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From Russia With Love ….. Part 2: When you get to 52

Is that the time?  I mean, is that REALLY the time?  Saturday we get up at 15:00.  I can give plenty of reasons for this disgraceful hour but frankly it’s better to move on – I’m not a fan of excuses.  Out of the hotel into the bright sunshine and another lesson learned …. I live in Southern France.  This is Russia.  It is April.  The sunshine is accompanied by a sharp chill and my bare legs instantly feel they need to move fast to stay warm.  We head up to Pushkin Square – this is one of the busiest junctions, not just in Moscow, but in the world.  The traffic whirls from all sides (6 lanes down Traveskaya which is basically an in-town motorway) and the only option for crossing the wide highways is the subway. The very efficient zebras which tell you how many seconds you have left before you are taking your life in your hands work on the narrower 3 laners.  But in fact despite the enormous volume of cars (as previously noted, status-large with darkened windows) there are no horns splitting the air and the drivers stop when you stand at a crossing.  They are curiously polite.  The other thing to note is how clean this place is.  I watch the orange road cleaning lorries go up and down spraying water, a tractor does the same on a pavement below Pushkinskaya and we have to dive into a bookshop to escape a dousing of the feet, there are men with long-handled dustpans and brooms sweeping up the butt-ends … this is a smoking city but the debris is cleared instantly.  Like the plates at tables.

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Hungry we survey the elegant run of buildings housing eateries that look over the green opposite Alexander Pushkin – he has a lovely view beyond the relentless stream of cars.  We plump for the place we had noticed last night – an Armenian store and cafe (to note – a cafe in Moscow quite possibly is a cafe but can just as well be a 5 star restaurant so it is best to be sure of its aspiration before you sashay in).

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Two hours later out we come having had one of the most delicious meals of my life.  Simple – soup (a borscht, naturally – this one light, vaguely sweet, laden not just with beets but tomatoes and lamb, spiced softly with cumin and garlic and an Armenian herb soup – salty, sodden with wild garlic, an earthy mouthful of tangled bitter herbs) salad (roasted veg – aubergine peeled and unctuous, peppers traffic-light bright and full of their own flavour – the green which I always eat first because its not my favourite, exceptional – in short these peppers taste of pepper, tomato tomatoey and with it a pile of pumpkin so delicate yet so full of flavour and lentil which add buttery taste and soft clay texture and not overseasoned but drizzelled with smatana and sprinkled with coriander that explodes in the mouth and leaves me wanting more and more and more), water (two different types which we tasted like the most fastidious sommeliers and plumped for my new obsession, Dilijan).

To finish excellent coffee and baklava – drier, less tooth-achingly sweet, more nutty and dense than I have tasted before.  The serveuse was so sweet and kind, the barman gentle and warm to telling us of the fruits and nuts that make his country famous.  Sergey has since told us that Armenians are famously lovely people.  I’m glad of that – I might have been a little distressed if these were a niceness oasis in an otherwise ArMEANia.

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Afterwards we browsed the shop and I made a mental list the length of Tverskaya Street of things I want to bring home.  I also made a mental note to buy an Armenian cookery book that I can read … my brain is hurting from reading Russian after so long let alone attempting to work out Armenian script (they have their own unique alphabet which dates from the 6th Century).  It should be noted that according to Tom Lehrer, when you get to 52 food becomes more important than sex.   I’m 53 and I couldn’t possibly comment ….

 

PS:  When we venture out much later for supper we decide to go the other way – nothing looks appealing so we go a little off piste and discover three restaurants in the drag behind Tverskaya an Italian, a very very upmarket uber designer shod (more about shoes later in the week) place dripping with fur and genuine designer labels and another place.  Having forgotten my glasses and remembering that I don’t make excuses I will just have to own to blurring my B’s and V’s.  When we entered, the steins and leiderhosen gave it away.  Welcome to Bavaria, downtown Moscow.  Hey ho – the schnitzel was unexpected but really quite nice and Two Brains considered how fortunate he is that he has never had to wear an outfit like that ….as indeed am I (that he hasn’t).

 

From Russia With Love …. Part 1: Language barriers

I always used to keep a diary. Every day for years.  At some point the discipline dissolved.  It has been in my consciousness for a while though to use the opportunity of blogging to write daily.  Learn to swim without the buoyancy aid (aka excuse) of an elusive muse and just do it to quote, not Nike, but my venerated and inspirational boss and teacher Steve Kenis.

Seneca defined luck as ‘when opportunity and preparation meet’.  I agree.  I don’t believe there is any such thing as chance.  So when the opportunity to come to Russia presented itself along with years of preparation (learned the language at school – more of that later), read the great works, studied the history, drank in the plays, was endlessly fascinated with her current affairs, I was on it like a piglet on a truffle.

So, Day 1 which is actually being written on Day 4 of my Russian Odyssey:

We arrived on Friday afternoon and I shivered as I touched the ground for the first time.  Anticipation.  Excitement.  Amazement.  Through immigrations quite quickly and I even managed a spaceba though the concentration required to achieve it was so intense that I bished the automatic get-out gate and Two Brains overheard the two immigrations officials having a good laugh at my expense as he took his turn.  I certainly couldn’t blame them for that – a bit of free slapstick entertainment should never be begrudged.   And our bags were literally there for the grabbing as we walked past carousel number 2.  Hold that thought – there was no waiting.  Through the green stream and there was Sergey waiting on the other side.  Sergey did his PhD at Harvard in Two Brains’ Lab and had taught himself to speak English before he left Russia.  His accent would put most native English speakers to shame – he sounds so close to an English Duke with only the merest smidge of rich rolled Russian vowels gilding his voice.  He achieved this with hour on hour on hour on hour in front of the mirror forming the words and listening to himself speak.  Dedication.  Certainly not luck!

IMG_1288We took the train – fast and clean into Moscow centre and then the Metro (say it Myetro for full Russian authenticity) and my mind began to blow.  The tube stations in Moscow are beyond stunning.  Built in the 1930s they are deep, huge and palatiously appointed.  The trains are fast and furious and have a wonderful retro feel to them.  The seats are functional and not uncomfortable though to say they are comfortable might be a stretch …. And thence to the hotel.  We are staying in Tverskaya district which is the main drag, akin to Knightsbridge, Belgravia, Mayfair in London, at the Moscow Grand Hotel – these days a Marriott.  It is lovely.  Elegant.  I notice the security – we walk through metal detectors whenever we enter the hotel, past stone faced guards.  The coaching entrance is littered with Range Rover Sports with blacked out windows and every breed of high-end glossy big fluid-bodied status-grabbing car you can imagine.  It reminds me of L’Hermitage in Monte Carlo.  Exhausted as one ever is after sitting on planes and trains for the day we went for a wander but decided to eat in.  The food excellent, the wine, even though not ostentatious, is imported and doubles the bill, the service the loveliest part.  I learned my first lesson (remember what I said about the luggage carousel).  In this country, the moment you finish your glass, your plate, your bowl  from no-where comes the waiter (or his feminine doppleganger) and away goes your detritus.  It is so clearly rude to leave a finished plate for ANY more than a hairs-breadth of a second and to begin with it is a teeny bit un-nerving.  English is spoken of course (this is a Marriott so it will be a prerequisite of employment that English is spoken and understood) and the waitress, very young, forgets how to say ‘finished’ when referring to a valpolicella that we wanted with cheese (which included something akin to a blue edam which I don’t have the words to describe nor the will to ever try again).  She was flustered by this lapse.  As we left I said to her ‘your English is VERY good’.  She nearly burst with pride – how little it takes to make someone feel good about themself in any language.

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Note:  The top picture is actually a photo of a post-card I was too overwhelmed to remember where the camera was, let alone how to use it when we walked into Belorusskaya from the airport express.  The pictures at the bottom are Mayakovskaya station and the pictures were taken by Two Brains

 

You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep Spring from coming

Spring!  The very sound has excitement embossed on it … it has sprung, it springs – it evokes newness, freshness, joy.   This is my first Spring here and it has leapt out of the shadows and entirely taken my breath away.  Driving North-East towards Lyon a couple of weeks ago I was overcome with the most curious sentation.  It took a little while to understand what it was that  was confusing my eyes.  It was colour!  Vivid new colour – green of course, yellows,mauves, pinks all baudily vying with one another for centre-stage.  At that point in Cantal, high up as we are,very exposed in places, nothing much was happening.

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The trees were still sleeping and the palette of hues was all taupe and grey with only the bravest flowers and those in the most sheltered spots showing their faces.  Even though the temperature was warm (heading up to and above 70 degrees in the village which is only 500 m up and sheltered all around by the high hills), the plants were showing due caution.  Roll on two and a half weeks and everything has burst forth … vibrant green, abundant flowers, heaps of blossom.  The beeches are tardy, of course but then they always like to save the best til last!  Of course in village gardensthere were flowers, blossom on trees, the mad fools that are magnolia showing off (mad fools because invariably they expose themselves only to be frosted out resulting in sad oily brown remnants of flowers on the ground) but what takes my breath away is the sudden explosion in fields and woods.  The wild stuff roaring in.

With the colour come the baby animals.  They have been there, of course, for a while.  The calves in the more sheltered areas out in the fields but many still contained in their byres.  The lambs likewise protected from the likelihood of frost and more snow.  The horses – the local Auvergne breed sometimes deep bay but more often flaxen-maned and fake tanned to rival any high maintenance Footballers wife, and the Percherons whose babies are born black of white parents – the horses are foaling and the bambi-legged young are finding their feet in the uneven pastures.

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Driving back from Aurillac with my friend Isabel having triumphantly obtained the Carte Grise for my car (now formally French and begging for a Gaelic name to celebrate – he – because my cars are always boys – is a bright yellow Ibiza Sport … ideas gratefully considered) we watched a truck with the co-driver taking in the snow poles.  ‘Fin de la neige’ she declared and then laughed when I asked if that really does mean the end of it … it can snow in May here but it seems less and less likely as we stride purposefully towards summer.

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And amongst all the newness, all that new life, all those skipping jumping Spring-ing babies one has walked out of our lives.  When I moved here it was with a single dog.  But the founding member of the dog-pack that the girls and I shared our lives with for years, the gracious, wise and unyeildingly gentle Tally who had stayed behind, the fear being that she wouldn’t make the journey, nor thrive at her great age (14 human which is 98 dog) to look after my elderly mother, decided that a new Spring was a Spring too far.  She went with dignity and quietude.  But I am certain that when she crossed into the  next place she found Achilles and Hector, the whippet and the don’t-know-what that we aquired from the Dogs Home when she was three and welcomed burglars into our house while we slept upstairs – even showing them where the fridge was so that they could have a snack before they denuded us of anything instantly fencible up the M40 in Tottenham.  She never barked.  Barking was not something she cared to master (unusual for a labrador) though twice she startled herself when a deep bellow emanated from her at the sight and sound of a clearly threatening hot air balloon overhead.  She will also have found Joshy, my parent’s last dog – a feisty tri-colour collie who once rescued through the Dog Trust lived seemingly for ever earning him the knick-name ‘the indestructable Josh-machine’  And with them she will have found my father – the girls papa who will at this moment be stoically attempting to order the dogs on a chaotic walk.  Tally will help him.  The boys will be running in every direction as he shouts vainly at them – gentle man, they knew he would never, could never hurt them.

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Being a labrador, she of course had Prader Willi Syndrome and never ever knew that she was full of food. A bowl-full of food would be hoovered up in seconds flat and moments later she would look at you accusingly, silently saying ‘I do believe it might be supper time’.  She put up with The Bean who would often spend hours lying on her back, she allowed countless children to roll around and pull her ears, she counselled troubled teens, both her own and the endless streams of visitors those chaotic years were marked by.  She was our sense in a senseless world, our rock steady tiller, our lumbering graceless friend and we miss her. So today, as I spend a solitary Easter Day with no chocolate eggs, no Easter Bunny and just The Bean for company, I will smile when the Bells ring out because somewhere out there, watching over us all, is the old girl who moved over to give the new babies a turn.

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PS:  The title is courtesy of Pablo Neruda