Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Marco North: The Stairs

We left Brooklyn when I was five, to live in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. There was a steep set of stairs that led to the second floor, creaky and thick. I fell down them a few times, my head whacking against the walls, a jumble of bent angles when I landed at the bottom. 

On rainy days, especially bored  I would hover at the top step, leaning forwards just enough to see myself falling down, then tipping back at the last possible moment. It was exhilarating. My head reeled, my breath stopped in my chest, and everything went quiet for that strange moment.

Over the years a balancing act between care and recklessness has evolved. Eventually I decided this is part of what makes me feel alive.


A tail of fresh bread, torn and eaten in the street never fails to give me faith. When I was young and lonely it was the semolina from Ferrucci’s on 1st Avenue. I might even fish an olive out of the plastic container, my fingertips oily and slick in the street as it burst in my mouth. Now, it is from a Georgian stall at rinok, the open market I visit on Sunday afternoons. Here are familiar faces – the fish sellers with their horizontal striped shirts. I point at a plump seabass and they nod, tossing it to open hands behind the counter where it will be cleaned and filleted for me in ten minutes. I mumble a few words they already know, about doing some more shopping and that I will be back. Next, a special corn flour for chadi, a Georgian version of a hush puppy for lack of a better term. Madlopt, I tell the woman. Thank you in Georgian, one of the handful of words I can use. Her surprised smile flashes at me, the polite foreigner.

At home, I peel the tough skins from asparagus, a rare treasure here. I am making dinner for my wife on a quiet Saturday night. There is cold bottle of Fiano in the fridge, waiting to be uncorked with a satisfying pop. The little one is running around in warm tights, pulling a train across the floor. It is already cold in Moscow, and we are waiting for the heat to come on. I dredge the fish in flour, a dusting of garam masala and then into the pan. They grow crisp and fragrant, as N drifts in and out of the kitchen, her face curious, her chin on my shoulder for a moment. I have been cooking for her since the very day we met. I know of no simpler, better way to say I love you than to set a carefully prepared plate of food in front of her.

At the last minute, I pull together a version of a sauce gribiche from what is in the fridge. Garlic, capers, parsley, and sure maybe a little mint is tossed in the bottom of the pan, finished with a splash of that glorious white wine and a stump of butter. It swirls and emulsifies, and is spooned across the fillets. I call her to the kitchen and she is somehow flustered and confused and busy because there is always something she thinks she must be doing right at that moment. I pour her some wine. I place a fork next to her plate. I stare at her as I always have.
“What?” She asks.
I say nothing for a moment.
“How do you like it?” I ask.
She eats a corner, nodding – then, some asparagus. I have dressed it with just a sliver of butter and a squeeze of lemon.
She nods again.


For as long as I have known my wife, we have never owned a measuring cup. Instead, a pair of white ceramic souffle dishes from Ikea have been used to make pancakes and pies, cookies and and rice. If we ever lost track of them, rooms would be searched – eventually revealing E’s odd habit of filling them with dry cereal to pick at late at night. Every time I pull one of these white cups from the cabinet, I think of N and how different we are, and at the same time – the places we are the same. That is the marriage lesson in these cups, truly not an actual cup measurement but one we have adjusted to, one we have shifted our recipes to fit. Be it my weekly pizza dough or the cakes N makes for V, with vanilla and sour cream on rainy days – these cups are how we see the world. I cannot imagine losing them, but at the same time I know the day will come when one tumbles to the floor by accident, or slides off the edge of a table on a hectic afternoon  I bought us a proper set of measuring cups last week, with grams and English measurements on them, almost as a joke. They are sturdy, and fit nicely together. N slid them into a drawer, where we will surely be able to find them, should those white cups exit our kitchen after years of graceful service.


Downstairs, there is a pile of kopeks next to the garbage bins. A ruble is far less than a penny, and there are one hundred kopeks to every ruble. Of course, stores here still charge to the kopek, and often expect you to pay with them, conveniently rounding the total up to the next ruble, scrounging for Soviet-era profits from willing customers. It seems to be a small price to pay for walking without pockets sagging with coins. The kopeks are not there to be thrown away. They are for someone who actually needs them. Three hundred of them would buy a potato or two.

E announces to us that she is finally ready for an electric guitar. She shares random pictures and sounds with me, as I try to narrow down what she is after. We agree on a telecaster, a grey one. The last one in Moscow seems to be in one store, not far from my film lab and we shuffle there on a cold Sunday afternoon. I play it for her, check the neck and the pickups. Her face is a perfect combination of fear and excitement. Sliding into a gig bag, I help her shoulder it as she walks in that familiar forwards lean down the street towards the metro. At home, we plug it into my amp and she plays it for a few hours, her door open and then closed. I remember my first electric guitar, a big orange Gretsch and how it seemed like a superhuman tool, something that required you to wear a mask and a cape to play properly. Of course it is just wood and metal, paint and lacquer, but I am convinced that guitars carry memories of the people that have played them. They are alive, like cameras and watches.


Marco North is an American photographer, filmmaker, and writer who lives in Moscow. His work can be found at Impressions of an Expat.

Prose and photographs copyright 2019 Marco North.

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