Monday, November 23, 2009

Sitting in Zurich's light-flooded airport terminal, watching tidy little trucks ferry things back and forth between neat expanses of clipped green grass. The Alps are blue in the distance, the air smells good, and A. is wheeling the girls around in an empty luggage cart, recklessly and unmolested. Goodbye, Russia -- I hope I never, ever have to go back.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

And today we heard about jerking and naturally -- with our suddenly spacious apartment -- had to crank some west side beats and try it. 

So the crew is here, packing is underway -- total upheaval all morning until they took a coffee break, and the apartment became quiet. That's when we heard rustling inside one of the wrapped and boxed sofa beds. Hans, the kitten, was packed inside. One of the movers took his knife and cut a circular hole in the top of the large carton. Like a surgeon, another reached both arms in and lifted Hans out.  

Friday, November 20, 2009

Some photos from the last two weeks... including, above, our goodbye to EB's detsky sad. She is better, but bluish and tired. Movers arrive tomorrow. Apartment in a shambles; still, the cats suspect nothing. 


Weaving carpets:

That shop is full of gorgeous wares from Iran: rugs, bronzes... When A. asked whether it might be hard to take these out of the country, the owner brushed off the possibility: "No problem. We have papers saying everything here was made in China." 

Thursday, November 12, 2009

So EB has pneumonia. She was supposed to be hospitalized tonight, but there were no available rooms, so she's home to sleep and then back to the doctor in the morning. "Cancel your flight," said the doc; seems there's less oxygen at altitude and this can exacerbate the lung problem. But we don't leave for ten days, perhaps time enough to get well. 
I have a one-track mind lately, cannot think about anything but leaving Russia. There's very little packing to do, and (I have discovered) limits on how much can be planned in advance and from afar. So I'm a bundle of nerves. Growing very apprehensive about reverse culture shock. I sense big feelings brewing. Certainly, people live abroad for much longer stretches than we have, decades even, but nevertheless this experience has been so total, so intense, and so long, it has required so much coping, and claimed my powers of observation so completely, that once I am released from it I know I'll feel bereft. I will flail around for months, I expect, in Virginia, looking for fragments and people from Moscow, trying to remember, trying to get a handle on what happened here. So odd. So ironic. We are transformed, but cannot be sure how yet. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Counting the days now, each one a different goodbye to the city.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It seems only right to pause and pay tribute to a jug of ambrosia, now almost empty, that has helped get us through the past year. Scott, your wildly impractical Christmas present (ostensibly perishable, once ridiculously heavy) has been worth its weight in gold! Still crisp on the outside with layers of packing tape from its transatlantic flight, long missing its lid, the bottle rattles when poured because of a crystalline mass forming at the bottom (no doubt yummy, if we could reach it). We have meted this stuff out all year onto oatmeal, squash, blini, yogurt, and lots else. In a Copenhagen coffee bar I discovered the Jimi Hendrix, a kick-your-ass-and-kiss-you blend of three espressos, cream, chocolate and maple syrup, and once in a while I try futilely to replicate it at home. Whatever it touches, real maple syrup makes better! And its been a happy taste of home on many mornings. Thank you bro!
I am mentally sorting our possessions, and saying goodbyes one by one. I know what we are leaving -- though it's hard to comprehend a goodbye so final -- but I have no idea what sort of life or home we're headed for.

Trying to make important arrangements, like housing, by email, is a bit like searching for life on Mars; I am squinting over the details of bad photos, sending out dozens of blind messages to a place we've never been, getting little response, hoping for small electronic signs of friendliness, wondering what it's like out there. Giving things away. Trying to prepare myself and the girls for the absoluteness of our leaving, that abrupt shift from being fully, inescapably in one world and then on (roughly) the same day, completely and irrevocably in another, with no easing out or in. That suddenness of air travel is still amazing and melancholy to me after many such departures over the years. We spend weeks mustering ourselves, packing up quite purposefully, attending to every detail, hurtling towards the climax of departure, and finally before dawn on the appointed day we step onto the plane, and sit down, and take a breath, and wonder, where are we going? And find there is no break, no rest; in those few moments on the runway we segue immediately from preparing to leave one life forever into facing the daunting and almost total unknown of a new one, and in a couple of weeks, in seat 23B, I will fasten my seat belt thinking, So the leaving's finally done; what do I need to prepare myself for now? 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Happy birthday to Ursa Minor! You're two now, little bear!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rainy Saturday in Moscow (so it almost doesn't matter what the camera settings are; there's no color anyway). At the Tretyakov annex, I loved Chagall's delicate etchings for Gogol's Dead Souls. EB got excited about Goncharova's folk animals. Lula slept through. The carousel at Gorky Park played Bryan Adams and spun fast enough to make us feel the centrifugal force.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

So different, this man 
And this woman: 
A stream flowing 
In a field.

(William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963)
15 july
To マークジョーンズ and 木村こずえ, on the occasion of their marriage.

Friday, October 16, 2009

EB to me this evening:

"What are bagels?"

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Nanny worked one of her folk remedy miracles again today. I dearly love them and will miss them so much when we go. Lula coughed all night last night and the one before, and so today, while I was out, Lena rubbed her up and down, back and front, with honey, then applied raw cabbage leaves she'd brought from home for the purpose. I wondered about the big sweat stains on the baby's clothing when I got home, but thought little about it until I undressed her for her bath just now, and limp pieces of cabbage fell out of her onesie. Her torso is sticky with honey and she smells lickable. And she isn't coughing. 

In other news, the Princess Kitchen opened in our living room last week and has been busy ever since. Service can be uneven (you'd better sit where you're told by the proprietress) but I highly recommend the apple tea and the watermelon ice cream, served in tiny crystal goblets.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

darker side of Khimki, where we go to buy diapers, dishes, and Weetabix. 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pesky case of walking pneumonia has got me down. (Groggy doc on the night shift at EMC accidentally prescribed a triple-strength dose of my antibiotic; does anybody need some Augmentin?) I'm starting to remember now how last fall and winter went, how we never felt quite completely well, for months. Nothing serious, just a long, variable drag. One of the girls has a fever about every third day now, which resolves, then reappears; their runny noses come and go; their coughing, especially at night, is more or less frequent but never really disappears. EB's school is understandably adamant about keeping sick kids home and collecting doctors' notes for absences, but the rules are difficult to follow when the illness waxes and wanes for weeks.

So... the news is that we will leave Moscow by the end of November, if not sooner. Not sure where we will go yet; perhaps the US, perhaps Central Europe, perhaps (slim chance) Singapore or Hong Kong. I am anxious, but the displacement feels familiar too. EB, not yet four, has lived in at least three languages (and thus worlds) for months at a time. Ours is a traveling circus, and it's time to take this show on the road again. 

Book log: Stephanie Zweig's Nowhere in Africa, a Holocaust memoir that, except for some splendid passages written from the viewpoint of a wise Kikuyu, blocks out much of Kenya's color and beauty and dwells instead on the morbid, incurious minds of the author's parents. A bit like being stuck in a tour van with a stubbornly quarrelsome couple while driving through a gorgeous, exotic land they never look out the window to notice. Then, Natasha's Dance by Orlando Figes, an examination of Russia's obsessive self-redefinition over the last few centuries... not so different from any other nation, except that here it was frequently state-managed, handicapped by the inert weight of millions of illiterate peasants (who were alternately reviled and idolized by city folk), and it played out on so epic a scale. 

Well, it looks like another gray day. Lula is toting the new foster kitten (Hans) around by his scruff, and the breakfast dishes are waiting...

Saturday, October 3, 2009

This one goes out to Mark: 

"Burning the world to live in it is wrong..."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I went looking for ghosts yesterday, and found several.
When I was an undergraduate, I took a course on the home: the built space, and our understanding of the word. We traced Western modes of living from itinerant European courts ("people pretty much camped in their houses") through the ornate nostalgia of the nineteenth century (gingerbread and inglenooks) to the "open plan" of the last half-century and our tendency now to gather around an island countertop in the kitchen. Terrific course. Witold Rybczynski's Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986) and The Grand Domestic Revolution by Dolores Hayden (1982) were two of the absolutely fascinating assigned texts. Partly because I'd spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe just before, and partly because I felt contrary, I wrote a paper on the Narkomfin building, designed by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinus in the late 1920s and built in 1932 a mere mile from where I live now. Yesterday, we finally went to have a look.
It was a building designed to teach the Soviet citizen how to live communally, how to transcend bourgeois notions of privacy and personal possession and participate more fully in community life. And it was a near-complete failure. By assigning each resident minimal and identical sleeping quarters, many without kitchen or laundry facilities and without much private space in which to gather or play, and by largely relocating the lives of young children to an on-site kindergarten and away from the nuclear family home, the architects hoped to encourage use of the shared kitchen, library, and leisure spaces. Instead, residents guerilla-wired their tiny spaces for cooking, communal areas went unused and were re-allocated, and with the arrival of Stalin, incoherent grandiosity (the style that prevails in Moscow architecture even today) replaced edgy modernist experiments like Narkomfin. 

Having seen only the architects' drawings and a few photos taken upon the building's completion in the thirties -- my undergrad years pretty much predated the internet -- I was shocked by the look of the place. Almost every door inside and out padlocked, and some strangely sealed like envelopes, with strips of paper stamped and signed. Traces left by that perennial Russian character, the inspector. 
But even through so many decades of accumulated rot, the design of the building shines feebly. Inside are the cleanest possible lines -- a wooden bannister atop a stucco wall with perfect curves, neat geometric tile floors, long airy strips of broken glass overlooking the decrepit courtyard. 

Zero, zero, absolutely zero ornament. Not a doorjamb, not a knob, not a light fixture with any trace of frivolous decoration. Okay, maybe the serifs on the apartment numbers. But they -- and the slightly diminished scale of everything; people must have been smaller -- reminded me just how old, and how revolutionary, the building is. Cantilevered, it seems to have sailed in and slowly come to rest in its place, "like an ocean liner," remarked an old gentleman who has lived for seventy-five years in an adjacent bloc and who accompanied us through. Like a sunken shipwreck. Weeds grow from mounds of cigarette ash on the windowsills.

The old man, one Vladimir Fyodorevich, pulled out a little black Moleskine with mousey writing inside and explained that so far this year, he has composed 4,065 riddles. He treated us to a few. 

It was strange to reread what I'd confidently written about Russia many years ago, working only from books. "Since the population of the capital city doubled between 1918 and 1936, the average living space allotted to a Soviet worker dropped from the already meager seven square meters to a desperate four and a half (Shvidkovsky 61)." Yes, fine, but how much more illuminating it was to walk through a space that the best architects dreamed up as a solution to this problem. Perhaps when my girls say they want to go to college, I'll send them traveling instead.

Since the leaves started falling and the weather turned damp and chilly, with brief bursts of sunshine that light up the golden domes and then quickly fade, Moscow is again at its most beautiful, and I remember our first walks, one year ago. 
The days are shortening fast. Already the little solar-powered hands on my wristwatch don't absorb enough light to glow all night; they disappear into the darkness by two or three in the morning. The powers above have not turned on the city's central heating yet, and this apartment seems perpetually cold, so I have been spending much of my time at home huddled: in a kitchen chair, in bed, in the girls' room. We've had a friend visiting from Paris all week, and each morning we all meet in the kitchen hugging ourselves, trying to preserve some warmth from bed. We found a cramped and scruffy cafe near the church where Pushkin got married and it's perfect for hiding on raw days. They are generous with cream toppings, art supplies, and that salty clear vegetable broth Russians make that fixes any malady.

Last Friday, a harvest festival at EB's detsky sad gave us a chance to stand, basically hypnotized, around an outdoor fire, and sing songs about hauling in the cabbages and apples and shaping big loaves of bread. To me, though, the old songs of abundance and merry work sounded as mournful and yearning as those we learned in March for maslenitsa, the painfully early folk rite of spring. 

We visited the Moscow Biennale, and it was a blast. More humor and glibness than substance, perhaps, but some of the pieces were very moving, like Sheeba Chhachhi's elegant temple to migration, both human and avian, using the garish plastic aquarium lamps for sale in ten thousand import dollar stores in cities around the world. And the phantom photos that appeared when we breathed on the tiny lidded mirrors by Jason Shulman. All in all, far too many animals, dead and alive, put to uses that benefit... whom? But it was a wonderland for the girls: literally anything could be waiting around the next corner. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Gorgeous morning, and our first taste of zolotaya osyen this year. Though at street level it is still as cool and blue-gray as dawn, the very tops of the apartment blocs are lit up, their windows blazing. The penthouse residents alone can see something golden just over the horizon. Which works, I suppose, as a metaphor for the New Russia. But it's too early in the morning for that.

The mosquitoes are so bad in these final weeks of warmish weather that I've pulled out the copious bed net I bought for Wisconsin, strung it up from a ceiling lamp, and we're sleeping rather romantically under its draping veils. And we have screens on the windows. Strange. The cleaning lady scoffs at my poetic solution -- though the net is legit, from a camping website, not for god's sake Pier One! -- she stands by something called Fumitox, which I hesitate to bring into this apartment. If it's tox for them, it's tox for us, I speculated yesterday, but Ludmila rolled her eyes.

One week ago today, at our little farmhouse rental in Sweden, EB stacked a child's chair onto a coffee table, climbed to the top, and fell immediately onto the tile floor, landing on her shoulder. She didn't react much at the time, but she's been complaining intermittently of pain ever since, putting on shirts and dresses has been a struggle, and she's been reluctant to use her right arm while playing. I took her to see the pediatrician Monday, who briefly checked her arm's range of movement, shrugged it off, and sent us home with a signed and sealed good health certificate for the start of school. (At least half of the parents of children in EB's class purchased their spravki rather cheaply from a lady at the far end of one of the subway lines; no need to show up with your child for an exam that way. We would have done this... so glad we didn't.) Yesterday the bump at her little clavicle was unmistakable, and we rushed back to the clinic where I insisted on an X-ray, and sure enough, the poor mite has a fractured collarbone, and has to wear a brace for two weeks. I lay in bed last night remembering how I urged her to wear her own backpack through the airport... ahhhhhh, terrible mother!