Shrooming in Latvia

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photo by olga gorbacova

In June 2015, our son, Adam, married his bride, Anna, next to a lake in the Latvian countryside. The partying went on for two days and was partially described in a previous story, “Letting Go in Latvia”.   Letting Go In Latvia

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the site, june 12, 2015

The women in our daughter-in-law’s Russian family–mother, aunt, grandmother–invited me to return to Riga for mushroom hunting season in September. Foraging the forest for edible fungi is a highly anticipated annual event.

The lack of language on both sides [no Russian-me; basically no English-them] was slightly daunting. Then I realized it would be crazy to pass up an adventure like this. Think of the advantages: I would forge a new Russian/American alliance. I would participate in an ancient survival skill involving tools and hunting. And I would learn to avoid poisonous fungi that could upset international family relations.

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architecture in the historic part of riga

Arriving in Riga, I was hosted to a private tour of the old city and its’ history. My guide, a young Latvian woman, spoke fluent English. Anna’s mother, Tania, who speaks a little English but not confidently, acted as my personal photographer.

Like many small Eastern European countries, Latvia has a complicated history. In the beginning it was purely Pagan. Then Germanic people arrived bringing Christianity to the old world mix. They set up shops and churches and a new form of civilization. There were also influxes of settlements of Poles, Finns, and Russians.

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on the tour with tania

After WWI, from 1918-1940, Latvia had a brief, twenty-two year period of complete independence. The Russians returned in 1940. Then, the Germans replaced the Russians until WWII ended. In 1945, the Russians ran the Germans out for the last time. The Soviet Period lasted until 1991. Finally, Latvia underwent its’ second independence with the breakup of the USSR. The post-Soviet years began.

In 1991, a new law stated that in order for citizens of Russian heritage to receive Latvian passports they must learn both the language and history of the country. Many chose not to, as they were past school age, raising families or trying to get by working their everyday jobs. Anna’s maternal grandmother, Vera Gorbacova, is one example. She was born on the eastern edge of Latvia near the current border with Russia. She raised two daughters, Tania and Olga, and worked in a factory. She never learned to speak Latvian. The family’s mother tongue is purely Russian.

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vera aka “babushka”

Mushroom hunters in Latvia are a devoted cult. The day of the hunt has its’ own rituals. As foragers, the women have favorite forested areas where they return many times each season. Mushrooms are best harvested in cool, rainy weather where fungi grow plentifully in mossy groundcover, under trees, rocks, and leaves.

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Early fall of 2015 was unseasonably warm and sunny . I didn’t need to dress traditionally in rubber boots or even wear a coat. We left Riga mid-morning and drove 45 minutes outside the city to the secret woods. My guides were Tania, her sister Olga, and their friend Edita, who acted as my translator. That day, they needed to do some serious sleuthing to find coveted treasures.

I was given my own set of tools–a basket holding a knife for harvesting and a purple plum for energy. I was shown how to cut mushrooms close to the ground with the special blade. Off we went, fanning out to cover maximum territory.

The woods were not particularly dense, but if I wandered out of visual range I would hear a plaintive “Wennndeeeeey, where are you?” These women were not about to lose an American in a Latvian forest. I tried to stay within their range of comfort.

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serene beauty in a secret forest

Olga is particularly gifted in guiding the hunt. She would search an area alone and then call me over to do the actual picking. Or cutting. But I really liked finding some little nest of mushrooms on my own. However, when I showed them off proudly, Olga threw most of them back on the ground because they were too small. Or they were­, well-poisonous.

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olga scouting for me

One of the great parts of the day was when we returned to the car for lunch. A tailgating party! From the open trunk came a delicious little feast you could hold in one hand. No plates or napkins necessary. Silvery smoked fish covered small squares of sliced black bread. There was a whole hardboiled egg, and a big wedge of red tomato.  Lunch looked like a beautiful still life painting–in my hand.

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olga and edita

Two more hours of hunting before returning to the city, changing clothes, and meeting at Tania’s to cook dinner. My translator from that point on was the vivacious Julia, married to the very patient Juris who would not take a drink of alcohol during our time together because he was responsible for safely chauffeuring “precious cargo”–Julia and me. You have to love a man like that!

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cleaning ‘shrooms with julia

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the harvest pre-cleaning

Tania was cleaning mushrooms when we arrived. Her technique was meticulous. They must be completely peeled–head to stem. [Thus, the bigger, the better means less overall work for more result.] If the inside of the stem was not perfectly white, when looking at it from the bottom, it meant that worms had invaded. These were immediately discarded. After peeling, mushrooms were rinsed and drained in a colander.

While the cleaning is tedious, the cooking is easy. Slice and chop stems and heads into random sized pieces. Sauté diced onion in olive oil. Add mushrooms and cook on medium-high heat. Keep the water that is released and stir it around to steam them.

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Then, drain the water. Add some butter. Add two big spoonfuls of solid cream [like crème fraîche]. Add salt. Serve immediately. [I would add a generous grind of fresh pepper or even some red pepper flakes. Not Russian at all.]

While Tania was preparing our meal of roast duck, fried potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and sliced tomatoes, Julia was introducing me to the finer points of drinking vodka Russian style. It should be consumed in shots and always with traditional food pairings.

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fish, onion, tomato on black bread, icy cold shot on the side

First the vodka is frozen. Pour into a shot glass. Drink the shot. Immediately eat a tiny piece of black bread covered by oily fish, onion, and tomato. Or, take a shot, followed by a pinch of warm fried potatoes and some pickled cabbage. Either way–deliciously satisfying. No side effects.

A cultural turning point occurred unexpectedly at evening’s end. For dessert we had eaten sweet watermelon chunks with our fingers. This reminded me of a story Anna had told me from her childhood. So I shared it with the others.

When her parents, Tania and Sergei, would go out on summer evenings leaving her at home, Anna would slip out of the apartment and go to the market with saved coins. She would pick out a big ripe watermelon and lug it home. Managing to cut it in two pieces, she ate one whole half, by herself, with a spoon, down to the white rind. Seeds and all!

As I finished telling the story, everyone glanced down at the dessert plates. On every plate there were two, maybe three watermelon seeds, idly dropped. But, on my plate, there was a black and white mountain of seeds because I had carefully picked them out. Every one.

I quietly covered my plate with a napkin. But it was too late. The women watched, and then–they erupted into uproarious, mirthful laughter. And so did I.

As it turned out, Glasnost prevails. Around this cross cultural table of Anglo/Russian women we laughed long and hard–and saw each other clearly.

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my favourite tania and julia photo, june 2015

Bags of Laughter

When laughter helps without doing harm, when laughter lightens, realigns, reorders, reasserts power and strength, this is laughter that causes health. When laughter makes people glad they are alive, happy to be here, more conscious of love…lifts sadness and severs anger…when they are made bigger, made better, more generous, more sensitive, that is sacred [laughter].

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES

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Sometimes I laugh so hard the tears run down my legs. Unknown author

It is bad to suppress laughter. It goes back down to your hips. Unknown author

Laughter is part of the universal human language. Everyone speaks laughter. Laughter exercises the diaphragm, the abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg and back muscles. It’s a workout! Laughter is yogic. Nothing works faster to bring the body and mind back in balance than a good laugh.

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Laughter is cathartic. The good feeling from a big laugh remains, lifting your mood for hours afterwards.

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I was recently weakened by a bout of tear inducing, out loud laughter.  It took over my  whole day. Bursts of laughter broke free for hours afterwards. It made me feel great.

The source was a story written by Alec, a friend with a gift for spinning a comedic phrase.  This time it was a personal to my experience of having lived in Germany as well as having made a rather specific request.

Alec knows there are things I miss from Germany, so he always offers to bring “a list” when he and his wife drive to Paris. This time I tacked on “one more thing” and felt that a detailed description was needed:

…Oh, there is one more thing you could bring. It’s very lightweight and packable, but you have to go to the Oberursel Altstadt to find it. On the main street is the One Euro Store. Not everything there is one euro, but it’s a cheap junk store you should know about anyway.

Inside, they have these little cloth shopping bags that come wrapped in a little cloth carrying case. The nameReisenthel is on the side label. They cost more than one euro, about 4.95 each. They are brilliant. I use them daily or give them away to family and friends, doing my “green best.

I only like solid benign colors. Black, blue, green, brown. No patterns or foofy florals.  6-10 bags if you find them…

I received the following email from him the day before they were to arrive:

On A Mission for Wendy

I loitered outside the dollar store in the winter cold, waiting until the store emptied before I approached the owner.

Uncertain of his level of English, I said with some hesitation, “Guten Tag. I am shopping for a woman-friend who lived here six years ago. She asked me to pick up some packable lightweight shopping bags she used to buy in your store.”

He remained silent so I continued, “They’re made by Reisenthel. She gives them away to be environmentally friendly. Do you still carry them?”

He stared at me and I wasn’t sure if he was mentally translating what I said from English to German or was wondering if I was crazy enough to think a dollar store carried the same merchandise over such a long period of time.

He gestured to a box that had packable shopping bags in a floral pattern. Apologetically I said, “Um, she doesn’t really want a floral pattern.”

Again, the stare as he said, “She wants to be environmentally friendly but doesn’t like flowers?”

He had a point, but I stood my ground. “I think she wants to be fashionably friendly to the environment.”

This time his stare lasted even longer. He scratched his head. I couldn’t tell if he was thinking about whether he had other bags in the store or if he was beginning to understand why a person like Donald Trump could be elected if Americans were all like me.

He opened a cabinet and handed me a slightly larger shopping bag-inside-a-bag, this time in basic black. The tag indicated it was manufactured by “Schneider”.

Now it was my turn to hesitate. Finally I got up the nerve to say, “Um, this is a Schneider bag, but my friend really wants a Reisenthel bag.”

I felt completely stupid. I said “Reisenthel” like it was some kind of designer brand from Bloomingdales or Saks, but the shelves lined with cheap bric-a-brac reminded me I was far from Fifth Avenue.

By the look on his face, I feared he was going to hit me with one of the dozens of snow globes within easy reach. Instead he just blinked. It was one of those blinks where the eyelids remain closed long enough that I could have slipped out of the store. Maybe he was offering me an out, but I stayed. I was on a mission for Wendy.

Finally, he opened his eyes and said, in an accent grown heavier with each exchange, “And what, may I ask, is so special about a Reisenthel bag?”

Luckily for me I came prepared with an email from my friend. I pulled it out of my pocket and quickly read aloud what she wrote. “Um, well, she says here that, ‘They are brilliant.’

He squinted at me, considering my words. Then he repeated very slowly, as if offering me a chance to take one of the small green pills prescribed by my psychiatrist, “These bags. They are brilliant?”

Rather than hold his stare, I looked back at my friend’s email and blurted out the first words that caught my eyes. “She says here they should be benign”. Then, realizing how incredibly stupid that sounded, I tried to make a joke with a forced chuckle, “But I assume all of your bags are benign, right?”

For the first time he looked at me with something other than pity or spite and said with clear relief, “So you want nine bags?”

I looked down at my shoes. It took only a moment to realize my joke had been misunderstood. I looked up and then again at my friend’s email with the very explicit directions of what she wanted.

Drawing upon an inner strength, built from more than 20 years of living overseas, battle-tested by language and cultural barriers from Asia to Europe. I looked him straight in the eye, and said…

“No. I’ll take ten…Danke.”

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It doesn’t happen nearly often enough–this kind of mirthful laughter that tickles to my core, and ripples throughout the day. I laughed until I cried. Then I laughed all over again–thanks to my friend.

…and a great family laugh too…

Other antics by Alec told here: Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto