This blog post is excerpted from my book Wonderment, an autobiography that is available worldwide in paperback and eBook format. This excerpt is set in Moscow in 2003.
For a change it would be a quiet day in Moscow. So I phoned Tanya Pitchugina, a TV science writer with whom I had exchanged emails – we had never met in person — and asked if she was free that evening. To my delight she said yes.
It was late November, 2003, and I was in Russia to do final research on my book The Star Wars Enigma, the intriguing story of why the United States and Soviet Union set up programs to develop high-power anti-missile lasers during the Cold War. The Russian Academy of Science had been helpful in arranging interviews and a place to stay. But I was alone without a guide, knew only two or three words of Russian (like da and nyet), and the Cyrillic alphabet was a confusing puzzle.
Tanya said she would be waiting for me at the Tretyakovskaya Metro station at 4 p.m. She was, she said, slim and dark-haired, one meter 70 centimeters tall. She would be wearing a blue jacket, carrying a copy of John Dixon Carr’s mystery masterpiece The Hollow Man. Her directions, given carefully with a soft Russian accent, sounded like words from an old spy movie. The nearest Metro station was only a five-minute walk, but it took longer to find the station on the map, where all the stations were given their Cyrillic names. And then, finally, there it was: Третьяковская.
She arrived at the station five minutes early, shortish black hair, olive skin, handsome dark eyes, dark slacks under her jacket and pointy shoes. We introduced ourselves, then Tanya pulled her knit hat over her ears and we walked up the concrete stairs to street level. We walked around the block until we came back where we started, then dived into a Hokey-Pokey, a restaurant decorated light-heartedly in rustic Russian style, one of a chain apparently named for the 1940s novelty dance song. I had strawberry-flavored Klukovksa vodka and mushroom fricassee, Tanya a large chunk of Black Forest gateau and a latte.
“Do you want sparkles?” Tanya asked when I tried to order some mineral water. The question first confused me, then I figured it out. No, I said, no carbonation, no gas, ne gaz. All I wanted to do was drown out the taste of the Klukovksa.
So what next? There ought to be something cool to do on a Friday night. Well, she asked, would I like to go to a theatre, even to see some balyet? Definitely. So we returned to the Metro and came up at the Teatralnaya station. And there was the Bolshoi, the real thing, one of the world’s earliest and most famous opera houses, majestic and glowing white in the glare of lights. . .
I noticed a few helpful-looking men hanging around the bank of kiosks. Scalpers! I’d know them anywhere.
“See if any of those men have tickets for Giselle,” I suggested eagerly.
Tanya negotiated with one of the scalpers, and then turned back to me with a sad face. “They’re so expensive,” she said.
“Twenty dollars each.”
This was the best no-brainer I’d heard for ages, so I grabbed for my wallet. “Then get them!”
I was elated and from the look on her face I’d say Tanya was, too. We walked up that great stairway to the theatre doors, under the 19th century facade with its hammer and sickle, and soon were drinking martinis (no vodka here!), waiting for the curtain bell.
Forty dollars had bought us a box so close to the stage that I was afraid I might accidentally drop something on the horn section. In fact we were right next to the brocaded curtains, looking out at the fast-filling five tiers, the huge crystal chandelier, the big VIP box (still in place after remodeling) under the Soviet insignia. A mere half dozen people were sitting there, and Tanya craned her neck to see if she could recognize them.
The performance was beyond words. I had been disappointed by the Bolshoi’s opera Eugene Onegin at Lincoln Center. But this was perfectly beautiful, beautifully perfect. After the ballet came to its tragic end, the audience shouted bravos, flowers arrived, and everyone clapped, Russian-style, in unison.
I liked Tanya. She was patient with the language problem, sophisticated, good company. We had lagers and an enjoyable cafeteria meal, then she saw me to a Metro station, we touched cheeks, and she was gone, leaving me trying to puzzle out the Cyrillic metro map again. Oh God, where was I, where was I going, how would I get home to the hotel? I did OK.
And the book research? It was more interesting and more productive than expected. The Star Wars Enigma was just one of my six books, but in terms of publishing significant new information from new sources it was without doubt the best..
The content of this blog was largely extracted from my book Wonderment, published in October 2012.