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Posts tagged ‘Russia’

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

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


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

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

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


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?

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

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



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


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

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



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


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


From Russia With Love …. Part 1: Language barriers

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

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

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

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

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


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