Mathes Missive From Moscow #2 – Tuesday: Arrival
Greetings from Moscow.
I stumbled down to breakfast this morning, not really sure what day it was (it turns out to be Wednesday). Hopefully this will be my worst mistake today — breakfast that is. I knew they had some expensive buffet, but I chose (wisely, I thought) the continental. I still hadn’t figured out the money conversion, so it wasn’t until I got back to my room and looked it up on line did I discover that the 680 rubles i just paid for coffee, croissant and orange juice (18% gratuity included) actually comes to over $28!
We arrived in Moscow yesterday some time between 1:00 and 2:00 pm after a predictable four hour flight delay. I’m not sure of the time, because after the kind of sleep you get on airplanes I was in pretty sorry shape and there was then the predictable problems of getting through customs and finding the car we had hired to take us in from the airport. It was encouraging to find in the airport area beyond passport control two young ladies (whom a cynic might describe as being of the Bialystock-and-Bloom persuasion) in a little booth advertising the Moscow World Fine Art Fair (there were other little booths advertising Lowenbrau and other available delights of the city – Moscow is pretty littered with little booth advertising; billboards of every persuasion decorate the city).
Ultimately were we able to locate the car we had hired, and even though Mikhail doubted we would be able to fit our luggage in as well as ourselves, we were soon on our way into the city. That’s Julia with Mikhail in the picture above, by the way, without her mask and knives, egging him on. I did notice that Mikhail kept a baseball bat on the floor next to him in the car.
It might be a good idea here to explain why we were so loaded down — not that packing for two weeks in a strange climate and a lot of fancy events is so easy. Russia has these interesting … shall we say slightly paranoid?… ideas of what can be shipped in for an art fair. The art presented no problem — except for the cost, which was insane. (A note about fair and shipping costs here, for those who are curious. A good rule of thumb is start with the highest amount you think might be reasonable, and then double it. You then have some idea — provided you take the same number in Euros rather than dollars. You can look up the exchange for Euros yourself, I can’t bear to) . What can’t be shipped into Russia with your art are books, catalogues or advertising. Naturally, we have all kinds of art references that we need. Also we just published a beautiful brochure explaining the modern fine art tapestries that we specialize in (and which Julia translated into Russian). So we had to carry probably fifty pounds worth of printed material in our hand luggage. Nor do the Russian authorities allow tools to be shipped in either, so we have our hammers, staple guns and the like, in our suitcases!
Now, you may have ideas about what to do when you arrive, jet-lagged by the 8 hour time difference and a fitful night on an airplane. Jane, being well-experienced in travel, has other ideas. The essential first thing is to establish communications (Napoleon, being a general, too, probably had similar ideas). So after checking into the hotel (a very nice Sheraton, even though they are doubling our rates for the first two nights because the soccer championships are in town and won’t give us any discounts, or even an upgrade), off we went down Tverskaya Street in search of a phone store. Jane had told me to bring an old phone; we were going to buy a Russian sim card for it, and thus be able to talk to one another without phone through New York. This shows how smart Jane is — I had had the foresight to call TMobile and discovered that service to Russia is $5 per minute. Even if you don’t answer when it rings, you get charged $5.
I’m not exactly sure why it took two hours to get these phone cards , but by this point I hadn’t eaten anything since the cereal and fruit on the plane — I don’t know if was at three o’clock in the morning or noon. I was seriously into what Arlene calls “the zone.” I am a bit of problem when I am in the zone, hunger drives me insane apparently. Julia was also in the zone, but she was merely weak. Jane didn’t seem seriously affected and kept trying to explain to the Russian clerk at the phone store exactly what she wanted in a phone card (Julia attempting to translate, simultaneously, as her eyeballs rotated back and forth in her skull). The fact that I immediately blew the fuses to every light in the room and shorted out the “laptop safe” upon arrival says something about our energy field.
By the time we got out of the store with our phone cards, I was gibbering in some alien tongue, Julia appeared to be sleepwalking. Jane tried her best to steer us to an appropriate restaurant. After rejecting twenty six, we stumbled into some kind of cafeteria, which I didn’t like the looks of at all (having gone to high school with a cafeteria and being naturally prejudiced against them). Also the food looked suspiciously Russian. But what did I know, being in the Zone? In fact everything was delicious and quite reasonably priced — for this unreasonably priced city.
I was feeling slightly more human by the time we got back to the hotel and went through the ordeal of trying to insert sim cards into our telephones for an unsuccessful hour. Today we will go back to the phone store and see if they can get the phones to work (the sim cards worked fine — the phones just woke up saying “RESTRICTED.”
I bought an internet card before going upstairs (you don’t even want to know what this costs — and it will last only 24 hours – no discounts given if you need two weeks). The password seemed to be in Russian, so I couldn’t get on line before going to bed last night at nearly 9:00 pm. When I woke up my watch said 9:30, but it was still dark outside, so I went back to sleep. The next time I woke up, my watch said 9:15. It took me quite some time to figure what this all meant — by then I had paid $28 for a croissant and coffee. Maybe we can find some kind of Starbuckski affair near the hotel. I will keep you posted.
A final note — there are two thin English language newspapers and from them you really begin to understand how foreign a place this is. I sat next to a diplomat on the plane who explained to me how things worked in Moscow. The mayor apparently is intent on progress, so building regularly mysteriously burn down and miraculously reconstruction begins the next day. His wife apparently owns the company that supplies all the cement for this. The Manege — the 19th century riding academy where the Art Fair will take place — was one of these mysterious urban renewal miracles. Apparently facts on the ground rule development. If you want to do something, you act and then nobody can stop you in retrospect. The laws governing constructions were apparently all passed by this mayor, and even judges can’t figure out how to get around them.
One story yesterday that really caught my eye: “Institute Denies It Director Was Killed by Poison.” This was some big scientific institute, the director of which is a close friend of Vladimir Putin. His brother is a billionaire. The institute developed the Soviet Atomic Bomb and last year received a billion dollars to develop nanotechnology. So the story was that an envelope containing white powder, addressed to the director, was opened by his deputy. Five days later she fell sick and died of multiple organ failure. Russia’s chief public health officer declared the powder was harmless. Prosecutors have declined to open an investigation. A colleague of the deceased commented, “It was just an unlucky coincidence.”
Here are some more sights in Moscow — forgive me for dwelling on the familiar (besides Mamma Mia, Indiana Jones and a Karaoke Club, there’s also a Kentucky Fried Chicken place in there somewhere); i was in the zone