Opening Day at the Dacha

Daniel Brooks

This year we opened our dacha several days ahead of the May holidays. For the next two weeks or so, Russia will be mostly shut down. Many Russians leave the country entirely. Others go out to the dacha early, to get the ball rolling.  Since the economy is stagnating for the foreseeable future, everyone might as well take it easy.

This time of year is fabulous in the far reaches of Russia, well beyond Moscow. The air is free of unpleasant bugs. All I have seen are a few stately bumblebees. The trees are full of birds. As we went to sleep last night, we heard a sound that repeated itself like a metronome every second or so. I thought something was wrong with the fridge. It was an owl who hooted for several hours in a tree nearby as we went to sleep. Other birds have arrived in the neighborhood, setting up camp. Some have impressive plumage. These are the ones that recently flew in from Africa. Ticks are a worry. Three big ticks fell onto me while I was sitting under a tree, enjoying a can of cold Dutch beer. I refused to move and instead, captured and rubbed out the ticks one by one. If any bugs think they can mess with me, they have another thing coming.   

We are without neighbors in the immediate vicinity. Our closest neighbor, absent so far, can make a tremendous amount of noise. She has the soul of an angel and the lungs of a drill sergeant. We are used to her, the way you get used to almost anything if you set your mind to it, but I cannot get accustomed to the weed whacker she uses to trim her lawn down to the nubs. The damn thing fires up on weekends at about 3 in the afternoon and continues until dinner time. We’re able to convince her to stop while we have a meal outside but as soon as we’ve cleared off the plates, the weed whacker fires up again. It can go on until sundown.  Another absent neighbor has a moped that he drives up and down the road at full speed with a beer in his hand. A woman down the road has decided she is our enemy for reasons too tedious to mention. Having such a person in a small village seems to come with the territory. She hasn’t shown up yet, either. Perhaps believing in God is worth it, if only to be thankful for small mercies.  

At this time of year in Russia, the air is fabulous as well. After nine months below the snow, the vegetation finally has a fighting chance. The plant world springs into action, filling the atmosphere with the smell of things growing. The fresh air doesn’t last long. When the dacha goers show up next week, the first order of business will be to make a big pile of twigs, branches, leaves and if need be some old furniture. This is burned during the May holidays, filling the air with smoke. The burning season lasts for a week or two, not to resume until the end of the season in about the last week of August, when the need to burn comes back. One way to survive is to embrace the smoke. A strategy I recommend is to have a cigar.

The little kids in the village haven’t shown up yet for the summer. We have a band of children who patrol our village. They run around in a pack, entertaining themselves in part by launching attacks on frogs and snakes. We have snakes in the area called gadyuka which grow fairly large. Their bite is very painful but normally it is not fatal. According to village lore, a neighbor’s dog got his nose bit by a gadyuka and now he’s missing the end of his snout. That dog is living proof that a bite by one of these snakes is deadly. Our pack of kids are always on the lookout for snakes and call out “dyadya” (meaning uncle) to me to finish them off with a shovel when they find one. Those kids would prefer not to have their noses bit off. I let the snakes go.  

Russians dress their children at the dacha in a specific way in ill-fitting clothes that don’t match, handed down from the 1950’s. It’s believed in Russia that children can suffer sunstroke if their bare heads are exposed to direct sunlight. Many of the children are required to wear hats all summer long even if they are stark naked. These hats look like they have been in someone’s attic for a few decades or were purchased at a flea market.  The girls in our village wear scarves on their heads tied up in a special way, like miniature peasant grandmothers. The boys have shorts pulled up well past their belly buttons. The only thing missing is a red scarf signifying they are young Komsomol activists. 

We have several resident hedgehogs. They make thumping noises in the bushes at night. From time to time, they come out onto the road and when we get too close, they tighten themselves up into a ball. Then we shove them into the undergrowth so they don’t get run over. I hope they don’t mind being pushed around. For some reason, Russian cartoons and mythology show hedgehogs running around in the forest with mushrooms stuck to their backs, something I’d like to see in real life. I come from a part of the USA where we don’t have hedgehogs. With a hedgehog as a neighbor, now I can see what all the fuss is about. Whoever created these little critters turned up the cute nob a bit too high.  

We don’t feel the need to watch TV because we don’t have one. Our internet connection is stuck at one bar, not enough to waste time on the internet. Our plumbing isn’t connected yet because a pipe cracked in the freezing temperature when we turned off the water too late last fall. This is a yearly tradition. Until the plumber arrives to save the pipes, I’m pulling water by hand out of our well. The well water has floaty bits but it’s ice cold and tastes fantastic. I think I’ll risk life and limb and drink some. Don’t tell anyone.

When we came to our dacha two years ago at this time of year, at the end of April, the snow had just melted, and it was pouring rain. Our SUV got stuck in the mud and after that, another SUV got stuck as well, trying to pull us out. Several drunken villagers came out in the downpour and got us unstuck by raising our cars onto blocks of wood and logs, using a car jack. The next day, I pulled two cars out of the mud, for the sake of favorable karma. My luck has held ever since, knock on wood.

Thanks to global warming, which according to some is not happening, the ground this year is as hard as a rock. It’s plus 20 degrees Celsius outside and I’m wearing only a t-shirt. From here on out, it can only get worse.

Daniel Brooks, copyright, 26 April 2019