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no answer (the melon seller)

A shiny black van pulls up, wheels skidding on gravel. Five, maybe six men step out all at once. They wear black t-shirts and army fatigues. Their heads are shaved, slick with sweat in the afternoon sun. Their arms are huge, squeezed into those shirts a few sizes too small. All at once they circle a fruit stand by the road. It is made of plywood, held together with a few screws. One good sneeze could level it. Rows of torpedo shaped melons sit on bulging shelves, below them a cage full of watermelons. The men yank smartphones from their pockets, taking pictures, making calls. I assume they are some covert team that extorts vendors, either sending them home and destroying the fruit or worse. I somehow expect the man does not have a permit and the right papers to sell anything. In Russia, you need permission to do just about anything. There are no five year olds with lemonade stands here. 
I cross the street, distancing myself as I glimpse the men between the cars and trolley buses tha…

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 combined with wood pulp, ultimately labelled as parmigiano and honestly, people could care less.

An Eataly store was supposed to open a few years ago, perched in a new high-rise next to a train station just 10 minutes from us. I stared up at those dark windows every time I passed it, imagining the empty tables inside, the quiet hush of stoves and cutting boards never used. I wrote it off as a loss, a missed opportunity.

Last week, it opened and somehow I was standing with E, scarfing down slices of pizza as they burned the roofs of our mouths and we did not care. There was a good dry white from Sicily, rolling around in my glass. I chewed on slices of porchetta, fennel and pork fat running around inside my head. I slide my finger through a puddle of olive oil and tasted it without even a scrap of bread. It was intense, peppery, almost bitter. I could taste the pits. E sipped a chinotto, her thoughts flying out, asking when we would come back, how many times a week we would eat here. We wandered the mammoth place, getting lost and turning back, eyeing the shelves, studying everything as if it would disappear just as easily as it arrived.

I let her have a cappuccino before we went home, too elated to explain to her how you should not have any coffee with milk in it after 11AM if you want to respect the culture. Outside, we stood in the warm night air, as trolley buses wobbled past us, as old women in black dresses sold overpriced bouquets of roses. It is always hard to transition here, from an oasis back to the desert, from the laughter inside our home to the stone cold faces in the street.

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