Mathes Missive from Moscow #12 – Saturday: Saturday Night Special
Hello, Tovarich (I actually used this expression on a Russian, who gave me a totally blank look, so either my pronunciation is off, he doesn’t watch American movies and know that this is supposed to mean comrade in Russian, or it’s politically incorrect to be a comrade nowadays– hey, do you think he just didn’t want to be my friend?),
This morning begins with the breakfast buffet at the Sheraton Palace, which the hotel manager has kindly comped us with over the weekend. Just what I needed — more food. At this point I’m beyond ready to get back to my dry seven-grain toast and tea at 3 Guys, the coffee shop up the street from our gallery in New York. But, hey, it’s a trip of a lifetime, what are you going to do? What I end up doing is freshly squeezed orange juice (such oranges!), coffee, fruit, bread, boiled buckwheat (had to try it, wasn’t bad), a red caviar blini, a made-to-order ham omelet (such eggs!), some herring, a piece of eel, several helpings of smoked salmon — some of the best I’ve ever tasted — and a sampling of smoked mackerel, which I generally don’t even like, but this was so terrific that I was ready to take as many pieces as I could fit into my pockets over to the Manege for lunch.
Back to healthy eating next week, Arlene, I promise.
We get to the Manege twenty minutes before the 2:00 opening time, so Julia and I set off on foot toward the Kremlin. The Kremlin is literally across the street from the Manege, and I know it would be crazy not to see at least a little of it while we are here. Jane doesn’t have the energy to join us, which is just as well because Julia’s fast pace would have killed her.
“Because of my Tatar heritage, I would have dragged your body back,” Julia later tells her, reassuringly. “By the heels.”
There is some kind of concert/promenade of ex-boarder guards, however, and all the entrances from Red Square to the walled in area of the Kremlin are closed (Julia finds it hysterical that I used to think that they called it Red Square because it was Communist; in fact it literally is red — the buildings are made of red bricks). So instead, we proceed at a brisk clip through the department store, GUM (as opposed to ZUM, across the street). At least I think this one is GUM. Whichever one it is, it turns out to be a vast, beautiful arcade complex filled with elegant boutiques and shops.
“Was this here during Soviet times?” I ask Julia, remembering all those tales of the deprived and starving people of the USSR that I heard growing up in the American Midwest during the height of the Cold War.
“Of course,” replies Julia. “One of my friends used to say that the difference between Americans and Russians was that you actually believed your government’s propaganda. We knew better. We were laughing our ears off at you.”
Thereafter ensued another day at the Moscow World Fine Art Fair, though anything that may have happened must remain a secret.
But complaints, by their very nature, are never secret, so here are a few choice ones for your enjoyment. You’d think that there’d be some place to get a quick bite at an event like this, in case a dealer didn’t want to leave his booth for two hours to go up to the elegant restaurant on the third floor for a three course lunch. Luckily there is: the small cafe next to our own booth, where you can wait half an hour for a table so you can have pastry and coffee — not the ideal lunch at 5:00 p.m. after you haven’t eaten anything since the two pounds of fish at 8:30 in the morning. Want a three-inch-tall bottle of Evian? That will be the equivalent of $6, please, if they haven ‘t run out. Too bad there is literally no other place in the entire building to get a drink of water (and remember, you can’t drink from the tap). When I said I was thinking of putting some mackerel in my pockets, I hope you understood that I was thinking SERIOUSLY.
And now that you begin to see behind the curtain some of the little difficulties that we art dealers must suffer, allow me to mention that there are also no wastebaskets at the Manege. Where are you supposed to put the wrappings if you can persuade a hedge fund person from New York like Terri to bring you sandwiches or strawberries from GUM (or ZUM)? I’m afraid your only option is to take the trash down to the men’s room and hope one of the ubiquitous cleaning girls spirits it away on one of her every-other-minute circuits of the urinals (don’t ask). It’s come to the point where I have begun eyeing our big Picasso ceramic bird as a possible garbage receptacle (hey, maybe we could suggest that it’s authentic Picasso garbage and raise the price)!
At the end of another day of meeting interesting people, we were about to depart for dinner when Julia noticed doings in the booth next door, that of perhaps the biggest figure in the arts in Russia, Zurab Tsereteli — painter, sculptor, architect and President of the Russian Academy of Arts. Tsereteli’s fame is international. His sculpture, “To the Struggle Against World Terrorism” — a 40 foot teardrop suspended in the fissure of a 106-foot bronze rectangular tower was recently installed in Bayonne, New Jersey. Bill Clinton, Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff and Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey (one of three governors I’ve seen breakfasting at 3 Guys over the past year) all spoke at the dedication. Tsereteli’s fame is such that even Olga, the Russian diplomat whom I sat next to on the airplane coming over to Moscow, actually mentioned this sculpture to me with something like — but not exactly — admiration (“We call it the ‘Crying Vagina'”).
Though Tsereteli is ringed by a large entourage, Julia somehow manages to drag Jane over and get the great man’s attention. The next thing I know, Jane has led him to our booth and is showing him our wonderful Chagall tapestry, “La Vie.” I’m only sorry I couldn’t get a shot of everyone with the tapestry in the background, but that’s where the film crews were standing with their cameras.
The fellow on the left, by the way, is the world-weary Russian artist who told us the other night that a taxi from the Manege to the hotel should be about 200 Rubles. I don’t know his name but his work is being shown at the fair by an important French gallery. Everybody knows Tsereteli, and Tsereteli knows everybody that matters. Now Tsereteli knows us.
Marat has suggested that we dine tonight at a traditional Russian restaurant on Arbot Street that is big with politicians and the Russian mafia (a quality predictor that had proved quite accurate with Sun of the Desert) but we passed the place the other day in the rain and know that it’s closed. Julia decides that our best bet will be Godunov, another traditional Russian place with two advantages — it is close by so we can walk and see a little of the Kremlin after all. And it is supposed to have gypsy dancing, which Julia knows we enjoy so much.
How do you like this for a nice little walk over to dinner?
That’s St. Basil’s Cathedral behind us in most of the shots, by the way. The long red wall is the Kremlin. The guy in the last shot offered to take pictures of the three of us. We very much would have liked to have such photos, but I thought it might be wiser for tourists not to give their cameras to a strange character in Red Square channeling Elvis.
“I prefer to think the best of my countrymen,” said Julia, but who nevertheless agreed.
Alas, no Gypsies appeared at Godunov, but the food was terrific, classic old Russia. Though the bear and moose dishes sounded delightful, I wanted to try something Russian that I’d had before so I could have some point of comparison. The Beef Stroganoff at Godunov’s came in its own loaf of brown bread and was significant better than the one my girlfriend made for me in 1966. Sorry, Rosie. The fish pie (pike, sturgeon and salmon) took 20 minutes to bake and we couldn’t finish it (Julia will take it home and keep it for lunch tomorrow), but it was delicious. And you can’t imagine what sour cream really tastes like unless you can taste it here.
It was actually before midnight for a change when we left the restaurant. Marat was waiting with his car across the square outside. He was very impressed with our restaurant choice — it turns out that Godunov’s is even more popular with politicians and the Russian mafia than Marat’s initial suggestion.
Yes, definitely back to vegetables next week.