Southern boy that I am, I never dreamed of a White Thanksgiving, but then I never dreamed about the Jewish Autonomous Region either. We had about 18 inches of white, with more falling. It seemed to us that winter started in mid-autumn – we got our first snow about October 15 --and would continue, we were told, until sometime in May. They would be driving cars across the Amur River soon and wouldn’t stop until March. Our institute director said with that manic Russian gleam in his eye, “It’s exciting to drive to Xabarovsk! We like it because it’s exciting!”
I thought, count me out, Anatoly. I’d already had it with exciting Russian machine rides. I rode shotgun with his assistant, Sergei, to Xabarovsk and felt the urge to cross myself even though I’m not a Catholic. Hitting frost heaves at an excessive rate of speed in deep twilight without the lights on while staying on the wrong side of the road around curves is what I call a cheap thrill.
The speedometer safety monitor, which I would have disconnected, kept beeping while I hyperventilated and Sharon’s eyes grew round as a loaf of Russian rye bread. I wanted to avoid any more of that kind of excitement, especially if it were to be on ice. I guess Sergei didn’t turn on his lights because he figured that would run down the battery. I didn’t want to insult him by asking him why he didn't turn them on, but I should have.
It was awfully quiet there in that rural hideaway when the snow descended, but there was sensible fun to be had as well as manic auto tours. The backwaters of the Biro River are soon frozen harder than a Republican’s heart (it had already hit -4F one morning in mid-November), so skates, sleds and cross-country skis were brought out. Kids shot down banks on sleds and sheets of cardboard and out onto the river ice. They hit a pretty good rate of speed as the track got slicker and slicker. (I only saw boys playing hockey once, which surprised me.)
Older guys were ice fishing. (Other than me; I was trying to work up an interest in cross-country skiing. As I said, I'm a southern American by nature.) A bunch of old boys in felt boots and fur hats with ear flaps down stood staring into little holes in the ice, punching them occasionally with picks on poles because they kept refreezing. I had envisioned cartoon-like, neatly sawed circles with dark water in them, maybe three feet across, but these were small holes, maybe a foot wide, so I guess they weren’t expecting to pull up five-foot sturgeons.
I dunno. As a travel writer once wrote about Alaskan glaciers, an afternoon is a long time to stand around staring at a lot of ice unless it’s cubed in a cocktail glass. They didn’t have the comfy fishing shacks of Wisconsin or Minnesota, where the boys drink and play cards when they get bored. Yes, we were living a quiet life in those days.
We finally celebrated the holiday by getting a little raucous at a ramshackle country spa (what isn't ramshackle in Russia?), steaming and picnicking with some institute staffers. Soccer in the snow was fun, as was shooting down a long slide on our butts or bellies, or flopping around on a huge inner tube to bounce kids up and down in the middle. It was kinda different.
So far Russki picnics had been somewhat crude gastronomically, but effective, as the cold and exertion really stoke your appetite. Frozen turkey wieners from America are tolerable when roasted over broken-up furniture and squirted with ketchup. Even if they have passed their expiration date. Some pickled cabbage and ham on the side, the usual dark wheat bread, more common than rye. Maybe a wee drop of vodka against the cold. A "choot-choot" they call a small drink. Not bad. As my daughter used to say of my own cooking, "It will sustain human life."
But what great fun the folks are. Big (at least big around) Viktor led us into the sauna and laughed when I gasped and made “I’m dying!” faces. "Harasho, da?” he grinned while flogging his remarkable belly with oak branches. “Da, da,” I gasped.
“Good.” It hurt to breathe and my bald spot felt like it had been torched. The wooden seats burned my legs. Were the Russian craftsmen capable of creating a good thermostat? Were they regulating this thing properly, or was it about to burst into flame? Good for your health, right? Roast your flanks, sweat out some of that white lightning.
Viktor then plunged into a tank of cold water in the next room and came up laughing. The guy was tough, as so many Russians are. He must be over 40, but he could still do squat-and-leap Russian folk dances, despite all that kolbasa around his middle.
After roasting ourselves we went into the dining hall and ate and drank some more. If you want to picnic or dine with Russians, you'd better be hungry and thirsty.
The drivers’ little kids danced to disco tapes of Western rock 'n' roll and insisted that we join them. Saunas were toasted, then we toasted each other, then our two countries were toasted, then the toasts were toasted along with the toasters. The drivers’ supervisor, just along for the ride, cadging a freebie — which is a Russian art form — became immobilized with drink, paralyzed. Unable to respond to visual stimuli. Fortunately he was only supervising, not driving. The Russians are very respectful of their zero-tolerance drinking and driving laws.
But most of us had a great time. The Russians ate and ate, the Americans grinned happily, the kids danced and the band played on. It was a happy Thanksgiving.