On Shesh Besh.

Dizzy with the successful contemplation of high art in the Tretyakov Gallery, you have just fallen over on the street*. Or perhaps you were overcome by the heat. Either way you came down a right thump and have retreated to a café for food and tea.

The Tretyakov Gallery

They do exceptionally good tea here. It comes in a vast teapot accompanied by small glasses to sip it from, little rocks of sugar to add and tiny teaspoons to stir contemplatively. You have drunk a lot of those glasses by now, and partaken of, amongst other things, roasted aubergines smothered in garlic, and are feeling quite restored although not quite yet ready to go back out into the furnace that is Moscow at 2pm on what they promise is to be the last day of the heatwave**.

Tea in Moscow is a bit like coffee in London. You take for granted that it will be leaf of exceptional quality and frequently specially blended. And then you are surprised when you get back to the UK and somebody hands you a cup of lukewarm water with a teabag haphazardly immersed in it.

In much the same way you forget that in the UK, when you order coffee outside of the capital, it will be mid-range instant, whereas within the city limits even the meanest greasy spoon will have a go at brewing you something freshly ground. It may not be especially nice, but it can hardly be worse than the cup a five-star hotel gave you recently. Of course, that hotel was a good four hours north of the centre of the British universe.

Anyway, there was an ominous crack as your bag hit the pavement and so you are feeling the need to check over your computer thoroughly. It seems to be working. You hope you will be able to say the same about your camera. Perhaps you ought to give it a test and in this way demonstrate another feature of Moscow life, the theme restaurant showcasing the cuisine of the Caucuses.

You’ve already been to one of these this holiday and very nice it was too, with its English salad and mountain of kebab meat, not to mention the starter of yoghurt, dill and rice drink.

The English salad - it's the pomegranates that give it away.

But best of all was the small fountain tinkling between plastic grape vines, plush and slightly too low couches, tasselled nylon draperies and assorted atmospheric vessels of mysterious purpose.

Vessels

The fountain

Curtains

This one is not quite that impressive, but it does have the same attention to detail shown by the fibreglass walls simulating rustic mud huts. Sadly, the wait staff are not in full national costume today, but you can only hope they haven’t done away with it altogether.

You blame Irish theme pubs, but not too much as in fact, you’ve rejoiced ever since the Shesh Besh chain, which is where you are, opened about 8 years ago. This is because you enjoy unembarrassed tacky, partly because of the aubergines but mostly because it represented a new dawn in lifestyle in Moscow, something for the aspiring middle class. Prior to places like this, there was the very cheap or the very expensive and not much in between that wasn’t McDonalds.

There are only so many plates of pelamini you want to eat standing up and sadly very few of your friends are oligarchs.

*Or not. See What I did on my Holidays Part 1.

**They lied. It wasn’t.

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On another day in another place.

The gray sky hangs low, pressing you into the ground, opening out the horizon and forcing everything else to admit its insignificance.

Yet on this unpreposing canvas the reds and yellows of the trees glow. Green grass seems brighter. Buildings are whiter, and every little scrap of litter on the ground shines out in lurid advertisement of its former contents. There is no wind, and no chill in the air. Instead you are wrapped in a gentle soothing clagginess, fine drizzle misting your hair, which is soon warmed away as the fires are lit and bottles of beer are broached.

It is a distinctly autumnal kind of day.

Which is something to be savoured in Russia, a country where your favourite season lasts five minutes between the scorching heat of summer and the first snowfall.

20090416_autumn_leaves

This is also a distinctly Russian works day out.

First, of course, is the enforced dash through culture. A trip around the New Jerusalem Monastery, undergoing, in common with every other Russian Orthodox building at this time, extensive renovations. The money that is being spent on the hand-painted frescoes, re-plastered walls, gold-leafed cupolas and heavily-carved stonemasonry is a testament to just how popular religion becomes if it’s banned for 70-odd years.

Much like any other drug.

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The highlight of the visit is a stone heralded as an exact 1:3 scale copy of the boulder which once covered the enterance of the tomb of Christ. A solemn precession of irritable foriegners, resentlful that this is taking up valuable drinking time, shuffle past, intoning “But how do they know?”

But then comes release. Into the park. Head for the windmill. Ignore the replica wooden peasents hut and chapel, ignore Patriach Nikon’s home-in-exile, ignore the riverside baptismal platform, ignore the colourful wishing trees with their penants of hankerchiefs, scarfs and plastic bags. Head straight for the beer.

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But there is little time to relax, for the entertainment the Boss has laid on is spectacular. In the middle of a field, in the middle of the sodden Russian countryside, you are seranaded by a full brass band, complete with baton-twirling, bright-smiling majorettes in shocking blue and red uniforms. And then, still reeling from the incongruity of it all, the folk singers come on, persuade a gaggle of capering lads to take bread and salt, chivy the company into the spoon game, and start up the ever popular tunnel procession run, last seen played by teenagers on Red Square before a pop-concert.

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And so to bed. Drunken staggering in the half-light, singing, whispering, collapsing.

On weaning.

In truth you are actually pretty smug about how the Star’s weaning is going.

The boy will eat… well, it’s probably easier to say what he won’t eat:

Papaya.

That’s it.

Unsurprising, though, as in your – and apparently the Star’s – opinion it smells like sick.

On the other hand, he does like broccoli, liver, semolina and the small beads from one of your (now firmly relegated to the back of the wardrobe) tops. As well as carrots, parsnips, butternut squash, bananas, turnips, cauliflower, courgettes, bananas, runner beans, leeks, onions, garlic, bananas, parsley, chives, basil, dill, cinamon, bananas, sweet potatoes, potatoes, peas, sweetcorn, red peppers, bananas, any kind of meat, eggs, bananas, fish, bananas, lentils, chickpeas, cheese, other types of cheese, even more cheese, bananas, yoghurt, tvorug, porridge, bananas, buckwheat kasha, quinoa, pasta, rice, rice cakes, rusks, apples, bananas, pears, oranges, bananas, dried fruit like prunes and apricots, raisins, bananas, bananas and mango. And bananas.

Which is good, because you like to feel that the tremendous effort you put into boiling or steaming things to a proper British mush and then blitzing what remains with your hand held blender is appreciated.

Of course, weaning is not just about variety. It’s also about texture.

The Star loves texture.

Increasingly thicker purees? No problem.

Lumps? Bring them on.

Finger food? Well, given that anything the Star comes into contact with goes straight into his mouth, getting him to manoeuvre bits of food in there as well is easy. He has also mastered gnawing and biting bits off. He looks like a slightly rabid, motor-controlled-challenged squirrel while doing so, but he gets the job done.

Masticating the pieces he gets into his mouth into submission with the aid of only two (front) teeth is proving rather more difficult.

Particularly as he has now taken to crushing in his hands anything softened for his eating pleasure into a squashy mess he has no intention of letting anywhere near his mouth but takes great delight in smearing all over the table, the chair, the other chair, his Mummy and the radiator. Which, unfortunately for him, rather encourages you to try him out with a parade of inappropriately chewy edibles.

Luckily, the Star is adept at removing over-large over-hard chunks from his mouth. He chokes a bit and then throws up.

And then there’s quantity. The Star has spent the last few months eating a lot. Like a horse. Like an elephant. Other mothers would look at you in awe as you wearily shoved spoonful after spoonful of savoury goop into his gob and then followed it up with an entire banana.

He still is not, however, a big fat monster baby.

This, as it happens, makes you feel a bit better about your inability to exclusively breastfeed. Clearly whatever you your milk supply actually was, it didn’t stand a chance of being sufficient to cope withMr Relentlessly Energetic Hollow Legs. Nothing to do with your sleep-deprived ability to work yourself up into a state of milk blighting hysteria about the precise angle at which his cotmobile should have been hanging then.

Or, possibly, it could be a lesson in how little babies actually digest of the food that Mamas spend so much of their time getting the buggers to eat. Certainly the amount and quality of what he poos would bear that out.

Or, given that the pace at which he is hoovering up the vitals does seem to have slowed a bit now, perhaps it just reflects the fact that he was chasing the bell curve from behind. Now he has hit the 50th percentile, he has decided he can give it a rest.

Food, therefore, is all ok.

Drinking, however, is a bit trickier.

The Star continues to slup down milk from you and from his bottle as and when it is offered. He won’t drink water from a bottle though. You tried it warm, cold and quite hot. With some fruit juice in and without. With various different teats. No joy.

He won’t drink water, or anything else, from a sippy cup. You now have a pretty impressive collection of the damn things, but the Star isn’t having anything to do with any of them.

He will drink water from a regular (unbreakable) cup. He’s considerably better at it than he was, but it is still a slow and extremely damp process. And not very conducive to being performed on the run in public places.

Frankly any suggestions as you approach the two weeks that make up British summer and the deadline of removing milky bottle feeds will be gratefully recieved.

But all other advice about weaning will undoubtedly be snottily ignored.

Until it’s along the lines of your Mother’s. ‘Give him beetroot,’ she said. ‘It’ll turn his wee pink.’

On games to play with babies.

There you are, innocently dandling the Star on your knee as he manipulates his coloured curly rings into his mouth.

Cautiously, you grope for your (lukewarm) tea and make as if to drink.

Instantly, the Star’s eyes light up. His mouth opens wide. He flings his plastic plaything across the room, and shoots his hands out in an attempt to snatch the new, infinitely superior, toy.

Idly, you hold it just out of reach, and move it around a bit so he can have a good look.

Then, slowly and deliberately, you take a sip.

The Star’s arms and legs whirl frantically with frustrated excitement.

Until you put the mug back just out of his line of sight.

The Star looks miffed for a few seconds, but forgets all about it as you hand him a book to suck.

And then you reach for your (lukewarm) tea and make as if to drink.

On discoveries.

You are not in the least Scottish.

This has always been a source of faint irritation because you are able to conjure up in almost equal amounts a Welsh background, an Irish one, a Northern English past, a Southern English birthplace and a strong connection to the Channel Islands out of France. So to miss out on being definitively British (which includes the aformentioned episode of sticking two fingers up at France by emigrating) is really quite galling.

But it does explain why you had not, before Saturday, ever celebrated Burns’ Night. Which, it turns out, is something B is probably quite thankful for.

B has always maintained that whisky tastes like particularly nasty samagon (moonshine vodka). You are sorry to report that he wasn’t swayed at all by earnest comparison of the nose of different single malts or epic battles over whether or not to add water. This was a bit of a blow to his enjoyment of an evening which included quite dedicated whisky sipping.

You, on the other hand, were there for the food. You like haggis, even with whisky poured over it.

Haggis, counters B, just proves his point that all British cuisine revolves around the cooking of what in a more civilised country would be leftovers.

He did quite like the soup though. Well, you can’t go too far wrong with Cockaleekie.

However, it turns out that the original idea of Burns’ Night is actually to sit around reading Burns’ poetry.

And this is, on the surface, a pleasant way to pass the time, as long as the poems are rolled out in a suitable Scottish burr, which in this case they certainly were.

Unfortunately, Burns turns out to be a bit of an advanced political thinker. The wee timerous beastie for example is not, apparently, a mouse at all but a put upon Scottish highlander being put out of his house and generally crushed by enclosure.

While this does explain what had hitherto been to you his rather inexplicable popularity in Russia, or rather the USSR, it does mean that you and B have been sitting though an evening in celebration of a radical would be revolutionary lauded by communists everywhere, which given B’s family history is a bit of a faux pas in the B and Solnushka household.

However, you were quickly able to ignore the faint echoes of B’s relatives turning in their graves, as your hostess likes to double Burns’ Night with a celebration of another great Scottish poet.

Let me urge all readers that if they have not previously come across the glories of William ‘Topaz’ McGonagall, that they should immediately lay their hands on an anthology of his poems, invite all their friends round and hold a poetry reading session where the highlight of of the evening will be for all and sundry to join in by guessing the rhymes at the end of each line.

This is worryingly easy to do, except when McGonagall’s genius leads him to create such felicitous phrases as ‘stark dead’ to couple with ‘from foot to head’.

And that’s without even mentioning the glorious incongruity of throwing in, quite at random, a passing visit by the emperor of Brazil (incognito) to a Scottish bridge disaster, McGonagall’s obsession with opening poems with the day, date and time of events he describes as well as his splendidly pedantic interest in the precise construction materials and methods of the various structures that he was eulogising in the three poems you read. Really, you share the great man’s puzzlement that when he died still puzzled that no-one had given him the Nobel Prize. Although you are not quite sure what for.

It can safely be said that the evening ended with howls of laughter and your firm intention to eat haggis at a McGonagall Night sometime in January next year.

And yet what overshadowed the glee was the fact that the person you realised you most wanted to rush home, phone up and quote McGonagall to was your Grandad, and you couldn’t because you had buried him last Monday.

On being lost in translation.

Having discovered that you had slightly misinterpreted the setting of the book by a Spanish author – with large chunks of it set in Spain simply because Spain is the centre of the universe, as opposed to somewhere suitably Continentally decedent for odd Art to take place – it got you thinking about the other series you are reading at the moment, where the action mostly takes place in Moscow.

This is The Night Watch and The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko. It’s a trilogy. The third one is coming out (in translation) soon.

                      The Night Watch  The Day Watch

Good books. The whole premise, that supernatural forces are among us and in constant battle, is made interesting by the fact that this fight is now extremely hedged about by bureaucratic bylaws and policed rigidly for any overstepping of the agreed boundaries. Which is amusing and quite inventive.

The books are structured as three almost separate stories, but which nevertheless link together and resolve themselves into a whole in the end. There are multiple points of view too, as each story is mainly told by a different character. Both Light and Dark characters get a look in, which adds dimension to the world the author has created.

It’s not without it’s flaws though. You found yourself wondering if it wasn’t cheating a bit to have a first person narrative when you are also dropping in on the thoughts of other characters occationally, for example. And the author can be a bit heavy handed with his explanations. But overall it’s clever, if not very profound, and you’ve ever been a sucker for that.

However, somewhere in the middle of the first book, you realised that had the author been British (or Spanish, or from anywhere else), Moscow wouldn’t have been the first choice of location.

Modern British authors only send their heroes to the Russian capital if they are writing some kind of thriller. That’s it.

It’s important that while they are there they stay in a cockroach infested Soviet style hotel – in the Jasper Fforde universe Muscovites must keep a few rooms intact just for such visitors – where the mod cons are hot and cold running prostitutes and little else. The hero will take up with a sad eyed, chain smoking member of the world’s oldest profession, partly because there are, apparently, no other women in the city other than prostitutes, partly so that she can glower and look miserable and save the author time on further description by standing for all the other Russians around who we are to presume are constantly glowering and looking miserable, and partly because  her father will turn out to be a former colonel in the KGB.

Just so that we can have a nod to modernity, they also have to ritually go to the nightclub where the mafia runs its extensive business empire from. There will be pumping techno music and every man will be wearing bad shirts. Which is a good fifteen years out of date as an image, but then that’s probably the least of our problems at this stage. Everyone will be drinking vodka. Without any food in sight.

And to get there, there will be a drive through a forest of ugly concrete tower blocks, more tower blocks and nothing but tower blocks (with more prostitutes signalling wildly from the side of the road all the way). The hero may remark on the lack of vegetation in the way of trees, grass or flowerbeds. Although it’s more likely to be winter and therefore the city will be covered with (grimy) snow and temperatures will be at least minus 25.

Once you’d pinpointed that, you realised that one of the reasons you are enjoying this book is that Moscow just happens to be the place where they are, where the author lives and where most of his audience will recognise. So his characters trot round the place interacting with the scenery doing things like opening fridges (to get out a bottle of human blood), riding up escalators on the metro (in a vampire induced trance) or going on a jaunt up the distinctive Ostankino TV tower (to attack the temporary HQ of the Dark Forces). You, of course, are sitting there happily exclaiming “I had a fridge like that” or “I know those escalators” or “So that’s what the restaurant up there looks like”

But while the events are (melo) dramatic, the scenery isn’t part of that, really. And that’s got to be the first novel set in modern Russia you’ve read that you can say that about. Which tells you just how many novels set in modern Russia you’ve read which were written by Russian authors.

You also wonder what will create the most sense of dislocation in a foreign reader who isn’t familiar with Russia. You suspect it would be the frequent references to legendary rock musicians and their works, whose music and lyrics the author has, quite neatly, worked into the plot and none of whom anyone in the West will ever have heard of.

On boiling yourself.

A shiny samovar. Last weekend you bought a samovar. There it is, sitting on top of the fridge, looking shiny and brassily cheerful.

Actually, that one’s not yours. Yours isn’t quite that shiny. You found this picture here, along with a lot of other samovars. Nice, aren’t they?

Anyway, the total number of samovars you own is now six, if you include the one you gave your Dad for Christmas once. And it is with great pride that you can claim that they are not just there for decoration, but you also know how to work them.

This is mainly because of the time you were in the village for a month or two when the electricity lines had been blown down and B had forgotten to order another gas balloon to attach to the stove after you ran out. So you were doing all the cooking on a camp fire in the garden. Well, I say ‘you’, but in fact I mean ‘your mother in law’. You were not in charge of cooking. You were in charge of boiling the samovar.

This involves lighting a fire in the tube which runs down the middle of the main water holding urn component. Apparently pine cones are the traditional fuel, but charcoal or an endless supply of twigs works just as well. For those readers wishing to have a go at this at home, you do not recommend your Dad’s method of ignition. He uses firelighters and is in regular danger of singing off his eyebrows or worse, exploding the samovar. No, you are afraid it’s going to have to be newspaper, the smallest twigs you can find and lots of lying on the ground gently blowing on the sparks as well as flailing at it with a bit of cardboard instead.

Or you could just drop a few coals in off the barbecue.

Once you’ve got it going, you need to remove the collar at the top of the tube and add a chimney. This should have a kink at the end, which you assume has something to do with facilitating the draw of the contraption. You recommend having a metal one knocked up somewhere. Dad used to use one of those cardboard picture tubes until he set it on fire. This may have been the fault of the firelighters though.

Then it’s just a matter of keeping the fire stoked and hanging on for fifteen minutes or so and you’ll have rather a lot of just boiled water. You can now remove the chimney, replace the top and make the tea. It’ll be a bit stronger than your average Brit is used to because you are going to dilute it. You sit the teapot neatly on the collar and get ready to serve. It’s at this point you assume that in days gone by the whole affair would have been wheeled into the drawing room, smelling sweetly of pine cones and tea.

You don’t have a drawing room in the village and you are looking rather smudged with ash by now, but nevertheless you are capable of graciously accepting a cup, filling about a third of it with the tea mixture and then manipulating the fancy faucet on the samovar to top it up with water.

No milk. Sugar’s OK. Or you can have a little dish of jam which you eat with the tea as a sweetener instead.

Fun, isn’t it? Now you just need a bit of outdoor space you can call your own so you can play with your new toy.