During the first half of 2009, I left Brooklyn to spend three months in Moscow. The city was cold, smelly, and uncomfortable, and despite some effortful hours spent shouting into the headset provided with the Rosetta Stone software I impulse-bought on the day I applied for my visa, I didn’t speak the language. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing there. One of my most vivid memories from that first trip is of eating tainted Uzbek veal-tongue salad and, as a result, coming the closest I’ve ever come to shitting myself in public. I managed to make it to a squat toilet outside a train station that I had to pay—god, figuring out that transaction!—an elderly woman for the privilege of using. I had a lot of bougie Brooklyn-born expectations about how things should work and how things should smell and how people should act, and I felt guilty for feeling peeved when those expectations weren’t met. I felt my foreignness emphatically all the time. I never really came around to the food. It was probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.
Of course, if you’d asked me how I was feeling at the time I would have said that I was confused and scared, insecure and angry, worried about who I’d been and who I might become. I had come there to stay with a man I loved but still didn’t know very well, and some of the time we got along and other times there was a heartbreakingly vast gulf between us, exacerbated by his being comfortable in Russia, and in Russian, and fundamentally unable to imagine how it might feel not to be comfortable there at all. I was working on a book at the time, my first real book, which I’d sold based on a very brief and frankly terrible proposal, and I had no idea whether I’d be able to actually write it. My Russian boyfriend was an established writer, and I compared myself with him a lot. It was not a flattering comparison.
So I felt like a phony who might be found out at any time. I wasn’t the kind of person who jetted off to Moscow for no real reason besides that there was nothing preventing me from doing so. I’d never been anywhere before: my twenties up until that point had been spent working a series of all-consuming jobs in Manhattan; my longest vacation from the city since graduating from college there had been a week spent in Delaware. I wasn’t on vacation in Moscow, exactly, but I wasn’t exactly working, either. I was wandering around the city and procrastinating about my book for many hours every day. I was still coasting on the burst of editorial goodwill that had floated me into the book deal, and there were a couple of easy-peasy freelance assignments that had helped me to pay for my plane ticket. One was a roundup of Hollywood types’ favorite onscreen moments from the previous year, and it was easy to do the interviews because the time difference worked in my favor—I could procrastinate until late in the evening and people would be just getting to work on the West Coast. Other than this goofy assignment and my book, I was supposed to be writing something about my impressions of Moscow for an oligarch-funded English-language Russian magazine; my impressions of Moscow were so stupid that even that fluffy publication politely declined to publish them.
Nearly four years later, my impressions are still a bit confused and confusing. After much more experience of Russia and Russians, including the Russian who brought me there in the first place, I almost feel as though I understand the culture even less. It took me a long time to realize, for example, that Russian people aren’t mean and cold; they’re just not fake. They don’t pretend to love the strangers they encounter in shops and restaurants the way Americans do. Russians save their warmth for friends and family and dispense it mostly in the privacy of their own homes. This meant that no one humored me when I tried to bluff and joke and apologize through customer service interactions. When I ordered tea in Russian, the person taking my order would dispassionately ask me, in English, what size I wanted: “Smol or lahj?” “Small,” I would say, feeling cheated of an opportunity to say one of the twenty or so words I knew off the top of my head. (I would have gotten the case ending wrong, anyway, though.)
I was mostly alone in these wanderings, which was terrifying at first; navigating the Metro with only vague hunches about how the station names being announced corresponded to the Cyrillic characters on the subway map made me constantly hyper-vigilant lest I end up inadvertently traveling to the Moscow equivalent of the South Bronx. My arrival coincided with the closing of an issue of the literary magazine where my boyfriend works, and he didn’t have time to do anything but point me toward various attractions. I spent my first few days in a haze of jet lag, visiting tourist attractions because I felt I had to: the Tretyakov gallery; the impressive, forbiddingly too-perfect mall near Red Square; onion-domed churches galore. I don’t remember any of these places very well, only the palm-sweaty interactions I had with ticket takers at their entrances.
My first vivid memories are of grocery shopping, which really was too complicated for me to undertake on my own because, except in the fanciest Western-style overpriced supermarkets, the various foods were kept behind counters and you have to go around asking the meat guy, the canned goods lady, the egg person, the produce mistress, et cetera, to get you what you want. In one basement-level food market near the apartment where we were staying, there was a honey counter (Russian people love honey and take it very seriously) staffed by a man in a white lab coat whom we called “the honey doctor.” I wanted very badly to cook for Keith’s little grandmother, Baba Ruzya; I thought she would appreciate a night off from the laborious production of the borscht, fried meatballs, and mashed potatoes that constituted our unchanging diet. Of course, when I finally did undertake a meal, producing a salty chicken soup flavored with garlic and ginger that was a highlight of my repertoire at the time, she sweetly refused to eat it, as I should have known she would. She was charmed by my efforts, which I for some reason continued to make during the remainder of my stay, but she simply did not recognize what they produced as food. In retrospect, I understand why someone who has managed to become a nonagenarian by eating nothing but borscht and meatballs would be hesitant to change her diet. Well, that’s an exaggeration: she also loved pastries, candy, and the extraordinarily unappealing Russian take on ham, which is a creepy pale pinkish gray. “No, thank you. I’m not very hungry,” she would say in Russian when I offered her food I’d made, and then eat an impressive pile of gray ham.
When I imagine myself during this time, I see someone who spent a lot of time blithely trying to feed the world an unappealing experimental soup despite overwhelming evidence that no one found it quite as delicious as I did. In many ways this hiatus from my life in New York, with its many competing distractions, marked the end of my oblivious youthful obnoxiousness. No one was really buying my shtick there. No one was impressed when I took yoga classes in Russian and couldn’t understand anything the teacher was saying. No one indulgently smiled when I sat on the wrong bench or bagged my own produce at the grocery store; they yelled at me loudly and I had no idea what they were saying and I just stood there with a stupid American expression on my bizarrely, aberrantly un-made-up face and then made my way back to the apartment and cried about it later on in the (low-pressure) shower. No one was sympathetic to my feelings of lostness and loneliness and homesickness and pointlessness and confusion, except my boyfriend, who assured me that feeling lonely was important; loneliness would help me to write my book.
Loneliness did help me to write my book, loneliness and having no Internet access in Baba Ruzya’s apartment. (Well, there was one corner of the window ledge that you could occasionally get a whiff of WiFi in, especially if you stood on the ledge and held your laptop aloft to get the signal, which I often did.) After a few weeks of aimless wandering into Internet cafés, I woke up one morning and, without knowing exactly how or why, became a slightly different person.
Something had shifted in my brain while I slept, breathing the acrid smell of Moscow that drifted in through the always cracked window of the overheated apartment: diesel exhaust, cigarette smoke, snow and garbage and perfume. Keith made us breakfast: instant coffee made tolerable with condensed milk, buckwheat kasha fried with eggs. I did a few yoga poses in the living room while Baba Ruzya peeked in occasionally to murmur something admiring; occasionally she would walk by and give me a friendly swat on the behind. And then I sat down at my laptop, facing the window with a view of the courtyard behind the building with its dingy old playground equipment and parking lot, and I wrote “World of Blues.”
I realize this doesn’t sound very important or impressive. More disciplined and productive writers probably have days like this several days a week, but sadly, that was the only time in my life that I’ve sat down in the morning, started writing, and then stood up seven hours later feeling confident about having finished something, something real. It was Moscow, or kasha, or new love, or loneliness, or not being in New York, or it was just something that happened. That essay isn’t the “best” one in my book. It might not even be in the top three. But it’s an important one to me because, though I didn’t think about it in these terms during that perfect, trance-like day, writing that essay—which is about a brief stint spent serving cocktails in a very bad blues bar on Bleecker Street—was the first time I realized how important it is to illuminate the subjectivity of the character who’s usually hanging out at the periphery of men’s stories: the waitress, the girlfriend, the living prop that male narrators project their fantasies onto. I would tell her story, which happened to be my story. The course of the rest of my life was set.
Excerpted from “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York,” edited by Sari Botton. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.