Vodka, Kasha and the Russian Chapter

Two Babushka Dolls given to me by two Russian doctors almost fifty years apart, one is a peasant, the other a bit of a hussy!

Two Babushka Dolls given to me by two Russian doctors almost fifty years apart, one is a peasant, the other a bit of a hussy!

Imagine my delight  

Writing a book was a lot harder than I imagined.  I have a new-found admiration for anyone who gets their work onto the shelves.  My first memoir of two years I spent in Hong Kong got bogged down at the beginning when I wrote about my journey East from England on the Trans-Siberian railway.  I struggled, my words totally inadequate against the Russian front.

Then right in the middle of my epic battle with the Russian chapter, I hosted a Russian, an Associate Professor from Siberia.

I pestered him with questions, he looked disconcerted.  His Siberia was a vibrant spot, he enjoyed living there.

My Farewell Invitation

The months flew and it was time for his farewell.  I sent round the invitations.  We’d send the Professor off in Russian style: drink vodka, eat kasha and sing the Volga Boat Song.

The Professor came to me.  He had printed off my email.  “Vodka?  I prefer Australian white wine.”

“That’s OK,” I said brightly, “I’ll get wine.”  Me and the bottle of Vodka would have our own party, I thought.

“You can cook kasha?” he said doubtfully, “Do you want me to buy the cream?”

Why would I want him to buy the cream?  My kasha was from a The Pauper’s Cookbook by Jocasta Innes, and sure had no cream.  (It upset Mike when I bought that book at a time when we were financially challenged.  He had a Scarlett O’Hara moment, “As God is my witness, we’ll never be poor again … I don’t want to eat like a pauper.”)

I said to the Professor, “No, no, it’s fine, my recipe does not have cream.” 

He looked doubtful.  

Then we had an discussion

His finger moved to the last item, “What is this Vulgar Boat Song?” 

“No, Volga.  You know, ‘Yo heave ho.  Ay-da, da, ay-da.’”

“No, I don’t know this song.”

“Yes you do!”

“No I don’t!”

Thank God for You Tube

So I found the Red Army Choir on YouTube singing the Volga Boat Song.  Since every second and third line is Yo, heave ho, I thought my earlier rendition should have sufficed.

“Oh, this is a very old song.  This is about slaves!”

It was a good party nevertheless

So, the kasha was as the Professor had never tasted it, Australian wine flowed and the Professor led us through some strange song, a romantic lament of cold and snow.  It is always winter in Siberia.

A lesson in Russian history

The professor said how much he had enjoyed staying.  He was a little embarrassed at not being able to answer all my questions about Russia.  He’d attended high-school, just after the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  The Russian history curriculum was suddenly redundant and it took time to pump out a new one. 

Just as well he was going.  If only I’d known, I’d have rectified that!   What a golden opportunity wasted. 

And the Babushka?

Yes, the Prof gave me a very shiny Babushka doll.  I was truly delighted because in 1968 on the Trans-Siberian Express, another Russian doctor had given me a Babushka doll.  That doctor had liked his Vodka - very much - and I'm sure from memory, we together gave a splendid rendition of the Volga Boat Song.  Yo heave ho.

Go get the gone days

I was twelve when I saw the photo

The photo was of my maternal grand-mother, Mamie.  She was sitting at a dinner table, laughing out loud, her head thrown back a little.  The meal is over,  napkins careless on the table.  The laughing woman adds joie de vivre.  My mother looked at it for a moment and said, “Mamie gave wonderful dinners.  She was the heart and soul of the party.” 

My grandmother as a party animal was totally unexpected.   I’ve described Mamie recently in my memoir as a thrifty, tall and vitreous stick of a woman.

I was not a favoured grandchild  

Mamie seemed never pleased to see me and I steered clear of her.  So I saw an opportunity.

“Mamie’s in the garden; I’ll show her, the photo,” I said.

“NO, no.  Don’t do that, you will upset her.”


Mum tried to explain. The past was a place adults didn't like to visit for the present
didn't measure up.  

Years later when I was twenty-one and just about to leave for Hong Kong, Mum uncharacteristically snapped at me for endlessly crooning the hit song Those Were the Days

Russian folksong goes down well in Russia

Days after that exchange with Mum, I was rolling across the starry steppes of Siberia, singing the song with great gusto to Russians on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  They loved it because they were drunk as Tsars and because it was originally a Russian folk-song.

Recently, and now in my sixties, when I started
to write memoir

I thought of my mother, my grandmother, that photo and that song.  Revisiting the mopey, self-indulgent lyrics of Those Were the Days, I have to wonder what were we thinking!   But I also thought about messages that the past was a place to visit with trepidation.

Bullshit, my friends

Like life itself, the past is what we make it.  How we imagine the future is seldom objective, how we remember the past isn't either.  With hindsight we can use perspective and examine life and celebrate our success, for survival is success; warts and all!   My generation has even earned the right to sing that silly song, unlike Mary Hopkin when she first sang aged eighteen!

Are you reticent about looking back?   
Does it make you melancholy? 

Crazymakers’ Central

Emily's collage illustrates how I constantly swept up after crazymakers.

Emily's collage illustrates how I constantly swept up after crazymakers.

The Artist’s Way.  Unlock your creativity in 12 weeks, said the flyer.

The course was by Ros BurtonShe credited Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, with her success as a writer.  That’s what I wanted to be.  It was January 2013.

I was so excited.  I enrolled immediately.  So excited, I completely forgot I was deaf. 

You’d be surprised how long it takes to get used to being deaf.  When no-one is talking to you it is not a consideration and when they do, well, it’s the way they speak.   I can hear my daughter Emily clearly, but not so easily Dale’s modulated tones.  Alice talks like a fast undercurrent, impossible.  Kim, talks rapidly too but in shot-gun staccato and I can hear that. 

On the first day of the course lively chatter bounced off walls around me that I couldn’t catch.  No context, a dozen unfamiliar voices.  Babel.

I tried to focus on what Ros was saying.  Everyone was years younger than me. I sat tight, a bit like a bobblehead doll, nodding and smiling like an imbecile. 

I might have cut and run, but the second week was on CRAZYMAKERS.  I didn't care that I couldn't hear that session, I was mesmerised by the words on the page.


All my life I’d worked for crazymakers.  But I’d never categorised them.  Now I could count them off on my fingers.  I'm a good 2i/c, a Jack-of-all-trades, hardworking; I make things happen.  Crazymakers give free reign, an endless supply of things to fix, revamp and restore.  I thrived on drama.  Crazymakers are charismatic, charming, inventive and persuasive. 

“To fixer-uppers, they are irresistible…” wrote Julia Cameron

Damn right they are.  Endless chaos for me to FIX! 

I read and reread the pages.  How had I not recognised it before?  Ye Gods, I choose them and they chose me.  Cultist.  Footlights, please.  Ladies and Gentlemen, let the circus begin.  The show must go on.  The most destructive show on earth, the paranoia, the politics and the Herculean effort.  And I’d enabled that, no problem too ridiculous, too personal or too outrageous.

The solution was to recant

I read on.   You have to BE crazy to keep working for a crazymaker; a self-destructive delusion averting any chance of nurturing individual creativity.

I walked out into the cool air of an Autumn evening and along the Manly shoreline promenade.  I made some decisions.  I was going to cast adrift the last crazymaker and restore my equilibrium by putting them all where they belonged, on the pages I would write.

And, I was going to get hearing aids.

Do you know any crazymakers?

Or did Julia and I hog them all?  It feels a bit like I did and I’d hate to be selfish, so I make a promise, they are now all yours. 

PS - a really good start to 2016

Ros is running another Artist's Way Course at Desire Books, 3/3 Whistler Street, Manly 2095 commencing Monday 1st February Email or phone 02 9977 0888.