Tuesday, Oct. 04, 2011

DIY Dacha: Family Holidays in Belarus

On the first day of my vacation this year, I built a table. I'm not the kind of guy who keeps a lot of power tools, but a broad, flat surface was urgently needed on the second floor of our Russian country house (a dacha in Russian) where my daughter and I had big plans to assemble a 700-piece jigsaw puzzle during our holiday.

Buying a table suitable for puzzling in the region around our house was not a solution; our dacha is located in the countryside near Vitebsk, Belarus, a part of the world where the Internet is still rare and there is no e-commerce to speak of. I knew also, from previous visits, that shopping in brick-and-mortar stores was also out of the question. The limited choices offered by the quasi-socialist furniture stores in the town nearest the house would come nowhere close to meeting our needs.

So after sleeping off a nine-hour flight from New York City and a seven-hour car ride to the dacha, I awoke, made some coffee and cobbled together a nice, long workspace out of an old armoire door and some wood my wife had bought to build a window frame during a previous summer. Before I could attach the angle braces, my daughter began to lay out the edge pieces of the puzzle. My project was a success: the table was simple but functional.

Such improvisations are a common occurrence at the dacha, which we've owned since 2002. The house is rustic but cozy. We have electricity but no indoor plumbing. Total purchase price: $2800, cash on the table. My family has spent every summer there for the past ten years.

I know it may seem odd to vacation in Europe's last Stalinist state, but it was a natural decision for my family. My wife grew up in the area, and her family and friends still live there. It's an extremely long way to go for a holiday, but all of us look forward to it every year.

Our 2-acre parcel is lined with birch trees and sits on the edge of a pristine lake. The rooms sleep six comfortably. There is a banya (a Russian-style sauna) out back and plenty of room for expansion. Like any country house, it is a work in progress. In our case, however, the remote location and limited availability of useful, quality products often conspire to make life into a never-ending series of challenges and experiments. The simple task of bathing, for example, can require special planning. With no shower or bath and two very active children, ages 9 and 4, the sauna is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Sauna days begin with the filling of a boiler tank with water, which is often done by hauling buckets from the lake. To heat it, we use firewood, which is not as simple as it sounds. Forget those neatly tied bundles of wood in your grocery story; in Belarus, you have to order an entire tree, which arrives on the back of a midsize flatbed truck, cut into chunks weighing 50 lb. or 60 lb. apiece. Dumped on the road in front of the house, it takes an entire day to roll them into storage.

Then, of course, they must be chopped down, and at this point, I must pause to give a shout out to my brother-in-law, Dima, who is built like a linebacker and wields an ax like Paul Bunyan. The giant chunks are impervious to the faint chops of myself, my wife and my mother-in-law. But Dima makes short work of them, turning the massive sections into more manageable logs, which the rest of us split into the smaller pieces that fit beneath the sauna boiler.

The management of water presents its own problems, complicated by the fact that my wife is a hard-core stickler for purity and cleanliness. By her decree, all water is carefully segregated by its source (the lake, the well, the rain) and its function (drinking, cooking, washing, waste) and we have developed a system of color-coded buckets to help each other keep it all straight. Note to guests at No. 368: Do not drink from the green buckets!

The reward for all this effort is a soak under a steam that is superhot, moist and flavored with mint, beer or kvass, a lightly fermented grain drink, which my wife likes to toss onto the hot stones. After that, a swim in the lake and a dinner of shashlik (shish kebab) cooked on a mongol, a deep, rectangular metal grill, filled with birch coals. For sides there will be beet salad, black bread, potatoes cooked in foil on the coals, all of it washed down with beer, kvass or, if my brother-in-law is visiting, vodka.

I wish I could conclude, like most travel writers do, by saying that a vacation like this is easily within anyone's reach — even if you're willing to carry your own water. The price may sound right, but renting or buying real estate in the lands of the former Soviet Union can be very dicey. Even the simple parts of the process can bog down with mind-numbing layers of bureaucracy, while other matters invariably evolve into complex dramas that frequently end in the furtive exchange of cash. If you or one of your loved ones does not speak Russian, I would not recommend it.

The good news is that should you ever make the acquaintance of one of the locals while traveling in Russia or the countries that neighbor it, odds are they will invite you to their country house. Take them up on it. Russians are very proud of their dachas, and love to show them off. All but the most contemporary models are products of the same DIY mentality that led me to build the table for our second floor. In our community, each and every home has been built by hand from the foundation up by its owner. Most of them are simple affairs, like ours, but quite a few are finished in exquisite detail.

Barring that, should you not be fortunate to visit a dacha, you could still easily experience banya. There are dozens to choose from in both St. Petersburg and Moscow, but the grandest is Moscow's Sanduny, a sprawling behemoth in the heart of the city, with three men's and two women's halls. Built in the late 19th century, this beloved Moscow institution features spacious steam rooms, cold baths in a variety of temperatures and luxurious locker rooms, where the waiters circulate with menus of delicious food and drinks.

Still, I prefer the coarse confines of our backyard banya. My wife, kids and I all wash together, a jubilant family experience that could never be replicated in our hectic Brooklyn home. And more often than not, the washing doesn't finish until after the sun has gone down; instead of getting dressed right away, we can relax in the garden, towels around our waists in the cool night air, watching the sky fill with stars.