prose

Michael Stein: Death in Omsk

"Death in Omsk", the story we are presenting you, is deeply Slavic, with all the paradoxes of the transitional phase in former communist countries. Michael Stein, Philadelphia-born writer and journalist living in the Czech Republic, has written about Russia in the 1990s, mixing the American and Russian points of view. What is a field of "infinite opportunities" for one character is a curse for another. This is a story about dark, illicit contracts, futures lost and found, and pulling your roots up from the ground...



Death in Omsk

 

It was an awkward phone call - Hi, you probably don’t remember me and we were never really friends at school but we met a few times and, well, basically, I’m off to Russia in a few months with hopes of maybe settling there, and I know that you’ve lived there for years now so was wondering whether we could meet up and you could give me some idea of what to expect.

Adam didn’t say anything at first. For a moment I thought he’d hung up.

“Yeah sure, I guess we can meet,” he finally answered. “Hey, aren’t you still friends with Katy? Maybe we can have a little college reunion. She’s not married or anything, is she? Alright, let’s do it that way.”

I didn’t tell Katy about the implicit exchange involved in this arrangement. Being the nostalgic type she got excited about the reunion idea and managed to gather the six or seven of us who had ended up in New York, even picking a bar in Brooklyn for the get-together.

“Oh my God, it’s the totally perfect place,” she told me over the phone. “Kind of a hipster bar, but also really popular with Russians from Brighton Beach. Who knows, you might meet your future wife there.”

Katy gave me a year at most before I’d be back. Some of my friends didn’t even have that much faith in me. The truth was I was hoping to go and never come back.

The night before the meeting I had a dream. I was standing on the deck of a ship. At moments the ship was archaic, wooden and graced with massive white sails. At others it seemed more like a hulking ocean liner. It definitely wasn’t a cruise ship - no swimming pools or gift shops or television screens, just lots of people on deck huddled around their luggage; huddled masses gazing hopefully towards the distant shore.

And that’s what I was doing too, looking out over the sea towards my future life. The feeling of hope I had at that moment was tangible. What a shame I was fast asleep and it was imaginary. Of course, the real-life influences were obvious. In three months I was leaving on a similar journey, my destination St. Petersburg, where I was signed up for a writing workshop. After that, who knows? Maybe I would fall in love with the city or one of its lithe female inhabitants and spend the rest of my life there. Maybe I would travel around the continent and settle somewhere entirely different – in Lisbon with a view of the sea, in England, where at least I could understand people, in Prague or Budapest, where so many of my generation seemed to be headed. No matter where I ended up the point was that I was planning to stay, and if successful, would technically be an emigrant of some kind.

Granted, in the waking world I wouldn’t be making the crossing by ship; too expensive. And although I was flying economy class with a student discount I could hardly be described as one of the huddled masses. If I pictured myself wrapped in a blanket to get through the journey it’s probably only because they would have the air-conditioning on too high.

Back to my dream though. Gazing into the distance, that blue empty canvas onto which I was painting my glorious future, a spot suddenly appears. It grows larger and I soon realize it’s another old ship. As we pass alongside I see that its decks are similarly packed with people. Everything is the same except that they are staring with a hope-drenched dreaminess at the very shores we have just sailed from, just as we are looking longingly on the world they have left behind.

Eyes meet as the ships pass one another, and the general feeling is one of confusion. ‘Where the hell are you going?’ – ‘Why would anyone want to go live there?’ The same questions flash from deck to deck in both directions. Suddenly the looks become less hopeful, the dreams more prosaic. I had the feeling that people were about to start jumping overboard, to drown themselves or get on the ship going the other way, I really don’t know. Then I woke up.

It was only when we were all facing each other outside the bar that I realized what a bad idea the reunion was. Not only was Katy the only person who was in contact with everyone here, she was the only one who found everyone tolerable. Even that wasn’t entirely true since she had never thought much of Adam, and as I realized now looking at him, neither had I.

He was one of those people who wore black all the time so you would know he was depressed, just in case the glum expression on his face didn’t make that clear enough. His clothes were more adult-like now, but the glumness remained. Standing between Irene, the avant-garde filmmaker, and Ben, who I assumed was studying law but might have been doing something entirely different, Adam must have been cursing himself for coming.

We stepped inside a bar that was comfortably dark. Besides the jukebox and a few scattered sources of light the only brightness came from the glow of the neon playing card above the bar.

“The Queen of Spades, huh,” I said to Adam knowingly. “After the Pushkin story. Boy, those Russians really love their Pushkin.”

Adam remained silent, looking up at the black and red neon, entranced, I assumed, before I noticed the perplexed look on his face.

“Pushkin? No, the Russians only started coming here a few years ago, at least so I’m told. Used to be a biker bar . . you know, named after the card.”

I was beginning to suspect that I wouldn’t get anything worthwhile out of Adam, that if he had any insights into Russia he would be keeping them to himself. So when Katy started asking him about it to get the conversation going I hardly paid attention.

“So it’s not called Leningrad anymore?” Katy said. “Wow, it just sounds so cool there. Honestly, I don’t get why you’d want to come back.”

Clearly uncomfortable in his role as the center of attention Adam put on an air of jaded indifference that was extreme even for New York.

“Actually, I haven’t come back.”

No one knew quite how to respond to this, except Ben, who reached over and jabbed Adam in the chest with his finger.

“No, he’s really here,” he said laughing. “He’s not a ghost.”

I don’t know whether anyone else laughed along with Ben because there was a tight circle of Russians standing in the neighboring alcove drowning us out. Soon we’d only be able to speak to the person next to us, which would suit me fine since I might finally be able to pump Adam for information.

“I meant that I haven’t moved back,” Adam said to Katy, ignoring Ben altogether.

“So you’re going back to Russia then?” I asked, calculating that I would have the advantage of knowing someone there.

“Don’t know really. I’m not planning on it.”

“You have to make a decision at some point though,” Katy said.

“Why?”       

“Because if you don’t then you really will be a ghost. You’ll be neither here nor there. It’ll give you endless excuses to avoid commitments and any kind of effort.”

“I don’t get what you mean,” Adam said.

“You’ll beg off doing things by saying – ‘Oh, why bother learning Russian, or whatever, getting a bank account, when I’m going home soon anyway - or why get a Master’s degree back home, when I’m not even going to be staying there. You’ll say it would be pointless and just not do anything at all.”

I expected Adam to smile at this assessment, which he did. What surprised me was that he seemed to do so without any irony.

“You’re right, Katy. I have to make a decision and then stick with it.”

Katy seemed to be casting glances at the others to get them involved in the discussion, or get her out of it. Aimlessness and ambivalence had never held much appeal for her.

“What are you going to do . . flip a coin?” I suggested, trying to lighten things up a little.

“No, not that . . I know,” Adam said. “Katy’ll decide.”       

“Huh?” she responded.      

“I’ll leave the decision up to you . . whether I move back to New York or stay in Russia. Just say the word.”

Neither of us could tell if he was joking now, and whether having Katy decide was a form of randomness he preferred to flipping a coin, or he meant something more by it. Katy took it all in stride though and gave him her life-changing verdict without much in the way of reflection.

“I think you should go back.”

“To New York?”

“No, we’re in New York. That would be ‘come’ back. No, you should go back to Russia now because you can always come home, but once you really leave Russia then that’s it.”

We had a few more drinks. Katy wiggled her way out towards Ben and the three classmates who had showed up late. I was able to get Adam talking. He was loosening up a bit after each vodka and, like a character in a Russian novel, his gloomy silence gave way to a rambling torrent of words. Not that he was spouting off about radical politics or trying to talk through the inherent conflicts between free will and a predetermined fate. It was simply the story of his life he was telling me, and the impasse he found himself facing.

It made for depressing listening. He had come back to New York, back home, hoping to find a reason to stay and get his life started again. Nothing dramatic. He wasn’t hoping for a vividly felt new existence, no fresh paths, no new leaves. He’d already groped his way towards that mirage. His ‘new’ existence in St. Petersburg had already become stilted and oppressive, and he wasn’t even ambitious enough to want his old, familiar one back. He was content to come home, get a job, catch up with old friends, maybe make some new ones, get a girlfriend . . all the normal things in life.

“It doesn’t seem like so much to ask for, does it?” he said with a dejection I found chilling.

Because somehow, it wasn’t working. Now, not getting a job or a girlfriend in New York City hardly requires a supernatural curse. Even finding your old friends reluctant to call you or find time to meet isn’t really exceptional.

“It’s hard to explain,” Adam said, gazing off into the press of bodies as if the explanation might be found among them. “It goes way beyond that . . . like I’m not sticking here.”

I let my gaze join his in the ever growing crowd, pondering what it might mean not to be able to stick. It must be a feeling of touching down lightly, insubstantially, of melting as soon as you hit the sidewalk, at least as far as snow is concerned. For sentient beings I suppose it comes down to having no sense of belonging, to feeling disconnected from where you are, something every worthwhile teenager goes through but which is supposed to disappear with age. In that case this was Adam’s personal problem and nothing I needed to worry about. The more he talked about it though the more uneasy I felt.

“My dad was the one who opposed my going abroad in the first place, and it wasn’t about missing me or worrying about me like it was for my mom. He objected in principle. To him it was a bad decision . . the result of obscure, confused motivations . . not properly thought out, all of which is perfectly true. To try to get his point across he dug deep into his stock of clichés. I can’t repeat them verbatim, something about a tree and its roots, another about looking far and wide for what’s right in front of your face.

Then, when I came back he threw a whole new, but contradictory, set of clichés at me – ‘You should finish what you started’ was one, told with unconcealed disappointment . . as if I had quit on him.

I tried to reason it out. If I had pledged to stay a year and come back after six weeks, then I could rightly be accused of abandoning my plans. But I had pledged nothing and came back after four years! What had I started that I was supposed to finish?”

I really wasn’t in the mood to play the psychoanalyst just then, but when someone begins to dwell on the dismal state of his relationship with his parents it’s hard to come back at him with a question like, ‘So what parts of St. Petersburg are the cooler bars in?’ I was waiting for a further litany of his filial complaints. It turned out that Adam’s gripes extended well beyond his immediate family.

“Look, I’ve grown more and more indifferent with age,” he continued. “I could live with all the disappointing . . uh, reunions, with the unanswered calls and blank looks on the faces of former friends. People move on. That’s life. I was the one who went away. There were times I felt sure I wouldn’t come back, so I had done the abandoning first . . fine.

What is making me feel like a shadow among the living is all the other stuff – the low-level jobs I’m easily qualified for that I never get, the apartments I come to see with cash deposits in hand that all slip through my fingers. It all seems connected, one big conspiracy to send me back to Russia, when I would rather do anything but.”

He went on to describe a few other plans that had fallen through, when I decided to give him a little perspective.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this, but New York City isn’t supposed to be an easy place to live in,” I said. “Actually, nowhere is supposed to be easy, but New York ranks up there among places where people crash and burn. And that’s not even what you’re doing. You’re just struggling . . like almost everyone else here.”

As Adam droned on about fate conspiring against him I watched the bar filling up with seemingly equal numbers of Russians and whatever you might call people like us. Bowling shoes, high heels, UPS uniforms and imitation leather jackets intermingled freely although their wearers stuck more or less with their own kind. I began watching a suave, black-haired impresario with a gorgeous, exotic beauty on either arm. He wasn’t particularly good-looking and plainly wasn’t rich, but somehow he carried himself like he deserved the adulation. For all I knew he could have been a Russian rock star totally unknown here, except for these small pockets of his native land.

I turned back to Adam, assuming I would catch him in mid-lament but he was staring wide-eyed in the same direction I had been looking in as if he had seen a ghost. I tried to see what he was gaping at and saw the black-haired rock star in a similar state of shock coming right for us.

“What in the fuck are you doing here?” he screamed..

“What am I doing here?” Adam echoed. “I live . . I’m from here. What are you doing here?”

“So then when are you headed back to Russia?”

“What makes you think I’m going back?” Adam responded.

“Adya, don’t you know there are things you can’t go back on, things that are set in the stone, as you say.”

Vassily wasn’t a rock star although I never quite figured out what he was, other than Adam’s friend back in St. Petersburg. He was originally from Omsk and apparently was instrumental in getting Adam a job writing for Petersburg’s English-language newspaper.

“You were a journalist?!” Katy said with the first spark of interest in Adam I had ever seen her show. Adam was still so stunned at seeing Vassily that he didn’t even register Katy’s reaction.

“Journalist? Yeah, well I passed myself off as one for a while.”

“Adya, Adya . . that’s what it means to be a journalist. You were meeting with big people - oligarchs . .” Vassily shouted.

“Oligarchs’ assistants,” Adam corrected him.

“Hey, big enough. And what about your interview with Petersburg’s chief of police, and the mafia guy, and then there was that porno movie producer.”

“I know, but mostly it was businessmen - bankers and real estate people.”

“And what’s wrong with that? They are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, as Pushkin wrote.”

“Uh, that was actually . . anyway, there was a lot of unacknowledged legislation going on then and I remember all those shady dealings I could never write about. No, it just wasn’t for me.”

Vassily’s eyes began bearing into Adam, whose reminiscences of corruption and crime provided the first hint that he was capable of feeling nostalgic. But pleasant thoughts of laundered money and extortion rings quickly gave way to the present moment and Adam’s expression sank back into gloomy self-pity.

“And do you remember that night I came with you to an interview . .”

“The one where we drank bottle after bottle of Clos du Mesnil?”

“That one.” 

“And I woke up on a tram at the end of the line, God knows where, and without my wallet and shoes.”

“Exactly.”

“Yeah, and I remember finding some old Soviet war medals in my pocket . . with no idea how they got there.”

“Maybe you stole them,” Vassily said without cracking a smile.

“Anyway, what does that night have to do with anything?” Adam snapped back, having emerged from his second bout of nostalgia. “What does any night there have to do with anything? You know I used to be so annoyed when friends from home would visit me and talk about how I wasn’t living in the real world, that it was some kind of European fantasy. Now I’m not so sure they weren’t right. It was all so many words - all talk, talk, talk and never any consequences, a Russian specialty - empty words.”

“Adam, after all these years you still are missing the basic truths about us Russian people.”

Nothing changed in Adam’s bearing. His hands remained in his pockets or clasping his drink, but I could sense an ever growing scorn, scorn towards the phony, drunk friendliness of his former Russian drinking buddy, scorn towards his old classmates and their insulated views of the world, and most of all a boundless contempt for himself and the rut that his life had fallen into.

“Oh believe me, I know,” Adam replied with unconcealed sarcasm. “The Russian soul is unfathomably deep, and a foreigner like me can spend an entire lifetime in proximity to it without acquiring any more than a superficial understanding of it . . . isn’t that right?”

The redhead on Vassily’s left nodded at this although she may have been bobbing her head to the music. I still hadn’t seen any indication that she spoke English.

“No, wrong!” Vassily cried in exasperation. “Where did you get this bullshit about deep unfathomable souls?”

“From you, for one,” Adam shot back. “You remember one night at the Gold Bug you gave me and some friends a whole monologue about it?”   

“Were your friends ladies?”

“Yeah.”

“Pretty?”

“I don’t know . . I guess.”

“American?”

Adam nodded.

“Well, then,” Vassily waved his hand dismissively. “That explains it. Between you and me though, Russians are very fathomably simple, or to be more complimentary, let’s say direct. Maybe it’s this directness that is so unfathomable for you.”

The jukebox made an incongruous shift from rap to a saccharine Russian pop song. A cheer broke out and the space in front of the bar turned into a dance floor. The two beauties under Vassily’s arms slipped away but he didn’t seem to notice.

“You remember after the old regime collapsed,” he continued. “You were already in Leningrad I think. At that time when a Russian saw a billboard that said ‘Coke adds life’ he wanted to know exactly how much life it added – Days? Weeks? Months? People ate western candy bars with mystical expectations. The wrappers said they would give them a smile, brighten up their day, whatever . . . and they believed every word of it. You’re from the west. You’re used to it and take it all as a word game, but for us words mean what they say.”

“I still don’t see what this has to do with my ill-fated journalism career, or that drunken night in Moscow.”

Adam must have been too busy trying to unearth this obscure connection to notice the change that came over Vassily’s expression. The drunken jocularity, the sarcasm instantly disappeared. I realized then that he was completely sober.

“Well, whose office did we go to that night?”

Adam shrugged.

“I don’t know . . . wasn’t his name Dmitri?”

“His name is unimportant,” Vassily responded flatly. “I don’t remember it either. Do you remember what he did though?”

“You mean his job?”

Vassily nodded.

“Yeah, he was a speculator . . a futures trader, right?”

“Not a speculator, just a futures trader.”

A smirk appeared on Adam’s face.

“Oh sorry, I really didn’t mean to sound insulting calling your friend a speculator.”

“Like I told you Adam, he’s not my friend. I don’t even remember his name.”

“But Vasya, a futures trader is a speculator. They speculate on the rise and fall of commodity prices – wheat, oil, whatever.”

“For you maybe, in the west. Not in Russia.”

“What are you talking about?”

“For us, a futures trader means just that. Do you remember what we did in that office?”

Vassily’s look was searching. He really wanted to know what Adam remembered. At this point the girls were back, but their attention remained floating around the bar. Maybe they didn’t understand what was being said. Maybe they did, but didn’t care or were trying to be discreet.

“I remember drinking at some kind of conference table,” Adam responded vaguely, obviously scouring his memory for whatever he could drudge up, “ . . and that we never got around to an interview . . and . . ”

“And?”

“And I remember going over some papers, documents, like a business deal we were all enthusiastic about.”

“It was a contract,” Vassily said.

“A contract?”

“We signed a contract, you and I.”

“What kind of contract?” Adam asked warily.

Vassily’s gaze was so fixed on Adam that I felt as if I should make myself scarce, as if I was intruding on a seduction, but a dark, menacing one. Then again, there was no way I was going to miss whatever explanation was coming.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” Vassily said without waiting for an answer. “We went to a futures trader. We traded futures. You came to live in Russia but, like most Americans, took it for granted that you would come back home at some point, that your future obviously lay here. I was planning or hoping to come to the States, but also assumed I would end up back home, in Russia, maybe just because I thought they’d never give me a visa. Neither of us were satisfied, so we switched places.”

Adam’s hand clutched the beer bottle he had just finished emptying. His gaze shifted around the bar as if someone he owed lots of money to had just come through the door.

“We switched places?” he said with a nervous laugh. “So now you’re me and I’m you?”

He laughed again, inviting Vassily to laugh along with the joke.

“We only traded our futures,” Vassily corrected him. “My past, of course, is still mine, and yours is yours. Pasts are not as variable as futures.”

“Alright, so what does it mean in practical terms?”

Vassily suddenly seemed to have lost interest in the whole conversation, as if the details weren’t all that important.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he mumbled. “I guess that I’ll end up here . . in New York maybe, or maybe even in the town you grew up in. What’s it called again?”

“Longmeadow.”

“Nice?”

“Boring.”

“Well, maybe when I’m old, as a place to retire.”

“It’s a bit cold for that.”

“Adya please! I’m Russian, don’t insult me. Cold! Anyway, I will live out your future and if that future includes a return to your hometown then so be it. If it includes marrying your high-school sweetheart then that’s who I’ll marry.”

The face of Adam’s old girlfriend suddenly flashed into my head . . Caroline, I think, was her name. I hadn’t thought of her for years, but remember seeing her on campus freshman and maybe sophomore year until the distance between them (she was at school on the opposite coast) and the passage of time caused their relationship to unravel, or just fade. Luckily, I didn’t know Adam well enough to have to listen to his laments. Still, I remember that the idealized way he referred to her after it was over caused his friends to refer to her as St. Caroline.

Now I was all alone with Adam. Vassily had been pulled away by one of his acolytes and our college class was scattered throughout the bar. It was just me and Adam and his shocked silence.

“Assuming it’s all true . . .” I said off the top of my head because I could see the inroads his despair was making. Then again, maybe what I was seeing take place was the vacuum of despair already present in him being filled with an explanation. In his wildest dreams Vassily couldn’t have hoped for such fertile ground in which to plant his deranged invention.

That Adam believed it didn’t surprise me. He was drunk and weakened by doubt and seeming failure. What threw me off was that in spite of everything, I found the story convincing too. I couldn’t help it. Was it the way he’d told it? I could imagine Vassily lying often and in broad strokes, but he didn’t seem the dissimulating type. He looked genuinely perplexed that Adam couldn’t remember signing the contract.

Or would Adam’s conviction be enough; that he believes it so it becomes true by default? If Adam ends up dying in Omsk then who can say Vassily wasn’t telling the truth?

“Uh . . . so, assuming it’s true?” Adam asked with slurred impatience.

“Oh sorry, my mind went off on a little tangent. Right, even if it’s entirely, literally true . . so what?”

“What do you mean, so what? My destiny has been taken away from me and I’m supposedly going to live out Vassily’s life and die in a hospital in Omsk!”

Logic in both its drunken and sober form was coming to my aid, emboldening me. I can help this suffering soul, I thought!

“What does it matter where you die, where you’re buried? It’s where you live that counts.”

My burst of confidence clearly wasn’t being reciprocated.

“I’m not so sure that dying in Omsk is any worse than living there,” Adam responded, his eyes staring blankly into a future of factory smokestacks, grimy snow and excessive drinking.

“But why do you assume you’ll live there? Think about it. Where is Vassily living? Here, in New York.!”

“But he’s living out my fate.”

“Maybe so . . or fine, let’s say he is. But where was he living when you met him?”

“Petersburg.”

“Ah hah. So who’s to say you won’t end up there, that you won’t partake of a glamorous, luxury ridden, canal-side existence in that most magical of cities before being sent to Omsk in old age on an errand during which you’ll feel a pinching sensation in your chest, a slight tightening. You’ll reach your hand up to your heart and collapse on a street corner or a tram, just like Yuri Zhivago, and in spite of the help of passersby and the vastly improved medical services of the future you will depart this world . . in Omsk, having lived a brilliant, satisfying life.”

I had entirely forgotten about Adam and his depressive state. Let him stew in his impotent fear! It was the infinite possibilities of life spurring me on. What a shame we can only live a single existence. What he saw as a curse I saw as a window of endless opportunity.

“Don’t you see,” I went on, “Vassily’s destiny could have taken him anywhere in the world. There’s no more Iron Curtain to keep it contained. How do you know he wasn’t fated to live in Paris or Istanbul? Just like there’s no guarantee that you were supposed to live here.”

           

My arguments were starting to have an effect. Adam was slowly coming back to life. I could make out the signs of emerging hope in his eyes, a rising, upward motion stopped suddenly by a pang of doubt.

“But what about the rest of it,” he asked. “I’m supposedly going to end up with his childhood sweetheart. Do you think she’s living in Istanbul?”

If she is, I thought to myself, it’s probably not a good sign. What kind of work can beautiful Russian girls get in Turkey? No reason to add jealousy to Adam’s worries, particularly before he even meets her.

And then I had a flash of inspiration.

“Wait! If we want to find out where she lives let’s just ask.”

I weaved my way through the Russo-American throng in search of the man who had stolen my classmate’s future. I hadn’t got very far when I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Don’t . . . don’t,” Adam said as firmly as his faltering voice could manage.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to know.”

I was on the verge of getting really annoyed. Adam’s sad puppy dog look made me want to hit him. I turned to see what he was looking at so mournfully now and saw that he’d caught sight of Vassily and his entourage. I think one of the girls pressed to his sides was new but I wasn’t sure.

“Do you think she’ll look like them?” Adam asked.

“Very likely.”

I neglected to mention that Vassily might have been initiated into erotic life by an older woman who by the time Adam might get to her could be a white-haired grandmother. He was right; it’s better not to know.

“Excuse me a minute,” Adam said, before making his way towards the bathrooms. A sizeable, slow-moving line wound its way outwards in the bar’s back corner. It was the time of night when people squeezed into the toilets to powder their noses and things like that. The Russians waited patiently, whether to pee or get high I couldn’t say, but they were obviously used to waiting in lines like this from communism. It was one aspect of their former experience which served them well in their newfound home.

It took a few minutes before I realized Adam wasn’t in line. He had walked back there I’m sure, and couldn’t have snuck out without passing me again. Maybe he’s passed out. I pushed my way back past the bathroom doors where there was a broken water fountain, cigarette machine and a payphone. There he was, with his back toward me and his hand cupped over his ear. I should have thought of it before.

I got as close as I could without actually being pressed against him.

“Yeah, I’m drunk I guess,” he was saying. “Like everyone else here. We’re in a bar.”

This obviously wasn’t the first time he’d made one of these calls.

“Aw c’mon, no grand declarations of love. I’m through with that . . . I swear.”

I wish I could have heard Caroline’s voice too, but it was enough to make out Adam’s words clearly.

“No, not that either. The last thing this reunion provoked in me is nostalgia. God, school seems like a million years ago.”

There was silence on my end. Caroline had gotten over her initial suspicions and was willing to talk a little.

“Actually there is something I wanted to ask . . although I don’t want you to take it the wrong way. Do you have a boyfriend? No, wait . . scratch that. That’s not what interests me. You can have twenty boyfriends for all I care. What I want to know is if your boyfriend’s Russian.”

Adam pulled the receiver away from his ear in frustration, then gripped it tightly like it was Caroline’s neck.

“What do you mean so what if he is? Then he is Russian?! No, Cara, you don’t understand. I don’t care if he’s Chinese or Italian or whatever. I only asked if he was Russian.  Look, I know it sounds strange, but it has nothing to do with you. It has to do with me. Caroline? Hello? I can’t fuckin believe it! Cara?!”

The receiver slipped from Adam’s hands and sounded like a gunshot as it cracked against the wall. No one was startled by it, maybe because people here know that gunshots only sound like that on TV. Three people came stumbling out of the bathroom door next to me with eyes just as glassy as Adam’s, though their glass was bright and glistening, whereas Adam’s more closely resembled Siberian windows unaccustomed to sunlight and discolored by the smoke churned out by oil refineries and legions of cheap cigarettes.

    

 

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Michael Stein has published three stories related to this one.  You can find them on the links below. 
 
"The Literary Life of Russian Airports" - in The Missing Slate -http://themissingslate.com/2013/03/08/the-literary-life-of-russian-airports/
 
"Literary Theft" - in Drunken Boat -http://www.drunkenboat.com/db13/2fic/stein/literary.php 
 
 
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Michael Stein is a Philadelphia-born writer and journalist in the Czech Republic and has published short stories and journalism with a number of European and American magazines. He runs a website on Central European writing called Literalab and has written for literary journals such as Asymptote, Absinthe: New European Writing and the The Review of Contemporary Fiction. He is an editor at the Prague-based journal B O D Y and runs the Saturday European Fiction series. His own fiction has been published in The Missing Slate, Drunken Boat and McSweeney's among other magazines. 

 

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Istria Through a Literary Lens

It’s not hard to feel the pull of the glistening Adriatic in these especially hot summer months. Istria exerts a special magnetic pull with its rolling, green Tuscanesque hills, stunning historical towns, not to mention excellent seafood and local cuisine washed down with Malvazija wine, numerous blue flag beaches with crystal clear water and of course proximity to Zagreb.

Jonathon Bousfield as usual takes a look at Istria with a touch more depth and sophistication than the average visitor, inviting readers to observe it through the immortal words of famous writers who have some kind of connection to the peninsula.

Read Bousfield’s literary guide to Istria in the link below.

review

Review of Daša Drndić's Belladonna

One of Croatia's brightest literary stars who sadly passed away last year left a trove of brilliant writing as her legacy. Read a review of Daša Drndić's novel, Belladonna (2012), in the link below.

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Zagreb's Street Art

So you're visiting Zagreb and are curious about it's underground art scene? Check out this guide to Zagreb's street art and explore all the best graffiti artists' work for yourself on your next walk through the city.

interview

An Interview with Olja Savičević Ivančević

Step into the award-winning author Olja Savičević Ivančević’s world as she peels away the many layers of her hometown Split and all of Dalmatia in the interview below.

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Zagreb's Amazing Daughters

International Women’s Day offers the opportunity to reflect on amazing women that have made a lasting impression on the world. But recognizing the important ways women shape and impact our world shouldn’t be limited to one day out of the year. Check out some of Zagreb’s most memorable women in the link below.

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Untranslatable Croatian Phrases

What’s the best way for an open-minded foreigner to get straight to the heart of another culture and get a feel for what makes people tick? Don’t just sample the local food and drink and see the major sights, perk up your ears and listen. There’s nothing that gives away the local flavor of a culture more than the common phrases people use, especially ones that have no direct translation.

Check out a quirky list of untranslatable Croatian phrases from Croatian cultural guide extraordinaire, Andrea Pisac, in the link below:

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Jonathon Bousfield on the Museum of Broken Relationships

Just got out of a serious relationship and don't know what to do with all those keepsakes and mementos of your former loved one? The very popular and probably most unique museum in Zagreb, the Museum of Broken Relationships, dedicated to preserving keepsakes alongside the diverse stories of relationships gone wrong, will gladly take them. Find out how the museum got started and take an in-depth look at some of its quirkiest pieces in the link below.

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The Lasting Impact of the 1980s on Zagreb

Find out how the 1980s, which saw the pinnacle of the domestic music scene, uncertain and rapidly changing political circumstances, and a more open and critical media, shaped the soul of modern-day Zagreb.

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Cool Things To Do in Zagreb

Zagreb is Croatia’s relaxed, charming and pedestrian-friendly capital. Check out Time Out’s definitive Zagreb guide for a diverse set of options of what to explore in the city from unusual museums to legendary flea markets and everything in between.

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Jonathan Bousfield on Diocletian's Legacy in Split

Diocletian’s Palace is the main attraction in Split, the heart and soul of the city. Because of the palace, Split’s city center can be described as a living museum and it draws in the thousands of tourists that visit the city annually. But how much do we really know about the palace’s namesake who built it, the last ruler of a receding empire? Jonathan Bousfield contends that history only gives us a partial answer.

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The Poetry of Zagreb

Cities have served as sources of inspiration, frustration, and discovery for millennia. The subject of sonnets, stories, plays, the power centers of entire cultures, hotbeds of innovation, and the cause of wars, cities are mainstays of the present and the future with millions more people flocking to them every year.

Let the poet, Zagreb native Tomica Bajsić, take you on a lyrical tour of the city. Walk the streets conjured by his graceful words and take in the gentle beauty of the Zagreb of his childhood memories and present day observation.

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Jonathon Bousfield's Take on the Croatian Cultural Landscape in 2018

What could possibly tie together island musicals, political thrillers, 60s Yugoslavian culture, contemporary Croatian authors, graphic novels set amongst a backdrop of urban decay, Le Cobustier inspired architecture and a classic 20th century author’s firsthand account of 1920s Russia? Proving that he really does have his finger on the pulse of Croatian’s cultural scene, Jonathon Bousfield expounds on all of this and more in his 2018 Croatian Cultural Guide, check it out in the link below.

review

Jonathon Bousfield Reviews the English Translation of Krleža's Journey to Russia

Krleža, a giant of 20th century European literature, is woefully undertranslated into English. Read Jonathon Bousfield’s compelling review of the master Krleza’s part travelogue, part prose account of the time he spent in Russia as a young man in the mid-1920s, Journey to Russia, which is accessible to English readers for the first time.

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Mirogoj Cemetery: An Architectural Jewel

Going to a cemetery may not be the first idea that pops into your mind when visiting a new city. But the stunning Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb, which was designed by the renowned Austrian architect, Herman Bolle, is definitely worth a bit of your time. Read more below to find out why.

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You Haven't Experienced Zagreb if You Haven't Been to the Dolac Market

Dolac, the main city market, is a Zagreb institution. Selling all the fresh ingredients you need to whip up a fabulous dinner, from fruits and vegetables to fish, meat and homemade cheese and sausages, the sellers come from all over Croatia. Positioned right above the main square, the colorful market is a beacon of a simpler way of life and is just as bustling as it was a century ago.

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Croatian Phrases Translated into English

Do you find phrases and sayings give personality and flair to a language? Have you ever pondered how the culture and history of a place shape the common phrases? Check out some common sayings in Croatian with their literal translations and actual meanings below.

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Discover Croatia's Archaeological Secrets

Discover Croatia’s rich archaeological secrets, from the well known ancient Roman city of Salona near Split or the Neanderthal museum in Krapina to the often overlooked Andautonia Archaeological Park, just outside of Zagreb, which boasts the excavated ruins of a Roman town or the oldest continuously inhabited town in Europe, Vinkovci.

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Hollywood and Dubrovnik

The medieval city in Croatia is having a geek-culture moment as the setting for King’s Landing in the HBO series “Game of Thrones”.
Hollywood seems to have discovered Dubrovnik. Parts of The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga, also take place in the fortress town. Filming wrapped this year on a new Robin Hood film starring Taron Eagerton, Jamie Foxx, and Jamie Dornan (and produced by Leonard DiCaprio). The 25th James Bond film is reported to begin shooting in the city in January 2018.
But not everyone appreciates all the attention.

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Croatian Sites on UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List

A little know fact is that Croatia, together with Spain, have the most cultural and historical heritage under the protection of UNESCO, and Croatia has the highest number of UNESCO intangible goods of any European country.

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Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb

The National Theater in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, is one of those things which always finds its way to every visitor’s busy schedule.

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Zagreb Festivals and Cultural Events

Numerous festivals, shows and exhibitions are held annually in Zagreb. Search our what's on guide to arts & entertainment.

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