Kombucha in the Urals: A Month of Memories

kombucha_zme science

(ZME Science: Image of Kombucha, Colorado State University)

The first time I tasted kombucha I was throwing up in a trashcan in a mountain town in western Siberia known for its natural anthrax growth and for being that last remaining gulag stronghold. I had what was called “the Russian flu,” at the time and my friend, a Russian native, insisted that this stuff–that tasted like a mixture of warm spit and cherry juice–could “heal my bones.” And because my bones ached like they’d been crushed by the violent and rickety wheels of the Tran Siberian Railroad, from which we’d embarked only hours ago, I drank it down. The homespun vodka he’d laced it with helped me to bypass that unique kombucha flavor–the feeling of something lumpy that had already been digested by someone else–and I just kept drinking until the fizz died down and the bits of fermented brown mushroom disappeared down my throat. If it isn’t lumpy and warm, it isn’t really kombucha. Not the Russian standard, anyway.


What’s weird about this memory (besides the fact that it’s totally disgusting) is that it was sunken deep inside the forgetful part of my brain until another friend, in a mountain town in eastern Pennsylvania, dug it up about 20 years later. I was no longer a 16-year-old American, hiding my wishfully clandestine MIG photos from the tiny inept KGB officer that was assigned to follow our group around in the drippy, humid Siberian air in a trench coat. I was 30ish now. The June heat in Pennsylvania didn’t keep the sun aloft until well past midnight like it just halfway between the Arctic Circle and the Black Sea. It was dark by 10pm flat, I had four children now, a husband, I had owned two homes already, I went to college, I had written my first novel. I’d been a writer for more than a decade, in fact. Something I’d promised my Russian friend I would become as soon as I returned home to the United States. Russia tells so many stories, he told me. Just choose one and dance with it.

I remembered a lot about Russia, but I didn’t remember the taste of kombucha until my farmer friend, the one with dirt always under her fingernails and who thought hair brushes were for sissies, shoved a tinted glass mason jar in my face. Try this. Tell me if it’s authentic.You’re the Russian expert. Am I?

The foam from the greenish mountain fungus floated to the top, spilling over the ridge. The scent of sour feet singed my nostrils. Once again, I was sickened, but something inside me was also curious. It was like slowly recognizing an old relative at the family reunion. Something about this encounter made me clutch the jar in both hands and bring it to my lips. This is familiar! I said, cocking my head to the right. I know this!

And that instance, there she was. Russia. She was standing in front of me, smirking, laughing. You’re still a wimp. I drank it down. I threw  up. I was home.

This is generally how I run into her again. Not the friend. We’re actually not even friends anymore. Politics took care of that. But Russia–we’re connected. Friendship has nothing to do with it. It’s all about family reunions. It’s about where my ancestors came from. Where my ancestors fled from, if you want to know the truth. It’s about why I get recognized by Slavs a mile away. Not because I smell like authentic kombucha (I’d have even less friends), but because like the mushroom, Russia sprouts in my life and makes connections at the weirdest times. Family reunions.

So, since I’ve spectacularly failed at my own monthly blogging challenge, friends, I wonder if I might be able to deflect from my failure by demanding a challenge from you: Write about a sensory memory that draws you back somewhere far, somewhere you’d thought you’d left behind long ago. What smell, touch, taste, smell, sight draws you back? Let’s make what’s left of January the Month of Memories.

Write and share, and drink your pansy American kombucha. But that pretty little fizz ain’t remotely authentic enough to change anything. Sorry to break it to you, tough hippies.

Free Webinar: How To Make a Living As An Online Freelance Writer, Part I


A lot of people have asked me over the years to guide them through their freelance writing careers. I’ve been doing this since 1996, so I’ve learned a lot of tips and skills for making a living as a freelancer. If you’re interested in learning more about it, as well, register for my webinar below. Bring all your questions, doubts, and a good pencil, because you’ll walk away with more notes than you imagined.

Please register for my FREE webinar next Wednesday, How To Make a Living As an Online Freelance Writer Part I: Using Services Like Upwork, Guru and Fivver on Jun 8, 2016 7:00 PM EDT at: 


Have an MFA or a degree in English? Sick of your non-writing day job? In this webinar Amazon bestselling author, and 20 year veteran freelance writer, Tiffani Velez, will reveal some very important tips for launching a successful work-from-home Writing Career.

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The Gate


Berlin, Mauerbau, Checkpoint Charlie


(Photo of East German guards reviewing passports at Berlin Wall. Courtesy: Bild Budesarchiv)

I have been working on, The Gate, the next installment in the Embers of War Series for several months now. It will be done soon and made available shortly after that. I can’t tell you, my dear readers, how different this books is from A Berlin Story. Yes, it’s dark, all that gray/brown of the Soviet era, but it’s intense and nonstop. The people just never stop running. So much hunger. I love these characters. Slices of Russian and German spill out into all the margins, where the Cold War has pushed itself to the center of the story and new terms appear–Air Lift, Stalin, the Wall. I can’t wait to share it with all of you soon.

And the whole series is getting a new cover, thanks to designer extraordinaire, Gayle Hendricks. More info to come. I’m pushing Mitya and Annalise forward daily, and they’re both at the edge of nervous breakdowns, but controlled ones that just simmer madly at the surface, because anything more would land them in Siberia.

If you haven’t read A Berlin Story, catch up before The Gate comes out!


A New Book for a New Year

There should be a lovely picture right here, but my children used my computer and one of them deleted all my photos from the past two years. So, you’ll have to use your imaginations, My Dear Readers. 

I have found that if I am crocheting and knitting furiously, I’m not writing all that much, and conversely, if I am writing furiously I am not playing with hooks and thread all that much. So, though I have several blankets to complete and some scarves before the winter fizzes out, I have a novel to complete in less than two weeks. I must get cracking on that and put down the needle arts for a bit.

My priest said to me not too long ago that life is a menu, it’s always a menu. I believe he’s correct in this. There is always a list of options for any human being to undertake, a plethora of tasks that always need fulfillment. This is especially true for mothers. But what do I have to do today? I have complete the outline of this novel about the Civil War, and I have complete its timeline, so that I can spend the majority of my weekend writing down the bones of these two wonderful characters who always make me think about soft mountain wool and Delta cotton puffed round and high by the Southern heat.

I’m submitting this new work to an entirely different publisher. I’ll be taking in a whole different sum of tasks. Wish me luck and send me prayers. I am dedicating this book to my grandmother, Jean Borgos-Burnett. I can feel her beside every now and then saying, “Consistency is most important here. Just work hard, honey, and the rest will come. You have the talent. Now just apply the work.”

And done. 2016 is my year. Will it be yours as well? What are you undertaking at the toddlerhood  of this long unfolding century?

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