inspired by my own damn blog, i'm reading a wonderful memoir right now called "Metro Stop Dostoevsky: Travels in Russian Time," by a woman named Ingrid Bengis. her parents were russian immigrants to America, and she now lives in both Maine and in St. Petersburg. (she must like winter.)
her memoir is about being in russia in 1991--the same year i was there--and so in my self-absorbed way i'm finding it fascinating, finding all kinds of little connections between her trip and mine, places she and i both visited. (the admiralty bar in leningrad, for instance, where i had drinks with three young people who were leaving the next day for their compulsory month of picking potatoes on a communal farm. or the dom knigi book store, where i bought a giant triptych propaganda poster of mother russia. the poster now hangs in the garage of my friend roadguy, because there is no wall big enough in our house for it. in this picture, it is hanging in my beloved hilltop house in duluth.)
a passage that bengis wrote about a russian friend being overwhelmed with choices when visiting america reminded me of something that happened when ernest and ruth were in town.
as you recall, ruth and ernest came to minnesota in the summer of 1992, after a lifetime in russia. one day we went to Sir Ben's for lunch--a casual, faux-british pub. you can sit at umbrella tables outside and watch the sailboat regatta on lake superior on summer wednesday evenings.
it seemed a relaxed and pleasant place to eat. but from the moment we walked in the door, i could feel their unease. it started when we walked up to the deli counter. spread before us were all kinds of meats: ham, turkey, pastrami, salami, roast beef; and vegetables: tomatoes, sprouts, lettuce, cucumbers, onions, green peppers.
ernie said, "gimme a cheese sandwich." he sounded more abrupt than usual; usually, he was a charmer with women, calling them "lassie," and smiling his comical smile.
the woman behind the deli counter said, "pumpernickel, whole wheat, deli rye, or white?"
he looked confused. "white," he said, and i got the feeling he said it only because it was the last thing she had named.
"what kind of cheese?" the woman asked. "swiss, american, pepper jack, or mozzarella?"
ernie was quiet a moment. i looked at ruth, but she was staring off into the distance and was clearly not going to be any help.
"just give me a cheese sandwich," ernie said.
the deli woman looked at me. "swiss," i said.
"mustard, durkees, mayo, or --"
but ernie was gone. he just walked away, and now he was standing with his back to us, staring out at the boats bobbing on lake superior. his hands were jammed into his pockets. i could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was tense. "put mustard on it," i said, guessing. "and some tomato."
i'd been to russia twice by then, and to cuba once. i'd watched people line up on a leningrad street, not knowing what they were queueing up for, just assuming that whatever it was would be something they could use. i'd walked down the street in petrozavodsk and noticed that every single woman i passed wore the exact same shade of lipstick. i'd been in stores where the shelves were virtually empty of consumer goods, and i'd wondered how people got along in a place where there was nothing to buy.
it had never occurred to me to consider the opposite: the reaction one might have in going from a place where there was no choice to a place where there was nothing but choice. i suppose i thought it would be something wonderful, the freedom to choose, the abundance to choose from. but how do you suddenly make choices after a lifetime of not being allowed to? it's not necessarily freeing; it is more likely to be frustrating, overwhelming, even paralyzing.
i don't remember, now, what ruth ordered. i do remember that she was able to handle it with a little more grace than ernie. she and i brought our red plastic baskets of food over to the table where he stood, and after a moment he sat down. he picked up his cheese sandwich and took a bite. i didn't know what to say, so i didn't say anything. after awhile, he did. "there's just too much," he said. and i didn't have to ask him what he meant.
Jenny Barden in the Plotting Shed
47 minutes ago