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to be an expat

How can I even begin to explain the experiences of an expat?  The great assumption is that East and West are terribly different. One is vilified, the other painted as a land of patriots and heroes. One is crude and filthy the other has streets paved with gold. Look up and you will see miracles of architecture. Beyond the windows there are supposed to be good people, open smiles and warm hearts. How can I tell you that none of this is true? How can I untie my shoes, and somehow put them on your feet three thousand miles away? You would never believe what secrets they have to tell.

Every time I go back to the states I become more embarrassed to be an American. I overhear conversations in the street, the whines of privileged and moneyed voices. Coddled, dumbed-down and mislead they are drunk on a calculated fairly tale. And then back in Moscow, the same ignorance - the same questions from curious taxi drivers about how good it must be in America, where everything is possible and life mu…

every pair of shoes has a story to tell

There are Soviet-Era mailboxes on the first floor of our building. A key to any of the slots will work in the next, so there is no actual privacy. Nothing tends to be in the boxes but penny saver fliers, and the occasional water bill. They stand with slack open mouths staring back at anyone waiting for the elevator to rumble open. On top of these mailboxes, you can often find a dusty book or a broken toy. The mailboxes enjoy a second life as an unofficial lost and found, and a donation shelf. Last week I saw a pair of black stilettos there. Today, a pair of white nurse shoes. Some time ago there was a cane, leaning against the wall. It is unavoidable, the game of wondering who left them and what adventures they had. There is little else to do as you wait for the elevator to arrive. 

Every pair of shoes has a story to tell. 




On my very first trip alone in Manhattan, I was on a mission to buy a 16mm film splicer for editing class. I had been in the city countless times, but always with someone else. I managed it alone, walking down Broadway all of the way to Rafik's just below Union Square. On the way back to Grand Central, I had the idea to find some cheap lunch. Somehow I passed 42nd street and kept going north, and on 47th in the middle of the diamond district I spied a little sign hanging above a doorway. "Wise men fish here" it said, in hand letters. I walked inside, to find magnificent piles of obscure books. Here was Kawabata, and Lorca, Kerouac and Micheline. I came across a slim, weathered collection of short stories by Anaïs Nin titled Under a Glass Bell. It was mine for a few dollars. I wandered out into the glaring sun of 47th street and shuffled East somehow, and had sushi for the first time.

It was only on the train back to school that I cracked the book open, fingering the yellowed pages, breathing in that scent of dead things and the soy sauce on my fingertips. Inside the back cover, there was a tiny ink stamp. "From the library of Anaïs Nin" it read. It had been her very own copy, resting on a shelf in her apartment  - maybe the one in the West Village.

I made a point of returning to the Gotham Book Mart every time I was back in the city, spending more and more time in-between the stacks. The greats had wandered the same carpeting - Joyce, Salinger, Mailer, Miller, even Jackie O.. Some even slept here I was told. I had crushes on some of the girls that worked the counter, trying to make small talk when I traded a slip of paper with a number on it for my bag as I left each time. I imagined some day that one of my books would languish on the shelves there, my name all in caps, the title something rare and sublime.

The store closed some time ago, but I still have my copy of Under a Glass Bell. I lost so many things along the way, but this little book survived it all. Now that I publish books, I decided to make them all the exact same dimensions as this one, an odd and secret tribute to that perfect afternoon.



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