grechka, or the head & the heart

Originally posted on 2/27/2013

When we arrived in Moscow, Ashley and I noticed that our room was much colder than the other rooms in the hostel/dorm.  We put off talking to someone about it until it became unbearable for Ashley.  I then talked to the ladies at the front desk, who told me to talk to our floor’s cleaning lady.  After that, I never seemed to see her anywhere.  So our room remained as it was, freezing.

Wherever we go, Ashley ends up talking to someone.  On the metro, in the store, when we’re hopelessly lost, Ashley ends up talking to someone.  And somehow, they always end up deeply engaged in the conversation with her.  Thus, it was Ashley who finally made contact with the cleaning lady.

Apparently the cleaning lady made the necessary arrangements, because one day, when I got out of the shower, Ashley comes and says, “Don’t come out, there is a guy here fixing the window.”  I hear her attempting to make conversation with him, but she ended up letting him work in silence.  After standing around in the bathroom for a while, Ashley brings me a robe, and I go out and talk with the guy who hadn’t actually yet begun to do anything to the window, but was standing there inspecting it intensely… I still don’t know what he was doing for the 5 or more minutes I was standing naked in the bathroom.

Anyway, we engaged in the typical introductory conversation, which with Russians usually doesn’t begin with your name or whatever other superficial questions people ask (well… I suppose that is not entirely true, because people always notice my accent and immediately ask where I am from, which is followed instantly by, “What on earth are you doing in Russia?!”), but instead jumps right into hearty subjects… like the weather.

After we came to the conclusion that all that can be said about Russian weather is that it is cold, we quickly began reminiscing about the wicked heat of the summer of 2010 and the peat fires in the bogs surrounding Moscow.  These peat fires left putrid smog floating over Moscow for the better part of July and August.  Of course, our little missionary apartment didn’t have air conditioning, which meant that in order to not broil ourselves every time we were forced back into our apartment we had to open the windows.  Actually, we just left the windows open all the time.  We put wet sheets over them in feeble attempts to somewhat filter the pollution.  Mostly, we just came to grips with the fact that we were effectually smoking several packs of peat-cigarettes a day and moved on with life.

This conversation, naturally, led to us talking about grechka (buckwheat… but no one who speaks Russian says buckwheat and no one who doesn’t speak Russian ever uses/knows/has tasted buckwheat.  Thus, it is grechka.).  How, you may ask, did our conversation turn to this under-heard-of grain?  Well, that same hellish summer, not only Moscow was ablaze, but most of Russia’s bread basket was as well.  The man fixing our window added that it was not only the fire/heat that smoked the crops, but greedy private farmer’s under-speculation, that was another dynamic of the crisis.

You see, when the under-planted fields yielded meager crops, and rumor of a shortage of the staple – if not holy – grain began to spread, the third factor of the crisis reared its paranoid head:  Russians bought stores entirely out of grechka.  Thus, what little grechka was left in the country was most likely imported, and thus, was outrageously expensive…  That is to say, if you could even find the expensive stuff.  We’re talking over 4 dollars for 100 grams of grechka.  Unheard of.  The fix it man, who was finally starting to work on our windows, continued by saying that people would buy this stuff by the bob-cart full.  They would buy it, even if they didn’t like it.  Basically, this stuff became a drug that probably even the classiest mafia gentlemen would stoop to sell (or buy).

He speculated that this is an abnormal aspect of the Russian mentality.  I disagreed, using the example of ammo sales in the recent gun control scares in America.  Whether I simply fumbled getting the example out properly, or whether he just wanted to talk guns, grechka brought our conversation to gun laws.

After shaking his head, he told me the real problem with our window was that it was actually open.  So he closed it.  Shaking his head some more, he then said that he is glad that guns are (for the most part) illegal in Russia, and that he would never trust a Russian with a gun for the following two reasons:

Firstly, Russians act per their hearts, not their heads.  According to the window fix-it man, the American people act according to a logical, even empirical, thought processes; one that renders an average American capable of owning a gun without blowing his own or someone else’s brains all over the wall.  A Russian, however, acts according to the emotional impulses of his heart.  Thus, he would not trust a Russian with a gun, for fear the dueling practices of the 18th and 19th century would return, or suicide rates would dramatically increase.

I must have given him a skeptical look, because he defensively stated that it wasn’t just him, but that this is characteristic of the Russian people:  that it is Russian to act according to emotion, according to your heart.   I couldn’t dispute that.

Secondly, he stated that this bit of Russian psyche especially doesn’t mesh well with high levels of vodka consumption.  He says that this only intensifies the urge to follow the heart, which would leave many, many people dead if Russians were allowed to have guns.  Drunk Russians plus guns equates in dead Russians, according to the man who was finishing putting foam in the cracks around the edges of our window.  It was already a lot warmer in our room.

He asked if we had preference on tape color.  Thoughts of Russian psychology, guns and ammo, and, of course, gretchka were confusedly bouncing around in my head… Tape color?  “Uh…” was about all I could come up with, mind you, our conversation was in Russian.  I hesitantly said that it didn’t matter, to which he replied, “Good!  Because I only have yellow.”

He taped up our window, smiled through his thick mustache and wrinkles, a twinkle in his eye.  He was truly a good man.  A man who obviously had no hesitation in life, who followed his heart, and by the light in his face, obviously loved.  A man who truly lived.

As went to leave, I realized I didn’t know his name, despite our almost hour long conversation.  We laughed, as he said, “Valery,” and I said, “Danny.”  Now our room is warm and Ashley is happy, I found out that grechka is connected to all aspects of Russian life (pretty much), and had an important lesson about the head vs. the heart.

And I can now see a little bit deeper into what it means to be Russian.

Thanks Valery.

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