Saturday, December 22, 2012

Saturday Evening Re-post: A little Cyrillic is a dangerous thing

Sometimes it's worthwhile to review (brush up on?) Impressionist art—that world of visionaries who eschewed angels, madonnas, and Zeuses seducing Europas, in order to paint, literally in some cases, what they saw outside their own windows.

The last few evenings I've been flipping through some books I have on Manet, Monet and that lot. For the real thing, the mother lode is the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. The National Galleries in both Washington and London rank up there, as does the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but the Impressionists' output was sufficient that we can find treasures in lots of places. The Portland Art Museum has the Van Gogh they acquired last year, and a wonderful Renoir of sailboats in Argenteuil. What could have been a more modern subject for a painting in the 1870s, when both leisure and trains were innovations, than pleasure boating just a short train ride away from Paris?

Perhaps my favorite of all, Monet's Boulevard des Capucines, a painting of the view from the window of the gallery where the very first Impressionist showing was held in 1874, before they were even called Impressionists, is in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.  A few winters ago (yes, winter!), I prepared for our visit to Russia by learning the Cyrillic alphabet. Not a word of Russian, mind you--just the alphabet. I don't know why I thought that would be useful. Maybe I was just trying to get into the right spirit.

So my wife and I were there, stooging around Moscow, zeroing in on the Pushkin, when I read an inscription over the door of a large building, that included the word—I still swear I saw it—"Pushkin." Maybe it said, "This is not the Pushkin Museum," or "The Pushkin is across the street." I have no idea. But I said, "Ah! Pushkin! This must be it."

So we walked in. It was lunch time, and through a side door we spotted some tables where people were eating, so we decided to stop there before beginning our tour.  It was a tiny restaurant—maybe five tables—with no menus or prices up. That should have been our first clue, but it wasn't.
Everybody stared at us. Clue number two?

Some glum babushkas were standing behind a counter to take orders. We didn't know what to ask for, but luckily a diner walked by with a tray of something, so I pointed at her plate and held up two fingers. We were soon presented with some sort of meat, covered in a thick cream sauce, with a vinegary salad-like side dish, and a nice heavy hunk of dark bread. It was all very tasty and filling, perfect fare for a winter meal in Russia. It cost almost nothing—less than $3 for the two of us. That should have been another clue. But it wasn't.

Satisfiedboth culinarily and financially—from our grand meal, we started looking for the ticket booth to start our tour. But what you've long since figured out finally dawned on us: this wasn't the Pushkin Museum at all. It was some sort of office building. We had stumbled into lunch at the company canteen.

Soon enough we located the real Pushkin and our Monet. We never did learn what that inscription over the door said. Maybe, "Stop here for lunch before the Pushkin." I recommend the stuff with the cream sauce.

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