Photos from Alex Cretey Systermans
In Manzhouli, he spent time with Sun Shengchang, a Chinese logger, and Katya Dianova, his young Russian wife. In Monteleone’s photograph, they look like archetypes: Sun with the high cheekbones, long nose, and angled eyes of the northern Chinese; Dianova with fair skin and gentle features that could have been described by Tolstoy (“this black-eyed, wide-mouthed girl, not pretty but full of life”). She holds their daughter, Natasha; he holds their son, Ramin. Their apartment is decrepit: peeling paint, rusty radiator. But there’s a glow to the little family—in this strange borderland of fake churches and invisible bridges, the dingy room contains something intimate and real. “They didn’t have a lot of money, but they were a very sweet couple,” Monteleone said. “You could tell that they really loved each other.”- from Invisible Bridges: Life Along the Chinese-Russian Border by Peter Hessler. Photograph by Davide Monteleone.
The man introduced himself before ending his visit: "My name is Nick," he said, and the little kid, about seven years old, is Ivan. I said hi. I said my name when asked for it. I believe one should be polite towards him, towards any man who had knocked at your door at 9AM on a Saturday to hand out magazines, hoping to preach the word or instill thought-provoking questions, at the very least, which plagued you for the next few hours, while driving or sipping coffee in the afternoon. ("Where do we go when we die?" Nick asked, and I said I'm not so sure.) I skimmed through the zine and found an article about the afterlife sitting right next to an article about the adaptability of cuttlefish, written in the formal Tagalog preachers use, inquisitive and extremely polite. "Kayang baguhin ng mga cuttlefish ang kulay nila para makapagtago, anupat hindi na sila halos makita." Towards the end it poses a question: "Ano sa palagay mo? Ang kakayahan ba ng cuttlefish na magbago ng kulay ay resulta ng ebolusyon? O may nagdisenyo nito?" I'm surprised it's inquiring, and not as proselytizing as the rest of the magazine. Another highlight is a chapter about Liechtenstein, with snippets about its history and food: "Ang Kasknopfle, pasta na maraming keso." Towards the end of it is a section which bears resemblance to grammar books, asking questions about the text to gauge your reading comprehension.
Funny how my dreams started the night after I booked a flight to Hanoi. They were very vivid. It felt exciting to write about them again, and I imagine spools of ink ribbons, endless black ribbons untangling, letters surfacing, words forming.
When Anthony Bourdain reviewed for Lucky Peach the film Pope Francis listed as his favorite, I knew I had to see it. The narrative is a no-fuss, unambitious one: Babette's Feast is about Babette, a maid who, in an unmentioned previous life in France, was the reputable chef at the legendary Cafe Anglais. Civil unrest in Paris led her to an off-the-grid community in Denmark, a coastal town devoid of the frivolities of the city. She had to shed her past and move on to live with two women, both of which are members of a cult-like congregation who live simply and abstemiously, singing songs of worship and subsisting on bland food. (At one scene, she was taught how to make a stew out of salted fish, crusty bread and ale.) All those years snuffed out the passion Babette used to have for cooking. That is, until things got interesting: when she found out through a letter from France that she had won the lottery, she knew she had to spend all 10,000 francs to cook for the two sisters a "real French dinner".
That meant exotic fruits like figs and pineapples, quails and turtle soup, expensive wines--the kind of food the townsfolk have never imagined in their entire life. It felt too decadent a supper that they initially deemed it as sinful and evil--until all of them were too hammered to function. Wasting everything for good food is gluttony at its finest. But when Babette was confronted by the sisters at the cost of the meal, she was forced to reveal that she spent it all in the lavish dinner. "Now you will be poor the rest of your life," one of the sisters mourned. To which Babette said: "An artist is never poor."