The Route. 200,000 km around Moscow. Lena Faber

My Books Reviews

These two books are collections of my newspaper travelogue series “Trassa” (The Track) about 200.000 km road trip Around Moscow, issued by AST publishing house in 15,000 hard copies. All sold out, including those on Amazon

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Hard to Get

Gadjó – in Gypsy philosophy, the designation of a person who does not have romanipe.*  Thus, there may even be ethnic Gypsies, educated outside the framework of the Gypsy culture, not having Gypsy qualities and not seeking to belong to the Gypsy community. But nevertheless, usually “gadjo” simply means “non-gypsy” (Wikipedia).

Gypsies… the gypsy camp, the passion of the Roma people, the fiery dances, and the music–hard-to-stand-still. Tales of romance, dark eyes, sun-dyed skirts… Tough laws of the camp, where love and death go hand in hand, where jealousy is always forgiven. There’s no place for outsiders, gypsies won’t allow it. All this is the stuff of movies – or so I thought. Could I have known that once these passions would burn me tоо?

• • •

“Katia! Will you dance for me? With Tania?”

“Well, only with Tania. I don’t remember the movements.”

“I’ll show you.” –

At the Gypsy festival, Dana snuck the belly dance in the program like contraband, by renaming it something sneaky. So what? No one really knows the boundaries of the style. Gypsies from Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria – they all dance the čoček. The Turks also dance the čoček, with the hips and midriff shaking. That given, it might stand to reason that all gypsies could  perform the belly dance. In truth, this is forbidden. The belly dance – that’s her forte; very few in Moscow in the 2000s could dance it quite like her, she really knows a movement or two.  Dana really wanted for her dance to be seen in Poland. She kept her intentions a secret, that’s why she couldn’t take her usual background dancers.  Only two of us remained, two ‘gadjos’ (non-gypsies), who could dance with Dana. She brought us costumes – puritanical, of course.

How did we end up in Poland in the first place? Well… we were staying over at Lola Martynova’s place, a gypsy and our teacher of gypsy dancing. Her cousin, the stern Matrynov, called: they have to go to the international gypsy festival in Poland, but there were not enough gypsies. Seventeen were supposed to go, but there was a hitch, some of them were dancing at a festival in Denmark. “Find at least three,” he said.

“I have two sitting right in front of me,” Lola winked with a tipsy eye and turned on the speakerphone.

“How do they dance?”


“Where are they from?”

“They trained with Dana” (She didn’t mention we dance the Arabian style!)

“Gadjos… Well, what can you do. Black hair?”

Lena Faber. Dance rehearsal, 1999
Lena Faber. Dance rehearsal, 1999

“One of them has black hair, the other one will.”

“Oh, God… Radzikevich will go crazy. Okay, tomorrow the three of you must be at Dzhima’s studio. You can rehearse for two days, and head to the festival in a week.”

I couldn’t believe it. For all the places I’ve been … and now to dance abroad at the International Gypsy festival! That was the same year I left home, when I wondered if the chandelier in my temporary apartment could handle my weight… if they would not let me take my kids away from my husband.

“Ai danu danu da nai, dra-danu da nai,” the old gypsy woman – Lola’s first or second cousin – strained her vocal cords. We stopped off at her place to learn some of the moves, so that we would not embarrass ourselves. She lived alone, in a huge apartment with luxurious furniture. In an alcove stood a table with tarot cards on it. The big gypsy woman – wide eyebrows and a low voice, and fingers covered in gold.

“What else you got?”

“Zola dear, let’s go for ‘Sare Patria’.”

“Ai ne sare, ene patria,” began Zola, and we started “floating” in a circle. We learned the steps at the very least, and now we could go to Dzhima’s studio.

“Play hard to get, honey, play hard to get” Dzhima shows the moves. Oh, I’m trying. Oh, I’m playing hard to get. “Poor, poor, poor me. Come on, my unhappy little head.” Male voices break in, they warm up the pace – ak-chak, ak-chak. Poor, uhuh…  I grab my skirt, pull it up above my head, rush around in a circle, foot over foot. “Katkhe, katkhe, katkhe!” shouts Dzhima. “Why are your hands between your legs?  Take the skirt off of your heel – don’t look for it between the legs.”

We continue to rehearse on the train. They will also make us sing! We must learn the words. Ai ne-ne-ne, Ai ne-ne-ne, hop-hop-hop. Guitar, accordion, tambourine for the entire carriage – one can sing, but no longer dance. The passengers are watching. I’m not one of them – I’m one among the band of gypsies that doesn’t let them sleep. Despite my grandmother having been an opera singer, I have never sung a note before.

It wasn’t meant to be. Martynov decides to inspect each of us individually – In one of the songs, there is a difficult part. Now I’m singing – hellishly, no doubt. Shame, I don’t know how to sing at all. God, what do I do? He is already in front of me – with an accordion.

“So za khErorO bistolbEngIro, prodzhivAs ayy-A da zIma belovEngiro,” I tried and tried so hard, afraid I would disgrace myself. They did not know that this was the first time I’d ever sung. I sang without any mistakes, they said, and then continued. Now I can sing! 

I kept singing. I didn’t stop. I hummed to myself, without the words. Zola remarked:


“How did you know?”

“What do you think?” She was offended. “I’ve been on stage for  30 years. What, you think I wouldn’t recognize Malyarkitsa?”

“Zola, don’t you understand? It’s not about you recognizing it, it’s about me singing well enough for you to recognize it.”

The Polish town of Gorzów Wielkopolski. The Green Theatre. What charm, what people! An event big for the town. Okay, okay, okay, we’re in the theatre. For three days. Gypsies came from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Spain, Germany. The Verbitsky clan from St. Petersburg was delayed. The news is everywhere: Prokhor will come, Prokhor will come. Who is this Prokhor? They say he danced like a god. But dances no longer – too old, I guess.

Is that the very one? In the hat, with a mustache? And they said he was old. Did they not? Not old? Just not dancing? No one knows why. Our Dana was swooning. She turns red, then turns pale. Dana – an incomprehensible ethnic mix, it seems, a Russian-Georgian – enjoys a special place among the Gypsies and speaks their language. She has a PhD, by the way, and has recorded Gypsy dances throughout Russia. She studies Oriental culture and teaches their dances. Dana occasionally found herself on the bus next to Prokhor, and they quickly found a mutual topic of conversation – gypsy dances – and they talked and talked the entire way. Let them be.

There is another hour before the concert. We have already rehearsed and left the stage for others. We’re now crammed in the dressing room.

“Dana, will you do my make-up?”

I got dolled up and looked in the mirror. Yes, my eyes. I like them. Well, I myself don’t know how to do make-up so well! But Dana, the viper herself, turned out to be surprised that I ‘suddenly’ became beautiful. I looked like an English actress, whose name no one in the dressing room could remember. Well, I know: I’m Jacqueline Bisset, when the ends of my luscious locks are resting on the neck, my ears are covered by my hair, and eye shadow on my eyelids. And 20 years ago it was French singer Mireille Mathieu – with or without ears.

Some ruckus just kicked off. People were pouring into the auditorium, onto the stage and wings. A sound engineer came up to me – to introduce a local Polish man, Vład. Very pleasant, he looked like an actor from somewhere – I can’t remember the title of the movie – but he wasn’t taking his eyes off me. Dana did my make-up; she really did make an effort. We are sitting at the little bar right in the theatre. I got completely into the guy’s head, that he was going to wait for me after the concert. He wants to take me to the club where local bohemians sit at night. Writers, journalists, artists. In tiny Gorzów! Here is the artist passing by. And here is our writer passing by. A long-haired hippy. “Vładek,” the long-haired hippy says. “Introduce me to this girl.”

“You remind me of an English actress… аctress… I can’t remember the name.”

“And you will not. Nobody can.”

What a club! The gypsies will kill me, no one should abandon the group. And after all, we have a banquet after the concert. Vład will wait anyway. Fine then.

I run to the dressing room – I forgot to change my shoes. I was about to knock over the man in the hat: Prokhor or someone. He stepped aside. 

Our group is doing final preparations for the gypsy program. All well and good, but the three of us are changing for the Oriental dance. We stand up behind the curtain on stage.  Look at that, Martynov flies up, indignant and threatening, shaking his finger! He was furious with our Oriental dance. “How can you do that?! At the Gypsy festival! Go back,” he tells us. “You will not dance.” And he crawled – being old and all – across the hall up the stairs to the booth of the sound producer, to cancel our program.

Shaking and pale-faced, Dana is afraid that Martynov will cancel our number before we have our turn on stage. Damn, it seems as if the troupe on stage will never finish their routine. “Ai luli, ai luli, ai da luli,” – they belt out a song about a good young man who follows … a blizzard? Yes, the Romani “Ai Luli” – this is not like the Russian “Ai Lyuli”. Our “Lyuli” is coquettish, gentle. Their “Luli” is tense, hot, violent – also it comes with a skirt. Off the heel.

At last they wrap their skirts and sit down. It will be over in a second. Martynov is nearly at the top! It’s good that the sound engineer still doesn’t see his wild gesticulations.

Great, they are almost off the stage. Ahh, should we run out onto the stage, without waiting for the music? Martynov, already on his last step, extends his reach towards the console. The operator seems not to see it, turns on the music, and only after, looks at him. And we are already on stage. Hurrah! The first chord, we are just in time. Now the music can’t be turned off.

Dana wrapped fringed shawls around each of our heads. It’s as if we were hydrocephalic. I spun off my turban before Dana saw it, and spun it back differently, a couple of sizes smaller. In our turbans, Tania and I wriggle and twist behind Dana. While she shakes her belly, we are the background decoration, our eyes dart to the audience. I don’t know about Tania, but my eyes certainly did. One Bollywood Hindu taught me to dart eyes correctly – it became useful at last.

I repeat after Tania, I don’t know the choreography, but she knows everything. I improvise a little bit. We leave the stage under the rumble of the drums on our tippy toes with hips shaking. Everybody already has changed out of their costumes. The bus has arrived and takes us to the banquet.

We sit at the table, looking around. Diagonally, Prokhor nods at Dana. She blushes, but Prokhor acts as if he doesn’t notice. A polite man.

We go for a cigarette, standing in the lobby. Someone squeezes over to offer me an empty spot on the bench. Again, it’s Prokhor. Why is he always there? I don’t want to be squished, I’ll stand with all the girls. Prokhor sits back down. Oops, I change my mind. Oops, he squeezed over again. The devilish look in his eyes was so strong I could feel demons crawling on my skin. Should I shoo them away? 

He says:

“Your Arabic dance was good!”

“Yes, Dana can really dance.”

“I was talking about you.”

Indeed, I understood. I was just playing the fool, I see he’s crazy about me. Dana is devastated. I bet she thinks she put too much make-up on me. Oh, don’t you worry, Dana, I’ll be just finishing my cigarette and leaving.

Neither he nor I go anywhere. The lobby has emptied but we’re still chatting away. Everyone has already gathered to leave – only my roommates are lagging behind. They were waiting for me.

“Prokhor!” his family calls him.

“One moment, let me finish.”

“Prokhor!”, a severe-looking gypsy woman growled.

When he was talking with Dana, she didn’t mind, but with me it’s not ok? Dana can wear make up on her eyes, but not me?

“Go ahead. I’ll catch up” Prokhor told to her.

The gypsy woman flashed her eyes at me. Why not at Dana? She, too, is an outsider. She too is a gadjo.

Prokhor didn’t want to make things worse and whispered to me,”I’ll find you in the hotel. We’ll bring our guitars.”

We would not let them in, we just lurched by the door and did not open it. Dana giggled most of all. Well, what else could she do. Dana made every attempt to make it look like Prokhor was after her. 

The next day was the gala concert. Even more crowds, it looked like people from the nearby towns came. We rehearsed in the morning to be ready for the evening performance. In front of the stage, in the first row, Vlad was waiting. And behind the curtain Prokhor was watching. I did my own make-up so that my conscience was clear for Dana.

I am staying with the girls. Someone glances by, I’m in hoots of laughter, I don’t turn around, I know for sure – it’s Prokhor. I run down the stairs – I know Prokhor will come up right now and catch me in the middle. No one else witness to our fun and games. Only Aza Verbitskaya is looking out for me – she understands everything. I better stay away from her.

Prokhor vanished. For a long time, he did not show up. I’m looking around. Damn it! He is watching me from the veranda. The people gather on the veranda: Dana shows off her belly dancing, it’s clear to whom. Prokhor is clapping, but is looking past – at me.

The audience thundered. Sure, Prokhor was dancing for the first time in a while. He is not a god – he’s a devil on the dance floor. A sorcerer. Then a stir breaks out backstage. Around this heavily ashen-faced dancer his troupe sat, all agitated and frightened. Prokhor was in a bad way.

We got late back from the club, after midnight already. Prokhor is standing in the lobby with a friend. He holds a bag with wine and a snack. Dana takes it, as if it’s clear they’re for her. Prokhor was a little confused. He whispered something to me, I did not understand. Anyway, I couldn’t say: Dana, put your hands away, this is for me.

We set the table, the gypsies brought guitars. How they sang, how they sang! Two voices rang out. We could not stay still anymore and started improvising – flamenco, fiesta.

Prokhor sits down next to me, leans close and tells me how ridiculous it is that everyone thinks that he’s here because of Dana. I say let them think so, it’s better. If the troupe knows that a Romani came to my room, it will be bad. But for Dana, that would be OK. I don’t know why, but I know that it will be so. And then, well by God it’ll be awkward. She helped me with make up and now I somehow feel guilty… Foolishly? Pretty much.

He made a plan to fetch me from the train in Moscow. I played hard to get. He knew these games and wanted to come anyway. 

But he didn’t. 

I returned to Moscow and left my dancing behind forever. The financial crisis was over, so it made sense to start working again. I got my children back. Well, only after I married my divorce lawyer.  

I eventually met Prokhor’s friend, the second guitarist, and he told me everything. Prokhor had been taking drugs for a long time after a car accident, his body could no longer keep up. He stopped dancing. He danced this time, no matter how his clan tried to stop him. He danced for me. They barely revived him then behind the scenes. Then he sang for me.

He passed away the next day, when I, gadjo, was on my way to Moscow. I wouldn’t have played hard to get if I saw him on the platform.

When I hear gypsy music, should I dance or should I cry? Hell, 20 years on, I still want both. 

Lena Faber