Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Espresso and Absinthe in Modern Russia


The following is an excerpt of Josip Novakovich's piece from the latest issue of The Republic of Letters--which, along with other excerpts from the issue, can be found on the TroL website (excerpts which Luna Park is happy to disseminate because the TroL editors so kindly wrote this). TroL is the third literary magazine co-founded and edited by Keith Botsford and the late Saul Bellow. Begun in 1997 in broadsheet and in bound format in 2003, TroL has released just 17 issues in the past decade, because, according to the editors, the magazine is published "at irregular intervals--that is, when sufficient material of quality is available." Like their earlier collaborative publication, The Noble Savage, Bellow and Botsford have financed TroL themselves in order to allow them editorial freedom and the generosity they see as a necessary part of the literary magazine endeavor. In 1999, Bellow wrote a New York Times piece explaining his reasons for beginning TroL. Issues of TroL can be ordered from your local bookseller or purchased directly from Toby Press.

Five Easy Pieces

By Josip Novakovich

Most Russians don’t get up early. The shops in St. Petersburg open at ten in the morning, and that holds true even of coffee shops. Perhaps the notion of coffee as wake-up drug in Russia hasn’t filtered through the haze of the inimical climates and histories. Sometimes when the coffee shop opens, you can see jaded-looking men and women, literally jaded, a little green and sallow, drinking absinthe. Now that is a way to start the day—(no wonder there is a secretion of the liver contributing to the skin color). You may ask for coffee at 10 AM and the counter clerk, most likely, will look astonished, and ask, Espressa? They tend to turn their o’s into ‘ah’ sounds. Now it may take them half an hour to get the machine working, and in the finest St. Petersburg shop, the espresso machine didn’t work for two weeks during my stay there. But this is not the story of St. Petersburg but Moscow, which though more business-oriented and energetic, still has that late-to-bed, late-to-rise rhythm, and the train schedule seems to reflect that. The express trains from Moscow to St. Petersburg were scheduled to depart between one AM and two. I got the tickets for the two AM, and since I was indoctrinated by the American airport schedules, which in this era of security, demand that the passengers be early and planes late, I wanted to get to the station an hour before departure—to give ourselves margin in case we didn’t get a large cab easily. We were four, the whole family, with an additional member, the cello, with its huge case. We went out with our luggage and stood on the curb, next to an all-night kiosk. A few drunks leaned against the kiosk and drank from cans of beer. A small Zhiguli police car was parked nearby, bestowing the air of security on the block. I don’t know where the name Zhiguli comes from, whether it’s a play on the Italian gigolo, and whether the car is a copy of a Fiat, but there is definitely a second-hand air even in a new Zhiguli, and the cops looked a little second-hand and disinterested. In fact, they drove off. First a small car stopped, and a mustachioed man stepped out and insisted that all of us, luggage and passengers, could fit, and was mightily offended when I said we could not fit. He would not charge much, only one hundred and fifty rubles to the train station. Maybe our luggage would fit sans us. Maybe that was the plan, load up the car and drive off. After a decent amount of shouting, the man left.

Now another mustachioed man stopped with a larger car, a Lada coupe. We all fit, although it was not easy. He had some metal pipes and boxes in the trunk which he took a few minutes to rearrange.

I knew the direct way to the train station, having walked it. Down Koltze, turn left, up a huge boulevard, and that is that, a simple L trip, but apparently, for this man there was no such thing as a simple line. He drove us up Chapin, and there turned right, into a dark and bumpy street. His gas gauge kept beeping. Nice, he’s driving on empty. Maybe there’s a gas station here? Maybe he knows how to time everything? That might be a good scenario, to be out of gas, or to pretend to be, and to stop in an alley where his assistants could take our luggage and work us over. No doubt, such things have happened.

The cobbles of the street made the tires purr in their loud way.

At the traffic light, the man turned off the car, until the green light came back on, and then he cranked on the ignition. “Oh no,” Jeanette said. But the ignition caught. Maybe the corner was not dark enough. On the other side of the corner, diagonally, there was another Zhiguli with policemen. At the next corner there was another police car and a couple of policemen standing outside of it.

“All this police!” shouted our driver. “On every street corner. That is too much.”

And true, wherever we looked there were police cars. For what, I wondered? I hadn’t seen so many police even in NYC after 9/11, and this may have been related, a terror pre-emptive measure.

Our driver was getting more and more incensed at the sight of the police. Why should the police bother him? His being terrified of the police made him suspect. On the other hand, I was never particularly fond of them either, in any country, so his displeasure with the arbitrary executors of the law didn’t incriminate him in my eyes.

Anyhow, he made it to the train station, and I gave him two hundred rubles, as much as he had asked, and it wasn’t that much, six dollars, and he opened up the trunk but didn’t help me unload.

At the curb, a young man with a flatbed wooden pushcart offered to take the luggage for one hundred rubles.

“That’s a lot,” said Jeanette. “If the cab is only two hundred, this should be less.”

“That’s all right,” I said. “He probably needs the money.”

We loaded a large suitcase, and four smaller ones, and Jeanette carried Joseph’s cello.

The porter wasn’t officially attired. He didn’t have the cap. He was a young, somewhat Asiatic-looking man, perhaps from southern Siberia, if there is such a thing. Such a huge region should have a south as well, not only an east. He had a black blazer as though he were a waiter at a fancy hotel and black thin-soled leather shoes which didn’t give him much traction, so as he pushed he slid backward, but he progressed. He didn’t go to the side, where he could avoid the stairs, but directly forward. He couldn’t lift the pushcart over the stairs, and he needed my help. I got the lower, heavier end, but I didn’t mind. It entertained me to see him at work. He huffed and puffed as though his job were horrifyingly hard.

“He’s putting on a show of labor for us,” I said.

“Why, it must be hard work,” Jeanette retorted.

[To read the rest of "Five Easy Pieces" purchase or pick up issue 17 of TroL.]

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