Today was "Defender of the Fatherland Day," formerly known as "Soviet Army Day," the holiday when Russians, well, celebrate their army. In fact, it was not a day-off-from-work holiday until 2002 when Putin made it one. Incidentally, it's also informally known as "men's day," when woman express affection and gratitude to the men in their lives. I suppose one day out of the year is enough for them...
Rather than defend the fatherland tonight, I defended the home front. Which is to say, I somehow managed to land babysitting duty for Host Family's 7-year old granddaughter. Not sure how that happened; this is why I should have studied Russian harder when I had the chance.
She's a very sweet kid. In fact, she reminds me a lot of my sister as a child: a little bossy at times, a little demanding, without an overabundance of patience. But, as with my sister, there's no doubt that she has a heart of gold. She seems to spend every weekend here, which fills the apartments with frequent delarations of "BABUSHKA, I don't WANT to go to bed now!" and similar demarches.
The funny thing about Ksenia is that I don't understand most of what she says to me. I was troubled by this the first couple of weekends. After all, weren't my language skills closer to hers than to adults? Probably not by much, since no matter how you look at it I have the vocabulary of a 3-year old. I finally realized that it was context that was lacking: when an adult is speaking to me, most of the gaps in my vocabulary knowledge can get filled in by the context of the conversation. But since the kid is inclined to verbalize every random thought that pops into her head, I rarely have that thread to cling to. Thus, I just smile, nod, say "oh, really?" a lot, and laugh when she laughs. Roughly the response of a 3-year old.
As Babushka and Dedushka had a banquet to go to tonight, I was put in charge. The original verbal contract went something like this:
"R, Will you be home on Friday?"
"Ok," she says, turning back to the phone and addressing Ksenia's father. "R will be here on Friday, he can watch her."
The first act of the new regime was to reform the evening's menu. While Host Mom/Babushka had informed us both that we could have tvorog (Russian cottage cheese, but drier than our version) with sour cream and sugar, I decided that something a little more substantial was in order. After all, I need more than a pile of cream cheese, sour cream, and sugar for dinner. Makes a lovely dessert, yes, but I need something I can sink my teeth into. Not to mention some fiber...
"Ksenia, do you like Italian food?"
"Yes, I do, but my dad doesn't like it. One time....[lost the conversation here]."
A couple minutes later after a particularly funny [read: untintelligible] story, I got a word in edgewise:
"Well I was thinking that we could have some pasta for dinner."
"No, Babushka said we can have tvorog with sour cream, and... [lost it again]"
"Well, maybe we can have both. You get the tvorog, and I'll make the pasta."
I can't tell you how good it felt to be mincing garlic. 4 weeks of not cooking has been hard for me. Sweetening my trimphant return to the kitchen was the fact that not only was it a good homecooked meal, it was MY homecooked meal, something I would eat at home. There is a separate post on my relationship with Russian food in the works, but for now let's just say it's gotten a little repetitive lately.
And so, a little garlic, olive oil, marjoram (it was the only Italian-esque herb they had), and grated cheese tossed with spaghetti was a little slice of heaven.
"You know what I really like, what would make this even better?"
"What?" I asked doubtfully, narrowing my eyes at her.
"I'll show you...[lost it here. Something about her teacher, I think]"
She flopped over to the fridge and pulled out a packet of ketchup, wielding it like a saber about to eviscerate my culinary nirvana. Before she could reach the table I blurted out, "Oh, I don't really like ketchup, no thanks!"
"But it's SOOO yummy this way," she said, covering her plate with a serpentine swirl of the glowing red...substance.
Fortunately she relented and we did not have to resort to physical combat. Because while I may have the linguistic skills of a 3 year-old, I have the fighting skills of at least a 10 year-old.
[I didn't really understand the next 15 minutes of conversation, but I can only assume that there were some REALLY FUNNY stories since we laughed a lot...]
After dinner we played checkers, which I handily beat her in. Take that, kid. That will teach you to threaten my pasta with post-Soviet ketchup!
Then we took out a big sheet of paper and I drew in pencil a rainbow trout leaping out of the water to eat a fly. As my mother and wife can tell you, this is the only thing I know how to draw well. I've been drawing the same picture since 5th grade, impressing everyone that looks at it. But beyond that I have the drawing skills of an advanced 12 year-old. Ksenia got out her watercolors to fill in the colors, and I told her what colors to use. Like I said, she's a bit strong-willed, which is why the trout has a red belly instead of a gray or white one. Oh well, we'll say it's a spawning greenback cutthroat trout. Except the back is black because she was still paying attention to me then.
We were in the middle of painting the picture when Babushka and Dedushka came home. Needless to say, they were highly amused at the sight of us at the table intently focused on the picture. And of course, they were impressed with the trout. I definitely scored some points with them tonight, as they assumed I would just do my own work or watch TV. But not me! It is my solemn duty to Defend the Fatherland! I mean, Entertain the Granddaughter!
So it was a fun evening. Something a little different for a change. Host Dad came in my room a few minutes ago and thanked me for taking care of her.
"It's good practice for when you have kids!" he said.
"Yes, you're right," I replied.
As he shuffled out the door I thought to myself, "I just hope mine don't turn out Russian, because I don't understand a damned thing they say!"