18 September, 2021

Gimbling in the Wabe – A Momentary Lapse in Reality

This is the third in a series of my reminisces of traveling to Soviet Russia in May – June 1989, piqued from watching the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  Although time has brought many changes to both that iconic city and to my own life, before I share this final installment, I must go back, further, and share an event from my husband’s life.
You’ll see why.

russian-dolls 2

February 1980. Rock superstars Pink Floyd come to New York City for a live performance of their newly released album, “The Wall”, one of only two stops in the US (the other one being LA).  Four friends from tiny Platteville, Wisconsin, who had worshipped Pink Floyd since the “Dark Side of the Moon” years, drive almost 1,000 miles cross country in an epic road trip to see the show.  It was a defining time in their lives, cementing their friendship and giving the band a godhood status for them that would not diminish throughout the years to come.

Nearly a decade later, one of those young men found himself on another epic journey, this time to Moscow, Russia, when it was still the capital of the USSR.  He was part of  a group of actors and artists from the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company, traveling to Moscow as one of the first cultural exchanges made possible by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policies.  His wife, not a member of the company, also went along, just because she could.

I am that wife.  I’ve been sharing my version of the trip to Moscow in May and early June of 1989 for the last few weeks.  Now it gets weird.  And even more wonderful.

After a few weeks in Moscow, it became evident that I was not the only one who was suffering from social deprivation.  It was perhaps worse for me, because I had virtually no interaction with anyone after the dinner hour, and nothing to pass the time, whereas the others were concentrating on getting ready to put on an elaborate show.  (If you haven’t read my two previous Gimblings, then you need to realize that in Soviet Moscow in 1989, there were no restaurants, no bars, no shops, no clubs, no places of evening entertainment; Westerners could not be in the houses of citizens, nor could anyone be out after curfew.  In effect, the city was deserted after the dinner hour.)  But even with their theater duties, they were used to some kind of decompression at the end of the day, a blowing off of steam, and unburdening of stress.  Those first weeks there were few opportunities to gather together as a group, to relax and talk about the day and the experience so far.  There was little chance to linger at the theater, and even wandering the hallways of the hotel was frowned upon, with security so tight.

So the company manager did the best thing a company manager could do – she went to bat for her company.  She approached hotel management, and presented it to them as a cultural puzzle:  American theater professionals were used to being able to “hang out” after rehearsals, to relax and talk, maybe have something to drink.  Understanding the need to be in a controlled environment (especially since there were high power Soviet guests also staying at the hotel), could they help give us some place, some room, some corner, where the CTC folks could congregate for a few hours at the end of a long day?

Hotel management responded.  Modest by our standards, we were still grateful that they opened – just for us – a corner room that could hold about 50 people, and equipped it with a few cafeteria type tables and some chairs.  In an alcove to the side of the room (a coat check, perhaps?), an old lady in a sweater and babushka would sit behind a wooden counter selling hard sausages , bottles of wine and room temperature Fanta orange soda and the ever present “Peepsi”.  Hotel management called it a buffet, pronounced “BUFF-it.”  We loved it, and the little old lady behind the wooden counter did a rousing business every night; eventually she even started smiling at us.

A funny thing happened, though.  It only took a few nights for word to spread around the hotel that there was a room open, just for Westerners, where one could buy wine and soda “after hours”, to sit and talk, to lounge and just hang out.  One night after rehearsal, we went to “our” buffet, and there was a small group of Japanese travelers there.  We exchanged smiles, and retreated to our corners to talk and decompress.  The next night, there was another group of Japanese, and also a quartet of German businessmen.  We exchanged pleasantries with the Germans (who spoke wonderful English) and had small conversations about what each group was pursuing in the Soviet Union.  Then we retreated to our own corners again.  The following night the Germans were there again (we greeted each other as if we were old friends) and a smattering of others, too.  Austrians, a few Italians, others we couldn’t identify, who paid us very little attention as we entered.

Soon we would come into the buffet after rehearsal and the place would be hopping, even crowded.  We didn’t mind.  There were always bottles of wine to be had, and it felt like home.

Finally the day came for the show to premier.  As Opening Night approached, everyone was nervous and incredibly excited.  How would the play (“Rembrandt Takes a Walk”, the stage adaptation of Mark Strand’s picture book) be received?  Would Soviet audiences “get” it?  American audiences loved the spectacle, but would Russian critics be as kind?  Or would we simply be a novelty for the elite and the curious?

We had also been told to dress up after the show because there was to be an official reception in our honor at the home of the U.S. Ambassador, the Honorable Jack Matlock, Jr.  This was going to be a night to remember.

The play went well.  The audience seemed appreciative, if a little muted – we were told that was normal for Soviet audiences, especially those a bit out of their element, viewing a Western production; time would tell what the critics thought.  The atmosphere among the players and the technicians, our Soviet counterparts and our Russian language interpreters (who went virtually everywhere with us), was effervescent.  There was a party vibe backstage, and a few toasts were raised and photos snapped before we were chauffeured to the huge stone mansion housing the Ambassador and his family.

When I walked into that elegant house, I almost burst into tears.  The lines of the house and the furnishings were graceful, not utilitarian.  There was thick, luxuriant carpeting under our feet, soft lighting, and it was actually warm.  Warm!  There were waiters carrying around trays filled with glasses of bubbling champagne, just like in the movies, and I even allowed myself a few sips in celebration (correctly believing myself to be pregnant, I had heretofore managed to surreptitiously fake drinking vodka up to this point – a difficult thing to do since drinking vodka was indeed a national pastime for the Soviets, and sharing toasts with our hosts was considered a show of true friendship).  But the most amazing, the most wonderful, the most incredible thing of all was the food.

Yes, it was finger food, but it was good, and fresh, and delicious. No gray meat anywhere! No boiled cabbage!  There were little cakes and such, little crackers and pates, but what everyone – everyone – went for was the vegetables.  Carrots, celery, broccoli – things we hadn’t seen in almost a month, mounds of them.  Crisp and fresh and delicious.  We couldn’t get enough, so beautiful, so colorful, so tasty!

But there was something that literally took my breath away – the strawberries.  Plump, red – oh, my gosh, such a beautiful red – sweet, fresh, bursting with actual healthy flavor; I’m pretty sure I did cry when I bit into the first one.  We take so much for granted in our own country of bounty!  How marvelous to have faith restored by one perfect, ripe, luscious strawberry!

Still giddy with the success of Opening Night, and now flush with premium champagne and satiated with good food, we were ushered back to the hotel where we all poured in to the buffet to wind down from our incredible night.  The place was hopping; it was later than normal and the room, although crowded, was fairly dark, cigarette smoke wreathing the ceiling.  There were many voices, many languages bouncing off the walls, lots of people sitting and talking and drinking; it was going to hard to even find a seat at a table, but we were still flying, so it was all just fine.

My husband and I, along with one of the stage managers and a few technicians, found a place at a table at the edge of the room, and my husband fetched refreshments:  a bottle of Fanta for me and wine for everyone else.  We leaned back in our chairs and sighed in contentment, letting the affects of the evening wash over us – how amazing had this night been?  Whenever in our lives would we ever know this kind of adventure again?  After all, we were just normal, everyday people who had lucked out in this amazing opportunity.  Wasn’t life just effin’ incredible?

We sighed again, musing on the night, coming down from the high.  My husband sloshed remnants of his wine around in his glass, and stared off into the distance, letting the conversations from the rest of the room swirl, a hubbub cocooning us in our contentment.  Then he let out a little snort.

“What’s up?” I asked him.

He smiled, that kind of smile you get when you’re feeling a bit foolish, but you don’t care.  “I must have had more champagne than I realized,” he said, then leaned in towards me.  “I know I’m just seeing things, but I swear that’s David Gilmour.”

I looked to where he was indicating with a tilt of his chin.  The next table over, a couple of middle aged men were engaged in an easy going conversation.  Their dress was casual, their hair scruffier, their faces unguarded; these were no businessmen.  They had a worn look to them, but not worn down, as if they had known hard living but now could sit back and relax.  Definitely an artist vibe to them.  I regarded them abstract interest.

Suddenly my husband sat up straighter.  “Oh, my god,” he breathed.  “That IS David Gilmour.”

David Gilmour, lead singer and featured guitarist for Pink Floyd.  The man whose vocals and distinctive guitar work would grind a generation under his heel, uplift millions who felt downtrodden and forgotten, relate to those who had become comfortably numb, and bring angels to tears.  Who had taken control of the iconic band after the acrimonious split with founder Roger Waters.  Perhaps the most gifted rock musician of our time.  Who was, for my husband, on par with God.

Sitting about 15 feet away, in a smoky conference room in Moscow.

“And look, there’s Nick Mason,” he whispered, as if admitting these things to loudly would cause them to disappear, “and over there – there’s Richard Wright!”  (Drummer and keyboard player, respectively.)  The man David Gilmour was talking to was the saxophone player, legendary studio musician Scott Page.  My husband’s jaw hung slack.  He had become a 17 year old school boy again, in the unexpected presence of his heroes.

“Go talk to him!” I urged.  I mean, how many opportunities do you get to actually talk with your god?  “No!” he countered immediately, “I couldn’t!  I mean, I don’t want to bother him.”

“What are you talking about, that’s David Gilmour!  You’re got to at least say hello to him.  Buy him a bottle of wine.  Tell him you’re a fan.”

“No, I can’t.  I just can’t.” His eyes were still wide, unblinking.

“Well, I can,” I said, getting out of my chair.  He protested, but I knew I couldn’t let the moment pass.  I went over to the old lady in the alcove and bought a bottle of wine, then walked over to where David Gilmour and Scott Page were chatting.  They looked up at me, and I presented the guitarist with the wine.  “Mr. Gilmour, it’s an honor to meet you.  My husband has been a fan of yours for years; he saw ‘The Wall’ in New York.” I nodded over to where my husband was sitting; David Gilmour glanced over and nodded to him in return.

Scott Page asked why we were here, in Moscow, at the Rossiya, since we obviously were American.  I explained about the theater troupe from Minneapolis on a cultural exchange, and that it was Opening Night, that my husband was the lighting designer for the show.  He nodded, and said that they were also there on invitation as part of a cultural exchange; on their “Momentary Lapse of Reason” tour (which we had actually seen in the Metrodome in Minneapolis a year earlier).  None of them had been to Russia before; they had just arrived at the Rossiya and were still settling in.  I smiled, and suddenly the impact of just to whom I was speaking hit me; shyness overtook me.  “Well, I won’t keep you any longer, but I wanted to say how excited we are to meet you.  Good luck, and enjoy Moscow.”

I walked back to my chair and sat down in a daze.  Other people were now talking to Gilmour, and the two groups – English musicians and American thespians – were starting to interact.  Soon, my husband had made contact with Marc Brickman, the lighting designer for the tour, and the two talked for hours, comparing notes and techniques and stories.  We got an invitation from him to sit at the tech table for their opening performance, as his guests (my husband remained in touch with him for many years).

The next day, we continued to come into contact with various folks from Pink Floyd, at meals especially, but also when we were out and about.  Our company finally had the day to explore the city, now that the show had opened, and they took full advantage of it; the musicians in the band were doing the same thing while their stage personnel were getting ready for their megaconcert.  We didn’t see David Gilmour again; he stayed out of the public eye – but we did meet his mother.  She, like me, had “come along for the ride”, simply because she could.  She told us that it wasn’t common for her to travel with the band, but when she learned they were going to the Soviet Union, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tag along.  She was a very nice lady, and like most mothers, extremely proud of her son.

We arrived at the concert the next night:  my husband and I, one of the electricians and the alternate stage manager who had the night off from the CTC show, along with our translators.  But upon reaching the stadium, we found ourselves in the middle of what had the potential of turning into an international incident.  Our names were on the guest list, but not the names of our interpreters; we had cleared their attendance with the band, but hadn’t realized their entry had to also be cleared with Soviet officials.  The armed guards were adamant – citizens were not allowed backstage.  Period.

Kyril, a big bear of a man with the gentlest of natures, had been attached to my husband as his personal translator since the first day we arrived in Moscow.  He had been so very excited to see the concert, as had been the other translator, Natasha; these sorts of activities were not normally open to them on their meager salaries.  We had been stoked to give them this experience, the only way we could pay them back for their long hours, hard work, and their friendship.  When they were told, at gunpoint (literally, they had guns leveled at their chests) that they could not enter, we threw a fit.  They were not just interpreters for us, they had also become our friends.  It was tense for quite a few minutes; guards with guns don’t factor in friendship when it clashes with protocol.  But eventually someone in the band was able to speak to someone in authority at the venue, and although it was highly irregular, they bent the rules, and Kyril and Natasha accompanied us onto the tech platform.  The look on Kyril’s face as he pushed past the guards was absolutely priceless.  The concert – for us, for the band, for everyone – was a huge success.

The next day dawned full of sunshine and enthusiasm. Once again, everyone was exploring the city with a child-like glee (well, everyone from our company; the Pink Floyd crew was sleeping off the effects of their opening night concert!).  Finally, I had others to run with, and was something like a tour guide, having already spent weeks seeing the sights.

But then, suddenly, everything changed.  The streets became deserted.  Those citizens who were out, had tears in their eyes.  We, not being able to understand the somber Russian newscasts being broadcast throughout the city had to wait for an official announcement from our tour manager.  We learned that a horrible railway accident had taken place that afternoon near the city of Ufa; 575 people were feared dead, over half of which were schoolchildren returning from holiday vacation.

The pain of the Muscovites was palpable, it was mirrored in their faces.  The entire country went into mourning; all public events and celebrations for the following day, June 5, were cancelled, including our show and the Pink Floyd concert.  Suddenly, our entire company, and everyone in the band, had unexpected time on their hands, and while no one was happy about the reason why, many had to admit it was nice to be able to simply be tourists for even a short time, with no agendas, no obligations.  Since we were already used to foregoing restaurants, movies, bars, or any other public establishment, the shutdown of the city had very little effect on us, other than freeing up on our time.

Some of us ended up hanging out on the Pink Floyd tour bus that shuttled the band around.  It was their honest to goodness tour bus, not some officially proffered arrangement.  There was a restrained-but-still-party feel to the group on the bus, and the vodka was flowing quite liberally.  One of the members of the band was a HAM radio operator and had actually managed to sneak a HAM radio in on the back of the bus; how he was able to get it past customs, I’ll never know.  But it was there, and it was while he was trying to find out more information about the train disaster that we began hearing things – strange, horrible, garbled things that we simply could not comprehend.  Apparently, there had been some kind of incident in China.  Something about the military firing on students, on citizens.  Reports were not clear, but it sounded like there were hundreds, even thousands of student protestors dead.

That couldn’t be right, could it?  There was no way even a brutal, totalitarian government would turn on its own people in this modern day and age, not like that, not with the world watching.  We couldn’t believe what the tumbled and elusive reports were telling us, we had to believe we were hearing things wrong.  Not in the very heart of Beijing, at some place known as Tiananmen Square.

The Soviet people knew nothing about what had purportedly happened in China, even though China was their closest ally.  Muscovites that we queried had absolutely no idea what we were talking about.  There was nothing about it in their newspapers or on their radios, nothing on television (according to those few who had television), no rumors on the street, even.  Our concerns, our queries, were dismissed, by authority and commoner alike.  As far as the Soviet people knew, the revolt in Beijing had never happened.  That lack of knowledge or concern was chilling, almost has hard to stomach as the reports themselves.

We still managed to enjoy our last days in Moscow.  The show had gotten positive, if not glowing reviews, and its short run was well attended.  Strong ties had been forged, and friendships blossomed that transcended politics or political dogma.  Despite all the sorrow at the ending of our time there, optimism reigned, and all of us, to a person, American and Soviet alike, had felt like we all had grown and learned valuable lessons on what it was to be a global citizen.  We still had our differences, yes, and our own passionately nationalistic views, but we now were able to see beyond those views to the people themselves: good people, valuable people, compatriots, friends.

Yet, when we landed in Copenhagen a few days later – some to catch connecting flights straight back to the States, others, like my husband and me, to stay in Denmark for a while, exploring that culture and visiting the castle where Hamlet was to have trod – when we were able to shop at the airport for trinkets and sundries, and, before we had even dropped our things at the hotel, were able to partake at an Italian buffet, full of breads and pastas, salads and sauces that had simply not been possible in flavor or abundance, when I crawled into bed that night and pulled the wonderfully plush and decadent duvet over myself, and for the first time in weeks fell asleep warm and content – I cried.

I cried for the sheer joy of returning.  For understanding the impact of what it was that we had just experienced, both in what was gained and what remained.  For those we left behind, who would never know these creature comforts in which I was now luxuriating (and who very well may have not allowed themselves to enjoy, even if they came across them, as a matter of pride).  I cried for how improbable life is, and for how lucky I was.  I cried for having made it through the worst of times, and for being able to embrace the best of times, and for being able to forever say, I was there.  These were my times.  I lived them, every moment of them.  They helped shape me into the person I am today, and they are solaces I can return to when I question whether I have truly lived this life of mine.

These are some of the stories I will always be able to claim, and to share.

Thank you for listening.

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