Saturday, 31 December 2011

С Новым Годом! Happy New Year!

It's 2012, year of the dragon. Russians do New Year rather than Christmas (hangover from Soviet times, I believe), and it's a strange fusion of East meets West. Go into any supermarket and you'll find inflatable santas, overpriced trees and the usual array of decorations, except in addition there are bloody dragons everywhere, on boxes of sweets, on baubles and above the bold English words 'Merry Christmas' on doormats. Russia clearly has something of an identity crisis going on. The semi festive atmosphere did, however, make me pretty eager to get home, and come the 17th of December I was packed and more organised to go than I ever have been. Typically this is when Firdaus decided to be a really awesome host again, and cooked the best dinner of the entire stay, forced wine down our throats and gave us 'Russkii balsam'- a blend of herbs, spices and fruits, apparently. Pretty potent herbs it seems, judging by the 42% alcohol content label printed on the side. She, rather awkwardly, told me RSD was in disbelief at the amount of destruction I could cause (the mirror, incidentally, was sent to be recut and is now a nice wavy pattern), insisted on trawling through every photo on my facebook, telling me off for looking healthy in some of them and not now (ta, Firdaus) and gave something of an opinion on the election results - No, she didn't vote for Edinaya Rossiya, but what alternative is there to Putin? Cue extreme confusion over her having had 20 odd Edinaya Rossiya calendars in the kitchen a while back.
Going home was a lengthy process. Up at 5ish, train at 7.15, in Moscow at 11.15, tube to another station, station to the airport. Then about 4 hours waiting just for check in to open and another 3 or 4 to get on the plane. Just after having passports stamped and visas checked, getting ready to scan everything, we freaked. A Russian man in uniform and hat approached us. 'Devushki'.  Crap. Convinced we were about to be thrown out of the airport to stay in Russia over Christmas (they know it's more of a punishment than being kicked out), I panicked. Scary official guy starts talking, mentions a journey on the train to Yaroslavl, and we realise that it's the same man we met on the train back from Moscow when I went to the hospital. Awesome. My suspicions at his checking my passport on the train to see 'if he had stamped it' were clearly unfounded. He was rather pleased to see us, and we were rather relieved to be allowed through security. Was a bit odd he actually recognised us, but hey, being English makes you a celebrity there. It was a nice end to the trip, especially the not geting arrested bit.

So, after a 4 hour flight on which the best meal I'd had in 4 months (no joke-beef lasagne ftw) was served, I was back in England. Tip- If you are ever delayed and circling Heathrow on the way back from Yarosavl (as you often are), spotting football pitches and marvelling at real motorways will fascinate you. We had to stop for salt and vinegar crisps on the way back-Russia hasn't caught on to the wonder that is them, nor prawn cocktail, then I made a massive fuss over seeing my dog, who has managed to lose her sight and hearing since I've been away. Then I vaguely said hello to my Mum, who, as she still possesses all her senses (arguably), was not as interesting.
In quick succession followed:
Drinking from the tap
Running (once) up the stairs to prove that my house actually had them
Eating real cottage cheese
The best shower ever
A real bed with a real mattress
Being told off for not saying please and being too abrupt. Russia has had its effects.
Blackout and sleeping the night through for the first time in months.

Anyway, I did have somewhere I was going with this, but honestly, I got distracted by flashmob videos on youtube. I'm sorry...
The gist is, that it's good to be back home. And it's good to be able to understand everything that people say to you. And it's good not to feel like a bit of a burden all the time. But Russia is still fairly cool. In small doses. And I will be going back besides Petersburg. Good times.


Sunday, 4 December 2011

The rise of the Babushki, a sprinkling of снег and 14 days left

2 weeks til I go hoooooome! I haven't been counting until now, because I haven't been particularly desperate to get home, but seriously, it's time.
I have spent most of the last two weeks in bed. Every so often my body goes into complete meltdown and refuses to work, (more so than usual) and so I have been passing the time in a blur of neuralgia, exhaustion, weird burning and numb patches and insomnia. One day, my doctors might figure out what is going on, but until then, Russia or not, I take regular breaks from functioning. Normally I just get on
with it, but Firdaus is being a bit...babish. That is, she's nagging and being annoying in the manner of a babushka. I've lost count of how many times she's been told I need to be left alone to sleep and that I'm fine, but she doesn't listen and continues to annoy Hannah asking about me and lying about how she's being phoned by uni every day to ask where I am. Weirdly, she then said I don't like her partner (or possibly that he doesn't like me, Hannah was confused with the grammar)...which is true either way, but it's definitely him scowling and refusing to speak to me which has led to me disliking him. He makes me feel distinctly uncomfortable. Noob. It's ok, soon I'll be in England, where I can understand everything and sleep in my own bed and eat food that isn't fried or covered in dill. Steamed brocolli. Parnsips. Chive cottage cheese. This is my current craving. Mm.

Dill. Ketchup for Russians.
On the subject of food, Firdaus is currently doing her head in over the fact I refuse to eat her's. The compromise she came up with was that she'd just cook lots of veg for me, but when I eat vegetables, I prefer them as the main component rather than as a side to 10 gallons of oil. There is nothing her frying pan can't tackle. Pancakes for breakfast one morning? Leftover gets made into blinochki s tvorogom (tvorog wrapped in blini) and refried the next morning! Whenever she proudly announces that something is 'tatarskii!' you know there's going to be something of an oil waterfall going on when you pick it up. Pizza for breakfast is an interesting one too, but I have yet to work out the reason for smearing mayo all over the base. There's been cake for breakfast too, but Russian cake often seems to be a block of cream with a few biscuity/spongey things poked in at random.
There is also a bizarre amount of corriander used in soup, especially in solyanka, which is a mix of every kind of meat you can fit in the pot, mixed with cabbage. Except that Firdaus uses 5 kinds of kolbasa and, according to my analysis of the wikipedia picture, about 10 times too much corriander. And then there is dill. If a meal is to be complete, there must be liberal sprinklings mountains of the stuff all over everything, and in everything. Who wouldn't be ecstatic to find secret dill pockets in their extra dill topped pizza base?! However we have found that the hypermarket Globus serves amazing spaghetti bolognaise, so long as you factor in the time spent de dilling it. Totes worth it though.

Ok I'll stop whinging about the food, RSD and health now.
On to Babushki!
Firstly, can I just make it abundantly clear that this should be pronounced babushki. Screw you Kate Bush for spending 10 weeks in the charts slaughtering the pronunciation for everyone.

An informative definition, including a lovely illustration
 for your comprehension benefit. Note that I
am referring to definition 2.
Russian Babushki are an interesting breed. Described as the 'Russian national treasure' by several Russians I know, they are simultaneously acknowledged to be terrors. These old women (the word Бабушка/babushka means grandmother) are a force to be reckoned with. I've had a few run ins with babushki, most revolving around public transport. Most recently one launched an attack on my arm because I refused to let go of the rail on the bus when she wanted to get through. Aside from the fact that you could have got a small herd of elephants through the gap at which she was protesting, I have a suspicion that the bus driver had bribed someone for his license, and I refuse to risk another Russian hospital visit because of broken limbs just to appease some insane bab. I would have let go when the bus stopped, it's not as if it the half a metre to the door which she had to traverse would have been overly taxing for her, but the swearing and attempts to de-arm me awoke my stubborn streak, so I just looked at her a little amused...or bemused..I'm not sure which it was. You are supposed to ask if people are getting off at the next stop on transport here (as the much younger woman did to me afterwards, well done her)so there's no pushing through, but babs are immune it seems.

I've observed them legging it down a road to catch the bus faster than I ever could, push their way through the crowd to get on first and on discovering all the seats to be full, develop some hyper onset crippling disease which severely limits their ability to walk or stand (someone should really look into this disease, I suspect a diagnosis of lyingcowovitis). Then they stand in front of you, staring as you feebly tighten your grip on whatever heavy shopping your visibly exhausted self has sitting on your lap, eyes desperately searching the ground to avoid theirs which you can feel boring their way into your brain, locating the bit responsible for guilt, and twisting it until you haul yourself up and squeeze past so they can take your seat. Lyingcowovitis is often characterised by a relay effect, in which the original affected bab gets off after only one stop and another gets on only to be immediately struck by the disease. Effects on those who surround the afflicted include extreme rage and expletive filled muttering whilst struggling to keep the smetana from being jolted out of the shopping as the bus/trolleybus/marshrutka collides through the streets.

Your typical babushka. I doubt I need to translate, but:
'Parasite, give babushka your seat!'
Note the emty seats all around
And the running shoes
And the grievous bodily harm.
Yeah, Babushki. -_-

I swear I'm not bitter.

And after that massive whinge...CНЕГ! 

I shall leave you with the snow. It's mild here (-4ish generally, sometimes drops but always seems to pick up again) and the snow hasn't really settled, but when it does, it is fun to play in it :)

Nice and calm, making footprints in fresh snow
Hannah, less calm, more yetti, also making footprints 

Being Masha, the Yaro Bear

One minute I was happily standing on my snow mountain
The next I was a bit stuck.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Looking in looking out

I've never felt particularly at ease in the early hours. I jump at shadows, I create monsters out of dark shapes and I door watch. I know what I'm watching for and I know it won't come, but I still watch. Utterly exhausted and suffering from excruciating sears of pain through my body, it would be appreciated if my brain would stop working overtime and let me sleep, but it doesn't relent often. I stand at the window most nights, looking out over the yard and observing the occasional car pull in, its occupant dragging himself out and trudging through the ice towards the block. Nobody looks happy here. There just seems to be, within so many people, some kind of deep melancholy which I can't quite place. Not the stereotypical 'Russians don't smile', but something that runs a little deeper.
Everything is grey. Everything is hard work. There's little pay off.

Walking along streets, through corridors of old women selling their recent picks of grubby vegetables, sat on ever softening old cardboard on pavements becoming increasingly slushy from ice and snow, I feel uncomfortable sometimes. There is an old woman who sits on a chair in the same spot every day, outside a market, an ancient weighing scale at her feet, and sometimes a few pairs of knitted mittens to offer. There are more who sit in their spots holding out tins with signs next to them. In Moscow people sit on the metro steps, filthy in the below freezing temperatures with their hands feebly stretched out, blending into the walls as more fortunate people stride by on their business. In Uglich, a small, wrinkled woman followed our group around showing us 'postcards' she had cut from a pack, selling them for 5 roubles each.

Everything is so pretty in the sunlight, imposing Soviet grey buildings look grand and full of historical interest, mildy painted pastel town halls are pretty and babushkas offering up their jars of pickles seems sweet and almost whimsical. But now it's grey and cold, everything is starting to assume an oppressive tint. I hurry through streets to the warmth of home and ignore the babushki and the old woman with her tin, still in their places, unable to move. I resent the bland buildings blending into the snow filled sky, creating a bleak scene as far as the trudge home stretches. My legs protest from the cold and seize up once I'm indoors as punishment for attempting to live here.
It's not even December. This is not a forgiving country. I knew that. But standing here now, it appears worse looking out than it did looking in.

I think it will be quite nice to go home after all.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Procrastination. It follows me like the plague. (Maybe I should drink some tea...)

*Apologies for lack of photos. With the impending internet apocalypse nothing wants to upload*

You know what's really rubbish about living here? Once you've got past the initial 'WOOOO I'M IN RUSSIA EVERYTHING'S REALLY EXCITING' phase, everything becomes normal. And that is why I am sat here writing this when I have a list of things to do that just keeps growing. As hopeful as I was that cold weather would put it off, (no pun intended) procrastination follows me wherever I go. I can't quite accept that I should be getting stressed over work here, it doesn't feel right. However, I have masses of a year abroad project to write, 2 (newly announced as assessed) pieces from 'СМИ'  (Some utterly useless subject on which I refuse to write any more for fear of getting too angry and smashing something) and a test in grammar on everything up to reading week.

 I also need to reply to an email from a Russian, in Russian-and that means I actually have to attempt to write correctly, as opposed to, 'let's put a 'ski' or an 'ov' on the end of that English word, that'll make it sound more Russian, sure they'll get my drift' . And wash my hair. And, most likely within the next few hours, buy a new modem, because my internet is due to die today, and I will be devastated. I don't like to dwell too much on what will happen if it does and I don't get new internet today, but I imagine it will be somewhat akin to life in the dark ages. Admittedly, I think of the dark ages and conjure up apocalyptic images of horsemen and lava (I may have my historical events mixed up a wee bit here, one being based in the 10th century, and one being a biblical nonsense of what is to come), but I think it's quite clear that without internet (read: google translate) I am likely to fall into some sort of major depression. I envision myself rocking slowly back and forth in a corner of the room, spattering out Russian cases, interspersed with the odd frantic (incorrect), recitation of verbs of motion. Behind the tv, most likely. That's about the only spot the frickin cat has not messed all over. God I hate Rizhik.

Firdaus' daughter is home at the moment. She came home from uni early, and is now staying past the end of her holiday. Firdaus is clearly incredibly fed up of her. As is Russian Step Dad. And Hannah. But she's going soon. Next week for definite. Probably.

I should probably explain the family.

Exhibit A: Firdaus. Head of some cultural whatsit group, constantly rushing around as if she's late for something, almost always on the phone, has road rage. Has a partner: Russian Step Dad/Mogamed. Enjoys frying things and talking at the speed of light. Nice. Thinks every health issue is caused by open windows or drinking яд (yad- poison) ie Coke. Our influence for now referring to every fizzy drink as 'yad' or, if we are feeling healthy, 'yad light'. Has the audacity to preach this whilst wearing a top on which a pepsi bottle is printed.

Exhibit B: Mogamed. I only knew of him as Russian Step Dad (RSD) until Hannah told me his real name. This doesn't stop me from calling him RSD (not to his face, obvs, although he wouldn't understand anyway, and doesn't talk to me, either). Asked Hannah to get me to bring hearing aid batteries from home for his brother. Visits at awkward times, has a strange accent (this from the foreigner who can barely string a sentence together in Russian) loves Hannah and ignores me. Redeeming feature: Fixes the light bulbs in my room on the many occassions Russian electricity kills them. Also fixed the curtains when I managed to break the rail.

Exhibit C: Nadia. Firdaus' daughter, at uni in Kazan (apart from now). Apparently shares a room with 2 or 3 other girls at uni and generally doesn't get a great deal of privacy by the sound of it, so is taking full advantage of being home and Firdaus doing everything for her. Plays her music very loudly and irritates Hannah, being in the next room to her. Enjoys 'House'. Especially enjoys that Firdaus does not like this 'foreign series'. Is actually very nice apart from this.

Exhibit D: Rizhik. Depressed cat. Ginger. Makes unnatural meowing sounds. Scratches at my door and jumps on my bed, scratches and meows obnoxiously when I kick him out. Known as a 'hooligan' by Firdaus, who thinks that despite his unpleasant behaviour, everyone loves him. (She's wrong).

As host families go, I think it's a pretty decent situation. It would be nice if Firdaus didn't try to force tea down my throat at every little sniffle (cure for everything here - London wouldn't have suffered half as much if Firdaus had been there with a samovar during the plague) and if there wasn't something going on that we can't quite figure out, but which upsets Firdaus massively. Her and RSD sometimes have massive fights and usually she ends up crying her eyes out. Hasn't really happened since Nadia has been home, probably because there have been arguments between her and Firdaus/RSD instead, but I'm sure they'll resume. Nay mind, it occupies us when attempting to guess what is going on at any rate.

Firdaus was most excited to hear that we were going to Uglich yesterday (yes, again, but this was a trip with uni. We were assured there would definitely be several churches and no reporters this time). We were all cultured up and somehow I managed to recall first year history and know exactly what was going on in most of the paintings we saw in churches and museums. The guide even had a sense of humour, adding at one point that, 'we do, after all, live in a relatively free country'. It was a fairly amusing tour anyway, given that much of it centred around Ivan the Terrible, who did some pretty unbelievable things, but the sometimes slightly awkward english of the guide helped, when, for instance, she talked about how he had a 'mentally insane son, if it is ok to say so'...well, no, it isn't really, but you're lols Irina so do go ahead.

*Please imagine photos of pretty church like things here. An iconastasis is always nice.*

There are 40 days until I go home. Might change it to a few days earlier, just because of practicalities - things aren't easy to organise when you land on the evening of the 23rd, and I have no idea how my Father is going to buy any presents without me there, but that is yet to be seen, and might require a trip to Moscow just to check if there are any seats on planes which are in the right category, which is a bit of an effort. It would have been so much easier to have booked the flight myself in hindsight; cheaper and easier to change flights, but meh. We'll see.

Also, the year abroad tutor is coming to see us on Thursday. This means I have less than a week in which I must avoid falling ill/injuring myself. If it doesn't snow again, I stand a good chance. Somehow I fell over last week, and I swear there wasn't even any ice. The Russians looked at me with disgust. Score. So, despite my ever protesting nervous system protesting more than ever (woo word play!), I feel I deserve to be smug at this upcoming meeting, so long as I can avoid any medical catastrophes. Ura!

I am going to wash my hair now. Slowly working up the things to do list, least important first.
Oh dear.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Москва (Moskva)

First of all: Apologies for whatever the hell I am actually writing, I don't check it. My new medication is making me a little...woozy. I am incapable of condensing anything also, excuse the length. My brain extends its sincere thanks to you for your understanding.

Whilst I can't be certain that my Russian is improving, my procrastination skills are surely of Masters level at least by now. The year abroad project is on my mind. 6000 words on Soviet cartoons seems kind of slightly impossible and scary at the moment, so I have been keeping busy doing anything to avoid it. Ill most of the week, I managed to legitimately sleep away most of the worry, but yesterday I needed to get a little more creative. So, I bought a Toy Story 3 drawing pad. And some felt tips. This is to accompany my Winnie the Pooh jigsaw puzzle and Sims 3. I actually bought the puzzle quite a while ago, but I forgot that being colour blind hinders me somewhat and it's proving a little difficult to get all the pieces with straight edges grouped...

 We also visited a church, mainly to get in from the cold, but it was pretty all the same. Lots of gold sparkly things. And a coffin. With somebody in it. Having seen the gold casket shaped thing with the lid open from the other side of the room, I probably should have known better than to go and look, but there you go. Was in such a rush to back off that I didn't even glance at the sign next to it to decipher who this poor person was. Unpleasant. Thankfully, you can swear without people understanding, so I wasn't kicked out for insulting the Russian Orthodoxy people. I'd made the effort to bundle my hair into my hat, even it made me resemble an egg, so I would have been a bit put out if I had been thrown out for being a bit taken aback by the corpse just chilling in the corner.

Looks more like a casket now...
The Assumption Cathedral (New)
Originally built in the 17th century, destroyed
by the Soviets in the 1930s (what noobs). Apparently
12 metres higher than the previous building.

Yaroslavl has felt much smaller since we got back from Moscow. Admittedly, the place is fairly gargantuan, everywhere feels massive regardless of where you are there, so it is a poor comparison, but the weekend of everything being so Western spoiled us.
This weekend was rather impromptu, due to a sudden doctor's appointment being needed at an American hospital there (thanks very much drug addicts of Russia for landing my medication on the illegal list) and the train I needed to get being the next day. Deciding to make an outing of it, Hannah joined me and Firdaus walked us to the bus stop to get to the station the next morning. Just after making a comment over me being the reason Hannah wasn't taking part in the competition (again), the bus came. Fortunate timing.

Boarded the train and found ourselves sitting in the same section as a lovely gentleman still in his pyjamas from the overnight journey, eating a hunk of tuna directly from the tin. With his hands.  Thank god it wasn't as hot as the train last year in Petersburg, would have been disgusting. He turned out to be quite nice, in fairness, and gave us both the bottom benches for the entire journey, while taking the upper for himself.

4 and a half hours of listening to small children singing the Krokodil Gena song 'Goloboy Vagon' later (not grating on the ears at all, in fact that one tone deaf boy's yelling really added to the pure torture cultural experience),  we found our way to the metro. This is massive (I think most things in Moscow are) and took some navigation thanks to the many perekhodi (like station interchanges you walk) but the stations are ornate, so the trip wasn't too bad. Needed a sleep but after a couple of hours in the hostel I dragged myself out with Hannah to meet up with our friend from uni who is currently in Moscow, who said she'd show us the big touristy spots in central Moscow.

Bolshoi Theatre. Before we realised what it was.
 We managed to accidentally find the Bolshoi Theatre on our quest to get to the right metro. Standing by a very big white building, I commented on the ticket office for the theatre. Then wondered aloud where the theatre could possibly be. Had Hannah take a picture of me outside the pretty white building. Saw the metro stop was 'Teatralnaya'. Realised I am quite blonde. Sad times.
Down the train wagon

We saw Stalin and Lenin and wandering around in the metro...

 Turns out that our friend doesn't know Moscow too well. But it was ok, detours only served as opportunities for weird Russians to ask for photos with her. Am quite sure that, in the eyes of Russians, all black people have just been washed up on their shores in their hollowed out canoes, ready to perform native tribal dances and be amazed at the advanced and great nation that is Russia. Drunks holding philosophical Dostoyevsky centred conversations with statues of clowns (I wish I'd taken a photo), electricity outside and even their own special form of democracy...ish-elections and all.
What happens when it rains?

She takes it very well. I don't know anybody else who would turn the semi racist attention into a lucrative business opportunity. Although apparently she hasn't been asked for photos since Petrozavodsk, when I spent much time dragging her away from abusive drunks, in the short time we were there, twice people approached asking for photos. And twice, she attempted to charge for them. Made somewhat less successful due to actually asking 'skolko stoit?', which actually means 'how much does it cost?', but did lead to entertainingly confused Russians. The gap in the market is most definitely there. 70 roubles per photo seemed a potentially extremely profitable gap, from last year's experience.
It's ok so long as the interest is genuine. Russians are curious people, asking more questions than perhaps would be deemed polite at home, but there is, without a doubt, much genuinely racist feeling here too, from observing people's reactions. Dear Russia, there are other countries in the world that are not you, with people who are foreign. Sometimes these foreigners are even quite educated. Go learn. I don't get abuse for walking down the road. Only when I open my mouth at the supermarket...   (Massive generalisation. ish. Most young people are pretty open to us being long as you're skin tone matches theirs...)

Standard trip around GUM (Massive and very expensive shopping mall in Red Square), grumbling over the masses of scaffolding and barriers around the Kremlin and St Basils Cathedral which ruined photo opportunities. All this followe by a trip to Burger King. We're so cultured.
Slightly ironical that Lenin is lying by a rather extreme form of capitalism*, McDonalds, anyone? GUM had nothing in it during Soviet shortages. Doesn't have that issue now...

Just by the Kremlin


*He's still in his mausoleum...not like, just having a little lie down amongst the tourists on Red Square. Poor guy wanted to be buried next to his Mother. What a smack in the face.

It should maybe have seemed a little stranger that we were all meeting up in Russia after not seeing eachother for at least 6 weeks (and since the end of last term for me), but nope. Sat around discussing our respective hosts and their bizarre habits, felt grateful to Firdaus for not presenting me with a cheese sandwich and exactly 8 pieces of pelmeni every morning. It feels a bit like they're our pets our something.

We found ourselves wandering round looking for shampoo that night at about 11, and had to settle on an apteka (chemist) which, while open at night, required you to knock at the little hatch window and explain what you want. Pre-conversation briefing to figure out what to say naturally went to pot when the chemist asked something unexpected, but got the shampoo in the end. I have now conquered the scary windows. Success! And it meant I wasn't too manky for the hospital the next day. People who pay stupid money for an appointment do not have greasy hair.

Skimming over the apointment (which lasted over 2 hours, thanks very much extreme stress and initial blood pressure over 185/130-surely I should have been dead?), we went to Park Pobedy and found an awesome war museum which had free entry for students. Score. Totally recommend this place, the monument outside was huuuuuge, the park has to be beautiful in Summer (we were freezing so I'm not sure I appreciated it quite so much-first snow that day) and the museum is full of lovely old babs who actually want you to be there and don't bark at you when ask where the toilets are. (Don't use them though. I'm not entirely sure why they were asian style...).

Archway by park Pobedy
Museum of the Great Patriotic War
Hall of glory, with names of Russia's war heroes.

The usual eternally burning flame

We found an ad for an Indian restaurant in the Moscow Times. No metro stop info though, just a vague area and 'opposite the Belarussian embassy'. We wanted curry. Quite a lot. Therefore, we decided to just roll on up at Kitai-Gorod metro stop and wander around, in the dark, until we found it.
It took some time, but we got our curry.
Slightly bizarre being greeted in Russian and switching between English and Russian to order and speak to the waiters, but the food was amazing. Full of expats, very expensive, totally worth it.
I have considered that it might be a little wrong that an Indian restaurant can feel so much like England. But then I dismissed it, because I freaking LOVE curry.

There were a couple of blokes from Scotland behind us and
a table full of Americans and English to the right.
At least one token Russian family, too.

Oh, and they had real hot towels at the end. I needed a flannel. I normally 'borrow' a glass from restaurants. I borrowed the towel this time. Score.


Kleptomaniac tendencies satisfied and it being the last day, we went to a shopping mall called MEGA. The name might give it away-it was big. And Western! M&S, anybody? We spent all day there - I will never buy leggings from anywhere but Berska, now; new discovery - until it was time to get the train back (where we were total celebrities just for being English), arrived back at Yaroslavl Glavniy Station, waited for a bus that never came and got a taxi home by midnight.

I should explain that I am not yearning to go home, at all (but I wouldn't say no to a Sunday Roast). However, Russia is very....Russian. And sometimes, it's nice to take a break from it. Which takes us right back to the start of this iliad of an entry. Moscow is great for a break, but I'm not sure what the value of the constant Westernisation would be to me. Waitresses tend to practise their English on us here in Yaro, but otherwise, nobody speaks it. We are forced into the culture. Moscow just seems too vast for me, I wouldn't know where to start with it and it would be oh so very easy to opt out of Russian entirely. The year abroad tutor likes Moscow a lot, but I'm glad I didn't listen to her. Yaroslavl was definitely the right choice for me.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Bin ballet, talent shows and depressed bears.

Ok, I feel I should write in more detail about what has happened this past month, however, I am ill, on some wonderfully exhausting new pills and I just can't be arsed. So.

The first thing people seem to ask when they talk to me, is not how I am, how I'm coping or how I've remained out of hospital for this long, but what the weather is like. Being English, I can accept this, but really people, a full 5 weeks with no hospital, some acknowledgement please!

The heating came on a few weeks ago, when we were still easily into double figures temperature wise. Russia is keen to show off it's heating capability, clearly, only we can't control the radiators, so we boiled for a while. Sleeping with one window open as a precaution to avoid death by roasting was not approved of by my host. Firdaus now attributes every little cough and sneeze to the fact that, in 17 degree heat, with radiators on of a higher temperature, I dared to let in a bit of a breeze.
Russia is a nation of hypochondriacs-there's a chemist on every corner to deal with all of their non existent ailments. For example, if one happens to sit on a concrete floor, you will become infertile. If, in 30degree heat, a drink stored in the fridge seems appealing, think again, because you'll promptly be struck down by pneumonia if you fall for that one. Of course, everything can be fixed with tea. So my host was not exactly pleased when I failed to give in to her constant pressure to drink tea and close the window. She even seemed to take pleasure in the fact that I was having nightly battles with mosquitoes that had got in. One night I swatted one, and MY blood exploded from the bloody thing. God I hate them so much. However, the insect guards have been removed from the windows now and replaced with very thick nets and curtains, so I guess they've all been killed off in the cold.


Anyway, it's cold enough for me to have the window closed at least 50% of the time now. It's generally around 4degrees during the day, which is fine so long as there's no wind, in which case I don't fare too well. The nerves in my face dislike cold wind. Must buy a balaclava. I rarely go anywhere without a massive scarf and hat anyway, just in case. The first snow fell on Saturday, although I missed it, being in Moscow freezing in Park Pobedi instead. Apparently the snow might not settle until mid December, if that. So there you have it people, Russia is not just one big blizzard all year round. Sorry.


The topic that crops up after the disappointment following the revelation that I'm not frolicking around in Christmas card scenes and making snow angels 24/7 (like I ever frolic anywhere), is class. I started out getting up at 7am, and we'd be out at 8.30. Nowadays, I tend to set the alarm for 7.30, skip breakfast and roll out of bed somewhere around the 7.50 mark. Still manage to get out for about 8.30...ish...only it does mean that mornings are turned into something of an obstacle course attempting to dodge Firdaus when she yells at me for not eating again. Then there is the daily bin run on the walk in. Russian flats don't seem to have bins. It's an issue when your room is full of pepsi cans, crisp packets and (in my case) several 5litre water bottles. So in the mornings we cross onto the long island which runs in the middle of the road-just has trees and benches, a couple of bins, and in a beautifully synchronised display, we each branch off to either side and place our bags into the bins. We do have to be a bit careful because, although we're doing nothing wrong, we are doing nothing wrong in front of a police station.
Howevs. One day last week, there was a woman with a face like a duck watching us. I was not in a good mood. So we did our olympic standard synchronised bin ballet and rejoined in the middle, and she decides it's her place to whinge at us. Waited until we were a little closer of course, so as not to strain her duck bill, and then launches into an aggressive rant about why we couldn't just have done that in our own houses and blah blah blah. I could have responded by telling her that we'd done nothing wrong. Bins are bins, we'd only put in small bags, even in Russian law she'd have a hard time finding something against us. But I didn't. I responded in English, and kept it very short and to the point. Shan't repeat, but I think she understood.

On to the walk in, we pass a jail, and that's the only road we don't dare to cross without the nice little green man telling us we can. Then eventually we reach uni. It's generally tropically heated, so it is necessary to strip your layers off as soon as you've tackled the masses of stairs, and then classes start at 9.10.  Or they would do if, tragically, the teachers gained a better sense of timekeeping. I'm not complaining. 4 lessons of 50 minutes, some double. Translation is dire, Russian Media (SMI) is just bleh, Analytical reading is ok, so is grammar and Speaking is awesome. The teacher is pretty much the definition of cool and I think I may have a girl crush on her, as do many people apparently. She looked a bit like Peter Pan the other day, and that's all I see now, but still. I like the blue in her fringe.
Translation teacher longs for a return to the Soviet Union and will go off on one for most of the lesson if you ask the right questions, hates supermarkets and loves fish. Did you know you can tell a good fish from the colouring under its....well....that bit under its, the chin bit?
No, neither did I. And you can only possibly know that if you lived in Soviet times because there was no other meat and ingredients were extremely limited (and obvs that's a great selling point)But I can't stand fish, so clearly I wouldn't have done well in the good old USSR.

I spend quite a lot of my time in class doodling. The workbooks here are all checked rather than lined, and they're just screaming to be coloured in. But I get by. I'm certain I haven't made any progress at all, and my memory is akin to a sieve, which makes it difficult to retain any new vocab, but the class here is so much nicer than my class in Birmingham and the teaching is different, which does seem to sit well with me.
It is, of course, all in Russian, too. Depending on the day, lesson and my mood, this is both a good and bad thing. Overall, it's all good.

The talent show

You'd have thought, after Uglich, we'd learn. However when Firdaus burst in to tell Hannah that she had an invitation for her to take part in a 'festival' in which she'd dress up as a 'traditional english girl' (fake burberry and pregnancy stomach sprang to mind), Hannah did not say No. She said maybe, which, with a personality as strong as Firdaus', is a yes. It started off that she'd just stand there in a pretty dress which we'd find in the theatre. Then it progressed to cooking a dish from your country. Then there was talk of writing about your home. We had a little talk with Firdaus, who convinced Hannah that it was worth trying, and she'd be there the whole time.
So we went along to some offices where possibly the most beautiful women outside of the airbrushed magazine type we'd ever seen, were gathered to have their pictures taken, representing their individual countries. Naturally, Firdaus left us. She said she'd be with us. Such lies.

She isn't even from London...

So we take a look at the form that was shoved under our noses for Hannah to fill out. Education, achievements....talent....we looked at the top of the form, and there it was. The word 'Competition'. Not only that, the words 'Miss International Russia' were above the word 'competition'. Nice one Firdaus.
No choice but to go along with it, Hannah filled in the form as best she could, and we waited forever to have her pictures taken. Everyone else was seeeriously dressed up, and it didn't help that the Russians are the biggest posers ever-they seem to have an inherent ability for it. But finally we were called outside, and dragged around the estate we were on, Hannah made to pose ridiculously and throw leaves over herself because, apparently, that's what makes a good photo.
Chucking leaves at her face

When it was finished, we ran away and went to McDonalds. Lols.
A second little talk with Firdaus resulted in her lecturing us on 'the lessons of life' and how we musn't be scared to do these things. Plus, it was ok for Hannah to do it because last year's winner wasn't even pretty, she only won because she put lots of international flags in her cake!
Of course. She even asked if I wanted to do it. I indicated that I would rather not, thanks all the same...
So we agreed she would try and if she really didn't want to do it, that would be it, no questions asked
Firdaus is a MASSIVE liar.

We went to a rehearsal one night with all the other girls. Firdaus stayed this time. I sat there loling to myself whilst watching everyone being assigned positions and reading out their pieces (Hannah didn't have one-Firdaus hadn't told her this) and practising their walks and god knows what else. At the end of this, we were introduced to the man in charge of everything. Somewhat bizarrely, he said, 'Oh, you are english?! You speak english?! Let's undress!' and proceeded to pull at his collar as if he was going to strip.
Russians. Who knows.

That night, Hannah had resolutely decided there was no way she would be doing this competition. There are many reasons behind this, but fear was not really one. She simply didn't want to. So, with carefully rehearsed speech, she went to Firdaus. Who laughed. And said that she hadn't tried. Then blamed me for Hannah not wanting to, and asked what I'd said to her, and told me it was between Hannah and herself when I pointed out that actually, Hannah just didn't want to do it.
I may not have the best Russian, but it doesn't stop me getting massively pissed off at people and showing it. Hannah eventually left the room practically crying, while I stayed to deliver evil looks and tell Firdaus that she wasn't scared, and well done because she'd made her upset.
Hannah and I then ate cake. Quite a lot of cake.

It was unfortunate timing that Firdaus decided to offer something of an apology as I was sat with my roll cake, knife and fork in hand to cut a slice, looking like I was about to nom down the entire thing.
But she did say that if Hannah really didn't want to, she didn't have to (adding in some things about how disappointed her family would be blah blah) and that was that.
Except she does fully blame me, apparently.

Then Hannah and I went to Moscow for the weekend so I could see a horribly expensive private doctor. But it's too much effort to write about that right now. Maybe next time.

Must make my room resemble less of a tip now.

Here are some pictures from a depressing zoo I went to. Just to make up the picture count.

Depressed bear.

Don't do it.

So not a fan of zoos.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

A series of unfortunate Uglich related events

Uglich. Google it and you'll find such descriptions as 'quaint', 'undiscovered gem' and 'full of medieval charm', presumably referring to its many churches and history dating back to the time of Ivan the Terrible. So when my host asked (read: guilt tripped) us to go with her on Saturday, we agreed. Since there was mention of the broken mirror it seemed only right. We brought forward a trip to Vernisazh, the shopping mall we were due to visit (and so got the massive excitement of finding an Accessorize -there was jumping and squealing with joy- and the lols of a 'papa potatoes' in the food court, early) and dealt with the news we'd have to get up at 6am in a less than dignified way, dragging our exhausted selves from bed on the day devoted to lying in bed until some time in the pm.

Reliably informed by Firdaus that the coach would be large and comfortable enough to sleep on, we tried to keep up on the longer than we were told walk to where we'd be picked up. Nobody else was about and we fully expected to be boarding some kind of babushka day trip coach to see some orthodox churches. They would have bags full of dill, pickles and tomatoes. Hannah had even brought a scarf to cover her head just in case. At least it would be easy to sleep.

We heard the school kids before we saw them. A marauding group of 12 year olds came trooping towards us just as an empty coach pulled up. We decided that this was some kind of cultural school outing which we'd been roped into in order to make up numbers of adults. Firdaus seemed to be in charge at any rate, and proudly announced to the coach that 'These girls are ENGLISH!'.
Now, survival tactic number one for Russia, is to blend in as much as possible. Don't speak loudly in English, look as grumpy as everyone else and attempt to adopt their air of general cynicism and despair, resulting, one presumes, from the centuries of despotism, regular famines and corruption.
Firdaus blew this for us. Massively. So, headphones in, ignoring the yells of 'really?!' and random  Russian children leaning over to get a better look at us (Clearly they were expecting extra limbs or something, God knows what they teach them in these schools), we sunk into our seats ready to sleep for the next two hours.
10  minutes later, ten 8 year old girls get on. All with mobiles loaded with remixes of pop songs. So we sat there, increasingly aware that Firdaus' definition of 'comfortable' did not match our own, listening to the techno remix of Alejandro on repeat, disdainfully discussing the amount of make up with which this mass of miniature humanity was adorned.

On we travelled, with what we presumed was Yaroslavl's population of delinquents and future teen parents in addition to the adults we made another stop for. Honestly, I struggle to think of a time when I have been quite that confused. Neither of us had any idea of what was happening. This was not helped when, 2 1/2 odd hours later, we saw signs for Uglich and everyone started excitedly screaming out 'UGLICH!', only for us to drive right on through and out. This is where the confusion reached new levels. People were clearly expecting to go to Uglich. Russian people, who understand Russian, so we hadn't majorly messed up on the understanding part (this does happen- Hannah misused the 'laugh at the appropriate sounding moment' tactic when Firdaus announced it was the 10 year anniversary of her husband's death. Awkward.). The scenery began to look familiar. Maybe school trips in Russia consisted of going, looking, and coming back, never once leaving the coach. There were lots of school buses around driving through, For a good 15 minutes, we wondered aloud what the hell we were doing with our lives and wore the bemused look of confused foreigners world over.
And then there was the sign. We were going to a festival of cultures. Hurrah! We pulled up at a bleak looking field, surrounded by even bleaker looking woods. There was a little stall with a samovar and a shaslick stand, a stage and several rows of logs to sit on in front of it. Hurrah retracted, Hannah put her scarf for church visits round her neck and we sulkily shivered away, me glancing around for the wolf which was blatantly going to storm out of the forest at any moment to put an abrupt end to the weirdness that is my life. Prokofiev would be playing and all. (Go look up the Peter and the Wolf reference. I was terrified of wolves thanks to that throughout my childhood)

Wikipedia's Uglich

Our Uglich. Note the lack of *anything* except the lada.
Turns out that our host had practically organised and was taking part in this cultural dancing and performing festival, and the future teen parents were actually a dance group. Oops. The show was none too bad, although I should think that English health and safety would have something to say about the decibel level emitting from the speakers. In between acts, our host was being her usual awesome self, dancing away, grabbing the photographer and tv camera people to film her friends. I noted this camera from a distance with some apprehension, making a mental note to keep my distance.

Axe-brandishing performer
Traditional Russian people, doing traditional Russian stuff

Random Priest wandering around. Closest we got to any church  

See everyone's coats? That's because it was COLD. And the logs were so comfortable -_-

Firdaus is something of a mystery at times. She manages to move huge distances without anybody realising she's even gone, and the fact that her ringtone is from Harry Potter only supports my theory that she is, in fact, a licensed apparator. Dumbledore did say that skilled wizards can apparate "so suddenly and silently" that they seem to have "popped out of the ground". So there you have it, Dumbledore said it, Firdaus fits it, it must be so.
Must buy Harry Potter on dvd in Russian. (Incidentally, despite the fact they have a letter similar to 'H', Russia decided Harry was to be called 'Garry'. Disgraceful.)
This decidely supernatural ability was to our detriment when, out of nowhere, I spotted Firdaus marching purposefully towards us, tv camera and presenter hovering somewhere in the background. Grabbing Hannah, I start power walking desperately in the other direction. It was no good. Engaging her super speed mode, Firdaus caught up with us and dragged us towards the camera. My cries of 'Ya ne hochu' (I don't want to) were ignored, and we were pushed in front of the camera. Trying my luck at escaping, I pulled out of the picture, but was only shoved back in to the insistence of the camera man saying 'Together!!'

WHY nobody would listen to my repeated 'Mi ne govorim po russkii' (we don't speak Russian), is beyond me. I was once told that if the police approach you, you should, as a foreigner, say 'ya ne ponedilnik', meaning, I am not Monday, rather than 'ya ne ponimayu': I don't understand, in an attempt to make the policeman decide the effort of creating a charge on which to fine you isn't worth the effort.
With hindsight, perhaps this is what I should have done. It's all well and good having certain phrases off to an art, clumsily stumbling your way through an oral lesson about a man who thinks he is ill but is actually just in love (Props to our wonderful oral teacher, Jelena) but when you have a microphone shoved in front of your face, speaking spontaneously is a completely different matter.

                                                                     The Interview

The 'interview' went something like this:

Scene: Mid field, very cold, bit soggy
Atmosphere: General air of desperation and impending failure. Disbelief that our lives have come to this.

Hannah and me: *Exchanging awkward glances, uncomfortable shuffling*
Presenter: Ok, so what are your names? *Mic to Hannah*
Hannah: Hannah Vard (When in Russia, pronounce your name the German way, apparently)
Me: *Proudly says name in the most English accent possible*
Presenter: Ok, and you are both studying here? *Mic to both of us*
Hannah and me:  Mmhmm...
Presenter: *Pause to see if we were going to expand on that. Tense couple of seconds. Awkwardly retracts mic* Ok...and...what is your favourite part of this event (or words to that effect...or, something...) *Mic to Hannah*
Hannah: Umm....... *spark of genius*...*ish* Well we don't understand all the words, but we really like the singing! *smiley face*
Me: *Frantic nodding to signify my agreement and thus lack of need to ask me the same question*
Presenter: Uh huh, *Sticks mic under my nose*
Me: *Eyes glaze over in panic*
Presenter: And what do you like best of all about it?
Me: *Brain develops a gaping hole from which the entirety of my Russian promptly gushes out into the distance. Desperate look to Hannah* Erm. *Brain enters comatose state* Um. We like it, erm....when um...*Realisation I'm about to fail massively on Russian tv dawns* when the children dance. yes. especially.
Presenter: Right, I understand, you liked the children's dancing?
Me: *Closes eyes on hearing the correct conjugation of the verb* Da.
Presenter: Ok well thank you very much! *Says something else which my brain has blocked out*

We literally ran away. On reaching a safe distance, we stood. We looked at eachother. There was a combination of desperate laughter and near sobbing. Hannah asked WHY I chose a verb we couldn't conjugate? I pathetically explained that I couldn't think of anything that I did actually like best of all, we were supposed to be looking at churches!
Deciding that Firdaus had now lost awesome points, and that keeping as far from the tv at home as is possible was an absolute necessity, we moped a little more. Likelihood is that we'll be appearing on tv bloopers or some Russian equivalent in years to come. What in the hell had happened in our lives that we found ourselves in the middle of a field, giving a tv interview in Russia? What was it about us? We were interviewed last year in Russia too.

We like the children dancing.

What is my life?

We take a walk in an adjoining field to ponder on the disaster and cringe in peace, only to be attacked by an army of frogs. You don't realise quite how high they can jump until you're under siege from them. We scream. We run. We vow never to go near that field again and cringe some more.
Heart rates gradually returning to normal, we eye up the shaslick. It looks good and smells even better. Just as we start to walk over, Firdaus pops up from nowhere to tell us that it was time to eat, and to follow her. Straight through the frog battalion base.
The day was just one trauma after another, but bravely on we strode, because there was little else that could go wrong, really. Until we realised that the long table seating about 50 Russians, all in varying states of intoxication, was serving up fish soup. And by fish soup, I mean water with half a fish in it. Fortunately for me, who won't touch anything that has been in the sea/river/whatever body of water (unless it is prawn cocktail, in which case the prawns must not either look nor taste like prawns), I wasn't expected to endure this traditional delicacy. Hannah however, was handed a bowl. We sit down at the end of the table and examinine the contents. There it was. The head half of a silver fish, floating, its beady little fish eye staring blankly up at us.

She told me I would be eating it with her. I politely informed her that I would be doing no such thing, and cheerily settled down to observe. Hannah's year abroad project is Russian cuisine, what a perfect opportunity for some personal first hand observation!
Gutted I had to miss out on this delicacy

Hannah is clearly not very devoted to her project. 2 spoonfuls of the 'soup' and she hid the bowl behind someone else's, who had happily chomped it all down. Not even a tiny bite was taken from the sad little fish who had given its life to make an appearance in her bowl. Poor form, Hannah, poor form.
We did get some pictures, though, just to make it look like we'd made an effort. I happily munched away on the masses of tvorog and kolbasa while Hannah turned an unusual shade of green.
Toast no. 283

I love him.
More people joined our end of the table, including a particularly tipsy performer from earlier who kept berating us for not drinking more vodka. I liked his outfit. I especially liked the axe he was randonly brandishing on stage. We could use it when the wolf inevitably emerged from the trees looking for his supper. Toast after toast was made, even one which mentioned us as their 'foreign guests'-and the man seemed to have more understanding that we weren't going to quite get everything he was saying than did the earlier tv people, thankfully, so we got away with just grinning madly whenever he looked in our direction.

It started to get a little awkward being surrounded by so many Russians when we couldn't really join in, especially when one person said we didn't understand them and I, rather insistently, said that we did.
Whenever anyone asks if you understand, you say yes. This, whether you do or do not understand, is generally because you know the words to this question well, and are answering the immediate question of if you understand that phrase. We did not understand what was going on, but it did at least mean that there was no way they would talk about us while we were there.
Didn't want to get too close to it

There was more fish handed around. This time it was whole and quite blackened. We were given little napkins before as if we were going to get some birthday cake or something nommy, so it was major lols (for me) when this was presented---------------------->


More fish!

The next 45 minutes consisted of keeping eyes to the floor, Hannah pretending to eat the fish to avoid being told off by the Russians and muffled muttering to one another over the question of whether it was acceptable to leave the table. It was only when Firdaus announced everyone should go to watch the last act that we could make a run for it.
We ran past games that had been set up near the frog field, including the Russian version of welly throwing, which is the same, except with valenki- traditional felt boots. I particularly liked this, as I am not leaving the country without buying a pair. I have my eye on some with flowers embroidered on them.

Finally on to the bus. Ready to go home and take a bath, we were happy that the day was finally ending. Except that Firdaus announced that she would be staying to clear up and would meet us at home. Great. Ta Firdaus. But it was ok, we (Hannah) had a vague idea of how to get home from where we were picked up.
But that is not where we were dropped off. Last on the coach and pulling up outside the train station, we began to panic. A lady was asking us something and we weren't understanding. We think it may have been directions to where we wanted to go. There was something about the centre of town said. The driver refused. She got angry and shouted at him. We didn't know the directions to where we lived. Eventually we got off, simply because it seemed like the lady was saying we'd arrived where we said we wanted to be.

It's so full of highs and lows here that it's all a bit exhausting. On this particular day, though, it was driven home to me how vulnerable we are here and how little Russian we actually have. We did get home after a mile or so of walking, collapsing on the floor when we saw that Firdaus had, somehow, beaten us to it. Apparated again, most likely. Equally though it was simultaneously the most bizarre and best day I can remember. Russians are something to behold, their traditions are both insane and brilliant and the people outwardly are cold and impenetrable, much as the country is seen, yet persist a little and they are the warmest, most welcoming hosts you can imagine. Yes it's a little odd that babushkas randomly rummage through all the rubbish bins on their way down the streets, that there are soviet monuments and statues of Lenin placed next to modern building advertising the latest Western brands all over the place, that my translation teacher still yearns for a return to that era and there are politicians who promise free vodka and underwear for all if they are elected (Zhirinovsky, if you're interested), but that is the appeal of the place for me. It's totally politically incorrect and a law unto itself, and it really does need to be experienced.

I will still be staying away from the tv, though.

I like it when the children dance.


Sunday, 18 September 2011

Russia: The arrival

I don't even know where to start. I've been in Russia since Sunday, so 6 days, and it feels like I've been here months. I suppose the trip over would be a logical point from which to begin this post, but Russia is anything but logical and chaotic at the best of times. Nevertheless, I shall remain logical and split it into separate parts.

I had maybe 50 minutes sleep Sunday morning, and got up at 4am to leave at 5. My plane was delayed an hour, so I watched repeated images of planes plowing through the towers in New York on the news whilst waiting for my flight. We did eventually go, and the flight passed unremarkably. I watched Kung Fu Panda twice whilst everyone else was watching some kind of documentary, being the mature adult that I am. Arriving at Moscow, first impressions were based on the speed at which I got through security; about an hour faster than in Petersburg, and the utterly lovely Moscow RLUS rep who met me with her friend, who was equally lovely. There had been torrential rain for the past few days and it was no exception when I arrived- we got on a bus to the station and sat in heavy rush hour traffic, chatting away and watching the tops of buildings disappear into the oppressive grey sky.  Vic had decided a cheeseburger was very necessary so we dragged my massive cases through the lakes that were forming in the roads filled with aggressive drivers who held little regard for traffic lights.
We sat in McDonalds for quite a long time, Adrian being entertaining in the most endearing way possible. My shoes had actually dried by the time we left, heading straight back into the monsoon and down into the metro.

This was my first experience of the Moscow metro, and even in my horrendously sleep deprived state, it was easy to appreciate it. People talk about how ornate the stations are, and there were a few mosaics of Lenin to be found in the ceilings, but being a frequenter of the London underground system, I was more appreciative of the wide turnstiles and platforms.
Kupe (kupay) class
My train to Yaroslavl left at 9.15pm. Back out into the monsoon and running up the platform to wagon 10 whilst pulling out my passport and ticket, I regretted the sleep I had lost in favour of washing my hair. Turns out that I had a particularly nice cabin, essentially second class but practically first all things considered, so despite being soaked through the journey was comfortable. An elderly man sat opposite, quietly taking in the ridiculous soggy and flustered foreigner who had invaded his previously calm space. Abba was playing, as it always seems to be in Russia, and there was, much to my surprise, a flat screen tv. Another lady and a younger guy joined us, and the three eventually made up their beds and went to sleep.

The train was headed for Cherepovets, and would arrive at 4am, whereas Yaroslavl was the first stop in 4 hours time, so I couldn't really sleep. Bizarrely, it seemed entirely normal that I was lounging in a Russian sleeper train, in the middle of the night, on my own, surrounded by Russians. In fact even when I was met at the other end and bundled into a taxi driven by a man who was coughing up the contents of his tobacco stained lungs in my face, to my flat, I was totally calm. The Russian wasn't really an issue, I understood everything, which is a marked improvement on last year. It did of course  help that I knew what I was going into, and my friend had already been there for a week, so I had English speaking back up, but I have been very lucky with my hozyaika (landlady).

Firdaus is not Russian, as far as we can tell. She may have been born here, but her roots we think are Turkish. This makes her very laid back on top of the fact that she is just completely amazingly cool and lovely anyway. She has a cat called Rizhik, which is essentially 'Ginger', who she described to me as a 'hooligan', which he proved today by marking my suitcase. Bloody cats. But she wandered in to Hannah's room with him on her neck the other day and said 'Look! He's on my neck!!' and wandered out again. She is lols. The flat is not typically Russian, which is a good thing. The hallway is BIG, the furniture is new, the kitchen is fitted and everything matches. There isn't a rug on the wall in sight, and there's no corner for icons since she's muslim, though doesn't seem to be practising. Russian flats are a mismatch of everything, and the bathrooms are often a strange sight. Whilst I do find it endearing in a way, I like my comfort, so this place is perfect. I'll add pictures when the internet is feeling more cooperative.

I got out of the taxi and Firdaus came towards me, wearing a leopard print dressing gown with open arms and grabbed me with a loud 'HELLO!'. I instantly knew I'd hit the jackpot. I was fed mashed potato and sausage and tomato, and quickly got in that I don't like fish, which has saved me from a fishy dinner fate a few times already. Hannah had waited up but since it was 2am we only talked briefly before she went to bed and I collapsed in an exhausted heap into mine, not to wake again until almost 3pm.

Bit of a miracle I actually made it, but extremely glad to have survived to this point.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Fear

Emotionally, I'm pretty bi-polar. Yesterday I was ecstatic about going to Russia, due to receiving some rather awesome news about where I will be staying. Today however, I am hovering somewhere between the jittery nervousness and the scared shitless mark, to the extent that I've almost burst into tears several times, and am fairly certain I've developed lightspeed-onset hypertension. It is quite difficult to deal with, but google reliably informs me that cottage cheese is excellent for dealing with anxiety, so I have upped my daily intake to 2 tubs. This decision was purely health based, and not at all related to my ever strengthening addiction to the stuff, of course.

It's a bit stupid really, I was fine until I saw on facebook that my friend had said she was speaking Russian all the time at uni. I conveniently completely ignored the earlier part in which she declared 'I can't speak Russian!' and focussed my entire emotional energy (well now doesn't that sound pretentious? It must remain.) and self confidence on that second bit. We all know that Facebook is basically the Bible of teh interwebz and as such the only possible answer is that my friend has, in 2 days, become completely fluent in spoken Russian and has probably already landed a job in the vodka and potato industry whilst fitting in trips to the bank to finalise the mortgage on her apartment and dacha.
Perhaps she will be so kind as to give me a cleaning job where I can practise my case endings on her many bilingual children who will be speaking better Russian than me by age 2.

Oy. I need to switch my brain off.

The happier news is that it turns out I'm living with my friend who is already out there, so the extreme stress of getting lost (I have zero sense of direction, suspected dyspraxia or something I'm told, only I couldn't be arsed with paying £250 to get it officially diagnosed-I'll still get lost, lose my balance and say 'lawn the mow' instead of 'mow the lawn', just I'll have some kind of certificate to wave around to justify it) and general newby-ness should be lessened. I'm told it is 20 minutes to uni (in a straight line, hurrah!), next to a book shop, concert hall and chinese (I'm not sure I'm ready to tackle Russian restaurants just yet, had a bit of an embarrassing experience in the last one) and there is a cat. I shall stock up on allergy tablets. Love animals (more than people, often) and I did say I'd be ok with pets, but their fur hates me. The hoz is lovely and not insane, which is a massive bonus. Being with someone I'm friends with already (and she is very lovely) should make things less stressful health wise too, since she is used to my general state of wreckage and familiar with the lols of the Russian hospital system. Not a great deal of fun for her though, I suspect.

So this I am pleased about. I have been rasked to take over some cochlear implant batteries from a friend of the hoz, for their relative's friend...three times removed....or something. Bit ridiculous that you can get the hearing aids and implants in Russia, but not the replacement batteries. I never knew just how difficult it is to buy these batteries, but I'll get them. My flight is now Sunday at 9.15 am.
I am flying from the busiest airport in Europe, to Moscow, on the 10 year anniversary of 9/11.
Didn't ever suspect that would be the case 10 years ago, when my Dad walked in to find me sitting on the breakfast bar watching cbbc, looked at me, and asked 'you don't know, do you?'
I had dumplings for dinner that day, for the first time. Didn't like them. Strange memories.
I have some very clear memories of Russia last year, most being based in a neurological ward. One in a car, driving from the train station to my flat, with abba playing on the radio. That struck me as a little weird.

My visa invitation has yet to arrive. Tomorrow is Wednesday (ok, today. I'm nocturnal). We were told it would arrive Tuesday or Wednesday, so I'll have to be up in the morning and hope.
Then the fun of the visa agency.

I'm a little excited to see the security guard again.