Walking into the “Soviet Themed” Rassolnik restaurant in Irkutsk I expected a kitschy example of today’s perception of the soviet experience…perhaps some Lenin banners….blaring Soviet party anthems? Instead, as I walked into the cellar beneath the smart Irkustsk outdoor mall, I felt strangely at home. Watching the children of a family sitting for a weekend late lunch at a table nearby to us playing on the mid-century furniture with the parents enjoying the meal and drinking fruit compotes brought me back in a most unexpected way to my childhood at my Babci & Dziadzi’s home. That may seem absurd to say at first….certainly their home wasn’t in any way influenced by Soviet mid-century architecture…however, there was something else more elemental in common….
Looking around the restaurant I saw couples & families dining on dishes that wouldn’t have been out of place at our birthdays or holidays spent with B&D. Strange salads laden down with mayonnaise which my Babci ensured my health conscious mother to be 100% fat free…. meats and fishes in strange creamy sauces….. More than the menu something struck me about the setting and the warmth this place brought. No longer was it a “Soviet themed” restaurant to me, I was transported to my childhood and weekends spent with my Grandparents.
This experience wasn’t unique or alone in our travels in Russia…. or in Poland, or Czechia, or Serbia. There is a certain comfort, a certain familiarity that I’ve found while travelling in Slavic lands.
Travelling the trans-Siberian across Russia fulfilled a life-long dream for me. I can’t think of many travel experiences that I’ve built up in my head before going that live up to what I imagined, but this was most certainly one of them. Whether it was listening to Babci talk about when she burned her hand with an oil lamp in a concentration camp in Germany to avoid being taken by her Russian nurse bosses to Russia once the war was over….“Alicja… we will all have so much land to start our families…and Russia and Poland…we are now friends…Slavic Brothers!” (not that she believed this for a moment…) Or whether it was watching Doctor Zhivago with my Mom numerous times and being inspired by the sheer vastness of the Siberian plains…with drifting snows…a Troika sleigh….. There was always a specific vision of Siberia. Vast birch forests, rough roads, a hearty but warm people….. sunsets you could see for miles.
The feeling in Rassolnik wasn’t the only one that brought these ‘Slavic Memories’ to me. Even something banal like the decor in many of our accommodations brought me back home. Strangely formal, but yet out of place looking decorations…. Shops selling beautifully wrapped gift chocolates to bring to a family event… Combinations of food that might not make sense at the first glance, but somehow “work”….the warmth of a hostel-keeper upon a late arrival to a strange city, even if we were clearly some of the few non-Russian guests in quite some time. Even the way that that hostel-keeper interacted with me….. it brought back memories of how my Dziadzi would have treated a traveller who unexpectedly showed up at his home. A certain way of interacting with people that sadly seems to be dying off. I saw it again with the younger generation on a train ride to Kazan when a guy with a limited command of the English language chose to spend his time talking with us instead of playing with his phone or otherwise being amused by modern technology.
We are but a combination of our life experiences & memories. I often ponder what gave me a desire for travel…. growing up with my parents we did take a respectable number of trips, but they were exclusive to the North American continent, so I can’t say that was it. Instead I remember the days spent after school at Babci & Dziadzis…with Babci sitting at her seat in the kitchen where she spent most of her days. The last thing I wanted to do was to practice my French…but I knew there was no way I was getting out of this, especially having a Dziadzi who spoke some level of fluency in 7 languages. Before this I would always chat about my day in school with Babci…. and I remember many occasions where travel came up. What I took from these moments was the importance of a view beyond what I could see from my backyard. I might have been only in Junior high, but I saw the emotion in Babci’s eyes when she spoke of her life in Belgium after the war with such fondness. A longing for a lifestyle and culture that she had no desire of leaving to go to America. She never hid this. Dziadzi was the one who longed for the “American dream,” to be able to own his own house…to be an American…something he never would have been in Belgium living as a refugee. Instead Babci identified with her adopted culture, she clung to it after being ripped from her home by a brutal war. She didn’t care if she was a citizen, or if she would ever be truly Belgian…she simply had a love for the class & the culture. For the beautiful city parks where families could enjoy a picnic…. For the lifestyle which valued family and education above things like money and possessions. This was her America… her “_____” dream.
Sometimes we are travellers, sometimes we seek an ideal, and sometimes we seek comfort in the familiar. Strangely this trip across Russia was more of a comfort in the familiar than travel to me.
It’s time like this when I’d love to be able to share this with Babci & Dziadzi. To tell them just how much of an influence they had on my life and how they shaped the man I am today. To show Dziadzi my Polish passport, with the absurdly long name of “Alexander William Kocielski-Uher.” See Dziadzi… it didn’t die after all. I don’t know how he would have reacted to the Russian visa on the following pages….. perhaps much like he did when my first car was a Volkswagen…. In the end though I imagine showing these pictures of my travels from the Pacific ocean in Russia all the way to the beautiful city of St. Petersburg to him and telling him about the trip.
Sometimes travel & the familiar intersect….