Street Life: Samotechny Lane - Russia crackles and pops into springtime

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IN RUSSIA, spring is a wearisome battle with winter, which overstays its welcome. February sees the frost release its iron grip, the birds begin to sing and the hours of daylight lengthen, yet the snow continues to fall thicker than ever. This year, between false thaws, the snow was falling until the end of March.

Only last week did the sun shine suddenly hot, melting the snow and turning the parks to lakes and the streets to rivers. There will be no leaves for another month and more snowflakes may yet swirl in the wind. But now, it is clear that the new season has taken the upper hand.

"I can't stand being stuck in the city another minute," said my friend Vitaly. "Let's go out to the countryside." It was too early, really. The roads to the dachas would be swamps. The neighbours in Samotechny Lane, still keeping their cars in their corrugated iron garages, looked at us askance as we polished up Lastochka (Swallow), my faithful, flying rust bucket. "We'll stick to the main roads," said Vitaly. "We'll just go and see my sister in Kolomna. Maybe we will be in time for the ledokhod."

Kolomna is an ancient town with a kremlin and monastery, a two-hour drive south-east of Moscow. Vitaly's sister Natasha lives in an old house on Suvorov Street, overlooking the Oka river. "You're too late," she said. "The ice has cracked. I heard it the other night. It sounded like distant cannon fire. But let's go down to the river anyway." If no icebreaker cuts through the ice, it breaks itself in a dramatic natural process called the ledokhod. After the first boom, the ice rears up and fractures into ever smaller pieces that crackle and pop like breakfast cereal in milk.

The river was half-fluid. Icebergs glided down the middle. On one large floe attached to the bank, anglers sat on camp stools, drilling through the ice like demon dentists and fishing through the holes. "Come on over," shouted one. "It's perfectly safe. The ice is still seven centimetres thick." Natasha said: "They're mad. They're only fishing to feed their cats." Her brother ripped off his shirt and began rubbing his chest with ice crystals. Natasha gave a disgusted look and led me off in search of pussy willow for Willow Sunday, as the Russians call Palm Sunday.

After lunch, Vitaly had to stay in, drying his boots and trousers on the radiator. Natasha took me shopping. We went to the honey shop, attached to an award-winning privatised factory that produces gourmet and medicinal honeys and mead. The head biochemist waxed lyrical about the bumblebees, which had just woken and were flying to the willows. "To me, that's the real start of spring," she said.

We left with a crate of different honeys - with walnuts, with ginseng, with propolis - and several bottles of alcoholic mead. Then it was on to a shop for sausages from a local factory that had adopted German wurst-making technology.

Natasha added two sacks of potatoes from her cellar and proudly filled the car boot with food for Vitaly and me. "In Soviet times, we country people had to take the train up to the capital to buy food. Now you come out to the country for it. That is the way it should be."

At midnight, I dropped Vitaly at his house, then drove to Samotechny Lane, where I parked in a deep puddle. The neighbours' curtains twitched as I unloaded my share of the booty. I was ready for bed - after I put my shoes and trousers to dry on the radiator.