2003-01-28 7:12 PM

Having fled the rotting smile of the shashlik-house chef with what I hope was a politely feigned cluelessness at her rather charmingly clumsy advances, I had a good postlunch walk at the edge of the forest before once again mounting my iron horse. Man, I was full.

I find Russian food in general very pleasant. For the most part, it's far more wholesome and natural than the things we typically eat in America. The kind of processing and packaging that so effectively divorces American foodstuffs from the field, the orchard, the dairy, and the slaughterhouse is delightfully rare here. The use of artificial flavors, artificial colors, preservatives (other than simple salt), etc. is the exception here, not the rule. As an example, I've discovered that, while it's perfectly possible to buy (in the urban supermarkets, at least) a plastic container full of the impossibly bright yellow substance laughably known as "mustard" to Americans, genuine spicy stone ground mustard in glass jars is much easier to find, and far cheaper. In the States, this stuff would only be found on the gourmet aisle, and would be priced accordingly.

Processed cheese (which is fit only for use as fishbait anyway) is mercifully difficult to locate here. I suppose if you really had a jones on for the taste of pre-sliced squares of coagulated oil dyed bright orange, you could go to McDonald's - go right ahead, and I'll see you later. All the cheeses in my local market are the real deal. On the other hand, there's not a whole lot of variety in the commonly available cheeses. If I want cheddar, I have to go into the city and hunt a bit.

When I buy meat here, I buy it from the butcher across the street. He's a burly fellow with great big forearms, and he disassembles sides of beef right in front of me, adroitly wielding a meat cleaver with a comically gargantuan blade on an absurdly short handle, like a battle-axe meant for a dwarf. He's very popular with the local dogs. Strays and slumming housepets are welcome in his shop and assured of a generous largesse, as long as they behave themselves and stay mostly out from underfoot.

Fruits and vegetables of all kinds are freely available even in the depth of winter. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers (being expensive) are very rarely used in this country, so things are a little earthier than what you might be accustomed to, not as pretty as the minutely inspected and lightly waxed artifacts of industrial civilization found in the produce section at Ralph's, but much cheaper and every bit as good as the premium-priced "organically grown" comestibles sold to the eco-conscious monied classes back home. It's all organically grown here, and dirt cheap to boot.

Milk is perhaps the most commonly processed and packaged food around, no doubt due to the difficulty of bringing it any distance to market without running the risk of contamination. Most of the milk sold in the city comes in boxes, hermetically sealed and lightly irradiated against all chance of spoiling. I usually buy mine in plastic bags, but purists get theirs from wheeled metal tanks that dispense milk on streetcorners, whole and fresh every morning, bring your own bottle. At Uncle's dacha in Nikolsk, we just mosey on down the rutted dirt road bright and early, take a big bottle of pure unadulterated moojuice still warm from the cow out of a metal footlocker in front of a neighbor's gate, and leave a few rubles behind in trade. I'd rather have that and a bowlful of strawberries from Uncle's garden for breakfast than anything you could order in any restaurant in New York or L.A.

All of which is not to say that I am particularly enamoured of Russian cuisine. The heavy-handed use of dill is not much to my liking, I don't care to have my food drowned in mayonnaise, and I prefer to avoid eating lemon peel if possible. Some of the traditional dishes are really good, but others are just nauseating to the American palate, like the weird cold soup they make with diced herbs and vegetables swimming in fizzy, fermented kvass and liberally doped with heaping glops of mayo. Happily, though, Russians tend to put a good variety of edibles on the table, and it's pretty easy to assemble a good honest sandwich out of all the finger foods and dainties they serve up, but be prepared for some highly bemused looks and comments. The sandwich is another of those technical innovations the Russians overlooked, so putting meat, veggies and condiments between two slices of bread is tantamount to fomenting a culinary rebellion 'round these parts.

Hot tea is the nonalchoholic beverage of choice. Good coffee can be had in select city cafe but it's expensive -- nearly all the coffee you'll find here is Nescaf-instant, just like they serve in American prisons and mental institutions. I do miss the easy availability of fresh ground mountain java, but I'm learning to make do with chai.

I don't much care for vodka, but if I did, I'd have a stunning array of choices. Oddly, Stolichnaya (for many years the most popular Russian vodka in America) is no longer made here, due to the political machinations of various oligarchs involved in the privatization and deprivatization of government-owned name brands, a long and occasionally interesting story in itself. Eh, whatever! One vodka is much like another to me, though people who really like the stuff tell me that there's a great deal of variety in the vast panoply of brands available. The stereotype of Russian alcoholism is, sadly, about 90% true. There's a shocking amount of hardcore imbibery going on here, throughout the socioeconomic classes and the age groups, and little stigma associated with it. A dreadful alky effluvium oozes from the pores of Russians in all walks of life. It's a little depressing to catch a whiff of a beautiful, fashionably dressed girl who looks like a supermodel, only to find that she smells like eau de alley-sleeping panhandler instead of Chanel No. 5.

There's lots of beer being brewed in Russia, but so far I haven't found any that I would call really good. I'm admittedly spoiled, having sampled good microbrews from all over the world, so the lack is no small disappointment to me. The quality of domestic beer here ranges from a close approximation of the fizzy pre-urine crime against good taste that is American Budweiser (as opposed to Czech Budweiser, which is a different animal altogether), to some modestly decent offerings that are drinkable, but not spectacular. Even the imports reveal a sad failure of the Russian palate to properly distinguish between good beer and bad: of all the wonderful fermentations produced in Belgium, for instance, the Russians choose to import mostly Stella Artois, a mediocre fluid that puts the twerp in Antwerp.

If anybody in the general vicinity of Quebec is reading this, please drop whatever you're doing and send an emergency care package of Mauditte as soon as possible. Mmm, Mauditte! Now there's a fine beer! Just the thought of it, and I'm both dry and drooling at the same time. If you can't send me any, for Bog's sake at least have the mercy to drink one and pretend that you're me, you fortunate soul.

Having wandered shamelessly from digestion to digression to begging, I will now set aside my Rabelaisian thirst and return to my narrative. Hopefully, the reader will forgive me for straying so far from my charted course. Better yet, the reader will take a quick break and pour him or herself a drink of whatever type pleases the reader most. I'm having a Bochkarev - join me, won't you? Nazdarovye!

****** INTERMISSION ******

My belly was full, my legs were stretched, and my journey back to the city was incomplete. I left the smoky fires and the tilted funhouse diners of the forest truckstop behind me, figuring I had one last good push to make if I wanted to get home before the late summer dark set in. The terrain was fairly heavily forested now, and the road traversed a long series of small rolling hills, providing me with the innocent entertainment that makes bikers and rollercoaster enthusiasts kin to each other. You don't get much of that kind of riding in this part of Russia, as Moscow is situated in the middle of a vast plain, but the general dreary sameness of altitude is amply compensated for by the wealth of wide, far horizons.

I covered good ground. It was late enough that the light had taken on a brassy quality, something perhaps added or subtracted by the multiplied halls of air through which the increasingly slanting rays travelled as the sun sank toward the rim of the world. Old Solly was beaming away full in my face now, hard and bright but not entirely unwelcome, as the cooling effect of the wind was beginning to overpower the heat that had oppressed the earlier hours of the day.

Foolish me, I was beginning to think about what I would do when I got home, and idly doing the math in my head to figure out approximately when I would get there. Naturally, such a train of thought only invites trouble. I should not have been at all surprised when my calculations were intruded upon by a very unpleasant grinding sound coming from my engine.

I was nearing the top of one of those rolling hills, shifting down into third so my great pig of a Soviet-built bike could handle the incline, and the obscene metal-on-metal noise struck my ears like a fart in a phonebooth as I released the clutch. I was looking for a place to pull over when another noise hit me, cutting through the blat and grind of my engine like a hot knife through a stick of butter.

There, standing all alone at the crest of the hill, was a small rectangular structure that would have been entirely forgettable had it not been for the sign out front. It was a cafe which in rural Russia can mean anything from a produkti that has hot water for chai and Nescafe - a full-blown restaurant. The sign was actually more of a sculpture; it was a monstrous affair constructed primarily of a small garishly painted automobile turned at an odd angle and hoisted high into the air on a pole. This was strange enough in and of itself, but the proclamation of the power of randomness it broadcast was further enhanced by the fact that the text advertising the place and its featured offerings was in English.

As I switched off my engine and coasted closer to the lonely cafe jouncing lightly across the generous dust-blown frontage that separated the building from the highway, the noise emanating from the tiny building resolved itself into some sort of weird pazouki music, blasting away at a psychotically distorted volume. A pair of unwieldy cabinetless speakers leaned like sentinels against either side of the door's frame, emitting the tortured voice of a shrieking, stereo-separated Janus, wires trailing vinelike back across the threshold and into the dark interior. A slack-skinned dog with exhausted, rheumy eyes lay just off the porch, wallowing miserably in the fearful sound as though moving somewhere quieter would be the ultimate exercise in canine futility. Possibly it was too late; the poor beast's nervous system may have already been pulverized by the waves of compressed and rarefied air that beat at my face like invisible fists.

There were no chairs or tables inside, just a long white counter behind which a doorway, obscured by a curtain of beads, led to an unseen back room. The place was meagerly decorated, but what there was proved to be, on closer examination, as mindbending as the sign, the music, and the dog outside. An old calendar depicting John F. Kennedy adorned the wall facing the door, but it was in Chinese, and JFK's eyes were drawn with pronounced epicanthial folds. Some sort of fringed, braided banner-thing, all bright red and gleaming gold, was on display on a small freestanding metal tripod affair dominating the counter, the banner bearing the overtly cheery image of a cartoon bird with musical notes dancing in the air around his head, bravely surmounting the enigmatic message I ALWAYS EAT A ONE.

Most amazing of all were the curtains. At first glance, they seemed ordinary enough, thin and threadbare and printed with a muted pattern of crudely drawn images meant to extol the joys of fishing. Repeated across the sun-faded surface were a trout on a line shown in closeup, a longer view of an archetypal fisherman in his hat and vest and waders with the pole in his hands bent in a long arc and the line stretched taut down into the riverwater at his feet, a round package of fishing line, a folded square of map liberally marked with lines representing streams and creeks, an open drawer full of hooks, bobbers, sinkers and other fishing paraphernalia, and a scrap of paper with a note or a list of some kind written on it. It was the package of fishing line that first drew my closer attention, as I noticed that, although the circle of the package itself was complete, the text on the label was missing a few letters. It read:

There was something strange about the map, as well. It was covered with place names that seemed perfectly ordinary and familiar to the casual glance, but which were all either truncated or mutated somehow:


Perhaps strangest of all was the text of the note. It was written in a cursive scrawl that defied any disinterested attempt at reading. Intrigued as I was at this point, I took a good hard look at it and puzzled it out. It seemed to be more of a poem than a note, a poem that struck me as absolutely beyond brilliant:

Wispy blanked up I
she just ended high in ing
orange and back
she's men farther
wages becoming
he they we
spending has a true watching
mamse than their lines
toos saying was great
I wit bat
a ting

(I did not know it at the time, but I was to encounter a matching set of curtains several months later, in my sickroom at the government-run hospital in Moscow. It was then that I managed to write down all the details of the text, which I have reproduced here verbatim. I do not pretend to understand the preternatural link that connects me to these curtains, or possibly to the author of the truly amazing poem printed thereon, but they do call to me, and at some point I intend to return to the hospital in the guise of a visitor and make off with the curtains after leaving some acceptable substitute in their place.)

The proprietor of this singular establishment emerged from the back room and turned the stereo off once he finally detected my presence at his counter, the deafening nature of the music being more of a sonic assault than an entertainment, and an absolute impediment to any attempts at conversation or the ordering of drinks. The truth be told, it was so savagely loud that, if not for the teenage years I spent as a member of that tribe known as punk rockers, I would probably have found the music inimical not only to conversation, but to life itself. Old rumors of secret Soviet weapons programs came drifting back to me as the bone-disintegrating sound cut off and rational thought became once again possible.

I checked my first impulse, which was to take the man behind the counter prisoner and interrogate him. Not having a pistol to whip him with, and not knowing what other exotic weaponry he might be packing, I decided that it would be imprudent to start demanding answers. Behind the carefully impassive mask of my face, however, I was silently screaming things like "HOW DO I MAKE A NOISE LIKE THAT?" and "WHY DOES JFK HAVE CHINESE EYES?" and "WHERE DID YOU GET THOSE FUCKING CURTAINS?"

He stood motionless, his tapered brown hands flat on the counter, and regarded me with an expression devoid of curiosity, waiting. His short hair was straight and black, and his skin was exceptionally smooth and dark, like old ivory dentures stained with a lifetime of chewing tobacco. His features were not at all African, however, and in fact were not unlike my own, which are amazing only for their regularity. His eyes were of an eerily penetrating emerald green color, absolute strangers to the rest of his face. A native of the Caucasus, perhaps?

"Hello," I ventured.

He wordlessly and emphatically closed his laser-like eyes for a long moment, and then opened them again. It was clearly a greeting, but not a greeting that invited the sort of discourse I wished to have with this man. I kept my mouth shut, but a tiny anguished moan of frustrated need to know escaped by way of my nose.

"Excuse me, but I don't speak Russian very well," I told him hopefully, my trump card in hand. "I am an American. Do you speak English?"

"No," he said, without the slightest flicker of interest in his face or his voice. This was something new. Up until that moment, every person I met in the Russian countryside was instantly fascinated with me. Even Vanya, the Makshan pimp who had tried to browbeat me into renting a girl I didn't want, had at least been taken with the possibility of getting his hands on some of my money. I was clearly dealing with someone beyond the pale.

We stood there, he and I, and I burned to know his secrets. He seemed to stare right through me with those bizarre gigawatt eyes of his, and I couldn't help but think that he didn't have any curiosity in him because he already knew everything. The silence stretched, stretched, stretched out between us, awkward only for me. He looked eminently prepared to take my order if I should happen to want anything, and equally willing, in the event that I didn't want anything, to continue effortlessly scouring the inside surface of the back of my head with his astonishing eyes, empty of either interest or boredom, until doomsday.

And then, without warning, just as I thought I would either collapse screaming under the sheer weight of that sphinx-like gaze, or order a cup of tea, he smiled a very odd and very fierce smile, and his coruscating eyes sort of snapped into focus on mine as he lifted his hand and extended it, very solemnly, for me to shake.

"American," he said as we shook hands, and he gestured mildly but eloquently at the cafe round us and nodded his head in a benign way as though to say that, here on this dusty windswept Russian hill, miles from anywhere, he had singlehandedly created an authentic slice of America just in case I might happen by and want one and it came to me then that it was true, he really had. This pinprick corner of nowhere was an embassy of that inevitable, inexorable America that is to be, a ghost of America a thousand years hence, translated by means unkown to rural Russia in the opening days of the 21st Century.

I don't like Coca-Cola, but I ordered one anyway. It seemed like the correct thing to do. He served me, took my money, and was gone, vanished behind the beaded curtain into the back room of the cafe

I drank my warm, enamel-dissolving Coke and strolled outside to see about my bike. Some experimentation, a simple clutch adjustment, and the grinding noise that had stopped me on this otherworldly hilltop, so bulgingly pregnant with subtle destiny, disappeared.

As I rolled down the far side of the hill and bump started the engine, I heard a sudden cacophonous din of pazouki music rend the very fabric of spacetime behind me.