where (did they go?) Potato Field 

Gathering Potatoes, Jules Bastien-Lepage

“We were surrounded by fields and villages, forest or, well nothing.”

“Yeah,” said Marina “we had nothing to eat, and we heard from someone, the boys next door, about the potatoes.”

Lidia looked at her, “do you remember the place we were staying, in the middle of the forest?”

“We could see the lake Lida, just beyond the kiosk.”

“Oh we could, well you know what I mean, there were only trees and water. Just the sound of them, mostly, and nothing else.”

“I can’t remember why we had no food – didn’t we buy some biscuits?”

“Not from the kiosk. Somehow we missed the delivery and they only had salt.”

Obskoe More

“Natasha, do you remember?”

“We didn’t ask the neighbours for food, we wanted an adventure. But in which direction do you start to look for a potato field? You and I Marisha, we went through the trees just to look for the field, saying “this is ridiculous.” At some point I turned around and saw rows of potatoes, no fence, we could see for miles beyond the forest edge. It was a magic moment, I will never forget.”

“I know, you said “Marisha, potatoes.” We came closer and saw that there was no one, no dog. Just a little hut for the dog.”

“We were scared though, there was that drone in the distance and it could be that they were coming back.”

“We weren’t brave enough to take them in the daylight.”

Forest at Obskoe More

“I remember now,” said Lena, “we were on the beach when you came back red and noisy to make a plan for that night. “We’ve found our field,” you told us.

We talked so loudly, and Lidia wore white jeans that looked like moving tree trunks.”

“I know, I felt sure the farmer would see her from miles away, she was kind of luminous.”

“Not after we’d dug up the potatoes with our hands. They looked like claws, quite grotesque.”

“How did we walk in such total darkness through the middle of the forest?”

winter forest

“Peace of mind and a comfortable income are predicted by a dream of eating potatoes in any form.”
Ned Ballantyne & Stella Coeli, ‘Your Horoscope and Your Dreams’ (1940)

what (was it like?) shortcuts 

The first thing she did was tell me about a film that everyone in Russia watched at Christmas when she was small – kinda like The Wizard of Oz in England, or Its a Wonderful Life in America – called Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром! The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy your Bath. The story is something special (and the songs), she says, and explains the uniformity of everything then, from the sound of the button when the television is turned on, to the design of whole cities. You design it once and that’s enough, it can be repeated for everyone and everywhere the same circumstances occur. It depends from how far away you view the circumstances though.I tried to find out from my friend what it was like in the neighbourhood that she grew up in, and found out that we remember the past in a different way. She prefers the visual code art creates – so does my husband, elegant. I’m much messier, and don’t demur the broken things in my mind.

Anyway, to get an idea of what she meant, I looked for pictures from the film. Here’s the street, and the lift lobby.

Inside, the apartment, the rooms belong to the characters.

what (was it like?) Black Cherry

The rug made no sound under her feet when she crossed the room. “Good,” she thought, they will never know. Outside, shouts echoed between the buildings and eddied in the corners of balconies and up the stairs. Looking out of the kitchen window she was drawn by a bunch of colourful knitted backs crouched around something fascinating. Calling “Hey Roman,” she slammed the window and slammed the front door. She ran across the smooth carpeted landing along the concrete corridor and down to see what it was.

“What do you want?” asked her brother as she arrived under the tree, where the boys were squinting in the cooling sun and flicking up the dust and fallen leaves. He set his back in a barrier against her. Her gaze fell on their game and she leaned against the trunk to watch. Mounds of smoothed-out crinkled wrappers bearing fruit were laid out on a towel. To one side they had brushed clean a small part of the concrete curb. Here two boys were engaged in battle, and in front of each was a small pile of five or six wrappers. Her favourite, she wondered, did they have it?

She smelt it on the air in a faint gust that drew her back from the game and into the world right next to her. It was carried in the heat from a boy she had seen on the balcony opposite, mending his bicycle, fixing small things. She had seen his brown hair when his head bent down, and his hands big and supple sorting the pieces of things and putting them together. She glanced at his face, and then looked at his mouth. The lips were closed but as he chewed his breath overflowed from his rolling jaw and on it was a mixed-up smell, mostly cherry and a small amount warm bread.

A shout came from under the tree, and everyone turned or stood to look at the two boys crouched at the curb. Under the hand of the taller boy flew a cloud of small papers, one swirled to land on the toe of his shoe, a few landed at the edge of the curb and toppled over onto the dried-out leaves. Only three remained in the pile in front of him, on top was a valuable Bazooka Joe. Three had flipped right over, and although just the plain waxy side was showing, she could smell a mix of banana and mint. His opponent reached out and took the vanquished wrappers, rolling them with the rest of his pile into the pocket of his trousers.

Her brother stood up, “OK, my turn now, put down your Fantiki again Georg,” he looked at the boy, who was turning to walk away. Georg’s eyes moved toward him and looked up at his face, but his feet were already shuffling in the dirt.
“Why not Andrei, he has a black …” and then he suddenly crouched down, “OK, I’ll play,” he said.

Roman was quick and he had tricks. “Thanks Georg, good sport,” Georg looked down and drew his forefinger along the edge of the curb. The sky was violet now, and the buildings on the other side of the street were orange instead of cream and light-grey. Their mother called out supper, and Roman was pleased as he moved away from the group with his sheaf of wrappers. His sister ran into the shadow and took the stairs two at a time to be in the kitchen first. He walked slowly while the other boys looked at him.

At the doorway she watched him pause to shake himself slightly before stepping in.
“Hi Mum, I’m hungry.” He gave her a kiss on the side of the head and walked across the living room towards his room. “Hey, wash your hands, food’s on the table,” she said, he looked back, “OK, just going to put these away.”

“What’s that?” his mother asked sitting down at the table, but he was already gone.

She walked across the living room, her steps made no sound, and looked through the open balcony door. The boy was there on the other side, moving the wheels of his bike slowly round and looking at the sky above her block. All the children had left the street and the building opposite was rose-pink now, the sky behind a darkening blue. In the street and in the apartment the evening was very quiet. “What did you do today,” her mother looked at her, “oh, wash your hands too, dear.”

Roman was back, taller than them his hands raised above his head, his body making strange sharp angles. His voice was very loud. “Where are they, what have you done, I want them now” he was moving fast and shouting her name.

She crouched down, edging toward the legs of the chairs. Her hands were over her head, her head was down. “What do you mean,” she said to the floor. Her mother’s foot was on the ground in front of her, but she was still sitting down waiting for dinner to start. “Stop Roman. Stop, what is lost?” she said.

“My collection, she’s taken some, she’s done something. I will kill her.” He cleared his throat, his normal voice had broken into two parts, higher where it was louder. Her hand reached over beside her mother’s foot, at the edge of the table beyond the chair legs and grasped a ridge of the carpet. Her fingers slipped and her nails dragged along the rough weave and nap. One whispered out in the pause between the two voices, a tiny crackle. “Look,” she said.

“Witch, I will get you,” he pulled the carpet back, it ripped at the edge. Underneath cowered five red cherry papers. He snatched them up and smoothed them out. His foot glanced her leg and she cried, they were gone, Roman had hundreds.  “Go and wash your hands,” said her mother, “and then stay in your room.”

Lying on her side stretched out on the bed, the sky filling her view was black and uneven. She could hear the sound of the neighbours’ television through the wall. She could hear her family television through the door, and the sound of of the same show through the window. Footsteps passed her window and her mother knocked at the door with an old brown envelope in her hand.

“That boy from block 29 said you forgot your homework today”.

where

Novosibirsk is a long way away. I checked it out by measuring how long it would take to walk to various nearby cities, going by how many kilometres lay between them.

Moscow is 3,333 km away and it would take 27 days, 21 hours to walk from my friend’s apartment to the Kremlin.

3,333km 27 days, 21 hours

New Delhi lies 4,809km away, and the journey to Connaught Circus would last 40 days, 16 hours.

From Novosibirsk to Ulaanbaatar it is 2,734 km, taking 23 days,

3 hours to get there.

To arrive at the gates of the Forbidden City in Beijing, 1,324 km away, it takes a further 11 days, 4 hours (making a total of 4,058 km; 34 days, 7 hours)

Finally, from my friend’s home to mine it is 6,182 km.

A journey taking 41 days, 20 hours, if done all at once.

why

Before meeting my friend, who lived her childhood in the middle of Siberia, I had never met anyone from such a distant place. Siberia was, for me, a mythical land created from the imaginations of writers and artists, and encompassing the sublime reaches of vast distances, an extreme climate, and the intensity of battle, exile and revolution that always boiled beneath the most laconic tale. I feel embarrassed that such a big place should have had such a simple explanation.

My wonderful friend is very exotic, to me, and I am following her stories of an everyday childhood with interest …