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Daytime in Red Square October 18, 2006

Posted by Bill Carroll in Russia.
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October 12, 2006

Izmailovsky Alpha Hotel

We’ve been very lucky with the weather and today is no exception.   Chilly, but bright.  I was hoping for a fast shower, some breakfast and maybe another trip downtown.

Telephone Shower The shower is one of those European telephone-shaped devices, and it wasn’t immediately obvious to me how you got the water from the faucet up into the telephone part.  I tried turning the knob—that didn’t work.  I tried pushing it down, and that went nowhere.  When I tried to pull it up, it wouldn’t move so I pulled a little HARDER.  Whereupon the plug came out in my hand and water shot ten feet high out of the hole in the top of the faucet and all over the bathroom.

I shut the water off, replaced the plug and decided a shower was out of the question.  An ad hoc bath was organized—I had to think how to do it, it’s been so long–and next came breakfast.

The Alpha has a buffet for breakfast that reflects the breakfast habits of people around the world who stay there—and they differ markedly.  They had kippers and other fish like the British eat; cold cuts, cheese and hard rolls for the Germans.  They’d fry you an egg if you wanted.  I looked around and settled for pizza and weenies, because I didn’t like the look of the kim-chi and ratatouille.  If the pizza were colder, a case could have been made that was an American breakfast.  It was only much later that I found the Cocoa Puffs.  I have no explanation for the weenies.

The big guy sitting across from me, roughly half contained in his suit, had the farm boy breakfast: fish, weenies, boiled potatoes, rolls, cole slaw, meat and cheese all doused with ketchup.  And he washed it down with a beer.  Sheryl Crow once sang “I like a good beer buzz early in the morning.”  She didn’t mention boiled potatoes.

Jim Feast of the Royal Society of Chemistry and Bryan Henry of IUPAC wandered in, and I volunteered to show them how to use the subway to go down to Red Square, being as I was a seasoned veteran by now.  Off we went, but when we got to the subway station, we got to experience a good old fashioned Soviet-style line for tickets.

St Basil DayOf course, St. Basil’s is pretty neat in the daylight as well.  Lenin’s Mausoleum is also in Red Square, in the shadow of the Kremlin walls.  He is actually there to greet you, as he has been mummified and lies on top of his casket.  The experience is to be treated with reverence; the mausoleum is dark and deep, there are lots of soldiers to move you along and the whole presentation is quite striking.  As I was standing there, somber as the situation was, I felt I should do something, but didn’t know what.  A prayer didn’t seem quite right somehow.

There are other graves there, in what is known as the Kremlin Wall Necropolis including nice big markers for Leonid Brezhnev and Josef Stalin, somewhat to my surprise.  Their bodies are buried below the markers.  Then on the Kremlin wall are black markers for other Communist dignitaries including the first Cosmonaut, Yuri History MuseumGagarin.  Journalist John Reed, about whom the movie “Reds” was made, is there.  You may remember that he bore a striking resemblance to Warren Beatty.  Their ashes are interred behind the markers.  I saw a couple of names scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk.  Heaven only knows what that means.

On Red Square is the beautiful History Museum, which is red,  but that’s not why the Square is called that.  Turns out that the Russian word for “red” also has an archaic meaning “beautiful.”

There is also a mall, known as the GUM.  GUM is an acronym in Russian for “big flippin’ mall” and there are hundreds of stylish stores on three levels.  I found Quin’s shirt there.  Did I also mention that one of the less archaic meanings of the Russian word for “red” is “bloody expensive?”GUM-long

After finding our way back, we went to the EuCheMS meeting.  EuCheMS—the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences–is a federation of the 50-some chemical societies in Europe, all but three of which are members.  They are building infrastructure gradually, including both programs and funding.  Ann Nalley attended their first Chemical Congress this summer, as did nearly 3,000 other scientists.  Combined, the societies have about 150,000 members.

EuCheMS is growing in programming quickly, and has a clear focus on advocacy in Brussels, recognizing that there will be pan-European science funding agenda, that so far is not generous to chemistry.

There was a long discussion of current issues, including alternative energy, government relations and communications both with other chemists and the public.  After that, we prepared for the banquet by watching the car fire out in front of the hotel.

carfire.jpgThe banquet, held at the Pineapple restaurant, was quite an affair—not unlike an endless Chinese banquet, with ten or twelve courses.  Oh.  And vodka for toasts.  These are shooters–no sipping, please.

Our hosts also had entertainment—three opera singers who were really accomplished.  The crowd listened to them attentively at the beginning, but after about four hours were more difficult to bring to attention.  Except for a few people who wanted to sing with them.  Could have been the toasts.

There was every kind of food imaginable, most of it either pickled, mayonnaised, or in a heavy butter sauce.  Some I had never imagined, frankly.  There’s no point in asking what something is—even if you find out the name, it will be Russian, and it’s no help anyway.  If it’s good, eat it; if not, don’t.

The last course was some kind of stewed meat-like thingies in a grayish-brown sauce, cooked with small fruit that was mostly pit.  Reminded me of apricots.  It tasted pretty funny, and I asked others what they thought it was.  The best guess was veal.  We’ll never know.  After I ate it I got that same sort of sinking feeling I had when it dawned on me that they weren’t kidding when they named Steak and Kidney Pie.  That the sinking feeling was still there when I got back to the hotel tells me that this story is clearly not over.

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