Here I am, once again, playing a reluctant game of hide-and-seek-in-my-own-home. HRH’s parents have come from Russia to stay in Northampton for a week. Funny thing about time. HRH’s and my tantalizingly just-around-the-corner week on the beach in St. Croix will be woefully short. This post-Christmas week with HRH’s parents is flowing like cement. I’m exhausted from single-handedly pulling off Christmas, and I am having trouble womaning up to single-handedly pull off New Year’s Eve. But I have to, because New Year’s Eve is the main event for Russians: as I pointed out in one of my columns, the Orthodox Christmas is on January 7th, and was not widely celebrated in The Soviet Union. All of the Christmas trees, gifts and their emaciated version of Santa Claus, Dedushka (Grandfather) Frost have shifted to New Year’s Eve.
I cannot look to our own “Dedushka,” HRH’s father, for much practical help, although his entire time and energy is devoted to seeming busy, looking important, and asking us if he can help. He can’t. I feel he is a prime candidate for the chill-pill line of pharmaceuticals – like a quadruple hit of Zanax or Valium, which I yearn to slip into his morning muesli. These might perhaps cut down on his constant fidgeting, the restless pursuit of a purpose or occupation, or his insistence on mixing the thirty-some English words he knows in with the forty German ones, no one else understands, with Russian, which is so clearly the lingua franca of this particular group. I’m not sure about drugs though, since he is my prime suspect in the case of the rapidly disappearing cooking brandy, and alcohol it seems to have only further hyped him up: He’s underfoot everywhere, offering suggestions or authoritative supervision on the execution of things he can’t do, like drive. Or cook. He drove me straight to the cocktail shaker this afternoon as he tried to direct me backing the grocery-laden Subaru into our garage. Backing automobiles into narrow confined spaces is not my primary skill set, but I don’t need a hyperactive non-driver getting in on the act.
If Dedushka could use a chill pill, his wife, Babushka, (Granny) might find life a brighter proposition with the pharma forklift provided by Prozac or Lexipro. Unfortunately, neither would even consider ever discussing mood enhancers with their primary care physicians, because that generation just didn’t do that kind of thing in Russia. You didn’t talk to anyone working for the State and keeping records about feeling a little down. Pity. Babushka seems to bear the weight of the world’s sorrows on her back, and qualifies every noun with the adjective “poor.” “Poor trees that were cut down and turned into firewood!” “Poor oysters we are about to eat,” or “Lovely snow, but the poor stuff will melt later today.” She is savvier than Dedushka, though very self-effacing, and she has wisely retreated into the abject misery of a stuffy nose. I may teach her to Neti Pot just as a diversion. Still, she seems very appreciative of what she’s found here in Northampton. Like Eileen Fisher and some really nice fish pate. We had a longish time at my beauty salon where a very patient and nice stylist worked for about three hours to turn her Russian-salon florescent henna with green highlights into a lovely auburn with caramel lowlights. This was ultimately successful, but she whispered to me somewhere into the second hour, “Is this going to be way too dark?”
Babushka is more helpful because she can, and, unlike the men in her family, is prepared, to make a bed or wash a dish. True, my new kitchen clearly intimidates her. The pots are heavy, the knives are sharp, the gas stove is menacing, and most of the food she finds in the fridge is unfamiliar. Still, she’s determined to be helpful, so I’ve ceded her the kitchen. This, as any woman who has ever married a man with a mother still living knows, is the right and proper thing to do. This is the right and proper thing to do even if you are way better at cutting up the baffling items in the fridge with the scary sharp knives, then cooking them in the heavy pots on the intimidating stove. Even Nigella Lawson should do this. I’m gritting my teeth as she drapes dirty napkins and soiled dishcloths across clean surfaces for reasons I can’t fathom, and I sneak in at night to put all of the inadequately-washed wine glasses through the dishwasher, but in general, I just give it all a wide berth.
So, I’m playing reluctant-hide-and-seek. In my own home.
My friend Victoria, who also has an HRH, and three children under the age of seven, in Moscow knows all about hide-and-seek-in-her-own-home. She is usually hiding from her own children or their many and varied nannies, trying to finish an article or get over a bad case of the ‘flu. She barricades herself in the Master Bedroom.
“En-suite bathrooms,” she says, nodding, “are the key. If you can access a toilet and manage to stockpile food and drink, you need never see anyone.”
I haven’t played hide-and-seek-in-my-own-home yet in Northampton, but I play a great deal of it in Moscow. Russia is a human resources rich country, and so I have a lot of “Help” in Moscow. And I have to hide from them, due to an architectural flaw in my apartment. With 20/20 hindsight, I see now that I should have been firmer about the – admittedly stunning – but completely transparent glass walls of the little study, where I am supposed to write The World’s First Funny Book on Russia. These glass panels are a green light to anyone to rap softly, gesture wildly, and come in saying, “I’m not disturbing you, am I?” And this happens all day long. Even when there is a sign, in Russian, taped to the outside of the glass wall, with only two or three spelling errors, but nothing that would confuse the reader as to the general thrust of the message, which is to PLEASE let me get on with writing the World’s First Funny Book on Russia undisturbed.
Tolya-the-driver bustles in and out on HRH’s errands, which mainly consist of escorting electricians into my en suite bathroom (removing that iron-clad hiding place). They all stop to have a cup of tea with the long-suffering Raisa, our cleaning lady. Raisa, like any Russian cleaning lady worth her salt, is always up for a lengthy one way chat about her current automotive disasters, the deplorable state of her dacha, how expensive everything is, or the details of the latest in a series of endless acquaintances who are diagnosed with really gruesome fatal illnesses. I never know what to say in these situations, except to repeat every synonym I can think of for “how awful!” Russian, as the Russians say, is a rich language, so there are a lot of synonyms. None of them ever seems quite up to the magnitude of Raisa’s tragedies, so I’ve got in the habit of dodging the bullet, by being up and dressed and out the door before she arrives. Where to go was sometimes a challenge until the next-door Starbucks opened, and then where to write the World’s First Funny Book on Russia was painlessly and somewhat stereo-typically solved.
“Just ignore them!” HRH says. “Write your book in the study, for Chrissakes!” He, child of the “classless” proletarian revolution, has no qualms about behaving like Ivan the Terrible to The Help. If he and a cadre of rust belt factory directors have had a long hard night with a case of vodka, he simply stays in bed until noon. Rising, he dons his dressing gown and parades around the apartment, like a medieval boyar, smelling like a distillery, yelling at people on the phone, sending Raisa and Tolya scurrying away to avoid bothering him. It’s dead impressive, and I’m deeply jealous. Raisa will make him a three-course meal from scratch if he only hints that he’s hungry, whereas I’m next door paying 660 rubles for a “Venti skinny latte c dvumiaya dop shotiy.” (Venti skinny latte with two extra shots). But you know, at Starbucks worldwide, after they give you that latte, they leave you alone to get on with it. They don’t start vacuuming the parquet floor just outside the glass panels of your stupidly designed study.
This doesn’t seem to be an issue with the people who work here on the renovations to the house in Northampton, which is traditionally a place to which hedge fund managers flee to become contented stonemasons. So, the electrician here is a really cool lady from Noho with a killer tool bag, the husband and wife team who have painted the entire house are really musicians, and my contractor (a sculptor) and the cabinet maker (also a sculptor) spend the day comparing Italian trattoria they know and love. I’m very fond of the sheet rock guy, who shares his thoughts on how sex when you are with your partner in the Caribbean is outstanding (a correct assumption I’m clinging to). He really does need his own reality TV show. I’ve got no problem wandering around the house if they are there, making them coffee, writing up in my loft as they work away, and I’d be delighted if they stayed all day. “How wonderful,” I say, as they enthuse about the latest gig or exhibit, and then go and look up synonyms for wonderful.
I’ve ceded the new kitchen to Babushka, but I still can’t work out what Dedushka should do. Neither has he. I feel its somehow not quite right to ask him to bring in some wood, although this is what I expect of any male guest over the age of 12. I fear Dedushka will take offense: think I’m confusing him with the Help. He clearly wants to have a long one-way chat and tell me all about New York, or San Francisco or some other place I know a lot better than he does. So, I’m hiding. I don’t think HRH’s parents have worked out where our bedroom is, and they can’t be sure if I’m up in the loft where HRH and I have our desks, which is where I’m hiding. But Dedushka has wandered up, so I may need to go to Northampton’s wonderful public library to look something up. Like the length of every single river on the planet. And hit a Starbucks. Hard.