Cemonov: Land of Spoons: Chainsaws and Modernity

Alright, Cemonov isn’t really famous for just its spoons; it’s also famous for dishes, Russian nesting dolls, and ducks as well. Actually, it’s the woodcarving and painting involved that makes them famous. (But really, I saw the factory workers making Sochi 2014 wooden spoons to sell for the Olympics, so spoons are at least kind of a big deal.) More specifically, the city is famous for its special Xoxlomckaya art style (Those X’s are pronounced as hard H’s (as in Bach). Sorry again for my terrible transliteration skills.). The style is swirly, red, black, gold, and really pretty. It also features berries a lot. Warning: this post will have a lot of pictures in it.

The teacups from my last post are also this style. The silver color you can see in the above picture actually turns gold once it’s been fired, so the final objects turn out looking more like this:

Everything’s hand painted. We got to walk through the workroom where dozens of women were hunched over platters, bowls, chess sets, even computer keyboards, painting swirls and berries on them.  I wonder how long it takes to train someone to work there.

We also got to see a Matroshka (Russian nesting doll) factory.

Looks a little scary doesn’t it? Like those pipes could suddenly fall from the ceiling onto the carving machines. Like it could fall apart at any second. A lot of Russia looks like that actually. I’m a little surprised it hasn’t all fallen apart already.

These are unpainted nesting dolls shaped. There are stacks of logs all over the factory with different radii (as seen in the background). There are workers who carve the logs into the doll shapes and also hollow them out. That’s what this slightly irritated-looking woman is doing, hollowing out a nesting doll.

I even got to paint my own little nesting doll! See, here it is in progress. (This picture is mostly to appease my mother, who probably wishes that more of these pictures had me in them)

And here is the finished product. I did everything except the dotted circles. Some Russian babushka came and did that part for me. And the face was done when I got it. The two large dolls in the back were there for inspiration or something. Maybe just to emphasize that I am, in fact, an American, and cannot paint the Russian style. (Although I can’t really paint in any style…)

Anyways, back to the factory. Besides visiting the main work rooms, we also took a trip to a separate room where two master artisans were working on more complicated things, mostly large serving bowls set in the body of a wooden swan. Absolutely gorgeous.

And I absolutely love this next picture. One of the artisans is carving a woman to stand next to the already carved boy, who it looks like is waiting quite patiently for his friend.

However, I was most interested in this room because it seemed so…out of place? Archaic? Old? In a factory full of electric machines and the mechanized, assembly-line process of creating thousands of dolls, what were these two men doing working with their hands and little tools on individual pieces? And as I stood there and watched, I realized something very important. I realized why Russia intrigues me so, why living here is interesting to me. I figured out the point of friction I keep seeing in Russian life that makes life what it is. (Warning: this post gets increasingly essayistic and philosophic from this point forward.)

The friction is the strength of tradition in the face of modernity. The weakness of tradition in the face of modernity. Either, for better or for worse. You see, if you didn’t already know, Russia is old. Like, ancient. Like a wise grandfather to the crying toddler of America. They’ve got churches and buildings still standing that were built 1,000 years ago. Cities were built around ancient fortresses which made for a circular city plan (if you can even call it that) with crooked, narrow streets and no space for enough traffic lanes and definitely no space for parking lots (I have a whole soapbox about driving and parking here, but this post is long enough without it). Russia wasn’t built to anticipate modernity. It was built so long ago that no one could have possibly anticipated that things would change.

But things are changing. People have cars now and need somewhere to park. Old buildings need to be re-wired for electricity and air-conditioning. Every apartment building I’ve seen here is a giant rectangular block of cement that looks ancient and unwelcoming and dangerous (standards of fire safety and cleanliness and all that). But these buildings will still be here 50 years from now. 100 years from now. An eternal testament to the strict efficiency of communist architecture.

There’s a conflict because new technology and greater “civilization” are creeping across the globe, but there’s no easy way to implement it properly in the existing grid of every society. It’s like cramming a round peg into a square whole.

But still, people try, and the points of friction that trying creates are fascinating to me. Like this picture from the master artisans’ room:

Rickety wooden chair? Check. Giant block of wood? Check. Chain saw? Check. What’s a chain saw doing in the room? What did the carvers from three generations ago use? Why has this part of the process become modernized, but not the detail work? Why are there hand-carvers chipping away next to a chainsaw. It’s so anachronistic. Russia is anachronistic. It’s a manifestation to the back-and-forth between the past and the present, between how things were done then and how they should be done now. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think it’s all about that word should. Maybe part of the friction I’m feeling here is because I feel that modern things  should be a certain way. That certain advances, like chain saws or cars for example, should be accepted completely and entirely into every possible part of society instead of haphazardly sewn into its fabric in whatever ways are possible. I suppose it’s just strange to live in a place that was built to function hundreds of years ago. The world functions differently now.

And to end, here is another picture from Cemonov. It is a statue of an artist holding a paintbrush and a duck.

Your argument is invalid.

Russian Drinks (and no, it’s probably not what you think)

Disclaimer required by the title: Aside from this disclaimer, this post contains no reference to alcohol, drunkards, or vodka. I’ve only actually met one drunk person here in Russia (we asked her for directions at about 11:00 one night before we realized she wasn’t quite sober. I still can’t believe she didn’t trip on the several curbs she navigated. Points for Russian balance), and I’ve seen about a dozen fliers for the Russian equivalent of an Alcoholics Anonymous group. And, on the nation’s biggest holiday, May 9th, Victory Day, stores in Moscow weren’t selling alcohol. That day was about more than just getting drunk, and so is all of Russia, contrary to almost every Russian ethnic joke out there.

On to the actual post.

Did you know that last Friday (I’m pretty sure…some time last week) I had a half hour discussion with Anna about Russian water? Just drinking water, not even the ocean or lake kind. Actually, that’s a ridiculous question. Of course you didn’t know. I think what I meant to ask was this: Did you know it is in fact possible to have a half an hour discussion in broken Russian about the different options available to thirsty Russians? Me either. And did you know that doctors here in Russia prescribe different waters (identified by numbers) with different chemicals like potassium or calcium to patients? (That chemistry course from years ago was finally useful. Boy am I glad that Mendeleev’s chart and it’s abbreviations are universal. (Small side note: when I asked her, Anna said that Mendeleev was the dead person from history she would most like to meet. It actually made me feel uncultured.)) Also, did you know that in Russia, like most of Europe I’m told, it is actually easier to buy carbonated water than non-carbonated water? And (you probably already knew this one) the Russian government tells everyone that the tap water is safe to drink, but my host family still filters it then boils it then filters it again before drinking it (alright, you probably didn’t know that last part). I’d been advised before I’d even left the States not to drink the water here, so every other day here (at least) I buy a 1.5 liter water bottle (I seriously drink way more water than anyone I know). The best thing is that these water bottles, besides being stretchy-backpack-side-pouch compatible, are under a dollar each. Closer to 50 cents on sale, and at least one of the seven popularly stocked brands always is (there are probably not actually seven brands, but there are a lot). Here’s my collection thus far, minus two or three that I’ve thrown away. The propel bottle on the left is supposed to work as a scale–it’s one of the larger 24 oz. ones:

I’d like to bring one or two home (stuffed with chocolate eggs so as not to waste space in the suitcase of course) to use at home, but we’ll see if that actually happens (read: I maybe over-packed and also bought souvenirs, so suitcase space will be at a premium when I leave for home).

And on the subject of Russian beverages, tea is wonderful. (See how nice that transition was?) Coming here, I underestimated just how much tea Russians drink. For my first few weeks, after hearing that I don’t drink “chai,” Irina, my host mother, would get me a glass of juice after every meal while she and Anna had tea. After having many, many glasses of grapefruit (as sour as ever), apple (pretty much the same as American), orange (different than American, but I can’t quite put my finger on how), and pumpkin juice (surprisingly unpleasant, but I’ve never been one for pumpkin pie either), I decided to try some herbal tea. Camomile to be precise. Jessica recommended it to me, and I find that I quite enjoy it. I tried mint tea a while back, and found that I like that too. I’m not sure if it’s that I really like tea or am just craving something that doesn’t taste so…Russian. No mayonnaise or oil or kolbasa or cabbage (although I love me some cooked cabbage). Last week I bought some Rosehip tea at the closet thing I’ve seen to a Walmart in the city. I was mostly curious about the name (it’s so romantic sounding), but it didn’t quite live up to it’s ethereal moniker. I’ve been told the problem may be that I bought Lipton, which, apparently, is not really all the commercials crack it up to be (what really is, though?).

Today (which was actually Monday, but was “today” when I first drafted this post) was a very tea-full day.

First Tea: Today, I visited a little tea shop with Kylie, Jessica, and Chiarra. It sold mostly loose leaf tea (which sounds altogether much too complicated for me) and had very adorable (and Japanese) tea cups and sets. (Update: Irina actually went to the store later and bought me some loose leaf hisbiscus tea. How nice of her! It’s a touch bitter but still delicious and much easier to prepare than I thought…and maybe more fun.)

Second Tea: After the tea shop, I went to a Spar grocery store and bought six different types of Greenfield herbals teas. Testing time! I’m going to give a few of each to the other girls in the program who love tea, so we can can all try as many as possible. I’m excited to try them all!

Third Tea: I made my very own cup of tea today. Which means that I lit the gas stove with a match for the first time (only took me two matches) and put the kettle on (wow…that phrase has never actually been useful to me before…who’d have thought) and poured hot water into a cup without burning or spilling anything and then swilled a tea bag around in the cup for five minutes. I tried a tea called “Festive Grape,” which is worth having again. Then I gave in and had a second cup, this one of “Creamy Rooibos,” which is a tea made from an African bush as Irina was telling me.

Tip for new tea drinkers: the best part is when you first put the tea bag in the steaming hot water and watch the colors leech out of the bag and into the water. This is most satisfying with darker red or purple teas, but a nice burnt orange is also fun to watch. (Wow, that sentence sounded much more experience than I meant it to. I’ve only had about 7 types of tea in my life; I promise.)

I shall definitely be bringing this tea tradition back with me to the states, along with these charming teacups and spoons I bought in Cemonov last week.


James likes camomile tea too! Or at least he did in Peru. Hence the second cup. In addition to these cups and the tea tradition, I shall also bring home between 50 and 500 individual tea bags of Greenfield tea that you can only buy in England, Russia, or online. They won’t take up much suitcase room, especially in vacuum-sealed bags.