Mathes Missive From Moscow #7 – Monday: Gala Preview

Mathes Missive From Moscow #7 – Monday: Gala Preview

Greetings from Moscow,

 Though I’ve been working on French for nearly fifty years, I don’t speak any foreign languages.  However, I learned a lot about communication back in my theatre conservatory days.  We did this one exercise in acting class that I particularly remember: you sat across from your partner and said the first word that popped into your mind.


 “Mouth,” she responded.

 You kept repeating this word and let the scene develop as it would.  What happened was that you could express all kinds of things and they didn’t have anything to do with what words you were using.  At first the conversation was pretty random and meaningless, but after a few minutes you got a lot of control when you used your face and body instead of the word:

 “Mouth?” {“want to get a cup of coffee with me after class?”}

 “Mouth.”  {“Okay, I guess”}

 “Mouth?” {“Maybe want to come back to my place afterwards?”}

 “Mouth.” {“Maybe in your dreams, Charles.}

 I tell you this because I don’t want you to think that we would be entirely helpless here in Moscow without Julia.  In fact if we weren’t doing some pretty sophisticated selling, we could have a great time even though we don’t speak the language.  (Jane has amazing linguistic talent.  She is fluent in French and Hungarian and can make herself Moscow7understood in Spanish, Italian and a few other languages.  She’s been studying the Cyrillic alphabet and since we’ve been her she’s reading street signs and comparing notes with Marat — who by the way doesn’t even speak Russian, according to Julia, though that’s what she’s been speaking with him.  Apparently Julia’s Russian is closer to his Armenian than is our English or Jane’s phonetic Russian.)

But this morning is an illustration of the limitations you have when you don’t speak the language.  There’s a restaurant next door to the hotel that the concierge told us was very nice and which we thought to have lunch in today before going to the Manege.  Marat was picking us up at 1:15, so Jane and  I went over to the restaurant at noon.  The door was locked.  We hovered for a few moments, trying to figure out why the sign seemed to say open at 11:00 but the door was locked, when two guys in suits and a young fellow in a t-shirt saw us standing outside, came over and unlocked the door.

 “Open?” we asked (Mouth?)

 They nodded and ushered us to one of the tables, which were all empty.  We were alone in the restaurant.

“English?”  we asked (Mouth?)

 “Little,” said one guy (Mouth.)

 Then they all disappeared.  Jane and I sat at stared at one another.  There wasn’t much happening so I went to take her picture — we’re all dressed up for the opening tonight.

 “Stop, stop,” she ordered.  “From now on no pictures until I put on lipstick.”

 We’re from New York, so we expect when you go to a restaurant for someone to come over with a menu pretty quickly, but nobody was doing this.  Maybe the place didn’t open until 11:00 this evening and they had just let us in to wait.  Finally Jane caught the eye of the boy in the t-shirt.

 Moscow7-2“Are you open?  Can we get lunch?  Can we get a menu?” (Mouth?)

 “Lunch?  Menu?” he replied uncertainly.  (Mouth?)

 “Lunch.  We want to eat lunch,” said Jane.  (M-o-u-t-h.)

 “Lunch,” nodded the boy (Mouth) and departed.  He returned with a tall glass of something that looked like it might be either tea or Jack Daniels.  Jane blanched.  She is not a Jack Daniels person.

 “Apple,” he said to her relief. It was apple juice. Jane and I sat for a few minutes and stared at one another.  Nothing happened.

 “This is ridiculous,” said Jane, perhaps not earth’s most patient individual.  “I don’t think they understood.  I’m going to go over and get somebody to give us a menu.”

 “I think they did understand,” I said.  “We asked for lunch.  I think they’re going to bring us lunch.”

 Sure enough, I was right because the boy soon returned and placed lovely salads in front of us.  We supposed that this is just how they did things over here.  When we were finished he took away the plates and returned with a very nice soup.  This was followed by a cold-meat-and-potato-stew-type thing on a plate.  Not what Jane would have ordered, but a safe enough choice if you just serve one dish – lunch.  I wasn’t hungry anyway, being very nervous about the day.

 Somewhere during the meat course a group of six arrived and sat down at the next table.  Within a few minutes the boy brought them a menu.  Then lovely glass pots of tea and all kinds of interesting dishes.

 “Why did they get a menu and we didn’t?” Jane asked the boy. (Mouth?)

 “Menu.  Twenty minutes.” (Mouth.)  “Lunch.”

 “Maybe you have to wait twenty minutes if you want a menu,” I ventured.

 “They weren’t waiting here twenty minutes,” said Jane.  “Why did they get a menu and we didn’t?”  (Mouth.)

 Finally she couldn’t stand it any more.  When she discovered that one of the  party spoke English she asked what was going on.  Happily the man (an Austrian — this is one international town) explained or we would have never known.  Apparently they have a very nice menu.  One of the choices is a special business lunch, for people in a rush.  You’re in and out in twenty minutes.

 I can’t remember if I’ve already told you, but Julia the professional translator says that anytime you say two words in an unfamiliar language without correct sentence structure linking them, the person with whom you are talking may assume a much different link that you intend. 

 Having thus learned a valuable lesson in exactly this regard, off we went to the Manege, where naturally the promised additional lighting fixture and electrical outlet at the Moscow7-3desk had not appeared in our booth.  Jane tracked Nicola down and demanded action. 

“You made me stay two hours yesterday,” said Nicola in laid-back fashion.  “I am very busy.”  He promised to see to our problems right away.  Apparently everybody in the fair is angry with Nicola.   Things are looking a lot better in Manege, but there are still boxes everywhere.  At least our booth is correctly lit.

Julia arrives.  There is a press conference for Russian journalists at 3 o’clock. Nobody has told us what this entails but it turns out that they have a table set up upstairs.  Russians are asking questions of the Swiss organizers which is translated into French by somebody at the table.  The Swiss answer the question in English, and there is a simultaneous translator (probably not as good as Julia) in a booth who is furiously speaking the answers in Russian into a micMoscow7-4rophone.  None of the Russians, however, have the earpieces in their ears to hear the translation.

 We’re in our best clothes.  Jane, not knowing what to expect has three different layers so she can be more formal or less, depending on how the event tonight develops — nobody has explained anything to us about how it’s all going to work.  She doesn’t have pockets (which she needs for the three telephones and various other sundries she needs) but she has cleverly figured out how to turn her fanny pack around to her back so that it is not visible when she puts on her jacket (I hope this isn’t an art secret).  Jane never wears skirts, but she is wearing one tonight and having a lot of fun, spinning around, watching her it float up around her in the air.  There is a hole at the heel of her tights that she’s wondering what to do about.  Maybe Julia can buy her another pair.

 “Hold still,” I tell Jane in mid-spin.  “I can’t get a picture.”

 “And you never will,” she giggles.

 As we’re sitting around, hoping that some of the Russian press trickles down to the floor of the Manege so that we can answer their questions, we suddenly begin to wonder why nobody has taken the protective plastic wrapping from the carpet and cleaned up the booth, which is filthy from four days of people trekking through from out of the rain.  It is also littered with nails, wrapping papers, bent staples and other debris.  Usually (at least in the dozen other fairs we’ve done) the fair’s cleaning crew have tidied everything up by now and vacuumed the booths.  The gala preview is just hours away.

 Not one to wait around if there’s action to take, Jane puts on her jacket and goes to find out who’s in charge of booth cleaning so that we don’t have to wait any longer or get interrupted by vacuum cleaners when we’re trying to speak (through Julia) to Russian journalists .  She comes back to the booth after a few minutes wearing an expression that in our fifteen years together I have never seen on her face. 

 It turns out that nobody is ever going to come to remove the plastic from the carpet, or vacuum and clean the booth.  The French are art handlers and this is not their job.  The Russian technicianMoscow7-10s are movers, and this is not their job.  There are women in red aprons who are sweeping up everywhere (including the men’s room, don’t ask), but they are not allowed to go into the booths.  Nobody wants to take responsibility of breaking anything.  No, the physical aspect of the booth, Jane has been told, is our responsibility.  Oh, and so are vacuum cleaners, which presumably we were expected to bring to Russia in our hand luggage.

 It would have been nice to have known this yesterday when we were sitting around for four hours in our dungaMoscow7-5rees doing nothing but waiting for Nicola.  Jane erupts, but the best she can accomplish is to get the Russians (who always say that the French are idiots, which is funny because the French say the same thing about the Russians) to take up the plastic from the floor.  Here are some scenes for your approval — it is only when plastic comes up that Jane realizes we have made a mistake choosing such a light color carpet.  It is filthy in various places where the plastic was torn.Moscow7-6

 “I don’t understand why we never had this kind of problem at other fairs,” she murmurs, accepting responsibility.  Because at other fairs they give everyone gray-colored carpet for a reason, Jane.  I am the one who finally steals a vacuum cleaner from the booth across the way.  Jane has taught me well.Moscow7-7Moscow7-9

 It is now time to track down Nicola in earnest and try to get the missing fixture and the power cord for the desk.  As Jane goes off to do this, I give an interview (through Julia) to Radio Svoboda (or something).  I am still a bit damp from vacuuming and hope it doesn’t show when I am later interviewed, on camera, for TV 5 in St. Petersburg.  God only (plus Julia and ten million Russians) knows what I said.

 At some point in the afternoon I turn to Julia and inquire if Jane is being too demanding — Jane is very a very powerful personality and for some people can perhaps be difficult to take full strength for long periods if they are not used to her.Moscow7-11

 “No, I have no problems with her,” Julia answers, a powerful personality herself in her quiet way.  “I even think I am falling in love with her.  She presents such an unusual palette.”

 “What do you mean?” I ask.  

 “Jane has so many different aspects of herself that she reveals,” interprets our interpreter.  “One minute she is screaming at the lighting man, and the next she is twirling around in her dress like a little girl.  She is very different than anyone I have known.” 

 Finally, at 6:00 pm, the Gala opening preview begins.  We are in our booths for the cocktail portion of the evening.  At 9:00 the Black Tie people who have paid 1000 Euros for a seat can have dinner for charity with Madame Medvedev, the wife of the new president.  After paying all the shipping, booth and art handling charges, we certainly can’t afford it.  It’s not really our crowd anyway.  We’re all dying of thirst — you can get free Macallan scotch, but nobody has water (by the way, did i tell you that nobody here drinks the tap water?  They boil it for tea or drink bottled). Here are some scenes from the gala.   

Moscow7-13Moscow7-14Moscow7-15Moscow7-16Moscow7-18The private dinner commences at 9:00 pm and we are free to go to a dinner of own.  Tonight, Julia has decreed it will be Georgian — a totally wacky Baroque-funhouse-looking building that we passed in the rain one day on our travels. Moscow7-19

Apparently Georgian food is similar to the Uzbek we liked so much at Cafe Babai (and which Jane would be happy to return to every night).  Marat is pleased.  This is a good place, as far as he is concerned. The interior of the restaurant was as wacky as the outside — a strange cavernous grotto, complete with a small stream with carp swimming through it and a water wheel.  The food is fabulous, and the big hit is the crazy cheese flats breads. 

“Pizza!” Jane declares as the first is brought out.  The waiter corrects her.  This is certainly not pizza, except that it is flat and comes in a pan.  The cheese is put into the inside and percolates up through the top surface.  It  and the other flatbreads (one with an egg on top that you dip into with pieces of bread you tear off the ends) are out of this world.  The Georgian diet is full of cheese and fresh meats.  They are the ones who live in the mountains to be 120 years old and also eat yoghurt.

No matter what we do we seem not be able to make it back to the hotel before midnight, and tonight is no exception.  We pay Marat extra to take Julia back to the apartment of her friend where she is crashing.  Moscow7-21Moscow7-22Moscow7-20Moscow7-23Natalie and her boyfriend have been away for the weekend, off at an American Civil War re-enactment (go figure) somewhere outside of the city.  It’s actually pre-Civil War as nearly as I can gather, Richmond 1860, but everybody still gets to have some fights with Indians — the Russians are big in martial arts.  Julia is sleeping with Natalie’s two cats in the cold apartment and wondered if it was a good idea to have left the window open.  She better not catch my cold, which has been gone for a week, only the hacking cough remains.

Stay tuned for the real opening night tomorrow.  In the meanwhile, John our friend from Bloomberg dropped by the booth tonight and mentioned that his article will hit the web on Wednesday if the editor approves.  He’s going to lead his story with a mention of us.  Bloomberg items are picked up by television and print outlets across America, so if you see any stories, please let me know. 

Good  Night.

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