Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Chekhov Carver Russian Trip - Day Eight - 31 May 2004

Work – The Tsar’s Palace – Work – and more food


I’m getting really concerned about the amount of food we scoff on a regular basis. After another giant breakfast (where I reduced the amount of eggs and bread and increased the portion of fruit), we settle down on Neil’s balcony to work. We find out we’re lacking coffee, so I get to practice my Russian again and order coffees by phone. It feels very luxurious to be brought drinks to the 11th floor. We have an excellent working session – some of which Neil actually films (more specifically the point when I comment on a particular scene by saying ‘I wonder whether this would be a post-coital conversation’).


As soon as our car pulls up to the grounds of the tsar’s Palace (the place where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had the famous Yalta conference at which it was decided that the country I was born in should be a communist country), my magpie’s eye spots a cap hanging in one of many stalls selling trinkets and souvenirs. It’s golden yellow and has long tresses at the back. The seller says it’s a Tartar cap (Tanya tells us that the Tartars were traditionally settled here before Stalin cleared them out because he was afraid they’d betray them during WW2). She gives me a quote which amounts to about £15. Margaret and Neil declare that it suits me and Margaret urges me to buy it because I might regret not buying it. I say I’ll get it if it’s still there when we return. So we buy tickets and make our way through a babushka-guarded gate to the entrance of the Palace. The babushka and Tanya are shouting something to each other. I’ve walked in with a camera on and I think it’s probably to do with this, but it turns out the babushka is advising us not to get lunch in the Palace because it’s very expensive and to go to a little tent under some trees. So we come out again and are seated under the trees, being attacked by insects and munching on rather simple sandwiches (the golden cap continuously within my field of vision).


Eventually we put our customary slippers on (this is a must in every Russian museum) and parade through long corridors, first of all surreptitiously touching Stalin’s chair (despite Tanya’s very serious warning that if they catch us the babushkas will bite our heads off). Then we go into the Romanoffs bit. Apart from the fact that Romanoff wrote very boring diaries (they are exhibited on the walls and every one of them states where he drove in his car today; much like this one focusing on what we ate today!), there is something really moving about these rooms and the pictures in them. The Romanoffs were obviously quite religious – there are icons on various walls - and quite keen on photography. There are endless pictures of the princesses in white dresses and the young leukaemia-suffering prince. Tanya tells me the story of how they were thrown down a miner’s pit after many days of being kept hostage. There are books by Chekhov in their library, but apparently they didn’t visit this particular Palace very often.


After we come out into the tastefully arranged garden we spend a long time wandering around pensively. Eventually we come to a small chapel at the other end of the building and I wonder whether Stalin ever took his American and British counterparts to see this. The chapel is exquisite and it also features an icon of the royal family who were beatified after their death.


On the way back, the stall with the golden cap is being dismantled, but I get there just in time, and I end up with an outrageous acquisition. Neil says I have to wear belly dancing gear with it and I propose to do it on the opening night of the show – just turn up dressed like Ruth St Denis.


Being chauffeured around by some random taxi driver, I wonder out loud what Pasha might be doing now. Neil says – ‘He’s happily married, you know, are you trying to split his family up?’ Tanya says he had an American DJ lined up after us. She then proceeds to tell us how talented and clever he is, having gone to a very distinguished engineer’s college in St Pete he then found out that there was no work in his field in post-perestroika years. So he’s been driving and now he finds it’s too late to resume his career but he’s very happy with the sense of freedom he gets from his job. I say to Margaret there is a story in there somewhere and she proceeds to discuss the idea in detail...


We have another very fruitful working session on Neil’s balcony in the afternoon before going onto a restaurant 'treasure hunt'. We’ve decided to try and find a restaurant on the beach that Janet Malcolm discovered by walking through a tunnel at the bottom of the hotel. (So we ditched the idea of dining at our kind passer-by’s restaurant but we did deliver a box of chocolates for her earlier today). We go down in the hotel lift to the bottom floor which opens onto a tunnel. We walk through it for quite a while, Neil smoking all along. As we get out, he throws his cigarette end leisurely on the pavement and suddenly a ‘babushka’ (who is seemingly minding the tunnel here) springs out of nowhere and starts shouting hysterically for Neil to pick it up. Taken by surprise, Neil picks it up muttering ‘Sorry’ and Tanya reassuringly says to the babushka in Russian ‘He is terribly sorry’. In a way that feels like she is running after us threateningly, the babushka replies: ‘He’s not terribly sorry, he is just sorry’. I name this one Baba Yaga. (Baba Yaga is a Russian fairy tale creature equivalent to an evil witch). Finally we walk down to the sea and stumble upon a restaurant which has tables and chairs under an awning right beside the beach. We decide this is it and settle down. 

This time we are served by a very choleric, hyperactive waitress, which – when she interprets the menu to Tanya (enthusiastically and very efficiently) – sounds a bit like she’s highly agitated. Tanya replies in a way that almost matches the waitress’s tempo. We’re all slightly taken aback and burst out laughing with relief every time she leaves our table. But she keeps coming back with suggestions and we are all being characteristically picky and the conversation between Tanya and the waitress escalates so much so that at one point concerned Margaret asks: ‘What is the emotional content?’ I say I don’t think there is any as they continue to shout over each other clarifying the number and the kind of starters as well as the number and the kind of side orders. In the end, we all end up with four starters each!      


Neil has the four legged flat chicken again, and I have the fishes which Tanya recommended as a local delicacy but which look slightly familiar to me – I think they are very similar to the fish that jumped into my vodka, and I press them down firmly to my plate.


The waitress with logorrhoea keeps coming back and this all turns into – a delicious – but a very weird meal. As we finally walk back to the hotel it’s pelting down with rain and we’re too late for the lift so we end up climbing a mountain, at least comforting ourselves that this is good for burning all the excess calories. 

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