Food from the Old Country

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

“Read Gogol’s Dead Souls,” Ms. Ezersky ordered me over tea. “It’s the bible of Russian food.” I still haven’t read it yet, but know, at least, that the narrator travels the Russian countryside looking to capitalize on laws about deceased peasants; he feasts in villagers’ homes along the way.

What I did do was speak with James Beard award-winning Portland chef Vitaly Paley about his Russian pop-up dinners, early food memories of growing up in Belarus, and his Georgian Caravan tea collaboration with Smith Teamakers while researching an article about pairing tea and food this past fall. Paley suggested I also speak with his mother, Genya, a piano teacher based in New York, and sometimes advisor on Russian traditions. Ms. Paley bought him a samovar on a trip to St. Petersburg and was one of the very first to try his Georgian tea with a homemade Oregon huckleberry jam akin to the preserves used in their native Belarus.

paleybar

Energy bar and herbal infusions bestowed upon me by Genya Paley, November 2015.

“Just a few sips of that tea reminded me of home,” said Ms. Paley. “It quenched my thirst.” I had gone up to see her one very rainy morning at Lincoln Center where she teaches exceptionally talented young pianists. She rarely drinks black tea anymore. In fact, the first thing she did was give me a few of Smith’s herbal blends and an energy bar made by her son–a typical snack on her action-packed days. “I don’t like many teas on the market,” she said. “But these I like.”

We talked quite a bit about life in Belarus when her son was young; his grandmother did most of the cooking, getting first-rate ingredients from neighbors and the local market. “It was a different time and place,” she said. “People brought us warm eggs and milk from next door. We knew it was fresh, and didn’t think much about it.” They had tea all day long, but proper tea time was later in the evenings, after supper, often with farmer’s cheeses, jams and sweets. They usually had an excellent looseleaf Georgian tea on hand, and when they were lucky, Napoleon cake made by Paley’s grandmother. “My son makes a version of it for his pop-up dinners, but it’s not my mother’s,” said Ms. Paley. “The layers of dough and cream were so thin you could barely tell they were there. It was all of a piece–no separation.”

kuleyiabka

Paley’s salmon kulebyaka from his Russian pop-up dinners.

Ms. Paley snapped up some linens on her last sojourn back to the old country, shipping them out West, along with some other accoutrements for her son’s dinners. He sometimes calls her, asking how she and his grandparents made certain dishes or homemade drinks like kvas. (He had mentioned the Russian fascination with fermentation to me and how there’s nothing quite like kvas; kombucha, he said, pales in comparison.) “I’m proud of how creative my son is,” said Ms. Paley. “He finds out how we did what we did, and always adds his own twist.” Known for his love of Pacific Northwest ingredients, Paley has been finding similarities between the region’s berries, mushrooms and game, and Belarussian cuisine, as he digs further into his roots. Portland dwellers can experience his Russian pop-up dinners in the coming months with tsar-ish delicacies like salmon kulebyaka washed down with tea from a real samovar followed by a cacao and sour cream riff on his grandmother’s Napoleon. “People often don’t know how rich and varied Russian food is,” he said. “Let the tables break from abundance,” as the Russian toast goes, “and the beds break from love.”

Danet

Samovar and blini from Paley’s dinners, reprinted from PDX Monthly, July 2015.

 

Russian Caravan: tea & perfume

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tajikistan Tearoom in Berlin.

Tajikistan Tearoom in Berlin.

The early autumn, blustery Wuthering Heights-like weather in New York right now has me in what I can only describe as a Russian mood. I’ve been dreaming about hunting for forest mushrooms in the Russian tradition but the best I could do was score a bag at Kalyustan’s the other day (they have a forest blend) to fry them up in onions and butter for my little one. The smell alone takes me back to my own childhood and our occasional visits to my Grandma Safko’s house in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, which was fully decorated in Ukrainian regalia from picture frames to pillows. My grandmother also regularly made pierogies at the Ukrainian Catholic church across the street, where she sometimes took me for bingo and Chinese auctions. I always envied my cousin who got to take Ukrainian there.

Russian tea service, via couches and pillows
Something about the cooler, darker weather has also brought me back to my favorite Russian teas and perfumes. Tea culture and traditions around the world fascinated me well before I became a more conscious tea drinker; I often visited tearooms in my travels. Among the most transporting was Tajikistan Tearoom in Berlin (a gift from Russia to Germany from a time when Tajikistan was part of the former USSR.) I went there about six years ago with my dear friend Jynne–an exciting and fearless travel companion who recently trekked to Antarctica on a National Science Foundation grant and has a knack for finding great spots. The places where we could lounge on couches and pillows for hours most impressed me. (I’d only previously encountered this style of tea drinking on my honeymoon in Turkey and am naturally inclined to a relaxed way of eating and drinking that allows one to sip tea and eat snacks over a long period of time.) The service we had with blini, rum-soaked raisins and a bit of vodka has stayed in my mind for years and has helped inform my style of entertaining–to offer refreshments in a way that makes any guest in my home feel as comfortable as possible and maybe even takes him or her to new places.

Easy Russian tea service at home, with Kusmi Bouquet of Flowers no. 108 and raspberry jam, as learned from my Russian teacher, Ms. Ezersky. September 2015

Easy Russian tea service at home, with Kusmi Bouquet of Flowers no. 108 and raspberry jam, as learned from my Russian teacher, Ms. Ezersky. September 2015

Russian Earl Grey
This past summer I attended an iced tea soiree at the Kusmi shop on New York’s Upper West Side and was delighted to discover Bouquet of Flowers No. 108–the centuries-old French-Russian tea maker’s first blend, made in 1880 for the owner’s daughter (I’d thought all these years that their inaugural tea was the more well-known Anastasia.) Badr and Marion at the shop were gracious hosts and sent me home with some beautiful samples. I love Bouquet of Flowers No. 108 for its daintiness–the flowers soften the boldness of the citrusy Earl Grey. It’s far more delicate than Anastasia, one of my favorite tea gifts for friends and relatives over the years, and also an exquisite Russian tea. Some of my other favorite blends in the strong Russian citrusy black tea category are Romanoff from American Tea Room (notice a Russian Imperial dynasty theme here?) and Palais des ThesSeven Citrus Russian Blend. The combination of Chinese black tea with citrus has been common to Russia since the 17th century; during the 1800s, blends with Indian Darjeeling and black teas from other countries became more fashionable among Russian nobility. Bellocq‘s Gypsy Caravan No. 54, a mix of Chinese and Indian blacks, is an absolute treasure, smooth, rich and smoky, with luxurious rose.

Russian tea culture: just a bit of jam
I was already deep into my Russian tea adventure when I received a note from Smith Teamaker saying that Tony Tellin had collaborated with James Beard award-winning restauranteur Vitaly Paley to create a Georgian Caravan tea experience–a blend of black teas smoked with hickory chips soaked in blackberries and vodka, and housemade huckleberry jam. Naturally, I was intrigued and immediately ordered some (as previous readers of Tea with Ms. Ezersky already know, tea with jam from Brighton Beach is a fixture in lessons with my 86-year-old Russian teacher.) Do read more here about Tony and Vitaly’s adventures with Georgian Caravan. Note that their tea and jam pairing got the nod of approval from Vitaly’s mother and inspired her to recount stories about tea rituals from Russia. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that.

In other inspiring developments, Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine and Eastern Europe comes out in the U.S. on Tuesday, October 6! I’ve been pining for this cookbook for a while (my grandmother gave me a Time-Life edition of Russian Cooking when I was small, and I spent many hours looking at photos of braided breads and decorated eggs long before I knew how to cook.) Mamushka’s author, Olia Hercules, has worked at Ottolenghi and takes a fresh, seasonal approach to Eastern European cooking; she always seems to be digging up new recipes from time-tested traditions in the region and lesser known locales. Fall and winter in my house will be sure to involve some Mamushka-inspired experiments.

Hickory chips soaked in vodka for Smith Teamakers' and Vitaly Paley's Georgian Caravan Tea, September 2015

The smell of Imperial Russia (and Silk Road Caravans)
The romance of old Russia has captured artists’ imaginations and inspired perfume makers for centuries, particularly scents with strong notes of smoke, leather and citrus. One can hardly neglect to mention the classic Cuir de Russie (created in a 1920s collaboration between Coco Chanel and Ernest Beaux—supplier of perfumes to Russia’s Imperial court and also responsible for Chanel no. 5.) The smoky Cuir de Russie comes from a longstanding tradition of woodsy, leathery Russian colognes, often made for men, though more commonly regarded as unisex today, like Acqua di Colonia Russa from Florence’s 13th century Santa Maria Novella, which made perfume for Catherine de Medici. Their Russian cologne has strong notes of citrus, and evokes a combination of sharpness and richer smoky depths, not unlike the Earl Grey Russian teas. In a similar vein, but even more robust, is Krigler’s Hermitage Heritage 04, with tobacco and vetiver. It’s explicitly listed as a masculine fragrance, though I do wear it myself sometimes when I’m feeling especially bold. In a modern throwback, Masque Milano unveiled its Russian Tea perfume last year, calling up the days of Silk Road caravans and nights by the campfire. For a quick old-world escape, try wearing it while drinking Bellocq’s Gypsy Caravan tea. Instant time travel. Na zdorovie, wherever it may take you.

Favorite Russian teas, scents, rituals or recipes? Please do share them here.  Read more here, too, about how you can inhabit the gypsy caravan vibe with millennia-old couture.

Fourth of July tea & Chekhov

Tags

, , , ,

McCarren Park Pool opened in 1936. Greenpoint, Brooklyn

McCarren Park Pool opened in 1936. Greenpoint, Brooklyn

I love the mood in New York just before Independence Day–half the city has fled but the streets are still brimming with people ready to relax and have fun. We have some great parks in Greenpoint and Williamsburg with lots of sprinklers and fountains turned on in summer (water balloons are a big thing with kids of all ages.) McCarren Park pool is another hotspot–founded during the Great Depression and recently reopened to Brooklyn bathers.

I arrived at Ms. Ezersky’s apartment today wearing bright salmon-colored shorts and ballet flats. My teacher greeted me with something between disdain and disbelief: “This is your Russian lesson. Are you going to the beach? Shameless.” Excuses like “I just came from a giant turtle fountain with my four-year-old” aren’t acceptable so I hardly ever bother explaining myself. Eager to share some news, I was abruptly cut off: “No time. We’re reading Chekhov.” Ms. Ezersky brought out some brisk tea with cherry jam and biscuits–our usual custom though the cherry jam was especially delicious. I asked where it was from. “No idea,” she said. “Back to Chekhov.”

The Chekhov story led to another story about Ms. Ezersky’s leaving Russia in the 1970s. She had lived through much of the Stalin era as a journalist, and managed to escape with her husband for three months in Rome before making their way to the U.S. “We had no money and used what few coins we had to see churches and museums. It was our Roman holiday.” But, she said, “Who knew if we were making the right choice to leave–we had grown up there and didn’t even know what a prison it was. Rome, as it turns out, was worth all of it–my broken life, my lost country.” I recalled a trip she took several years ago to revisit Italy after her husband died. They had wanted to see Venice during those transitory months but didn’t have enough money to get past the train station.

What does it cost to be free, I ask myself, as July 4th rolls around and my son naps in his room. When he wakes up, I think I’ll make us a little party of chips and guacamole and head to McCarren Pool.

Me, eating watermelon in McCarren Water Park, Brooklyn. July 3, 2015.

Me, eating watermelon in McCarren Water Park, Brooklyn. July 3, 2015.

Bon Vivants

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Tsarina Alexandra at tea.

Tsarina Alexandra at tea.

Once in a while, I take the luxury of stopping in Rockefeller Center’s Jacques Torres shop for a Dammann Freres tea and truffle afternoon pick-me-up at work. Luckily, I remembered to snag a box of chocolates for Mrs. Ezersky’s 86th birthday on one of my visits a few weeks ago, along with a bouquet of pink daisies from my favorite midtown florist Dahlia. I can’t help giving her little gifts like this–much as she scolds me for it. Perhaps, it’s something deeply old-fashioned in me–I regard it as a form of respect and adoration for such a venerable teacher. And because every single one of our lessons revolves around a shared pot of tea, cake and other small beauties in life. I also happen to know she loves flowers, despite protests, among other tiny luxuries, like bright pink lipstick.

I was most delighted to discover how much she enjoyed the Kusmi tea I gave her earlier this year from the marvelous mid-nineteenth century French-Russian tea maker that moved from St. Petersburg to Paris during the Russian Revolution. We talked a bit about her birthday plans (she opted to forgo a party this year in favor of a memorial for her husband who died ten years ago, and had arranged a tribute to be held that weekend at a Brighton Beach restaurant. I remember meeting her shortly before her husband died. She was discussing his illness over horseradish vodka with Roman–the man who opened New York’s Russian Samovar with Brodsky and Baryshnikov–when I approached them at their table. It touched me to discover that fact after so many years–it was like being handed one more puzzle piece of my dear teacher’s life and our rare, beautiful time together, somehow a decade already. She often says that our meeting was fate and considers me her daughter.

We spent the rest of our lesson revisiting some of her favorite scenes in Eugene Onegin and how among other things–novel-in-verse, tragi-comic romance–it is also a complete encyclopedia of Russian life. Naturally, tea’s a part of that, with the all-important samovar the center of every Russian household. And gorgeous food from all over the world, especially from France–the culinary center of the world during that time and arguably still reigning. (Mrs. Ezersky often mentions how well-versed most upper class Russians were in the French language and culture during Pushkin’s time and how even Tatiana’s romantic confession comes out in a flurry of French.) I particularly love this passage describing the type of parties Onegin would regularly attend in St. Petersburg. The translator–Paul Schmidt–also wrote a fascinating article looking at the many delicacies listed here, comparing these decadent Russian feasts to the conquest of whole cities (read more below.)

And now it’s dark. He gets into a sleigh.
Behind him trails the coachman’s cry: “Away!
The frost with sparkling silver dusts
The beaver collar of his winter coat.
He drives to Talon’s restaurant; he is sure
Kavérin will be waiting for him there.
He enters, corks go pop, they pour champagne
(1811, the year the comet came).
Before them, a roast-beef ensanguine;
Truffles, that extravagance of youth
And finest flower of the French cuisine;
Strasbourg’s immortal dish, foie gras en croûte;
Soft, ripening Limburger cheese
And golden pineapples from overseas.

I imagine Talon’s was like the iconic Maxim’s in Paris. Of course, Onegin was hopelessly bored by the feasts, tired of wine, women and life. But for our salon at Mrs. Ezersky’s Lower East Side apartment, I’ll continue to insist on nothing but fresh spring flowers and the world’s finest teas and chocolates. And will savor every bit of it. I’ve already tucked away Kusmi’s Russian collection for our next lesson. http://us.kusmitea.com/tea-set/assortments-of-mini-tins/russian-blends-selection.html

Paul Schmidt’s “A Winter Feast” from Parnassus Review

http://parnassusreview.com/archives/394

Teatime in Exile

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Weeks, sometimes months, go by when I’m not able to see Ms. Ezersky–if something comes up in my schedule or if she’s not feeling well (she has been in and out of remission over the last few years.) We hardly ever speak of it. She recently came down with the flu so we had to postpone our lesson for a while. When I told her how much I loved her at the end of our phone call, she said:  “you don’t need to say it. It’s obvious.”

I think of her often during the afternoons, especially when I drink Russian teas (I try to make it properly with some biscuits or a little cake even when I’m by myself, as we do in our lessons–in the Russian custom. The French-Russian tea maker Kusmi, founded in 1867 in St. Petersburg, naturally reminds me a lot of her–they have a great line of traditional Russian teas like Prince Vladimir with vanilla or a smoky citrus blend called Traktir. The classic Anastasia–a gorgeous version of Earl Grey inspired by the Romanov daughter of Nicholas II–is still based on the original recipe from when Kusmi founder Pavel Kusmichoff fled Russia during the 1917 Revolution and set up camp in Paris. What better drink to call up the great Russian writers in exile or to accompany Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (which Ms. Ezersky and I read together line by line over the course of four years)? It hasn’t always been easy to keep up my lessons–between work and having a little boy. I’m grateful to my husband, who always says “go, go” even when it requires a bit of juggling. Mostly, I’m moved to think of so many hours spent reading Russian poetry and drinking tea in her apartment over the last decade–what a profound luxury, increasingly rare in this day and age of busy, busy schedules. Another favorite–Bellocq’s Gypsy Caravan, a mix of Indian and Chinese teas with rose and chili-reminds me of Lermontov in exile, a soldier roaming the Causcasus Mountains.

I hope to resume my lessons this spring and pick up where we left off with Lermontov. In the meantime, I take great comfort in the richness of teatimes well spent with her over the years and the knowledge that absence can make the heart grow even fonder. Note this beautiful line of Russian teas from Kusmi. http://us.kusmitea.com/our-teas/russian-tea.html I’d love to hear about your favorite Russian blends or tea customs–please don’t hesitate to write me or comment.

Glitter and gold

Tags

, , ,

All of my Russian lessons with Ms. Ezersky include a break for teatime when we discuss any ballets or operas going on at Lincoln Center or whatever she happens to be covering for the Russian newspapers that week. She sweetens her tea with blackberry jam from a grocery store in Brighton Beach–in the typical Russian fashion–and can’t believe that I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea. She seems to feel sorry for me–why would anyone drink their tea black?

A few weeks before, I’d been seduced by David’s Tea in the West Village, which has an astounding selection of creative blends from Christmas teas with bits of candy cane to the Brazillionaire with whole Brazil nuts and raisins (they also carry more straightforward teas for the purist.) I don’t normally go for candy in my tea but was intrigued–it’s a fun store with lots of holiday spirit and knowledgeable staff. I came across a blend called “Glitter and Gold” billed as “a deep dark Chinese tea like a gorgeous starry night” and studded with gold sugar crystals. I thought it might be a nice holiday gift for Ms. Ezersky and a fresh take on her usual black tea with jam.  She loved it and brought out her Chinese tea pot to serve it in.

We mostly talked about Lermontov (author of Hero of Our Time and lesser known poetry such as “A Native Land” and “Clouds” among just a few of my favorites. I’ve written about Lermontov a bit here before, especially this year since we’ve spent a lot of time reading him in my lessons. (It’s very hard to find good, if any, translations of his poetry in English.) Ms. Ezersky told me it was his 200th birthday celebration and proceeded to show me an article about him on the computer in her bedroom (she rarely uses the computer so this was an experience in of itself.) I was more struck by the fact that the Russian version of Maxim Magazine had a feature about the life of a romantic-era Russian poet, right next to photos of scantily clad models in Santa suits.

I’m told that New Year’s is a big holiday in Russia, much moreso than Christmas–I love the idea of celebrating, or at least recognizing, everything that has happened in a year and moving forward. As I’ve looked back on 2014, I’m grateful for the rare chance to get to know a little about Lermontov and read so many of his poems in Russian with Ms. Ezersky. I often think about these lines from “The Sky and the Stars” translated here by Nabokov: “Fair is the evening sky, clear are the stars in the distance, as clear as the joy of an infant…People are envious of one another. I, on the contrary,–only the beautiful stars do I envy, only to be in their place do I wish.” Happy 200th birthday Lermontov and a sweet new year to everyone, with plenty of stars and gold sugar crystals or whatever your sweetner of choice.

All We Have…

Last night was the last of my intermediate Russian language classes with Polina Belimova at Fluent City. Frankly, I’ve always felt embarrassed about my inability to speak Russian after so many years–I never remember vocabulary or case endings, hardly ever study and pretty much just assumed I’d be stuck in purgatory forever. The first thing that struck me about Polina was how kind and encouraging she was–our little class of three women felt intimate and cozy from the beginning, like we were old friends meeting up for tea. At the end of the first class, she asked us to pick from a series of photos to bring the following week and use as a springboard to talk about ourselves and what our hobbies were as children (I chose a gardener, a painter and a ballerina). She also instructed us to keep a regular diary in Russian and gently urged us to talk about our week without referring to it (and ask each other questions.) Yes, we also had regular grammar work–but the assignments came to us like medicine buried in applesauce. I noticed that I started feeling less fear about speaking as the weeks went by–it was even fun. I got to know Lauren, Mary and Polina better as we talked about our favorite books and movies, our dreams and aspirations (one of my favorite exercises was called “important things in life”–we were asked to respond to a survey in Russian, ranking things like money, family, nature, art, friends and faith on a scale of one to ten, and explain how much or how little we agreed with statements such as “Money brings happiness.” I thought I knew myself  well, but ended up doing a lot of soul-searching!

Polina had us dig up photos from different stages of our lives and talk about them. She found poems for us by Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova and translated a poem for me from Mandelstam, upon request. We talked about dreams. It’s never easy to take a language course while working full-time, along with everything else we all need to do in this crazy modern life. But somehow I found myself leaving class at 9pm feeling light and happy, not dreading the subway home, even with the G train shut down. I can say with honesty that this class helped renew a real romanticism and faith in me, beyond the everyday grind. Among my favorites, Polina shared this song with us from Boris Grebenschikov, known by some as the Russian Bob Dylan. It’s as true about her as a teacher and our sweet little class as it is to me about my 6-year wedding anniversary tomorrow or my three-year-old boy Henry. In English, it’s loosely translated as “I sit on a beautiful hill. I often see dreams there and it seems to me that it’s not in money, or in the ancient folklore or the New Wave, but in the strange places we go to–where all we have is joy and fear–fear that we are worse than we can be, and joy from realizing that everything is in capable hands. And in every dream, I cannot deny, I am running somewhere, but when I wake up I hope you’ll be there with me.”

http://www.yourepeat.com/watch/?v=tzFYgy9lkAo

Memorial Day (and freedom fighters of all stripes)

When I arrived at Ms. Ezersky’s apartment mid-Sunday morning, she announced that she’d barely slept the night before. She had spent six months preparing a tribute for a Russian actor and friend and presented it on Saturday in Brighton Beach. The first words out of her mouth were: “He was like Spencer Tracy or Laurence Olivier, but few even knew who he was, like so many other great people.”

I had just come from a Memorial Day parade in Greenpoint, where there are two living World War II veterans. My three-year-old son especially enjoyed the trumpets and bagpipes–also a small American flag handed to him by a girl scout. I was moved by the procession and the distant lyrics of “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.” Most of all, I was touched by a petite woman who must have been in her nineties–she was wearing a navy blue suit with white gloves and a pill box hat. I was aware that she had come from a time when people dressed properly on such occasions as a form of respect and assumed that she may have lost someone (or several loved ones) in war.

Presidential elections were also held in Ukraine on Sunday amid continued violence. In so much of the Russian literature I’ve read with Ms. Ezersky (and hold dear), nineteenth century writers in exile decry  the oppressiveness of the state and the very real fight for freedom in their own lives–the need to clear some space in their own minds and hearts in the face of atrocity and loss. One of my favorites is Lermontov’s Native Land, where he begins by saying that it’s not the Russian government he loves or the anthems, but the endless swaying forests, the birch trees, the people dancing in a little cottage past midnight. I also love the following poem by him:

“Farewell, dirty Russia,

country of slaves, country of bosses,

farewell to your blue military uniforms

and the people devoted to it.

Perhaps, the walls of the Causcasus

will protect me from your pashas,

from your all-seeing eyes,

your all-hearing ears.”

For poetry written more than 150 years ago, the sentiment feels timely and prescient. Whenever I ask Ms. Ezersky about the current events in Russia and Ukraine, she shrugs and says “It is the same as it always is. People want to be free.” I have been touched over the years by her insistence and urgency in remembering great artists as well as statesmen and friends of all trades who have fought for this in their own lives and for others. To me, it is something to treasure on Memorial Day and through many small acts on countless other days throughout the year–quietly or publicly, in any country, in the air, on land and sea.

 

 

The joy of spring (and Mandelstam’s dead bees)

Often when spring comes, we feel like we’ve been waiting for it forever. Then somehow it happens quite suddenly – the daffodils and tulips come up so fast that we barely have time to stop and really see them. I find full-fledged spring a little bit destabilizing–it’s almost too much, it comes on too strong, chirping with bright colors as if winter never happened. I most love the awkward time just at the cusp of the season, when there is time to observe subtle changes–lighter evenings and new buds just barely surfacing on tree branches. Cold, dreary days seem more bearable since they are pregnant with spring. I love knowing that spring happens because winter has happened.

When I first met Ms. Ezersky about ten years ago, she asked me why I wanted to learn Russian. I said that I wanted to read Mandelstam, though I had never read him in English and knew almost nothing about him (I heard he was good and it was all I could come up with.) She told me that Mandelstam was far too difficult for me and that “we would start with the alphabet.” Since then, we have read all of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and some Lermontov. A few weeks ago, I was flipping through some poetry  and randomly opened to these lines from Mandelstam. I was stunned by them:

No. 17

Take, for joy’s sake, from these hands of mine

a little honey and a little sunlight

as the bees of Persephone once ordered us to do.

We cannot cast adrift an unmoored boat,

Nor hear a shadow shoed in fur,

Nor conquer fear in this tangled dreaming life.

All we have left to us are kisses,

Sheathed in down like tiny bees

That die as they scatter from the hive.

They rustle in the translucent recesses of the night,

Their homeland is Taigetos’ tangled woods.

Their food is honeysuckle, time and mint.

So take, for joy’s sake, this wild gift of mine,

This uninviting dessicated necklet

Made of dead bees that once turned honey into sunlight.

I brought the poem to Ms. Ezersky and asked if she could read the Russian with me. She said, “I can see why you like this poem. But we haven’t finished Lermontov yet.”

Smoke rings (and Valentine’s Day)

I might be one of five people in New York who actually likes winter right now. I love the disruptions (as annoying as they can be) and how they force one to retreat a bit and abandon the normal busy-ness and distractions of everyday city life. I feel more at home in this kind of quiet strangeness–people seem to be more stripped down of their usual defenses and in a sense, more honest. I also love the starkness of it all, the relentlessness of nature–(more snow? yes, really.) One wonders if it will ever end but somehow it does.

I also love Valentine’s Day–not the heart-shaped-candy-box and candlelit-romantic-dinner kind (though I have no real objection to these things) but the deep love for humanity way of celebrating the holiday–making Valentines with children, baking heart cookies with red and pink sprinkles and just showing people you love them. Sure, every day should be like this, but often it’s not. I like to shamelessly wear my favorite sweater with heart-shaped elbow patches and smile at strangers.

I recently read Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time at Ms. Ezersky’s behest–his novel about a young man traveling the Caucasus mountains who seems to have lost his love for everything and everyone–he moves from escapade to escapade without joy or any real sense of purpose (Lermontov, whose poetry is equally melancholic, himself died in a duel at the young age of 27.) I read the book a few years ago but it really sunk in this time just how romantic Lermontov’s writing really is–it’s not the dramatic romanticism of so many younger poets who talk about some idea they may have of hopelessness or temper feelings of despair with well-turned phrases and defenses. It’s purely sad, hard-earned, actual hopelessness that’s so bone-chilling at times it feels impossible to turn away. I find this honesty about the nature of things oddly comforting and somehow more human and uplifting than one might expect (I also find it bewildering that a 20-something year old arrived at some of these conclusions, almost as if he could see through centuries of time.) My favorite quote is when the narrator talks about his experience in the mountains: “The air is pure and fresh, like the kiss of a child. The sun is bright, the sky is blue–what more, it seems, could one wish? Who here needs passions, desires, regrets?” This strikes me as a Buddhist-like direct encounter with the nature of reality and the feeling that we have nothing but the pureness of each moment in life. The other stuff is just drama.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Sam Cooke songs, which I heard the other day almost as if for the first time, thanks, perhaps to Lermontov: “Where do they go, smoke rings I blow each night? Where do they go, those circles of blue and white? Where do they end, the smoke rings I send on high? Where are they hurled, when they’ve kissed the world goodbye? Let me tell you that: I’d give my life to laugh at this strife below, below, below, down here below. For I’d be a king, I’d follow each ring I blow. So little smoke rings I love-please take me above with you.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.