Sunday, May 15, 2005


Geoffrey leaned across the table, his voice conspiratorial and confiding. “Mr. Gretsky is coming,” he could barely contain his delight.

“Who?” I stirred my coffee. Geoffrey and Lillian, local husband-and-wife restaurateurs, frequently give me tips about upcoming events that I can write about for the English-language newspaper.

You don’t know of Mr. Gretsky?” Lillian arched a manicured eyebrow. “Goodbye, goodbye . . .” she sang and conducted with her cigarette.

“Um . . . how do you spell that?” I would throw myself on the mercy of Google later.

This announcement came a few months ago. And, in fact, I had almost forgotten that Geoffrey and Lillian, friends of the people organizing the concert, promised to arrange an opportunity for an interview with the Mediterranean singer.

I really did not know anything about Mr. Gretsky, which, as you may have guessed, is not his real name. And I still don’t know a lot about his career. In Europe and South America, he was a sensation during the late 60s and 70s. He has always been a man of ample proportions, and, apparently, used to perform in kaftans. He has always had a beard, and in this resembles a certain Italian tenor. But there the resemblance stopped. I had heard horror stories about this tenor, lobster butter dripping down his beard, barking orders at concert organizers and then refusing to go on stage later. Gretsky carried himself with dignity, but was, at every moment, a performer with a debt of gratitude to his fans.

He arrived late Thursday afternoon and was whisked away for a round on local TV interviews. We were finally introduced to a tired and uncomfortable Gretsky about 8:30 at one of Geoffrey and Lillian’s two restaurants. Lillian had prepared a table for the seven of us in a private room upstairs. While the whole restaurant ranks as what I am sure is The Prettiest Restaurant in Bratislava’s Old Town, upstairs is especially charming. There is a tasteful Italian motif, as if the entire place were a scene from a Medici tapestry.

Alas, Gretsky was suffering from the length of the journey and his back was not up to the stairs. In fact, he requested a taxi for the trip between the Carlton Hotel and the restaurant, which is complicated by the shortness of the distance and the prohibition of most automobile traffic. There is at least one hotel within the pedestrian zone of the Old Town, and guests have to walk from the perimeter with their luggage.

There was a flurry of activity. Cell phones came out. Geoffrey, Alexi and Olympia, Gretsky’s friends and the concert organizers, conspired with the Carlton Hotel manager to arrange for a taxi to bring Gretsky to us. Olympia shares his homeland and it seems Gretsky’s children attended school with hers and Alexi’s.

Two young waitresses, familiar with Gretsky because Lillian plays his CDs in the restaurants, volunteered to serve us dinner as they were working on the night of the concert and unable to see his performance. They waited, pink and breathless, by the bar.

Between bouts on the phone, sips of wine, and puffs from a purloined cigarette, Alexi, who insisted he doesn’t smoke, showed digital photos of Gretsky’s entourage arriving at the hotel. There the driveway had been blocked by a cocky young man with a buzz haircut, dressed in shorts and driving a black Audi with tinted windows: the sure sign of what we here in Central Europe cynically call “an entrepreneur.” A tall man in his 50s, Alexi is slim and elegant, with the air of someone who has just stepped off a Cunard cruise. He was clearly flustered and angry by the affront to his friend and guest. It would be the first of several incidents where Bratislava did not manage to put her best foot forward.

Lillian asked the barman to uncork the French champagne that she had chilling. “Mr. Gretsky told me not to fuss, that he was, as he put it `a simple man with simple tastes.`” She smiled, “And then he said `French champagne, of course.`” Well, you can’t fault a man for knowing what he wants, we concluded.

Finally, a taxi appeared at the restaurant door and Mr. Gretsky was in the house.

Gretsky is not a tall man by any means. Yet he carries himself with the confidence, what some might call arrogance, of a Mediterranean man. His silver hair was neatly pulled back into a ponytail. He wore a dark shirt and tie and an expensive, beautiful suit. He was agitated about the hassles in arranging his transportation. But finally, champagne flutes appeared. Gretsky seemed to sigh and relax, the weight of his long day slipping from his shoulders. He smiled, greeted all of us, and posed for photos with the waitresses.

Until he realized the table was upstairs.

“Oh, I can’t,” he apologized. “I really can’t move another step.” And quick as that we were dining in the front room by the window overlooking the street where Gretsky’s taxi had just delivered him.

There were seven of us at the table: Gretsky at one end, with Olympia on his left and me on his right. Alexi sat next to me; The Spouse sat next to Olympia, and Geoffrey and Lillian took places at the other end. Although it was late and Gretsky was clearly tired, he was lively and charming. He discovered with delight that the cloth napkins had buttonholes and draped himself in three, laughing like Santa and patting his belly. We ordered. Food came; glasses were emptied and refilled. Gretsky ate every bite (as did the rest of us). He asked the waitresses for special things from time to time, but always politely. The food was all wonderful. And the champagne . . . well, French really is the best, isn’t it?

By now the rest of the dinners had finished, and we had the place mostly to ourselves. Gretsky seemed tired, eager to go back to his room and rest before a full day of rehearsals and publicity the following day. But someone mentioned dessert.

“Could I please have some vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberries,” he asked, almost apologetically. I don’t know: I think ice cream is always right.

Then there was another flurry of phone calls and off he went in his taxi, waving out the window, his face beaming to us in the dark Bratislava night.

Friday started with a press conference in a modest hotel in a remote Bratislava suburb. We convened in the Zelene Salon, or Green Room, which seemed an appropriate place for a performer to spend a few hours before going onstage. The room was full of reporters from a wide range of local newspapers and broadcasters. Eager and polite, they asked thoughtful questions. Gretsky mentioned how amusing he found it that his taxi rides the night before required so much effort. “I saw something very rare,” he said, grinning broadly. “You can’t go by car in your Old Town. This shows the inventive spirit of the government of this country, and I think this is very funny.”

Someone asked him about the languages he prefers. Which is more musical? Gretsky speaks Arabic, English, French, German, Greek, Italian and Spanish. “I never record in my native tongue,” he said, chuckling. “This is why I was able to make an international career.” He paused, eyes shining. “You see,” he says, pointing for emphasis, “My language is about as important as the Slovak language, I am sorry to say.” He seemed delighted with his mischief.

Then he was off for some physical therapy and a long day rehearsing with his band.

The next time I saw him was Saturday night at the concert. We met Geoffrey and Lillian on the terrace of their other restaurant for pink champagne before heading off by taxi to the Športovy Hala where a sold out crowd of 4000 was gathering.

What a dump. What a sad, sad venue. As the name suggests, this is a sports arena. I know a woman who played basketball here for the national team years ago. But any glory this building may have known has long since faded. Black out paint peeled off the windows. It felt damp and cold.

Because we were guests of sponsors, we had tickets for the second row. An excellent position for seats. The stage was small, but right in front of us, with a set of stairs at the end of a projecting center section.

The crowd was mostly older. Not the nouveau riche of Bratislava, but working class people dressed, for the most part, in their Sunday best.

Geoffrey, who whacked his shin on a projecting piece of metal as we walked in, went to find Olympia because he knew there was ice in the green room. He returned empty handed. “It’s locked,” he said. “No one can seem to get in.”

Then there was a bit of an altercations as people around us began to disagree about who was entitled to which seat. Again, Geoffrey went off and returned looking chagrined. “We are in Bratislava,” he said, as way of introduction. This was when we found out that our seats, in fact, the entire VIP section, was, in fact, actually in the next section, behind the seats we were sitting in.

It seems that ticket sales were brisk and the promoters were told to add five more rows on the floor. That they did: in FRONT of the VIP seats.

There was nothing to do but laugh and move. Olympia was apparently in a nuclear rage somewhere back stage, but our glimpses of her showed only an elegant, well-dressed woman looking professional.

At last the concert began, and it was delightful. I had heard many of the songs in Lillian’s company, and those I did not know were just as nice. Gretsky sings rather romantic, sentimental songs. Very European, is the only way to describe it.

Gretsky is no Mick Jagger, but his back clearly felt better and he worked all angles of the stage. He interacted with the audience, invited them not only down around the stage, but even up on it with him (we could see his manager flying through the aisles towards the stage each time this happened). After the intermission, two buzz cut security goons were posted on either side of the stage where they stood, looking bored, while adoring fans still mounted the stage.

He urged the crowd to its feet several times, and had everyone clapping and singing along. He even mimed flicking a lighter and was delighted when sections of the audience responded by lighting theirs.

The back up band included two bald keyboard players, a guitar player, a drummer, a classic quartet of Slovak musicians, and a black doo-wop girl of exceptional proportions and talents. She was a goddess, all curves and hair and bling.

And then it was over and we were back in a taxi heading for a reception at the Hotel Danube. This proved to be a disappointment as the hotel staff dropped the ball in so many ways. The buffet was uninspired. The Spouse found himself in line there behind Gretsky. “What are they offering us?” he asked. “Third rate Mediterranean food,” Gretsky growled.

And it was. There was barely a nod to the Mediterranean cuisine, which would have been so lovely. Or it would have been perfectly delightful to showcase Eastern European cuisine. We argued at length about the identity of the meat on wooden skewers. A little olive oil, lemon juice, and oregano would have made a huge difference.

The white wine was cloudy. Seriously, I thought at first it was cider, it was so appley. The red was raw and rough. I could not drink it either. The liquors were at least unsullied. I had never had this one before, and it has an herby quality that is reminiscent of Chartreuse. It was served on ice and right pleasant.

The dessert was a mille fois with walnuts. Not related to any cuisine in particular.

We sat with members of the band, including the doo-wop girl, who turned out to be a delightful Haitian who has spent most of her life in France. The Spouse had been to Haiti more recently than her, and she was practically teary-eyed listening to him describe his experiences in Port-au-prince. “Thank you for speaking to me about my country,” she said.

There was not even any music piped in, so the entire atmosphere resembled a rather upbeat wake more than a party of musicians. Geoffrey and I agreed that there were too many tables and chairs. Coupled with food that required knife and fork resulted in people plopping down at tables and staying put. No one mingled.

Gretsky was sitting across the room for the first part of the evening with a young woman who had yards of black curly hair and a jacket with a very furry collar. I thought perhaps she was his wife or even his daughter, come along to see the show. Later we got word that Gretsky was coming to join our table. The young black-haired woman came too, and sat at Gretsky’s right elbow. Later I asked someone in our party about a young man in a silvery suit who was sitting next to her. He looked familiar to me. “I think he’s her handler,” my neighbor said, barely disguising his horror. “I think she has been provided for Gretsky, who clearly has no interest in her.” This was obvious. I reflected for a moment on the fact that my neighbor was not so offended by the idea of purchased companionship but at the quality of what was on offer. “When this country is full of beauties . . .” he spluttered. Not long after that the black-haired woman left with the man in the silvery suit. Either she got the message or we misunderstood. But that’s not unusual in Bratislava.

In a pathetic postscript, on Monday I was feeling a noticeable pain in my right shoulder, which I blamed on yard work done on Sunday. “Bursitis,” I thought. I have inherited my father’s tendency to bursitis.” So I ignored it, but it did not go away and I was forced to Google “pain in shoulder” where I was rewarded with this information: Does your shoulder ache after overhead activity? Is it getting worse and now restricting that activity? Has a period of rest apparently resolved the problem only for the pain to recur when you returned to sport? Chronic shoulder pain is unfortunately an all-too-common consequence of repetitive 'overhead activity', such as serving and smashing in tennis, freestyle or butterfly swimming, bowling in cricket, javelin or baseball throwing and above-shoulder weight-training exercises. Yeah, there was overhead activity, but it was none of these choices. It was a 44-year-old woman whooping it up at a concert with her arms over her head for many, many songs. Ahem.


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