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the first

The yarmarka (farmer's market) is about to close. Some of the people are already packing up, offering their last bruised tomatoes at half-price to anyone walking past them.  I am wandering, staring at bunches of herbs, at the same old options - cabbage, pepper, potato, garlic, apple, cucumber. But then I see a pile of peas. The season must have come early this year. I buy a kilo, and some mint. I know what is for dinner. We have not had it in eleven months.

At home, I rip the bag open, showing them to V. She stands by the kitchen table, eyes wide. I crack one open, showing her the little rounds inside. She plucks one out, her pinky pointing to the ceiling.
"Try it." I tell her.
She does, but she does not like it.

I pull out a bowl for them. She jumps up and down a few times. V always wants to help in the kitchen. I pull her to my lap, and we begin pulling them out from the shells. She learns quickly, tossing them with a flourish into the bowl, a few cascading to the flo…


I had thought to take pictures of the stray dogs that lounge on a magnificent strip of green grass next to the Kievsyaya train station. Throngs of travelers make their way past them, through the mudpuddles and the old women selling bunches of red roses. There is a wall of ladies holding up cheap sweaters, fleece blankets, rugs, hats, anything synthetic and cheap you can imagine. Sometimes, something practical like lemons or a kilo of kiwis.

The dogs are filthy, and I never see them eating or even playing yet they are content. They watch the people struggling to find loved ones as they arrive from far reaching cities like Kishinev, all the way in Moldava. They watch wheelbarrows of roses being carted in and sold at a dizzying pace.

But now, it has been snowing and the dogs are gone. The wet rain on Saturday evening turned to great lazy flakes that clung to the branches and the railings. I saw a boy holding a polished snowball in his hand, cradling it close to his jacket as he entered a courtyard. I saw drunken men slipping on the ice that hid underneath the wet snow, landing on their asses and laughing at each other, hands muddy, one guy bleeding a little, then trailing off into a sidestreet.

I used those dogs as a sort of meditation every time I saw them, bringing E to school, or back last week. They made me think of a bit of Russian advice I have been given more than a few times:

Don't ask.
Don't trust.
Don't worry.

A potent series of directions that allows you to navigate through any situation. When I saw the dogs, I turned them into a physical example of these three directives. Somehow, they survive. Somehow, they are not killed. Somehow, they relax. In a way, I aspired to be like them. They helped me.

And now, just as the snow has finally come, they are gone.

The Russian winter is a lesson in surrender. It cannot be conquered. It will destroy your shoes, and your car. It will haunt you. It will not stop for months and months. Filthy, piss-stained snow will accumulate in piles more than ten feet tall. At one point you will forget what Spring is, the same as your child. You will understand summer just isn't coming this year, maybe some freezing rain. The air will grow so cold the hairs inside your nose will hurt. But if you surrender, if you hibernate and keep things simple, you will make it. Forget those magnificent plans to go to museums. Make soup. Sleep late. Conserve your energy. You will need it to take a child to school in the dark, and then back in the dark. There will be no work in January, just empty promises. No money, just bills. This is a marathon, and it will start now.

Don't ask me about winter. I will not ask how are you are. Do not trust the Russian winter. Do not trust people who call themselves friend. Do not trust anyone, and you will survive. You will drink beer down by the river in a tshirt. Don't worry about us. We will be fine. Don't worry about the economy, the value of a ruble. Don't worry about paying rent. Just get drunk on New Years. Kiss your girl hard on the lips, throw your children high into the air until their sides hurt from laughter. Call friends and wish them well. Fall asleep on the sofa, find your bed in the middle of the night as you stumble across strange objects in your path. Dream of the stray dogs, and where they may be.


Peter said…
Jeez, I hate to say it, but it looks like you're getting the game - it's all true, with the exception of the trust thing - it is good to be fortunate enough to have people you can turn your back on. Can't get drunk alone, you know, it's not the Russian style, cause people here believe that drinking alone is something only alcoholics do and there is no worse fear, no worse insult for a drinker than that... But seriously, the Soviet life wasn't meant to be toughed on your own - you had to have friends to get by, sadly, a dying trend. As for the three directives, I would like to introduce a few corrections: don't trust, Don't ask for anything(beg), have no fear. Most of us were introduced to these principles by Solzhenitsyn's book Archipelag Gulag (correct me if I am wrong on the spelling here) and they are meant as a behavior code for living behind bars, though to a certain degree we all are...
Annie said…
Beautiful, but I feel depressed.

My father always said he tried to be "like a dog" - just accepting what happened with gratitude for the good in it.
gadygee said…
Hi Marco! A facebook friend of mine gave me a link to your blog. I read a bit of it this evening and I know perfectly well how an expat can feel here - my husband is a foreigner too. We have a 5-year-old daughter who speaks Russian and a bit of English. Maybe you would like to meet up one day or visit us so the girls could play?:)

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