Astrakhan, Russia

Photo: Tamas Paczai

Photo: Moscow Times

Photo: Tamas Paczai

Photo: Tamas Paczai

FROM ‘MARA, MARIETTA’
Intermezzo 5: Vera

Vera’s talking in her sleep. Little bursts of gibberish. Though it could be Russian or German, English or Italian, that’s half-escaping the torpor of her sprawled body: A student of translation and conference interpretation at Astrakhan State University, she’s fluent in all these languages. Met her in a café a stone’s throw from the Volga. I was tapping out the rhythm of a lyric I’d written; curious, she approached me and we began talking. Turns out she writes lyrics too: She’s bass player and lyricist in a rock ‘n roll band.

Photo: Moscow Times

Photo: Moscow Times

In her beat-up Cinquecento she showed me Astrakhan. She showed me the quartier chic, built over the bodies of the thousands murdered in Stalin’s purges. She showed me the endless patchwork of makeshift shelters, crooked houses in dustblown streets. Then we walked around… Aubergines and tomatoes the size of melons; goats grazing on sidewalk grass… Flies buzzing around a brace of fish; a caviar pusher flashing his treasure (banned because the sturgeon are becoming extinct)… Still we have marriages: By the kremlin and cathedral, smiling brides display their virginal whiteness among the garbage and the flowers… Thus Vera showed me what had been the melting pot on the margin of empire, the crossroads, the gateway, the Silk Route station.