Many years ago, while serving as a reluctant conscript in our country’s defence machine, I found myself guarding a radar station on a mist-covered mountain called Mariepskop, in present-day Mpumalanga. I was beyond tired, chilled to the bone, and seriously unhappy with the people who had put me there. Did they assume that my innate courage and patriotic fervour (not to mention the long bayonet on my WW2-issue Lee-Enfield rifle) would suffice to fight off the Communist hordes?
Anyway, the memories came flooding as I chatted to a friendly Muscovite during a recent visit to the Russian Helicopters factory in the Tatar city of Kazan, about 700 km east of the Russian capital. When I was in the South African Air Force, I confided, he had been “the enemy”. In fact, he was personally responsible for my removal from civilian life for a seemingly interminable 11 months, during which time my hair was shaved off and I was forced to study a thick book explaining what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. (Just kidding; of course I didn’t say that.)
How times have changed. I found our Russian hosts charming and friendly, and very happy to talk about everything from food and wine to social customs, fast cars, mail-order brides, living with extreme weather (one man said of life in Moscow during winter: “You do your best to survive the cold… that’s all”) and, of course, helicopters of all descriptions.
Being a shameless wino, I’d been a little concerned that social occasions in Russia would entail endless rounds of toasts, vigorous back-slapping, and vodka by the barrel. I needn’t have worried: the pace was civilised and the choice of tipple surprisingly mixed. That said, there were plenty of toasts – all of them delivered with heart. I liked these people.
And the food? I emerged from the experience with mixed feelings: the soups were flavourful and filling, and I quite liked the traditional Tatar pie (öçpoçmaq) – a triangular shell originally filled with meat and small pieces of potato. For the rest, well, it’s probably an acquired taste.
Still with food, I have to mention our parting gift – a dried sausage that resembled a very large salami. My wife, who is generally willing to try all manner of foreign food, was uncharacteristically doubtful, remarking that it resembled something quite disturbing. Unable to decipher the label’s Cyrillic script, I resorted to the Google Goggles app on my mobile, and snapped a picture. The result was unequivocal: “Horse jerky.”