Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Christmas in Russia

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Christmas Eve (January 6 in Russia) in Suzdal, north-east of Moscow, was a cloudless, crystalline night. The path to the convent's winter church was glassy smooth - a young nun in boots, hat and long black coat was sliding gracefully along the ice on the way to the church door.

We followed her upstairs to a simple white-painted room, made warm not just with efficient radiators but from the glow of dozens of tapers lit by members of the congregation.

A small unadorned fir tree stood in one corner. The priest in a pillbox hat and gown was blessing believers.

When the service began the nuns were joined by other singers and filled the room with achingly beautiful singing.

Sweet incense wafted from a burner being waved among the congregation by one of the priest's assistants.

Participants came and went at will. When we left an elderly lady, swathed in furs, her breath pluming around her was struggling up the stairs.

Only a few metres away the other face of a Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve was also gathering momentum in the convent's hotel restaurant. (Many convents and monasteries in Suzdal have developed small hotels in their grounds as money-spinners).

The wooden restaurant building was festooned with blinking Christmas lights and inside Christmas trees were smothered in tinsel and glass baubles.

A folk group, featuring a balalaika the size of a slightly stunted double bass, was weaving its way among the tables of diners - no easy feat.

Breads, salamis, pickles, salted fish, salads smothered in sour cream, baskets of black bread appeared from the kitchen carried by waitresses who had to play dodgems with the dancers and giant musical instruments.

Russia loves to do everything on a large scale.

Which is perhaps also why the tables were also provided with decanters of vodka - the Christmas tipple of choice. These emptied alarmingly quickly as a series of Christmas and New Year toasts began.

We soaked up some of it with chicken kiev and rice and a dish of wild mushrooms and potatoes.

The folk singers left and the singer-cum-DJ launched forth - the tiny dance floor was soon crowded with rather red-faced partygoers dressed in everything from Siberian fur-lined boots, suits and ties to elegant ball dresses.

A young man in a pin-striped suit arrived, his black hair slicked back into a ponytail.

"He looks like the Mafia," I said to my friend Misha.

"I think he is an Italian singer, " he replied.

We watched him place a guitar case under a nearby Christmas tree decorated with silver ornaments and frosted tinsel. He took out a guide.

"Thank god" Misha said. "I thought maybe it would be a machine gun."

When we emerged after the last dance of 50s American rock and roll (which was my part of the night to be the one to know the words) muffled figures were still making their way gingerly across the ice to the church, their footsteps crunching in the frozen snow.

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