The contents of the fridge in 18 Wilhelmstrasse Apartment 7D:
- Two pieces of celery, one bull’s heart tomato, nine plums
- One large pot of cold borscht
- Plateful of blintzes rolled tube-like with diced cabbage-egg filling
- Fried chicken: one leg, one wing, one indistinguishable limb
- Saure Sahne
- Saure Sahne
- Saure Sahne
- Saure Sahne
In the stale air of my grandmother Era Kuznetsova’s refrigerator stands a brigade of sour cream containers, tapered toward the bottom and puffed out at the chest. They wear sashes displaying their fat content and their lids have the telltale metallic crinkle of aluminum. Some are older, some are younger; others have expired and are soon to be reborn. Their numbers are replenished often — there is never enough.
In the Young Wife’s Guide to the Traditional Household, a classic manual for newlywed Russian brides looking for quick but sophisticated recipes, sour cream is not listed more than once in a list of ingredients. The book details amounts in a simple, straightforward manner: add a tablespoon of sour cream over a bowl of crumbly farmer’s cheese, a teaspoon of sour cream for cucumber-dill salad, and a smeared paste for the classic “herring in a fur coat.”
But my grandmother never had time to use this cookbook, and besides, she does not seem to have a sense of proportion. She does not consult recipes when approaching sour cream. As far as I know, in Russian there isn’t much of a distinction made between abstract and quantifiable numbers for nouns. In English, though, there are countable and noncountable nouns: precise amounts and general conglomerates of innumerable stuff. Countries — countable. Statehood — uncountable. Homes — countable. Houses — countable. Nationality — questionable. So on and so forth, and we mentally sort words, quantifiable and immeasurable, until it’s all rather neat.
My grandmother — who has only ever really mastered Russian — conceives of sour cream in a not-so-countable way. She will pile the white matter high on her plate. Sometimes she will retrieve it aggressively with a spoon, other times a playful nudge and push on the container bottom. She is generous, open-handed with the saure sahne in her fridge.
One time when I came to visit her in her apartment on Wilhelmstrasse I found my grandmother boiling sour cream. It says in the Bible that the manna had many different flavors and could be prepared any which way, yielding a gourmet buffet of one-primary-ingredient meals. No one really knows what the modern equivalent would be. But surely in this kitchen the manna is on the stove. My grandmother knows how to get by and transform one object into several. She has a special technique: make sour cream into tvorog, cottage cheese, by brewing it, stirring absent-mindedly every so often.
I used to think it was a matter of economy. I still remember how we went to the discounted-discount store. The path itself was difficult: getting over cobblestones with a walker is no easy task. We walked painfully slowly through the aisles, piling the cart high with bruised beets and beat-up apples.
Passing by the dairy aisle, I must have said: Babushka, why don’t we just buy the tvorog right here? I pull out a few euros and call it a gift.
But she pushes my hand away with a generous sweep of the arm and says: Lapochka, darling, there are four sour cream containers open in the fridge! We can’t let that opportunity go to waste.
Sour cream isn’t good for you. I mean, it isn’t good for you like that. We tell my grandmother that she needs get into better shape. On the iPad that she doesn’t really know how to use, we download exercise videos of older women in neon leggings vigorously swinging their limbs. My cousin buys her a pool membership; my brother and I accompany her with slow, slow steps to the supermarket.
My grandmother is embarrassed to use a walker, and refuses to use a wheelchair. Only in a museum will she sit in the dreadful thing, and this is for two reasons: a. she can be pushed within inches of the painting and b. just then she is at her most mobile.
So she develops her own strategy for weight loss.
How to lose the weight gained from sour cream:
Close the fridge door, but be very careful — the magnetic side wall is full of souvenirs from the Trevi Fountain and the Eiffel Tower and both sides of the Hungarian capital, Buda and pesht. Walk past Volodya Berezin’s gifts of hand-carved wooden vases, past the candied orange boxes, out onto the balcony. Careful, again, not to overturn the delicate mesh net that holds many onion skin flakes.
Walk up to the window.
Thrust open the panes.
Stamp as if choreographing a march for a federal parade.
Spine straight, shoulders back! High knees!
To the little Turkish-German children below in the playground, to the drab buildings, to the big skies, to the cranes flying in victory formations above your head, yell: “I am going for a walk! Yes” — punctuate with rigorous stomping — “I am walking!”
See how all of a sudden some unimportant laws of physics are broken as she walks, always forward, purpose-driven, and is going shpatziren, as they say in Deutsch. How she can tell you where she went today, the architecture of this and that building, the former look of Potsdamer Platz, the twinkle of trapped bugs in amber over Klaipeda, the blue of the Baltic, all the way until Vassilievsky Island. The only things that could possibly block her going for a walk are the still-standing portions of the Berlin Wall, which is immutable, and the uplifted bridges of St. Petersburg, which arise at 2 a.m. in the blank nights of the summer and descend near dawn.
Later tonight she will wake up screaming from white-hot threads of pain running up and down her legs. She will drink Shweppes Tonic Water to soften the spasms. Young, red-headed, lithe Era was once the regional Gymnastic Champion and could do a full-length split. She would never call herself disabled nowadays, but her legs have not been the same since the accident.
But here she is, going farther than one might imagine. My grandmother can walk many, many miles from here and can manage barely more than 5 steps without wincing. It is a rigorous fitness program.
How my grandmother earns miles from her armchair:
Because she has the 20-some-odd countries crammed into her apartment. I reduce this from Europe’s 50 because the world that she is fluent in is not as independent and variegated. Czechoslovakia is one color. The Polish-Lithuanian duchy is another. There is no need for [fill me in]–stans because it is all Soviet Union or the Great Imperial Russia. On her wall sit the travel guides for obsolete maps. From them, it is possible to visit cities with names that are no longer chartable, like Leningrad or Vilna, or West and East Berlin.
Era’s day-to-day life cannot be grounded in Berlin because my grandmother lives the world through its representations. She can prepare a three-course lecture in a few days on a country-specific history of the visual arts. Boomeranging back through the centuries, she is not so fluent in Old Testament themes through time (although that is what the Russian Jewish community in Berlin wants, give us more Abrahams and Josephs), but she can lecture endlessly about gold-leaf triptychs with New Testament motifs. She can occupy the settings, narrate from a first-person perspective, and recount historical scenes with the gusto of a reenactment actor. She is the darling, eloquent Era Kuznetsova, head of the Russian Museum lectorium, expert on everything from Rublyev to Repin.
In her cabinets she has an unfathomable number of ill-fitting slides pressed together like thin mints into slim chocolate boxes. These are the negatives of her art travels. Each delicate translucent brown-black film is in a frame. I suppose all these frames once belonged to their own standard sets but she has given so many lectures that there is no longer a set order. Many of the photos were taken by her. Other photos were taken by friends, still others pre-bought. Everything is familiar.
My grandmother has three pairs of glasses, but her eyes are sharp as she sorts her collection. If the museum is a succession of frames bearing pictures, then my grandmother does not need to go anywhere. Just turn off the light, turn on the projector, and click.
My grandmother wasn’t looking one day and crashed straight into a glass wall that she thought was a door. Since then it has been difficult for her to take long-term, long-distance trips. The notion of a leisurely walk has become foreign to her. I remember feeling the apartment become tighter and sadder as I thought about how she must spend hours inside. The dark corners of her living room leered at me. I thought I could sense the staleness of the same four walls, that repeating vision day after day.
There is no solution for wanderlust, particularly when one is physically disabled. But, do you hear that? It’s bubbling over on the stove, all the leftover Sahne that I’d almost disposed of. There remains, still, the capacity to imagine a tub of cottage cheese from some expired sour cream.