Sunday, October 14, 2007


Madison airport doesn’t have free wireless. Nor does Detroit airport, which is huge and full of restaurants and shops, a high-speed train that takes you from gate to gate, and at lest one concourse with the walls that change colors – moody violets to flashy reds to ocean greens -- all of it set to music.

Wireless at Hartford airport is free. Also free is Staten Island Ferry in New York. Free, free, free… You can see the Statue of Liberty and everything. You can buy some excellent books on the streets of Fort Green, $1 for a paperback. But that was a whole different trip.

This trip was to Madison, and Madison airport charges $6.99 a day for its wireless, which is surprising – because everything else about Madison is inexpensive and easy. Hotels dispatch free shuttles to pick you up from the airport, serve free (hot) breakfasts in the morning, and free wine at night. The airport parking – should you ever need it – is 50 cents an hour. The drinks are generous. And the streets are full of people.

It was lovely and strange to walk the streets of Madison again. Lovely because it was just as I remembered it. Strange because I wasn’t a part of its life anymore. I went to the Farmers’ Market – the biggest in the country! It was late and many vendors have already left (or were about to), but the selection was still amazing. I found my favorite cheese stand – the one under the big red tent – and splurged on my favorite cheddars (horseradish and kalamata olive) . (Which reminds me, I must unpack my suitcase and see how well the cheddars have survived.)

Another indulgence involved stopping at one of my favorite coffee shops (Espresso Royal, the one closest to the Capitol), and spending a few minutes there with a cup of hot apple cider and a copy of Isthmus.

State Street, which connects the Capitol and the UW campus, was crowded, lively, and full of very good street musicians, and I couldn’t remember whether it was like that every weekend, or whether a football game or the book festival was to blame. Which, by the way, brings me to the reason for my trip to Madison – the Wisconsin Book Festival.

My first event was a panel on fiction writing, organized by the UW Creative Writing program. It was held at the building known as Red Gym. (I don’t think there’s a gym in there now.) The panel before ours was on atrocities, so we had to keep our voices low. Are you here for atrocities? No, fiction. Ah, okay.

I can’t vouch for the atrocities, but our panel was a lot of fun, moderated by the incomparable Judy Mitchell, who asked the best questions.

It was nice to be among my fellow UW people – old friends and new. After the panel, some of us walked to Crave, a stylish – if somewhat overpriced -- local restaurant, decorated in lovely greens. We used to go there a lot during my year in Madison.

Later I did a reading with Meena Alexander, a fabulous poet, originally from India. We were supposed to read and then have a conversation about writing in our second language – or something like that. But the festival organizers allocated only 50 minutes for the whole thing, so of course we ran out of time and ended up conversing and signing books out in the hallway.

Part of the fun of these readings is the chance to reconnect with old friends. But it’s equally thrilling (and kind of unbelievable) to speak to people whom I hadn’t previously met, people who came to hear me read, people who responded to something in my writing.

The other day, in an e-mail interview a fellow Russian asked me if I thought Americans liked to see immigrants portrayed as “helpless, confused, but trying to find themselves in American reality,” or as she put it the “right” sort of immigrants. “Is this the type of newcomer they want to see?” she asked me.

Perhaps I’m not jaded enough, but I haven’t experienced that degree of condescension, at least not from the people I know or those who’ve read the book so far. On the contrary, most American readers I’ve met identify with immigrants, see immigrant stories as part of their own history. In Madison, a couple of people told me that they too were Jewish of Russian descent – though it was their parents/grandparents who immigrated – and that connection was important to them.

But wait, I didn't mean to get all serious here! After the reading, some of us relocated to the bar across the street. Paul’s, I think, it was called, the one with a tree in the middle. Apparently there had been a game earlier that day and it hadn’t gone well for UW. So the bar was full of these anguished UW guys who wanted to know what we had thought of the game. One of them was especially persistent (and seriously drunk). I told him I was Russian and knew nothing of sports. Well, he said, that was great, ‘cause he had some problems with Russia, particularly with President Putin who just hadn’t been behaving well lately, and what did I have to say about that? Not much, as it turned out. I assured him I would convey his concerns to President Putin the next time I see him, and on that note, we parted.

So that was Wisconsin. My only regret is that due to my travel schedule I didn’t get a chance to attend some of the Book Festival events. Michael Cunningham was reading on Sunday (that’s today!) So was Patricia Hampl, who will be visiting us here at UConn in the spring. I was hoping to catch her reading in Madison, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I was on the flight home at 7 in the morning. And let me tell you, it's good to be home.

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