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March 12, 2003

More Moscow notes

I am awfully taken by Moscow. It is filthy with slush and sand and salt in the roads and on the sidewalks; the traffic approaches Rome levels of threat to passenger and pedestrian alike, with the worst system of one-way streets imaginable; and it is a terribly expensive city. But despite all this, despite the fact that it still hurts to walk and climb the million stairs involved in going anywhere, I am loving my stay and already plotting my triumphant summer return when I plan to be fleet of foot and warm under a canopy of birches.

Of course a great deal of this is due to Rick and Lisa’s amazing hospitality. We are having so much fun—especially Lisa and me as Rick has had to work (except for Monday, a holiday). Monday we went to Novo Deveichy monastery, which was lovely but treacherous; I very nearly fell and as it was tweaked my leg a bit—but I swear, no serious harm. Then we went to the Old Arbat, full of street vendors and souvenir shops. Rick bought Lisa a couple of gorgeous lacquer boxes, and I upgraded to a larger and somewhat ornate rosewood cane (which has prevented two other ass-over-teakettle moments).

Monday night for dinner we went to a truly fabulous restaurant called Pushkin. It is the epitome of classic pre-Revolutionary Russian style, with about a million black-suited waiters, a six-level dining room, and the most ornate and ancient elevator imaginable. The friezes along the ceilings, the light fixtures, the books on the shelves—it was exactly what you would imagine late-Romanov dining must have been like. Rick and I had an amazing borsch—which I love—followed by sturgeon for Rick and some sort of deer sausage for me, which was slightly disappointing. (I cannot remember what Lisa had!) I tried to order the very same bottle of Bandol that figured so prominently in my SS+K dinner, but they were out; we settled for a 1996 Pomerol that did quite nicely (at around $85 a bottle it was nearly the cheapest on a list that went into the high four figures). For dessert, our waiter misheard us and tried to bring some sort of stuffed tomato item, which we dispatched back to the kitchen to the waiter’s brief distress. We enjoyed these tart cherry rice dumplings and a pistachio crème brulee that was out of this world. Rick did at least let me get the wine, but only after I threatened to “pull a Papaw” over the check.

Imagine my utter shock the next day when Lisa’s wonderful book club friend Julia informed me that Pushkin is a complete confection—“it was a whole lotta nothin’ two years ago. They made it out of whole cloth.” It is a little bit of Disney on the Tverskaya Ulitsa. While I was a little heartbroken to have been so completely taken in by a fake, I was somewhat consoled that not only Americans indulge in this kind of simulacrum. In any case, there is no faking amazing food.

Back to the book club. Lisa is a member of (truth be told) quite an exclusive and hard-to-get-into book club for expat women. They were very kind to accept me as their interloper du jour. Tuesday’s topic was Bulgakov, a writer whose work I knew too little about. It was a fascinating disucussion, led by a well-versed if terribly clumsy academic, about his life and work, focusing on “The Heart of a Dog,” his astounding mid-30s satirical novella. The book, which comments on the New Soviet Man by way of a doctor’s wild experimental grafting of human testicles and thyroid into a street mutt, is quite nearly perfect and a very quick read; the full version was confiscated by the KGB and remained locked in its archives until 1988. I am dying to read his great work, The Master and Margarita, which is among other things a meditation on Christian themes in a soulless Soviet context. As other writers and public figures were executed for far lesser critiques of the Soviet system, Stalin actually helped keep Bulgakov alive; they had a bizarre relationship, full of official sadism and apparently avid readership by Stalin himself. Our professor speculated that in fact Bulgakov was allowed to live because Stalin was one of the few to read The Master and Margarita as it was serially confiscated by the authorities—and that killing the troublesome writer would have prevented its completion. I will add some more notes on Bulgakov in coming days, but he is definitely my new favorite Russian writer.

The book club was held at an expat home north of the city in an exclusive gated development—but one a little less scary than the adjacent development, which is basically a Houston suburb plopped down a 30 minute drive from the Kremlin, with Preston Contemporary homes starting at $8,000 a month.

Which brings me to the topic of driving again. One of the defining features of our visit is Pavel, Rick and Lisa’s driver. Neither my aunt or uncle are insane enough to drive in this city—virtually all managerial expats have a car and driver supplied by work. Especially given my gimpy state and the black ice on the sidewalks, Pavel has been a lifesaver for me—but perforce Rick and Lisa depend on him a lot themselves. Lisa takes the Metro some—and at times it is more convenient than battling traffic—but Rick’s office is not easily accessible except by car. Pavel, who is apparently a teetotaling evangelical Christian father of three, logs many hours and probably 100 miles in the car every weekday, and then some. He speaks good English, but is always asking questions to improve it further. Rick and Lisa will probably never find an equal to Surono, their beloved Indonesian driver, but Pavel is a great, good-natured guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of every Moscow sidestreet (or “perulok”). I am all for the revival of religion after the brutal Soviet suppression of the Church, but Pavel does give me an odd feeling that the pendulum is swinging awfully hard the other way. An attempt to discuss Russian literature ended with a flat dismissal: “I’d rather read the Bible.” I fear his worldview does not include a bedside table where the Bible and Bulgakov jostle for space. But the oddest moment—one that showed me that tech geeks are the same the world over—was when he looked at my (quite serviceable) digital camera and said, “Hmmm… Only 2.1 megapixels.” I suppose I really have to upgrade now.

Last night Pavel had to rush back up to Rick’s office to pick him up in time to get him back home in time for us all to get to the Bolshoi Theater for the 7:00 opening of “1001 Nights” staged by the Azerbaijani Ballet and Opera Company. Pavel’s mom had arranged for the tickets; if you get a chance to sit in the fifth row of the Bolshoi, I really can’t recommend it highly enough—no matter how is dancing. The theater is altogether astounding, with its six levels of boxes and ornate loges that have served several versions of a ruling class since their construction. The ballet was spotty, but good toward the end; the shaky moves of some of the dancers was balanced by the sure knowledge that dancing at the Bolshoi was an indelible moment for them. We clapped hard, but cleared out before the rush so that I wouldn’t be trapped on the stairs—a constant occurrence this week as busy Muscovites swarm around me. I may still have to set my brace to asskicking and get all Jackie Chan with my cane before I get to Paris; of course there’s no doubt I’ll want to hit somewhere there upside the head, so perhaps I should practice.

After the Bolshoi, we headed to Petrovich, a restaurant/club recommended to me by Masha, one of David’s coworkers who is a Moscow expat in LA. It is owned by a well-known cartoonist; though it is putatively members-only, Masha felt they would let a troika of nice foreigners in. After an exasperating exchange with the dashing but dour doorman, we were allowed into the dining room—where the truly sorry state of our collective knowledge of Russian became obvious. It is one thing to see a huge sign on a building and work to decode the Cyrillic into something that might sound familiar. It is another thing altogether to face a 10-page photocopied menu (made to look like bureaucratic forms from some gulag circa 1962) with scarcely a word of English. Thank God we had the world’s most patient waiter; among the four of us, we managed to order an amazing meal that featured three times more food than we needed. The highlights were Rick’s borsch (excellent), Lisa’s blini with red and black caviar, and my amazing steak—and a huge mound of frites that we barely made a dent in. All that plus lots and lots of piva (beer) set us back less than $30 a person—definitely our best dining value yet.

When we got home, I was able to call David, who arrived in Berlin without incident (or, sadly, an upgrade). I realized speaking to him how torn I am—so eager to join him in Paris yet so enjoying my time here. And everyone’s prediction is true—with no work worries, I have just totally relaxed. I must say that I do think the expat joke is true—all the men pray every night to come back as expat wives after they die. While I know that there are many trials and tribulations for Lisa and her peers (learning how to go grocery shopping in a strange culture, being far away from family, etc.), I’m definitely going to tell David that his company needs to open an office here. Or perhaps SS+K wants to help build some of Moscow’s odd native brands into global superpowers. If anyone wants to send me here—to be a high-paid executive or a well-read house husband—I’m game.

So I’m trailing off, but today was the Big Kremlin Trip. We were all honestly a bit worried about the logistics on this one—it’s not that I can’t walk, it’s just that the effort of staying on my feet with a world of icy flagstones below is both physically and mentally exhausting. (Actually, it’s the 300-year-old footpath that gently slopes down toward the main entrance to too many buildings that is the real trouble.) Anyway, Lisa and I met our tour guide at 10 and figured out that it would be better not to walk the half-mile to the Kremlin gates—Pavel to the rescue again. We caught up with our guide—and an uncharacteristically dour Canadian family—at the gates after 10 minutes in a cold wind off the Moskva River warding off sketchy types intent on selling me a Red Army hat (which I really sort of wanted, just not that second). The outdoor sections of the tour were cold and treacherous (relatively speaking—the 4 degree Celsius weather was actually pretty good on both counts) but beautiful; I know we all know this by now but the Kremlin so does not look the part it was cast during the Cold War. The restored (and reconsecrated) cathedrals were really moving, particularly the Cathedral of the Domition of Mary with its lovingly restored frescoes and towering iconostasis. The Armory, too, was almost too much to take in—the Cindarella carriages, Catherine the Great’s wasp-waisted gowns, and centuries’ worth of mindbendingly ornate decorative arts given to the ruling family by European powers. We were especially taken by the 16th-17th century English gilt silverware—the world’s finest collection, as London’s lot was smelted by Cromwell and company to make coins—and by Boris Gudonov’s chain mail suit, whose every ring is inscribed “If God be with us, who can be against us.” (The answer, of course, was “some scheming scumbag in your family who wants your throne,” as it ws the answer for half of Russian history.) Oh, yeah, and the Sevres collection that Napoleon sent over just before he laid waste to half of the Russian Empire. (If you ever forget what a bastard that Napoleon was, visit Moscow.)

We continued the week’s Bulgakov theme by dining at the very same Café Margarita mentioned in the book, right at Patriarch’s Pond. Our waitress really couldn’t have cared whether we lived or died, but lunch was great and we were starving. After lunch, we ended our sightseeing today (Wednesday) with a brief stop at the Museum of the Revolution—or more precisely, its dingy but rewarding gift shop, where Lisa and I scored huge with Russian Propaganda posters. I think I took care of pretty much everyone on my list—so if you don’t like Soviet Realism, please email me immediately and I’ll get you a miniature Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Once home, I iced my knee and took a nap (the first of my visit). When Rick got home from a fairly shitty day at the office, we all went to Maharaja, the Indian restaurant where everybody knows his name (it was his favorite standby while Lisa was back in the States this Fall). Yum—and everyone spoke English. (I must say, despite my fears of using “nous” instead of “on” and generally embarrassing myself in front of M. David Francophone Smith, my return to the Roman alphabet and a language I’ve had more than a day’s study of will be only too welcome.) Back safely in our perch above Zkukovsgogo Ulitsa, we watched another episode of Six Feet Under, almost catching me up to where I became a regular viewer.

So… Tomorrow the Tretiakov Galleries (both old and new) and who knows what else.

Posted by jay at March 12, 2003 11:30 PM | TrackBack
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