A recap of my time living in a Russian restaurant off the historic Highway 1 in northern California…Day one- Cooperation
I pull into the small parking lot adjacent to the restaurant with the red and white sign hung out front dubbing it ‘The Russian House’. I walk inside to find a simple and quiet establishment. There is a table with a spread of food: salad, bread, soup, and an entrée. There is a small sign at the head of the table explaining that guests should serve themselves and that payment is based on the honor system. What the patron deems a fair price for the food consumed can be deposited in an open bowl on the table near the door.
At tables next to the windows overlooking the Russian River sit two couples eating while quietly discussing the riddles encapsulated on place mats in the glass tables. A long wooden table handcrafted from pine trees by a friend of the girls sits in the center of the room holding a large vortex ball with an intricate twisting of small wooden pathways inside that would become my obsession over the next week. There is a basket of other trinkets that I later learn are puzzles to help one practice mindfulness. These are a part of a technique called game mastery that is supposed to work to open up different chakras by causing you to think in non-linear ways to find a solution.
“You are Alexandra?” I hear come from a quiet voice across the room.
Polina’s fair complexity complements her large blue eyes in a striking way. I’ve noticed that I can typically identify someone who is deeply in touch with their spiritual self by their eyes. There is a sense of depth that can be paralyzing and yet comforting all at the same time. She has shaved the hair from her head and the tint of white blonde glimmers in the light, perfectly reflecting the snowy tint of white on the frames of her glasses. She carries herself with grace and dignity.
“So, you have arrived.” She states in a thick Russian accent.
“Here I am! Thanks so much for taking me in for the week! I’m excited to learn about your community and the philosophy behind what you guys are doing here. I read up on…”
I continue to ramble. My typical mellow, laid back vibe would have merged effortlessly with the atmosphere here. However I was amped up off the fast paced culture and exuberant vibe of the community I had just left. I quickly realize that my speed and high energy have taken her by shock. I pull back and decide to save my excitement for later.
Polina gladly takes the interaction back under her wing.
“Why don’t we have some tea and step outside. It is a nice day out today. Let’s go into the sun.”
We take our tea and head around back where she shows me the trailer I will be staying in. We walk around onto the patio and take in the view of the river. It is a magnificent view completed with a backdrop of a pasture of grazing cows and a mountain side rich in fall colors.
“It is a cold day today, we should go inside.”
We take a seat in the meditation room. We have both spent some time studying intentional communities and share our experiences as well as our frustrations at the rarity of the true commune in today’s society. Cohousing is great, however we both feel more pulled to a closer knit community who truly share all resources, including housing, that live in closer connection with the land. She gives me a very brief introduction to their small community and their intentions.
I learn that the experience week I had planned to take part in has been rescheduled for a later date. They have decided to still host me mostly due to the fact that Polina has taken a personal interest in my project. I feel moved by their generosity and grateful to find that someone with such experience in intentional living has taken a liking to my idea.
I try to question the values, philosophies, and some of the practices of the community but am told it will be discussed later. I probe mostly unsuccessfully for some insight on her personal experiences as well. However it seems all questions are leading to a dead end. For instance, when I ask what a typical experience week would have consisted of, her response is “It is an experience” combined with a look I perceive as implying “how stupid of a question”. I understand the philosophical ambiance she is aiming at and even the validity of her answer to an extent, however I quickly begin to see I am going to learn nothing of deep value if things continued on this way. Yet I have four days ahead of me filled with possibility and I assume that things will progress as we become better acquainted. Not to mention my typical aloof, eyes in the skies attitude has warranted me this look many times before.
I to learn that the idea for the restaurant originated from an experience at Burning Man. The girls were part of a camp that installed a tea house and they really enjoyed serving the patrons their herbal Russian tea. They came up with an idea to open a restaurant serving traditional home-style Russian food, in comparison with the holiday food typically served as Russian cuisine in America.
We spend some time in silence challenging our minds with the interactive puzzles mentioned earlier before she heads back upstairs to do paperwork. I take a small blue card from a bowl on the table by the front door. The image of a butterfly on the front reminds me of a symbol of my upcoming growth mentioned to me by a psychic in Colorado. I flip it over and it reads: Cooperation. I decide this is fitting and take it as my theme for the day. This theme would help me later as I participated in a form of Osha meditation.
It is said that 60 days of continued practice of Osha meditation will lead to enlightenment. The girls tell me that they tried this and while they noticed a definite positive impact on their inner journeys, they do not believe that they reached enlightenment. These practices use ancient Indian techniques proven over the years to raise a vital internal energy source through the chakras, releasing any pent up emotion or baggage causing blockages along the way. This practice includes exercises such as ecstatic breathing, persistent shaking, spontaneous and uninhibited moving of the body, and production of random sound such as vibrational patterns and a natural type of moaning. I was eager to learn more about this process and finally have the opportunity to experience the benefits myself. These practices however push me just over the edge of my comfort zone.
“Cooperation, cooperation, cooperation” This theme kept me going.
Later that evening we sat at the large wooden table with a friend of Polina’s taking turns playing chess. This was the first time I truly had the opportunity to see her interact with a customer. A fellow came in full of positive energy and stated that he had been told by a friend years ago that he had to come check this place out.
“This was a different place years ago.” Polina responds to him.
“Uhhh the Russian House right?”
She turned away from him and back to her game of chess. I tried to hold back the look of shock on my face. This brave fellow continued into the restaurant and began to look around. He asked if we minded if he joined us. Polina looked up at him, did not respond, and returned to staring motionlessly at the chess board. This was the oddest interaction I had ever seen. I was going to step in and say something to help the poor guy out when I remembered Polina’s words from earlier:
“This restaurant is kind of a human experience. Sometimes I just like to sit back and watch how people react.”
This must be what is going on here. I fight every urge to interact with this trying customer as I realize that it is my position to observe and report what is a natural day-in-the-life in this community, not to step in and change the course of events.
This brave soul still continued to wait out her silent treatment. He walked over to the table and stood, simply watching, for about five minutes. I have to give him serious props for standing his ground. Once he realized that no one was budging and his time was being wasted he gave a courteous “Thanks for the hospitality” and left the restaurant.
I awaited an explanation, however the two went on as if nothing had happened. In fact, they seemed relieved- as if they could now go back to freely being themselves. And so I had to ask… was this part of the human experiment? Why had she not interacted with the customer, why had she not explained to him that he could serve himself and pay as he wished?
“He didn’t ask.”
My look of bewilderment as I pretended this was ‘fair’ out of courtesy must have stirred her friend who chimed in with “There’s a sign on the table”.
Day two- Readiness
Day two starts with another Osha meditation. I hope that the comfort zone challenge of it all will have dissipated by this morning’s practice but naturally the 14 hour period between practices had not cured my bit of reserve. I push through and feel refreshed and ready for anything after.
“Now we are warmed up, ready to jump in the river?”
I laugh and assume Polina is joking as there was ice formed on the steps exiting my trailer this morning.
“Okay suit yourself…” She says as she slips into the next room.
I follow her.
“Wait, are you seriously going to go jump in the freezing cold river right now?”
“It is refreshing, and being submerged in the cold water is good for you. Plus, it really gets your blood circulation going and the rest of the day you won’t feel cold at all. You should come, at least experience it once.”
I agree, thinking to myself how not ready I was to make contact with the frigid waters. We run down to the river to see that it has rose and made a messy mud pit around it. Polina does not want to deal with the mess of the mud, meaning that today I have escaped.
Back at the restaurant I begin my work contribution; I am working in exchange for the opportunity to experience life in this small Russian community. I help to cook, clean, and look after the restaurant. I actually really enjoy my work here. It is easy to implement their practice of mindfulness while chopping vegetables and wiping down tables.
Over breakfast Polina brings up the situation with the customer the night before. I feel bad for having pointed anything out if this was her typical way of handling things in her business. She says that she thought it over and realized she could have handled it better. Her hope is that people learn something from the restaurant and she could have directed him better to gain something from the experience rather than he just ‘hit a wall and leave frustrated’. I admire her ability to tell me this realization and think that it says a lot about her character to admit this. My intention was not to call her wrong, simply to question her reasoning, but I appreciate the fact that she had taken the time to ponder this and grow from the situation. She also mentions that this was my first insight into the typical Russian culture. I am taken back by the realization that this hadn’t occurred to me for whatever reason and reach a new level of understanding with Polina. I realize now, my perceptions of her brushing off my questions has really all been just me misreading a cultural difference.
The girls will all be gone the rest of the day and so I had the opportunity to spend the day with their neighbor Bruce who would be helping me to look after the place. This was one of the refreshing aspects of my time here- I was able to witness the pleasure of living in a small, friendly community such as Jenner, California. Neighbors were always stopping in to drop off food and to volunteer their time and skills to help the girls.
During the day Bruce and I discussed local history, events, and other communities that I may one day be able to visit. He shared his experience with intentional communities and told me idyllic stories of his time hitchhiking Europe. He was an extremely enjoyable person to be around and the conversation flowed freely.
The synchronicity of life was becoming apparent as things were clearly falling into place. Bruce offered me connections with organizations and communities I had been searching for. He also offered me the opportunity to learn more about the group’s intentions and structure. For example, he shared with me that the apparent leader was the elder Tatiana, and that Polina and younger Tatiana had agreed to cut off all of their hair at her request in order to improve their focus on self-development. Whether this was a sign of hierarchy often seen in traditional cult-like communal groups or a sincere act of spiritualism is unknown.
He also explains to me that the idea of game mastery held dear in the community here was derived from a merging of building techniques between the Russians and Americans during the Russian settlement in Northern California and Southern Alaska. The Russians used a peg-and-hole technique and therefore had never encountered the nails used by the American constructors. They bent the nails around each other and created a game of separating and re-tangling that perplexed the mostly linear-thinking Americans. Tatiana’s husband had expanded on this creating a wide variety of puzzles on display throughout the restaurant.
After helping me close up for the night, Bruce headed home leaving me with more alone time in the house. The fact that the girls were willing to leave me, a complete stranger, alone with access to everything they have built their living on shows their apparent trust in the well-being of humanity. I have a tendency to have this same basic trust in people and so it was great to see others participating in the practice of allowing individuals the chance to prove their inherent goodness- a practice also in place in their use of the honor system instead of placing a set price and bill structure for their customers. I spent the evening tinkering on the piano and skimming through books.
Day three- Breakthrough
After today’s peaceful mandala meditation I spent the morning chatting with Tatiana about life here at the Russian House. Tatiana is a sweet and soft spoken individual who is very calming to be around. Her hospitable attitude always made me feel at home.
The rest of the day is pretty slow and I spend it reading, writing, and enjoying my stay in this sanctuary. I feel open and relaxed here. I ponder for a moment on the fact that I feel truly blissful and at home. I begin to think to myself that this whole communities project feels right… I think this is going to be a good thing for me. Perhaps this is the breakthrough the little blue card is referring to.
Just a few hours later I would learn that this was not the breakthrough that was destined to come upon me. Polina had returned from her night in San Francisco. I asked her how it went, what her lectures she saw were on, and if she had found what she had hoped she would. However she breezed over these without giving much of an answer.
“You are quite. This is not typical for American girl. Usually American girls never stop talking.”
If I have learned anything in my travels, it is that ‘American’ generally means nothing. There is so, so much variety throughout the country, throughout each state, throughout each county that it is actually quite mind blowing. The variety of culture, lifestyle, personality, and types of people in America is vast enough to say that each region is like its own country holding its own traditions and cultural norms. I laugh with Polina at this statement as I know vast generalizations are simply human nature and nothing to take personally.
She asks what knowledge I have learned from Tatiana during today. I think back on the day:
‘We chatted a bit about local mushroom hunting regulations and the fact that we both used to play piano but don’t remember how to now… she shared with me what she was doing in Russia before moving to California… I told her about my inspiration to start my journey and my overall goal at this point in my travels…’
I begin to respond to Polina,
“Well, in terms of the community she shared with me that the focus is on self-development. She explained a bit of the financial structure and how all proceeds of the restaurant go to providing food and shelter, as well as learning and developmental opportunities such as bringing in guests to teach at informative meetings. She mentioned that clothes and entertainment come from personal funds, which she develops by selling baked goods at local farmer’s markets and by doing work online for a website managed back in Russia…”
“You only speak in general statements and that is a form of rejection. That tells me to go away. You share no insights.”
Now to be fair, if they were giving me deeply intrinsic information to work with and I was staying in the realm of small talk this would be completely understandable. However as of yet, I had really learned nothing about what brings this community together. I had not learned much of their beliefs or had the opportunity to experience their passions. Most of the time no one was really even around to converse with. What was there to have insight on?
I tried to open up about my comfort level with the meditations to create some leeway with her. I shared that I had a tendency to be quiet and internal when I was around others who acted in that way to kindly open her up to the fact that I was simply being reciprocal to the base line of open communication she offered me.
I asked if she could share a bit on the philosophy that this ‘community’ was based on, however I was starting to worry that there was no intentional community at all. My reasoning for this worry was partly based in the fact that I had been previously told by other communal groups in the area that had tried to network with them that no one ever seemed to be around and when they were they weren’t interested in conversing with anyone. On top of that, when I brought up the philosopher’s name in which the website claims the community’s values are based on in my initial meeting with Polina, she had no idea who I was referring to until I mentioned he preached something to do with ‘the fifth way’.
My suspicion was raised again when she again worked around sharing this philosophy.
“You ask too general of a question. You want me to give a lecture, I am not a professor. If you want to know something, ask a specific question so it can be conversation based.”
“I’m not asking for a lecture,” I explain… “however I have no idea what this philosophy is or what ‘the fifth way’ means so I don’t have any information to derive a deeper question from. If you could tell me a basis then I can participate in a conversation about it with you.”
She scoffs and tells me this is inappropriate and that we will talk another time. Seeing as tomorrow is my last full day of a five day visit, I highly doubt this will happen. I sadly have to wonder if she knows much on the supposed founding philosophy of her intentional living practices at all. She then walks out of the room turning off the main overhead lights on the customer who sits somewhat uneasily listening to this conversation unfold. She responds to his perplexed look by telling him she is conserving energy.
So how was this failure at assessing a community a breakthrough you may ask? I may not have learned much about a philosophical value bringing together an inspirational network of people this time. But I did learn a lot:
- My biggest strength can also be my worst weakness: adaptability. I have always been very good at merging with new situations, energetic atmospheres, and people. This can be helpful when acceptance is necessary or when trying to make others comfortable. However in some cases it can blur regular judgement and cause me to hinder my ability to act naturally as myself.
- I truly have grown to a point where I feel sure enough in myself to not let other’s judgments affect me: I know that a strength of mine is getting to know individuals quickly. I am not one to withhold information about myself or my insights; in fact sometimes I ponder if I share too much too quickly. And I know from experience that open ended questions facilitate conversation much better than narrow, focused questions as these lead to an answer followed by little room for growth on the topic at hand. Her false judgments were not able to deter me or cause me to question myself… a sign that I have grown more confident and sure of myself through my experiences thus far.
- Sometimes, things don’t turn out as you expect them to. And it is okay when this happens, as long as you learn from it and move forward: I am sure these girls do live intentionally together as a small community. They simply were not the particular type of community I was looking for as this was not their main focus. I am still grateful to have been granted an opportunity to step into their lives for a moment in time and experience a daily existence that is drastically different than my own (an experience I constantly try to create myself for the reader). I took this as an opportunity to apply a lesson learned in my last community visit- that communal living forces you to live in close quarters with those you otherwise would not normally get to know on a personal basis and to value and accept this person for who they are and their personal strengths even if their beliefs, behaviors, and views differ from your own.
- Happiness and a feeling of ‘home’ is internal: I truly loved my time here even though I did not find what I came in search of. I was blissful in my state of being and simply grateful for a beautiful landscape to admire, new people to meet and learn with, and to have some interesting literature to ponder. Home has become wherever I am be that in the van, at a community, or sitting on the side of the road. Home, is me.
And, my overall experience was not a failure in itself. The girls were hospitable and treated me kindly in my time here. They were sure that I was always well fed and had everything I needed to be comfortable. The idea they have for the restaurant is really neat and the food they serve is delicious beyond a doubt. I highly recommend trying it if you are looking for a pit stop on your way down Highway 1. I simply could not extract from them what I was looking for in terms of communal living and witnessed no practice of intentional living outside of the daily meditation. As a trio of friends living and operating a unique small town eatery- it is an utter success.
Day four: Relaxation:
I woke up and participated in the morning ritual. Meditation, cooking, breakfast, cleaning and prepping. I spent the rest of the day alternating between reading and enjoying conversation with customers, Bruce, neighbors, and the girls. Day four flew by, leaving me to awake to one last meditation. Today, the meditation felt natural and within my comfort zone and I plan to continue my practice with Osha meditation. We spent the last morning discussing opposing views in the value of travel and differing approaches on personal growth. Before saying our goodbyes I snuck the chance to flip one more little blue card: Originality