Tag Archives: homeland

“And You Want to Travel WITH Him, And You Want to Travel Blind.”

It was the smell of burning patchouli incense that brought me in here.

Come to think of it, my nose had been acting up all day.

Earlier, down the street, along the netted fence that safeguarded a preservation ground, it picked-up on a strong smell of fish.

The encyclopedia of marine aromas was familiar to me since birth:  Somehow, my people were always drawn to large bodies of water, albeit only a few of them actually knew how to swim.

“Fresh fish doesn’t smell,” my grandfather used to say.  The man was a fisherman.

And it was not the smell of processed fish that my nose sensed either.  That one I had learned early on in life, as well:  at the cannery of anchovies and sardines that my grandmother supervised, in the Far East of Russia.  With her badass temper and a crass sense of humor, she would walk the premises; and I would march in her footsteps, armed with a jar of black caviar and an aluminum spoon.  Grandma would always smell like lily-of-the-valley bouquet; and when in certain portions of the factory, the reek disgusted me out of my appetite, I would bury my nose into the skirt at the back of her knees.

“See, comrade!” the woman would be ripping a new one to manager of that particular department.  “Even my grandchild knows this is not a smell of good produce.  Fuckin’ fix it!”

So, no:  The earlier smell down the road did not belong to the byproducts of humans.  This particular scent belonged to the wild.  When my nose picked up on it, I could envision piles of fish carcasses and flakes of scales circling in the air, close to the ground.

Along the fence, tourists with heavy lenses of cameras were taking photographs.  Parents were instructing their children to pose while the adults watched them through the screens of their iPhones.

I looked in the direction of the attraction:  Seals were lounging on a small patch of a gated beach with sprawled seaweed and patches of red succulents.  Lazily, they were lying in the same direction with their glossy or fuzzy bodies, then take turns crawling into the Bay, for more feasts.  Aha!  That’s the smell!

When I began to run again, I could smell the musky scents of cheap perfume on older women and the sweat of other runners.  As I neared the Cannery Row, the flavors of caramel popcorn and spiced hot chocolate seduced me into slowing down.  Right around the corner, the street opened into an alley of shops and street vendors.  People carried cups of frozen yoghurt and oily paper bags of street food.  Children on sugar highs were biting into chocolate covered apples and nagging their parents for sips out of their hot paper cups.

When a familiar scent from my motha’s kitchen reached my activated nose, I wandered into a store that emanated it.

“What IS that?” I muttered as I sniffed the air and scanned the shop’s display for hints.

Armed with a giant cup of coffee I felt obliged to purchase there, I continued my walk, a few minutes later.  The smell of patchouli incense reached me from across the street, and before I was aware of my obedience, I was stepping over the threshold.

I first looked around for signs by the door:  “Am I allowed to bring drinks in here?”

But the rich colors of exotic textiles and seemingly ancient jewelry quickly distracted my eyes.  I began to cruise aimlessly around the store.  High above, rows of women’s capes clung to the walls.  Hemp threaded backpacks and sequined shoulder bags lined the shelves down below.  A rack of wraparound skirts attracted my attention.

“From Tibet,” a old brown man with striped gray and black beard said from behind the grass counter, in the corner.  I hadn’t noticed him till then.

Sheepishly lowering my cup that had been soothing my nose with a sharp scent of roasted coffee beans, I smiled at him.

“Good day,” the gentle man nodded.

“They’re very lovely,” I patted the adorned cotton.  I owed him at least that much.  I had followed a scent and was planning to make no purchases here.

The tiny man would return to his noninvasive silence of a meditating good heart.  His goods, however, would begin to tell me stories:  of dusty passages of India and and the small roads of Thailand, jam packed with traffic; of silky hair of Chinese seamstresses and the blistered dry hands of bead workers in the Kingdom of Bhutan.  The transcendent scent continued hanging above me like a cloud that, if I could straddle, would carry me to the magical land of the Far East, so close to the settlement of my people.

“Good choice,” the tiny man stood up to bag a pair of chandelier earrings the color of a frost bitten malbec grape.

“A man of two words,” I thought to myself and felt grateful for his manner.  “A good man!”

I lowered my gaze to the jewelry display with amber, rubies and turquoise.

“Have this,” he said, and in his wrinkled palm I saw a ring of a matching color.  I studied his face:  “Good luck,” he said.

I lowered my head.  “Thank you.  That’s very sweet.  Thank you.”  And I slipped on the ring.

“Make a wish,” he responded.  “If you wish for something good — it WILL come true.”

(To Be Continued.)

“So, Let It Rain, Rain Down on Himmm… Mmmm…”

Oh, but it’s raining.  So, I think I’m just gonna stay in bed.

Yes.  It’s raining.

No, not just drizzling, in a typical fashion of LA-LA’s summers, when a few dirty raindrops smear the layer of dust on the windshields and rooftops of our cars; and for the rest of that week, we all drive in polka-dotted vehicles, too superstitious to wash them.  Because the law of LA-LA-Land is such:  Washing a car — brings on new rain.  The drizzling type of rain.  The rain that smears the layers of dust on the windshields and rooftops of our cars.

But today:  It’s raining.

Now, I wouldn’t call it “pouring”, for I have seen some of the worst rainstorms, in other spots along the planet.  I’ve seen the traffic stall in Moscow, its yellow cabs glistening with rain while their drivers, numbed into indifference by common despair, would pull off to the sides of the road and wait out the chaos.  And I have witnessed the swamps that rain makes out of Russian villages, like the birth place of my father; and the people would make portable bridges with loose planks of wood to walk across endless puddles of rainwater and mud.  Because Motha Russia is notorious for its unkept roads:  She is too enormous — to upkeep.

And I have seen the New York Subways shut down entirely, flooded overnight with aftershocks of a storm going much further south.  I have walked along the black-clad New Yorkers, obeying the barely comprehensible instructions over the groveling radio; so that we could take the bus shuttles, already overcrowded, above the ground.  And I watched them endure — the owners of those magnificently strong hearts — and they rarely complained.  Because that City — is not meant for weaklings.  In the last decade, that City has learned to persevere past unthinkable tragedies.  So, what’s a little rainstorm — to warriors?

The most nonchalant characteristic of San Franciscans — is their readiness for the whims of weather.  I have been amazed before to watch their instantaneous transformation into rain-ready attire, as soon as the first heavy raindrops give them a warning.   Sometimes, it’s just a few minutes of rain.  Other times, the precipitation comes down violently and all at once, as if dumped onto their heads by buckets of an impatient laundress.

And then, it passes.  It always passes:  The San Francisco blue.  And when the sun peaks out of the gray layer, suddenly the streets are filled with girls in summer frocks and boys in flip flops.  How ever do they do that:  The exceptional residents of their exceptional city?

But today, it’s raining — in LA-LA.

Oh yes!  It’s raining!

Photography by Russell James

I heard it, early in the morning, when I woke up amazed at my uninterrupted night of sleep.  There were no nightmares today.  In my bed, I wasn’t missing my beloveds.  Neither was I stuck with my chronic prophetic visions, on their behalf.  Neither did I catch myself dreaming.  No.  Today, I rested, lullabied into the sleep of the just — the sleep of the fulfilled — by the drumbeat of heavy raindrops, outside.

And when I first opened my eyes this morning, I thought:

“Oh, but it’s raining!  So, I think I’m just gonna stay in bed.”

But then, I looked outside.

The windows appeared streaked, and the pattern of the settled down moisture reminded me of other windows I had looked through, in other spots, along the planet.

I have watched the water cascading down the tiny windows of my grandmother, in a house she had moved to, as a widow.  She would arise early, to tend to her livestock (and whatever other magical business she couldn’t help but conduct).  But before leaving her tiny wooden house, she would sit in front of a poorly isolated window and unbraid her long, graying hair.  Unleashed, the hair would fall below her waistline; and she would hum, and she would sigh, while running an ivory-colored tooth comb brush, up from her temples and down to the knees.  She could’ve been a siren — a mermaid — playing a harp for her long awaited lover.  For surely, there had to be some magical business she wouldn’t help but conduct!

The windowpanes of our apartment in Eastern Germany would leak, quite often, when rainstorms came to town.  Motha would fuss.  She would dig out all the old towels from underneath our tub, divide and distribute them along our windowsills.  Flabbergasted, she would eventually storm out of the house — “to fix her ruined manicure” — and leave me with the task of wringing out the drenched cloths, until dad would arrive home, to help.

And when he did, the blue of the day would suddenly depart, and we would have an adventure:  stuffing all the cracks with putty and cotton, covering them with tape.  Motha would return to find our windows sweating from the inside, and the two of us — flushed, soaked in rainwater and giggling.

“Well!” she’d command over us.  “I guess I’ll be in the kitchen — slaving over soups.”

And we would pretend to help, but only until motha’s blues would depart, and she would start howling with her very specific laughter.

I would do the same trick at my Riverdale basement apartment, for three years.  I would use it as an excuse to make pots and cauldrons of soups, and play house, for a while.  I would scrawl down my speed dial to check which one of my beloveds was nearby — and hungry.  And I would wait for their very specific laughter to steam up my windowpanes, from the inside.

Ah.  But it’s raining today.

Yes, it’s raining — in LA-LA.

And I think it’s just the perfect day — to stay in bed.

“There Is ALWAYS Something Cookin’!”

It started like a typical talk last night.  Because that was the only reasonable thing to do, with my dad’s people:  To be typical. Because the question of “What would people think?” — always dictated the choices of his family.

When I resumed my weekly phone calls to Motha Russia, two years ago, I expected heightened stakes for a while.  After all, I haven’t been home in sixteen years!

And for the first couple of months of these telephoned conversations — with the family — things were indeed thrilling:  Someone was getting married.  Someone had passed away years ago.  This person was now a high ranking government official; and that one — had succumbed to full-range alcoholism.  Most of our shared excitement came from other people’s tragic tales:  immigration, disappearance, cancer, suicide.  And because Motha Russia always has had such stories in plentitude, we seemed to never run out of things to discuss.

So, for hours, dad and I would talk about other people:

“And how is Marinka, P?” I would ask him about my archenemy from high school, and that would spur another hour of gossip:  Someone was pregnant.  Someone was getting a divorce.  This person had left for Moscow.  That one — never returned from Chechnya.

But when it came to our own family, things weren’t discussed; not in any depth that revealed family secrets.  Nothing that would divert us — from being typical.  Surely, we talked about our distant relatives:  someone was cheating on his wife; another someone was graduating from medical school.  But the people in the immediate family — were not the topic for deep digging.

It was initially established by P:  He would answer the questions about his family living in the Urals with stubborn vagueness.

I could hardly remember my last visit to that middle section of Russia.  I was a teenager and bored out of my mind, on that trip.  Because just like the geography of the area itself, the common characteristic of my father’s people was an overall commitment to order and calm.  Every single one of them was always existing in the middle:  Not really subversive in any way and never disobedient.  They were — typical.

And the orderly flow of their daily events was dictated by the family’s matriarch:

Breakfast at 0700 hours.  Work at 0900.  Women cleaned the house and cooked — men left for the fields.  Bathhouse was ready by 1800 hours.  Dinner by 1900.

Having been a city-child my entire life, I was an immediate handful for my father’s mom:

“Why is she going to the library every day?” she scolded P in that passive-aggressive manner that was meant to be overheard, by me.  “What would people think?!” Because the question of “What would people think?” — always dictated the choices in his family.

So:  We walked our cows to the feeding fields by 0600 hours.  Attended Sunday church by 0800.

And, last night, it started like a typical talk:

“What are you doing right now?” P began our routine, after the initial pleasantries were gotten out of the way.

“I’m cooking,” I answered.

I was holding my cellphone with my left shoulder and running a colander full of spinach under the water.  An entire head of garlic was waiting to be peeled.  He would have heard my kitchen noises anyway.  So, I didn’t lie.  And I didn’t stop cooking.  Because I assumed:  P would have preferred for me to have a typical night anyway.

“You’re cooking?  At 2300 hours?” (P — is an army man.  He still talks in military time, so typical of his generation.)

“Yep,” I said.  “I’m cooking from scratch.”

I braced myself:  I expected him to start talking about the diversion from my typical sleeping schedule; or the noises with which I was disturbing my neighbors.  (In which case:  “What would people think?”  Right?!)

But P — chuckled.  “What are you making?”

“Soup,” I answered.  I preferred not to elaborate, as to not give away too much ammunition for dad’s later scolding:  I was a child of an army man, and I typically don’t run my mouth much.

But then, I reiterated, while gloating a bit:

“I’m making soup — from scratch!”

“I know you are,” P got serious on me.  “You always made me things from scratch.”

He would proceed to tell me that even as a teenager, I was the cook of the family.  Oh, how it bothered his mother — the matriarch — he told me, when I competently took over making his breakfasts, in the Urals!

“Why is she crowding me out of my kitchen?‘ your grandma told me,” he said last night.

I chuckled.  Yes, I chuckled with my typical close-lipped laughter:  so typical of my generation of army brats.  So typical — of my father’s child.

“But in all truth,” P continued, “I always preferred your cooking — over my mom’s.”

God damn!  THAT — was untypical!  The family’s matriarch was being shaken off her throne; and her son was now conspiring with a woman who was anything but typical, for her entire life.  

“What would people think?!” I thought.

But then, feeling encouraged, gloating even more, as a woman proud of all her self-taught talents, I carried on cooking, last night:  Mincing the roasted peppers; adding spices to the mixture of red, brown and wild rice.

P was into it:

“And when do you add salt?” he inquired.

“Never!” I said, in my matriarchal voice.  “In my kitchen — I use lemon!”

P chuckled.  Yes, he chuckled with his typical close-lipped laughter.  But I knew:  He was choking back his tears.

Due to the untypical turn of events in his family’s history, I grew up in an untypical fashion:  On a whole different continent, one hemisphere removed from him and his people.  I had become a woman on my own terms.  And somehow, despite being extremely untypical, in my father’s eyes — I was absolutely perfect:

I was a good woman — so typical of my father’s child.

And I was the best cook — in the family:  How untypical!

“Somewhere, Someone’s Calling Me, When the Chips Are Down.”

(Continued from September 30, 2011.)

So, that day, when motha decided to bring home a coconut, I didn’t even wonder if she had to stand in line for it.

“Where did you find this thing?!” I asked instead, while clutching the coconut to my chest.  It felt prickly.

I knew she must’ve gone to some fancy store in the capital.  She had taken a bus and probably a couple of trolleys; and then another bus, packed with other mothers — in order to bring this thing home:  A coconut!

In the midst of the last days of the Soviet Union, she had brought home — a coconut!

In response to my question, motha would start telling a story.  But motha sucks at storytelling; and soon enough, long before delivering the punchline, she started laughing and flailing her arms around, completely unaware of her vanity (and considering motha always knew the effect of her beauty, such abandonment — was quite endearing).

She tilted her head back, as if in the midst of some private exorcism, and she hollered and yelped in between her words.  Tears started glistening in the corners of her eyes.  And she would smack me every once in a while, as if taunting me to participate in her hysteria; and even though she stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground, motha could always pack a mighty punch.

Pretty soon, things in her vicinity started falling down to the floor.  Motha crouched down to pick them up; but then, she just stayed there — laughing.

I don’t know what the gist of her story was, at first:  I just kept clutching the coconut.  I wasn’t really sure how breakable that thing was, and I didn’t want motha to knock it over by accident.  Sure, I’ve seen those things before, most likely on some Mexican telenovela or in a film about rich American people, in a pretty town, on some pretty shore.  Both genres would have been narrated in a monotone male voice of the translator, yet I still managed to get addicted to these latest imports on our television screens, full-heartedly.

Because in the last years of the Soviet Union, the world suddenly became much larger — and not as intimidating as it had been previously assumed.  And despite the utter chaos, my own homeland began to seem much more human.   

And despite the last days of my innocence — the last days of my childhood — it was impossible not to laugh along with my motha, in that moment.

I think she was trying to tell me about her asking for a tutorial from the cashier woman at the store.

“And why are you asking ME, lady citizen?” the bitter woman had responded.  You’d think she would be happy to work in such a fancy establishment, with more access to deficit items the rest of us could only see on some Mexican telenovelas or in an American film.  But apparently, Soviet cashiers were bitter regardless of their situation.

“Do I look like I’m married to an apparatchik, to you?!” — the disgruntled woman attacked my motha.  (I have a feeling that interaction didn’t end well, for the cashier; because with motha — it’s better not to push it.)

Bitterness — was the worst consequence of those days.  The flood of unexpected hardships was actually quite easy to understand, because poverty had always existed in my Motha’land.  But while we were all poor together, it must’ve bugged the grown-ups less.  It was when the distance between the new wealth and the old poverty became obvious that Russians began to express their discontentment.  (And we aren’t really a happy bunch, to begin with.)

“So, it’s up to you and me, rabbit!” motha concluded and marched out into the living-room.

She wasn’t too keen on tender nicknames for me, so I just stayed in my place and waited:  With motha — it’s better not to push it.  Something heavy fell down in the living-room.  I heard my motha swear.  The thought of our neighbors below made me cringe:  Daily, the poor bastards had to endure the heavy footsteps of this tiny woman who stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground.

Motha reappeared in the doorway.

“How about it then?!”

Her face was still flushed from laughter, and her chest was heaving.  In one of her manicured hands, motha was holding an ax (oh, dear Lenin!), and with the other, she was waving a hammer and a screwdriver above her head.

“Oy, no!” I said.  And, “Bad idea!” — I thought to myself.

“Whoever doesn’t take risks — doesn’t drink champagne!” motha declared and proceeded to march into the kitchen.  I, the coconut, and our offensively obese red cat followed her.

The operation that unfolded in the kitchen was less than graceful:  Crouching down in her miniskirt, motha began pounding the screwdriver into the poor piece of fruit.  But the problem was she was whacking it through the side, and the thing kept rolling out of her grip.  And she:  She kept laughing.

“Hey, rabbit!  Come help!”

Motha’s orders were never up to a negotiation, so, I obeyed.  The thought of the screwdriver being hammered into my palm with my motha’s clumsy maneuver was a lot less intimidating, than her wrath.  Yeah:  With motha — it’s better not to push it.

But first, I examined the fruit:

“Let’s trying breaking in through these three dimples,” I suggested.

The task would have been accomplished had motha stopped collapsing into fits of laughter.  And I thought:  If there was ever anything more dangerous than an unhappy Russian woman, it would be a woman in throws of hysteria, holding a hammer.

Motha reached for the ax.

“Oy, no!” I rebelled and leapt to my feet.  This whole situation was starting to stage itself as some Greek tragedy.  And most of the time, those don’t work out well, for the children.

Motha got up, while still holding the now scuffed up fruit.  With tears and make-up running down her face, she reminded me of a young girl at a Beatles concert.  (The images of such strange life elsewhere were beginning to flood our press, from all parts of the world.  And somehow, that world seemed much larger, less intimidating — and quite wonderful!)

“Rabbit, catch!” she threw the coconut at me.

I ducked.  The fruit bounced off the doorway behind me and hit the floor.  Our offensively obese red cat dashed out of the kitchen.

Motha and I lost it entirely, and when the neighbors below knocked on their ceiling, we lost it again.  The glimmer of joy, dimmed in my motha’s eyes in those difficult years, considered reigniting.  No matter the chaos, this beautiful woman who stood no taller than 1.5 meters from the ground, refused to grovel.   And even if it took hysteria to remember how to laugh, she wouldn’t give it up.