An Actuary from Russia
By Barbara Sibbald
— So, what’s happening with Anne? asks Trish.
Fiona’s two friends have met a few times, but failed to connect. Anne’s too serious for Trish, not artsy enough. As for Anne, Trish reminds her of her most needy patients. Still, they have a lively interest in each other’s lives, via Fiona.
— She and Georges have gone away for a couple of weeks, says Fiona. To Paris and then Tuscany. To try to sort things out.
— Must be nice!
— Yeah, well, I wish them the best. And I’m really glad Luc had a chance to talk to Anne before they left.
— What about?
— He actually apologized for not telling her what he knew, and for putting me in such an awkward situation.
— Luc apologized, Wow!
Fiona laughs, but feels a bit miffed by Trish’s insinuation that Luc is incapable of apologizing.
— He does sometimes, you know. So, what’s up with you?
— I have a Russian woman coming to stay with us.
— What? Who? asks Fiona.
— It just sort of happened, I didn’t plan it, says Trish. I guess I’m too soft-hearted.
— Or soft-headed, says Fee, grinning.
— On Sunday, I was coming home on the train from visiting Joanne and I saw an empty seat beside this huge woman. She looked interesting, and it’s a long trip. She’s a giant really, well over six feet, with these huge hands: old Ukrainian stock, it turns out. And she was dressed like she was a hundred and eight: drab grey suit and sturdy scuffed black shoes. Soviet issue I suppose. But it turns out that Iryna’s very well educated — PhD in law — and she’s been sent to Canada by the Russian government to look into types of insurance systems. Think of it, under the Soviet system, there was no insurance. None.
— Of course. How strange.
— Yeah, but now people have private property, so suddenly there’s this need. And that’s just one small thing, one thing that we totally take for granted.
— I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from Russia.
— Me neither. It seems so exotic to me. Chatting with her was like visiting another country: she told me all about things — things you wouldn’t find out even if you visited. She told me about their life, about how, in the old system, personal success was unimportant and personal development meant everything. And how people were so well educated — with two, three degrees. Now illiteracy is a problem. On the plus side, they don’t have to line up for food anymore and can buy anything they want. If they have the money. But of course, most people don’t have the money. Unemployment — another thing that didn’t exist before — is high. And so is crime. And there are people playing instruments in the subway — they might as well be beggars, she said, all disapproving like. But some of them are members of their national orchestra who have to busk because their salaries are so low.
— That’s just shameful, says Fiona.
— Especially for Russia, because she says they love art: theatre, ballet, everything. Their metro is filled with sculptures, chandeliers, marble floors. It’s all about the aesthetic, but it’s for everyone, not just the intellectual or social elite, like it is here.
— What do you mean? We have public galleries?
— Yeah, but you have to pay to get in. And you and I both know it’s only certain people who go. But in Russia, Moscow anyway, where Iryna lives, the art is everywhere. Banners with poetry on them lining the streets. A sculpture of Pushkin. I mean where’s our sculpture of Birney? Even their chocolate bars wrappers feature iconic paintings. Imagine if Mars bars were wrapped in a Tom Thompson painting!
— So what did you tell her about Canada?
— I talked about what it means to be a young country, a country of immigrants. So after all this chat, when we arrive in Ottawa, naturally I offer to give her a lift to her billet. And she asks for my phone number, says she’d like to meet up with me again because I explain things so well. I was flattered, so I gave her my phone number, said we should get together for lunch.
— And she calls.
— Of course. She asks me to meet her at her office on the seventh floor of this building on Laurier. So after work, I go to the seventh floor and when I get there, I realize I don’t even know the name of the outfit she’s with. I wander around asking people and, of course, no one’s ever heard of her.
— Sounds like a scene in a Kafka novel!
— Yeah! Except this is the twentieth century in Canada. So finally, it dawns on me that I can just call Iryna’s cell. It turns out she’s on the seventeenth floor. She’s holed up with the Canadian Insurer’s Association Anyway, she tells me how much she’s learning and how great it is, and that she’s decided to stay another two weeks. But she has a problem: She can’t stay where she is because it costs too much, and she wants to know if I know of any inexpensive place she might stay, because she doesn’t have very much money.
— Oooh, tough one!
— I know! And I’m thinking I’ve become a sort of ambassador of good will for Canada, so before I even think about it — without even asking Craig — I ask if she’d like to stay with us, I have a spare room. Well, it’s supposed to be my office, but I usually take my laptop to the living room anyway. And there is the futon couch in there. Until the crib arrives. So, Irnya accepts; I mean why wouldn’t she?
— Yikes, what did Craig say when you told him?
— He was incredulous at first, said I had no right, should have asked him first, et cetera et cetera. Everything I expected him to say, all of which is true. But then when I told him what she’s doing and that she’s respectable and all, well he’s still pissed that I didn’t ask first, but what’s done is done. He came home with a Russian phrase book yesterday, so I think he’s okay with it.
— When’s she coming?
— Maybe she’ll teach you how to make borscht*.
1 ½ cups potato, peeled and chopped into 1/3″ chunks
1 cup sweet potato, peeled and chopped into 1/3″ chunks
1 cup beets, peeled and chopped into 1/3″ chunks
2 tablespoons butter
1 ½ cups chopped onion
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
Vegetable stock (from cube) to top up beet/potato water to make 4 cups
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced
1 stalk celery, washed and sliced
3 cups cabbage, chopped
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon dill weed
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon honey
1 cup tomato puree
1 tomato, chopped
- Place potatoes and beets into a saucepan, cover with water and boil until tender. Strain, saving the water in a large measuring cup.
- Melt butter in large pot over medium heat. Add onion, caraway seeds and salt. Cook, stirring, until the onion is translucent.
- Top up water from beets and potatoes with vegetable stock, to total 4 cups.
- Add stock, celery, carrots and cabbage to pot and cook until vegetables are tender.
- Add potatoes, beets, pepper, bay leaf, dill weed, vinegar, honey and puree.
- Cover and simmer 30-plus minutes.
To each bowl add a dollop of sour cream, a sprinkle of dill weed and a couple of tablespoons of chopped tomato.