27 SepA Lost Bag, Amazing Food (and Vodka!), and our Russian Debut!
By Ralph Farris
Greetings, friends! We are having a fantastic time in Russia. Our hosts, CEC ArtsLink, are incredibly gracious, and they have made us feel so at home.
We landed on Friday, Sept. 24, in St. Petersburg after a very quick layover in Zurich. A bit groggy, we got to baggage claim, and erf!! Dorothy’s bag hadn’t made the connection. The mini-adventure that followed for our dear cellist was amazing to watch. More on that in a moment.
We had all been prepped for the customs declarations we needed to make for our instruments: Upon arrival, a visitor to Russia must fill out two copies of an incredibly complicated form. And these forms have to be filled out perfectly – No crossing anything out, no edits, etc. Plus it’s highly recommended that folks have detailed documentation of their instruments. We all had photos of our fiddles, Dorothy had a bill of sale for her Luis and Clarke cello, and David Segal Violins had supplied me with a “passport” for my Douglas Cox viola, so we were armed and ready.
OK, cool. Neil, Mary, and I completed our forms, some of us faster than others (read: the violist’s got no skills with forms). And then we were through.
But poor Dorothy was still stuck at the desk, having filled out her customs forms two or three times, the situation with her bag going AWOL making things that much more complicated. Thankfully, CEC ArtsLink’s amazing program manager, Nastya Tolstaya, was allowed to enter the baggage claim area, and she swooped in to the rescue. Because Dorothy was entering Russia before her bag, her forms had to be filled out in quadruplicate. And she had to declare every single item – toiletries, shoes, concert dress, socks, underwear, the lot – that was to fly to her the next day. Amazing. Is anyone ever really expecting to declare her or his underwear? There’s a reason they’re called “unmentionables,” people!
A’right, so Dorothy finally got through with her forms, and she was told her bag would arrive the same time next day. We then all piled into a van. Nastya handed us our itineraries, a city map, and a copy of The St. Petersburg Times with a lovely feature on ETHEL (wow!).
We were dropped off at our gorgeous (and huge) apartments. Neil and I shared one, and the ladies shared the other. After hot showers and a quick change of clothes (for three of us, at least), we were off to dinner with the lovely Susan Katz, CEC ArtsLink’s program director of VisArt, Central Asia.
And what a feast! We went to an amazing Caucasian restaurant named Tarkhun. Susan and Nastya ordered beautiful dish after beautiful dish: bean stews, fresh whole herbs, dumplings, roast lamb and vegetables. And we washed it down with an incredible tarragon-infused vodka. I was brought back to a very special time in 1988, when I was fortunate enough to travel with Judith Woodruff’s International Arts for Peace, as part of a larger tour of the former U.S.S.R. Truly some of the warmest, most special times of my life were spent in Georgia, and to relive those memories through this amazing feast was a treat indeed.
Throughout the meal, we had marvelous conversation with Susan and Nastya. Some exciting ideas were flying around the table (stay tuned!) and everyone had a lovely time. We then all headed back for some shut-eye.
We started the next day (Saturday) with a rehearsal for our Russian debut. After a few hours, Dotski had to head back to the airport to pick up her bag (yes, she had to collect it personally). Amazingly, she was back in an hour and a half, with time enough to spare for a cup of tea, and a yummy Russian cookie-doughnut-thing, before the concert.
And then it was show time! ETHEL’s Russian debut was in a gorgeous, resonant space at the Communications Museum. We did a “Greatest Hits” program, kicking off with Arrival. Boisterous applause followed our every number. About halfway through the program, Mary popped her E string. She ran backstage to change it, and the three of us played Neil’s “Lighthouse” while we waited. Mary returned just as we closed the trio, and we finished up the show all together.
ETHEL was received so warmly, and what an audience! There were conservatory students, folks from the museum, friends and supporters of CEC ArtsLink, this super-hip radio host named Damian, and the U.S. Consul General in St. Petersburg, Sheila S. Gwaltney. Sheila is a very cool lady indeed, and she knows her music! We were talking Bang On A Can and Julia Wolfe with her.
We headed back to the CEC ArtsLink office for a post-show gathering with Susan; her hubby Petr (an incredible artist); Chris Gordon, a New Jersey-born writer who had written the piece on us for the paper; his pal KC, an English teacher from Las Vegas; a lovely woman from the Finnish consulate named Elena; Jo, a British woman who works in child welfare; and several other folks whom I didn’t manage to meet. Blinis, caviar, beet salad, and vodka all around, and we were a happy crew. And then we were off to bed to rest up for our 2 p.m. road trip.
And we’re on the road now, from St. Petersburg to Petrozavodsk. We’re heading into an area that I understand once was part of Finland. Beautiful overcast day that just cleared to reveal a bright powder-blue sky, a tree-lined highway featuring a random assortment of roadside vendors (“Were those mushrooms that guy was selling?”), and two-plus more hours to go. Our driver, Vladimir, a very sweet guy, an opera fan and a former sailor (if we understand correctly), hands over the van mic to Mary, who does a tour-guide bit for us as we passed a little collection of gas stations, bus stops, and an industrial park.
And now, methinks, it’s time for a nap. Much love to all y’all!