Phil & Fred in Russia part two

Phil Miller, Fred Baker, Henk Weltervreden and I began our journey to Russia by train in the first week of January 1993 from Rotterdam Central in the Netherlands. Sadly we did not travel on an exotic Oriental Express type train but just an ordinary common or garden one and we had to change trains many times. We were carrying quite a lot of baggage because, apart from our own personal bags and food we had brought with us for the journey, we also had to transport all the music gear: an assortment of guitars, equipment, cases etc including a huge flight case containing Phil’s rack for all his midi guitar effects which was a really heavy 3 foot cube without wheels. We called this one “The Beast”. There really was a lot of stuff and we kept it all with us in the compartment so that we could move swiftly when we had to change trains, which we had to do a lot. Often there was very little time to get the stuff off the train. This was especially true in Germany where the timetables seemed to be sacrosanct and the trains waited for no-one. There was a real danger of the trains leaving before we had been able to fully vacate our luggage. We got to be pretty good at this. One time we had to get everything out of one train and onto another in such a short time that it seemed impossible that we would be able to do it, but by then we had it down to a fine art.
Henk was the tour manager. I’ve told you previously that he was a really seasoned traveller. He had travelled through practically all the countries in the world, mainly using local transport. One time he had even travelled across the desert by camel. Nothing fazed him. He was in charge of our budget. His method was simple. We paid for everything in cash. It was mid-winter. He wore a rather nice puffer type jacket that had lots of built-in zipped pockets. In these pockets he carried our entire budget in the form of American ten dollar bills which seemed to be universally accepted. It was a very long journey. We passed out of Germany and  through Poland which looked quite different from the rest of Europe because of it’s dirt track roads which really surprised me. Eventually we crossed into Lithuania which was where Henk had arranged the first two gigs. Our host in Lithuania was at the home of a friend of Henk’s called Valari who lived in a very tall block of flats in Vilnius. Phil and I were taken there where we waited while Valari and Henk took Fred somewhere else. Phil and I were left alone in Valaris flat for what seemed like a very long time. Both Phil and I are a bit claustrophobic and we soon tried the front door to get out to the landing  where there was a view over the city we had seen on arrival. We were unable to do this as we found we had been locked in from the outside – presumably for our own safety. We were imprisoned for what was a long, uncomfortable wait.
The tour  began with a two-day stop in Vilnius, the Capital city of Lithuania. We had a brief chance to look around. The city was a mixture of old and new. Of course  we were more interested in the old because the new just looked looked like anywhere else, but we were discouraged from doing so. Whenever we glimpsed a view of an oldlooking building or area and I lifted my camera to take a pic we were often as not hustled away as if what we were interested in was, not exactly forbidden, but somehow shameful. I did manage to take some pictures of some wooden bungalows that looked really old but I am still searching for these. I can can find hardly any of my Russia photos.The thing I remember most was that Lithuania had quite extraordinary bank notes with really beautifully drawn black and white designs of national birds and animals. We were told they were really new. I think at this time some countries bordering on the USSR like Lithuania and Latvia had recently become independent and these banknotes – which they referred to as “Tokens” were a part of this. During our brief wanderings we spotted a cafe with people eating and drinking and went in. We were each given a mug of milk and a large slice of  very ordinary, plain cake. A bit like dense cherry cake without cherries, not very sweet  but quite nice. When we tried to pay for what we had consumed we were told that there was no charge and that the cafe had been set up by the local authority as a way of trying to make sure that people were getiing enough to eat.
The only places we had a really good look at were the two Music Colleges which were the venues for Phil and Fred’s two gigs. These were Dvariono Muzikos Mokykla and J.Talleat Kelpsos Aukstesnioji Musikos Mokykla.You can see from the photos at the bottom of this page that they were very modern and distinctly magnificent!  We have a recording from one of these gigs where  this performance was captured in which Phil and Fred performed material from their duo album “Double Up”  comprised mainly of Phil’s compositions but which also included two pieces by Fred:  “For Christine” and “Loggerheads”plus a couple of pieces not previously heard in duo arrangements, both from Phil’s “Digging In” album: “Speaking To Lydia” (actually dating as far back as 1984) and the feature for Fred’s bass, the aptly-titled “Bass Motives”.

We left Lithuania and travelled by train to St Petersberg, Russia in a distinctly Russian train, complete with an area up near the driver’s part where the passengers stored their Samovars which could be filled with boiling water and taken back to the compartments. The compartment we travelled in had bunks overhead and windows that couldn’t be opened that had little white(ish) lacy curtains that went half-way up the window, held in place with a very thin length of iron rod that had got bent and then straightened out again dozens of times. We found this all over Russia. Everything seemed very old and bent and had been re-straightened time after time. Outside the country was heavily forested and full of snow. Inside the compartment the heat reached a searing 90 degrees with no ventilation. At stations people on the platforms offered slim bottles of vodka out of baskets to the passengers. In my mind I remember these as being steam trains but I’m pretty sure that was my imagination. In the end I had to climb into a bunk behind a little curtain and travel stripped of most of my clothes to prevent death by overheating. This turned out to be typical of the way heating was used in Russia. In the blocks of flats the heating was always on and there was no way of turning it down. If you were too hot you opened the windows (the windows of the flats did open – unlike the trains). The heating was supplied to all the flats – you didn’t pay for what you used – it was all in on the rent. We heard that there were times when the heating (and all the electricity) would be cut off without warning and then you would have to go to bed wearing as many clothes as you could and stay there while everything froze and wait for it all to come on again – however long that might be. When we got to St Petersberg we were met by a nice but incredibly bossy woman from the music college who looked after us during our stay. She drove us around in a car that was like a little van with seats – I suppose you would call it a people carrier. The windscreen of this vehicle was shattered – so covered in cracks that it was quite difficult to see through it. You felt sure it was just about to fall to pieces. Apparently it had been like that for some time and it obviously wasn’t considered an offence to drive it in that condition. The College had arranged for us to have our own flat to stay in on the very edge of St Petersberg in a block that had rcently been built but not yet allocated ( see pic of view from window ). It was completely empty but had been fitted out in so much as it had a cooker and built in cupboards in the kitchen. I was very amused by the cooker. You couldn’t have imagined a cooker as basic as this one. It was brand new but was so utilitarian as to be comical, as if it had been invented by a comic book artist. I took a photo of it which, of course I can’t find. We were to find copies of this same coker in all the flats we stayed in. Our official Nanny had managed to bring in some borrowed furniture for us, mainly several ubiquitous click claks – the universal seating and bedding  convertables that we were to become so familiar with during our stay in Russia. and a table and some upright chairs. It was very bleak with it’s bare floors and curtainless windows but it wasn’t overlooked and because it was just for us we were very happy with it. The finish of these flats was very poor. For instance the front door had a lock in it, as you would imagine, but some workman had sawn an opening in the door for this lock a lot bigger than the lock mechanism. Consequently when the lock was fitted  there was a 1cm gap all the way round it.You could stand outside and look into the flat through the gaps. The bathroom door had a lock on the inside that was a bent hook on the door  that poked into an eye screwed into the surround. The vinyl flooring came in two sheets that met in the middle and had been fused together with a blow lamp which meant the join wasn’t even flat. Stuff like that. Before Nanny moved us in she had taken us to what was supposed to be a supermarket except that nearly all the shelves were completely empty. She tried to interest me in some bottled “Sprite” which she encouraged me to buy. I said I would rather drink tap water. Once we were left alone in our flat I turned on the tap in the kitchen but only a dribble of watery rust came out of it. So Nanny really did know best after all.


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