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there is always something (why I shoot film)

There are maybe ten shots left on the roll. Outside the metro, a collection of pigeons sit on minuscule ledges above two old men. They talk as all old men do, with operatic waves of their hands, sour expressions, belly laughs, eventually scratching their chins as they stare off at nothing in particular. I am pretending to take pictures of something near them, then swing across when they are not looking to shoot a few frames. At one point I surrender to the afternoon and move on.

And now, the courtyard that leads to the film lab. A great old building rests here, a school of architecture where students mill around dressed in black sucking on cigarettes with giant portfolios tucked under their arms. A young man approaches me. I am ready to tell him I have no idea what he is saying, but he wants to know where the film lab is. I jut my chin, telling him the door is just beyond a few bushes. He nods his thanks.

There are screens set up in a jagged line, sheathed in filthy white plastic to …

Vera and Thumbelina (salt bowls and half light)

N stands in front of me, a hand crossing her stomach and grabbing the opposite elbow. Her cousin twists the keys in the old door and it opens after a good shove. There is a second door, metal bars like a tic tac toe with little objects dangling from it.
"She used to do chin-ups on this." She tells me, turning and smiling a little.
The apartment has that old empty smell, the floors grey with dust, buckled and warped. There is a breeze making its way through the cracks in the windows. The sofa and chairs in the living room sit in darkness, as if they have been awake for years waiting for someone to come back with a cup of hot tea. There is a piano in the corner and N opens it, playing a brief chord. 
"This was mine." She says. "She said she got this especially for me."
We wander to the balcony, where the windows are kept shut with loose bits of wire tied into knots. There are trees below, and a long green hill. 

Her grandmother was tough, maybe not as tough as the Polish one but she held her own. Vera had a job with the police and carried a paper around with her that made the same result as flashing a badge if the situation required it. She wore bright orange lipstick and loved perfume of all kinds. She divorced when N's mother was a child, and raised her alone, arguing with the neighbors and typing medical dissertations to pay the bills. She claimed she was "five minutes before being a doctor" as result of this, and could offer a diagnosis if you asked for one. 

On Sundays she would take N on long walks in the botanical gardens, not on the paths but right over the giant rocks for exercise. They would hunt out a quiet spot in the tall grass and she would produce cheese sandwiches and apples from her purse, slicing them with a sharp knife and handing each piece to the little girl. 
She called her Duimovichka (Thumbelina) and said she was her favorite.

In the kitchen, I stare at the teapot still on the stove, the forks and spoons that litter the countertop.
"This is the one who put wooden matches in her tea sandwiches when she did not have toothpicks?" I ask N.
She shakes her head no.
"That was my other grandmother." She answers, opening the drawers and then the cabinets.

We look out the windows for some time.
On the ninth floor we are taller than the trees, looking down at them as they bend in the wind.

In the living room, there is a glass cabinet full of her china. It sits in perfect rows like a museum exhibit. Wine glasses and tea pots, cups and saucers all sit and wait for the touch of a hand, the warmth of water and tea leaves, the soft crumb of some cake.

The visit becomes less about curiosity now. I feel desperate, staring at Soviet glass fruit bowls. 

Back in the kitchen, N shows me a tiny metal bowl with a shallow spoon. It could be for a dollhouse it is so tiny. I think it is made of brass.
"For salt." She tells me.
It is green, filthy, a little bit lopsided.
"Let's take it with us." I tell her. 
She looks at me for a moment, a smile cracking on half of her mouth. N drops it into my camera bag.

I wander the rooms, now suddenly familiar.
The light meter is out now. They are waiting in the hallway for me.
I will kneel in the dust, clicking in the half light. 


liv said…
That was like stepping back in time. There is something so - almost eerie - about that post war soviet "decor"...yet romantic at the same time. Maybe you understand?

So glad N got the little dish, a tiny piece of her childhood. Sweet of you to tell her to take it.

As always, your photos tell as much of the story as your words. My Monday morning trek to Moscow - as enjoyable as ever - thank you.
Annie said…
I'm so glad I read this.... I've avoided your blog for a bit. This year has been so hard for me that I think I couldn't bear to experience more feelings. You always make me feel. Couldn't take it.

This post is that way, too...but was just so beautiful for me, especially the photos. The setting reminds me of some Soviet movie I saw...I don't remember much about the plot but there were two children alone in an apartment after school.... To me it is beautiful, too.

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