As the first week concluded and the second week of our vacation awaited with open arms, there was a change in the air. No longer were we going to be tourists in our own country. It was time to float down from a “traveler’s high” and shift our sights to truly reuniting with the past – both literally and figuratively. A mysterious nervousness seeped into my parents and I – that nagging feeling in the pit of the stomach that indicates a distant yet impactful memory re-surfacing after many years. This was the part of the vacation I was truly waiting for all these years…reuniting with my memories – the towns, scenery, friends, and relatives.
A 14-hour overnight train ride stood in between my past and I. After saying goodbye to the glistening city of gold, my sister set out to Italy for the week while my parents and I braced ourselves for this 14-hour train ride to Nizhniy Novgorod (нижний новгород). The majority of my mom’s young adult years were spent in Nizhny Novgorod. From birth on, my mom lived in a tiny apartment shared between her family (my mom, her sister, their mom, and their grandmother) and another family. Two families cramped into a tiny space may seem like misery, but a beautiful friendship bloomed from it. Larissa was born around the same time as my mom and lived in the apartment with her. Needless to say, the rest is history. Their lifelong friendship only strengthened through the years. Despite marriages, separate lives and our big move across the ocean, their friendship remains unbreakable to this day.
I’m no stranger to traveling on a train in Russia. In the past, we took the cheap route and reserved beds in the open space (i.e. you sleep in the open with random people…kind of creepy). This time around, we took the safer (and unfortunately much pricier) route and booked our own “room” with 4 beds. Given that there was the possibility of the 4th bed in the room being sold to a random person, we ended up buying that 4th spot (cheaper child’s ticket) and having the room to ourselves.
The tiny space quickly grew on me. We had a small table, cozy seats next to a nice window, a door that locked, and clean bedding.
At 5:30pm, the train sounded its horn and the chug-a-chug filled our ears. We were coming home.
The train had a restaurant on it, and of course we went to scope it out. Our meal was typical Russian food – my obvious favorite!
I spent the remainder of the night with my Kindle and Anna Karenina. Saint Petersburg, with its historic sights and majestic air, inspired me to take on this reading challenge.
We (with the exception of my dad) all slept well through the night and before I knew it, it was 7am. One of the final stops was Dzershinsk – the town where my dad grew up. My grandparents lived there almost their entire lives and sadly moved last year. It felt odd not stepping off the train into a town where I spent so much time in my youth. It was a sad moment, especially for my dad, but it quickly passed as 7:30am rolled around and the train pulled into the final station at last!
It’s a weird feeling, seeing someone again after 8 years. At one point I was so afraid of stepping off that I hung out on the train while our three massive suitcases were carried down. We were greeted with balloons, big hugs and warm kisses…the best kind of greeting in my opinion! And thus began two jam-packed days filled with sight-seeing, reminiscing, story-telling, food, drinking, and relaxing.
Larissa has two daughters, Alyona (25 – left) and Katya (27 – right). Their father was killed when they were young children and it has been just the three of them ever since.
If there’s one word to describe Larissa it’s ‘energy.’ She never stops. Ever. She talks in a constant stream of thought and simply never stops moving. My mom and Larissa are like two peas in a pod. Their friendship is so simple, beautiful, and a prototype of life-long dedication. I adore Larissa and her daughters; we didn’t nearly spend enough time together!
(my mom with Larissa…she’s the blondie)
It was 10am and the table was brimming with food and alcohol (Russian people seriously drink at every meal if it’s celebratory). We had a feast!
The table was filled with traditional Russia foods: Olivye (traditional Russian salad with peas, ham, and mayo), selodka pod shuboy (salted fish under a blanket of beets & mayo), kalbasa (smoked meats), kapusta (cabbage/sauerkraut), kartoshka (boiled potatoes), galuptsi (cabbage leafs stuffed with rice + meat), and chorniy hleb (traditional Russian black bread). I was in heaven.
After stuffing ourselves silly with food, we headed out to see the city. Our first stop was the university where my mom and dad both went to school and where they met.
The Nizhny Novgorod State Technical University is on the banks of the Volga River and is surrounded by luscious green scenery.
It was lovely visiting the place where my parents first started their now 32 year long relationship. They were both studying mechanical engineering…awww!
(Alyona and I)
After a walk around the campus, we headed to our next destination – a cable tramway car over the Volga River! It took some time convincing my mom to accept the challenge, but eventually she succumbed and we found ourselves piling into the 8-person cable car.
The sights were stunning.
I had no idea, none whatsoever, that this suburban Russian town was filled with such natural treasures.
It was teeming with beauty and history!
After our cable car adventure, it was time to conquer the next task on the schedule. I mentioned earlier that my mom grew up in Nizhny Novgorod since birth. After many years of being away, she desperately wanted to visit the home of her youth. We first stopped by the grade school that my mom and Larissa attended for most of their childhood.
Best friends since birth! Aren’t they beautiful?
Standing on the same ground that my mom stood on 4 decades ago was incredible.
Soon, we headed over to the building. It was a sad, emotional, and moving moment standing at the window that held my mother and her family for so many years.
My maternal grandmother passed away a month after we moved to America, and my memories have long started to fade. The window, the courtyard, the door – everything changed but somehow I still felt connected. I can’t even fathom how my mom felt at that moment standing at the foot of her childhood home. Time is a scary thing.
But time stops for no one, and so we moved along to our next destination. After a quick stop at home, we set off to the banks of the Volga for some more sight-seeing and a quick picnic.
The August weather was perfect – warm and breezy with plenty of sun.
We snacked, drank, and talked for an hour or so until heading back home for more food.
There’s not much else to say about this busy day. It was packed with lots of food, sight-seeing, friends, and an atmosphere of friendly love. It was also the most I had eaten in a single day in what seemed like years. Meals in Russia are always served in multiple courses, and you’re expected to follow along. Eating is heavily dependent on socializing as well, so you can expect to sit at the table for hours just eating and drinking. I love it!
The next day we had a different plan on the agenda. Up first was a visit to the cemetery where my grandmother and great-grandmother are buried. Larissa’s husband is buried there as well.
It was a rainy day and the sadness was contagious while walking on the cemetery grounds. As you can tell by the photo above, the cemeteries in Russia are quite different than the ones in America. Larissa and my mom put on a happy face and celebrated the lives of the departed with a drink at each tombstone (a Russian tradition – you have a sip of liquor and pour some on the grave).
After much convincing on Larissa’s part, we decided to make her Dacha our next stop for a few hours. A Dacha is essentially a cottage/summer home and many Russians own one. And so we went.
I’m so glad we did!
(I was forced to change into more outdoorsy clothes that they had lying around the Dacha so don’t judge!)
Their garden was the apple of my eye.
The men immediately began grilling while I set out to explore the garden.
Apples and plums picked straight off the trees:
Stunning blossoming roses:
Grapes on the vine:
You guys, it doesn’t get more organic than this!
The ladies prepped our lunch…
…and after the food was ready we ate the barbecue, Russian style:
(Sausages wrapped in lavash)
And of course, drinking was involved…
(Do you sense a trend here?)
We were a happy bunch.
The rain and wind eventually pushed us indoors where we hung out for a bit before heading back home to the city.
(The happy newlyweds)
You can’t leave the Dacha without taking back a bucket of some of the most delicious apples I have ever tasted!
We were all beyond exhausted after two very busy days. I slept like a log that night, being fully aware of our 5AM wake-up call the following morning. There wasn’t much time to do anything but get dressed and make our way to the train station.
As we said our last goodbyes on the train, my heart ached with uncertainty. When will we reunite again? It’s a difficult question to answer, especially with the challenge of obtaining a traveler’s visa and the long travel time.
I feel so blessed to know such wonderful people. The happiest thought? I can confidently say that Katya, Alyona, and I will now stay in touch for life! I’m a lucky girl.
Next stop: Moscow!