Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Chekhov Carver Russian Trip - Day Thirteen - 5 June 2004

The Flea Market and Tanya’s Dinner Party


Having overslept this morning, by the time I come down everybody’s had breakfast already and Neil is chatting to young Igor – one of Tanya’s private English students who she sent to us to escort us around the flea market and practise his English. We introduce ourselves and Neil says – 'Guess what, Igor works at the Mayerhold Museum and he travels a lot and he’s been to London and guess what he's seen!? – Phantom in the Opera, that’s the only show he saw in London!'. We invite him to Newcastle.


After a bit of a confusion with Margaret looking for me and me looking for her, and me quickly getting a glass of fruit juice off the breakfast table, we finally set off. It’s a wonderful, sunny day. Igor is a bit timid and his conversation exercise is slowly diminishing. By the time we get into the metro he’s reading a book. In Russian.


We have to pay to get into the flea market. In the process of making my lists I’ve also made a communal shopping list. Margaret wants a polished stone necklace and a present for Claire and Neil wants a lot of interesting obscure objects as well as various presents. I don’t have any particular wishes in relation to the flea market as my own shopping list was mainly to do with films and books.


I think we spent something like 2-3 hours walking around endless stalls (also watching some bears for a while entertaining the shoppers from behind a fence) and examining and trying on various items. Margaret finds her necklace quite quickly and it has dead insects in it, and it’s at least 50 years old and the stall keeper says to us: ‘Look at me, I’m serious, I’m serious – it’s really good’. Most stall keepers are fully conversant in a number of languages anyway, so Igor just does his own browsing and occasionally keeps an eye on us.


By the end of our shopping trips we end up with the following items:


Margaret: necklace, shawl, chess set, and a number of small gifts

Neil: icon (which we’re all envious of), wooden toys, knitted socks and gloves for Rosie, abacus (!), a map of some obscure region, various cards, Soviet memorabilia and similar curious objects

Duska: mink scarf and a ‘silver’ belt from Afghanistan (both by the decision of the jury that they really suited me and that I should really get them), icon, postcards (including a photograph of the MHAT members with Stanislavski and Chekhov among them)


We display all of these in front of Tanya as soon as we arrive so to get her verdict, and she reckons we’ve done well. Then we take a tour of Tanya’s neat and airy tower-block apartment, with most amazing family photographs and even more amazing works of art created by her grandmother. In Soviet times, when she couldn’t get any paints, Tanya’s grandma put together little pieces of cloth of different colours and designs and created some mind-blowing ‘still lives’ and ‘landscapes’. We keep discovering these all over the flat and eventually settle at the kitchen table next to the grandma’s painting of 'some chickens’.


The kitchen is quite small but everything is at arm’s length and Tanya has prepared a hundred-course meal. She’s also invited a theatre director Sergei Zhenovach with whom she’s worked intensely as an interpreter and whose work she adores. He is a sweet man and we have a very lively afternoon talking about theatre and Chekhov and life – mostly through Tanya.


At some point Tanya’s husband Volodya – who is also a very witty non-English speaker – tries to tell us a story of his high school IT teacher. Tanya asks him to clarify what he’s saying, then translates. So, this teacher tried to explain the difference between maths and information technology by saying –.... and then an amusing marital communication breakdown ensues. They argue and Tanya comments to us: ‘He’s just asked me to translate something and then he changed his mind, he says it doesn’t matter!’ We find this utterly hilarious from both ends of the language barrier. Then Volodya makes his point: the teacher quoted the first line of Chekhov’s Lady with the Lapdog to illustrate how there was much more information than words in this sentence.


He also tells us a story of a guy who got photographed with Lenin as a little boy and then grew to resemble Lenin himself, so eventually started offering to others to get photographed with him - mirroring the same positions. This comes across more effortlessly and to an equally enthusiastic reception, but Tanya has had enough and disappears to try and get us a recipe for cabbage pie by talking to someone on the phone (which goes on for ever). Meanwhile we try to communicate between ourselves (and the fact that we’ve consumed quite a bit of vodka helps to an extent). Sergei tries to explain to me that Chekhov really liked gooseberries and therefore wrote the story of the same title. We say we know the story, but we wonder how gooseberry jam is made? At that point Tanya returns to the table and says: ‘Don’t tell me you want a recipe for gooseberry jam as well!?’ We say – no, we just want to know what Chekhov enjoyed about it. The Russians then proceed to explain to us how this is not really jam but just ‘varennie’. Something that you have small spoonfuls of while drinking tea. I recognize this ritual as something that we do at home, which basically amounts to sampling small amounts of fruit preserve (with the fruit often having been cooked whole or in chunky pieces in a sugar syrup).


Tanya then declares that we should try and get ready-made pastry if we want to make this cabbage pie because the pastry sounds very complicated, and then she gives us the recipe and I take notes:


‘Pirog s Kapustoi’ or ‘Kapustnii Pirog’

                  (Cabbage Pie)

-       chop cabbage (or two cabbages)

-       boil in water for 5 minutes

-       drain

-       add butter

-       add cream (enough to cover bottom of pot)

-       add salt

-       put back on fire and let liquid evaporate

-       cabbage should still be al dente

-       add 2 boiled eggs (chopped)

-       add pepper

-       when spreading cabbage on the pastry, add butter

-       cover with another pastry layer and bake


[As for the pastry it should consist of 250gr margarine (melted), ½ l warm milk, 1 sachet of dry yeast, 1 tablespoon (flat) salt, 1 tablespoon (flat) sugar, 2 eggs (beaten), 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1kg flour.] 


We explain to the other puzzled guests that we want to make a cabbage pie for our 2 July event. Volodya comments that that would really make the audience remember Chekhov forever. We laugh.


When everybody has dispersed and we’re waiting for our taxi (this time we’ve asked Tanya to double-check how much it should cost and she claims between 250-300 roubles) we are again looking at our new acquisitions. Neil’s map of an obscure Soviet region prompts Tanya to tell us a story about someone she once met and also simultaneously prompts Volodya to show us pictures of architecture from that region. Meanwhile Neil is marvelling at his abacus and wondering how it is used. Volodya tells us via Tanya that there is an entire science on how to use an abacus. At that moment our taxi arrives and we say quick goodbyes. Volodya walks us down to our taxi and is telling me about how when the first Russian cosmonauts went into space there was an entire army of mathematicians working on abacuses. I no longer know when to take him seriously, but we are sure to remember both him and Tanya and them as a couple fondly, for a very long time.


As we drive back, Neil is keeping an eye on the watch (we were told if it takes him less than half hour to get us through the city it should be just 250 roubles). Margaret and I are arranging our multitude of impressions. When we arrive at the hotel, it’s been exactly 27 minutes. The driver asks for 450 roubles. Out of frustration and anger and the taxi-driver’s wound to our budget the other day, I suddenly speak up in Russian and say to him that we were told it should be 250 for under half an hour and no more than 350. He does budge and we come out triumphant.


However, that’s not the end of it. Even though Margaret thought she had enough money to last her till tomorrow (and we can’t take roubles out of the country), it turns out that she has spent up and needs more cash. So I go to the hotel’s ‘bankomat’ but at the last minute it suddenly goes faulty on me. I ask a concierge what I should do and he tells me that there is another bankomat opposite the hotel on the corner. I come back to the table and ask Neil to accompany me as it’s dark. So we come out and see the bank and walk all around it – but no bankomat. We go back in, grab another concierge who is minding the door of the Yar Restaurant and looking very bored (as there is the wedding party number 112 since our arrival going on in the hotel). He has an infectiously calm demeanour and is quite chatty as he explains that he also knows that there should be a bankomat across the road. He offers to take us there. So we all go back again, but no luck. He says he knows some others but we’d have to go in a taxi and it should cost no more than 200 roubles. We go back to inform Margaret that we are having to go on – what Neil ominously calls – ‘another adventure’. Meanwhile Max is chatting to a taxi driver outside who looks really grumpy. We say to Max it’s very nice of him to be doing this for us and he says:


‘Let me tell you a Jewish joke:


There is this man who has a daughter who is not married.

One day a guy comes to this man and says:

-       Oh, congratulations, you married your daughter off!

The man says:

-       What do you mean?

-       Oh, I just saw your daughter and she is holding a baby and the baby is eating milk from her breast.

-       Oh, well, if you have some time, and if you have milk, why not do a good deed!?’


Neil laughs immediately, but it takes me a while to put this together in my head in my present state.


Anyway, so Max is arguing with the taxi driver trying to talk him into taking us there and back for 100 roubles. We wonder what’s going on. Then Max turns around slightly disappointed and says: ‘He’ll only do it for 200 roubles.’

We say: ‘No, that’s fine, that’s perfectly all right, let’s go! Can you come with us?’

‘Yes, but I must go and check with my manager’

So we are standing there with the grumpy taxi driver, thinking this probably means we have to tip Max as well.


Max re-emerges followed by his efficient sounding manager who says to us: ‘The bankomat is just there just across the car park, the far corner across from here.’


We thank them and proceed to walk across the car park leaving the taxi driver in an even worse mood. We are saying, ‘well he was probably bored at work, but how sweet’ etc. When suddenly we hear a muffled voice behind us. I go week at the knees again, thinking, here we go again.


We turn around and it’s Max again: ‘My manager sent me to accompany you.’


Relieved we start chatting to Max about his English which is very good, and how long he’s been working here and so on. On the way back we’re so chummy that we’re on the brink of inviting Max over to Newcastle, but we apparently receive a funny look from one of his female colleagues and he politely excuses himself saying he has to get back to work. We ask him whether we can give him a tip or get him a drink, and he says – no, it’s part of his job, and it was his pleasure.

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