“I lost two cities, lovely ones,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her most oft-cited (by me) poem, ‘One Art.’ I love this poem in praise of “the art of losing” because it’s about breakups and also “the fluster” of looking all over the god damn house for your keys which you just had a minute ago, which makes it very easy to relate to. I tend to send it in response to those emails you get from people who’ve lost their cell phones, which is probably more annoying than reassuring.
Anyway! A little wonderful sub-idea in this poem is the idea of a city as something you can lose – and if it’s something you can lose, it’s something you can have. I have New York, after seven years – not the way someone who grew up there has it, but I have my version of it, a geographical and social and romantic and practical map etched in my neural pathways. If I find out that some unforeseen circumstance is going to take me to Clinton and Rivington and I’m at 28th and 7th, I don’t have to look at a map to figure out how I’m going to get there. I never get confused anymore, coming up from the subway, and accidentally walk a block in the wrong direction. I have some idea, in most neighborhoods below Times Square and in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights and Cobble/Boerum Hill, of where I could grab dinner or a sandwich or a coffee or a quick drink or find a public bathroom or make keys or kill a half-hour in bad weather. This ability might sound banal but you know, it’s taken me every minute of 7 years to get to that level of facility. And while it’s satisfying, this having, it’s also bittersweet: while I was going around building up this effortless familiarity, I inevitably ratcheted up some no-fly zones on that mental map – nothing major, just some streets or bars or alleys I avoid here and there. Elizabeth B. might say I’ve lost them.
It’s the beginning of my last week in Moscow and I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to have another city, maybe this one. But it seems like this one might take even longer to acquire than New York did, though, or maybe not. Maybe cities are like languages and after you become fluent in one, it becomes easier to pick up another. (And of course it depends on the city – like, I think I could have San Francisco in about a month, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t especially want it.) Also there are some aspects of Moscow that make a certain amount of innate sense to a New Yorker: the ruthless efficiency of the line to swipe your card at the entrance to the Metro, the strange mix of opulence and decay, the 24-hourness, the supra-New York insistence on the importance of high culture – the insistence that high culture is not a luxury. And the differences – lack or, ok, perceived lack of soymilk notwithstanding – aren’t so glaring that you couldn’t eventually either figure out your way around them or decide you actually preferred them, especially if you knew Russian.
I still don’t even know a little bit of Russian, though, and not only that, I’m starting to suspect that it’s not going to be possible for me – actually, it may not be possible in general – to know ‘a little bit of Russian.’ ‘Not/knowing Russian,’ it turns out, is a binary. There was a tantalizing moment at the end of Rosetta Stone Unit One when I hadn’t yet figured this out and I felt like I was on the cusp of ‘getting it’ because I had gotten to a sort of Russian-14-month-old-baby place with nouns. I sat across the kitchen table from the wonderful grandmother whose apartment I’m staying in and identified objects as she held them up: cheese! bread! cup! Then I started the next level and realized that if I was ever going to use any of those words in a sentence I was going to have to learn grammar, which, I don’t want to bore you with the details but let’s just say that it makes French look like a gâteau à pied*. Like, there are some nouns where you say an entirely different word-ending and sometimes an entirely different WORD depending on whether there are more or less than five [nouns]. If I actually was a 14 month old baby, I’d have a much better shot.
The height of my linguistic frustration came at the end of a class at the Iyengar yoga institute of Moscow. I’d thought I’d be able to get by on just the Sanskrit words for different poses, and I had understood those – and also “a little bit,”“good,”“spine” and “respiration”, interspersed into the midst of a steady stream of lightning-fast Russian – but then I’d ended up pissing off half the people in the class with various cluelessnesses that weren’t even language-related, that were more just ignorance about the culture of the studio (like, how was I supposed to know that you can sit on the bench to the right to put your shoes back on but not the bench to the left?). So I’d had plenty of opportunities to practice my ability to whisper-mispronounce apologies to the people who were snapping incomprehensibly at me and I was feeling very un-yogically ego-bruised.
But then, after I finally managed to get my shoes on and slink out of the studio in shame, there were these people – not cops, just regular people – riding horses around at the end of the block. I guess they just let you rent a horse here if you want one! One of the riders had pulled up her horse to the ordering window of McDonalds (people line up around the block to order at these windows, it’s amazing/sad) and was leaning down from the saddle to place her order when a group of drunken teenage hooligans rounded the corner.
They stopped in their tracks and stared at the horse. “это лошадь!” one of them said. “это лошадь!” I repeated under my breath (there had been a whole Rosetta stone lesson about whether or not something was a horse). The happy glow of my self-satisfaction lasted for maybe five minutes, at which point I walked into a grocery store and got the procedure for buying produce wrong (a uniformed attendant has to bag and weigh and price-stamp your $7 avocado, it turns out). But whatever, for a second there, I had something, this little corner, this one word.
(*I know, I know, ok? I am not a retarde complet.)