DISCLAIMER FOR OUR MOTHERS’ AND MATRIARCHS’ PEACE OF MIND: Vodka was omnipresent in this stage of our vacation. However, Nathan got lots of practice in refusing drinks, and I, as a female, am not expected to drink except a tiny bit anyway.   You’re welcome, Mom. You can sleep now.

In Russian tradition, letting guests help with housework brings bad luck. This is a shame, because in Kate’s tradition, sitting and watching your hosts clean up brings discomfort. Fortunately, we arrived at Katja the Dark’s in the midst of a flurry of aunts and party preparations, so after being stuffed silly with soup and potato-filled shan’gi, we were put to work preparing their tiny house for the onslaught of revelers.


Katja the Dark-and-Curling-Haired preparing some alarming mayonnaise-and-fish sandwiches. The orange and black specked rounds next to her are caviar and cream sandwiches. I made those!


The obligatory New Year’s dishes are oliv’e, a cold salad with potatoes, peas, sausage, and mayonnaise, and clementines. Also on this table, you will see a variety of cold salads and open-faced sandwich fixings. These are staples on the Russian celebratory table. The pink beverage is a compote from pickled apples. It’s delicious.

Having prepared the smorgasbord, we took off for Rita’s to banya it up. I’ve talked about banyas before, but the situation was a little different at Katja’s house: they didn’t have a shower or bath tub at all. Either you banya, or you stink. The danger of going to Rita’s to banya was, of course, that that meant eating not only Katja’s family’s food, but also Rita’s. Fortunately-unfortunately, both mothers are wonderful cooks.


These are the bundles of branches with which to hit yourself. It is not actually painful unless you want it to be. They are beech, fir, and spruce, in order of spikiness.

Katja said that normally 50 people come to their New Year’s celebration; I think she meant 15. Either way, this year our company was smaller, as many of the village’s young men were visiting girlfriends in other cities or in the army (it does appear that Katja and her best friend Rita are the only girls each year).

The Russian boys got very intoxicated very quickly, which meant that I had no hope of understanding their fast and slurred speech. So while Nathan worked his magic of charming people with only 5 words, I chatted with Katja and Rita, who is studying English to work in the US next summer. It was not a bad time.

Just before midnight, Putin gave a speech. I would have liked to hear it, but was not able owing to the not-so-complimentary rantings of those around me. Then the Kremlin clock (just a little digital clock in the corner of the screen–they don’t have a ball-drop) announced the new year!

In Russia, this is the signal that it’s time to start getting ready to go party. Oh dear. After cleaning up, we went to the village club, which is managed by Katja’s mom and DJed (very very loudly) by her brother, Micha. I managed to pretend dancing is fun until 3:00, and then we went home. The rest of the crew didn’t come home until 6.

Nathan paid for his celebration the next morning, but not in the usual way. Instead of a hangover, he was met at the breakfast table by two of the most traditional Russian hangover cures: a cup of sauerkraut juice and a shot of vodka. It’s enough to drive one from drink–and it did.


We had time for a brief wander through the woods (where we were expressly warned not to go, but Hansel and Gretel love them some trees) before coming home and pulling out the leftovers for Day 2. Day 2 went exactly like Day 1 except that it started earlier, and people went home afterwards instead of going to the club.

I discovered not long into our stay that the hot water pipe that runs through the bathroom delivers not only glorious hot water, but the occasional electrical current. I got shocked several times in an attempt to prove to Nathan that I wasn’t imagining things.

Day 3 was the most fun: all the people from the party and a few others gathered up tubes and washbins and went to find the biggest hill in the village. Pictures will be here at some point; they’re on Katja’s phone. We sledded, built a fire, ate eggs, and were generally merry. Then everyone went back to Katja’s house for Day 3 of the celebration, which turned out to be her stepfather’s birthday.

Our celebration was interrupted by a banya visit and bliny with Rita’s family. Her dad, it turns out, is Ukrainian, so we got to try some exciting Ukrainian foods such as salo on bread (basically lard, but he spiced it so it tasted, in Nathan’s words, “like a barbecue Pringle”) and samogon, a very strong homemade liquor that Russians insist is similar to whisky.

Katja had warned us that her mom likes to send people home with food. I wasn’t surprised–it’s pretty common to send guests a box of leftovers. I was not prepared for what we received:

3 lbs beets

20 lbs potatoes

1 head cabbage

3 lbs carrots

1/2 lb garlic

5 lbs onions

A bag of crackers, chocolate, and tea for the train ride home

half a loaf of homemade bread

half a chicken

a gallon jar of delicious homemade pickles

2 jars of zucchini caviar

3 jars of preserves.

And all of it delicious. I have no idea how I’m going to use it all up.

The train ride back was lovely, other than the discovery of why no one wants the top bunks: there’s not enough room to sit, or even crawl properly. It’s like those Japanese coffin hotels.

The end. Here’s some Christmas/New Year’s cheer!


With a shopping bag as a pastry mat and a wine bottle as a rolling pin, I set about systematically covering the apartment in flour.


Forest creature Christmas cookies!


Our tree


Happy new year!