& Company


by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

First Conversation
an interview*

Tobol'sk, Siberia, 12 July 2002

PREFACE.  My wife, to whose career I am held hostage but not without full honors as Househusband Plenipotentiary – she traveled on official business, 2002-2003, around a wide region straddling both sides of the Urals and into western Siberia. On one such trip to meet local government officials, industrial and business figures, education leaders and media representatives, I tagged along — a break from kitchen duty. First to Tyumen' — a four-hour hard ride only about 330 kilometers east from Yekaterinburg. Then three hours farther, past Rasputin's old home village, on to Tobol'sk – the penultimate station of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in the months leading up to their execution.

JOURNALIST:  And what is your position in Yekaterinburg?

MDS:  Househusband.  But really — you really should be, talking with my wife.

JOURNALIST:  If it's no secret, please, your position is really what?

MDS:  Househusband.  Seriously, now, my wife's really the one you should interview.

JOURNALIST:  But what responsibilities are yours?

MDS:  Kitchen duty.  Grocery shopping.  Laundry.  Ironing.

JOURNALIST:  Uh, what is it you do back in America?

MDS:  Kitchen duty.  Grocery shopping.  Laundry.  Ironing.

JOURNALIST:  But what is your profession?

MDS:  Househusband.  Now, look, there's my wife. She's officially part of this delegation.  Me, I'm just — mmm — along for the — like a fifth wheel.

JOURNALIST:  Fifth wheel?  Meaning?  What other things do you do?

MDS:  Read, write.  That's between the cooking and the—

JOURNALIST:  You're a writer?

"... Accompanying Barbara Cates on her reporting tour of Tobol'sk and the Petrochemical Complex, in an unofficial capacity, was her husband, the American writer, Matthew Stremba...."

JOURNALIST:  How long have you studied Russian?

MDS:  It's embarrassing, the years I've studied. And so little to show for it.

JOURNALIST:  Oh, you speak very well. Why, embarrassed?

MDS:  You flatter. Before I studied Russian I studied Ukrainian for years. And no results there to be proud of, either.

JOURNALIST:  Why Ukrainian?

MDS:  Well, my grandparents were born in the Carpathian mountains — emigrated as young men and women — settled in Pennsylvania.

"... Stremba, whose ancestors once upon a time lived in Ukraine...."

JOURNALIST:  How long have you been in Yekaterinburg?

MDS:  Just arrived this past June.

JOURNALIST:  And how does this part of Russia strike you?

This lovely house, on the corner of Karl Marx and Belinsky Streets, seems to charm none of the locals. Would they miss it if it suddenly went away, as does happen? Owners of prime spots, who are interested in profitable development but are hamstrung by preservation laws, often opt to do night-time arson, freeing them to build new and big.
This old house: Karl Marx & Belinsky Sts. Would it be missed by the locals if it disappeared?

MDS:  Well, I love the wooden buildings. Moscow has so few left. Yekaterinburg has a fair amount, but here there seem to be even more.  And so many are so well preserved – the fine decorative work, those windows.  Oy!

"... Mr. Stremba spoke of impressions from what he had seen in Siberia. What struck and charmed him more than anything else was, in his words, the abundance of wooden buildings with windows framed in artistically carved wood...."

JOURNALIST:  Where in the USA do you and your wife normally live?

MDS:  The state of Maryland.  Mary-Land.

JOURNALIST:  Where is that?

MDS:  Adjacent to our capital, Washington.  Our home is in the city of Baltimore.

JOURNALIST:  Ah, Baltimore.  That's a familiar name to us here.

MDS:  Familiar?  Really?  How so?

"... Barbara Cates and her husband maintain their permanent residence in Baltimore, a name known to Tobol'skers from the television ads for adzhika** with that very brand name. After three years in the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, they had a chance to choose from four Russian cities where [Cates could work in her profession].... Moscow, according to Mr. Stremba, terrified them with its overwhelming size, but of the three other cities they preferred Yekaterinburg and Ms Cates signed on for two years. These Americans were not hesitant to reveal the pleasure they found in their trip to Tobol'sk and expressed the hope that this would not be their last trip here in conjunction with official contacts."


* Interview.

The interview above is a reconstructed piece. The lines in italics punctuating the interview have been excerpted from an actual front-page article written by Albert Galiullin, which appeared Thursday 18 July 2002 in the weekly, "Siberskaya panorama", no. 29 (615). The translation is mine, and I assume all blame for any inexactness or misleading tone distinguishing it from the original.

** Adzhika

This is a generic spicey sauce, either in bottles or toothpaste-like tubes, various brand names, of which "Baltimor" unaccountably happens to be one.

Wooden structures surviving in Yekaterinburg range from little log cabins, decrepit but often still inhabited, to town houses like this one at 8-a Radishev Street. Once the residence of some middle-class burgher, now it houses offices of a travel agency and a construction firm.
8-a Radishev St, one of Yekaterinburg's log buildings

Second Conversation
an interview*
Nizhnaya Marusya, 30 October 2002

PREFACE. If you master the Cyrillic alphabet, and learn enough Russian to ask where's the nearest public toilet or to order a beer with fries, many locals will insist you're pretty good at their language despite all the butchering you do to everything else you say. They're so polite — or so deluded — about your modest accomplishments (yes, the alphabet is not a major effort) that there's just no convincing them to deny you accolades of Russian-language fluency.

When you read my Englishing of conversations I've had, don't yourself be misled by how smooth the translation seems to go. I know little more than asking directions and soliciting simple opinions. And when they answer me, uh-oh, uh-oh, comes the real test.

NASTYA:  They say you're a storyteller.  Does that mean writer?

MDS:  Ah, yes and no.  I write my own stuff, but there are many storytellers who don't write their material, and besides —

NASTYA:  Storyteller.  Is that a common profession in the USA?

MDS:  Not terribly common, Nastya, but we're there.  Yet — well — okay — sometimes it does seem as if everyone and his grandmother are coming out as storytellers.  Out of the woodwork.

NASTYA:  Grandmothers?  Wood-workers?

MDS:  An expression, Nastya.  Means: too many storytellers.

NASTYA:  Too many storytellers?  Really?  Absolutely astounding.

MDS:  Well, not quite as numerous as lawyers, Nastya, but enough to make you want to start certifying the best of the bunch.

Whenever you get hordes of something, you know, you usually end up with a lot of uneven quality, which makes the good ones really stand out. You know what I mean?

NASTYA:  You're standing out among the best???

MDS:  Hardly.  I'm strictly church-basement.

NASTYA:  Meaning?  What is it you are saying about the cellar? Underneath a church???

MDS:  Actually, come to think of it, church basements have indeed been venues for my stories.  But I've done a fair amount of storytelling in sanctuaries, too.  During the worship service, even.  But upstairs, downstairs, in church, out, my quality-level is not top-drawer, but —well — it's just church-basement.

NASTYA:  Storytelling during worship?  Certainly not in an Orthodox church?

MDS:  Right you are, Nastya.  Nor in the Greek Catholic Church, the Church of my baptism.  My people are almost as rigid as their Orthodox cousins as to what they allow in the liturgy. There have been, however, a few Roman Catholic parishes that were my storytelling clients, but it's mostly Protestant congregations that take interest in incorporating the arts into worship.

NASTYA:  Pro-tes-tant?  You mean, like Baptists?  Jehovah's Witnesses?

MDS:  Well, more like Methodist, Lutheran — mmm — Episcopalian —

NASTYA:  You are Pro-tes-tant?

MDS:  I've worked in Protestant churches, even worshipped in Protestant churches.  But I'm not Protestant.  My wife is a devout Episcopalian, and at home I often go with her to her neighborhood parish.  But I'm not Episcopalian.

NASTYA:  Uh, Mr. Stremba, I just glanced at my notes here.  In preparing for this interview, I surfed the internet and found you identified as "an American Presbyterian."  Is that a sect, or some club?  Masons?  Elks?

MDS:  Me?  On the internet???  Must be another Stremba. I'm not an internet kind of guy.   In any event, for sure, Matthew Stremba   is   not   a   Presbyterian.

That's a major church denomination in the USA.  I've done some storytelling in their sanctuaries, if not in their church basements.

I even met my bride at a Presbyterian minister's wife's birthday party.

NASTYA:  So, the internet is right, you are a Presbyterian!

MDS:  No, no, no I'm not.  Stremba is not, nor has he ever been Presbyterian.

NASTYA: (scribbling notes):  Not a Presbyterian.  Househusband — mmm — unbelievable.  Storyteller — mmm — okay.  And writer — there!

MDS:  Uh, Nastya, that writer thing.  You know, it's sort of disinformation.

It'll make some people think —

NASTYA:  Are you not a writer, Mr. Stremba?

MDS:  Well, there's Literatura, and there's Makulatura**.  I write Makulatura.

NASTYA: (giggles):  Americans use this term too?

MDS:  Not yet, dear Nastya.  But it's the best word for my genre.

This 19th-century residence of a Yekaterinburg merchant endures in relatively good shape on the corner where Engels Street crosses the busy Rosa Luxemburg Street. That merchant, long dead, knew the busy street as Zlatoustovskaya, a name referring to a saint very important in Orthodox tradition, John Chrysostom. The city administration promises a restoration of most pre-revolutionary names.
Wooden home where Engels St. crosses Rosa Luxemburg St., that latter known as Zlatoustovskaya pre-revolution


* Interview.

This interview with Nastya never saw the light of day.

** Makulatura.

"Literatura" you can easily figure out.

"Makulatura" — a lovely sound you need help with. It denotes both the process of paper recycling and the recycled paper product (sometimes cheap editions of books, sometimes cheap toilet tissue). "Makulatura" has a long history in this part of the world, but the vigor of the old Soviet recycling campaigns is no longer. It used to be that people were eager to save and turn in their "Makulatura" to get in return coupons that could be redeemed for real "Literatura" – like Pushkin and Dostoyevskiy, not then easily available in regular Soviet stores that stocked, well, "Makulatura", like the Collected Works of Leonid Brezhnev.   Now, however, only those eking out a living on the margins of society gather paper and collect returnable bottles for the small change it will bring. Makes you wonder how much virgin material goes into Russian retail products these days. I had only one experience of hearing "Makulatura" used in a metaphoric way. And so I've used it here.

Matthew-Daniel Stremba (MDS)

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