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I believe in artichokes

Italy did ruin me. After that first trip I came back disgusted by bodega coffee, which now smelled of old socks. Before, it was just fine. I rolled my eyes at red sauce joints, detouring old standbys like a stranger. If eating can be seen as a religious or spiritual experience I had been to the mountain. In time I would return on pilgrimages, always holding the simple pleasures in my thoughts.  An artichoke, methodically fried in good olive oil, with some salt. Black truffles, good butter and fresh pasta twisting around the back of a fork. A very cold and tiny glass of porto bianco sipped in a Genoa bar, with my friend Federico. A man cleaning sardines on a block of wood in the street. A woman selling green figs that she wraps into a newspaper cone. I have thousands of these memories, these artifacts. But I live in Moscow, where there has been an embargo for years now, and there is no population that expects perfect mounds of fresh cheese. They ship powdered palm oil here, that gets …

the bridge

There is a walking bridge that crosses the river, all green glass and awkward angles. I remember the first time I was at Kievskaya train station, in a car in the freezing cold at night, the windows half steamed-over. I did not know the river was under the bridge. Somehow I imagined it was the entrance to some tunnel, or a glassed-in conservatory with giant plants in it. There were men with rolling carts, all dented aluminum and wobbly wheels crusted with mud and snow that ferried luggage from the train tracks to the parking lot, cigarettes dangling from lips, warm hats cocked back on their sweaty foreheads. 

People brought packages from places like Moldava wrapped in twine and masking tape to hand out of windows. These were packages from strangers, handed off to strangers. A name, a few words of thanks, maybe a package to return with in exchange. No airmail, no Fedex, no UPS, just faith in a system of human kindness and the reminder to send nothing valuable, just cheese and cookies, fruit, dried fish, maybe some homemade wine. The trains ran deep into the night, ripe with the smell of ozone and diesel, coughing perfect bright clouds in the icy air. 

That was when Moscow seemed romantic, a living museum of salt and vodka, of black bread and strong mustard. That was when prostitutes could be found next to statues of Marx or Lenin, their skirts hiked up to their thighs, their furs old and ratty, heels impossibly tall. Gypsy cabs were manned by drivers with great goofy eyes, often getting lost and talking to themselves like they were auditioning for a cartoon. That was when I was a visitor, more than a tourist, a man that knew ten words (but still spoke in the wrong tense). That was when Moscow seemed unknown, exotic, the stuff of myth, the hallowed ground of great novels, of pain, of suffering, of history itself.




We would pass Kievskaya on the way home when E was four. I did not have enough money to take the metro, so I pushed her in that flimsy pink stroller because she would be asleep by 10 or 11. There was free wifi outside the McDonalds and I would stop in the street, trying to catch it. I wanted something from home, be it the announcement of a friend's birthday, or a new child, maybe some scandal in New York about potholes, maybe something ridiculous.

In those moments, nothing meant more than a tiny, brief connection to home. The leaves could be turning. Someone could be asking for a recipe. Someone could be complaining about a band, or a tv show and it was news I was hungry for. E was wrapped in a warm jacket, and a blanket around her legs, her hands tucked under it. Her nose pink, her head loose and drifting to the right I would check the New York Times and anything else for fifteen minutes until the wifi would turn off or my hands got too cold.

Back in that one room apartment I would pull the coat off of her carefully, turning her into to that tiny bed and she would make quiet smacking noises with her lips until he found her pillow, squeezing it tight against her. It was a lot of late dinners then, boiled beets and potatoes, sliced herring, some mustard, some lemon, some dill, some garlic. It cost less than a dollar a serving.




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