Waving goodbye at the border

Waving goodbye at the border

AYLİN ÖNEY TAN - aylin.tan@hdn.com.tr
Waving goodbye at the border Unwillingly, I step out of the train. The small station is uninviting. The scarcely populated settlement consists of a few timber-clad, simple houses that hardly constitute a village. This must be one of the most dramatic stops on our Trans-Siberian/Mongolian railway experience. The urban-like settlement is as remote as a border town can be. Naushki is our last stop in Russia, and I don’t seem to have come to grips with this fact yet. I’m in a hazy state of mind. I’m trying to get focused, and still trying to find something worthwhile for having taken this trip. I feel there is something missing in this travel. In the quest to find the missing link, I keep remembering moments from our voyage.

I recall a striking story. One traveler in our group, who barely knows the others, instantly reveals an anecdote back in Irkutsk station. She remembers her lonely neighbors, a struggling mother and daughter, going to the main station every weekend in Ankara, waving goodbye to strangers, and then coming back home to their solitude. Their story strikes me like lightning! “Tristesse,” “Saudade,” “Hüzün”: Word languages are not enough to express this kind of holding to life. I admire their persistent visits to a train station, hoping for a miracle to happen; I admire their perseverance.

I remember watching a family reunite at a remote station somewhere between Irkutsk and Ulan Ude. A young boy of around 8 joyously runs to his parents with open arms. He makes flying-like moves with his outstretched arms as if he was imitating a bird or a plane flying over all those distant lands. The boy flies to reach the father, his short flight ends with a tight clutch to the father’s body. They freeze for a moment; the few seconds they hold onto each other seems like ages to me; it’s as if they’re trying to erase all the time they’ve spent apart. Maybe it’s just a routine reunion, maybe it’s something more dramatic. I’ll never know their story, but these few seconds will remain with me forever: The young boy embracing his father’s body.

I leave the little road and begin to walk through a neglected park. As I walk between the trees, I notice the unusual slow pace of a group on the main road. It is a solemn march. Noticing the flowers and wreaths, I think it must be a parade or something. The awkward silence of the marching group strikes me, and all of a sudden I notice a coffin on the back of a truck. I take cover behind a tree and try to take a photo with my iPad. I feel a sudden shiver as I see the old man’s face, his face set to a grin-like expression, lips frozen into a tight seal, almost blackish purple. The funeral procession continues on its way. I wave a silent goodbye to the old man, crossing myself...

I wander through the lanes. I take pictures of lacy windows with ornamental wooden carvings and needlepoint curtains. I’m distressed. It just doesn’t feel right to walk through this lonely remote cluster of houses one barely can call a village. I’m reluctant to explore more and I feel uncomfortable taking photos. I notice a local store and walk in hesitantly. It’s better to focus on food. Kolbassa, cheap biscuits, everything from brightly colored wrapped sweets to toothpaste is stacked neatly in glass cases. The two vendor ladies are busy selling things to a couple of youngsters. Through their tolerance I take a lot of pictures of all the foodstuff they stock. I peek through the freezer to record frozen pelmeni packages. Bottles of spirits and vodkas line the shelves. There is fish of all sorts – cured, dried, smoked and canned fishes. The dried fish in a bucket reminds me of the open-faced man in the coffin. I turn away. I hastily buy a bottle of Sibirskaya vodka and a small one infused with hot pepper.

I notice cars approaching the front of a building nearby. I recognize faces from the funeral march. Oh my God, they must be back for the traditional funeral feast! This must be one of the most exciting moments for a food writer interested in rituals: A Russian funeral feast in a tiny, remote Trans-Siberian border settlement! This, I realize, is a journey that happens once in a lifetime, and I’m luckily witnessing such a special occasion. I walk toward the building and sneak a look through the window.

I see the simple lunch they’re silently eating from deep, bowl-like dishes. Whether it’s soup or a soupy main dish, I can’t tell. They’re completely silent. I remember my Christian side of the family. It is not like our funeral feasts that contained satire and an awkward dose of the joy of life while also including the exchange of jokes and anecdotes about the deceased. My journalistic instinct collapses. They may invite me to the table if I walk in, show respect and share their agony. I can even manage to take a few photos discreetly, but I don’t feel like raising my camera. I do not even feel it’s right to see them. I turn my back and walk away with the blurry sight of the funeral table stuck in my mind. The image engraved in my memory is cloudy through the fly-net, like a distant memory. Was my grand-grandmother’s funeral like this? How many people were there? Did they talk or stay in silence like at this funeral? What did they eat and drink? I’ll never find out...

I climb back to our carriage. As the train pulls away from the station, I wave goodbye to Naushki and once again to the old man in the coffin. This last goodbye is to all my deceased heroes as well as to the last two decades of my life. Leaving Naushki feels good. I know I’ll never come back, and now I know exactly what the place means for me. I feel on the borderline. A sudden burst of tears runs down my eyes: Naushki is about waving goodbye.

Recipe of the Week:
It is the right season to make Vishnovka, Russian sour cherry & vodka infusion. Take 1 kg of sour cherries, then wash them and pat them dry. No need to pit or stalk them – actually the stalks will give a very nice, faintly bitter almond flavor. Put them into a big jar, sprinkle two tablespoons of sugar and fill up with good vodka. Place on a sunny window sill and forget about it for a couple of weeks. Serve chilled on one cube of ice with a single cherry.

Bite of the week

Fork of the Week: Semolina halvah is the sweet goodbye to those who have passed on in the Turkish tradition. It has to be done at home collectively with relatives taking turns stirring the halvah, but sometimes we need to buy it ready-made. Undoubtedly, the best is at Hacı Şerif. Either visit their Eminönü shop in Istanbul or go to the original place in Denizli when you visit Pamukkale.

Cork of the Week: Try to make an intriguing version of Vishnovka by using Binboa Red Apple or Binboa Red Orange. Both work wonders, the latter is my favorite with a stick of cinnamon!