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- Eurovision in a Cowshed
- The Boll Weevil 3: On the Waterfront
- A Year in Brocante 11: An Easter Egg
- A Year in Brocante 10: Upscaling and Hacking
- Kevin Pearce
- The Bol Weavil and the Lightning Bug 2: On the Ground
- The Boll Weevil and the Lightning Bug 1: A Home in Ireland
- Love In The Air
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Under the old Soviet regime not many ordinary folk got the better of the system in the USSR. If one was a high-up member of The Party of course, things were different. However, as a bourgeoise citizen of a democratic island republic I got to drive in long black Party cars through Moscow, be flown to Armenia and Georgia and put up in the best hotels with a guide and interpreter (minder) all the way, for one week under the old regime. I remember it as September 1987,but it could have been ’88. The USSR was talking proudly about its 70th Russian Revolution celebrations, the 1980 Moscow Olympics mascot ‘Misha the Bear’ pins were still available (but not much else) and ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’ were words beginning to be used, if not quite widely practiced. It was before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before things fell apart the centre could not hold.
It was early September and colder than I had ever experienced before. I had just done a TV piece for RTE (Irish national television) on the Soviet airline Aeroflot’s re-fuelling deal and new refurbishment facility and hangar at Shannon Airport, and Himself – my producer – and myself thought we might cover the launch of the Duty Free Shop at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, a joint venture between the Irish aviation authority Aer Ríanta, and Aeroflot, and the first foreign run commercial enterprise in the USSR.
We flew Aeroflot from Shannon airport and not one, but a fleet, of long black cars met us at Sheremetyevo…and not at Arrivals, but on the tarmac. We thought we were getting a free Aeroflot flight, but had no idea we would be touring Moscow and on to Armenia and Georgia courtesy of our Soviet Comrades. They had no idea that we were not actually bringing a television crew to do the filming there and then….but when we explained, they just sent away all but one of the cars and the planned schedule continued. In this era, a lot got lost in translation. A local call to the USSR Embassy in Dublin asking “Can I speak to the Cultural Attaché?” was answered with “Natasha who?” It was, after all, 1987/8 when communication from behind the Iron Curtain to the outside world was mainly by telex. International ‘phone calls had to be booked hours in advance and might not connect. I remember worrying that if we were witness to a big news story how I would get it out…(In December 1988, a 7.1 earthquake in the Spitak region of Armenia killed at least 25,000 people. Experts blamed the poor building practices of the Brezhnev era on the high death toll.)
We had lots of meetings with lots of nice, courteous and hospitable Party Comrades, ministers for tourism and the like, we saw wonderful sights; monuments and churches, monastries in the mountains, the beautiful and profoundly moving memorial to the victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Turks on a hill overlooking Yerevan, Georgian folk parks of traditional buildings, fabulous art galleries in Yerevan in which works by radical modern artists were kept – if not openly shown – and the beautiful works of the artists and craftspeople of Tbilisi. We were rarely alone in public, which was lucky, because being from Cork – the Jaywalking Capital of the World – we ignored formal pedestrian crossings and blithely tried to weave and dodge across Tverskaya Street from our (hideous, now demolished) Intourist Hotel. It is a very wide street and that was one of the times on that trip – the other was crossing the Caucauses in very small, very noisy plane – that I feared for my life.
Whenever translator Irena left us to our own devices it was because she was off foraging for food and would appear a few hours later laden down with paper bags and twine wrapped packages of fruit and vegetables. There were no ‘shopping opportunities’ for us, because, basically, there weren’t any shops, and if there were, there was so little in them that the staff would ask me for goods. The only things I bought in the USSR in 1988 were ceramics, a few very dark bowls in Armenia, the plaster nose and eye of David as used by art students in Tbilisi and some blue and white porcelain figures of cockerels and peasant women with hens in Moscow. The porcelain was from Gzhel, about 50 kms from Moscow, then and now famous for its traditional industry of ceramic production and folk inspired painting.
I got a little rooster in a brocante in France a while back, recognizing the Gzhel and ‘handpainted in Russia’ stamp on the bottom, and last week in the Strasse des 17 Juni market in Berlin, I found a tiny Gzhel figure of a lady reading a book with a cat circling her skirt. I love the idea of the weekend Strasse des 17 Juni market west of the Tiergarten and amongst the abundant fur coats there could well be treasures, but not for me Biddy. I find the old handbags, lace, photographs, lamps, spectacles and effects sad; for we know not their provenance. The prices are saucily high and the dealers are not always nice – in fact, some are horrible.
In 1988 we got £1 for the Russian ruble and the Gzhel cockerels cost about that. In Berlin last week, my little Gzhel lady cost €2. Though they are hand painted and the Gzhel industry is historic, they have always been produced in large quantities and though there is a huge demand for them – so much so that fakes are now being traded – they are not at all valuable. I don’t do ‘figurines’ but these were so beautifully wrought and glazed, have such a good stance and attitude and were so comfortable in themselves, that after my trip to the Soviet Union I gave them as presents knowing they would be comfortable in the houses of sisters and friends. Almost quarter of a century later, the Soviet Empire has collapsed, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the world has changed, but the Gzhel women, their cats and poultry still sit comfortably at home and on the shelves of friends and sisters.