18 February 2014


To what has become one of my favourite haunts, the BBC Maida Vale studios, for a recital by Pascal and Ami Rogé of piano music by one of my favourite composers, Maurice Ravel. One piano duet (Ma Mère l'Oye), one solo piece played by Pascal alone (Sonatine), then two pieces for two pianos - and I was surprised that they should be orchestral blockbusters La Valse and Boléro (the latter with Paul Clarvis on side-drum, a gig that demands infinite patience as well as faultless rhythm). Under an hour of music, but what music, and what playing. The applause as Boléro crashed to an end was tremendous, the performers grinning from ear to ear as if delighted at what they had just pulled off (and so they should have been).

The BBC will broadcast it on Radio 3 on Ravel Day, the composer's birthday (139, which seems like a strange anniversary to commemorate), 7 March. I recommend being near a radio at the right moment.

11 February 2014

Contact in Red Square

 No running to report on, unless you count a kilometre on the dreadmill on the minus-first floor of the Aquamrine Hotel. I arrived before dawn on Saturday morning, rather pleased with myself having spotted when the driver took a wrong turning - can I possibly know the place better than him? - and refreshed myself as best I could with a few minutes' running, a sauna, a shower, and a substantial breakfast, before repairing to the Academy for a full day of teaching. I don't know what the students made of it, but I found a red-eye flight across four time zones, even if the time difference made it slightly easier, poor preparation for work. Someone at Transparent Language, provides by e-mail of my Russian word of the day, was watching:  выдохнуться, it said, to my students' amusement (or was that the way I read it?):  to be exhausted. As in  Я весь день работала. Я выдохлась, I've worked all day long; I'm exhausted.

The teaching is almost now just and excuse for getting to Moscow: the purpose of the visit is to meet old friends and make new ones - with the current crop of students falling into the second category, moving in due course into the first, I hope. Dinners on Saturday and Sunday evenings were with former students, and Monday was devoted to visiting new friends. I'm getting to know all Moscow's vegetarian restaurants, and very nice they are too - although the bills have come out a bit higher than I expected, largely because of the very high price of alcohol.

I decided that, with a couple of hours before my first meeting, a walking tour of central Moscow was a good idea. It was cold but not typically cold: about freezing, I guess. The pavements and roads are remarkably ice-free, partly because they are treated with chemicals that friends warned me would quickly rot my shoes. Unfortunately it was cloudy and dull, and my only camera was the one in my BlackBerry, so the tour is not well-recorded.

I left the hotel and strolled along the embankment, crossed the canal and then the Moscow river, taking in the fantastic view to the west as I went: the Kremlin, and the myriad onion-shaped domes of the many churches and cathedrals, is always a fantastic sight. Reaching the Kremlin wall, I turned off towards Red Square. A couple of policemen manning a row of crowd-control barriers across the entrance to the square shouted at me, making clear that I was not to proceed along the path close to the Kremlin wall: but they were happy to let me through their barrier, while one of them went to place a barrier across the path that I had been on. My anxiety about dealing with Russian policemen was unnecessary - I think it was just that the path was closed, perhaps because it was icy.

I walked on past St Basil's outside which stood a number of ice sculptures, which seemed worth a photo even on inadequate equipment. Ice is, however, hard to see - but it gives you some idea.
 Ice sculptures outside St Basil's
 I checked the opening times at Lenin's mausoleum, but it never opens on Mondays, apparently (the notice gave me a chance to revise my knowledge of the days of the week in Russian). Fridays are also non-opening days. Even on the days it is open, it's only between 10 and 1. Indeed, 10 seems to be the standard opening time, as the former state department store GYM (as it would be in Cyrillic - which we should not transliterate as 'GUM' because that doesn't do the vowel justice: 'GOOM' would be better) also opens at 10. I popped in to see the building, which is as spectacular in its own way as the redbrick opposite, and the churches, cathedral and museums that also surround Red Square. The shops I could do without: it reminded me a little of Bicester Village in scope, though the prices were probably inflated, not cut. Interesting to see cars on display in the aisles (big Audis in the part I passed through) and that Levis should be one of the brands represented in this cathedral of luxury-brand consumerism. On reflection, though, jeans were highly-prized in eastern Europe in my youth: it's merely that they are highly-prized in the west too now. Not suitable attire for mucking out a stable or changing the oil in the car.

I made my way up Tverskaya, conscious that time was passing and I had a meeting at 11, and wanting to take a circuitous route round the Bul'varnoye kol'tso so I would finally, after failing to notice him when I ran the route on my first visit in 2011, see this:

The Vysotskiy memorial

Then it was a short distance to the appropriate radial road that would get me to the next ring road, the Garden Ring, and the start of Prospekt Mira which was the address I was looking for. I didn't imagine it could be difficult to find and enter a law firm's office even in Russia, but it turned out to be in a business centre and nothing was (to my eyes) very clearly signposted. Add to this the fact that in Moscow all you get is a building number, so 'Prospekt Mira, dom 6' is a rather imprecise address, covering a large number of premises. I guessed that what looked like a business centre was a good place to start, and I had a brief and highly unsatisfactory conversation with the guy on the front desk, but at least he worked out where I wanted to go (here's a tip: take the business card of the person you're visiting, if possible, or at least a written note of their name and firm - why on earth did that not occur to me before this experience?) and I worked out that his instructions, after he'd spoken to the firm's reception by phone, were that I should go through the doors to which he pointed, turn right and take the lift to the third floor. It helps that 'lift' is one of those words that Russian has borrowed from English, and similarly it has taken étage from French. Numbers below a hundred I can cope with slowly, numbers under ten fairly quickly. Nalevo, priyamo and napravo just happen to be among the words that have stuck in my mind.

Then I met another friend for lunch, and we had a delicious and not extremely expensive (so, expensive enough!) meal at Café Avokado - the Chistye Prudni branch. A hearty soup (though I am not sure it was the one I ordered), chickpea rissoles, and blackberry tiramisu. Highly recommended if you are looking for a vegetarian restaurant in Moscow - I am getting to know them all. the previous evening it was Fresh which was also excellent, inventive and surprisingly expensive (especially if you drink the beer, but after a day lecturing I find it very refreshing).

And so back to the airport, using the airport express from Paveletskaya Voksal (500 roubles, or about £20, so on a par with the Heathrow Express) and home.