15 September 2014

under the skin

There is a splinter in my thumb, but I cannot find it. As the skin touches a coffee cup, I know something is there. Digging into the skin with the point of a pin I find nothing. It is a phantom, still there. I make E's sandwich, slicing it on the diagonal, almost forgetting a box of juice.

The lunchbox in her hands, she stares up at me in the elevator.
"Pop, my throat has a bad taste." She whispers.
I nod.
"Let's see if it goes away." I tell her as we go outside.
Living here has brought me to doubt everything.

Later she calls me. I need to come and get her, she is actually getting sick.

Downstairs, the sun is fierce on my shoulders and I wrap my jacket into a ball and shove it into her backpack that I carry. Her tights are sagging, as if she lost weight since I brought her this morning. At home, she pulls on her pajamas and wraps the red blanket around herself. I take her temperature, bring the big bowl if she has to throw up. I survey the cabinets, the fridge. We have everything we need.

37.5 but I know it will go up from there.
She falls asleep.

The routine is a familiar one, the first night sleeping very lightly coming back to check on her after she does throw up once. The morning, seeing if her eyes are bright or if she is still under that little gray cloud. By afternoon she is on the mend, but I know this is deceiving. If we take a walk outside, she will get sick again.

I do run to the store, for turnips and garlic and ginger ale if they have it.

Outside, I realize how foreign things still feel here, even after seven years. The pointy black shoes, the slang, the flower sellers, the militia with their machine guns slung across their chests. Inside the house, it is like we are not here. There is no tv, no radio just the sound of English, our music, pens, pencils, computers, guitars. Inside we have a familiar little universe.

I call her, tell her I am already on the way back.
The splinter is still there in my thumb. I remind myself to dig for it again when I get home. At the same time, it feels good, some kind of reminder.

08 September 2014

the princess and Potempkin

I don't know when the windows changed. I had grown to ignore the velvet displays, empty in the early morning when I walked E to school. In the afternoon, yes there were diamonds blinking in the shadows. I never saw people going into the Princess jewelry store. There was a plaque on the corner of the building, reminding any passerby that Eduard Tisse had been born there, the cameraman for Eisenstein on films like Strike, and the Battleship Potemkin. Sometimes I wondered if anyone in the street knew who he was besides me. On this stretch of sidewalk there are mothers with babies in strollers, old women carrying plastic bags of groceries, workers who plant flowers. 

Now, the windows are covered with images of a woman wearing nothing but diamonds. She stares at the empty street, and traffic. Eyes painted, lips pouting, blond hair curving and frozen under layers of hairspray her eyes never blink. I wonder if the store does not have enough diamonds to display in the windows now. I wonder if she is the trophy wife of the owner and this is some compliment he has paid her, the photo shoot, the stylists, her standing topless in nothing but jewels as the strobes flash. 

A security guard stands behind the door, face close to the glass. I see his cheap shiny suit, his hands shoved in his pockets. He looks scared, angry, worried. 

01 September 2014


E is organizing her schoolbag. Rulers, pencil sharpeners and erasers all find their place. We search for a missing shoe and somehow it was under her bed the whole time. There is only one hairband in the entire house, and I place it on the corner of my desk. The outfit is decided, now resting on the sofa. 

We get dressed to go to dinner, just the two of us. She stands in front of me, lifting the back of her hair so I can zip her dress up. We travel through the metro, her asking me the names of the stops now, studying the map on the wall her face screwed up into various expressions until she has that little "aha" moment and understands where we are going.

The streets unfold, and we are a few minutes early.
"Will they let us in?" She asks me.
I laugh a little, squeeze her hand once. 
We sit in a booth, and she already knows what she wants.

The conversation runs to a look back at this summer, her predictions for the school year. I sip my manhattan and step outside of myself, watching us chatter back and forth, forks turning into porchetta and mushroom mousse, into olives and small chunks of cheese. There is something so effortless about tonight.

My belly is full. She cannot eat another bite, half of a shrimp and a collection of greens strewn across her plate. 
I ask for the check. 

We walk slowly now, making our way back. People are letting balloons go, for some reason. We look up at two that are climbing towards the clouds.
"Look Pop." She tells me, seeing I already know they are there.
I nod.
"Who knows where this year will take us." She says, half to herself.

25 August 2014

terribly awake

I make lists every night before I go to sleep, things to remember in the morning when I am shoving breakfast into my mouth, slugging down coffee looking out at the sky wondering if it will rain. Batteries, notebooks, bulbs for lights, water bottles that sit cold at the bottom of the fridge. The last days of summer seem to be here, the mornings cold and windy. I wish I had started shooting a few weeks earlier. I could be editing now, in a sweatshirt with a blanket across my legs and the windows open to the cool air, awake. Terribly awake.

There is a rhythm to building the camera, a methodical ballet from tripod to knobs tightened, to base plate to focus rods, to body, lens, follow focus. Lens caps are pocketed in the same spots. It is all about putting things where you need them, about going step by step so everything is in its place, when your hand falls it finds what it needs without looking. 

I see the world more quickly when the camera is ready. Here, blades of dry grass in the right place. Here, train tracks lost in the weeds. Here, an old blue house with a man selling pumpkins by the side of the road. 

I am not hungry when I shoot. My feet wet in the early grass I move quickly, somehow untired, stronger than normal. It is like a slow drip of adrenaline, a steady pulse of will and ambition, of desire. That is what it feels like to shoot your own film. 

There are only two things in the world - what is in the film and what is not. I do not notice the old man in the kaftan that mumbles on the corner, the old woman sitting in a parking lot selling dirty bunches of parsley. I ignore the smell of garbage, the sight of gasoline rainbows in the gutter. I eat peanut butter sandwiches for dinner and think nothing of my favorite salumi counter, maybe empty and gone after the sanctions take their toll or maybe with fresh chunks of pecorino and great soft rounds of mortadella nestled beneath the glass. 

18 August 2014

Partizanskaya (where everyone is smiling)

The metro is quiet. People are not shoving each other. No one is French-kissing on the long escalators. No one is telling us to move to the right over a broken loudspeaker. I feel that second cup of coffee pushing me forwards, no need to close my eyes on the train and listen for the right stop. No, I am awake.

And then out the doors and I stand on the corner with a folded map in my hands. I look towards the onion domes a few blocks away but that is the wrong direction I tell myself. I start off to the left, into god knows where and stop a few feet later. Everyone is crossing the street and going towards those domes. I pocket the map.

A few minutes later I am walking through the front gates. There is cheap luggage for sale, and dollar sunglasses. I keep going. 

And then, the stalls unfold. There are lines of matroshkas. There are knives and lighters, shawls and painted cups. I breath in. Yes, I found it. All by myself.

I have a list of props to buy - army blankets, a Soviet rotary phone, an old key, some toy soldiers, a metal tray. Some of the stalls are still being set up. A man calls out to me, in English.
"You like?" He says, his tan face poking from behind a collection of t-shirts.
I smile and wave my hand trying to say no thanks.
"Turkish?" He asks me, in English.
"No." I answer, the English feeling odd in my mouth all of a sudden. "American."
"I was in Michigan once!" He shouts, running out from behind the dolls to shake my hand.
"You come back, have a coffee with me, ok?" He says.
I nod, smile.
"It is my first time here." I tell him.
"Woho!" He says, flapping his hands around.
"Amir." He says, shaking my hand again.
"Marco." I reply, and then I keep walking.

People are smiling, laughing, strolling down the halls with gentle hands moving slowly in the air. No one is pushing me in the center of my back, no matter how narrow the way is. There are people with tables sitting in near-darkness. There are old shoes and records, radios, cups, cameras. A smell comes off of them, that antique musty dead roses and fly shit smell.

The sun has burned off the wet morning haze and I am sweating. I tie the jacket around my waist. The bags are thumping against me, two Soviet phones, some army bottles dancing against each other as I walk. A sense of calm rushes over me. I am going to find everything I need to make this film, to tell this odd little story. There are faces here that listen, nodding, agreeing on prices and after I slide things into the bags I tell them I am making a film and they seem ok with that. They are not excited, more that this is a logical reason for a foreigner to buy a broken old phone for 2,000 rubles.

I imagine N in bed, rolling over a little knowing I am here dressed and out the door for hours now. I think to call her, to find out if she woke up yet. And then, I find the last items, and am walking fast to go back to the metro.

Amir calls to me, as I pass him.
"Marco!" He shouts, giving me a thumbs up sign, motioning towards the collection of bags I carry now.

11 August 2014

don't eat (the blueberries)

The news come quickly, without warning. There was no debate, no hemming and hawing. No more fruit or vegetables, no dairy or meat from Europe, from the US, from Australia or Norway. No more pecorino, or prosciutto, no shrimp, no sea bass, no Polish apples, no Greek yogurt, no olive oil. In the same moment I am sad and furious and half-relieved. Seven years of struggling to source ingredients left me exhausted and disappointed on a daily basis. By the time mozzarella gets to Moscow, it tastes like cardboard. Anything imported is freakishly overpriced, which is especially brutal for a New Yorker. "Never pay full price" is the secret mantra of my home. We define ourselves as people that get that hand-rolled thirteenth bagel for free. Paying through the nose for Europe's dreck, their sloppy seconds was always a painful reminder that we live here. 

E takes the news with flat-out desperation.
"My bacon?" She asks.
"It is Czech." I answer. 
She frowns, already close to tears.
"Maple syrup?" She adds.
"I will have to bring more back with me next time I go home." I tell her.
"Root beer?" She asks.
I am not sure if beverages are part of the embargo. I know wine and alcohol are still allowed, but that is just today. I know that the health inspectors suddenly found issue with bottles of Jack Daniels and it was swiftly added to the list. 
"Pecorino?" She asks.
I shake my head no.
She slumps into a chair, her chin on the table.
"Everything Asian is still ok." I remind her. "Water chestnuts, soy sauce, oyster sauce, miso, lemongrass, galangal, coconut."
She stares at me.
"That is what you eat." She blurts out. "I only like that sometimes."
"We can still make wontons and pot stickers." I tell her. "You love those."
She rests her forehead on the table.
I wonder if I have foolishly spoiled her, setting her up for this disappointment as I scrounged for every curious ingredient I could muster here, replicating dishes from back home so she will know what they are when she goes there someday. No, there is nothing wrong with a kid that knows what chilaquiles is, or torta Espanol, or bracciole, or a BLT.  Last week we made sloppy joes because she thought they sounded interesting. I don't think she will ask for them again, but at least she knows what the sloppy part is and what the joe part is now. 

I sit back, imagining empty shelves in the markets but convince myself that is not what will happen. No, there will be shelves of Russian products, probably double-priced. They will taste of salt and vinegar, of onion and not much more. There will be rows of soft Soviet salami so fatty it oozes in the sun by the time we get home. There will be no arugula for salad. There will be no Norwegian salmon, just the pale, fatty Russian stuff that stinks up the house no matter how you cook it. I think of the fish counter at rinok, and wonder what will happen to our friends there in their striped shirts. Will they survive by selling nothing but trout and sturgeon? 

My head spins. My whole body feels heavy. I smell something like rotting pennies. 

I know this anxiety, this fear of the next shoe falling. It is an empty moment that can last for weeks, and never be resolved. I should be smarter by now. Maybe everything will be on the shelves and this is just bold talk for headlines. Maybe this is a typical line of bullshit the world gobbles up. Maybe nothing will change. 

All I know, is that no one knows. 

We are at a birthday party the first day of the embargo. Someone tells me there was an announcement, that it is forbidden to share photos of any food that is not allowed today. 
"Forbidden by who?" I ask.
"Does it matter?" I am told. 
"And what is the penalty?" I ask.
Faces stare at me, shoulders shrug.
"It it just not something to do." They tell me. "It is not worth it."
I look at the children, eating pizza that has some strange cheese on it, their fingers messy.  

Later, I hear reports that blueberries being sold in Russia are 12 times more radioactive than "normal". They are sourced from a region close to Chernobyl.

I start to imagine eating nothing but potatoes and cabbage, turning pale and fat, sluggish as I drink cup after cup of strong black tea. 

The next day E is still upset, wandering the rooms with her arms at her sides.
"Let's go get a cheeseburger." I announce.
"Do you think they still have the root beer?" She asks.
"Only one way to find out." I tell her, pulling on my sneakers.
"OK, but what if they do not have it?" She says.
"Let's think there are two bottles left for you and me." I tell her.

We walk across the bridge in silence. 

People are out, parading in stilettos, men in loafers with their shoulders thrust out, pumping up their chests. There are two root beers waiting for us, and we sit at a table, waiting for our order to be ready.  People are shoving their way in. I see a man in red suede slippers, and a gold belt. I see pregnant women in giant black dresses. Everyone is ordering cheeseburgers and milkshakes, crinkle-cut fries. 

I don't know if they are having root beers or not.

04 August 2014

the fishbowl (white nights)

They say the smoke is building up in the suburbs. More fires - not accidents, not forests or dead grass but people burning trash. If the smoke will stay in the city, no one knows. If it will choke the air so you can hardly see a few feet in front of you, no one knows. There is only a blind hope for wind and rain.

This is the seventh summer in the fishbowl of Moscow. We swim in long circles, bellies scraping against familiar rocks, sometimes resting in dark corners, making our way back and forth across the exact same streets, the same stones, the same traffic lights clicking red then green.

It feels like I spend the winter complaining about darkness and the summer complaining about too much light. At dinner I yank the curtain in the kitchen to keep the low evening sun out of our eyes. At four in the morning I wrap a t-shirt around my head to find sleep.

After a short walk with N on a Saturday night, we pass one of our neighbors in the street. He is a curious man, always dressed like he is going on safari. His giant hat, long sleeves and even the small scarf around his neck are easy to recognize as he approaches. I say hello to him, and he breezes past us, like he does not even know us.

Work goes on. Pages fill with words. Meetings are held in air-conditioned cafes. E is growing by the minute. I used to think of life in Moscow as a form of treading water, a marathon effort to stay with our chins above the water as we prepared for the next wave to sweep over us. At one point, I imagined a ladder we climbed, and how it was unnerving to look down.

In the flat sun of August, it feels like nothing is going to happen. We are at a standstill. The city will empty. The streets will empty. It feels like we will be the only ones that did not go to the ocean, or a leafy dacha with apple trees and hammocks to nap in.