“Petrovna” Larissa says mournfully to my grandmother “Pasha hasn’t covered the hay yet and they promised rain. I don’t know what I’m going to do if the hay goes bad. I’m so anxious. I had a cry about it yesterday.”
“What is that lazy mare doing?” gran asks referring to Larissa’s daughter “get her to help.”
Larissa doesn’t get offended. She knows my grandmother’s blunt ways too well and values her friendship too much, especially when the insult is at least half true.
Huddled in Larissa’s tiny old car where smells of fresh milk, hay and barn reign, we’re driving to village Bratkovo.
Tucked deep inside Tver Oblast, Bratkovo is Russia’s secret truth – the truth of what it’s like for people living outside big cities. Low paying jobs, dying towns, estates deep in the forest, holy water wells, waterfalls, dams and crumbling churches scattered throughout the wilderness.
It takes three hours by car or half a day by a combination of metro, bus or train to get to Bratkovo.
Not many outsiders make it. Fewer foreigners still. My grandmother is one of the few who’s been accepted as a part of this beautiful, isolated one-street village community.
As we drive Larissa talks about the hay. If there’s not enough for her two cows during winter she’ll have to buy feed and feed is expensive, especially for a woman who gives most of her money to her unemployed daughter and two granddaughters.
We arrive to Bratkovo surrounded by hay smell and hay talk.
They are drowning in green, sinking in it.
They are part of naturescape, part of unfertilised great fields rolling into the sun.
We drive past two supermarkets, a culture club that doubles as a library, a ruined church that no one has the patience to rebuild, before turning off the main road. An uneven wave of gravel, sand and dust leading to Larissa’s house.
In her driveway three dogs, ten chickens, countless chicks, a rooster and two cats run in all directions, a chorus of barking, clucking and scuttling as the car comes to a halt.
It’s been seven years since my last visit but it’s all unchanged still.
I walk out to a long one storey main house, a summer kitchen that is no longer that but storage space, a bathhouse and a barn so old it’s sinking down below the ground.
“I hope Pasha comes tomorrow to help with the hay” Larissa says distractedly as she lets us into the house.
In the morning I go to look at the hay. It is stacked at the back of the property, huge piles of it, precious sustenance for the cows.
All it takes is a strong rain to ruin it all and hours and hours of work in the fields, months of food will be lost.
“Are they coming to cover it today?” grandma asks Larissa when I return.
Larissa stares into the distance, saying nothing for a long time.
“Call Pavlik” grandma presses “it’s Saturday. He should be able to come.”
Mutely Larissa reaches for the phone.
“Pasha” she says mournfully after a pause “are you still coming today? I’m so very worried about the hay. They promised rain tomorrow.”
She listens. We listen to her listening.
“Ok” she says and hangs up.
“He’s coming now” she turns to us. There’s no relief on her face. “I just hope it doesn’t rain today.”
Pasha, Larissa’s son comes with two of his friends. The three of them, all wearing army print canvas jackets and pants, relics of their time in Russia’s obligatory military service, greet us cheerfully, drag out a huge tarpaulin cover and march over to the hay.
While they struggle stacking the piles together and securing the tarpaulin, Larissa works with the remaining hay which is shoved awkwardly into the back of the barn, spilling out into the yard.
I offer to help but she brushes me away, leaving me feeling like a city imbecile.
An hour later both parties are satisfied. The tarpaulin is pulled tight over the hay pyramid; the barn hay is safely inside the barn in its entirety.
Larissa is glowing. The men are sweating. All of them are covered in hay, stray sticks poking into their shirts, stuck in their hair, hay dust on Larissa’s rubber boots and on the men’s canvas pants.
“I’m so happy about the hay” Larissa says. “I’m just so happy and full of energy. Now I can tend to the milk.”
Making milk into money
Each day, Larissa milks her two cows, pours fresh milk into glass bottles and drives to Staritsa to sell it to her ‘clients’, families she knows or those who know her through word of mouth.
She can earn around 20000RUB or $400 a week this way which is more than a shop worker’s salary in the area.
Today she takes me with her.
We bundle ten bottles of milk into the back of the car and head off.
In Staritsa, zig zagging around pot holes on the road we arrive at a small suburb, a peculiar clash of worlds where modern five storey apartment blocks border with a row of shabby wooden barns and knee high wild flowers crowding unpaved footpaths.
Larissa calls her clients using her old Nokia and they emerge from their homes slowly, older women carrying bags and money.
On our last stop is a sweet little house with a view of Volga river where the elderly owners refuse to let Larissa leave empty-handed.
“Larissochka” they beg “come get some apples and pears. We have so many they’ll go bad if no one takes them.”
In their backyard; trees of apples, grapes, Greek nuts and pear, tended with care.
The ground, covered in a pink and green blanket of fruit. Perfect little apples half the size of my palm.
I help Larissa shake the trees and listen to the soft thud of the ripe fruit as they fall.
We leave with four bags. By the time we get back it’s time for lunch.
Afternoon: Food from the source
Our lunch is soft boiled eggs taken from Larissa’s hens, coffee with cream made from fresh milk, home made bread and mushroom soup made from mushrooms picked in Bratkovo’s forests.
Later, Larissa will preserve, salt and pickle a lot of the food from her garden as well as the food gathered from the forest.
Raspberry and strawberry jam, frozen blueberries, apple compote, salted mushrooms, pickles, pickled tomatoes, potatoes stored in the basement.
All of this will feed Larissa and her family during winter when nothing else grows.
For desert, there is tea and home made honey, golden and smooth, tasting like light.
Honey is the other money making product in Larissa’s care. Although it’s not as profitable as the milk which can be sold all year round she can still make a bit of extra money during summer.
It is the honey that keeps her occupied for the afternoon.
Donning her beekeeper outfit she exits the house. When I look outside the window I can see her wandering amongst sixteen small wooden beehives in the back garden where vegetables and herbs also grow.
She takes the honeycomb frames, brings them back to the house and puts them into the honey extractor – a big metal container with holders for the frames, which spins flinging the honey to the sides.
Watching her operate this thing manually, turning a handle that makes the frames turn I think – does she ever stop? Is there ever a time out in her day?
While Larissa is busy with the honey we clean the kitchen after lunch.
“Make sure you put the food scraps into the pig feed bucket” grandma instructs me.
Evening: living in a sustainable house
Waste nothing. It’s part of the self-sustenance that rules in the household.
Food scraps from meals go into pig feed that Larissa makes each day. Left over honeycomb from gathered honey is fed back to the bees so they don’t starve during winter.
All non perishable garbage is burnt behind the barn, a foul smelling fire that turns garbage to black.
Hot water in the house is a by-product of gas heating which is turned on only during the cold months.
There is no hot running water in summer. Washing becomes a luxury.
This is where the bathhouse |banya| comes in. A small wooden hut at the back of the property, it requires firewood, a full tank of water and at least an hour to heat up.
Buckets and pots for mixing hot and cold water inside, a wooden bench for sitting on, a table for shampoo, conditioner, sponges and the aforementioned pots. These are your washing utensils in a banya.
Because of the effort and time involved, people don’t use the bathhouse everyday, only when absolutely necessary.
As guests, we are going to get the privilege of bathing during our stay.
An overpowering smell of timber and pine inside is soothing. The quiet of the night and the solitude of having a whole hut to yourself has a therapeutic effect.
I take my time to mix the water, pouring it over myself once the temperature is right.
When I emerge, the fresh evening air a relief after the 40C heat inside.
I breathe in scents of damp evening dew, hay, barn and river water. Nowhere else on earth smells like this.
Back in the house Larissa and grandma are filtering honey away from the honey comb and pouring it into glass cans much the same as the milk.
“Taste it” Larissa says to grandma “does it smell funny? I sold a can to an old man before and he returned it because it smelled odd.”
Meticulously grandma dips a tea spoon into each honey filled can and tastes the sweet liquid.
“There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s perfect” she says briskly and closes the lids.
“I hope so” Larissa says “I hope so.”