За Грибами

It was slated to be the last sunny day of the fall, so my colleagues and I weaseled out of work obligations and spent the day foraging for mushrooms, за грибами. The day started early—I was to meet Inna Vasilievna at eight am at the university. I did my best to dress for the trip, but I hadn’t really packed for this eventuality. Jeans and layered t-shirts would have to do the job and I hoped to borrow some appropriate shoes.

This was my first time driving out of the city but my friends narrated for me: “There’s the zoo, “ Natasha pointed out. “It doesn’t have many animals but it’s on a lovely territory. We should go sometime. And see back in there? That’s the fancy restaurant in the woods. It’s very elite and clubby.” Inna Vasilievna mumbled something and Natasha jumped in: “Oh well, and, you know, not everything’s good. There’s a prison, “ she said as we whizzed past the barbed-wire watch towers.

Once we left Belgorod, the landscape took on a distinctly American feel. The highway was clearly new, with immaculate guardrails and markings. Clusters of identical townhouses appeared at random intervals, like a rash on the land. Strip malls came into focus, as did a few McMansions. Was I Belgorod or Ames, Iowa?

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This phenomenon of suburban, single-family homes is no accident. In fact, it’s part of what is touted as Belgorod’s economic miracle. The government owns pretty much all of this land, which has allowed it to build over fifty-thousand affordable homes. Natasha is a living example of this. Her five-year old home looks brand new and, except for the distinctly Russian-style fence decorations, could fit in easily with any newly-developed American subdivision.

The farther we got from Belgorod, the more Russian things began looking again. Blue and pink wooden houses with filigreed window shutters, bushes of purple flowers beside tidy yards, and brightly painted picket fences dotted the vast countryside. We pulled into the small city of Shebekino, which has transformed itself from polluted, industrial eyesore to charming whistle-stop. In Soviet times, some short-sighted bureaucrat (or complete idiot) decided to locate a chemical factory right in the center of town. It stunk to high heaven, sickening residents and repulsing visitors. Smarter people later re-built the factory outside of the population center, but the old factory’s carcass still haunts Shebekino’s downtown.

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I feel like this is the perfect location for some hipster brewery/restaurant, where a husky, bearded chef introduces creations named after the factory’s famous products like laundry powder (artisanal farmer’s cheeses nestled in a basket of roasted squash clothes). Russian chef hipsters, get on this, will you?

From Shebekino we drove through pine forests that alternated with fields of just-past-their-prime sunflowers. Gray hay was rolled up like skeins of yarn and stacked on the edges of fields.   We also passed the famous chalk hills for which Belgorod is named (Bel means white and chalk is white, see?).

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Eventually, we pulled into Zavodtsy, a tiny village near the forest. But it’s not that tiny; Google Street View made a trip through it!

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Natasha is ready

A colleague’s mother greeted us as we unloaded our gear into her cosy cottage.  Tatiana Stefanovna was finishing up her summer there and would soon move back into the city.  Meanwhile, she kindly loaned me some rubber shoes for our trek into the forest.  Buckets and bags ready, we set off in search of mushrooms.

It is here that you can really see why this region is called “black earth.”  Thank god for the borrowed shoes that kept me from getting stuck.  We walked for maybe forty minutes to an hour– it’s hard to say since I spent most of my time trying to keep from sliding.  I have terrible vision, even with glasses on, so I felt the need to be extra careful to not fall on a log or some slippery leaves.  The forest was damp but fresh-smelling, like clean laundry.

Inna Vasilievna was the first to spot one, I think.  She bent down to carefully cut the little cap from the stem and dropped it into her bag, scanning the ground for more.  In another minute she bent down again.  Now Inna’s daughter Marina was also bending down, as was Natasha.  I was the only one standing upright.  Oh man, I thought.  I’m never going to be able to see these mushrooms.  They look just like the leaves.  I followed Marina for a while and watched her search the ground.  Time after time, she would spot one, bend down to cut it and I’d lean in to see what it looked like.  Jesus Christ, there is no difference between a leaf and a shroom.  At that point I decided to give up on my own quest for mushrooms and just enjoy the clean air of the forest.

Marina and her bucket
Marina and her bucket

But then I saw one!  It was round, unlike a leaf, and it was shinier.  I bent down to get it and right next to it was another one, and another.  By Jove I think I’ve got it!  Then a man from the village came upon us.  “Girls!” he said, “Come on.  Stop it here, there are more over there.”  It was hard for me to pull myself away from my spot because I felt like I had just caught on.  But to be polite we followed the man deeper into the woods.  Soon enough, everyone was hunched over, putting their mushrooms into buckets.  I stumbled upon a few and then looked around me.  The ground was carpeted in mushrooms.  I practically couldn’t walk without stepping on them.  And once I had picked the ones in my immediate vicinity I looked to my left– another massive clump.  They were freaking everywhere.  You know that expression, “like mushrooms after the rain”? Ok, well, I have now witnessed this first-hand and I can say, after careful, scientific measurement, that there were a shit ton.

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They tended to cluster around tree stumps.  I kept wondering, where are the little elves? The hobbits? This was like something straight of of Grimms’.  And it really did feel magic.

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Since it was no longer necessary to search, I relaxed into my mushroom-picking and breathed deeply.  As a Russian student, I remembered that our unit on hobbies and past-times had included mushroom-hunting.  Through my many trips to Russia, I’d met many mushroom enthusiasts and I’d even been hunting a couple of times.  But I had gone in the summer and the clouds of mosquitos had frightened me away.  On one occasion a quick pit stop to pee had resulted in tens of itchy welts on my backside.  Which is all to say I had never really understood the appeal.  Buy your mushrooms at the market!  Why bother with all this fuss?

Well, I can now tell you why. The fresh air, the calm rhythm of cutting the mushrooms, the singing of the birds and the comforting calls of, “Marina! You still there? Rachel! Where are you?” all combined into a sort of zen meditation.  I sighed in contentment as my bag filled.

The sun peeked in and made a golden light through the trees and Natasha pointed out where a wild animal had made his nest.  At the time, I didn’t know the word, so it was a bit of a mystery what lived there.  Inna and Natasha had been talking all day about the kaban, and how I should just step aside if I saw one.  And then Natasha pointed this nest out.  What are they talking about, a little bear? A fox? A deer?  But it couldn’t be a deer, could it?  Do they even build nests?  A quick peek in the dictionary later told me that we were in the land of boars.  So this is where a boar lives:

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Our buckets and bags filled up quickly so we decided to go.  But it was really hard to stop.  Everywhere you looked there was another mushroom! We tore ourselves away and picked our way back to the village.

The neighbor who had told us about the mushroom spot came and met us with his car so we didn’t have to carry our enormous haul all the way back to the village.  I think he damn near saved my life as blisters started developing from my borrowed boots.  Tatiana Stefanovna and I nearly got stuck in the mud together.

Back at the house we had a quick bite to eat by the wood stove.  I thought I’d never to be able move again.

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The drive home was gorgeous as the sun shone through the trees.

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Inna dropped me off a little ways from my apartment, so I had to walk a bit in my dirty jeans with my enormous mushroom bag.  And people looked at me– not in a bad way.  It was looks of esteem.  Like they were saying, “Good girl.  Got your mushrooms today.”

Once home, I started the arduous process of picking through my mushrooms, washing them, and boiling them.

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And that’s when I started to get really, really tired.  And I started to doubt myself.  Are these really all edible?  What if I didn’t cut off the sign that it is edible, what if that sign was never there?  A quick perusal of the Internet only made me more worried, like when it tells you your stomach-ache is cancer.  So, gentle reader, I threw away about half of those gorgeous mushrooms.  But the other half, the half I am convinced are edible, are in my refrigerator right now, just waiting for soup.

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