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The sidewalks have been ripped up once again. Every two years the mayor’s wife gets a new contract as we wander a crooked line of pylons and barriers while men in jumpsuits take the stones away. There was nothing wrong with the old ones. It is just another sunny day in Moscow, the wind whipping around the corners of buildings, the smell of cheap cologne and sweat from each person I nudge past.
The playground downstairs is the same, now an empty rectangle of dust and pebbles. Workers lounge in wheelbarrows like they are deck chairs on a cruise ship. That graffiti wall beyond them is their ocean. A dismantled slide rests in the grass like a dead beast, a dinosaur that took its last breath just last week.
At night, the trees bend hard. The crows are awake, chattering their secret language in the darkness.
On the next day, I see an old woman with bunches of landyshi (lily of the valley) in her hands. They are wrapped with tiny bits of red thread. There is no way to buy these in a store, they have to be from someone’s garden. I ask her how much and she squints at me in the bright street. Her head is wrapped in a black scarf, and she is missing half of her teeth.
“200.” She says, without hesitating.
It is double price, and normally I resent being targeted as a gullible foreigner but I have no interest in bargaining with her. It is beyond me. I have money in my pocket and they smell magnificent. I pay, and say thank you. She says nothing – no nod, not even blinking.
I press my nose into them and am a boy again, turning the corner of our sun porch, the sound of a tractor in the distance. There were our faithful lilies, blooming without help every Spring. I ran my hands on them, smelling my fingertips for hours later.
I had no idea they are poisonous.
Author’s note: “Workers lounge in wheelbarrows like they are deck chairs on a cruise ship.” What I am trying for with that metaphor is to explain that these Tajik workers, an oppressed minority in Moscow, can never go on a vacation to the ocean. They come from a poor, landlocked country and Moscow is hundreds of miles from the sea. So, this guy relaxing in the middle of a work day, sprawled in that overturned wheelbarrow, was on his improvised “beach vacation”.
Marco North, an American expatriate living in Moscow, is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer.
Copyright 2019 Marco North