Happy Russian Campers
My wife and I built a campsite several years ago in a village named Svistunovo. Being creative, we named it Camping Svistunovo. It has five cabins and space for a half dozen tents. This summer, we are opening a section for RV’s. Svistunovo is 15 minutes by car from a small town called Staritsa in Tver Oblast (comparable to a U.S. State), covering 84100 square kilometres. Much of the oblast is forested and the Volga runs through it. Tver Oblast is about a fourth of the size of the UK and twice the size of Holland, to give an impression of scale.
When we set up the campsite, we thought our guests would want to roam about the area and do active things. Staritskiy Holy Dormition Monastery is located in Staritsa. It dates back to the era of Ivan the Terrible and has been faithfully renovated. There are several unrestored old churches in Staritsa, sometimes more interesting to visit than restored ones. For those who like caves and peering at bats clinging to a rock, a few can be explored on the banks of the Volga nearby. It’s not my cup of tea, but apparently some people are fond of crawling around in them. We found a hiking trail next to the campsite that runs along the Volga and goes into a nearby pine forest. An aerodrome is located 10 minutes by car from our campsite, run by Alexey, an ex-fighter pilot. He offers skydiving, excursions in a Cessna to see the area from above and glider lessons. We thought our guests would be excited by looking down at the Volga and the abandoned villages in the area from above. I certainly was. Another neighbouring business offers horseback riding and sledding with huskies. We bought bicycles, thinking people would like to ride around on them, and I got hold of a canoe to offer boating. There are strawberries to pick, in season, and mushrooms, in season. Lots to do.
When our first visitors arrived, we found out that at least 90% of our guests take part in none of the activities we suggest to them. A total of one family has rented the canoe and the bicycles are gathering dust. All of our guests are Russians, except one Estonian and a lone Swiss photographer. Most of our guests have one goal in mind, to do as little as humanly possible. We offer American style picnic tables housed in gazebos, to protect our campers from the rain. Also available are Russian style grills and skewers to make shish kebab, or shashlik as it is known here. The grills are rectangular, to allow the meat to be cooked on skewers. They are rusted and bent up, adding to the appeal. We provide unlimited quantities of free wood. Our guests cover the picnic tables with food, grill meat, eat, drink and talk. They sit at the picnic tables and on lawn chairs until the wee hours. On the next day, they sleep in. After that, most folks lounge around, looking up at the trees and perhaps partaking in the hair of the dog. Those camping on our site overlooking the Volga put lawn chairs next to the river and sit there, gazing into the distance. Usually people take a dip in the river in hot weather. They normally swim slowly or tread water and then go back to the shore to take a nap. In the evenings, our campers convene once again at the picnic tables for round two.
The menu is often the same. A perennial favourite is ‘sheika’ or pork neck. This cut of pork is rich in fat. It’s usually peppered, salted, lemon juiced and onioned in advance. I’ve seen people arriving with vats of sheika. They are cooked on a skewer over an open fire. Most people prefer to grill over a wood fire because it tastes better. Another favourite is soup. We provide cast iron soup kettles to guests who want them. An entire afternoon can be devoted to making soup. It is believed to have spiritual qualities. Vegetables are normally served raw and cut up into pieces. Pickles are a must. Alcohol is limited to vodka, whisky, wine, beer, gin, rum, cognac, champagne, brandy and a few others. A tremendous quantity of food and beverages are consumed.
We set up the campsite in a village. If I were to do it again, which is unlikely, I would make a camping area as far from civilization as I could. Ours is at the edge of a village with about 50 small homes. Inevitably, in every village, someone goes on the warpath and enters into a conflict of epic proportions with a neighbour. Everyone else gets along fine. In our village, I am friends with everyone except one woman who is our sworn enemy. She believes the Russian constitution guarantees her right to happiness. Our campsite, two lots down from hers, makes her unhappy and she believes we should be shut down. In her mind, we are raking in profits, causing her mind to fester. From time to time she makes a nuisance of herself. I explain to our campers that we have such a neighbour, and everyone accepts it. I think they get a kick out of the situation. A bit of village reality is part of the landscape in this country and a conflict such as ours can be discussed at length over barbecued pork and a shot of vodka. It is now considered part of the landscape by our guests, many of whom come back year after year.
After the first season, we stopped suggesting any activities, unless someone asks. Usually, people know in advance what they plan to do. Some go on tours and are historically knowledgeable. A few arrive after covering impressive distances on bicycles. Others have invented hobbies that require little or no money or equipment. Two groups that come back every year sing for hours on end, costing nothing. Some snorkel in the Volga to peer at the fish, requiring a snorkelling set and not much else. One guest was a wild haired, retired geologist who spent his time collecting rock samples. The rock samples were everywhere and free of charge. He stayed with us for a month and would deliver long, indecipherable lectures on geology. Another activity we found out about is running behind a dog. People tie themselves to their dogs who run off through the woods in a race. The runner and dog run as fast as the human can go. All it takes is a dog, its owner and something to tie the two together. It is in fact a well-known sport with special harnesses available to connect to your dog and put him to work, pulling you.
The hobbyists are the exception to the rule. Mostly, our campers are experts at doing nothing. It is a difficult expertise to perfect. After living in Russia for many years, my skills are improving. An effective strategy is to do less than the person in the neighbouring campsite. It’s an inverted existential paradigm, but achievable. Instead of putting in more effort, the idea is to put in less.
Daniel Brooks, copyright, 23 June 2020