Back when I was living in Russia, I occasionally wrote articles about the absurd things I encountered. I didn’t have a website, though, so they ended up stored away in some grim back-end page of Facebook. At the pinnacle of my Russian experience I presented a case study of one of the most remarkable characters I encountered, the babushka. It’s a word with a few meanings, but in this case I’m referring to the family grandmother. She lived with us for perhaps half a year, and I never learnt her name. This is my account from the time:
An Ode to the Babushka
The babushka as an icon is venerated in Russia; you must address her with polite forms of language and always give up your seat for her. Everyone assured me that failing to show this respect is the greatest faux pas one can commit, more heinous than murder. Bearing this in mind, I was alarmed that the family I stayed with outside Moscow revered their resident babushka in a strangely unreceptive manner. My host first described her mother with a screwed up facial expression accompanied by babbling noises.
The babushka cut a classic image, hobbled over with talons for nails and wearing a blue floral robe somewhere between a dressing gown and a shower curtain. She mostly sat in one of four select spots, keeping careful guard. Otherwise, she stalked the house, randomly locking doors or calling out to unresponsive people. Though usually no one dared answer her, when anyone did stop to take notice they seemed incapable of forming a response. Such was the power of the babushka that the largest and most fearsome of men were reduced to stunned silence when she raged at them.
It was not, however, respect or fear that kept them from answering: no one really understood what she was saying. The most frequent response to my alarm at how she was ignored was that ‘she’s crazy’. With my broken Russian, I started to pay closer attention to the things she was saying. Orders shouted at the children included ‘Sergei! Why don’t you go eat some fish? Don’t you like fish? Sergei eat some fish!’ Followed by a cackle.
The babushka took to barking at me when I was settling down to eat or drink. Suggestions included get myself a cup of tea or eat some crackers. If she spied I’d not eaten some crackers, she exploded with dismay at the plight of this ‘skinny German’. Her greatest concern was that when I returned to Germany everyone would think Russian food was awful. It was useless to explain that I had already eaten; even more futile to tell her I am actually English. Her only reply, calm or furious, would be ‘Why don’t you eat some crackers?’ The sweet old lady’s vendetta against me was unwavering: when leaving the table for a moment during a meal with some workmen, I returned to find her materialized in my seat, shouting ‘Why aren’t you eating? Go home! Go and eat!’
Other noble babushkas I encountered were near identical, adopting the same ever-watchful role, ensuring that everyone is well-fed. They are afforded all the respect they deserve to roam free and offer their culinary advice, a stalwart pillar of Russian culture, but I learnt some must be ignored, lest you wish to eat forever. When we passed one whilst out walking, the boys cried out ‘That babushka is just like our one! Look, it’s even sitting the same way!’ And sure enough she too sat there on a porch, holding aloof a box of crackers, ready to share.