Expat Living: What I Learned In Creating Our American Dacha
Summertime… and the livin’ was easy…
Whew! Summer’s gone and folks are gearing up for the stresses of the coming holiday season. I’m busy catching up with all of you!
Early this summer I wrote a post about de-stressing and the culture of the “Dacha”.
We had just embarked on our “American Dacha” project, our version of a place for easy living, a place where friends and family can enjoy time together, where we can ignore the troubles of the day- and just be…
Thinking back to how my friends in Baku went about creating their dacha, it struck me that even though the end goal is roughly the same, it is such a different process here.
People everywhere want to live stress free, if they can, but culture plays a big part in how we accomplish it.
Steve Hague (Archecotech) and I were commenting back and forth about how our two cultures do similar things in such different ways. We chatted about what he is doing over at Life in Russia – comparing Russia and America (as well as many other places)- and how even within the former Soviet Union, there are striking contrasts between regions.
When my friends obtained a piece of land (somehow- was it a “gift”, a trade?), the dad set out to fence it off for protection. He got 500 “blocks” on a truck. But the truck driver didn’t have authorization papers (hmmm… could there be a reason for that?). So the “blocks” got confiscated. Not long after, another truck load of blocks headed out of town and made it to the land. A perimeter fence went up, and the transformation began.
I still can recall the excitement within the family at having a place near the sea, a place to call their own.
The first time we went to visit, I remember being shown an old apple tree that was in need of some TLC -tender loving care- in the form of trimming and watering, some wild grape vines doing what they do without regard for whether anyone cared or not, and an interesting little building that, with a little more work, could become a sleeping place. No electricity or plumbing yet, but that would come. Everything for meals was brought with them for the day- mangal (hibachi/ BBQ/ grill), tomatoes, potatoes, lamb, onions, peppers, bottles of juice, pillows and blankets.
Fast forward a few years and here we are, at our home near Washington DC, trying to create that same feeling.
Here in America though, the process is much different than the Soviet system: we aren’t given flats or homes, there are no government gifts of land and vacation cottages. Joe and I used the land in our back yard to create a little dacha-time retreat. Not quite as exciting as going to the seaside for the summer, leaving work behind, but at least we have a back garden. For many Americans, it’s about all we can manage.
It’s interesting, too, how different the process has been- inspectors and permits, loads of lumber, not blocks, kits that come pre-drilled and pre-finished.
All the comforts of home- because we are still home, after all. Yet, somehow, now that it’s done, it feels like a million miles away. This is how we do Dacha-time…
The beginning included demolition of the old:
One difference I was grateful for in this project was not having to worry about hazardous materials.
My friends in Baku picked up used pipes and tubing to create a pergola type cover over the concrete slab that existed on their new land. I recall seeing petroleum goo leaking out of one end- who knew where that had been or what it had been used for. I worried about kids being exposed to so much that was unidentified risk.
Another contrast is the ability to buy pre-engineered products. rather than making do.
In Baku, the guys working on the project had to work with the concrete already in place, work around walls and beams that were there. They retro-fitted their ideas to accommodate what they had and what materials they could procure- somebody who knew somebody who could supply x, y, and z … at a price.
Here at our home, we demolished the old deck that had served well for 25 years, but was unable to be re-sanded anymore, and truthfully was laid out in a way that didn’t work for us today. We are fortunate to have that choice- the land and the materials work for us, not the other way around.
We designed a new larger deck with wrap around walkways to incorporate the existing screen porch that remained. The new deck is larger than my apartment in Baku! Indeed, it’s comparable to many dachas I visited. Fortunately I don’t need to run next door to use the bathroom! (smile).
In Baku, friends looked to the dachas as places where they could relax and age gracefully.
Grandparents often lived at the dachas full-time, and the families could come when school was out or on holidays. Often the dachas were several miles out of town, maybe even a few hours ride away.
We looked at our dacha-deck as a way to entertain friends at home, with fewer steps, no obstacles or barriers as we age.
This photo was taken at the end of the first long day of staining… 1/3 done and so much more yet to do.
Just like in Baku, it’s a family project where everyone pitches in and does what we are able.
In Azerbaijan, it was a long process. Materials weren’t always available when money was; money was rarely in adequate supply for the needs of a dacha project.
Here in America, it was long and tedious as well, but for different reasons.
We worked for about 2 years, collecting ideas and options, deciding what we wanted to spend money on, how we could accommodate our wants and needs, not only for now, but also as we age in place.
Joe and I wanted to incorporate an existing structure just like my friends did in Baku. We weren’t so very different there- “make use of what you have” makes a lot of sense, no matter what culture you’re from apparently!
We decided to build the deck without a lot of curves and exotic woods. (I say “we” as if Joe and I were swinging hammers at each nail!)
Thanks to the abundance of research available on the ‘net we were able to find a company (a family operation) in Pennsylvania that crafts deck covers (gazebo, pavilion, pergola) in a style we wanted.
And fortunately, we could also have the pro’s handle jobs we don’t do well… That’s 11 feet plus up there! Yikes! I’ll man the camera, thanks.
As I look at these photos, one other contrast comes to mind between Joe’s home in Virginia and my friends’ dacha at the seaside in Baku: trees.
Aside from that wild apple tree in my friends yard, there weren’t many left along the roads because of the war- displaced persons and refugees cut whatever they could for years, trying to collect food-cooking fuel and heat.
The Apsheron is a semi-arid desert peninsula jutting into a highly saline Caspian Sea. Soviet pollution was hard being overcome, but progress is steady. I sit here and listen to birds at all hours; on the Caspian, I remember the silence in my first years there. The sky here is blue and clear, unlike the wind-whipped Apsheron skies, filled at times with Caspian Basin oil dust.
But in the end, we have the same thoughts at heart- to create a place of refuge for family and friends; to be at home wherever it may be; to welcome those who visit with warmth and laughter.
I think we have created a garden (dacha) space that’s easy to access and enjoy.
– None of our lumber got confiscated;
– We have electric lights and fans in this outdoor space, as well as infrared heaters.
– Materials for rain guards and mesh netting for when the weather calls for them were readily available. Set price, no bartering of goods and services.
– American carpets are rather practical- meaning dull beige and waterproof- but, thanks to my expat travels, I was fortunate enough to have brought a couple of Caspian kilims for color (that’s a silk one in the top photo, next to the red sofa).
Friends gasp at using silk rugs!
The first night after the main construction was completed, we had dinner outdoors, played Pinochle with friends and celebrated my birthday.
When Etta James began to sing, “At last, my love has come at last…” Joe took my hand and we danced slowly under the stars on the uncovered portion of the deck, the section that friends have alternatively named the yoga studio or the dance hall… it works either way.
The interesting coincidence is that exactly 10 years ago that night, I had arrived in Alexandria, alone and unsure of what lay ahead in life.
And 10 years before that, I had arrived in Baku surrounded by friends, absolutely sure of what the future held… except that it didn’t.
The next 10 years?
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I know nothing for sure.
Other than that I’m still learning.
My expat experiences have shown me that no matter how “cultures” and “societies” do things, at the end of the day it is people who decide what matters, and usually family and friends are on top of the lists, no matter whether we are east or west, Muslim or Christian, devout or secular.
That’s what I learned in creating our American dacha…