All in all, this has been a very productive and worthwhile evening. Now, I just have to piss away two more hours before work...
We went to Nizhny every five years when I was a child. My earliest memories revolve around the samovar; elbowing our way through crowds full of stony faces; my babushka bustling around, threatening dire fates and imminent dooms; the sickly sweet smoke from my dedushka's pipe whirling around the room, making eyes water and throats tighten.
We had vodka with every meal. My cousins threw back shots like it was nothing; Alyosha and Sveta and Vanya and all the others had been drinking their entire lives, since before I had been born, and they gave no more than a few graceful chuckles as I spilled my first real shot all over my shirt when I was 13. "Hold it like this," Vanya demonstrated, speaking in the Russian I could barely understand, let alone speak, "And shove it past your tongue, to the back of your mouth." As I tried again and again and, finally, succeeded, Sveta quickly handed me a sour pickle. I took an enormous bite--as large as their hearts, as large as Russia--and felt a little more grown up.
We went to church every Sunday. My babushka was awake long before dawn, arranging the samovar and clanking ancient pots and pans to create breakfast and a song that sounded like Russia. When the time was right, she would come into the sitting room and order us all awake. She was always immaculately dressed by this time, a scarf wrapped round her head and a pinched look upon her face. We would rush through our morning rituals only to sit down at the kitchen table for several hours, to tangy Russian tea and my dedushka's pipe, before going to church. All the while, my babushka worried, worried, worried; it was too cold, it was too hot, we would be late, we would be early, we would catch colds or get trampled or the world would come to an end, and nothing ever happened.
The year I turned 18 was a year of beginnings and endings. I graduated from high school, it was time for our next visit, Sveta was to marry a man from Tashkent ("An unlikely pair," my mother said, repeating my babushka, "but a pair nonetheless."), and my dedushka died, all in one fell swoop. My high school graduation was a bittersweet occasion; I knew I would see the most important people the following year, at college. The trip to Nizhny was a true task, with luggage being lost somewhere between New York and Moscow, and my older brother somehow having missed the train from Moscow to Nizhny. Once in Nizhny, the wedding was truly Russian: from visiting the sites of the city to removing toothpicks from an apple, it was fast and sweet.
My dedushka's death was abrupt and unexpected. He had a glass of Georgian wine in one hand, smooth and pleasant to the taste, and his pipe in the other. Glass shattered, embers of tobacco scattered across the floor, my babushka ran and knelt and wept and the funeral was on a rainy day. He had outlived the majority of his peers, having somehow managed to surpass the potent mixtures of wars and idiocy and alcohol. While his death was a shock, it wasn't a surprise. The first thing my babushka did after the funeral was to remove all of the tobacco from various drawers throughout the house and plucked the pipe off the fireplace. She marched out of the apartment, down Kremlskaya ulitsa, and into the nearest park, all of us following, still in our Sunday best. She dropped it all to the ground and lit it on fire. The scent of my dedushka burst forth, wrapping around our bodies and creeping into our mouths and down to our souls, lifting us off the ground, carrying us that much closer to heaven.
I went back to Nizhny a few years ago. I visited my babushka and dedushka's graves, and followed that up with a visit to Vanya and his family. Sveta had left Nizhny sooner after her wedding and the funeral, Alyosha had gone to Moscow, and all of the rest had spread to the edges of Russia. "I remember when you taught me how to drink vodka," I told Vanya, stumbling over the uneven, crooked Russian words. "I was, what, 13? I spilled my first shot all over the place." I followed that up by a shot and a bite of a sour pickle. I didn't spill a drop.
"You were young," he said, leaning back. "We were all young, once." He had three children, a pair of blond twin boys and a little dark-eyed girl, and they were watching our conversation with wide, shiny eyes. He reached to the ancient side table and picked up what looked to be a well-used pipe. He patted the front pocket of his shirt; satisfied by what he felt, he dipped the pipe down, smoothed the tobacco even, and set his pipe on his front lip. With practiced ease, he lit the pipe. A familiar, sickly sweet scent floated forth. My eyes began to water, my throat began to tighten, and I knew I was home, here in Nizhny. Here in Russia.
He puffed again and mumbled around his pipe, eyeing his children, "We were all young once."