Winter is on its way - snow flurries are wafting through the air. It is crisp and cold, very different from our first autumn here in 2005. Then, we left for home the middle of December and it hadn't snowed yet. Our time is rapidly drawing to a close. Even though we think of ourselves as seasoned directors we still often find ourselves observing, making deductions, drawing quick conclusions and then "surprise", things aren't necessarily what they seem. A few examples.
THE WILLMS HOUSE
Known as "the villa" to our friends and neighbours, the ruins of this once grand residence is situated next door to our apartment. It was built in 1908 by Heinrich Willms and at that time was referred to as a "palace". The ground floor alone measures over 650 sq.m. It had a large space which was used as the Molochansk concert hall as recently as 15 years ago. Sadly there were no funds for upkeep so it fell into ruin and has become a hangout for kids, as well as alcoholics and drug-users So upset was the lady living upstairs, she threatened to make a personal phone called to President Yanukovych to have this situation addressed.
Last month we noticed unusual activity next door. The roof was being demolished, the interior torn apart and debris thrown outside. We felt greatly saddened as we saw the demolition continuing, feeling that no value was being placed on this once-beautiful heritage building. The yard was becoming a building supply headquarters; each day we saw people coming and hauling wood away. Then, to our surprise a crane appeared. Steel beams had been unloaded and were being hoisted up to brace the walls. Windows and door have been bricked up. It seems the building is being preserved after all.
Nobody can tell us what is happening. The workers themselves don't know. Rumours are flying around that perhaps it is going to be a hotel. We're prepared to be surprised again.
After a crash course in the history and geography of the Molotschna colony we set out to explore - first a walking tour through Molochansk, then a drive to the train station where Mennonites left either for a future in the West or banishment to Siberia, and on to the southern villages, from Jushanlee and Alexanderkrone to an adventure filled cross-country trip all the way to Alexandertal, following the footsteps Henry's father would have taken to court his sweetheart.
It took a pioneering spirit because maps showed no roads for parts of this trip. Luckily Dema was driving and stopping periodically questioning "Gde Alexandrovsk"? He was always pointed east. We took the risk of hoping "things would be better than they seemed" and indeed the roads, as bad as they appeared, were better than driving to Tokmak.
We've often wondered how people manage with their meagre incomes. We know that many rely on their gardens and root cellars, but there are staples they must buy. We think we've discovered an answer - the Molochansk mall. Going down a maze of streets from the Mennonite Centre we find businesses hidden behind residential gates. On one side of the street is an unmarked gate with a doorbell. Part of the house has been converted into a bulk food store - it is possible to buy sugar, flour and other staples by the kilo at much cheaper prices than in the market or the little shops.
Across the street is another larger gate, it is boldly marked "Second Hand", a term that has become part of the Russian vocabulary. Here is a regular department store - a clothing section, shoe department, lingerie deparment, linens and kitchen-ware . It is possible to get designer clothing here, sometimes even new, at unbelievable prices and if you have an "in" with the proprietor, she will call you when a new shipment comes in. Apparently containers are still being shipped from western Europe and the UK. This explains why many women look so surprisingly up-to-date.
Impressions of a more serious nature and updates, on our final blog next week.,