29 September 2014

passing Gagarin (the Americans)

It has started to rain just a little. We are in the car, and even though I have passed this intersection countless times, I take another picture of Gagarin. He is frozen, arms at his sides just like Superman, but he is not flying. He is a man above so many others, a man to be compared to. "You are no Gagarin." I can imagine someone once said, to someone, at some moment in time.

I was asked to do an interview a few weeks ago. The questions were good ones, not the typical fluffy excuse for light-hearted anecdotes. I told the reporter I was not going to candy coat my answers. "Oh no." I was told. "You have a strong story, we want to share it."  We went back and forth. I tried to understand if things were translating well. The reporter liked what I said. We edited the text together. I went to sleep satisfied, and half-forgot about the things that had been written. 

I often sit down on Mondays, curious about who reads these weekly posts. I have friends that give me reactions. I have people I have never met from places like Ireland and Sri Lanka, from Canada, from Portugal that all share comments from time to time. I do not write every Monday to please, or to entertain. I do it because this process had become a part of my life, sometimes a burden, sometimes an epiphany, sometimes a grey bit of nothing, sometimes something luminous. Often E reads my "Monday stories" as she calls them. I see her chin pinch as she digests the words. Most of the time she shrugs her shoulders and says "That's just life, Pop." She knows I write about what happens to us, plain and simple. 

Last week someone from America accused me of writing fiction here, that the events I write about are not real. They said it was too perfect, too impossible. I told E about this and her face fell. 
"Why would we lie?" She asked me. "Why do they think we lie?" 
I did not have a good answer for her. 
I liked that she said we, that she feels like an author in this.

I just came home from returning the camera we were shooting with all weekend. I have footage to check and organize. I need to pick up E from school in an hour for an exam at music school. There are leftovers in the fridge I warm up, skillet hitting the stove one more time in this rented apartment with the crooked doors. 

It seems the article was published yesterday. There are over 2,000 people who visited this blog in the last twelve hours. 98% of them spent a total of ten seconds and then left. I see the article has been shared on other sites. There are comments there, like "Marco - just an old fart stuck in the 90's, with his "thoughts and morals" finding depression in Moscow ... " and "ha ha, ... the best selling products which are usually hidden under the counter." Well, moron."

It gives me pause. 

I know full well that the internet allows strangers to say the cruelest things they feel like saying, like blowing their noses in the street onto the ground without a handkerchief as people pass them. I know that there are few countries in the world that are as defensive as Russia. Mostly, I am sorry that no one actually looked at this blog, that they did not read about the good mixed with the bad mixed with the triumph mixed with the betrayal. At the very most they looked at a picture and passed judgment, but found it all too easy to say I am a terrible judge of Moscow and Russia. Instead they read answers to a handful of questions translated into Russian and decided I am a typical American idiot, lost in my foolish pride and patriotism. And yet, if they asked me to explain what is wrong with my home, I could talk for hours. Even in an article when I explain what is imperfect with America, no one reads that part. In the end, people see what they want to see. If I see countless cars running red lights in Moscow, I must have vision problems. 

For some reason, my thoughts run to Robert Frank, a man of simple means, a man who changed the course of photography with one small book. Born in Switzerland, he travelled America on back roads and stayed in cheap motels (and was arrested a few times in the process). He showed a country over-run with racism and privilege, a brutal truth that no one in America wanted to hear. As an outsider, he found it all too easy to tell this story. He had perspective, and an unforgiving eye. I definitely find inspiration in his example. Mostly I like to know that he ended up living on Bleecker street a few blocks from my old apartment on East 1st Street, and that is where he found a home. 

No, I am not Gagarin.

22 September 2014

the props make the character

We do not need to change trains. The one next to our apartment takes us all the way to Partizanskaya. E rests a hand on my elbow, her head against my shoulder. It is not so early, but it is Saturday all the same. I know she would rather be in her pajamas, with a plate of French toast next to her. 

Outside, it is warming up already. 

I pay ten rubles to enter. She is free. 

I lead her through the first aisles, the rows of matroshkas and t-shirts, the shiny drinking flasks, the tables full of knives. We are going up and to the left, to the people with piles of junk, the strewn bits of nostalgia on wobbly card tables. Here I will find a typewriter with cyrillic keys and another one with English keys, not more than forty dollars each. I have been offered the same for two hundred dollars here. 

She is bored, as I pull her through the crowds, as I yank my neck ogling a collection of German harmonicas. I buy an old wind-up clock that ticks incredibly loud.  

We are not just shopping. I am making a world, a real world from these objects. I am finding the details of daily life for characters in them. That sound of that clock, it will go on the soundtrack now - something I never imagined when I wrote the script but of course it makes perfect sense, ticking in the kitchen just after breakfast with the dirty dishes sitting right there. This metamorphosis of the imagined, as it becomes concrete, as it becomes something honest on the screen, that is the work for today. 

I buy a metal comb for fifty rubles.

E is more involved now, curious about some things on the tables. I tell her we are almost done. There are wind-up phonograph players everywhere. It seems you can get a working one for 6,000 rubles or less. The sound coming from them is amazing, like pulling a wet cat across a hundred cellos.

As we leave I ask her if she would ever come back.
"It is not really my kind of place." She tells me.
I nod.
"Ok." I answer. "I mostly just wanted to give you a real-life lesson in writing."
"What do you mean?" She asks me.
"If you are going to write about something, you really need to understand it. You need to spend time with it, learn about all of the tiny little details." I explain. "I was not trying to get you to go to the flea market today. I was trying to show you how I make this film I am working on - how I find the lives of the characters in little things in their lives."
"Like the comb." She interrupts.
"Exactly." I tell her. "And then the actors get to use these very interesting little things, and it helps their imagination."
She nods, smiling up at me.

There are crowds of people clumped in the street.
A woman is selling hot tea and pastries filled with potato.

"I love you Pop." E says, after a moment.

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.