The Contentious Squirrel and a Squeezed Lemon

Come with me, we are off on a jaunt….

Tuesday 5:30am is a thoroughly uncivilised time of day. Unless it is midsummer and one has gone to bed early the night before in which case it has a lot in its favour. On a very cold April morning the prospect is not as attractive.
I am going to the airport, even better I am being driven to the airport by a friendly chap whose name I do not know. This is rather awful especially as it has gone beyond the moment when I can ask him, too much water has flowed beneath the bridge, too much jam has oozed from life’s doughnut to make it easy. He is very good at not saying anything after the first five minutes when initial pleasantries have been exchanged. He drives, I sleep, all is well.

7:30 Heathrow,Terminal 5. As a treat I am flying Business Class (for only the third time in my life which means that it is still exciting, although it also means that I am a complete wuss in the frequent flyers club) so take advantage of all facilities. Executive lounges, free bacon rolls, newspapers etc. I try to look blasé while stuffing shortbread into my pockets.

9:00 I am in one of those head to toe, soixante-Neuf seats with only a steamed glass partition between me and a large Slavic lady with alarmingly manicured nails. I am being offered Halibut with dill and creme fraiche which I do not really think is altogether proper at breakfast time. So I have eschewed it in favour of a croissant.

12:00 (15:00 local time) I am on a train hurtling from Domedovo Airport to Moscow having been whisked from Arrivals by the delightful Sofia. This is a world of dirty snow: huge banks of the stuff piled up wherever it won’t get in the way. In parks, corners of yards, cul de sacs and central reservations. Oddly, however, it is not cold in fact my cautionary thermal vest is proving an inconvenience.

16:00 We get off the train and are collected by a smooth young man with a cab who takes us to see client number one in the offices of her architect. We conduct a meeting where I try and get the facts together while eating biscuits. There are also fairy cakes containing plums, crystallised fruits and chocolate eclairs. Russians are very hospitable.

17:00 Back into the hands of the smooth young man and a struggle through the Moscow traffic past the Kremlin and the Bolshoi theatre to the hotel. This is terribly swish and infinitely better than the concrete block where I thought I was headed. I am on the sixth floor which has its own reception and a lift which is only accessible by those of us with the correct cards. This means that I am safe from the depredations of any lissome Russian girls which is a good thing, at my age one has to limit one’s consumption.

18:00: Another client meeting over dinner in the Vogue cafe. It is still the Orthodox Lent so there is a special menu for the devout. I eat Stroganoff which rather puts me on the opposition team. There are many beautiful girls who, I presume, are very religious as they appear to be undernourished.

Weds breakfast: Assorted fishy things on offer again and alarming Russian sausages that look as if they will burst at any moment so stuffed are their skins.Today is going to be a little hectic,I feel. mind you, all Moscow days are hectic the city seems to run at a ridiculous pace, days flash by without a wasted moment.

10:00: Today I am visiting two gardens for clients, I have worked out that this is not going to be quite as straightforward as it would be at home. I am correct in this supposition in that they are both covered in snow, not the sort of snow to which we are used but the sort of snow into which it is possible disappear up to your thighs at every step. In other places it is three metres deep.

This makes garden assessment a tad tricky. “Yes” say I “I think perhaps a path looping round through that snowdrift, past that snowdrift and probably ending up in an arbour of some sort right there in that snowdrift”. Not exactly exact specifying.

Among other things I have noticed:

Russians and, presumably, Canadians ,Nepalis, Ski instructors and penguins must have amazing balance. Walking on so much snow all the time is quite treacherous, I felt as if I was about to fall on my face all the time. Not exactly the image of the sophisticated international garden designer, spread eagled in a filthy slush pile.

Secondly, in spite of the immense size of the country, Russians like to live right next door to each other. There are lots of new developments carved into the forest around Moscow where houses of many different styles (brick mansions, log cabins, modernist pieds a terre and symphonies of lime coloured stucco and regency stripe) are being built. Many of them really very close to their neighbours so much so that much of my job involves planting barriers, it slightly begs the question; why not spread out a bit?  this is not exactly Luxembourg when measured in square yards per person.

Thirdly, Russian officials like to wear very large caps. It is a hangover from the Soviet era when all generals wore caps with crowns that seemed a little out of proportion- like those really big plates you find in restaurants upon which waiters place other, smaller plates. Chargers, I think is the correct term. This applies also to policemen, traffic wardens and (as here) hotel commissionaires.

2:30  I know that by now you will be concerned that I have eaten nothing for a while, fear not at client number two we sat in a shed and drank sweet Russian tea with little biscuits, chocolate thingies wrapped in coloured foil, small cakes and a choice of cherry, apple, orange and grapefruit juices. So, two clients down, we drive back through the slush to Moscow for lunch, at 4:30 in a very delicious Chinese restaurant.

5:30 Then an interview about the Moscow Flower Show then I am whisked off (with seven minutes to change and shower) to the Bolshoi to see La Traviata .

6:30 We go through a private entrance to a box very close to the stage.This was something else, I have never seen Traviata even though I know it well so it was an amazing evening. Proper Imperial lushness, Gold and scarlet walls, ceilings and upholstery all recently refurbished. Wonderful singing, fantastic dancers and guest appearances on stage by a horse, two salukis and some doves.

9:00 Thursday  Gorky Park by Metro and the wind off the river is icy cold. Unsurprisingly as there is ice floating down the river, great big chunks of the stuff. We view the area of the park that will, come  June, be the show ground. At the moment it is covered in ice and snow. Quite a lot of it.

10:00 A television interview and a chat with a famous Russian actor who is worried about my cold ears so insists that I keep his Roberto Cavalli bobble hat. I feel a little guilty about this as he has less hair than Joe Swift.

11:00 Sushi in a department store and another interview, this time with a rather bemused financial journalist. I try to convince her that business should be excited by the idea of a flower show. She remains bemused.

12:30 Drive to the station, catch the airport express, check in etc. The woman at passport control spends a lot of time comparing my face to my passport. I am not exaggerating look at passport (10 secs), look at me quizzically (15secs), look at passport again (5 secs), hold up passport to compare to face (5 secs). Shrug, stamp, let me go. What does one do in such situations? Smile. Look away? Stare back with love in ones eyes? Sneer? I don’t know. Either I look very much older than I did when the picture was taken or she regarded my mere presence with great suspicion. Thank goodness I have lost my temporary beard or I could be in the cooler.

5:15 On plane, back soon.

The picture is Russia from the air. I am listening to Chillout Tent by The Hold Steady.