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.
You may remember that we spent some time in Moscow and St Petersburg earlier this year and this is the penultimate part of the story. Part 12a because I just can’t rid myself of silly supersticions and I am wholly triskaidekaphobic (that’s afraid of 13s before you look it up). Part 14 will follow hot on its heels and then my first Russian odyssey will be neatly parcelled off. The tardy nature of this last but one is not entirely due to inefficiency or laziness. I felt that my timing needed to be a teeny bit diplomatic since, as will be revealed, some might have felt it inflammatory had I posted it earlier. They may still but I can’t help that.
You might also remember that we were in Moscow for the May Day celebrations and that I noted these are not in any way a show of military force as they had been under the old guard but rather a celebration of the worker and an opportunity for demonstrators to demonstrate about whatever they feel they need to demonstrate in Red Square. However, May 9th (Victory Day) is another matter and we were priviliged to watch several rehearsals for the Military Parade as it processed past our hotel in readiness for what, as it transpired, eclipsed the parades of recent years.
That Mr Putin used the opportunity to demonstrate his country’s strength and to leave the world in no doubt of how strong she is was not a small surprise given the caning he and Russia were, at that moment, taking on the world stage. A stage full of those who will always throw a rock when facing a glass house. Those who will invade and interfere at the drop of their own hat but who flew into a frenzy of screeching disapproval when The Bear roared. It seemed to me that many had not even looked at the facts nor examined the history books. The invasion and annexing of Crimea was inevitable. It should have been included in Russia when the USSR was broken up but had been parcelled into Ukraine in 1954 because Mr Khrushchev was Ukrainian. That Ukraine has been a sorry and angry mess for 20 years is surely an unmissable fact. I try to be Apolitical on this blog but surely reason dictates that what Russia did was not more nor less than her Cold War foe the United States of America has done on a regular basis whilst The Bear slept. And why on earth does it have to naturally extrapolate that this means that Russia is set to take over the world? Really? Nonsense. I believe it is blather and nonsense.
So we watched the immense cavalcade of tanks and armoured vehicles rehearse the route that went past our hotel more than once. No one stopped us from taking pictures. The police were happy for us to stand and watch and many did – both citizens and visitors stopped to enjoy the free floor show.
On our last morning we went shopping for souvenirs. It was a challenging journey because Red Square and its surrounds were entirely closed off and Police guarded every attempt to exit the Metro within hundreds of yards. It was May 9th. After a convoluted agility test in Metro hopping we managed to find Old Arbat the street which Sergey (he of the Dukely perfect English) had recommended. It should be noted that the day before we had gone to Izmailovsky Market where you will find the best bargains but sadly May is too early in the year and the market was no-where to be seen … we strolled in a ghost park where the mothballed fairground was just being unwrapped and not even the kiosk was open for business … the birds and squirrels, eager for a treat were disappointed. Sergey had also recommended a particular shop so we walked past all other possibilities (and this is the Piccadilly Circus of Moscow in that it is tourist nick-nack central) and headed purposefully into the shop of the name he had carefully written on a piece of paper the night before at dinner. It quickly became apparent that Sergey has never in his life set foot inside a souvenir shop in his city, let alone this two floored monstrosity. In fairness that is hardly surprising – I don’t frequent the aforementioned purveyors of Beefeaters, Union Jacks and Royal Family memorabilia in London and wouldn’t know which were good, which bad and which horrid. As we stepped through the door we were cast back in time to the communist regime and confronted with a shop assistant (all on her own in this monolyth of a store) who had not caught up with Glasnost in any way or blinked at all in the sunlight of the new-born glossy Moscow that now surrounded her throwback-to-the-fifties-in-no-way-that-was-good shop. No matter how cheerily we smiled her face didn’t flicker, her unblinking ice-cool exterior never once waivered with even a passing nod to warmth. We beat a hasty retreat clutching a tiny bag of overpriced trinkets – naturally, being English, we were far to polite to just say good day and walk out. As we walked back up the street passing another and another and another shop we decided to brave the last one and, baiting our collective breath for another freezing were greeted with two funny charming smiling young girls who made far more money than Iron Icicle Babushka from our visit. Our purchases included a hat of fox-furred deliciousness which, I am shallow enough to admit, made my trip complete. We strolled back to the Metro in bright warm sunshine, me insistent on wearing the hat and doing a little light modelling for the camera en route.
Back at Pushkinskaya we hurried past the underground boutiques (there are scores of them – tiny little shops selling everything from dumplings to diva handbags) eager to grab brunch at our beloved Paul one last time. A freezing wind bit us as we ascended the stairs and as we alighted on Tverskaya we were blown back by a blizzard.
In 15 minutes Moscow had gone from summer to winter – it was like walking out of the wardrobe into Narnia except that there was no forest, no strange mythical creatures but rather tanks and armoured vehicles splendidly processing through the snow. It was a fitting end to a fabulous stay. Russia came in from the cold just over two decades ago. The world put her back there in the Spring. I say look in the mirror, Baby – you might not feel comfortable with the reflection.
PS: There is an old joke from The Second World War that Russian tanks have only one gear – forward and that they are fuelled by vodka – I have no idea if this is true but can state with authority that they work in all weathers ….
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?