I Remember

I was 8 years old, when my whole family moved to spend one year in the depth of Siberia by the biggest lake on Earth – Baikal. I was very excited about the change, because everything was drastically different. Moss covered giant rocks, massive fir trees, toilet outside, cross country skiing for physical exercise at school and my first very warm black astrakhan fur coat.

If you looked at our settlement from above you would see a bunch of small houses scattered along the river and surrounded by the mountains, that seemed green and friendly in the summer when we arrived but were deadly in the winter for a stranger lost in taiga without compass. We had school, kindergarten, club where they showed movies and the store where you can buy food and some clothes but not very much as everything was brought from somewhere else. We also had an athletics club. One day I went to gymnastics session, they told me to do split and bridge. I faltered and hurt myself, they sent me home. But my mom arranged musical lessons for me at the club house, where I had access to an old piano. Musical teacher gave me private lessons twice a week and I was very proud I was learning to play piano. I made friends and we spent evenings running around the settlement and playing games, mainly spy games. One day at school we had a gathering with all classes standing straight in front of the flag and the teaching staff, the school director told us that our schoolmate wrote a letter to the president of the United States, asking him to stop war, as all children in the world don’t want war, they want peace. What was really shocking is that the president replied saying that adults don’t want war either and that they will do all they can to live in peace. I couldn’t believe bravery of that small boy, who was my age and who wrote a letter like that and send it! I couldn’t even imagine how many months it takes for that letter to travel through all the mountains and oceans, other countries all the way to America, find the president and go back, six months?

In that one year, there were other unreal things that happened to me and around me. Getting lost in the woods short enough just to feel the thrill of adventure and be found, going cedar nuts gathering and fighting off squirrels, finding my mom sinking in marshes during blueberry crusade, spending hours at swings in white nights, playing in the ice castles created by Mother Nature on the river and skipping school when snow was above the roof. Bu the most unreal of all was Maslenitsa or Butter Week. It was a holiday like no other.

Before that year my family never celebrated it, because we were from the place with mild rainy winters and palm trees around. Maslennitsa is a sun festival, celebrating the imminent end of the winter. Happening right before Lent, it is a fest for your stomach and whole body.

Our parents took us with them to the main square by the club house. Tables were set up so that you could find pirogis, blinis and pancakes with sour cream, jam and butter. What clearly imprinted in my memory is a tall wooden pillar in the middle of the square. Brave men had to climb it in order to get the prize, a TV set in a box hanging at the top of it! If you climb up high enough and touch the TV set, it is yours. There was a rumor among us children that to make it harder organizers covered the stem of the pillar with wax, which makes contestants slide down. I was watching two men climbing the pillar breathlessly with admiration. What if they fall? They may kill themselves! But now we all know how brave they are! My family didn’t have a TV set then and I secretly wished that my dad climbed too and won, then all would know that he is the best! But he said it was impossible and at the end no one got the TV.

It was very cold, maybe -4F, but you didn’t feel it, as everyone was busy taking to the neighbors, laughing, dancing, eating, playing other games, like snowball fights, or pancake speed eating, and finally burning of the Maslenitsa doll. I ate some blinis too but mainly watched adults around us, who looked like beautiful women and strong brave men from a Russian folk tale. It was their holiday, their faces were red and glowing. Boring and serious adults disappeared, just like children adults were happy and having fun.

The year after we returned home, because my dad finished building his part of the railway. Looking at the black and white photos taken that year, my sister doesn’t remember anything, she was only 4 years old, but I remember it all.

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