. I register that there is a large box with dials on it in front of me. In my current predicament it looks like a torture instrument, but on regular days it's a Soviet radio set. Where the hell is that waterfall noise coming from?
Progress to the bathroom is hampered by my legs going in different directions. It feels as if I'm treading water against high-tide; then as if the hall corridor is uphill. I am making slow slip-sliding progress along its sticky, squeaky linoleum when I lurch over something soft and squishy. Cat underfoot. Will just go off at a quick tangent here, because how I acquired Sergeich is weirdly etched on my memory, a post-Soviet tale in itself.
Yesterday evening (on way back from airport?), I vaguely remember being slumped in a taxi - stationary in traffic - and noticing a man wandering in and out of the eight car lanes, tipsy to judge from his weaving motion. I also noticed that he had a kitten in the pocket of his overall and it was then that I caught his eye. This was a big mistake because he came up close to the taxi and threw the cat through the open window. It landed on my knee.
"His name's Aleksandr Sergeich"2, he slurred. "What a cat!" - jabbing a thumb in the air. And then he simply walked off, as if satisfied that a better future had now been secured for the animal. Since I'd also had a few drinks at the time, I was in quite a welcoming mood.
I bend down to straighten out the kitty and instantly regret it - the tractor engine whirrs up again. I crank myself to my feet stiltedly, bit by bit as if operated by a pulley system. As I push open the bathroom door the waterfall gets a lot closer and I realise that Niagra is in the toilet. Water is continuously cascading from the cistern into the bowl.
I survey my English-breakfast face in the cracked mirror above the sink: same old big wide nose and freckles, baked-bean spots from spending too much research time in libraries with chocolate; I tend towards pinkness anyway but now I've got a bacon complexion and blue eyes staring kipper-like out at me. Is that the beginnings of a stye? Hair today: familiar shiny carrot locks now replaced by greasy tails. Parting wholly disappeared in new comb-over effect. Hair history: I normally like it shoulder-length but the symmetry varies, one side can be longer than the other and round the back, who knows?
"She cuts it herself," my Mum once remarked, in answer to a query from my godfather.
"Yes," he drawled, "yes, it looks like it."
I shiver. Not just because I'm freezing but also because I'm wondering if
I've got liver failure: my tongue is coated, I have muscle cramps and obviously
nausea. Or what if it's kidney collapse? - a frequent urge to urinate is one of the
*In the manner of post-traumatic stress, I have a sudden flashback. But I've been here before. This is the dream I've just had: I am sitting in my Soviet-era kitchen at my Soviet kitchen table and a man is opposite me - but I can't picture his face. I am pronouncing the words, "I could easily marry you."
The high-volume alcohol must have had a strange effect on me, because my kitchen, with its big white curvy fridge and lurid jungle-scene PVC tablecloth, is not an otherwise romantic location.
I start hyperventilating: What was I thinking? A boyfriend would have been nice - I didn't get out much in the UK and everyone else seemed to be speed- dating - but a husband? Straight off ? I mean I've been here one night. I may be the wrong side of twenty but I have a doctorate to finish, a life to lead... Breathe normally, breathe normally.
Just what did I think I was doing? Imagine the horror of drawing up all-inclusive wedding lists and paying for wedding dresses. I'm not that keen on dresses anyway and every time I wear white it just seems to attract stains. In the event, I always imagined having a tasteful, compact wedding. Large crowds usually terrify me, though I have worked to overcome my anxiety. I once enrolled on a public speaking course and a coping mechanism I learned was to summon up an image of my calmest, most comfortable place. Thereby mentally carrying a toilet around with me.
Where would we have the wedding? We couldn't have it in the ex-USSR - the English relatives would be terrified of being poisoned, blown up, or possibly kidnapped. And we couldn't have it in England because the peoples of the ex-USSR would be unlikely to get through immigration. A third location like... like Croatia maybe. It's got coastline. It might even be in the EU.
Who would I invite? Just close friends? What about schoolmates I haven't seen for years? How many friends does he have? Who are they? Come to think of it, who is he? Hmm - the search for the man I accidentally got engaged to...
1 See note 1 in companion guide, (Cg1).
2 PATRONYMICS. A patronymic is a Soviet middle name. But it is not chosen at random like ours, it depends on your father. So if Oleg's father is called Boris Ivanov he will be Oleg Borisovich Ivanov. Oleg's sister Irina will be Irina Borisovna (stress on the second syllable) Ivanova. Used in tandem, the Christian name and patronymic is a polite form of address; very much as we would employ a first name with surname and/or a title like Mr or Mrs. "Aleksandr Sergeyevich" was the son of Sergei, but he was also a Russian national treasure. Better known as the poet Pushkin. Note: the patronymic is often abbreviated, as in the cat's name.
Note 1 from the Companion Guide
Quick Tour of a Soviet-Style Flat
Post-Soviet flats and their interiors are truly vintage. Most of them are coming up for at least their 40ths. The lack of space can present ingenious storage solutions, such as all manner of things hanging off walls and bicycles or skis behind TVs. Even the ceilings have cupboards.
You may also notice that rationing breeds inventive improvisation. The TV aerial, for instance, could be made of forks or there might be a soap-dish radio. Your flat may also house some retro Soviet appliances. These usually weigh a lot and suffer little ill effect when thrown from a high-storey window. They can have odd descriptive names, like Spring for a tape-deck.
In your ex-Soviet kitchen, the 60s-style ZIL fridge will be the starring feature, closely followed by the double-bowl butler-style ceramic sink and that gorgeous little iron stove on its thin black pins. You may also have colourful curtains and patterned parquet.
Don't worry about unidentified kitchen utensils, such as the Frisbee-like metal object with large holes in it. (I have a hunch it's for dumpling making.)
Glancing into the bathroom, you'll find the pipes are a little rusty, all the taps drip and the bath tap usually runs (water rates are nominal). Consequently your bath will be striped yellow going on brown and the sink may have gone a strange colour too if it's been used for pickling vegetables.
Depending on the fortunes of your landlady's family over the decades, in the living-bedroom there may be a closed cabinet with her china-and-crystal-vase/bowl/shot-glass collection in it. You are not expected to try it out. If there is an empty cabinet in your flat the landlady probably had to pawn the contents during the hungry years, after the USSR broke up and the rouble became worthless.
You may also find a Boil-It-Yourself - a Samovar, an elaborate
kettle that used to burn wood to heat water but has now been
converted to electricity. And you may stumble upon a Radiola, which
is a radio and record player featuring "microlift". (Soviet Cleaning
Tips for sound systems, by the way, include the following: "Make sure
that beard hairs haven't got stuck to your needle... [and] ...don't store
your equipment in a cupboard where the air condensation is less than
80% or the temperature higher than 20 centigrade".) Another classic
Soviet appliance is the Buran - a silver R2D2-StarWars-robot-shaped,
cylindrical "Snow-Storm". As well as hoovering it was popular for
sucking up clouds of mosquitoes during the summer.
A common species of apartment block, which take their name from 50s/60s Communist Party 1st Secretary, Nikita Khrushchev. Millions of these concrete, five-storey, no-lift, semi-prefabs were rushed up, towards a Soviet future of every family in their own flat and out of a life of shared kitchens and bathrooms (see The Komunalka Flat).
Although Khrushchevkas rescued many from overcrowding and slums, they were an endless source of humour. Such as, they may not always withstand earthquakes and you may be able to hear your next-door neighbour watch Guess the Tune again, cough, gargle, as well as other noises. Meanwhile, it could seem as if your upstairs neighbours were wearing hobnail boots. If you lived on a high floor, water could be intermittent. One recent ex-pat occupant described living in a Khrushchevka as "less a living space and more an interactive installation".
All text and images copyright 2010-17 Amy Spurling unless otherwise noted