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.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Russia is an A5 only country

Today (or yesterday, as it is now), I took a trip to the Russian visa agency in London. Flying on Saturday but only having just received the pieces of paper I need (uni hadn't given me my letter of support, ta for that...), it was kind of crucial I got it done today.
All I wanted was to submit my documents, pay my money and return the next day to pick up my urgent visa. What actually happened, was none of that. What actually happened, was 5 hours of hanging around, calls to and from RLUS and Russia, several emails and faxes to the visa agency and an increasing intimacy with the security guard who took pity on me and kept skipping me ahead in the many queues which featured in the whole episode. He was nice.
I did not, however, come away with any prospect of a Russian visa before Saturday. Nor any time soon, really. See, Russian visas require several documents depending on which you're applying for. Mine, a student visa, calls for an invitation (which was scanned over in minute proportions ridiculously late), a HIV test certificate and a letter of support from the uni as well as the usual form and photos.
I had EVERYTHING in order. mostly. I had to reprint the form because it 'wasn't clear enough', even though the 2nd one looked exactly the same and was accepted, but that was not the key issue.

'Today is just not my day'

No. The key issue that was stopping me from getting my visa application in, the major flaw in my documents which obviously must be causing some extreme threat to the Russian domestic security situation, a crucial and underestimated importance-the size of my invitation. It wouldn't print any larger than 3/4 of A5. And Russia, it seems, is an A5 only country. Begrudgingly they will accept A4. No bigger, because that's rubbing it in their faces that you've actually managed to get an invitation, but definitely no smaller than A5 either because you've probably drawn it with a felt tip, filled it in and designed an elaborate stamp with a crayon- and they wouldn't be able to tell because all the sodding stamps look the same anyway and are impossible to tell apart.

I was pissed. off. There were frantic phone calls, faxes and emails to get a bigger copy sent to the agency. They still weren't happy. There was then a call to Russia to send over the original so the print out would be clearer (newly invented issue-the print out was unreadable) but since it was an issue with their printer and they wouldn't adjust the settings, I left visa-less.

What this does mean, however, is an extra week to sort my life out before I go to Russia. RLUS are paying for the original invitation to be couriered over to me from Russia and rebooking me on a flight next Sunday.
Considering that the past month or so have been stressful beyond belief for one reason or another, I'm quite grateful for it. Almost certainly I'd get ill very quickly once I got there if I was still travelling on Saturday, so this should give me some time to give my poor broken body some time to recover.

It also gives me time to put another complaint in about my department. Had they given me my letter when they were meant to, this wouldn't have happened. It's not the first time they've utterly screwed up. I don't get how intelligent people seem totally unable to engage their brains when it comes to matters of common sense.

Ok. Rant over. Russian bureaucracy exists at every stage. I shall deal.

Russian bureaucracy

On a more uplifting note, my DSA equipment arrived today. I can't actually open the boxes myself, because as a 'disabled' student, I am not trusted and must wait for a technician to show me how to turn on my laptop.
And install all the software. And generally do everything I can do myself, except in a way that won't lead to a grey screen with the word VIRUS flashing at me 2 months later. I see their point.
I am excited to get the Sims 3 on there. I anticipate it filling long cold Russian evenings. Because studying isn't going to hack it.

Think I'll go traumatise my sims in the catacombs now, actually.