LOVE AND DEATH: Babushki Blow the Whistle




This is one of those stories that begins, "A friend of mine recently arrived in Russia for the first time, and he was shocked to discover that..." Thank goodness for people like these. The occasional visiting naif is like a free trip down memory lane, a chance to resurrect all the rage and indignities suffered lo those many years ago when you yourself were fresh off the boat. You can sit back like the one-bitten old coot you've become, nod sympathetically and reminisce about any number of firsts - first public humiliation by a babushka, first ignominious vodka disaster, first tongue in aspic, etc.


(An interesting variation on this theme is spending time with a re-visitor who was last in the area in the mid- to late-1980s. One such recent encounter was like a flashback to the briny old student days of Soviet semesters abroad: He made surreptitious jokes about Karl Marx, wore a money belt, stockpiled peanut butter and - the piece, as it were, of resistance - reached deep, deep inside the untold mystery of his pants to laboriously fish out his documents. Once extracted, he kept his hand discreetly curled over the passport emblem in order to protect his secret identity, even though every Russian on the elektrichka was probably thinking, "only an American would keep his documents inside his pants.")


Anyway, back to the first-timer, who's been catching a lot of heat lately because he is an inveterate whistler. Where he comes from, and in fact where many of us come from, whistling is a normal domestic and streetside activity, a carefree sign of joie de vivre, a chance to spread a little music around the neighborhood. But in superstitious Russia, for reasons that seem to elude many Russians themselves, whistling is bad news, a general call to mayhem and loss of personal property.


As my friend walks whistling down the streets of Moscow, therefore, he gets a lot of attention, usually negative. Instead of saying, "Oy, Prokofiev, kak priyatno," or something of that ilk, the local babushki have instead taken their usual tack and scold at every available opportunity. Being the target of babushka derision can prove a debilitating experience, and my friend is now duly exhausted, although he refuses to stop whistling. I know which side I'd lay my money on, but in my soul I hope he wins. Maybe the babuskhi are just looking out for his personal welfare - I convinced myself long ago that verbal abuse was just their special way of saying they care - but can whistling really be such a threat? Is this why there are no birds in Russia?


It's terribly tempting to think of what other highly visible local habits would be better off eliminated in the name of superstition. Blowing your nose onto the street, for example, could be a harbinger of emotional distress: Clamp down on a nostril and your whole family could be in peril for decades. Spitting could portend a dangerous sea voyage; urinating in pedestrian underpasses could bring a blight over next year's dacha harvest. Cutting in front of people in line will cause you to miss your next train; closing a service window five minutes before break time could herald a visit from the tax police. Littering will bring on bad dreams; drinking beer at 9 o'clock in the morning could, oh, result in liver problems. Yelling at strangers for whistling could tempt laryngitis.


These are the things that should be superstitions but somehow, sadly, are not. What people worry about instead are things that are not only relatively benign, but sometimes almost impossible to sidestep. It's hard, for example, to seat a lot of people around a tiny Russian kitchen table without someone ending up at a corner. Shaking hands over a threshold is easier to avoid, but the consequences shouldn't be tragic if it isn't. Same for forgetting to sit down before a trip or accidentally giving someone the wrong number of flowers.


Perhaps most irritating of all is the stipulation that to talk with eager anticipation about the future - or with vague braggadocio about the past in a way that might affect the future - is tempting fate. This may be a quaint precautionary measure, but nine times out of ten it's phenomenally inconvenient as well. How are you supposed to get anything done? Everything from Christmas plans to news of a cousin's imminent wedding to the fact that you've never had tuberculosis (so far - knock knock knock) is met with gasps from the old school. What's left to talk about, quite often, is relatively little. And this is what leaves people returning for time immemorial to scavenge from the carcass of the Real Past, the vault of marinated memories popularly known as nostalgia. Fortunately, everyone can play that game, at least for a while. Remember the first time a babushka yelled at you?