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Friday, February 18, 2011

Time Travel Trip, A Spot of Tea in the Winter Palace: Russia Bound (part 5)

Have you missed any of the
 Previous Journal entries
for Russia Bound Time Travel?

Part 1: Trip Planning

I found my old spiral notebook from Russian class when I was cleaning out my closet today. Gospadee Boza Moi! Isn’t that what we used to say? It’s been over thirty years and I’ve forgotten so much of what I learned. That notebook had a Peter Max design on the cover. I’d forgotten how much I loved him when we were in college. Remember the poster of his we put up when we were freshmen, and what that gross boy down on the second floor wrote on it? I’m so sure he’s either incarcerated or else working for the prison system now.

Jan 13, 2011
 Note To Self:Keep a low profile. Do not cheese the Empress off.

I put up one hand to the gaping bodice of my Worth-like costume, in almost a parody of feminine modesty, feeling suddenly breathless, and not only from the corset. It was as though an electric current had passed through me with the entrance of this man.

*  *  *

I returned the stare, for a little longer than normal. What could there possibly be in a pair of eyes and a deep bass voice to make me feel a sense of immediate connection to a man I knew nothing about. The cool air of the church hammered against my lungs.

* * *

Part 5: A Spot of Tea in the Winter Palace

The high drawing room walls were covered with pale green silk brocade and there was gilt everywhere: mirrors, picture frames, and on every kind of bibelots imaginable from clocks to vases. Normally I would have stopped to take in the beauty of the glittering decorations against their background of undersea color, but my attention was drawn to the massive table that dominated the center of the room. I'd never before seen a table spread with as much food as that one in the Winter Palace. While the hard-working peasants were struggling to grow enough food to content themselves with black bread, and the cabbage soup known in Russia as 'shee', the imperial court of the Romanovs, were- well now I know where the expression, 'eating royally' comes from.

This was, my new friend explained, with an airy wave of her hand towards the enormous table, "just a simple evening tea". I did indeed see tea, being dispensed from a very familiar-looking samovar nearby. That genial beverage was nothing more than a side note, however, though it was a pretty elegant note.

The silver samovar had acquired a nice polish since it had left my possession. In current times, the vessel had that nice new look of a recent wedding present. The intertwined initials "N" and "A" stood out in clear relief. The insignia on the pot was easier to make out now. It was a fearsome pair of crowned, birdlike creatures with rather horrid humanesque limbs. They were holding various nasty implements with strongly royal characteristics. I recognized the emblem from a vague memory of a class worksheet pertaining to the arms of the Romanovs. No wonder the samovar had proved to be such an excellent vehicle for my travels back to the palace.

The urn sat on a small, but very elaborate, boule table shaped like an elaborate fiddle. The marquetry work was lovely, consisting of inlaid mother-of-pearl against an ebony and red background

But it was what was laid out on the thickly patterned damask covered tablecloth that really attracted me. Despite my whale boning, my travel experience had made me frankly hungry. The board was spread with the most delicious looking viands. In the middle of the cloth was a huge pyramid of sparkling crystal platters heaped with absolutely prime looking apples, pears, grapes and mandarin oranges. I've never wanted a piece of fruit so much in my life. Our modern day marketing technicians could learn a lot from whoever configured that display. Off to one side footmen were just lifting the white napkins off silver serving dishes, filled with napoleons, slices of babka and chocolate gateau, small sweet rolls, meringues, almond, raisin and fruit cookies, ginger biscuits, and three other kinds of pastry I didn't even recognize.

There were tiny crystal bowls filled with molded butter, and a colorful medley of jams and jellies, lumps of sugar and cut orange segments covered in a fine dusting of sugar. Nearby were concentric circles of bread platters that seemed to be graded by contrasting colors. There were artfully arranged pieces of black bread, dark and light ryes, steamed bread, french rolls, and slices of light brown wheat bread standing at attention. Opposite the breads where platters arranged, again, in concentric neatly arranged circles of sliced ham, chicken, tongue, turkey, beef, and something I thought might be grouse. There was also cream cheese, grated white cheddar, Swiss cheese, and green wedges that could have been cheese. Off to one side were trays of  sausage rolls and filled savory pastries, absolutely oozing with meaty filling. These were laid out on long platters made of delicate bone china, set three tiers high.

At a nearby small table a party of beautifully outfitted young women were drinking tea out of delicate green and gilt porcelain cups. A dark haired beauty in pale blue was sliding her fork into a piece of glazed babka thick with candied fruit and raisins. My mouth began to water and I looked desperately at Alina. "Do we just help ourselves?"

She answered by thrusting a plate with one of the delicious-looking chocolate laced Napoleons towards me. "Gospedee, bozhe moi, the tsarista has descended on us! Here take a mille-feuille, head over that way, and just blend in before she notices you." 

I managed to snare one of the golden pears and a piece of black bread as she hurried me across the floor towards a table by the far wall, occupied by three elderly ladies. “Why are we running away from the empress? I’d love to at least get a chance to see her. I promise not to ask for her autograph or anything!”

“She's unpopular in St. Petersburg because she's so suspicious of everyone in it.  And that just makes her even more suspicious. If she thinks you're a newcomer she'll wonder what you're doing here. We could both get the boot.

I moved my plate up so that it partially covered my profile. "So what do I do to blend in?"

"Oh Grafinja Ulyana will likely take you under her wing. If you want to get an idea of typical court gossip, you can't do any better then to join Ulyana Marovna's party. I'll introduce you." Alina kept an eagle eye on the gilded main doorway as she hurried me across the room. As much as I'd have liked to spot that ill-fated granddaughter of Queen Victoria, I was even more interested in getting through the evening without losing access to my tasty little meal, even if I didn’t manage to score some of that babka.

Grafinja Ulyana was happy to accept any friend of Alina Fyodorovna without question. It made me wonder just who Alina’s daddy Fyodor had been, when her comrades Grafinja Kseniya  and Baroness Theodora, ("She's an Austrian," Alina whispered,) made a fuss over me as well. A neatly aproned woman came around to refill my new companions teacups and deposit brimful cups for Alina and me. Porcelain cups, not tea glasses, I noticed appreciatively, despite what I'd read in my well-worn copy of Elena Molokhovets' A Gift to Young Housewives. I made a mental note to add this important historical tidbit to my travel journal.

It wasn't too long before the ladies left off complimenting me on the color of my hair, the tone of my voice, the luster of my complexion, and returned to what they'd obviously been discussing when we arrived. The Baroness was having her brand new dacha redecorated and Kseniya Grigorevna had quite a number of suggestions to make. Ulyana Marovna disagreed with most of what her friend proposed. I yawned, thinking that their conversation wasn't that all different from one I'd listened to at the neighborhood New Years Eve party, except that where I lived no landless peasants were evicted when Joy and George who lived down the street, had bought their "little place in Carmel".

Alina didn't seem much impressed by the conversation either. She jumped right up when I finished my napoleon and looked longingly towards the center table. "I'll go, Lariska. Chocolate gateau? Babka?" I indicated that a little of each wouldn't go amiss. The thought reminded me of an old joke of my father's, something about 'a little of ich, that's what we always said in the Russian army.' I wondered if my American grandfather was already hearing that joke from his father across the ocean back home. I wouldn't have been the least surprised.

I managed to slip a few piece of cheese, and one of the meat filled pastries off the Baronesses plate while the ladies heads turned to follow Alina's form across the floor.

"So, are you a member of the family too?," Grafinja Ulyana demanded once Alina had passed out of earshot.

I swallowed the rather large bite of pastry I’d just popped into my mouth. It was filled with what I thought was grouse, and was extremely tasty. I hoped that the napkin I quickly applied to my mouth made me look like I was delicately bred, and not like a glutton who'd bitten off more than she could properly chew.

"Family?" The word, coming on the heels of the grouse, was a little croaky.

"Yes, the family. One of Fyodor's um- connections?"

I suppose I looked as stupid as I felt. "I never met Alina's father. We're not related. I don't even know-"

"Himmel, Grafinja! The girl isn't one of these morganatic connections of which your Russian aristocracy has so many. Anyone can see she's German or Prussian. Our men marry their wives properly!"

Ulyana snorted. "The Teutons are the worst when it comes to morganatic marriages, what about The  Countess of Merenberg?"

Kseniya nodded. "It's true, Baroness. My mother always said-"

"Are you trying to tell me that Alina's parents are Romanov's?"

All three women turned in my direction. Ulyana raised one eyebrow. "No one really knows for sure, but the Tsar's father was very friendly with Alina’s mother before he was engaged to Maria Fyodorovna, when his brother was still alive. And then she married rather quickly and had Vasily. And that marriage wasn’t even recognized. It was all very irregular. Well I mean, look at his name, Vasily, what it means in the Greek!"

The name was starting to ring a bell, all right. I wished I had my cell phone. I was dying to look up the Greek connection for "Vasily".

"I’ve heard that rumor, but I’ve never believed it. Everyone always said that Tsar Alexander remained faithful to Maria Fyodorovna," Kseniya insisted.

"Well, of course they would say that. Though I don’t actually know if there was any gossip after the marriage itself.” Ulyana tapped her front teeth thoughtfully. “I mean Vasily and Alina’s mother married Maria Fyodorovna's cousin, even if the contract couldn’t be acknowledged legally, it gave her children a father. And those children even have the same patronymic as the dowager empress, because it's a family name. These things can be kept in the family. You know that as well as I do.”

I didn’t need my cell phone anymore. I’d remembered the connection. Alina's mother had planted rather a strong hint when she gave her son the Russian name derived from the Greek word for royalty.

“There's no doubt that Vasily has the Tsar's ear.” Ulyana added. “Well he would, if they're half-brothers, wouldn't he?"

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