The Summer Cottage

"Decor tends to out-of-date calendars, mismatched crockery, paintings of bears in the forest, and lace curtains hanging in doorways to defend against mosquitoes."


I read this description several times, in a perfectly-timed National Geographic article about the Russian dacha, which is a fully Russian cultural element, and is basically the little plot of land where a family escapes the drudgery of their urban dwelling during the brief Russian summer. It is a place where gardens are kept, which the article points out was crucial during the days of food shortages, when people relied on these part-time homesteads as sources for food.


The dacha has a fascinating history, within Russian culture, as the land that was parceled out to courtiers during the reign of Peter the Great, as the gifts presented to political and cultural elites during Stalin's rule as one mechanism tool to assist in  "keeping writers under control" by keeping an eye on them in one particular neighborhood of dachas outside a city. In the modern age, the McMansion versions owned by nouveau riche Russians, called kottedzhy (cottages), are their own cultural entity, with different meaning and use entirely. And the article points to the changing larger meaning and use of these tiny summer homes, as places of refuge from stark, urban apartment buildings and the bustle of weekday life and work, rather than as pieces essential to survival, and certainly lacking finer amenities like indoor plumbing and electricity. Some full-time dacha dwellers resent the fancier interpretations of their neighbors who come in from the city.


I can see the resentment that might lie underneath these tiny cottages and their crop-growing plots of land, and the voices from these dachas make for perfect summer reading. Because, all cultural arguments aside, it made me fully nostalgic and absolutely homesick for the dacha of my own family and childhood.


"Everyone in Russia has a dacha story. It may be a trace of childhood memory like playing ball late into evening by grace of a sun that won't set, gathering pine-cones to perfume the samovar fire, or swimming in an icy pond rimmed by green spires of spruce," the article waxes.


My aunt and uncle have owned their tiny cottage on Moon Lake in Iron Mountain, Michigan at least as long as my lifetime. It is our automatic location for family picnics and events during the few months of summer weather they get in the Upper Peninsula of the state. A short season means that crescent-shaped Moon Lake, like those Russian bodies of water, never really gets "warm," but it is the most refreshing kind of clean, clear, deep-water northern lake, and I adore it. Various boats haven pulled me and cousins and the occasional friend behind behind it, in inter-tubes, our bodies bouncing and our hands gripped for dear life on the handles, until we give in and disappear behind the wake of our vessels. We played 'King of the Raft" on the old wooden raft my uncle constructed and anchored just offshore, sometimes with so many of us on it that it disappeared below the surface of the water, leaving us standing on the glittering blue-black top of the lake.


All the odds and ends of our lake days are stored inside the tiny cottage on the property, which for as long as I've known it has not had any room devoted to actual habitation. There is one bedroom, and it is filled to the ceiling with wetsuits, inter-tubes, water skiis, beach towels, extra clothing, blankets, and floating devices. Each room is filled with the kind of old furniture that has retired from full-time use in primary dwellings, and now resides in the cottage, so each is a relic of the  eras past. The whole place feels like the 1970s, underlined by the dark orange shag carpet with decades of dirt, grass, and beachy foot debris sunken in--but somehow it is still soft and comforting after the chilly outside air and water. Their are several 100-piece puzzles in tiny square boxes, the same ones have been there my entire life, and I always choose the one that is a big bowl of strawberries. This is the only one I even remember, and I loved to sit inside and let my swimsuit dry while I worked on that puzzle.


The best thing about these nostalgic bits of their cottage is that my aunt has changednothingsince. That carpet, the strawberry puzzle, the room full of lake supplies, the kitchen and dining room areas strewn with clutter, sale items, assorted kitchenware, piles of cases of pop (not soda, this is the U.P.), the old blow-up doll we used to dress in real clothes, even the apple cinnamon air freshener for the singular little bathroom: the same.


This is the place I envisioned in my mind as I read about the Russian dacha; it is the place of a thousand summer memories, of enjoying the short months of warm sunshine, a break from the winter cold. As I got older, obviously, I moved to Georgia, with its own excess of heat. But I remember one summer, when we were back visiting for a few weeks, one aunt remarked that my skin had grown considerably darker there than it was when I had arrived. The Michigan sun was just the right strength, where you can survive outside all day, laying along the dock on your old, faded towel, sitting in the swing beneath the pine trees. This time of year in Georgia, all I really want to do is sit inside, in the air conditioning. Pools are okay, as a source of cooling off, but I never was much of an ocean, saltwater girl. Give me those glorious Michigan lakes any day. And a scoop of Blue Moon ice cream, which only those from the Midwest/Wisconsin/Michigan zone will ever have tried (unless you know someone from the area, who has let you in on the secret).


I haven't lived in Michigan since 1998, but every year around this time, I long for the lake, a day or two or three at that cottage, k-bars and sub sandwiches and pop at the picnic table and a visit to that strawberry puzzle. To me, a little cottage on a tiny lake in Upper Michigan is the most ideal summer hideaway I can imagine. I only hope I will continue to have access to a place like that, and the means to get there every now and then. There are plenty of jet-setting locales and beautiful, cultural, otherworldly places I also want to visit, too. But there is something engrained in my being that will always hold clear, Michigan lakes and tiny, cozy cottages as special. It's a lot like the daughter who arrived at her father's dacha in the article:


"She travels everywhere," Boris says. "Egypt, Italy, Turkey." This time, Vladislava, who works in advertising in St. Petersburg, had gone to comfortable, orderly Switzerland. But Vladislava had had her fill of Swiss perfection. Now she longed for the familiar warmth of cobbled-together, unruly Nertsy [the dacha community where her father lives]. She sat on the deck of the family dacha and gazed at the calm, green oval of Lake Nertsy. Sunbathers stretched out on half-sunken docks splintered by winter ice. Water lilies floated like tiny yellow coronets. "Lake Geneva," she said airily. "It's just a pond."


This is the perfect sentiment to describe the feeling of comfort in a place like this; it goes beyond aesthetic or appearance--in fact, it is a place often filled with kitsch. But it is also a place of memory, of freedom, and of little carefree moments, added up over time.


Tell it right, and a western can make me cry.

I have always been a sucker for a good story. The simplest tale, told in the right way, brings me to tears. It is almost silly how often I have found myself sitting in the movie theater at the end of a great film, or even a mediocre one, and suddenly, some small trigger in the narrative, some small act right at the end, brings a full-on wave of emotion, and I am bawling. Or at least, tears flow freely. The effect is the same with books. Heck, it can happen with a 2-minute YouTube clip, or even a commercial, if it's been really well-made. This happened to me when I read The Kite Runner. I would find myself laying on my bed, engrossed in the story of two young boys whose lives were forever impacted by the wars, conflicts, and tragedies that have befallen Afghanistan, and I would suddenly weep thinking of its enormity. I would literally cry for Afghanistan, big and small. It happened as well in the movie True Grit--which still kind of mystifies even me. I mean in the last sixty seconds, when the little whippersnapper girl, all grown up, visits a ruff and tumble landscape and inquires about her old travel partner, Rooster Cogburn, and it is established that he has since passed away. Their whole story culminated in my mind, and I was overcome, to tears.

I guess this is why, from a young age and with a big imagination, I have always been drawn to good stories, and long wanted to create them myself as well. I adamantly wanted to make movies--write, direct, etc.--that was what I told people in high school. I also wanted to be a journalist. I now have a history degree and want to tell stories in museums, and hopefully in books of my own. These are all careers, ways of storytelling, coming from this same spout of emotion that rests inside me, ready to well up anytime some sort of meaningful conclusion, resolution, decision, gesture, or tragedy has been proffered in a story. And in the grand tradition of learning, we discover more of the world that we just can't begin to fathom; we know that in fact, the more we learn, the less we can really ever know. I claim to know a little bit about a few things, but man, the world is big.

I just finished reading a perfect summer book. I have referenced it several times lately, because it is about a 22-year-old fresh college graduate who takes off for China in 1986, and discovers a lot of things about herself--and many of those things mirrored in stark and hilarious ways insights I had about myself when I traveled to China as well (but in 2007, to a vastly different country). Susan Jane Gilman has gone on to do a lot of awesome things since her mid-eighties escapades, working as a journalist and living abroad now.

But her recounting of the life of a Chinese woman that she met on her memorable trek, and reunited with on a visit in 2005, brought the tears. She writes about how even when they bonded in the '80s, she knew (she assumed) that Lisa, this young woman the same age as her, would have a very linear life, one that had almost none of the potential that her own, Gilman's, could have, because of where she lived in the world. As it turns out, Lisa grew her small restaurant into a series of businesses in Yangshuo, China, and is now referred to as "an institution" in Lonely Planet guidebooks on China. She had coffee with President Clinton when he visited her restaurant and served on a delegation that welcomed him to China in the late nineties. She has gone farther than Gilman ever expected or could have dreamed. But she has still not the opportunities as this visiting American; as of 2005, she still cannot travel independently abroad, say, perhaps to visit her friend Gilman in Switzerland. Her whole story brings me to tears. And what makes me the most emotional, I think, is our own assumptions, the things an American might think or assume about anyone else. Assuming that a 22-year old Chinese woman would be destined to live out her life in servitude to her husband, with one child, cooking pancakes for foreigners and backpackers in Yangshuo with no foreseeable economic or lifestyle opportunities beyond that.

In the whole book, there is so much drama, so many insane travel antics that occur, yet here I am bawling at the very end over a small reunion of two fleeting friends, and over the complicated and sometimes tragic things we assume, learn, and discover about one another in this wide world. The larger plot line of her time in China, actually, has not ended in resolution, and is rather bittersweet. But in this little subplot, here, we can rejoice in the wonder, in the sadness, in the immense emotion that real, raw, and meaningful stories provide us.

I believe they are the lifeblood of our existence as humans, propelling us forward, reminding us to believe that we can be part of incredible things. Incredible stories.

(Even if, sometimes, they are made up inside out brains. Fiction has such enormous ability to transport us. I am jealous of people who can write it.)

Summer... oh, sweet summer.

Man, this summer is turning me, and my world, on our heads. I, who usually starts on research pretty earlier in the semester for papers, have not even settled on topics for my two papers I have to write about Cuba. If you know me at all, you know that I am the complete opposite of a procrastinator; I don't even remember the last time I didn't have a paper done a good five days in advance to its due date. But I have been feeling that summer laziness, where I'd rather sit and daydream on my porch in the middle of the night, and watch foreign movies on Netflix Instant, rather than focus on writing or scholarly stuff. (And I can actually pay full attention to a movie, with free time like this!) I'm feeling like this is going to be the summer of papers written the day before they're due. Oh, Lordy. I can see it coming. I have also started in on priming my whole apartment, which I painted in its near entirety last summer, when I anticipated staying here for two years at least. Rent increases have made that impossible, and I am fully feeling the pain right now, in the time it takes to return these walls to white. I've decided that my energy and determination to paint a new space is directly related to whether or not I have recently had to paint a room, since last summer I didn't have to repaint anything when I moved out of my previous townhouse. This summer, I am taking a much simpler approach to my new apartment: beige walls, no work required. I'll take my mom's advice: just cover it with so much art, it feels like home anyway. Perfection.

Maybe the most indicative hint that it is summer (and the most fun) is the vast increase in alcohol intake compared to my regular, super busy semester life. Spending two weeks in Cuba, where the mojitos are the same price as a bottle of water (and you got to have something with lunch, right?) certainly helped kick that off right away. Since I've been back though, I have had time to visit lots of friends, and have taken a new approach to dinner: why not have a beer with that? In fact, why not just have beer for dinner instead?

Only working, and not having class, has been truly joyful. Relaxing. Only ONE thing to focus on in my life. Is this how real people live? It's so much fun!

I've also been absolutely obsessed, all of a sudden, with M.I.A. and Dengue Fever, two artists I've long known, but they are seriously hitting the spot right now. Exactly my mood. A bit rebellious, no?


Did I say, also, that since I'm moving, I am really excited about shaking up the way all my stuff is arranged, and in further simplifying my space. Might get rid of a bunch of stuff. Might put the bookshelves in the dining room. Maybe put my art/fabric/inspiration board right out in the living room. Why not?

I pretty much just want to pay homage to summer:

to having a tan and wearing a skirt to show it off,

to last year's dirty, broken-in flip flops,

to pleasure reading (YES!),

to no make-up,

to keeping the frig stocked with good beer,

to the pool,

and cook-outs,

to margaritas with great friends,

to MOVING (even though it's a lot of work),

to less stress in the classroom (and if you're really lucky, no class at all--jealous),

to the windows down!,

and the heat suffocating you (I do kind of love Georgia heat the way it does that),

to sweating so much at my job, I don't feel guilty about not going to the gym,

and to spending too much time watching TV shows.

Among other things.