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From Russia With Love …. Part 11: Nice weather for ducklings ….

The final week dawned drizzly, mizzly and dull.  I consider this to be a very good thing as you can so easily wear the rosey specs if you are in a place for the first time in warm sunshine or indeed just sunshine.  Dull skies alter the perspective.  I still love this city.  We are off to the lab.  Edward takes control.  We should know better by now.  On the metro, we change onto the dark blue line from dark green and I am confident that we need to go 4 stops.  After 3 I am herded unceremoniously off the train to alight into another uniquely gorgeous station, up the rapid escalator and into the drizzly mizzly outside where Edward declares we are in the wrong place.  We need to go another stop … bite thy tongue, I council self.  Edward, having exited the station,  has no ticket, we have three passes, we lend him one for the ride which he gleefully pats in his pocket and says ‘just enough rides left until I leave tomorrow’.  Two Brains had carefully calculated that between the three cards WE had just enough rides – we exchange silent laughter through the aether and bite our collective tongues again.

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Eventually we get to the lab and I am entranced by my tour.  One thing I absolutely love about scientists is their make do and mend attitide.  Of course, these high end boffins make shiney new discoveries but they do it using cast out stuff as well as hideously expensive and inexplicable machines.  I am away in my B-movie mad scientist imagination and it is bliss.  They showed me experiments along the way (which at the time I entirely understood, honestly but I don’t think I had better try and explain – sound, water, waves, vibration and all terribly clever) but the best bit, for me, was the second floor where they have saved equipment dating back to the 19th century and through to the revolution (1917) … these are beauteous things and stunningly crafted even if, like me, you don’t really understand what they do.  If you have never been to the Science Museum in Oxford (and to my shame despite living in and around the City most of my life, I didn’t know it existed until Two Brains, or HB2 as he shall now scientifically be known, took me there when we first met in 2012) you should a) visit if you are in Oxford and b) understand that much of what they have in this living, learning place, this University is better than anything you will see in Oxford.  Sergey, who is finding his passion in teaching told us that they use the items when teaching because the size of old-school items makes it easy for the students to see from anywhere in the lecture halls what is being demonstrated.  He lit up and it was intoxicating … there is nothing better than an explanation from a passionate person.  Look closely at one glass piece and you can see a cross engraved in the glass …. ‘this certainly pre-dates 1917’ said Sergey.

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Given that the main cathedral (Of Christ The Saviour) was a swimming pool under the Communist regime, I guess that would be a certainty!  The rebuilt cathedral, incidentally (the 19th Century original having been destroyed in 1931) is the highest Orthodox Church in the world and was constructed in the 1990s.  It is a bling eye-catcher.

After my tour, Anna (Sergey’s wife) took me across the street to the Novodevichy Monastery.  Built in 1524 the name means Young Maidens monastery (which is a tad confusing) and was named such to avoid confusion with the Old Maidens monastery within the walls of the Kremlin Palace … the mind boggles.

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We didn’t go in.  Just walked (in the now driving rain) in the park to the front which runs along the river.  Along the way I met some ducks.  Bronze ducks.  The exact same ducks I had encountered (or rather hunted down as the one thing I HAD to see) in Boston.  Those ducks are an homage to the delightful childrens book ‘Make Way for Ducklings’ by Robert McCloskey which I read and read to the girls when they were small.  These ducks were given to Raisa Gorbachev by Barbara Bush in 1991 when they were both first ladies as a symbollic gesture when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was being agreed.   I can report that they are absolutely identical and that I was thrilled to meet them.  Anna took a photo of me with the ducks – typically Russian and very direct she did not conceal her amusement at my moment of pure tourist indulgence.   I rather love the fact that a childrens book had a role in those historic negotiations.  The book, incidentally was published in 1941 – the year Russia joined the allies in fighting in WW2.

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Later, we went for dinner with Sergey, Yury and Edward.  The chosen venue was a ‘pub’ with more draft beers than I’ve had hot dinners.  I had white wine.  We ate Kaspian Pelmeni – plumptious little dumplings stuffed with salmon and sturgeon … absolutely delicious but it was the floor show that shone.  The second rehearsal for Victory Day had the massed tanks and armoured vehicles parading down Tverskaya in daylight this time … but you will have to wait for my report which is a blog unto itself.

PS:  It rained a little on the walk back to the hotel but I shunned the umbrella weilded by Edward.  I am scarred by an umbrella related incident many years ago in Sloane Street when using my brolly as a prop to lean in my coolest pose whilst waiting for a bus, it snapped and I was left flat on my face on the pavement which was NOT the look I was trying to achieve as a sleek girl about town.  Not to be deterred, Edward offered me the umbrella lest it should rain the last few days of my stay.  How kind, I thought.  He burst the bubble with his customary honesty ‘I have not got room in my case for it’ ….

 

 

From Russian With Love …. Part 10: Shoes glorious shoes

There is a groundhog in the garden of our house in Boston … today is his day – or rather it’s a reverse groundhog which sounds like an expression for something a frightfully clever figure skater performs.  St Petersburg Moscovsky Station, Sapsan Train heading for Moscow at stupid o’clock in the morning.

Seated one behind the other with more room per person than the tourist buses were allocated at Peterhof we settle for the ride back.  ‘Dear Passengers, welcome aboard our Sapsan train’ utters the announcer.  I play with the seat, take a cursory look at our fellow travellers and a last look at St Petersburg as we pull out of the station.  The stewardess comes around with a trolley and I, armed with my new Russian directness (this is often, and they are aware of it, mistaken for rudeness by non-Russians and takes a little getting used to) say emphatically ‘Omelette’ (it’s the same word in both languages but I adopt my best rich rolled Russian accent) … she is so taken aback (I told you this was a reverse Groundhog Day) that she ignores the trays she has been dishing out to everyone else and fishes in the bottom cupboard, producing my breakfast.  Later I ask Two Brains what he had – the same as the outbound journey.  I, on the other hand have omelettes garnished with tomato and red peppers with green beans and sliced chicken.  I rather fear I got the Captains breakfast.  I enjoyed it all (the vegetable salad, the yoghurt, the wheaten roll, the omelettes and the poppy seed strudel to fill that last little crevice) and fully stuffed settle to sleep til we arrive in Moscow.  We take the long route back to Tverskaya on the circle line to photograph the rest of the stations.  Moscow seems quiet today so it was a good day to get those missing pictures which I will share with you later in the week in a post dedicated to scratching the surface of these dazzlers.

We settle back in our hotel and a late lunch off Red Square where we are greeted like long lost family by the lovely folks in our favourite cafe.  The wind has followed us from St Petersburg so we only take a short stroll around the square, noting that the preparations for May 9th are complete.

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We then throw caution to the wind and go into Gum (say Goom) – a shopping Mall.  Of course it is the biggest and most ostentatious shopping centre I have ever seen and I actually don’t like shopping.  Both husband and I favour the well tested ‘know exactly what you are looking for and dive in, dive out’ approach.  So in a sense this was hell.  I had been keen to find the source of the bizarre footwear favoured by the average up-town Russian girl and here they were, all around me shouting ‘buy me …’ – I am deaf and clearly a dull version of the girl I once was in my achingly trendy youth.

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My footwear for this trip has consisted, as it ever does, of practical leather biker boots and virtually antique Converse trainers.  The latter, actually have had admiring looks from the shoe savvy girls in the street for being clearly vintage and probably worth a fair bit in the right shop – most of my wardrobe is vintage not because I search it out but because I wear the same things for years and years.  I remain the girl who is actually rather scared of high-end shop assistants so we contented ourselves with browsing the windows, marvelling at the bridges and trees and fountains and congratulating ourselves that we had had Coulibiac (the delicious salmon and parsely pie) and salad plus tea for under 10 euros in our modest diner as opposed to cupcake and tea here for three times that.  Chaque un a son gout or is that a son Gum?

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PS:  We also took some photos with our Cantal sticker to go on their FaceBook page … Cantal Tourisme run a fun competition based on taking snaps when travelling holding their logo to raise awareness.  The fun part is the thousand euro prize …. actually for us the fun part was the irony of juxtaposing our scantily populated departement with its natural beauty against what has to be the most un-natural environment you could possibly imagine ….

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From Russia with Love …. Part 9: A window to let in the light of Europe

Having resembled the Michelin man in my several layers last night, worn to combat the cold in my bones from the open windowed bus tour, I am fully prepared to don every single article of clothing I packed for this little trip in order to stay warm in the biting wind, but mercifully it is a smidge warmer today so the people are spared a 6′ weeble wobbling down Nevsky Prospekt meet our coach to the Peterhof Palace.  On the way we drop into the Arctic and Antarctic Museum.  Our first plan (you have learned our plans are fluid at all times) was to visit this museum given Two Brains connection to Greenland and abiding interest in Polar Exploration and then visit the Dostoevsky museum – Fyodor D lived much of his life in St Petersburg (both before and after his enforced time in Siberia) and many of his great works are set there.  That we both wanted to visit both museums is evidence of the fortunate nature of our relationship – we morph so many interests and often spark an interest one in the other that is unexpected.  I digress.  The fact is that we were late leaving the hotel after the rigours of breakfast – one of those typical continental buffets where you have to keep one eagle eye on several tables lest you miss the single thing you might like to eat and often find yourself in combat over a croissant with a stranger.  I always find it fascinating to watch people rapaciously grabbing vast quantities of food and stashing it in their bags for later.  Somehow, I can never quite bring myself to do the same … Unencumbered by snaffled and concealed food but nontheless tardy we only have time to pop into the beautiful 18th Church that houses the Polar Museum.  I am so glad we did.  The interior is beauteous, the frescos depicting arctic scenes, animals and polar explorers presumably replacing the original religeous paintings.  We only have time to swiftly browse the books and gifts and Two Brains buys a book on Greenland in Russian (he speaks none but intends to be able to read it oh so slowly as he learns the language).  The sales-lady is delighted and says she will welcome us when we return – ‘I will wait for you’ she says.  Dostoevsky will have to wait as well.

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A quick snack and a cuppa and we find our coach.  The journey out to Peterhof takes 1.5 hours and the place does not disappoint.  Sadly we disappoint the guide by opting out of the tour of the Palace on the basis that we want to enjoy the garden with the statuary revealed and the fountains turned on for the first time after their winter sleep.  We will return, we know this and tour the interior in winter when the rooms are less crowded.  The fact is that we are ill-suited to guided tours – irascible and intolerant of waiting for people who have been asked to be in a particular place at a particular time and aren’t (paying 5000 rubles to stand next to a convenience in a car park marking time for strangers is not my first choice of recreation it has to be said).  Besides, it is clear that with a total time allocation of 5 hours for the trip, 3 of which will be spent travelling on the bus an hour touring the rooms and now a quarter of an hour standing by the lavatories, will leave us with next to no time in the vast and beautiful gardens.  So there you have it Maverick and Wife part with the party, enjoy the grounds (we covered about 1/5th of the total) and are first back at the bus bang on time.  We loved Peterhof, will return and will arrive at opening time, leave at closing time.  It is that expansive … I would urge you to do the same should you care to visit.

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Back in the city we buy metro passes and find out that the stations here are splendid, the escalators rapid and the trains frequent.  We flitter about and take dinner in an Italian (Gogol, a good looking Russian Restaurant having refused us entry – its Saturday night and we haven’t booked) which is charming and relaxed.  The food is enormous and I can barely stagger.  I am confident that the two large glasses of Montepulciano had nothing whatsoever to do with this.  Back at the hotel we collapse, stuffed culturally and culinarily for a short night before the return to Moscow.

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From Russia With Love ….. Part 8: Abstract and Intentional

And so it is that at 05:00 on Friday morning I am crawling out of my extremely comfortable, warm and cozy bed and exiting my lovely Moscow room with its marvellous views up and down the broad highway that they call a street and blearily getting into a large status-grabbing Mercedes with blacked out windows to head for Leningradsky Station to catch the fast train to St Petersburg.  On arrival we enter the great, cavernous hall of the station through security and bag-checks and head through more security to the train.  You may have gathered by now that we are not enormously planned, though I like to think that together we are an unassailable team.  The point here is that we had not actually looked at our tickets.  Don’t panic – this was the right station and the right train but Sergey had booked us and it turns out we are first class all the way.

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If I tell you that the Sapsan is pretty luxurious in cattle class you will get the idea.  At the teeniest smidge under 6′ we both need a bit of leg room but I could have accomodated a small family in the foot well of my all singing, all dancing, leather seat with the comfiest head support complete with soft, freshly laundered cotton cover on the attached pillow – clearly based on first class air travel, they have the detail point perfect.  After investigating the tray and the monitor (both stowed in the seat arms), nearly taking Two Brains thumb-off with the latter and playing with the four-way lumbar support and reclining and straightening several times because I could, I settled to watching the people on the train and on the platform – even at this unholy hour the train was clearly full to bursting.  We are sharing our compartment with a reclined Russian man, a pair of frankly rude young women (the type who would click their fingers and shout ‘Garçon’ in France and who are apparently not strong enough to lift their own designer bags onto the rack, favouring ordering at the steward as he walks past).  In front of us and late arrivals are a man of perhaps mid-sixties, stone faced, ice eyed, immaculately suited and his mistress.  Not the stereotypical young stick-thin slavic model but a comely figured (podgy) middle-aged woman who looks as though she has managed a bar or a brothel.  Beautifully and expensively turned out she absolutely knows how to stay number one in his eyes – I have never seen a woman work so hard to make a man feel good about himself and it is fortunate that we are looking at their backs because I am disgracefully Pinocchio and have to forcibly turn my attentions to the menu when it comes around.  Russians are serious breakfast eaters and we have three ‘Ration’ choices.  We choose Ration 1 which is eggs.  We could have had Khasha (buckwheat porridge) or a very scary sounding mixture of hot cottage cheese and cranberries .  We have juice, coffee/tea, yoghurt (I love the yoghurt here as much as I love the yoghurt in France which is A-lot), croissant, salad of vegetables and the eggs with a sausage and mini-corn.  Afterwards, in case we are under-nourished we are offered cake – I choose Bulochki s Makom – poppy seed strudel – very Russian, very delicious.  Replete and exhausted from the rapid eating of the melted cheese and cranberry gloop of the recumbant Russian fellow across the way, the Brain goes to sleep.  I watch out of the window – forests, lakes, flat lands, connobations of wooden houses – tiny with little ground, larger towns grey, industrial.  This is the real Russia.  I am conscious that I tell people all the time that London is not England, Paris is not France – I must remember that I am getting the icing on Russia’s bun by being in the higher muck-a-muck centre of Moscow.

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The train is called Sapsan – it means Peregrine Falcon in Russian and this is a swift bird.  650 km in 3 hours and 40 minutes and here we are in St Petersburg.  I try not to be demanding but I did demand we visit this place when I knew we were coming to Russia.  I know a bit about it having done 18th Century European History to A Level and being rather enraptured by Peter the Ship Building Tsar who never stayed in one place for more than a month in his life and built this city, felling huge forests to make the space to accommodate it, as anyone might having beaten the Swedes in the Great Northern War – well you would, wouldn’t you?!

The first thing to report is that it is cold.  There is a bitter wind and I instantly regret my clever decision to leave my huge coat in Edwards room.  The coat I brought along specifically for St Petersburg.  Hotel found, we walk down Nevsky Prospekt towards the river.  I had been prepared for cultural overkill.  But there is no way you can be prepared for this place.  Literally everywhere you look is a building that would knock you over anywhere in the world.  As we proceed down the street (a Prospekt is a big street) which is 4.5 km long (I can’t help imagining what it was like cutting down ALL those trees to make it in 1712) we cross small rivers and canals and begin to appreciate why this is the Venice of the North.

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The bitter wind is cutting us in two and we hastily cash in the tokens we bought at the hotel for a tour out to Peterhof the following day and head for cover and food.  The fact that we have already had the mighty Sapsan breakfast and a piece of cake in a Kofe Haus (Russian chain of coffee houses) is neither here nor there.  I am blinking starving and so, fortunately is Two Brains.  Picking out a Georgian Restaurant on a side-street only marked by its menu in a glass case and the name over the small door we are in like flynn.  Upstairs and this is what I had been looking for.  The delightful waiter shows us to our table.  We peruse the menu and here comes the food – a plate of herbs … parsley, coriander, chervil, tarragon spring onion and fat shiney green chilli laid out on the plate as though they have been freshly plucked – not chopped just clean and ready to eat.  Bread (I forego the Cheese KhaDSCF6094chapuri feeling that Two Brains was valiant enough last night, and go instead for the naked version which is the same but cheese-less) not a pizza base but the authentic that which looks like a matadors hat puddy, doughy and delicious.  We order Khinkali, the Georgian dumplings ours stuffed with pork meat, spinach and coriander and just divine.  Afterwards we have a kebab (yes, honestly!) which is the lightest chicken minced, subtley spiced and served with raw onions and thinnest laska bread – as in our Armenian favourite restaurant it looks like a lace curtain and Chahobili, a stew of chicken and vegetables which I will hunt down like a demon possessed until I find the recipe to make it.  Roasted vegetables complete the ensemble and the herbs are munched as palate cleansers throughout.  I can now emphatically say that Georgian wine is not to our taste which is not to say it is bad just that it is not our preference.  But this was the Georgian meal I had been searching for since reading Nigella Lawsons description of her own in my well-worn copy of ‘Feast’.

The bus tour followed and we saw all the sights in 1.5 hours which makes us American tourists …. if its Friday it must be St Petersburg.  This is a city of such abundant sites that in a tiny window it was the only way.  I fired off 150 photos and froze with the window open (it had snowed throughout lunch but stopped as we left the restaurant which was super-polite).  Cultural gluttony?  Absolutely.  This is an architectural showstopper of a city and I would urge you to come and take a look for yourselves.  Seeing is believing they say and this is beyond belief.  Between us we have travelled to over 50 countries, 75% of those are Two Brains not me and he was lost for words.  I rest my case.

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Having had our wonderful lunch we were not too fussed about supper.  We stayed tight to the hotel – walking about 15 minutes.  Trying to find a place we had looked up.  It is clearly no more – mothers guide book is 10 years old so no surprise.  So instead we went into a little restaurant between the hotel and the metro and we found heaven.  I introduced Two Brains to Manti which I used to make for the children when they were small … billed as Russian, I believe they are actually Mongolian – like the lightest, and quite large (three to a portion) ravioli, stuffed with lamb and subtely spiced with cumin and parsley.  He is smitten.  Hurrah!  We will make them together – after all one of the most intimate experiences is to make food together and share it with or without friends.  The wine (a rioja) was stunning.  Just a glass but when something is so good you don’t need to drown in it even though you might want to.  We were in the non-smoking room and this is a smoking city so we were on our own.  That too was delightful.  Intimate.  I loved the decor – slightly Cath Kidson with a floral wallpaper on one wall – grey blue with ruddy and pink wild roses scattered, behind me a dresser which featured a shabby chic large lettered declaration of my farourite word – L.O.V.E … very like a home rather than a restaurant.  I also loved that the TV screen played out ‘Funny Face’ throughout our meal.  I can think of nothing more appropriate than Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart silently playing out that lovely Billy Wilder tale.  The waitress was delicious.  Did she know that she was perfect on the eye – tall, slender, blonde … apparantly not.  She was a girl who I would have been proud to call my daughter.  So charming, not the greatest English (why should she … this is Russia) but disarmingly willing to try and understand our lame attempts at Russian.  As we walked back to the hotel, we agreed that our friends summing up of St Petersburg as shabby (away of course from the old centre) is entirely unfair.  This is a young country.  Very very old, but a mere strippling, barely adult – 23 years old this year.  Give her a chance – building by building they are getting there but when every single building in the city (and this a one helluva big city) is something to sing about – it will take time (and the devils own purse) to get there.

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The title is from Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground ‘St Petersburg – the most abstract and intentional city on the globe’

PS:  You might also like (but personally I don’t):

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From Russia With Love …. Part 7: Georgia on my mind

Today is the last day in Moscow before a speedy trip to St Petersburg.  It is also May 1st which is Workers Day and under the old regime was the day when the ballistic might of USSR was paraded in Red Square for the world to marvel at and it’s people to salute.  These days May 1st is still a holiday – in fact Russians see it as the start of summer, but the parade in Red Square is a simplified affair with no tanks (those will be put through their paces on Victory Day (May 9th) – the day that Russia remembers her WW2 dead – all 20 million of them).  I wake and look out of the window to see many happy people walking back to the metro with red white and blue balloons and patriotic flags.  It feels a little like a day in London when a Royal has a birthday or gets married.

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Here the orange street cleaning lorries are out in force as they ever are but last night they put in an extra spritz to make sure the streets were perfect for this morning and now that the event is dissipating they are again putting in an extra turn to restore the city to its default pristine condition.  Actually, people here don’t lend to litter but the odd thing that slips out of a hand or a sleeve does not stay on the floor for long and neither does the muck naturally created by so many beefing cars on its mega-highways.

Two Brains sleeps on whilst I watch (the street not the sleeper), do a little work and potter in our home suite home.  Eventually the husband wakes and we wander up to the patisserie for lunch – it is heaving with ladies lunching as respite from the rigours of shopping and customers coming in to buy the exquisite cakes and chocolates to accompany festive suppers later in the evening.

Afterwards we  take the Circle Line to experience each of the splendiferous stations our theory being that this holiday day will make them quiet and easy to photograph without the visual disturbance of too many people.  Ignorance is not always bliss and in fact the subway is very very crowded.  We manage 6 out of 12 before aborting at Bellarusskaya and walking back the mile or so to the hotel, on the way passing John Lennon looking happy enough to be Back in the USSR.

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Edward, who was Two Brains first PhD students and now one of his senior staff is joining us for supper.  We had planned to take him to the Armenian restaurant but he has other ideas.  Armed efficiently with a guide-book (we are both chancers and tend to fall on things rather than plan as you may have gathered) he has two choices for us – one a Russian Restaurant, the other Georgian.  I enter into the spirit of this novelty called organisation and enthusiastically choose Georgian (which was on my list of must-do’s before we arrived here).  We stride up Tverskaya almost back to Bellarusskaya before Edward realises we are going the wrong way.  Marching back, I feel rather as though I am parading which is apt given the day.  Past the hotel and my sore feet are screaming for mercy but none shall be granted.  The increasingly determined Edward (who incidentally is extremely slender and looks as though a sweet zephyr would blow him over) refuses to relent and is rewarded finally with the golden prize – the restaurant his guide has told us gets their award for best in the city.  It’s terribly busy and the waitress is terribly direct ‘No – don’t have that it is horrible, have this …. you must drink Georgian wine and the double cheese bread would be what you want’.  The net result is a glass of white wine for me that looks and tastes like very dry sherry and is easily as strong – I resort to the teeniest sips (visualising Hinge and Bracket in order to achieve this alien restraint) to combat the belt between the eyes as I take my first swiggette, horizontal on a busy restaurant floor in downtown Moscow not being a look I favour.  The much better starter is not much better or rather if our own choice was worse then I wouldn’t have eaten it, and the bread is not the Khachapuri I expected but more like a white pizza.  Notwithstanding all those things and the fact that we have had to sit in the smokng part of the restaurant and that the enormous pizza imposter is placed next to Two Brains who can’t tolerate the smell of cooked cheese, we have a lovely meal.  Back at the hotel and Edward kindly points out the cashpoint and in-house bank which we have both failed to notice for almost a week …. he is kind about the fact that we have been chasing down Sperbank which is the only Russian Bank which will accept the 6-digit pin of Two Brains’ US cards (and yes, we do insist on giggling like naughty children as we call it Sperm-Bank) but it is clear that despite the fact that we arrived 3 full days before him, Edward is infinitely more sensible than we are, more prepared and more observant.  He is also tremendously kind and offers to keep our superfluous luggage in his room so that we can take just what we need for our weekend excursion – therefore we hastily pack for tomorrows departure to St Petersburg …. I am preparing for cultural gluttony and unfortunately have slight indigestion.

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PS:  I haven’t lot the plot completely.  I do know where I am in the world and I do know that Ray Charles was singing about Georgia USA but I love the song and the title seems to fit

From Russia With Love ….. Part 6: The Athletes of God

Wednesday and the temperature is still rising. It is true to say that I am less keen on rising after what feels like far to little sleep but after my beloved has rushed off to wow the crowds at the symposium I reluctantly drag my sluggish corpse into life.  A wander up the street to include the customary greeting of my oldest Muscavite buddy – Ivan the Terribly Nice and I am to be found at 11:15 sitting on the steps of the Institute of Economics in the sunshine.  When he appears fresh from the fray of addressing 130 large brains numbed by the excesses of the night before, we take a saunter towards Red Square and then cross under Tverskaya to an as yet undiscovered part which has us hemmed in by Gucci, Prada, Vuitton etcetera ad designer nauseum.  But delightfully,  amongst these haute temples of decadent overspend are lots and lots of cafes with al fresco dining (covered and with heaters since Moscow spends so much of its time bitterly cold) which suits the day. Also theatres – many theatres … amongst them the Chekhov
DSCF6014which is added to the mental list of must-go at some stagers. We choose Kafe Gusto which is clearly Italian but as we have learned this will be a Russian version.  Swiftly seated in the sun out comes our waiter who takes our wine order (now the presentation is out of the way, The Husband with Two Brains is happy to relax) and waits for our food choices –  him rabbit salad, me seabass. Very carefully and several times to absolutely ensure that I understand,the kindly waiter explains that the price(650 rubles) is per 100 grammes of fish and the fish will weigh about 400 grammes.  I order a vegetable salad.  We eat leisurely (that is certainly authentically Italian) and the owner who could have walked straight out of The Rat Pack comes by to ask if everything is OK?  Very Good?  We affirm, he smiles and asks if we need anything.  Actually, yes – coffee … he stops a waitress and orders the coffees but not dva, rather due. Something I have noticed here is the effort that is made to speak different languages – our Russian dancer waitress a couple of nights earlier enunciated the names of dishes in her best Italian accent (and spoke excellent English), at Paul across the road from the hotel the serving boy says bonjour monsieur ‘dame  as a result of Two Brains ordering a cake in French the first time we went in (the food there is labelled in Russian and French, it being a French patisserie).

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Not for the first time in my life, I am shamed as an English National when I consider the dismal comparison in the UK.

I can hardly contain my excitement at the next bit.  The symposium hosts had secured 10 seats for the ballet and we had bought two of them.  The Kremlin National Ballet performing at the Kremlin Palace.  The ticket price?  Under £20.  In Russia ticket prices for the ballet are kept low so that every man can have the opportunity to attend.  It’s fair to say that we were a little red in the face when we eventually got to the palace having decided to ignore instructions to take the metro to Biblioteka and rather get off at Teatralnaya and walk across the square.  Doh!  The square is closed for the May Day parade so we end up walking round the outside … it’s quite large.  We ask a couple of policemen and are reassured that we are heading in the right direction and eventually join the crowd crossing the bridge.  Through security and we are in the Kremlin State Palace.  To say it is shiver-making to be inside would be ludicrously understated. Frankly I nearly wet the floor with excitement.  The theatre is no newer than the festival hall in London and is similar in style.  I look around me and I see a cross-section of Moscow society.  Old, young, families, couples some rich, some clearly less so.  This is the face of the ballet in Russia and its a lovely face. Unpretentious, eagerly anticipating.

We are watching Giselle and the whole ensemble – orchestra, corps de ballet, lead dancers give a stunning performance – the girls so limber and graceful, the boys strong, athletic and all so apparently effortless.   It’s my third Giselle – for the first I was a girl of around 9 and my cousin and I wore paper dresses that Granny had brought back from California – short A-line shifts, mine turquoise with orange piping, hers pink with yellow … they were the latest fad there – mercifully, I don’t think they ever took off.  The second time was 30 years ago when I saw Nureyev give one of his last performances.  He was almost the age I am now and now as then I am staggered that he could still cut it.  But he did.  This production was beautiful, faultless.  There is nothing more to say. Some things are better left unsaid and sometimes even I am lost for words.  When the production finished, Giselle at peace in her grave, the count saved from eternal dancing torment by her love for him, the audience applauded raptuously, straight to their feet and many taking to the gangways and front of orchestra pit to show their love and appreciation.  Then onto the stage came girls with flowers.  Not staged but members of the audience – to kiss the prima ballerina and give flowers to their favourites.  The last favour was the biggest (and seemingly heaviest as two men carried it to the star staggering under its weight).  These are people who truly love the dance and I was as priviliged to sit among them as I was to watch and wonder that human beings can perform with such poise, grace, strength.

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PS:  Afterwards we headed back to the Italian we ate in on Monday night.  When they came round to hurry us up we realised that it was already striking pumpkin o’clock.  Even the most brilliant scientists have yet to explain to me why time passes so swiftly when life tastes sweet.  Speaking of brilliant scientists – Albert Einstein gave me the title – ‘Dancers are the athletes of God’ – who am I to argue?

From Russia With Love ….. Part 5: Hand in hand through their (parklife)

Tuesday already … day 2 of Two Brains conference has him free during the middle of the day and with enough time for us to jump a metro to Tsaritsyno which has been recommended to us as a place to visit by Yury, another of the clever boys who passed as a pre-doctoral student through the lab in Cambridge.  Walking to Tverskaya we pass Ivan the Terribly nice waiter and he grins and nods as he did yesterday when he passed us at the exact same spot at the exact same time.  I feel almost local.

The train takes about a half hour and we alight in the suburbs – it feels equivalent to Chiswick or Ealing in distance but what confronts us is quite different.  A huge noisy messy street market littered with girls waiting for boys, boys eyeing up girls and men sidling up to other men with laptops or other electrical devices that they clearly want to ‘sell’.  The air is thick with fast food smells and there are garish stalls selling everything and anything … colourful and chaotic this is quite another face of Moscow to the area we have called home for the past 5 days.  We walk, crossing another multi-lane highway but this time without the aid of a subway – just a wish, a prayer and a zebra with lights.  Through a turnstyle and we are in a sea of tranquility.  This is the Tsaritsyno park.  One of many that surround the outskirts of Moscow, they sprung up in the 18th and 19th Centuries as the suburban estates of Aristocrats.  We stroll towards the water hoping to cross the graceful bridge but it is closed for cleaning.  Two men are in power-washing frenzy as they prepare the park for the summer. DSCF5923 In Moscow the fountains will be turned on May 1st for the summer.  Any earlier and they do risk freezing over.  The holiday season begins in May as the city heats up for a stifling summer.  We wander onwards, called on by a house lurking high up behind a screen of trees. Stopping to say hello to a duck and then to a Russian Crow – they that look as though they are wearing a thick coat over their normal black livery and we are entranced.  Up through the woods, past a manicured lawn on which a bride, her groom and attendants are being photographed, and there is the house.  To say the Russians didn’t do things by halves is a ludicrous understatement.  This is not a royal palace and yet it’s scale would rival Buck House.  It is enormous and quite quite stunning.  It has been perfectly restored and is nothing short of breath-taking.
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And all around are people just enjoying the place.  A lady feeding a squirrel, several brides and their wedding parties being photographed – one has a choir of children to sing to her, others are just here for the photos.  It is a relaxed, calm, peaceful place and the two hours we spend sitting, wandering and drinking it in no doubt erase stress with the ease of a knife through soft butter.  It should be noted though that at some point we try to get ahead of the children’s choir who are by now stopping to sing at any and every strategic point the choir-mistress spots and it begins to resemble a farce as we walk faster and faster to escape being sung at A-GAIN.

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Later that night we have the main social event of the Conference.  A boat trip up the Moscow river.  This is the 25th annual International Symposium on Space Terrahertz Technology.  It does occur to me that if the boat sinks that’s an awful lot of brains on the river bed.  By the end of the evening though, I do believe most of the brains had been murdered by wine, beer and vodka which was just as well since when we docked the hosts clearly felt coaches back to the hotel were un-necessary thus scattering the aforementioned 130 strong hoard of boffins on the quayside to fend for themselves.  Russians are brave, that is all I can say.

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PS:  When we arrive back in Tverskaya, the street is closed and barriers separate the pedestrians from the road.  A distant rumbling increases to a roar as the Russian military make their slow progress from Red Square where they have been rehearsing for the May 9th Victory Day Parade.  In one sense this has to be the cliche that the West defines this country by, but for me it was an absolute privilige to get this sneaky peak and served to clear my head instantly.

From Russia With Love …. Part 4: He stood and dreamt a mighty dream

So now I can tell you that Moscow is lovely first thing in the morning.  After a lazy weekend, Two Brains is up and off to work at 08:30.  Me, I wander.  I feel.  I go and spend some time with Pushkin – the beloved father of Russian Literature as most Russians will tell you.  One of the great romantics, I need hardly mention that his most famous works are Boris Gudinov which had us as teenaged tikes in class making silly jokes about whether Boris really was good enough – happy days but faced with his statue in his square overlooking the lovely gardens across from the 8-lane highway, the plinth covered in floral tributes from a people who embrace literature in the way we all should but generally don’t I feel not so clever. The statue is immense, they all are here, and it is rather lovely

DSCF5868– he is depicted tousel-haired, clad as every good poet should be.  Indeed, those poets who adopt the stereotyped worn velvet jackety, floppy shirty, caped, deconstructed hatty look are actually aping Pushkin even though they may not realise it.  I remember studying Eugene Onegin and falling in love with the young poet Vladimir Lensky … staring at the statue, recalling the narrator and knowing that it was a thinly veiled fictionalisation of Pushkins public persona I am still the starry eyed youngster that I hope I never leave behind.  Some describe me kindly as unerringly positive, some less kindly as naive but I protect my romantic spirit against the evils of cynicism at all costs.  Lensky for me was the embodiment of that romantic soul and I stand for a while, reminded. I can also close my eyes and see the frankly gorgeous Ralph Fiennes when he played the eponimous hero, Yevgeni, in the movie 15 or so years ago.

Later we take ourselves to Patriki (Patriarshiye Prudy – Patriarchs Ponds). I had to go. Mikael Bulgakov is absolutely one of my literary idles and this is where he lived, where The Master and Marguerita starts with a tram incident by the pond and much of the action is placed here. Its a pretty place and there are many workers sitting taking in the late afternoon sun (it gets warmer day by day here and is now over 70 degrees) drinking, smoking but not creating filth. Children with their mamushi and babushki are playing. We are used to the clean-ness by now. We find what I am looking for – not the statue to Ivan Krylov, Russias best know Fabulist and it has to be said a man of magnificent girth but rather the spoof road-sign – one of two that a disgruntled Bulgakov fan put up because the authorities were stoically refusing to recognise the man with a statue of his own

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– it shows Professor Woland and his henchmen and declares that talking with strangers is prohibited. You will understand if you have read The Master and Maguerita. There was talk that the prefecture was going to have them removed but as of late 2012 it has been decreed that one of the two will stay. I’m glad.  That the book was unsettling was intentional of course (it concerns the Devil himself visiting Moscow and raising hell for a couple of days and was written over a 12 year period spanning the 1930s but not actually published in book form til 1967).  But unsettling or not the book and the author are up their with the greats of Russian literature.  What amused us most is the fact that lurking amongst all the characters on the friezes which so clearly depict Krylovs fables are some that are actually from Bulgakov (slipped in by an educated artist with a strong will and a sense of humour, I think).

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Having walked and walked and walked (the Patriki are not marked and not easy to find) we walked and walked and walked back towards base all the while looking for a restaurant.  Rudely shunning the Bavarian paradise we plumped instead for an Italian (this is like any other city – the hardest thing to find is a Russian Restaurant though Two Brains chose Stroganov which is not necessarily Italian I think).  Food was good, it generally is here, their home-made wine far too drinkable but the waitress oh she was the delight.  Sweet, kind, smiling and with the grace of a dancer she was quite captivating and the fact that I had puddng was entirely down to her charming manner.  Back in our room and I took my converse off to find my feet were bleeding from all the walking in the heat.  The last time this happened was the day I met Two Brains and we walked and talked for hours.  I can only conclude that this means I had the perfect day – I felt it so.

PS:  The title is a line from The Bronze Horseman by Alexandr Poushkin

From Russia With Love …. Part 3: Two Lenins

Sunday and the first thing to note is that we actually manage to get up and out at a vaguely decent hour.  Dressed more warmly, sods law dictates that the weather itself is warmer.   We take the metro from Mayakovskaya which is noted as one of the most beautiful on the network.  To be fair, it is impossible to grade these stations …. rather akin to saying that a Turner is better than a Constable … it’s a personal thing in the end.  I think.  We ride two stops and step out behind where we are going.  We walk arm in arm chatting in the sunshine and into a traffic free street full of pop up shops (a common thing here) and lined with cafes.  I can see a red painted spire ahead of me but nothing, nothing prepares me for the sheer emotion of setting foot, at the bottom of the street in Red Square itself.

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It too is a personal thing – my father had a life-long interest in Russia … the culture, the history, the language, the soul and he never visited.  I’m  here with him in my heart and I literally boil over – tears streaming down my face.  I am for once lost for words as Two Brains gently holds me in this iconic place.  We (he because I am incoherent) decide to eat and make our way back up the street to a diner.  We choose rocket and tomato salad and a pie which is off-the-scale delicious … slightly sweetened yeasty pastry encasing spinach and tomato and fresh mint tea (they give us black tea bags to dunk which is a bonus, not because I want the tea to ruin the mint but rather because I can smuggle them into the hotel where we are only given one teabag a day – a frustrating curiosity).  The bill is 523 Rubles.  We only have large notes.  We can do 1,000 – she can give us 300 but not 4.  Rapid fire Russian (they) much gesticulating (we) and eventually a sneaky fellow worker, face etched with amusement, with a pocket full of cash enters the fray.  We end up with the exact change and each time we walk past the cafe they wave and shout Zdrasdvuytye (hello).  A smile works in any language I find.

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We stroll back to the Square and act like any other tourist taking pictures, noting the scaffolding and the banners going up for May 9th – thats Victory Day here (the days of May Day being the big march are history) when the Russians remember their losses in the 2nd world war (20 million service and civilian lost from a total population of 110 million.  Lest we forget).  We walk round Lenins tomb, of course though we can’t get in today.  It’s a monolith for sure. I goggle at St Basils – Walt Disney surely never dreamed of anything quite as fantastical as Ivan the Terribles church which dates from 1555.  Today it is a museum.  No longer a church.

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Outside the back side of the Kremlin (ocrerie yellow inside the red walls) is a garden with a shallow moat of water, the floor a beautiful mosaic and littered with statues.  The Alexander Garden.  We stroll and take in the sunshine with the multitude of Russian families.  A friend of mine remembers being in Moscow as a small child when her father, a diplomat was posted there in the late fifties, walking in Red Square and its surrounds, it is clear that some things have not changed.  Young lovers arm in arm, elderly people walking slowly, families ….. just another shade of normal which is lovely.

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Later, we go to register Two Brains and attend the first night reception for the Symposium he is attending here.  The simple map is too simple for our combined brain-power (!) and we find ourselves wandering round and round and round vainly and increasingly desparately seeking the Institute of Economics.  Several kind but singularly unhelpful passers-by later we ask a group of 3 if they can help.  The boy (I’m getting old – he is probably 28) not only helps us but chases us down the street when he realises he has sent us the wrong way (there are two streets with the same name – one translates as Little and the other Big Gnezdnikovskiy … he thought we needed Big but in fact its Little).  Much smiling, much laughter, many thanks and I ask him his name.  Lenin.  But of course.

 

PS:  Dinner followed the reception …. round the corner at the Chelsea GastroPub – it had to be done, let’s face facts!  Decorated like the most up-market michelin starred restaurant and with leathered armchairs so deep that we looked like a pair of Alices after she has drunk from the bottle that shrinks her we had more lovely service, this time from a fellow who could easily play Ivan the Terrible in a TV mini-series whose English is tenuous but whose smile is infectuous.  When asked if the haddock risotto had cheese he paused, we held our breaths (Two Brains doesn’t do cooked cheese) and the word exploded from his mouth ‘MILK!’.  We ordered it.  We had not expected the raspberry sauce on the haddock but after the initial surprise it was surprisingly good.  ‘VERY GOOD?’  he bellowed when he came like lightening to clear my plate as soon as I laid my fork down.  ‘Very’  I replied.  Sometimes a little light exageration is entirely excusable and indeed the right thing.