Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hospitality (Hosting Hostiles)


At Mayor Valentine Kulii’s house, eight guest/tourists
plus his wife, his secretary Svetlana, an Armenian named
Boris who was a pen pal of Travis--representing American
business, and Yuri, our translator and recent guest at
Black Mountain, gathered around a large table in a
small dining room.

Before eating, we watched a clip from a documentary
describing the U.S. envoy to Russia during the early
1940’s when agreement was struck between the two
countries to ally against Germany. Toasts followed,
commemorating the early alliance and the current
desire to work together. The table was filled with
plates of heavy bread, butter, cheese, slices of
salami, tongue, platters of tomatoes
and cucumbers, pickles.

I can’t keep straight the variety of courses and
the many times we were feasted, at mid-day, and
in the late evenings. But the tables always groaned
under weight. Red and black caviar, a kind of cottage
cheese, Pepsi, plates of strawberries, plates of raspberries,
trout, pork, chicken entries, sometimes a soup, sometimes
potatoes, eventually chocolate and a lazy-Susan filled with
pastry and cakes.

At the Prague or Praga restaurant in Moscow, we had
beefsteak and french fries for our fifth course, half-way
though the meal. Many of these items were served at
breakfast. And at noon.

It was generally hot, in July, inside the rooms where
we ate, or in the mornings under sunshine coming over
snow-capped peaks surrounding the Czar’s Hunting Lodge.
Hot tea would often be available on the terrace, breaking us
into a proper and customary sweat.

Initial formality and ceremony—“our good friends:
your health and our continual relations; let us always
remember these days together and recall those who
are not now with us but whose work and interest
helped make this present time together possible”
—eventually became boisterous. An ounce of alcohol
accompanies every toast. Guests are forewarned by
previous visitors: in Russia do as Russians do.
We do our best keeping up with the holy spirit.

After the fourth course, the Mayor announces recess.
We go outside to his garden surrounding the house.
Many of the men smoke cigarettes. Marlboros.

Boris takes his pen pal, Travis, and two others from
our group, Fred—the high school principal, and
Ken—representing the county board of education—
off to see his house, a summer retreat nearby.

While they drink several bottles of toast down
the lane from our banquet, the Mayor rings out
his boom-box, sets it on the front porch, and we dance.
Eventually the others come back. Boris puts an Armenian
tape into the Sony, and Ken starts a conga line he has
already shown the Soviets in the hunting lodge several
nights earlier. We conga through the garden and then
go back inside for a few more courses, toasts, a round
of pastries, cakes, chocolates, and ice cream.

Victor is our bus driver in the Krasnador District, a
“mountain driver” with fifty years experience.
He has mastered the art of driving his bus and
passengerd through the suddenly appearing-round-
the–blind-bend dump trucks or motorcycle-&-side-cars
or very small but rapid autos that materialize in front of
the bus bumper and then re-materialize after passing

He drives us back to the lodge where a band of international
architects work late very night, competing for the privilege
of designing a “Greek Village” around the town’s reservoir
in case the winter Olympics are hosted here.

While the architects work in their rooms and on the porches,
our group meets on the restaurant terrace to drink and dance
with various villagers who have already taken us by helicopter
for an overnight mountain-climb and have become evening

Earlier in the day we had visited burial sites of an ancient race
living 5,000 years ago in woods surrounding the village, a
source of local legends about dwarfs and little people. Their
graves were quite small.

Later in the stay, our group split up to be entertained in
homes of members of the community. Travis and I spent
the afternoon with a family of five, plus the live-in grandmother,
formerly a chemist. Her son was an engineer; his wife,
a teacher. Their boys: 22, 12, 3.

They spoke a little English. We had photos of home.
We showed our pictures. They brought out theirs.
We looked at the middle-boy’s bike, and the older
boy’s car (both broken), and we walked through
the family garden, giving American names to
Russian vegetables. We ate pastries and drank
berry juice and inspected the house they had been
building for seven years (three stories, inside plumbing),
listened to the grandmother play piano, and enjoyed the
afternoon. No toasts. No ceremony. I felt like a guest.

(Back in the U.S.S.R. Summer of 1990)

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