I do appreciate that my interpretations of the photo challenges set by The Daily Press may appear a little random to the casual observer but I can assure you that I do have a process. I clock the word, in this case ‘afloat’ and then I scour my photographs for something that strikes a chord within me. It’s a bit like when I was at primary school. We had the most inspirational music teacher, Mrs Russell who pursuaded the Headmaster, Mr Caldicott, that we should do music every single day. So we did. And we had an orchestra and a choir of course but we had so much more – Miss Gardner-Brown led the pop group in which we sang Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel songs, 59th Bridge Street Song being a favourite on account of being allowed to click our fingers; I played double bass in the orchestra and we had a subgroup of 2 violins, 2 cellos a viola and me and a recorder group with the impossibly beautiful Sarah Chant trilling on her sopranino. We went to Eisteddfods and won prizes and we went to other schools to demonstrate what music could be in a school. We played in the Church of St James The Less down the road (I always wondered about St James the More) and they used my Bass to stop the traffic as we crocodiled giggling and higgle-piggling through the lychgate. And sometimes I was given chime bars to play and I loved it when the sound of the chime rang true and sweet and gave vital chime-ness to the piece that we were playing. So simple – strike it when asked and it resonates perfectly. In principle, that is my process – find it, strike it and hey presto, bongo we have lift-off. In principle.
Voila! Here is a picture that, for me, evokes the algaefied tree island in TheLife of Pi or Asteroid B-612 when the baobob trees have invaded it and forced The Little Prince to leave his beloved home planet. It is afloat in a lake in the park that surrounds Tsaritsyno Palace one of many summer palaces built on the periphery of Moscow for the uber rich of their day, these days superceded by equally super-rich oligarchs who strut and swagger and swamp the city with petrol fumes from their hefty cars steadily choking their planet in no less a profound way than the baobob trees have ruined the asteroid and made the Little Prince’s Rose ill or the algae has made the tree island an acidic flesh eating hell whilst appearing to be a tranquil haven to Pi or any other cast upon its shores.
PS: There is the odd day when I wish I was on Asteroid B-612 or afloat with Richard Parker in a vast ocean. Just the odd day you understand. An odd one here and an odd one there. I try not to let them join up too much for Donne is right – I’m no island.
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:
And some of me enjoying my favourite bits:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’ ….
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.
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.
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?
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 ….
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.
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.
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.
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
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 which 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).
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.
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?