Hai la masa! Hey you, get to the table! My Romanian wasn’t half bad, and I got the gist.
I sat with Vasya, who upon our first meeting had embraced me enthusiastically with his hairy, muscular arms. A gregarious, brawny village Moldovan with long pork-chop sideburns and wild black hair, he decided at that moment to open a bottle of White Stork cognac made in Bâlţi, a city an hour northeast of his village. It was nine o’clock in the morning. I sat there and drummed up all the ways to say, “no way in hell” in Romanian.
Vasya wasn’t having any of it. We were at table. Time to eat and drink and talk. He had friends in Bâlţi. Telling me about them, he downed a few brisk shots of cognac, toasting their health. He expected me to drink, as well, to match him shot for shot, and I started out okay, doing my best to ignore the hour.
As if inspired by the cognac, Vasya proclaimed we should top it off before breakfast with a dose of his sweet homemade apricot rachiu, known as samagon to Russians, moonshine in the States. I kept scorching my throat until he was pleased the drinking was done. He beckoned me to leave his sturdy outdoor table and enjoy a stroll to his trees.
My head was spinning slightly, so I benefited from the walk to the back of his house, where amidst the upturned rows of black soil of a garden that covered his entire backyard, there grew three fruit trees, all of them pruned and looking green and healthy. There was an apricot, a walnut and a plum tree. He reminded me his cherry trees were out front. He boasted about them, about all the crops he grew. He checked his trees briefly for insects and signs of disease. Pausing a moment, he sadly explained that only one of his three plum trees remained since a lightning storm in February had wreaked havoc on them.
Hai! Hai la masa!
We hurried back to the outdoor table. Waiting for us there was a plate of wheat bread stacked in wide slices. There was white brînzâ cheese (like Feta), sliced cucumbers, quartered tomatoes, long sprigs of fresh dill and a beige ceramic pitcher of cherry compote. Vasya told me what I already knew: the food was from his garden; his wife had made the compote.
We ate hastily and Vasya didn’t speak much. He did, however, choose to top off breakfast with another shot of cognac, which I refused. I thought he’d be angry with me – offended – or that he would pass a snide comment about spoiled Americans. There was nothing of the kind. He appeared to understand. He asked me if I’d liked the breakfast. I said I had. He then recommended I tell his wife, which I did. When I returned from the house I saw that Vasya was standing and appeared ready to work.
His hoe was waiting. The sun was higher now and bright, and dust had begun to stipple the wash of margarine light that shifted and stretched between the projections of tree shadows across the road. He had to work his onions, beets, strawberries, potatoes, beans, maize, squash and grapevines – everything he needed to feed his family of four. None of the land was his, he explained. Not yet anyway. It was still tied up in formalities now that his village’s Collective Farm was obsolete under the old Soviet system. This was in the early 90s. Privatization, he knew, was coming, but for many in his village it was still just a concept, another dream like Communism that few of them had really believed in all that much to begin with.
When a man is poor, he’s poor, Vasya told me. But he still has his table! A system of government had nothing to do with it. He worked, he grew his food, and he ate. No amount of government decisions made in faraway places such as Moscow could change that.
A wind kicked up road dust that refreshed the omnipresent manure scent I’d begun to grow accustomed to. I thought we were going into his backyard to work, but I was wrong. We were going to Vasya’s father-in-law’s place, and it wasn’t too far a walk.
As I followed him down the wide flat dirt road that marked the center of his village, I felt myself passing through flat layers of air, each of them sweetened by various lingering and vivid aromas. The sweetest scent was apricot. The most prominent, after manure, was dill. The weakest was cherry, because, for the most part, many had already been harvested.
Vasya didn’t need my help, but he wanted me there. He worked a hoe by hand down rows of the blackest loam I’d ever seen. It reminded me of the upturned rows I’d observed one late summer during a visit to North Dakota. Vasya insisted I stay out of the sun, that I watch him over by a windbreak of plane, poplar and Ilex trees, where I could stand in their shade.
From that cool vantage point, I looked out over the slopes of Vasya’s big shoulders and the land he was working, and I could see the quilted patchwork of his village, with all of its houses and plots of farmed land.
Each road, narrow and whittled from dirt, was lined with fruit trees. Each house had a fence and out-buildings for animals. The houses sat a little crookedly, as if sinking into the soil, old before their time, born out of that soil with walls made of adobe-like clay and painted either green, pale blue or an earth tone with white trim for each window. Here and there I saw decorous eaves painted silver, and an occasional silver tin roof. Some houses had heavy wooden front doors that had been carved by hand. They all had front gates and fruit trees and a front-yard garden bursting with onion, dill, chives, garlic, and sunflowers that in some instances stood a good six feet high.
All meant for the table, explained Vasya.
As he worked, he hummed little melodies. He saw that I looked a little bored and maybe thirsty, so he sent me alone to a well down the road. It took me a few tries to work the well efficiently, and I was happy to tote back a full bucket. After we drank, I had to walk the empty bucket back to the well, dodging chickens and geese and trying unsuccessfully to keep the bottom of my shoes away from animal droppings.
As I walked, I understood why Moldovans and Russians were so insistent everyone take their shoes off indoors. Between dust, the mud and animal deposits – steps had to be taken.
In the fields, Vasya had cleaned his rows and weeded them, having scratched by hand for hours with his hoe. He had at least 20 years on me, but he didn’t seem weary at all.
I looked at him. He stood, sun-etched and wilted. I was the pale skinny one, already exhausted. It was about three in the afternoon and I was sweating so much that I wanted to drop to the earth and stay there. I thought it was for my sake, out of pity, that Vasya stopped.
He sat on the ground and he removed from a Belomor cigarette packet a paper tube holder that the Russians call papirosa. He flattened an area of grass to form a small table-like surface and removed tobacco from the packet, formed a small pile and took his time feeding it into the tube. This, he told me, was a poor man’s cigarette. His eyes lit up as he thanked me again for the pack of Winstons I’d brought him. He would only smoke them on special occasions, when he had guests, such as his father-in-law, whom he wanted to impress. He confided that he wasn’t crazy about his father-in-law. He tolerated the man as the man tolerated him. Valentina was his daughter, after all, and he loved her very much.
He was surprised that a young man my age wasn’t married. Why was this so?
I shrugged. It was important I answer him respectfully. There was such intensity in his dark brown eyes. I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t interested in women, especially since homosexuality was against the law. I told him in the States a man tended to wait longer, that at my age, 32, I was still considered young for marriage.
But did I want to have children?
I wasn’t sure. I had spoken honestly. If I had children, the key would be to marry a woman younger than me, and this was a choice many American men made.
He seemed to like my answer. He mulled it over as he cast a pensive gaze over the horizon, as if seeing his village for the first time. He puffed on his cigarette and shared the quiet with me. I heard faintly in the distance a trickle of Moldovan folk music not unlike what I’d heard on buses and through the wires that played State Radio in many a Chisinau apartment. I smelled a wisp of smoke, sweetish, unusual for me, with a tinge of burnt grass in it. I assumed someone was burning wood for cooking, but I didn’t know and lacked the energy to ask. I’d learn, months later while translating the poetry of Nicolae Dabija, that the scent was wormwood, used often in villages for a variety of purposes.
Vasya broke the silence and in that moment I realized how profound our silence had been. He said something about the table. About family gathered around it, that the family at table was the first and last municipality.
I got the gist. I felt special there resting with him, sharing his daily life, breathing in the subtleties of his native land. He struck a philosophical tone as he spoke, remarking that more important than tobacco was good food. Here in his village, Vasya told me, his people may seem poor, but they were wealthy when it came to making what they ate and drink. In an agricultural land, they followed an ancient tradition that deserved to be honored.
I assumed such talk meant I had earned some of my own trustworthiness and respect. I also assumed Vasya was thinking about food because he was hungry and it was time to eat. He ushered me along over a twisting sun-baked mud path, down a rolling meadow, across a sheep pasture and through a vineyard where the vines grew high as I stood and the soil was the same Bible-black, hand-tilled and fragrant with manure and the sweet acidity of grape leaves.
As he walked, Vasya shaded his eyes. His face and its dark black brows were dusty with dried sweat, dirtied in its cracks and creases, brown as rust by years of unrelenting sun. He had a surprise for me. We were not going home for dinner. We were visiting a friend’s wine cellar.
Hai la masa!
There’d be a table in his friend’s wine cellar. Dinner would come later. The wine his friend had worked all year to make would offer a welcome respite. His cellar with its packed dirt floor and cobwebbed clay walls would be a cool, dank refuge.
Vasya introduced me to Costa, who was equally raven-haired and fierce-eyed, but much shorter and with a large belly and a wider but just as solid stance. Costa offered Vasya a tumbler of what he called his Cabernet. Vasya accepted it grimly. He didn’t sip it. This was not the style. Down the gullet it went in a series of loud protracted swallows. Big gasp when he finished.
A loud knock against the top of the wine barrel as he slammed the glass down.
Like Vasya, when it was my turn, I had to suck down the glass tumbler of wine in the same way. Earlier that day, we had rushed down the cognac and moonshine. This was no different. I assumed at that moment that it would be the same at dinner time. I also assumed we’d soon start making our way back before it got too late.
I was wrong. After two rounds each, we climbed the dark narrow stairs of Costa’s wine cellar to go back outside to work. The sunshine pounded my forehead as I stepped out of the cellar. I staggered a moment. I caught my breath. Was I hearing correctly? I was.
Vasya had to sort more of last year’s crops. What good is a table without potatoes? After saying goodbye and thank you to Costa, the walk back to Vasya’s house felt overly long and tiring. As if I were baking in my own dried sweat, I belched up little explosions of wine. I felt dizzy in the thin orangeade bands of sunlight that had softened and were inching closer to the horizon.
But it was cool on the dirt floor of Vasya’s wine cellar, and I didn’t mind being there. Vasya found some potatoes that had been gnawed on by mice. Some were black with rot. The cleanest ones he selected would be used for dinner. The others he dropped into a bucket and told me he’d use to feed his pig.
Vasya brought the sorted spuds in a big basket to Valentina. She stood at her work table in the kitchen, hands on her hips in her apron, sweating, cutting tomatoes and brînzâ and dill for more of the traditional salad that I was learning accompanied nearly all summer meals. Food was eaten in season when freshest. Once winter came there would be no such salads, only pickled tomatoes canned in jars, along with fruit compote kept in the wine cellar with beets, onions and potatoes. The work for preparing a table was endless.
Vasya was a big, brutish presence and filled the small kitchen, keeping his head down so he wouldn’t bump it against the ceiling. He leaned against her work table, snorting through his nose, kissing his wife with two big smacks on each cheek. Then he whacked her on the rump, loudly, startling both myself and Valentina, who was blushing all over.
Then Valentina got serious with her husband and told him out of the kitchen. She had to peel the spuds by hand and fry them in sunflower oil with green onions and sprigs of dill she’d just pulled out of the garden. Their two sons would be home tomorrow from Chisinau, and she had so much to prepare for their meals. She wanted everything to be nice when they got to meet their American guest for the first time. So off with you Vasya, go make yourself useful.
Hai la masa! crowed Vasya, but even I knew he was joking. Dinner had to be cooked before it could be eaten.
Intimations of twilight had begun to rise off the horizon to meet the thin spreading of a rosy patina across the sky. It was still warm, dusty, still light outside, but it was that time of day when I felt relaxed and mystical. Vasya’s pace had slowed, too. Beaming, he revealed a few gold teeth and told me come, it was time to get the goat and walk it home.
Three miles, back and forth. We walked and we marinated in the crimson and brandied twilight, all of it mottled with rising blooms of road dust. My arms and neck and even my lips were filthy with road dust by the time Vasya’s goat was in its pen.
At dinner, which we ate in what Vasya called the summer kitchen – basically a table set up outdoors in the shade of his walnut tree – we drank glass after glass of Vasya’s wine from a clay pitcher not unlike the one that was filled with compote. I don’t know how many times he banged that glass down, emptied.
I tried to keep pace with him, and since I was so thirsty, the big shots of wine went down smoothly and my head and stomach could handle them as long as there was food and compote to absorb the alcohol. After a few glasses, however, I began to fade.
Vasya, it seemed, was just warming up. I’d eaten so many potatoes I couldn’t move, and I thought the meal was finished when Vasya rose and said that we should top it off with the rest of the bottle of cognac he’d opened earlier. We drained the bottle, one shot at a time, out of the same glass, and I was thoroughly plastered when Vasya exhorted me to help him prepare for tomorrow.
Another day, another table to prepare.
I’d enjoyed the meal, but had eaten too much; I saw that this had pleased Valentina. Still, I was happy to move away from the table. Happy to move at all.
Mostly, Vasya and I gathered two buckets, many odd sticks of firewood, and he cleaned tools and implements while Valentina washed the dishes in a big tub of water she heated over a wood fire. After that, we three sat together at that summer table in the moonlight and emptied pits from one bucket of apricots, one of cherries, one pit, one fruit at a time, and lots of rotten ones to eat if I wanted them. I did for a while. They were a gentle dessert after all the potatoes.
My belly felt so swollen. I was so groggy, so drunk, and I thought we were finished. Wrong again. Now off to the hills, said Vasya. I staggered and tripped along behind him to a neighbor’s wine cellar to meet another village man, an old friend. At this friend’s house, it was mandatory we eat at his table. I held back the impulse to gag, and I was thankful the offering was a light course of tangy pickled tomatoes and brînză.
This neighbor, Igor, was of Russian descent and he brought out a bottle of vodka we split three ways with one glass. In no time, munching on dry bread and garlic, we finished off the bottle. There was no shortage of the Igor’s red wine either, and he poured it out of a misshapen clay pitcher that looked as if it had been thrown by hand.
So did I. I was as bad as the surface of the upright wine barrel that we were using as a table. Whatever I said, no matter how carefully, was absurd gibberish.
Igor wasn’t unlike Costa in that both village men were shy and a little cagey as they talked to me. They seemed hardly tipsy, let alone drunk.
The drinking with Costa had been more or less a reprieve between chores, one I hadn’t doubted Vasya enjoyed daily. But the drinking with Igor was two-fisted and hell-bent toward obliteration. Vasya and Igor struck me as charged by the alcohol, lit on fire, while I struggled to comprehend their words, not to vomit, not to keel over. I tried to talk, babbling through rubbery lips, leaning on what I could find in order to stay upright.
Remarkably, once Igor started drinking steadily, his caginess and self-doubt disappeared. He began talking to me as if we’d known each other for decades.
I did the best I could to act sober, and I took a little pride in showing that I could at least hold myself together, though it was a Herculean effort. Igor lorded over the wine barrel, pounding it with his fists as if it were a table. He spoke of what the USSR used to mean, where it was and wasn’t going, what it had been versus what it was reported to have been and what he thought Democracy and Capitalism meant.
Vasya, getting drunker, also grew more animated. I went in the opposite direction, sinking inward and growing morose as my faculties became more debilitated.
I smelled dried earth in Igor’s big, hard hands as they broke bread in hunks and set the bread on a plate atop that oak wine cask used as a table in the middle of the wine cellar. Both men talked and unwound. I listened and wove in and out of an alcoholic delirium and continued to drink glass after glass of wine.
It was two in the morning – though I didn’t know it – when the earth stopped tilting and rushed into my face to greet me. Hard as a board, a slap of packed earth, a tabletop.
A little more than two decades have passed, and it’s neither that slap – though I can still feel it – or the pungency of that packed earth that resonates most powerfully in my memory. It’s that tabletop. Not its wood grains so much, or even all the wonderful food it carried, but rather the solidity of its symbolic importance. It represented the endurance of Vasya’s status as a father, the head of a family. It was the living, breathing centerpiece of his home, what he trusted and could boast of and worked so hard to sustain each day. It was where he fed his sons, toasted his guests and praised his wife, Valentina, for all to see. No other place held more importance to him. Nor to me now, no matter where I am, all these years later.
A resident of central Virginia, John Michael Flynn is currently an English Language Fellow with the US State Department in Khabarovsk, Russia. His most recent poetry collection, Keepers Meet Questing Eyes (2014) is available from Leaf Garden Press.From 1993-95, he taught at the Balti State Pedagogical University in Moldova, and he’s nurtured a mild obsession with the place ever since.