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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 enemy and the crocodile


We are crunching through early Saturday morning snow. E is not complaining, just holding my hand and looking up at me sometimes. The wait for the mashrutka is short and soon we are at the metro. I buy two tickets.
"You are gonna pay for me?" She asks.
"No." I tell her. "It is for the way back."
"Aaaaaah." She says, with a big nod.
We make our way to the last turnstile so they can let her through. A giant old woman in uniform asks for my card, and she slaps it against the light. E goes through, and then she slaps it again.
"So we did pay today." She tells me in a low voice.
"I guess they changed their minds." I answer.
"Maybe they think I am finally older!" She announces on the way down the escalator.

We shuttle through the stations, passing Red Square, Kurskaya, already on the other side of the city in fifteen minutes.
"Partizanskaya, four more stops." I say after a bit.
She nods again.
She knows.
"So, ashtray, old shoes, a radio." She says.
I agree.
"And what else?" She asks.
"Cartoons, comics, something like that." I say.
"Ok." She says, after adding this to the list.


The sun is almost coming out now. People are waddling through the grey slush and giant wads of brown snow in the road towards the entrance. We make our way past the mastroshkas and the fur hats, past the binoculars and lighters and sharp knives. Up the stairs and to the left, then another left.

The people sit at card tables, wobbling in the half-light with hot cups of tea in thin plastic cups resting against their chins. E looks quickly, noticing what I linger on. We exchange glances, making decisions without words. These will be props for a music video I am directing, fragments of loosely connected stories, a string of shaggy dogs and macguffins that should add up to something when it is done. But right now, it is just an idea and we are standing in the cold and I have not seen any comic books yet.

There is an ashtray, a low metal one decorated with Egyptian characters. We trade glances, she shrugs her shoulders. Maybe a yes.
"Skolka? (How much)" I ask the old man.
"Four hundred." He tells me and I drop my hand. This is how I show them they are asking too much and that I know they can make up crazy prices for foreigners. It is a way of scolding them.
We begin to walk away.
"French?" He asks, in English.
I shake my head no.
"Americanits." I say.
His eyes grow wide. He is acting strangely.
"The enemy." He says, in English.
I laugh nervously.
He looks at me fiercely, as if he is trying to think up something that will rattle me.
E pulls at my hand.
"We like this place, so many interesting things here." I say gently in my broken Russian, gesturing to the junk on the tables around us.
"You are tourists?" He asks in English.
"No."
He stares without blinking, his mouth half-open.
"Pop, let's go." E says, pulling on my hand.
We do walk away, and he calls after us. "Maybe three hundred?"

My stomach turns one twist.

I have not been out of the house much in the last weeks, as the ruble trips, tumbles, picks itself back up and then falls again.

There are American flags being used as doormats in shopping centers, people wiping their feet on them without a second thought. It all feels impossible to me, as I watch things slowly deteriorate, falling darker than I could imagine, blacker than black. I imagine what it will be like in a month here, in a year, how much farther the meat will shrink from the bones.


I begin to forget why we are here, wandering the tables, staring at faces, feeling more foreign than my first trip when I trotted back and forth across Red Square with a bag of cameras and wore a little black hat, when the militia stopped me all of the time asking to see my documents with an air of superiority and a half-salute.

There is a pair of rabbits, a husband and a wife that holds a giant carrot in her arms. They are hand-painted, made of tin. I ask the woman how much for them and I think she says three thousand and five hundred, and I decide that is too much. E looks up at me.
"They are sweet, aren't they." I tell her.
She nods.
"Did she say one thousand or three thousand?" I ask her as we walk away.
"I think one." She says.
We go back, and the woman shows me with her fingers, it was one thousand and five hundred. She smiles at me, her short blonde curls peeking from under her wool hat. I tell her we will take them and she wraps them carefully. I ask to take a picture of the golden rooster, to show N. She waves her hand as if to say I can take a picture of anything I want to.
I thank her, spasiba.
"Thank you." She says, slowly in bad English.

There is a table of Soviet cartoons, called Krokodil. The man sees me flipping through them. It is clear I am going to buy at least one. A friend stands next to him, with missing teeth and a big fur hat. He jabs a finger onto the one I select.
"One million sold." He says, in English.
I look for another one.
I find one with dark buildings, and rain drops like an old comic book from my childhood.
"This, two million copies." He adds.
I pay, watching them slide them into plastic bags from the supermarket.
I try to explain what I will use them for, but the words are beyond me.
E translates, explaining how we will use them.
I watch their eyebrows wiggling, a mixture of confusion and then satisfaction.
The seller takes my hand, squeezes it in his.
"Thank you." He says in English, quietly.


We find it all, an opal ashtray, a pair of beat up wingtips, a transistor radio. The bag thumps against me. E is getting cold. We make our way out, and down the road towards the metro and home.

The first man is behind us now, a strange face in a corner. I imagine he sells nothing today. I wonder if I will see him next time we are here and if he will remember us.

I wonder if he has already forgotten.






Comments

Unknown said…
Love the language, love the circle back. Great post!

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