My Own Special Caviar
It was week two of our backpacking trip through Russia and I had not checked off “eat caviar” on my list of things to do. I panicked. Ed and I were set to depart Russia that evening, by overnight train to Finland.
With an additional four more weeks to go on our backpacking itinerary, Ed and I were straining under the weight of spending all of our time together in what is just a modestly comfortable country.
But today was a good day. We selected a small, dusty railway town on the outskirts of St. Petersburg as our point of departure from Russia. The town square had a museum and an onion-domed church––and was small enough so we could walk off from one another’s sight without worrying about the other.
I poked my head in to a café that didn’t look too touristy or too clean. I struggled with the Cyrillic letters on the menu, but finally made out what looked like “caviar.”
At the time of our visit, the exchange rate was a highly favorable one dollar to 33 rubles. When I saw that the caviar cost was 99 rubles, I was overjoyed to do the conversion and realize that pure Russian caviar would only cost me three bucks. With a Francophile history that runs very deep, Russians prefer French as the tourist language. So, in my best French, I pointed to the caviar listing and simply told him I wanted it in French. “Je voudrais, s’il vous plait.”
The waiter reviewed my matted hair, that hadn’t seen conditioner in weeks; and then he let his eyes drift down my rumpled, borscht-stained travel shorts and hideous, yet reliable, Teva sandals.
I pulled out a crisp 100 ruble note and placed it on the table before he could utter, “Nyet.” He grunted, lit a cigarette, and disappeared behind the kitchen curtain.
Looking out the café window, I opened my Lonely Planet to read about the 18th century church that Ed was heading toward, across the pigeon-filled square, and wondered if my food would come out fast enough for me to join him. But before I made it past the introductory paragraph, Ed came hustling in to the café, with his backpack slowing his motion like a parasail.
Breathlessly, he said, “The church guardian will unlock the gates for us.”
“So?” I asked. The guardians were always keeping the doors locked so that visitors would pay them a ruble to get in.
Actually, we were lucky if it would just cost us a ruble. If we were unlucky, the keyholder would ask for a personal possession. It’d been over a decade since the USSR dissolved into the Russian Federation, but, still, Amerika––spelled with a k––was the Promised Land. And any of our belongings––no matter how trivial: my comb, Ed’s floss––were highly prized.
“But this church has a saint in it,” he explained.
I threw my arms up in the air because now his excited state made sense.
The Russians are particularly fond of displaying their dead people. In the Kremlin’s Red Square, I gamely stood in the presence of the very dead and highly embalmed Vladimir Lenin. I forgave the country for this morbid exhibit because I thought it was Russia’s version of “Disneyland” for the tourists.
But in nearly every church I’ve visited since, there were “relics”––meaning the fingers, ears, and toes––of revered saints proudly on display. And the better churches had their actual dead saints lying encased in plastic (but not in a special airlock Plexiglas like Lenin) and without the expensive post-mortem treatment to prevent decay (like Lenin); which was a great source of consternation for me because some of these saints’ bodies were 100 years old and their toes curled backward and their fingers gnarled forward, usually blackened and broken off at the first joint, and their faces were not peaceful at all in encountering Jesus––not because Heaven isn’t great, but because the people of the great Federation of Russia won’t let their dead rest in peace.
Before I could utter a protest, which was actually a wish not to see another dead person before we crossed the border in just two hours, Ed cried, “What the hell did you order?”
With my back to the waiter, he was the first to see my lunch coming out of the kitchen. It was not the tight, black Petrossian caviar I had spooned onto toast points at cocktail parties in New York. Nor was it the bright red roe that peppered my sashimi in Tokyo’s sushi bars.
No, this was a seething mound of coral-pink fish eggs, piled high in a goop that was meant to be a sauce, and, to my horror, it seemed that the eggs were still moving. Nothing in this country was properly dead.
I shocked the waiter by preventing him from placing the dish in front of me. I gestured toward the back kitchen and rudely shouted in French for him to go, “Allez, allez!” because there was no other polite French phrase I could quickly muster.
The church guardian rapped on the café window. Even though his bony wrist was bare, he pointed to an imaginary watch, gestured toward the train station, and then swept his arms toward the church the like the late P.T. Barnum.
Ed said, “We have to go. This is our last chance.”
If only my café meal had been a halfway decent crepe or a bowl of porridge, I could have easily deflected the visit and made a defensible case for my nourishment. But knowing that that freak show of a horror plate was still moving behind the curtain, I threw down an extra ruble and bolted for the door.
But the waiter commanded me to stop and handed me the caviar in a take-out container with a clear plastic see-through lid. There are no street trashcans throughout Russia. And there is also no anonymity. So, between the town square and the train depot, I’d have no chance of ditching this plate of live fish eggs without being seen and having it reported back to the waiter. The last thing you want to do in a small town anywhere, but particularly in Russia, is offend anyone. And I was already borderline on that.
In a stroke of genius, I offered the plate of fish eggs to the church guardian who recoiled at the sight with head-shaking and several “Nyets.” Ed had to offer the guy a pen we had picked up from an Amex currency exchange office, and we were whisked inside. Within moments, we were standing in front of a plastic case with two women saints whose arms were supposed to be placidly crossed on their chests, but because of the brittle state of the corpses, had broken and now stood out at angles that resembled a stack of fire kindling.
At this point, I just wanted to crawl into the plastic box next to them.
We heard the train whistle blow and gathered our packs, took two last photos of a Virgin Mary icon, and tried, once again, to offer my plate to the church guardian. But he declined and said in perfect English to me, “Amerika good!”
On the train that evening to Helsinki, as soon as the locomotion really got under way and we were in the hinterlands of countryside between borders, we opened the train car window and sailed the plate of fish eggs into the high grasses.
The Russian Border Patrol banged on our car door, for their usual inspection of passports, and I was laughing so hard from throwing the fish eggs back into Russia that I shouted to the guards, “One second; I’m burying your dead!” and the guard shouted back through the closed doors: “Please speak in French, Madam!”
About the Author
Yvonne Pesquera has a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from New York University. She presently workshops her fiction at Grub Street, the esteemed Boston writers’ school; and has attended a weeklong fiction intensive at the Harvard University Extension School. Her short story, “Pits from the Cherry Tree,” was selected from hundreds of submissions and published in the Harvard Summer Review 2010.