Mathes Missive from Moscow #9 – Wednesday: First Public Day
Greetings from Moscow, where our last installment ended with Julia tied to the railroad tracks and old Eighty Nine barreling toward her at high speed.
“How’s Julia?” I ask as I anxiously slip into the restaurant booth next to Jane’s at around noon. I had wanted to call all morning but wouldn’t have wanted to wake Julia if she were still sleeping. In fact she still is.
“She’s okay,” said Jane, who looked tired. “We didn’t get to bed until two thirty in the morning.”
The fair runs most days from 2 in the afternoon until 9 or 9:30 at night (the fair organizers apparently are not sure, since printed hours differ). After taking out a croissant this morning from my little coffee place at eight (as well as the folder the check came in, thinking it an advertisement), I had written for most of the morning, returned the stolen folder (“Sorry, stupid American,” I tell the waitress, who looked happy to see it), then headed to the overpriced coffee shop at the Sheraton Palace for lunch. Yesterday I had actually forgotten about lunch for probably the first time in my life. I had had to get by on a raspberry tart, the most substantial offering from the cafe next to our fair booth. It was no time to go restaurant shopping now.
But at least Julia would live. She had gone immediately to the bathtub and started a regimen of baths — first a hot one, then a cold one — to get her blood circulating. She had been there for two and a half hours.
“I didn’t want to disturb her,” Jane explained. “I had to put on my clothes and go down to the lobby to pee!”
Jane has already ordered, but I can see she is “out of her plate” as Arlene (and the French) would say, though she insists Julia is no trouble — the bed is very large. And she can turn her head a little better than last night. We are the only people in the restaurant. The lunch is very good, but my seared tuna salad comes before Jane’s soup. And then my egg-wrapped pork arrives before her tilapia.
“Excuse me,” Jane says, flagging down the waitress, clearly in need of some trouble to make in order to put herself to rights. “Is it the restaurant’s policy to serve men first, instead of women?”
“Please?” says the waitress with a smile (Mouth?).
“I’m not criticizing, you understand,” says Jane, “but I was here first and you served his meal before mine. Is there an assumption that a man should be taken care of first because he’s here to do business, while it doesn’t matter to keep a woman waiting?”
“Maybe she doesn’t understand?” I said.
“No, no, it’s okay,” said Jane, satisfied, letting the girl escape. “It’s just that somebody has to start questioning how things are done here, put new ideas into their minds.”
I suppose if anybody can turn around an entire foreign culture, it would be Jane.
From two until six are what the Fair calls “Public Hours,” and have paid admissions, as opposed to the nights, when only people who have been given VIP passes by galleries can get in. Today is much less crowded than the opening last night, and that’s fine with us. Julia is going to come when she’s ready. Jane and I are relieved to see that while Julia is vital for some encounters, it is easier to deal with many clients without her. Julia is so kind and polite that instinctively she wants to treat everything each person says as important. Though she understands that we must focus on those who might actually buy something, extricating yourself in a polite fashion from people who glom onto you at a fair is an art that takes years of experience to develop.
Jane and I in fact have years of experience doing fairs, and not being able to speak the language turns out to be a wonderful way to handle certain types. We always bend over backwards not to be rude to anyone. Even when we have to throw somebody out of the booth, we try to do it in the nicest possible way. But some people are impossible. There’s always some artist who wants to show you his work or entrepreneur who wants to sell you something, and who somehow just cannot be persuaded that this is not the right time or place. Several of these characters show up today. What a pleasure that we can just shrug politely at them as they try tell us how important they are, “Sorry, no speak Russian. Why don’t you go over and bother that nice French dealer over there?”
We are in fact very impressed with the caliber of the fair patrons, and many speak English or French. Our best clients of the day, however, are an American couple, old clients of ours, who live also here in Russia and who want to send some of their important Russian friends to see us. It’s nice to see friendly faces.
Terri shows up, looking rested. She’s gotten more sleep than she has in a week (must have been the lard with garlic which we all sampled on black bread last night), has worked out and has brought us sandwiches from one of the department stores, Zum or Gum, she’s not sure which. She sets about making herself useful.
Through no fault of her own Terri has been introduced into this narrative in an unsympathetic role. I mean, here we have three characters straight from Characterville — Julia, Jane and me. And now poor flawless Terri shows up. How could she not come across (especially in the hands of someone like me who can’t resist shooting fish in a barrel) as the villainous interloper who is crashing our intimate little party? But Terri is a real person, not a caricature. The fact that she is here is more important to her mother than Terri can imagine. Plus Terri offers us a lot of good suggestions from her different world. She really does belong to the high-powered contemporary art scene, knows all the real players, understands how things are done in the places that matter. Is it Terri’s fault that she’s embarrassed by her mother? Don’t mothers exist partly to embarrass their children?
“If you want to be a dealer like Larry Gagosian and have that kind of success, you have to start thinking in a different way,” Terri tells Jane, and of course she is right. What she doesn’t seem to understand is that her mother doesn’t want to be a dealer like Larry Gagosian.
There aren’t real crowds today, though a steady stream of people come through the booth. We’re pleased to see Marat, our Armenian driver, to whom Julia has given a pass. He’s a real member of our team and is concerned about Julia. Nor is he the gonif he might appear. He came to Moscow to give his daughters a chance to get a better education.
“You see who a man is,” says Jane, “when he wants to educate his children, but especially if they are girls.”
Marat had invested all of his savings in a little grocery store. He was doing well until he became the victim of what is apparently the Russian version of urban renewal. The government appeared one day and condemned the building his store was in. Not only was he thrown out, all of his inventory somehow disappeared. So now he is driving a cab.
“I can see you’re feeling a lot better,” I say.
“Not really,” she replies sadly. “This is my problem. Even when I am a wreck I still look very nice.”
“Poor Julia!” The sympathy seems to perk her up.
Julia’s ear is still blocked, but she is confident that with baths and vodka compresses she can make herself better. We discuss the merits of other traditional remedies including mustard plasters, on which Arlene is very high. Jane looks on, baffled.
The big event of the day, of course, is reading John from Bloomberg’s story about the Fair, which hit the web first thing today. John had told us that he was leading with our gallery, and we had hoped it would be more than one sentence. In fact, he has generously given us a several paragraphs and featured a visual of our most important Chagall tapestry, maybe because we are the only purely American gallery at the fair. We’re walking on air.
The show seems to wind to a close shortly after 9:00 pm, and we head for the doors. Tonight we’re going to try a restaurant that Marat had pointed out on our wild goose chase last night to Lardville. Putin and Medvedev, the new president, eat at this place, according to Marat. It is a kitschy palace called “Sun of the Desert,” themed, according to Julia on the first Russian movie western. Julia tries to recount the plot, but it is hopeless.
We order according to our usual fashion – numerous appetizers and breads for the table and main dishes, which we will all share. The wine is a Chilean from the Maipo valley, a Rothschild venture, and a successful one. Julia has a traditional grog in addition to her wine. The conversation is easier tonight and interesting. The food is more like what we have been used to (in fact we order mostly from the Uzbek section of the menu — no need to tell veterans of Cafe Babai that this is great cuisine). Everything is fresh and flavorful. Even Terri is impressed. We’re not so impressed with the belly dancers, who spin through the room periodically, having seen Julia in action.
“I’m the happiest creature on the face of the earth,” says Jane, nibbling on a herring.
Terri rolls her eyes. The problems between mothers and daughters are certainly not lost on Julia, whom Jane seems to think of as a spiritual daughter.
“Why do you think I live in New York and my mother lives in Ryazan?” says Julia. In fact her mother is coming to the fair tomorrow.
The conversation turns serious. Julia has mentioned several times that she is wondering if still makes sense for her to stay in America and is seriously considering moving back to Russia. Jane has been trying like crazy to make the case that she should stay in New York. Terri sees Julia’s point. The two of them are getting along surprisingly nicely.
“If you want the past, stay in the US,” says Terri. “If you want the future, it may be here in Russia.”
Jane disagrees vehemently, but it’s really hard to argue with the excitement, energy and sense of new possibilities that we have all experienced for ourselves here in Moscow.