Sunday, April 23, 2006

Russian easter

April 23, 2006

Today, one week after the equivalent American holiday, is Russian easter. I’m surprised how widely it seems to be celebrated among the local Russian population. Two Russian colleagues skipped a dinner last night in preparation for the celebrations today. Yesterday, they weren’t supposed to eat meat or fish or drink.

While riding a marshrutka yesterday, I saw someone traveling with a cardboard tray of Easter cakes – round, puffy yeasty cakes topped with a thin layer of frosting and colored sprinkles.

“They are only baked once a year for Easter,” my friend Zhenya told me. “Those who don’t have time to bake those cakes make smaller rolls.”

Another popular tradition is to color hard-boiled eggs a beautiful, deep brown by using onion skins.

At 8:30 this morning, Zhenya called me and asked me to come over for an Easter breakfast.

I had brought two little wicker baskets filled with plastic grass from the U.S. I stopped by a store to get some candy for the baskets, intending to present them to Zhenya and her son.

Sometimes I’m amazed by what little things grab the attention of the people here. The shopkeeper must have asked me twenty questions about what the baskets were, why I was giving them to my friend, how Easter is celebrated in the U.S., etc.

Zhenya had stayed up until midnight last night baking little walnut-shaped pastries. She made them with a waffle-like batter and filled them with condensed milk and chopped walnuts. She showed me the metal mold she used, inherited from her grandmother.

She served me a cold soup made from sour milk, potatoes, cucumbers, eggs and dill, together with the walnut pastries and squares of chocolate. While I was there, her neighbor stopped by and brought her a plate of baked Easter rolls, brown eggs and chocolates.

Zhenya told me that she and four friends had recently visited an oncologist turned laser surgeon to have red and white age spots removed. She had little red scabs around her eyes, neck and hands as a result.

She searched my arms, trying to explain what she was talking about. But she couldn’t find any.

“I guess it’s because you’re active. You don’t have any yet. But if women eat a lot of sweets or fat and they are inactive, their liver gets unhealthy and these spots appear. I was shocked when I first saw them on me and I went in to get them removed.”

“Was it expensive?” I asked.

“No, only 100 som ($2.50). And now I have these scabs. But in a week they will clear up and my skin will be clear.”

She’s also trying to become more active and has starting walking the 40 minutes to and from her store. Just from that, she lost over six pounds in the last two weeks.

Later in the day I visited a modest home, in the neighborhood where the grandmother I adopted lives, and found a man who repairs foreign bicycles. Someone stole the screws that attach my wheels to the frame of my bike. And I had no idea that anyone in Bishkek had such parts, much less someone in an unmarked home. His business largely comes from the expat word-of-mouth network, which luckily for me, seems to work pretty well.

With new screws and a much-needed oiling of the gears, I left riding a new machine.

While I was in the neighborhood, I decided to visit my babushka. I bought an Easter cake from a young boy selling them in front of the Russian orthodox church and brought it to her, along with some money.

I rang her bell and she stepped outside of her green gate to speak with me. I could see small shoots already emerging from her garden. She told me she planted potatoes, beets, onion, cabbage and other vegetables, then asked if I wanted her to cut an onion for me. I’m not sure if that’s a sign of hospitality or not, but I said no thanks.

She did bring out three colored eggs for me. One of them was beautifully done. She’d attached small leaves to the egg before dying it in onion peel, so that it was decorated with leaf patterns. The other eggs were pink and blue from dyes she’d purchased at the market.

I think she considered me less of a threat this time, though she still didn’t invite me in. She complained that she waited several years before she was able to get assistance.

“And my pension was only 250 som ($7) a month,” she said. “I saw people there who had pensions of 800, 900, even 1000 som ($25) a month, and they were getting the assistance of $10 a month.”

It’s a really sad situation when someone living on $25 a month is the object of envy. I guess there are injustices, perceived and real, throughout the spectrum of experience. Ekaterina seemed to consider her bimonthly support transient, as though it could disappear at any time, into the hands of someone with twice her $12 pension. I assured her that she would receive that money regularly, for at least a year, and that I’d try to stop by once a month if she didn’t mind.

“Of course not,” she said, with a smile and a pat on the back.

Coming home I passed a little girl playing hackeysack with a ball made out of leaves. It’s the second time I’ve seen that this week. The kids collect leaves from a tree, tie them with string, and are somehow able to make a buoyant ball to bounce on their calves. I’m impressed.

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