Mathes Missive From Moscow #5 – Friday: False Start
Hello dere from Russia,
Today, Jane somehow got into her head, was the day that we would supervise the uncrating of our artwork and begin to arrange the booth, maybe even hang some tapestries. This impression had something to do with someone saying something about our needing to be around for customs inspection at 10:00, so we dutifully got our Armenian driver Marat (the only words of English he seems to know are “Armenia! Armenia!” which he shouts happily every few minutes) to take us and our suitcases full of tools and books over to the Manege. Today the fare was 400 rubles rather the the 600 we paid yesterday. Unfortunately stern faced storm troopers (I call these the Nyet Police and they are everywhere in Moscow) wouldn’t allow us Marat to drop us of anywhere near the building so we had to schlep through the rain.
Inside nothing at all had changed, except for the presence of dozens of security men. Maybe hundreds. Each was dressed in black, wore jackboots, stood at least 7 feet tall and apparently was instructed never to smile on pain of death. I considered taking pictures but didn’t think they would understand. I tried to persuade Julia to take pictures — perhaps wiggle her hair at them as a distraction. She didn’t think this was a good idea either. So no pictures, but trust me, they all look like killers and they were everywhere, which is very funny considering what we usually get. At most American art fairs (especially in Los Angeles and Miami) security consists of a small team of short guys with pimples who look like their real jobs are at McDonalds and who won’t search your bag even if you have a bazooka sticking out of it (they have metal detectors everywhere here). I guess in America everybody knows how stupid it would be to steal art — just ask any dealer how difficult the stuff is to sell!
It soon became clear that we weren’t going to get anything done today. We could only hope that the art will eventually come and be cleared through customs — there is a special customs clearance right there at the Manege so the boxes don’t get opened (and perhaps looted) en route. So we stashed our three hundred pound bag of tools and books (which we had to hand carry on the plane because you’re not allowed to ship in books or tools and, yes, I may be slightly exaggerating about the weight but the damn thing is heavy if you have to carry it yourself) with the French construction crew and explored the building, wondering what to do for the rest of the day. If I didn’t convey how big this joint is, take a look at the basement — same size as our floor at ground level, and complete with its own balcony. Here every jeweler from Harry Winston to Bulgari will display their trinkets (hey, do you think maybe all those security guards are for them? All kidding aside, here, I think, there is a real possibility that a clever squad of 20 heavily armed men could storm the fair and steal several hundred million dollars worth of jewelry — this probably isn’t a possibility in America. you get the sense that it could be here.)
We quickly developed our strategy for the day: when in doubt, eat. We figured we would get a crumpet on the way to the famous Pushkin Museum, which we have a special interest in — more about this later. Unfortunately there are not crumpets on every street corner in Moscow the way there are in New York. And it had begun to rain. Luckily I had the umbrella I had borrowed from the hotel yesterday (the second umbrella was actually for Jane, who made me return it: “Charles, why in the world would I ever carry an umbrella; I have my rain hat!”
Here is Julia trying to argue with Jane about the value of umbrellas and losing (I learned better years ago.) Dialogue accompanying this picture (taken verbatim from life) should read: “Julia, do you honestly believe that your umbrella will keep you drier than my hat?”
Anyway, we set off at a fast clip for the Pushkin. About twenty minute later we reached an impasse. What is wrong with this picture to the left? Only if you walk around in cities regularly will you notice that there are no traffic lights and no place to cross the street — in this case the usual eight lane highway (cars do not stop for pedestrians — in fact pedestrians do not stop either; people bump into you all over the place; some crumb even goosed Julia on the street our first day and was gone before any of us could deck him). We had been walking for twenty minutes and there had been no place to cross the street. The majestic architecture of Moscow was partly designed by the Soviets to glorify the masses, so grand boulevards were de rigeur. Of course there are underground tunnels that will allow you to cross, but in the center of the city these tunnels basically correspond to subway stops. In other words, you have to walk to the next subway stop to get across the street. Forty minutes later, having retraced our steps and marched a few miles through the rain, Jane wanted to just call a cab and go home — forget about the Pushkin. But of course you cannot call a cab. This is why everybody travels by subway, which Jane still did not want to do. As fearless as she is, Jane doesn’t like going down the long, steep (nearly horizontal) escalators deep into the ground, and then walking the endless tunnels and climbing the millions of steps that comprise this glorious system. Vertigo. Bad knees. Faintness from hunger.
It was still before noon but we had be walking for hours (it seemed) by the time Julia delivered us to a street that had restaurants; unfortunately none were open, except one that looked to me like a beer garden called 3/9.
“It’s amazing, I’m not wet at all,” said Jane, happily, wringing out her vest.
The restaurant’s name actually refers to quite a charming tradition in Russian fairy tales. Ours begin with “Once Upon A Time.” Russian children hear “In the 39th Kingdom, in the 39th State…” The dishes were all named (I think) after fairy tales. Warily I ordered “Kurachka-Ryaba” — some fairy tale about a chicken. The dish turned out to be delicious as did everything else, including the service (once Julia made the waitress understand that we were okay — just crazy Americans.) Here’s an idea of what Russian restaurants look like:
Suitably revived, we set out to find a subway — by this point Jane decided that walking who knows how many more miles to the Pushkin was less onerous than taking the subway. And at least the worst of the rain had subsided. Julia, however, found that her pants were still wet. “I think I sat on my hair, “she confided.
If you haven’t heard about how grand the Moscow subway is, you should look it up. Here are some pictures of our experience (the only problem is that you have to go down that three mile escalator and then walk two miles of underground passages to get to the train. But at least it’s dry.
The reason why we had headed for the Pushkin — a trek that Jane at several points was ready to abandon, for very good reasons — was professional. Out gallery deals in modern tapestries and we had learned that the painting on which a very important Fernand Leger tapestry of ours was based belonged to the Pushkin. By the time we got to the Museum we were pretty worn down, and they wouldn’t even let us see the painting as a professional courtesy, though Julia tried to make the case with a female Nyet Policeman and Jane flashed her press pass (julia did get in for 30 rubles as a native, while we had to pay 300 as tourists).
But the journey was not in vain, for as we climbed up the grand stairway (there was no elevator for Jane’s knees) to the top of the building, we saw through the center t o the great gallery, our painting. Leger’s Constructeurs a L’Aloe. To our amazement we also found two Leger tapestries across from it — including one, a copy of which we have in New York and were going to bring to Russia until we substituted something else at the last minute.
Having this kind of connection to important art in a Russian museum is exactly the kind of thing that will give us credibility an d help us sell to this audience. At least that’s what we like to think. Our plan now is to hang is small repro of the other tapestry and have Julia translate something to the effect of “We didn’t bring this tapestry to Russia because we knew you could see another copy at the Pushkin. The only difference is that theirs is number 3 (of 6) and ours is number 4. We then proceeded to track down one of the curators in the textile department and give her passes to show. This is the exactly the sort of personal relationship we like to cultivate and our next stop was another.
Marat our Armenian driver had been called to rescue us from the rain, but alas, he was apparently at some other Pushkin (Pushkin train station? Pushkin Boulevard?). Luckily a “real” cab was sitting there and we jumped right in and had him drive us to Bloomberg News, Moscow branch. Of course there was no meter and he gave us the price only after he sped away from the curb. We were so happy not to have to take the subway again, we didn’t care.
John, the Russian art reporter for Bloomberg, had actually tracked us down and asked for an interview. This kind of thing really is our pleasure, and he turned out to be a lovely fellow and very smart (note pix of Julia eating the candy he started us with), born in Brooklyn, family moved to Belgium, graduated from Cornell. The Bloomberg offices were modernity itself, and we are quite partial to all things Bloomberg from the get go, being New Yorkers (Mayor Bloomberg actually lives a few blocks from our gallery). here are some pictures. What we said is confidential (because I can’t remember anything about it) but we did talk for about two and a half hours. If they don’t throw you out after ten minutes, by my book it was a success!
By this time it was after seven — time for dinner! No cabs to be found, we braved the subway again for Julia, who led us to an Uzbekistan restaurant the name of which resembles something like Cafe Babai — in case you’re in Moscow and have a hankering for Uzbeki cuisine. After my bad experience with shiskabob at the mall, I was a little wary — but I had been wrong about several Russian restaurants and let Julia help me order. I stayed away from the horsemeat sausage, the fragrant sheep ribs and the slightly roasted lamb baby tongues with potatoes and pickles, though they sounded delicious, and went with Navruz — spring salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, radish, herbs and what Julia says is Russian comfort food — Kavurma Lagman: noddles, lamb, fresh vegetables and spices.
It is easy to make fun of strange places and strange cuisine (Uzbekistan is not far from Boratville), but in reality the Uzbeki food was wonderful — fresh, beautifully prepared, delicious. The service was gracious. The people here were really and truly enjoying themselves in an atmosphere that one rarely finds in the United States. Look over our should in the picture below at the table in corner. A bunch of guys sat there for hours, talking, laughing, taking tokes of a Hookah on one end of the table and a bottle of Chivas Regal on the other. These people truly know how to live. Poor Jane looks tired, doesn’t she? You should see me!
The check came under a little Uzbek hat with a stick of Wrigleys Spearmint Gum (sugar free). Julia persuaded us that it is a tradition to be photographed in these hats. I have the photographs of Jane, and will use it as a last resort if she tries anything foolish (the one of myself I will destroy). But here’s the one of Julia, who had to take subway back (it was after 11:00 pm)
Tomorrow we have to begin the art fair in earnest — and hang the booth. I’m actually writing this tomorrow — Saturday night, and we have survived, but barely. Jane and I left the hotel at 10:00 am and didn’t get out for dinner until nearly 10:00 pm (Marat found us, thankfully, so we didn’t have to walk). We went back to the Uzbeki restaurant (what, we’re going to go looking for a new place after a 12 hour day)? It’s now after 2;00 in the morning. I’ll consolidate Saturday and Sunday into the next email — if we survive.
Jane and Cafe Babai wish you a good evening. Charles