The Beauty of the Russian Verb Dostat’

A few days ago, facing the fact that my closet couldn’t accommodate one more piece of clothing, I was forced to inventory its contents – a chore that gives me as much pleasure as grating beets for a Herring under a fur coat salad and then spending a week trying to scrub the purple off my palms.  I came across a dress in black and orange that made me wince, a going away present from my aunt who worked at the Ivanovo fashion factory in Central Russia and pulled all her connections to get me this gift.  There is a verb in Russian – dostat’ – that has no exact equivalent in English.  It roughly means to get something with difficulty – through a series of clever and timely moves or through connections.  We had to dostat’ almost everything in Soviet Leningrad: Bulgarian ketchup, Finnish boots, Pasternak’s poetry.  This gave us a sense of thrill and achievement; it galvanized our life.  Rewards were numerous: a can of sprats tossed at you by a surly saleswoman because you happened to pass the store when the delivery truck pulled up to the back door; a pair of Polish pantyhose your neighbor whispered you still might be able to own if you dropped your plans and sprinted to the corner haberdashery; a jar of instant coffee with a complicated Swedish label you garnered from a friendly professor whose husband was a merchant marine and had, unlike us, seen other shores.  All that kept us alert and ready.  We couldn’t afford to lose concentration; there were only so many cans of sprats and pairs of pantyhose and jars of instant coffee.

Which brings me to something positive about our extinct Soviet life: it was easier than life is here in America.  We were not burdened with choice: there was one university, one style of shoes, one party.  There was one red wine called “ink” and only three kinds of cheese, all with the geopolitical names of Russian, Soviet, and Swiss.  There was little to buy and no money to buy it with.  We didn’t have to rack our brains to decide where to have lunch because, in the absence of restaurants, the only place to eat was our own kitchen.

That’s why Russian immigrants in the U.S. shop for clothing at TJMaxx.  The vast racks of unknown labels provide little choice, but when you stumble onto a brand name garment of quality, it gives you that feeling of dostat’ you can’t get in a regular store.  How difficult is it to buy a pair of Prada shoes when you enter a Prada store?  Anyone who is willing to part with half a month salary can do it.  But when you dig up a pair of Prada at TJMaxx, at one-tenth the price (which also happens to be your size) it feels just like that unforgettable day back in the USSR, the day you saw a truck with French sheepskin coats pull up to the back door of a Leningrad department store and you ran and elbowed your way to reach the counter at the precise moment to be the first one on line.

Snow and Spicy Soup

Last week, when New York and New Jersey surrendered to a blizzard, my Petersburg friends regarded our snow paralysis with bemused contempt.  A foot of snow made them chuckle.  Since December, they’ve been living with constant snowfalls and temperatures in single Fahrenheit digits.  My friend Irina and her family make their way around the city through tunnel-like pathways fenced off from the street by 6-foot-high snow banks, with a narrow trench to cross to the other side.  There is no place to dump the snow: all the canals in Petersburg are filled up to the top of their railings, with snow spilling onto the embankments.  This is the winter of my childhood: snow-capped monuments, petrified trees, and awkward snow-clearing machines with two greedy metal arms, clanging along the sidewalks, tossing the snow into a truck trailing behind.  To my friend Slava, however, this white abundance we so much fear on this side of the Atlantic has been a boon: he dug out a cave in the corner of his snow-filled courtyard and now has a garage for his car.

The only commonality my Russian friends and I share in our response to snow is that both in Petersburg and Ridgewood we make soup.  A winter soup must be thick and spicy, and that makes Georgian kharcho a perfect choice.

Ingredients: 1 lb of lamb, 2 onions, 3 cloves of garlic, 2 tbsp. of tomato paste or 2 fresh tomatoes, 1/2 cup of rice, 1/2 cup of sour plums.  (The secret of this soup is cheap, fatty lamb).

Preparation: Cut the lamb into 1 inch squares, cover with cold water, bring to a boil and cook for 1-1 1/2 hours.  Skim off the foam.  Add chopped onion, garlic, rice, sour plums, salt, pepper, and cook for 30 min. longer.  Saute the tomatoes (or tomato paste) in oil and add to the soup 5-10 min. before it is done.  Before serving, sprinkle with cilantro.

This soup must be thick as a stew.  It is (as most soups) better on the second or third day, when all the tastes have a chance to coalesce.  It is also known as an excellent remedy for hangover.

Watching the Amazon Numbers

I spent this past weekend sitting in front of a computer screen – not writing, not escaping the snowstorm that never materialized here – but watching my sales rank on Amazon.  After the review of “A Mountain of Crumbs” in the New York Times Book Review, those numbers skyrocketed, which really means the opposite – they plummeted.  By Saturday night, I raced past Dostoyevsky.  By Sunday morning, I was beating the hell out of the complete works of Tolstoy that Amazon was giving away for 99 cents on Kindle. Solzhenitsyn with his Gulag was now in my wake.  Glued to the computer screen, I watched the numbers improve from 1,399 to 876 to 567 to 248 to 195.  In the intervals between the hourly updates (not to waste time) I googled myself and , among other things, found my book as part of the mandatory reading for a Canadian tour called “Reading Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express.”  “A Mountain of Crumbs” was in the company of Chekhov and Nabokov, next to Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita.”  I checked Bulgakov on Amazon: “Master and Margarita,” the book so powerful the Soviets banned it, was ranked # 29,314.

Monday was my heavy teaching day, and I felt grateful that I wouldn’t have a minute free to spend in front of my computer.  I also had a suspicion that in a week, or a month, or several months if I’m lucky, things would go back to normal and my book would obediently line up behind Chekhov, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky, and Bulgakov – way behind, where it belonged.

Unearthing Our Schizophrenic Past

My old friend Tanya used to live across the street, in an old communal apartment with no bathtub or hot water, in the October Revolution district of Leningrad.  In our last year of high school, we sat on a bench under a rickety tree and talked about the future.  There wasn’t much to discuss: we were both going to college, which would then assign us to jobs; we would live with our mothers in the same apartment, even after we married and had children.  A room would be divided in two with a hanging sheet as a permanent partition.  The future was set for us, just as it was set for everyone else.  We were never more than little cars in the long, glorious train of our collective, obediently clanging along the designated track.

Now, almost forty years later, Tanya – still my friend – called me from a town in New Jersey, where she lives, to say that she had finished A Mountain of Crumbs.  She liked it, but some pages were painful to read, she said.  “Why?” I asked, pretending to be surprised, pretending I didn’t know the answer.  She chuckled, and I imagined her looking into the endless hallway of her new house, big enough for her, her mother, and her two sons and their families.  Only her sons and their families, I know, live separately and in far away locations.  They’ve never heard of sheets partitioning rooms, or of washing hair in cold water under a kitchen faucet, or of our old pre-fabricated, collective, shining future, which never beamed its light on Tanya or my many other friends who emigrated here.

The schizophrenic system of our youth may no longer exist.  It only remains on the pages of books, from where it can still scowl at us, can still rattle its bones.  It only remains in our memories, where nothing ever fades or loses contrast.  In the corners of our minds, shelves will always be empty, books banned, and poetry strangled.  That other life – gone – is what molded us, and damaged us, and cleaved our souls.  It takes courage to admit that it is still smoldering inside us, like a nasty virus, and all these years later – despite our vast houses and many options – we are still trying to heal.

The Book is in Bookstores!

I am thrilled to announce that A Mountain of Crumbs is on the bookshelves of your favorite bookstore (as well as on Amazon) – a day ahead of schedule.  Tune in to WNYC radio (820 AM or 93.9 FM) at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, January 13, for my live interview with Leonard Lopate, or listen to the taped interviews with Joe Donahue of The Roundtable (WAMC/NPR, Tuesday, January 19, 9 a.m.) and Marjorie Kehe of the Christian Science Monitor (forthcoming January issue, podcast).

If I were back in Russia, it would make me reach for a jar with strawberry jam (those wild strawberries we picked in the woods – tiny berries that filled the kitchen with sweet, foresty fragrance).  But here, in America, I am reaching for a packet of black currant tea and a bottle of honey, those comforting tastes that remind me of home.  And, to be honest, I’m also reaching for a bottle of red Bordeaux (not Russian, for sure, but something that complements Russian food).  And, to be completely honest, I’m reaching for a shotglass of vodka – to be chased with that piece of herring no one wanted left over from the Herring-Under-a-Fur-Coat recipe.