How I Changed My Mind About Pizza

When immigrants come to their new country and get established, the first thing they do is go to a restaurant. Usually, it’s a restaurant that serves food from back home. Food nostalgias are the strongest of all.

Twenty years ago, Russian-speaking immigrants in Montreal didn’t have any restaurants from back home. I have no idea which eateries today’s immigrants from my part of the world go to but in 1998-2005 fresh-off-the-boat newcomers always went to the Greek restaurants on Prince Arthur Street. Greek food was the only available in the strange new place that we recognized as food.

Today’s Ukrainians probably have more developed palates but back then we are fresh out of the USSR and had a very limited understanding of what constitutes food. For years, I would go to Japanese restaurants or pizza places with friends and sit over an empty plate trying not to look disgusted with the weird stuff they were putting in their mouths. Once I followed a group of friends into a Thai restaurant and had to excuse myself to the bathroom as soon as food appeared because the sight of it made me retch.

Greek food was exotic to us but at least it was food. Not anything adventurous like grape leaves or moussaka (those terrified us) but grilled meat and potatoes. Or even rice. It was unusual – whoever just eats rice? That’s simply weird. Rice is to put into soups or tefteli, not eat it up straight – but we felt adventurous.

It took years in the new country for me to try pizza. I was at my office on campus with other graduate students. We were grading papers and felt ravenous. Pizza was brought, and I sawed at it with a fork and a knife feeling scandalized by the people who just bit into it. (You should have seen how I ate hamburgers, stunning people in roadside diners around the country. I’d take the whole thing apart, spread it around, and then eat each ingredient separately with a fork and knife. I have a feeling this had the same effect on other patrons as the sight of Thai food still does on me).

I really didn’t care about that first pizza. Unlike with sushi, which made me realize I’d been missing something great the first time I stopped picking them apart and just stuffed one in my mouth, pizza took a very long time not to be puzzling and even longer to be enjoyable. I never eat it more than 2-3 times a year but at least I now enjoy it when I do.

Scenes of Domestic Life

Klara and N are setting out to visit friends. (Klara’s friends, obviously. I’m still waiting for the happy day when N will have a friend of his own).

“I’m opening the door, Daddy!” Klara announces. “I’m leaving without you!”

“If you leave without me, I’ll end up in jail,” N reminds, in his very fatalistic Russian style.

“Well, then you’d better hurry up because I’m sure you don’t want to go to jail, Daddy,” Klara explains sweetly.

In the meantime, I cooked the most Soviet menu I can think of – kotlety and millet, the standard fare of Soviet cafeteria – and went out to admire the brand-new political sign on my lawn. I’d never felt as American as when I got this sign. It’s a proud moment. I always wanted one but had no idea how people get them.

And before anybody asks why I couldn’t find out, let me remind them that in the past 5 years I gave birth and published 1 book, 3 book chapters, 11 articles and 8 book reviews. I need stuff to appear by itself without any extra effort from me.

Book Notes: Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862)

The way that censorship worked in the USSR – and many people don’t know this – wasn’t that there was a list of books you weren’t allowed to read.

No, not at all.

What existed, instead, was a list of books you were allowed to read. Everything that didn’t make it on the list, you weren’t supposed to know it even existed. It didn’t get published, mentioned or alluded to.

In order for a book to get on the “good” list, somebody needed to create an argument for why it advanced Communist goals. If nobody bothered to create such an argument for a work of art from 100, 200, 800, whatever, years ago, it was erased from textbooks, archives, everywhere. A bunch of desperate literary critics broke their brains throughout the 1930s, inventing Communist readings for Cervantes, Rabelais, Goethe, Bocaccio, just so that they wouldn’t be erased from collective memory. It’s a crazy thing to do but it’s also quite heroic because these few terrified literary critics were the reason that we knew who Cervantes was in the USSR.

And if you think you are immune to this kind of totalitarian madness, I’m sorry you’ve been in a coma and only woke up two minutes ago. I’m sitting here, hoping I won’t have to do what those Stalinist literary critics did and try to save Cervantes by arguing he was ideologically sound.

Turgenev is a 19th-century Russian writer, and he was not only allowed in the USSR but he was obligatory reading that all Soviet children were tortured with. It was easy to sell him as proto-Communist because his famous novel Fathers and Sons* was published a year after slavery (known as ‘serfdom’) was abolished in the Russian Empire and set on the eve of the abolition. In reality, it’s clear from the novel that Turgenev wasn’t into the abolition because he despised the serfs and considered them barely human. But we were forced to look for some sort of a revolutionary conscience in the novel, so we twisted ourselves into knots trying to find it.

In reality, the novel is exactly what the title says. It’s about parents and children and the kind of suffocating, smothering, all-consuming parental love that squeezes life from the children without wanting to. As I read it today, I didn’t see a shade of anything political in the novel. Instead, Fathers and Sons gives a very good blueprint of the differences between a loving parent who lets the child develop into a separate human being and recreate life and a loving parent who doesn’t leave any space for that and pushes the child to embrace death.

It’s a very good novel by an utterly apolitical author and I can’t wait to discuss it in my book club.

* It’s a really bad translation, actually. The title should be translated as “Parents and Children.”

Book Notes: Castellanos Moya’s La diabla en el espejo

I know everybody is exhausted by my Castellanos Moya binge but I’m obsessed with this author and won’t quit.

I’ve been trying to get this book all through the lockdown but it’s easier to get in English translation (that has it hideously titled She-Devil in the Mirror) than in the original.

Finally, I managed to get it from the interlibrary loans department which is still working in a sporadic sort of way.

La diabla is unlike any novel by this author that I’ve read. It’s a first-person narrative – which Castellanos Moya often does – but it’s not by a neurotic man. This time, the narrator is a self-assured, gossipy woman who becomes neurotic only in the contrived and clumsy ending.

Castellanos Moya was clearly trying to be didactic in this novel but his talent ran away from him and didn’t let him come up with boring cardboard characters. Instead, Castellanos Moya created in La diabla one of the most interesting, endearing and realistic female characters in all of Latin American literature. Laura Rivera is not a positive character but I call her endearing because she’s a normal woman who is interested in her friends, men, sex, restaurants, and gossip. She’s not a weepy victim like most women in Latin American literature. To the contrary, even when she suffers, she is amazingly self-assured.

In its technical aspects, the novel isn’t Castellanos Moya’s best by far. But the Laura character – while not completely original (Cinco horas con Mario, a Spanish Franco-era novel is very similar) – is fascinating and so much fun to read about.

How I Changed My Mind about Marriage

So let’s start with our poll runner-up, marriage.

I always thought marriage wasn’t for me. Everybody always said – and if you start tracking it, you’ll see that people do it about twice a day – that passion only lasts for 3-6 months in a marriage, after which it becomes about… I don’t know what, I always stop listening after that part.

You can move countries or even continents but still people will keep drumming on this idea like a bunch of starving woodpeckers. And they also give the same numbers, three to six. After hearing everybody in sight proclaim this searing piece of wisdom in every language I knew, I believed it. And it freaked me out.

I like passion. I like being in love. I like butterflies. I love the feeling of getting a text message and thinking, “Is it from HIM?” I like having a HIM. I like talking until early hours because there’s so much to say. I like having to make an effort not to bore everybody by talking about THE GUY. I thought, well, maybe at 75 I won’t care anymore about any of this stuff and want a male roommate.

N and I got married because we had a complicated legal situation and didn’t want to be separated. We were both terrified. I thought marriage meant no butterflies, and N thought it meant we’d start trying to carve each other up with meat cleavers because that was his received message about marriage. We’ve all got our own burdens.

But hey, ten years in and butterflies are still very much here while meat cleavers never materialized. We joke about “hey, the passion is definitely going to die any day now. Or at least by our 50th anniversary.”

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. A marriage is a lifelong exercise in patience, humility, tolerance, and growth. It’s very hard and some times are a lot harder than others. I love it, though, because it’s so interesting. Being able to know another human being on such a deep level and still realize that you are only maybe half an inch deep is a very intense experience.

The secret to making it work is to decide that this is it, this is the person you got, this isn’t Walmart, and you can’t return him (or her, obviously) and get a better version. (And before anybody chimes in with “But what if he turns out to be a bastard,” definitely get treatment for the crazy that attracts you to bastards. Do that before you get a goldfish into your life, let alone a human being.)

It shouldn’t be that hard. We all have a list of people that are in our lives for good. These are the people we won’t drop no matter what happens. And it’s an enormously liberating feeling to say, ok, that’s it, I’m done choosing.

It also really improves the quality of life. The thought of, “this person is with me for the rest of our lives. One of us will bury the other” is very conducive to a feeling of great inner peace. Yes, he did something excruciatingly obnoxious but against the background of a whole life together, who cares? The other side of accepting is being accepted. We, human beings, are all annoying as fuck and having somebody know every shade of how annoying we are and still loving us is big.

The title of the post is “how I changed.” Nothing can be further from my mind than to change anybody else’s. Everybody has their own journey, and it’s all good. Some are very happy married, while others are very happy single. Only miserable people need everybody around them to mimic their life path. I’m most certainly not one of such sad creatures.