Berezniki — Charm, the Russian Way
We decided to visit a small city (approx. 150,000 people) named Berezniki (Russian: березники) a few hours (by bus) North of Perm (Russian: Пермь), though still in the Perm Krai (Russian: Край, “region”). After taking a bus from just outside the apartment, conveniently, to the Perm City bus terminal, we purchased our tickets for 350 руб (approx. $8 NZD) per person, and embarked upon a very exhausting journey through some incredible countryside.
After three hours and thirty minutes (with a 15 minute break at a local roadside cafe) we reached our destination. Berezniki, at least, compared to Perm, was significantly more rough around the edges.
Traveling through Berezniki was accomplished almost exclusively by miniaturized shuttle buses, or by electrically assisted trolleybuses (with adorable antennas which made them look like oversized metal bugs).
We arrived at a hostel, recommended by Liza’s friend, after a half-hour walk from Berezniki’s city center. We realized almost immediately that this was, perhaps, not the most ideal location for us to reside during our stay in Berezniki. Shuttered garages on a dirt path, an enormous, hastily constructed concrete wall protecting military equipment (armored personnel carriers, weapons cache, etc.) and our so-called hostel had no advertising anywhere to indicate its existence. We eventually stumbled into the correct door, in a concrete industrial building bordering the military supplies. After a few flights of unlit, garbage and dust covered concrete stairs (which looked at least a half-century old) we entered a very long, brightly lit hallway at the end of which, ominously perched, was a portrait of Vladimir Putin glaring down at the hall’s inhabitants— which now included us.
A rather plump, short woman with an angry scowl and grey, wispy hair beckoned for us to approach her in the office at the very end of the hall. We passed by a half-dozen rooms with their doors ajar. Tens of shirtless, middle-aged men tarrying about their day littered the hall and rooms. Suspicious glances as the presence of a, obviously foreign man and a beautiful woman, spurred interest in the residents.
We signed our names in a ledger, passed over our passports for verification, and paid the woman. In exchange, we were given a key to a room and a mountain of fresh linen. While we had planned to stay three nights in this hostel, after the first, we visited Liza’s grandfather and he was kind and welcoming, allowing us to spend the rest of our stay in his home.
Meeting Victor was one of the greatest highlights of my entire life. He was a devilishly funny, incredibly colorful man who’s done more in his 80+ years than I could ever imagine. Though, between us, we polished off a half-dozen bottles of vodka (including a bottle of Matakana Moonshine from home). I was in awe at his collections of hunting knives, and his selection of moose antlers, both of which stood as a testament to his honed skills as a hunter and craftsman.
In addition to Liza’s grandfather, another member of Liza’s family I was first introduced to was her sister, Lida, an absolutely incorrigible dynamo of energy and youth which reminded me, rather abrasively, that my body simply can’t keep up with excited teenagers anymore.
She took us to a cake-cafe with a bounty of beautiful and delicious slices, all reasonably priced as well.
As well as to the local fairground, with the town’s bustling, with the families wearing their Sunday Best. Apart from the distinctly hallowing Russian songs the fair band was playing it could’ve been a painting of small town 50’s America I’d stepped into. The band’s conducted passed his baton to children and seniors alike that they might take turns trying to control the boisterous brass and the tangy trumpets as the band performers danced and somersaulted about the fairground.
Further into the fair we found a small, tucked away arcade, littered with Soviet-era gaming machines, some suggesting the player test their strength to impress the ladies, or to see what wonders are hidden inside the viewing window. Something about it struck me. Almost as if I’d been hit with déjà vu. From the scowling old woman behind the register looking as though she’d never experienced fun in her life, or the foosball table that had a goalie with no legs, to the miniature motorbike perched a top an iron handle begging for a kid’s loose change. Whatever it was, I found myself swept up in reminiscence of youth. It was truly heartwarming to know that 15,603 KM away from my home the kids were just the same as I was.
Berezniki, being Liza’s hometown, and where she was raised, took her down an amazing memory trip which simply bled nostalgia. We found a park which she played in frequently when she was younger, though it had apparently been completely transformed from what she remembered. Despite this, little precious memories, kept safe from the unwavering wheel of time, remained scattered about the yard.
Overall, Berezniki had an gentle atmosphere of coziness and warmth. The wind was harsh, the rain was sharp, and the people occasionally crass, but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d stepped on that bus and been transported into a piece of history, a place where time drips rather than flows, and where the sun was locked, eternally setting on the Soviet Union, and the residents hadn’t quite moved on from the golden years. That’s all small town life really is, isn’t it? A way to capture the best memories, and maybe, just maybe, make more of them, as it did for me.