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Rounding the Corner: Rome to Russia

The plane captain tells us before takeoff, look right, then left, at the beautiful city of New York. Total flying time to Madrid: 6 hours and 25 minutes. It could be bumpy. It’s spring. 

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In Madrid, a woman overhears me telling a young opera singer, bound for Amsterdam on his first trip to Europe, that I’m traveling alone. Over coffee in the airport, she gives me two pieces of advice: always talk to strangers and always eat at the bar.

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It’s after midnight in Rome and I’m watching aging waiters close their Hosteria. They’ve left me a bottle of wine, a box of tissues, cookies, and a single chair. As one of them empties a bucket of dirty water into the planter boxes outside, he looks at me and says, “It’s better this way. Water is life.”

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Days later, flying to Russia, I can hear my boss laughing back home in New York. “The last time I flew on Aeroflot half the seat belts were broken.” Reading Colette’s Break of Day, I come across the passage: “So understand, Vial, that this is the first time since I was sixteen that I’m going to have to live–or even die–without my life or death depending on love.” Over the intercom, awkwardly translated instructions inform me that in the event of “ditching,” my life vest is beneath my seat.

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Resting outside the Hermitage, a Nigerian man tries to sell me tickets for a tourist boat ride. Pausing for a moment, he switches from salesman to person. “Where are you from?” He ponders my situation: an American, alone, in Russia. We discuss global politics, and I ask if he likes St. Petersburg. “No,” he says, “for a man like me, Russia is very closed.” Wishing me luck he walks away toward a group of tourists.

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Standing in the Moskovsky Railway Station, I’m shocked by how filthy it looks after spending days under the picturesque skies of St. Petersburg. What was I thinking buying records, so awkward and so heavy? Taking refuge inside the station café, the police roughly nudge a couple of drunks passed out at an adjacent table. Next to me, a middle-aged man calmly sips his beer at 8:49 am.

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Waiting in line at the Kremlin, a Russian man, deep in conversation on his cellphone, subtly edges in front of me in line. I tap him on the shoulder and gesture to where he belongs as the line begins to move. A Belarusian woman standing nearby later tells me, “I told my husband she must be Russian.” Laughing I reply, “no, I’m a New Yorker.”

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Sitting on a park bench, watching Muscovites rushing around me, I think, it’s not a bad time to consider turning thirty-two. Enjoying a moment of bright sunlight while dark rain clouds linger ominously in the sky, a man carrying a guitar crosses ul. Petrovka wearing a t-shirt that reads, youth has no age.

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