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Posts from the ‘Quotidien’ Category

Who’s gonna drive you home ….

I’ve spoken before about the number of miles I drive, we drive – The Bean and I and whenever possible my Two Brained husband too.  But there is a fourth crucial element without which it would not be possible to even leave the house here except on foot (or pedal power which is another story entirely).  That is the car.  The car that since we moved here (and including the long drive from Oxfordshire) has covered an eye-watering 30,000 miles – that’s in one year and a handful of weeks.   I have been remiss in not speaking of this wonderful little beast – bright yellow and Spanish (SEAT) it was originally called Devendra Flan when I got it 2 and a half years ago.  My mother helped me find it and wanted to call it Buttercup (in fact she insists on calling it that to this day and I don’t correct her).  The name came from a Devendra Banhart song called Little Yellow Spider and the ubiquitous Spanish pudding found on virtually every menu across that great country’s girth which is actually Creme Caramel but which the Spanish always refer to simply as Flan (or Flarn ‘you don’t know flarn’ – Ben Stiller and Jack Black know).  Anyway since becoming French the car is known as Fronk and his voice, courtesy of the TomTom is beautifully gaelic.

Why now?  I hear you ask … why the sudden reverence to this 4 wheeled delight?  I’ll tell you … they say that you only realise you love something when you are about to lose it.  Fronk has had his share of scrapes this year including a broken wheel when I frappéd a concrete pillar in a blizzard but I knew he would pull through and he did.  He’s driven to and from England 6 times since and had a service there in May followed by a new drive shaft (cambelt) and a bit of surgery to replace something in his ignition timing in September when he went into Limp Mode (yes, honestly that’s what it’s called) on the M4 to Bristol.  New tyres to complete his all weather set (which took some ordering in the UK in September ‘no, madam – they won’t be available til November’ but were eventually tracked down and fitted and the English tyre man paid tribute to the French workmanship on the front wheel (from the frappé) which was a moving moment in my personal journey of entante cordiale.  He seemed so well on the trip back earlier this month, so well when I drove to Clermont to meet The Brain from his plane the following week, so well as we travelled the typical couple of hundred km around the place to walk and visit houses and just generally potter around.  The shock when we sashayed out in the late Autumn sunshine last Thursday to drive a few km to do a couple of hours walk and settled behind the wheel, turned the key and nothing, absolutely nothing happened was a fully armed body blow.  Panic!  Rush back indoors, Google  wildly for homestart information when you don’t have roadside assistance …. blank, zippo, Google say ‘no’.  Fortunately The Brain was calm and I have a good filing system – a call to the insurance company revealed that homestart is part of our policy with MAEF and half an hour later the cavalry arrived.  The car started – I was watching from our balcony – smiles all round.  Then confusion (me) as the car was loaded onto the breakdown truck (Depanneuse) … phone calls were made and the men stood round in a circle being well … men.  The truck was driven away with Fronk on top, I was beside myself – he had clearly died and I hadn’t even said goodbye. Tears were soothed  by The Brain – apparently it was the spark plugs, the man had ordered them and they would be fitted the following day when they arrived (French for spark plug is Bougie incidentally which is the same as candle so it was fortunate that it wasn’t me doing the talking because that really would have been an invitation for misunderstanding …)

The following day the car was returned.  Humming, frankly and I was singing along.  I love that car.  I don’t care who knows it and I will never again commit the sin of omission and fail to mention the crucial part he plays in my life.  Thank you French insurance, thank you French garage.  I love you all.

PS:  You might like to take note that according to the garage here, it is common place for garages not to bother to change plugs when they service a modern car … these had never been changed and the car has done 135,000 miles in total and had a major service in the summer.  You might like to make sure your garage does bother.  Just a thought 😉

From Russia With Love, Part 14: My fate is to see everything and take it so much to heart

The full sentence in the title is ‘And why is it, thought Lara, that my fate is to see everything and take it so much to heart?’  Pasternak’s Lara, of course in Dr Zhivago.  My father first saw David Lean’s masterpiece film of the book that he had read some time before, in a tiny cinema in Andermatt (Swiss Alps) in February 1966.  He reported that his nose and his toes were cold throughout.  He was wearing gloves and a bobble hat.  I was only 5 at the time so I didn’t see it until much later in the comfort of our drawing room and was I captivated.  The book I read soon after.  The story set the bar for the Russia that I wanted to find.  The politics, the literature, the love, the soul.  I waited what, had I been told I must, at the age I was then, would have seemed an impossible time to visit for the first time (for I am quite determined to go again and see far, far more of this vast and extraordinary place) and she didn’t disappoint.  Not even slightly.  I loved the people, as I knew I would. I love their relationship to art and dance and literature and science and intellect. It is quite captivating.  Their frankness, their ability to feel to the depths of their soul and not be ashamed of feeling so.  To be able to laugh and cry willingly. It is quite beautiful and at odds with the image of the stony faced, ice-eyed KGB torturer of cliché.  We went and we scratched the surface and we returned home a little changed. As you always should be when you have seen something and taken it to heart.

Here are my best bits – each one a character in the little story of my stay:

 

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And some of me enjoying my favourite bits:

 

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Za zdorovje!

Za zdorovje!

 

PS:  At lunch in the summer with local friends back home, we were assaulted with a barrage of the most appalling and misinformed propaganda gleaned from stories on the internet.  Drivel it all was but the venom with which it was thrown at us left us breathless with rage.  Politics is politics the world over and the globe is an increasingly small place but to tar a population with a filthy brush based on no more that what you have read is quite quite wrong.  In any language.

 

Le Coq Sportif

I’m not a football fan, though if pushed I own to supporting The Arsenal (the fault of Granny – she lived within hearing distance of Highbury when first married and made it conditional of watching Grandstand that The Gunners were your team) …

But it’s pretty unavoidable this Coupe de Monde thing and I must confess that I support France (and not because England didn’t cut le moutarde

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– that was inevitable and when the collective English eventually realise that unless a manager is allowed real time to develop his team of players who actually never see one another let alone play together because their high fallutin-tootin teams won’t release them from the gilded contracts to bond properly with their internation team-mates, there will never be that glorious collective ‘YES’ as they bring back international silverware). No I’m not a mealy mouthed ex-pat – I love the French Game (Arsenal – remember has a French manager) and I live here and for me it falls into the politeness bag.

So in a few moments I will be turning up my TV and yelling ‘allez les bleus’ … Let’s turn those Germans to dust mes braves

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PS:  In Paris a week ago outside the very ritzy Jardin de Luxembourg, we found these boys … never underestimate the power of a world class tournament to bring sport to the masses #lovefootie

 

Somewhere That’s Green

The title is a song from Little Shop of Horrors, a stage musical, then a film about a girl in a florist in downtown New York who dreams of a simple life in a Tract House of her own … don’t we all?  In this world we mostly feel that having a place of our own (even if its mortgaged to the hilt) is in some way a security for us, for ours and for their futures.  We feel safer if we own the place than if we rent it.  At the moment H2B and I rent.  We couldn’t honestly ask for more.  Our appartment is in a house, built in the second half of the 19th Century with an important staircase, an even more important front door and high ceilings, the park is green space without the effort of gardening, we have a tiny balcony and our young neighbours are unobtrusive (mostly).  The fêtes and celebrations at the Salle de Fête are fun to watch.  A little noise is a small price to pay for an atmosphere of vibrancy and fun when a birthday, a wedding or a Saints day is celebrated.   We also, in honesty, have the best of both worlds – we have a house in the US which at some stage we will sell and actually we own a small property south of Aurillac of which more later since it has been an epic saga to get to the point we are at.  It is a story all of its own – in fact it has felt like the Odyssey.

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But we do want to own a family house here.  Two Brains will retire and we will live out our lives here.  We want a little land so that we can raise sheep that we milk and make cheese from.  Ideally we would like a south facing slope for vines and certainly I will make compotes and other fruity delights from whatever any trees care to give us.  And clafoutis (I love that word and can’t resist a tenuous opportunity to include it just because I can) and other delights too.  And a potager.  I would like a couple of horses but that will depend on how much land we have – a wish list is just that for the wishing.

For our own reasons we are now in the throws of searching.  And it is an interesting experience.  Remember in a previous blog a lovely elderly fellow in Montboudif (birthplace of Pompidouwappydoo-ooooo) told me not to use Immobiiers because they are all crooks?  He has a point.  Actually I was in the business in the UK and was always at pains to let people know that I was NOT an Estate Agent.  Sadly the reputation of real estate agents the world over is pretty much akin to being a blood relation of Atilla the Hun.  However, we were not prepared for the bizarre fact that if you find a property on the internet here (and it is the way the vast majority of  people search for houses in the modern world), that you will not be able to locate it because the agent will disguise its location for fear that you will strike a deal privately behind his back.  We were equally not prepared for the fact that agents will claim rights to a property that they have simply plagiarised on the net without ever having seen it let alone been through its door.  So we could go to a notaire (the advice of a random Dutch fellow and his wife in our village one Sunday outside the bakery) but to be frank the three D’s (death, debt and divorce) which throw the properties the way of a notaire equally throw up other problems – in France  inheritance laws are complex and a town can sit with a decaying house for years in its centre whilst a notaire goes the legal route of tracking down its heirs.  Even when done, often you find that having fallen in love with a place the notaire must go through a rich and complex dance to ensure that all interested parties are satisfied that you can indeed buy the place.  And once sold to you – all your money transferred you can still wait for months whilst the previous owners (who didn’t actually know they owned the house) empty it of its contents.  Or not.  The strongest of hearts can fail when years of wrangling to even pass go are involved.

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My own advice is to make friends with Maires and Mairies.  They will pretty much always know what is for sale in their commune and will also know who you should talk to, who has a place nearby that might be for sale.  And further than that remember you are in a different country and just because things are done in a different way, it does not make it wrong.  ‘Go with it’ as a wonderful Irish friend long ago advised me (in the context of rearing children) – ‘it’ll be the ride of your life’.  Overall it is about people – people know stuff and people who have lived their lives and whose forebears lived theirs over generations in the same place can be your greatest allies or your worst nightmares.  We met a fellow, English, this time last year.  He had stepped into the hotel we were staying in to take breakfast.  He clearly wanted company because he lept on my English voice and then sounded off for seemingly hours.  He and his partner had bought:  ‘… a big house.  You must know the one – it’s the the biggest in …’  He told us he was struggling with French workmen (but his French was tenuous) and that their new big house would be a triumph.  Not least because it was so cheap to buy.   He also told us that his partner speaks no French and has no intention of learning – she prefers not to understand what people are saying.  We have thought about them on and off since.  Have talked about the idiocy of approaching a new life with no intention of adapting and respecting.  We walked on the plateau above their village at the weekend.  The house is un-touched.  Shutters shut, it looks as though it hasn’t been visited in months.  Presumably work has ceased.  Learn the language, make friends, ask for help.  If you don’t, you will surely fail.

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PS:  In my own chosen area it is true that whole hamlets are dying.  I walk (with The Bean mostly, sometimes with a friend, a relly or my husband) and I see beautiful places simply shut up and left in the hope that someone will happen by.  I hope to begin to educate the owners that without effort they won’t sell, without encouraging a new generation of buyers the places will simply decay and die.  Wish me luck – I am armed only with fervour and enthusiasm and a real belief that this is an area that people would love to raise there own families in …. given that we looked at a house recently in a commune that has fallen to 180 headcount of which 70% are over 70 years old and were told they would greet us (aged 61 and 53 repectively) with open arms as perceived youngsters, I have a little work to do.

Jean Baptiste and The Wicker Man

A little over a week and a bit ago we woke to the villagers building a bonfire in our front garden.  You might recall that our front garden is a public park so we get all manner of things happening, mostly attuned to the Salle de Fete also found in the garden.  Luckily HB² had already been appraised by Martine at the Patisserie that we would be hosting the Fete de St Jean which we had naively thought had something to do with Joan of Arc, since the centre piece was a fire.  WRONG!  Not that Joan, THAT John.  The one that baptised anyone he could persuade to be dunked and a good few babies who had no choice along the way.  He was beheaded.

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As far as I know he wasn’t burnt but clearly here a baptism by fire is the way to celebrate this particular Saint.  A BBQ, a bonfire and some beer and the villagers (old, young, very young, very old) were happy til gone 01:00.  We joined in and felt content that no-one noticed … we are foreign but we prefer to be just part of the furniture – any latent diva was not satisfied that night … the audience was gloriously oblivious to us and intent on seeing if the Birch (about 30′ of young tree) would fall – I have yet to find out if this is a good or bad thing but the gathering were certainly intent on its demise or resistance.  When we had skulked our fill,  we slunk home the odd tens of yards and watched the fire from our balcony.  Well done St Jean – it was fun, it wasn’t a re-run  of The Wicker Man and no-one had their head presented on a plate. Which personally I always thought ostentatious and vulgar.

Disney is the answer

I live much of my life on my own with only a tiny dog for company …. from time to time I luxuriate in my husband’s company but sweet turns to bitter (not in a lemon sucking bitter way but in a sad, saline tears sort of way) when we say au revoir, à bientot as we did at 06:00 today, Clermont Ferrand gare ferroviaire.  My antedote is a good old slug of fairytale Disney chateau and my local one is Chateau du Val – the princess in me never died and a few Rapunzelling towers make me and my long hair feel so much better – particularly when the sun shines!

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From Russia With Love …. Part 12: Palaces for the People

If you walk everywhere in Moscow, however sunny the day or take a bus (trolley or otherwise) or a taxi all the time you are missing what in some ways is her biggest treat.  It’s not her oldest and its certainly not her most expensive (on your pocket) but come to Moscow and miss out on the Metro and in my view you have missed the heart of the city.  When we arrived we took the metro from Bellarusskaya to Tverskaya (though the stunningly beautiful Mayakovskaya is actually closer to our hotel it turns out) and I was literally stopped in my tracks.  Despite leaving home at 05:00, despite the normal wear and tear of a 4 hour flight, despite being overwhelmed by trying to dredge the grey cells for some grain of the Russian I had learned all those years ago in school, the Russian I had read I instantly woke up and, I am sure, gawped like a simpleton at that first station.  Talking to Sergey we quickly understood that this was not unique.  In fact there are multiple stunning stations in Moscow.  A little history research revealed that work commenced in 1934 on the first line (Red of course) followed by Dark Blue, Dark Green and Brown (the circle or ring line as it is ubiquetously known).  All the lines have proper names but are generally coloquially referred to by their colour. They are like underground palaces with beautiful embellisment – here stained glass, there mosaics, there again stucco but look again and you see that these artworks are homages to the workers. They celebrate soldiers and sailors and airmen but also railworkers, guards, fieldworkers. The women are as revered as the men. Family is celebrated. They are, in my view works of exquisite beauty and further enhanced by their expansive nature – the tunnels wider than I, as a London Tube user these past several decades am used to by a factor of at least 3 or 4.

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These stations, this metro is vast.  It is deep, the escalators seem to go on and on and they are rapid, to cope with the 7-9million people who travel on the system every day.  The trains (lovely rather retro looking and practical rather than luxurious) flash into the stations every 2 minutes at peak times and the longest wait we had was maybe 4 minutes at midnight which seemed a long way north of reasonable.

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Like their ballet dancers, the Muscovite train drivers are point perfect.  Many platforms have yellow arrows which if you stand on one will absolutely guarantee that you are by a door when the train stops.  A male voice announces your arrival – the line, the station and immediately afterwards the next station, a female voice tells you when the train is departing, to mind the doors and where it is going next.  And do mind the doors – they are heavy and they slam shut – I would not risk a last minute jump onto a Moscow Metro as so many do on the London Tube.

I shan’t harp on as though I am an expert, my experience is simply that, my experience. I would urge you to go and see for yourself. But I will share with you my favourite vignette. We had alighted by mistake at Ploshchad Revolyutsii and were trying to make it look as though we intended to be there. Taking pictures of the stunning bronzes, Two Brains was well disguised. I was standing, obviously foreign and effecting nonchalance in the way that only makes you look more self-conscious when my attention was drawn by people walking and without stopping nor even hesitating as they passed a bronze of a watchman and his dog each one  polished the dogs nose. All of them. The very old, the middle aged, the young, the obviously well-heeled, the obviously less-so, every one stroked his nose. His very shiney nose from all that polishing. Then a father and his possibly 20 month old baby and babushka stopped. The infant wide eyed as first granny then daddy dutifully petted the dog. Then, held aloft, the child tentatively reached out, hands quivering, a look for half wonder-half terror in his young eyes he stroked the nose and then beamed and beamed and beamed as nothing tangible happened to him except that his daddy squozed him and nuzzled him and granny kissed him – because now he too will have the good luck that I have since discovered is imparted by this dog (or actually any one of four dogs all identical one on each platform and one each on either side of the main corridor). Did I stroke his nose?  What do you think?

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To me, and I have no documented evidence to bear this out, it is just my feeling having experienced these underground monoliths and read about their history, the metro was built, of course to ferry the workers, but as beauteous as can be so the workers were reminded as they went about their day that they were valued, celebrated, equal.  These were Palaces for the People.

 

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St Petersburg also has a stunning network of underground stations – smaller but still breathtaking.  Theirs, though have firmly closing doors on the platforms so that the trains are isolated until stationary.  A reflection on the number of bodies under trains according to one Muscovite friend.  I guess we will see the idea adopted across the world (as we have on the Jubilee Line in London) before too long.

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PS:  A rather welcome echo of the old-regime is that you can travel anywhere on the network for a single price (30 rubles which translates today to 50 British pence, 63 French centimes or 87 US cents) meaning that if you live in the cheaper suburbs and work in the centre you are not paying a larger chunk of your wages in travel than those who can afford to live in the more expensive middle.  Fair fares!

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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