The homestay. What better way to truly experience Russia? You don’t want tourism, you want realism. You close your eyes and put your hands in the life of an online company who promise to find you a host and a home for a month. You’ll get better at Russian, and that’s pretty much all that’s guaranteed. You’ll have ‘a Russian experience’, which is a very ambiguous phrase.
And so I move in with Lyubov.
Fiery red hair, gravelly voice: she’s not going to take shit from anyone and she has seven locks on her door just to make sure. She is the most wonderfully eccentric and fantastic woman, and her name literally means ‘Love’. England has the same trend of taking names from virtues too—Grace, Joy, Hope—but they’re all a bit wishy-washy. In Russia they go straight for the jugular.
As soon as I arrive I realise the catch: I’m sleeping in her room. Not with her, which is probably a good thing, but then she’s moved into the sitting room to sleep on the sofa, and that leaves me with a healthy dose of guilt from day one. I never thought I’d be the kind of guy who forces an old lady to sleep on a sofa. I’m learning every day. So I’m in her bed, with its electric-blue satin sheets, the porcelain cats and cherubs watching me from corners of the room, Jesus looking down at me from above my head, tapestries of bears playing in a wood near Smolensk on the walls, and lacy curtains hiding a view of the local karaoke club, where I know that what goes on is definitely not karaoke or they’d never allow karaoke at children’s parties.
I’ve opted to cook for myself, but nonetheless Lyubov insists on making me the odd meal. Again that phrase ‘a Russian experience’ is thrown out there. But it suits me fine for the first few days, because the endless supply of home-grown apples, onions and potatoes from her last dacha visit has limited my designated fridge space to three square inches. And, to be fair, some of her food is quite tasty. The pumpkin porridge is a triumph. But then the red onion and kidney bean mulch needs a bit of work, and cranberries take all the fun out of an apple pie. And I challenge the politest man in the world to finish a glass of kefir without choking and saying ‘I think there’s something wrong with your milk.’
I learn Lyubov’s household rules by trial and error. When you make a mistake, you learn the rule and remember for next time. It’s a lot like grammar. You wash your hands on arrival. You always leave your keys on the hook. Under no circumstances do you put a spoon in the fridge.
Once a week a very small Tadjik mystic comes to tell her fortune. For a modest fee. I know when he’s coming over because Lyubov boils up a pot of special tea. They go into her study and shut the door. I wish I knew what goes on in there but sadly I never will. All I know is that he can only see into the future short-term because he comes every week. And seeing as Lyubov’s fate remains largely the same, he presumably doesn’t have much trouble finding things to predict. He may have fooled her but he knows I’m on to him. I pass him in the hallway as he stuffs his rubles into his pocket and puts on his boots, and he gives me a look that says ‘Don’t rat me out, mate’. The first thing Lyubov said to me when I moved in was that I should always be careful not to get mugged by a Tadjik. I’d point this out to her but it might look cheeky. Also, I don’t want to cross a mystic. He has the power to make my life very difficult: if he decides to sense an evil presence in Lyubov’s house then I’m gone.
When the mystic is gone I ask Lyubov what he said. He told her ‘she should be careful with her money’. The man clearly has an excellent sense of humour.
I live out of my suitcase because the cupboard is full of Lyubov’s things. When the day arrives when it’s all starting to fester and get a bit nasty I ask her if she has a washing machine. She pretty much laughs in my face. She has a friend over at the time and she laughs at me too. Lyubov says something that I don’t fully understand. It probably translates roughly as ‘Man up, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and wash your clothes in the bath.’
As I prepare to bathe my pants and socks, Lyubov comes to my rescue with her secret weapon: a portable, miniature clothes-washing apparatus. It looks like a phone-charger with a black plastic teardrop on the end of the wire, about the size of a spoon-head. Lyubov assures me that it cleans clothes perfectly well. We fill up a plastic tub with water and detergent and tip my washing in. We plug in the contraption and she places the end in the water. I watch it, expecting it to spring to life. Nothing happens. No noise, no vibrating, the water doesn’t move, nothing. Apparently we leave it for an hour and it washes everything. I’m not convinced. I shut it in the bathroom—perhaps it doesn’t like being watched. I look it up on Google and I can’t find any evidence that phone-charger washing machines exist. The Tadjik mystic must have sold it to her.
After an hour the water is brown, which is progress, I think, but the black plastic teardrop still sits there, looking at me smugly and doing nothing. I poke it and Lyubov tells me to leave it alone. I retreat to my room.
In the end the clothes are as clean as any clothes that have sat in stagnant, tepid, soapy water for two hours. It’ll have to do. Now it’ll probably be a week until they’re dry. I sneak a look at the instructions for this magic washer. They’re very long and I can’t be bothered to translate them, suffice to say that if it actually was a genuine gadget for cleaning clothes, we certainly didn’t use it properly. Part of me thinks it was just a washing machine extension cord.
Lyubov used to be a teacher of Russian literature and language. As well as being extremely useful for me, as it allows me to have long chats in about the books I’m reading, which is great all-round practice, it also means she has a few students who pop in and out from time to time for lessons. On one of my poorly-timed hall crossings I meet one of these pupils as she’s leaving. She’s an English-speaking girl, so I make my usual small talk about how badly I speak Russian and how well she speaks English and what I’m doing in Moscow. It’s a nice enough chat, but then I see Lyubov scurry pass with a sly smile on her face and a scheme visibly forming in her head. Curse my natural charm. I tell the girl that my samovar has boiled and escape to the shelter of the kitchen. I hear the two of them giggling conspiratorially in the foyer.
A few minutes later, in comes Lyubov.
‘You know the best way to get really good at Russian?’
Here it comes.
‘Get a Russian girlfriend.’
I laugh it off and tell her that I already have an English girlfriend, which is why my English is so good. That outstanding piece of humour completely passes her by. She asks me if I like the girl and I say she’s pleasant. She tells me that the girl is sixteen and wealthy and I wonder if she’s testing my moral compass. Regardless, next time she comes over Lyubov is determined to make sure we become friends. Who knows, maybe we could go to a museum together? I make a mental note of the day and the time so I know when to be out of the house.
A week on I know she’s still working on that particular scheme so I have to be on my guard. If Dostoyevsky has taught me one thing, it’s that older ladies love to matchmake naive men. But then if it’s taught her one thing, it’s that students murder landladies with axes, so hopefully she won’t press the matter.
Lyubov is wonderful. I’ve got two more weeks with her, so it’s not over yet, but I’ll miss her when I’m gone. She probably won’t miss me because she’ll be glad to have her bed back. I’ve heard her laughing with her friends at my idiotic, bumbling Englishness, which makes me feel less bad about thrusting her into the blogosphere without her knowledge. I’ve gambled and I’m confident that she isn’t a blogger. Even if she is, it doesn’t matter, because this piece is a tribute to how delightfully quirky she is and how much fun it’s been living with her. She’s taught me so much: about Russia, Russian culture, the food, the outlook, the literature, all of it. I feel like I’m her protégé. I’m certainly her fan. You could even call me her lyubovnik*. And when you start pulling Russian puns like that out of the bag, you can be sure you’ve learned something.
* I’m not her lyubovnik.