Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Two-dacha weekend

A couple of weeks ago we got to enjoy two distinct interpretations of a strong Slavic tradition. Nearly everybody we know in Belarus has access to a dacha somewhere. I don’t know if this will always be true because it’s usually grandma who owns and maintains the dachas and I don’t know whether or not the younger generation will show the same universal interest.

Dachas were crucial to the older generation, and I suspect that they played a key role in feeding huge sectors of the population during hard times of the past. Modern kids growing up in the cities don’t all remember such hard times and generally don’t like tilling potato fields. As a result, I suspect that at least a few families will give up their dachas when the present generation of grandmothers dies off.

Today’s dachas don’t generally play a role as family farm, but if you have a dacha you almost certainly cultivate something to eat on it. You’ll probably plant flowers too. All these plants require care and maintenance, of course, so the cities empty out during the growing season and people spend lots of time on their dachas. It was our pleasure to join this migration two days in a row.

On Saturday we went to visit Anna Adamovna and Evgenny Ivanovich. They’re grandparents and probably fairly typical dacha owners. Evgenny Ivanovich built his dacha himself, with the help of some neighbors. It’s a solid log building made from big timbers. They shaped the logs by hand and then put the biggest ones on the bottom and worked upward, saving the smaller (and easier to lift) logs for the top. Unfortunately, they ran out of timber before the walls reached the desired height, so there are a few heavy logs at the very top.

We didn’t really go inside the building this weekend because the sun was shining and we had work to do. Well, we had a little work to do. Since we came as guests, they didn’t put us to work as seriously as they might have. I received the delightful assignment to tend a fire and cook marinated chicken on it after the coals reached the right state. Honestly, I don’t have much experience at cooking over coals. But I’ve seen enough people cook shashleek that I succeeded.

I learned on Sunday how I could have done it better. Our friend Sasha prides himself on his fire-cooking prowess, and I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone better at it. When I told him that I’d been in charge of the cooking the previous day he took me aside and showed me how it’s really done. After his lesson we all feasted on cooked pork and cold salads. Sasha’s wife Elena made up her own version of potato salad, combining Irish and Belarusian traditions. I hope she remembers what she did because the results were spectacularly delicious.

We ate under their new gazebo, which Sasha and other members of the family built from a kit. We felt very smug as a couple of rain showers passed overhead without affecting us at all. Sasha and Elena’s dacha home is new, made from manufactured materials. They’re still forming the garden, since the land slopes and they want terraces. The huge strawberry patch is already bearing fruit in its first year and the rest of the garden looks very promising, but for them the dacha is not so much a farm but a vacation home. Sasha even installed a platform for a little swimming pool, which I tried out with pleasure.

This dacha is quite close to a ski resort, so we went over there to play a little tennis before we ate. I played in college and for a little while afterwards, but never got good enough to make it a priority. I had a heavy wooden racquet back then, and this was the first time I played with a modern aluminum model. I expected that the modern racquet would make the ball go really fast, but it’s so light that I had to hit the ball pretty hard to make it go. It took a while to get the hang of it, but our hosts were kind about my incompetence so I really enjoyed myself. In any event; the tennis, the pool and the new garden offer a glimpse of how the next generation may approach dacha life. It can be a very pleasant tradition.

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