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The Babushka Appeasement Ritual

The babushka appeasement ritual. It used to happen a lot, but, no so often anymore.

Here in Crimea, it can get very hot. Perhaps around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and just humid enough to be oppressive when on a city bus with the sun beating down on it. We’re at a pretty high latitude, so the rays come in on a nice angle even in summer. They stream in under the trees, and between the buildings. Shade is elusive.

I hop on a bus for a long trip all the way across town. 20 rubles now. (About 28 cents.) It used to be a lot cheaper, and the buses had more character. Old watermelon shaped electric buses with wobbling crooked wheels, and so many layers of paint, that it looked like tree bark. These days I can go all the way across town and back several times and the ritual only happens once or twice. When I got here it was different. It occurred on nearly every trip.

Fourteen years ago when I first began hanging out here, I would get on a bus in my neighborhood at the stop that is at the beginning of the line. The buses usually left this point nearly empty. It would soon fill up after only a few stops. The windows would all be down and the top vent wide open. The bus would lurch right along adding more and more passengers getting crowded soon. Then It would happen. Everyone would see it coming. Many would wince and their countenance would change. Some would even grimace. There she was at the next stop hailing our bus to make sure it stopped. A woman from Russia’s greatest generation. Stooped over, carrying her mesh bag, and perhaps a cane, She would be wearing a wool hat pulled down over her ears, and a fairly heavy coat. Rolled down brown socks and sensible shoes. The bus would stop, she’d pull herself through the door and waddle in. Suddenly she would look up and see something unacceptable. She’d fly into a fit of activity while scolding all of us. She’d begin clamoring all over the bus slamming windows shut shouting that were we irresponsible and making people sick with our cold drafts. The women would just stare straight ahead stone-faced, while the men would roll their eyes, and some would let a few grumbles escape. Nevertheless, some would help with the task that had been dropped so suddenly into their laps, and they’d reluctantly close the remaining windows that were near them, sheepishly replying “Da Baba, Da Baba.” to her scolding. Someone would invariably have to reach up and pull the roof vent closed as per the babushka’s instructions.

Now we lumbered unhappily along in the stifling heat. Before a minute passes, everyone is dripping in sweat. Babushka is satisfied now that no one will get sick or catch a cold. Everyone else just sits or stands in their place staring out the windows or straight ahead. No one says a word. Puddles begin to accumulate on the floor under each of the standing people. You can feel the suffering. I’ve never experienced collective suffering before. It was new to me. I’m from a small town in the Midwestern US, and we didn’t have public buses or anything like babushkas. The air hangs heavy and strong smells begin to make themselves known. Garlic, fish, clothes that were worn yesterday. All of us yearn for our dangerous draft. I begin to dream of sticking my head into a freezer.

Finally, our babushka looks up in anticipation of her stop. Many eyes furtively watch her every move in quiet anticipation. She springs up from the comfortable seat that was given to her by a nice young man, probably a university student. She then totters up to the door, shows the driver her document, (pensioners ride free) and briskly climbs out to pursue whatever babushka business she had. Instantly all the windows fly open. The roof vent is hastily popped up. Faint sighs of relief are heard. The passengers begin to talk quietly and even smile a bit. The mood improved 100%. The bus whines and grinds merrily along and the generous breeze flows through it. Another stop is made, and old passengers are exchanged for new. Two more stops no problem, then disaster strikes.

There she is, just three stops down from where we said goodbye to her comrade. Another thick wool hat, brown overcoat, and mesh bag. Spirits sink, a few inaudible sighs are felt, I look at the two guys that have been on the bus since we left the starting point. They are gritting their teeth in anticipation of the impending furnace conditions. Another ritual begins. I’ve never kept a scorecard, but I don’t ever remember there having been more than three appeasement rituals on any one way trip across town, but there have been many with two.

None of us liked having our nice breeze shut off on a hot summer day, but, babushkas are respected. No one would dare cross or argue with one. They are revered. A little discomfort is a small price to pay to keep the peace and show respect. Actually a lot of discomfort is just fine for all that, as I witnessed on many bus rides many times. It is an emblem of the Russian identity. It is the Russian representation of God’s love in this world.

These days there are not so many babushkas of that generation left. It is very seldom that I see one waiting at the next stop in her wool cap and heavy coat on a hot summer day. The new generation of babushkas don’t seem so terribly afraid of drafts or getting a cold. They are often much more fashionably dressed. This generation of pensioners doesn’t fit themselves out as though they expect to become a refuge at some point in their trip. Despite the fact that now I can cross town in comfort on a shiny new roomy smooth and quiet bus, I must say I miss them, and think about them now and then. Especially when riding public transport. I went out to our dacha property recently, and on the long trip, I did see one. She didn’t get on our bus, but seeing her got me to wondering. What shaped their characters that made them so outspoken on public health? Why do they see everything in black and white? They scold strangers for drinking cold drinks. It happened to me a few times. They would also scold strangers if they thought they did not dress their children warmly enough. Especially in winter. Many of them have passed on, and so few are left. They’ve seen so much suffering. 27 million dead in the great patriotic war. God Bless them all. God bless Russia’s holy babushkas!

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