No, really. I’m not trying to say that I had such a bad blind date that it felt like I was in Siberia. I actually had a blind date in Siberia, the grey-white, frozen-half-the-year region of Russia, famous for hosting Stalin’s gulags. Dave,* an American Russophile, and I met over email about an article on the Russian environment he wrote from an Internet café in Irkutsk for the magazine I edited from my office in Washington DC about the efforts of environmental scientists and activists throughout the former Soviet Union to protect the region’s biodiversity and defend their lives against severe pollution.
While our shared work was about bringing people together, Dave and I did not posit any affectionate feelings for one another as we emailed our edits back and forth. But I detected a deep romantic quality in his occasional postcards that gloriously described the forested landscape around Lake Baikal where he lived as a ranger in a handmade, one-room log cabin.
Since I had visited Russia before, have ancestry there and already appreciated its natural heritage, it was not hard for me to make the decision a few months later to visit “the pearl of Siberia,” as Lake Baikal is known, when Dave invited me to see this natural wonder. I flew to Moscow, met up with a girlfriend, who was working in Yekaterinburg, and together we flew to Irkutsk. From there we endured a nauseating three and a half hour bus ride to Bolshoye Goloustnoye as leaking diesel choked our lungs and the frequent potholes sent our butts off the seats a good two feet every time the bus sailed over them. Yes, that is the same bolshoye that describes the ballet. But in this case, although it means “big river mouth,” it names a small village sitting on a tributary that merely ripples into Lake Baikal.
When we first arrived, I was struck that the only folks using the dirt roads in the village were cows, which sludged over them every morning to the surrounding fields to graze, and meandered back each evening to their barns to relax after a hard day’s eat. I soon adjusted to the fact that bovine predominance actually made a lot of sense. No one possessed vehicles in this village, save for a motored sidecar or two, so the cows owning the roads became outright logical, especially given that their milk contributed to the town’s daily breakfast and their innards made up plenty of meals. I mean we are truly talking rustic village here: undependable electricity; limited plumbing; no stores, except for the bread bakery and definitely no vending machines, snack shops or AM/PMs.
Like I said, I had no overt intentions of romance, but I’m sure I had many subconscious ones – wanting to experience firsthand the deepest, most beautiful fresh water lake in the world, which Doug had detailed so intimately; desirous of “meeting” his log cabin, isolated amid verdant meadows; and privately, wanting to break my own record of having had only two brief relationships since my divorce a decade earlier: one with a guy I met at a volleyball game who turned out to be crazy, and one with a newly retired Navy SEAL going through PTSD.
Okay, I admit I was ready for something hot when Dave walked through the door of his wooden house in this quaint community. My friend and I had settled in the night before per his instructions, took a day hike and returned for his arrival. I’m telling you the moment he stepped over the threshold and paused there to greet us, I gave it all over to the universe. From the other side of the lightly colored room, I saw his eyes glistening, his full reddish brown beard enhancing his warm smile, and his tall, humble stance radiating excitement.
The three of us spent the next day hiking the adjacent forest preserve and my friend had to depart to get back to work marketing condoms in Ekaterinburg, named after Catherine the Great, but now becoming known not for royalty, but for the sad banality as one of Russia’s AIDS-infected cities. When we planned the trip I knew she had to leave early, but little did I know how grateful I would be when the time came. The following day Dave and I backpacked the six miles to the log cabin. The trail passed over the narrow edge of a hillside that I feared would dump me right down into the frigid lake if I lost my balance. As we went, Doug pointed out several native herbs, including blagarodnaya trava, known to you and I as wild thyme.
Every image awed me: huge pieces of driftwood that had been smoothed to velvet by the lake’s pure waters, some impersonating animals or faces; others boasting graceful lines and shapes, as if from another world.
We detoured around bright brown, four-feet-high hills, teeming with tens of thousands of red ants. As we hiked, Dave’s dog Ooshpa ran ahead, disappearing for several minutes at a time, only to return with an ancient deer bone or the large, bloody carcass of a raptor.
Finally, we arrived at his 10’x10’ cabin, set back 200 feet from the lake, surrounded by meadows lush with purple, white, yellow and orange wildflowers, the latter called zharki or little fires.
Two-story haystacks dotted the area, gathered by Russian farmers who would in wintertime cross the frozen lake to haul them back to the snow-covered village for fodder.
Dave and I easily spent the next five nights exploring our inner and outer territory. In the Fall’s chilly evenings, we’d cozy up under piles of blankets on the hard, wooden bed.
By day, we’d find new adventures. One afternoon, we walked to the next forest reserve in search of a banya, the well-known Russian sauna, of which I’d heard many tales. This reserve surrounded an old farm on which the caretakers lived. They kept the banya working for rangers, the occasional visitor and, no doubt, themselves. We entered the small wooden building, stripped down and poured water over the hot pot heated by a wood fire. It sizzled and steamed, filling the room with moisture. We quickly became overheated, but I could not succumb to the second half of the experience, which Dave embraced: he ran naked down the pasture and dove into the lake’s numbing water. It hurt to even watch him though I was already suffering from too much hot steam. He reveled in it, shouted, splashed and swam a few minutes, then ran back to the banya, proud and exhilarated, and rapidly brought his body temperature back up from half-frozen. Slightly embarrassed by my own lack of courage, I humbly and enthusiastically praised his. The next day we returned back to his cabin at dusk, admiring age-old trees silhouetted against a mauve and red sunset.
Ultimately, we came to the end of my stay in what seemed like a distant world. On the one hand, it went by in a flash; on the other, a lifetime. After Dave and I returned to the village house, he accompanied me back to Irkutsk to catch my flight home. We arrived back in the city with a bit of spare time and found ourselves talking about the future. Being in our 40s, and having had such a short, yet intense, intimacy readily brought the question of family to the forefront.
Between expressions of mutual love, we fantasized and projected. I was never someone who wanted kids, but I was open; he was sure he did want them, and this was his first real possibility. Meanwhile, we avoided the fundamental question of which country we would live in.
As we talked, we boarded the back of a packed city bus. We were surrounded by hefty Russian grandmothers and skinny young children, everyone occupying every inch of space. Dave put his arms around me with his hands leaning on the back window for stability. I bent down to kiss his arm, which was closer than his 6’ 2” head. I looked up at him. No response and he wasn’t looking at me. I panicked. Was I imagining everything that had happened in the past week? The bus jolted to a stop. I looked back down. The arm had disappeared. Oh my god, it deboarded with the woman to whom it belonged! Ayyyy! I had just kissed a babushka. Oh, no. She wouldn’t understand. Not only are Russians stoic, but especially so far from Moscow, public displays of affection rarely take place, let alone between strangers!
The bus started moving again. I yelled up to Dave what had just happened. We burst out laughing and tears poured down my face. As we bumped along to the airport, we exploded again in uproarious laughter every time we caught each other’s eye.
Doug remained in Russia. I was committed to living in the US. How we finally figured that out is a whole other story.
©Leanne A. Grossman