Wednesday, 16 May 2012

On having survived a year in Russia

It is almost 1am on the 16th May. I'm leaving to go back to (not so) sunny old England later today. My flight leaves at 4.55pm and Viktor has booked me a taxi at 2pm. He said he would come with me to help with the cases (I had to buy another in the end to fit it all in) and check me in, but I told him that was far too much effort and I would be fine on my own. I'm all packed but not quite emotionally ready to say goodbye to St Petersburg and the people here. I would never have believed it when I was in Yaroslavl, but you do become so attached to the place in the end that it's hard to leave. The weather has transformed recently and it's so much easier to appreciate the parks and buildings, going outside is infinitely easier (and quicker) since the ice has melted away and I have enjoyed standing on the embankment of the Fontanka outside my house in the evenings in progressively lighter night skies. I'm going to just miss the best of the white nights but at least I've seen them before.

I can't quite believe that my year abroad is over. I'm so glad I kept this blog because I've been looking back at my early posts from before I'd even got to Yaroslavl and contrasting where I was to where I am now. Ok, I still can't speak brilliantly, but my listening and comprehension skills have rocketed, as has my confidence in so many new situations. At one point in Yaroslavl, Hannah and I were too scared to buy cake from the counter because of needing to talk and not having quite the right vocabulary. We did it once, and that was it, easy. Kind of regretted it in the end, given the amount of cake we subsequently got through, but now the same kind of situation doesn't phase me. I can work my way around situations without specific vocabulary knowledge without panicking and be understood. I can function in society, that's good enough for me. I do occasionally mess up- at TGIs I asked for a large coke and ended up with a pitcher and 4 glasses, for example, but you learn to not be scared about checking your orders and being up front with your mistakes.
I need to come back to work on the fear of making a complete idiot of myself in front of several Russians, for example in queues, but I am leaps and bounds ahead of where I started back in August.

There have been some serious ups and downs throughout this year, some situations in which I was kicked violently out of my comfort zone and others in which I wish I had been bolder.
I should have made more conversation with Firdaus, but I took an easy option out much of the time, partly because of lack of confidence and partly because of the situation and Russian Step Dad scaring me, but I know I would perform better after this term. Probably also should have gone to more of the cultural events she put on, but a definite highlight of my memories (although one I still can't quite fathom) is the trip to Uglich with the children we thought were future teen mums but turned out to be a dance group acting out some kind of story with goats, being attacked by frogs, interviewed (and failing at being interviewed) by Russian tv, the insane open air lunch with drunk Russians and fish heads in soup, and the (then stressful, now funny) journey home, not really knowing where we lived.
Frequent trips to Globus for decent spaghetti bolognaise, factoring in time to de-dill the food, insane babushki on the shuttle buses there and back, our Moscow trip, the Indian restaurant and my panic over seeing a doctor all stand out to me.
In St Petersburg I suppose the obvious memory is Loony Lyudmila, George and the cockroaches. Yes, this whole episode was...unpleasant, but I was so fortunate to have met some great people out of the experience that the negative side is overshadowed by the good. I obviously came to Petersburg alone, and initially yes I was nervous, but it turned out to be the absolute best thing I could have done. I've made great friends because I've been forced to be more sociable and haven't taken the easy option of sticking with what I know. I have laugh out loud memories of movie nights in the hostel, staying up until 4am and standing on a chair outside the bathroom waiting to scare someone who when they came out, and especially fond memories of Danny jumping into the corridor, brandishing a limp baguette and yelling 'Avada Kedavra' at me.

I have even finally met someone in person who I have been talking to and who has been an enormous help to me for many years, which may well not have happened if it were not for me being here.
My health was always a concern to everyone involved in sending me to Russia-justified, clearly, but I am certain that, despite the last minute panic and hospitalisation, I have done better in this regard thanks to being happy here than I ever would have if I'd gone along with recommendations to go to Moscow instead. I did briefly consider switching to Moscow for the second semester because of fears of being alone here, but that would have been a huge mistake. I have wanted to spend my year abroad in Piter since I spent a weekend here back in the first year-I fell in love with everything about the place, despite the extreme case of blistered feet and exhaustion from touring the city (again, I'd spent a week in hospital just prior to this!) and it's been great to be able to do that.

Viktor, Larissa and Aleksey have been amazing hosts, even if the lamp routine became a little trying after a while, and the location of my flat is equally amazing -the location so close to school, the metro, a 20 minute walk to Nevsky along the river-it has been perfect. This family genuinely care about the well being of their students, which isn't always easy to find in homestays, and the satisfaction of their many guests is all recorded in guest books with hundreds of messages from past visitors, my own just added too.

I can't believe how quickly it's gone. Arriving in Yaroslavl, the overnight train from Moscow when I couldn't get over the fact that I was in Russia, on a sleeper train, by Russia, the final arrival at Firdaus' place-that seems like it never even happened. The arrival here, after a plane journey during which I sat hunched against the window cursing Russia and everything about it, convinced I'd hate the experience and walking up to and introducing myself to a random group of girls in the airport with our group, who turned out to be truly lovely - it all seems like forever ago. Everything was so stressful and scary at the time, but the dynamic slipped and shifted so quickly I didn't even realise I was having fun. Dare I even say it, I think this year abroad has made me grow up-not that you'd ever know it from observing my behaviour and that of those I spend time with, but I think it has. I think I feel more mature...or...independent....or something. How strange.

I could just go on and on. But it seems that I have actually survived my year in Russia, and that would suggest that this blog has run its course, which is a little sad for me. I find writing therapeutic and generally it comes so easily that I enjoy logging my experiences for future review and nostalgic purposes. It helps me order my own current thoughts too. I remember deciding to start it up at some silly time in the early hours, thinking it was unlikely I'd continue with it. Lucky I did, every entry brings back floods of memories and emotions and has, on occasion, helped me through some tough moments. It would be sad to abandon it. Plus I'm not all that mature just yet. Perhaps I'll have to come back to Russia and fill it up some more.

That is, of course, if airport security let me out in the first place without a migration card. 3 months of keeping it safe and the day before I fly I lose it. Well done me. Fingers crossed. Need to be let out to be let back in.

До встречи!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

A trip to The Idiot, a nice chat and a bit of a ramble. Also I still do not like dill

My last few days in St Petersburg have been lovely. The weather is gorgeous and I am feeling significantly better than I was a week ago - slightly out of it, but I dare not skip even one tablet before I fly home, so the effects are tolerable.
I feel like St Petersburg and especially my frequented parts- Sennaya, Fontanka and Nevsky, are a home now. I never felt like that in Yaroslavl. I have made friends and know where is good to go for food, which shops to go to for slightly more obscure items, can avoid rush times at the checkouts, have options outside of the school set up in which to socialise and can, if I so wish, relax at someone else's flat, free of the babushka reign of terror. It's a nice, content kind of a feeling for someone who spends their life inwardly stressing and silently talking themself into jittery insanity.

Recently, someone who I have had indirect contact with for quite some years now, came to St Petersburg. It's their home turf, so it was nice to be able to spend time with them here. We went to a famous vegetarian restaurant, The Idiot, which is a gem if ever there was one. It's Dostoyevskian in theme and just like an apartment inside, with old furniture and book shelves and a deep, multi layered kind of atmosphere. I loved it. The food was amazing too, vegetarian options in Russia are not amazingly common, so this place is popular, but regardless of your diet, you would be pleased at the sight of the menu. What wonders can be made out of tvorog! My obsession with cottage cheese is no secret, but these 'Syrniki' - fried tvorog blini with raisins, honey and, of course, smetana, were delicious. Everything is served with smetana here-soup is rarely complete without it- its essentially creme fraiche, so it is fortunate that I do not view it with the same disgust which I reserve for that most Russian of flavourings, dill (укроп/ukrop). I still can not fathom the point of this inane weed, nor the apparent compulsion demonstrated by Russians of all ages to suffocate their food in it. Honestly, it's more like they flavour their dill with an insignificant side of pelmeni or drizzle it with a dressing of solyanka or borscht than the other way round.

*Sorry, getting a bit sidetracked here. Dill winds me up. Quite a bit. I was informed at the restaurant that the actual reasoning behind it is that it is full of goodness, and, to summarise, there wasn't a great deal of that going around for many years in Russia, which is fair enough I guess. But seriously, guys, move with the times. I don't want it on chips. I want you to learn the greatness of vinegar. And maybe even start stocking salt and vinegar crisps, instead of dill and pickle. Thanks*

So. Where was I?
Right. The food was amazing. I even had a pot of earl grey tea with lemon - I have neglected to mention my progress in the tea challenge, in which I was set to become suave and sophisticated by slowly working my way through liking tea and then coffee, so that when next invited out 'for coffee', I would actually drink some, rather than a pink and white foamy strawberry and cream iced drink. My discovery is that lemon makes all things better, and earl grey is rather palatable, so there I sat with my little teapot, cup and saucer, inwardly beaming and congratulating myself on something most achieve aged around 3. But you know, each to their own, at their own pace.
The vodka shot was good also, smooth and went down well. I felt particularly cultured and Russian that day as my kind host toasted to our health. I may not have spoken a word of Russian at the best opportunity I had to do so, but I did eat and drink very well.

It was nice to be able to chat about things which I've been unable to since being here and there is something reassuring in discussing domestic matters with someone you know speaks sense, as opposed to attempting to figure things out entirely on your own or with people who are just as clueless as you are. It also made a pleasant change to my routine, to go somewhere new and to speak of different things and switch into a different mode, if you will. Having been released from hospital the day before it was nice and gentle too.
Although I am starting to think that every Russian is infinitely smarter than I will ever be when it comes to matters of culture, history and religions. Some of the conversations are impressive! I need to read a book or something. (She says, as she downloads another Harry Potter edition on to her kindle to be read to her).

Going home on Wednesday. I'm glad I managed to meet finally, it was a nice way to round off the week and my stay here. A bit of familiarity and home in a foreign place which is also starting to feel like home. I wish I'd been to The Idiot sooner, but as with most things close by, you never get around to them, and at least I have been now.
Do I count as being cultured yet?

Sunday, 13 May 2012

A busy week, Part two: В больнице

Onwards and upwards.
Continuing from the last post, my busy week continued, or at least seemed very hectic. Thinking on it, I didn't really do a great deal but I did have a lot happen to me. 
I've mentioned with increasing frequency my unreliable state of health over my year abroad, and recently I think migraines have featured in most of my posts. Well, this one is going to focus on that because A. it is taking up a large chunk of my life at the moment and B. I get a lot of site views based on migraine and neuro search words. Plus it's therapeutic. Feel free to ignore the rest if you are healthy, it's likely to bore/depress the hell out of you.

My prediction of an approaching migraine on my return from Peterhof proved accurate. I think motion sickness is connected somehow and it took its opportunity to blast into action the moment I lay down, complete with obligatory 'scintillating scotoma'-flashing, moving blind spots and psychodelic zigzags and vibrations in vision. Who needs drugs?

It hurt, a lot. The next day the same thing happened. And the next. Each time the aura became more widespread and the pain would kick in quicker and stay longer and honest to God it was making me unstable. My sleep patterns were ruined and I felt constantly nauseous and exhausted, my eyes couldn't focus and I developed vertigo. The effects of a migraine, in my case, are generally felt up to a week before and a week after the actual episode, and they were just piling on top of eachother. I spent most of the week close to tears from the frustration of not even being able to lie still and the rest of it in tears from the bulldozers hammering around in my head. The heating in the flat was still on at this point despite it being close to 20 degrees outside and I couldn't keep the window open because Russia is noisy beyond belief, and every little sound was thundering through my head bringing me closer to being sick from the further rolling around in pain. I could only crawl, not walk, and my eyes were doing their own thing. Consequently when I did try to stand, I fell over and was left with a very swollen ankle which just added to the strain. In short, it was torture.
 It felt like eternity during episodes and I began to hate being in Russia with a passion. I was prewarned about the climate here being bad for those of us with neurological problems, and even the pressure changes in the most moderate of climates has a palpable effect on my joints and head. Ocassionally I can actually feel the change in the size of the vessels in my brain, which is commonly thought to be the key cause of migraines. But I wanted to come here so I shouldn't complain too much.

Speaking Russian became an even greater labour than normal. As a result of the mix of regular medications I take I suffer from varying degrees of aphasia-impairment of language and processing ability. Sometimes I simply have trouble with words 'on the tip of my tongue', often reading is a slog, other times I can't speak at all and occasionally I am unable to write. That's in english. I all but gave up attempting to communicate with Viktor and Larissa and only ventured out of my room in search of water (praying for lack of contact with a scantily clad Aleksey) when I was truly desperate.

Thursday came and I was just about stable enough to be able to listen to Harry Potter on my kindle. The Prisoner of Azkaban is not exactly the most taxing of literature, but it's sufficiently interesting to be a distraction when the pain dies down enough. In a moment of lapsed concentration, I rolled over on to my stomach and before I'd realised, raised my head ever so slightly. That was it, I could feel the pulsing in my head, hear the whooshing of blood constricted through my neck and the intense pressure. The scotoma started within 45 seconds, my vision was doubled and parts of my hands appeared to be missing. Alice in Wonderland symptoms made their entrance and everything started shrinking at an alarming rate, just to shoot up by giant proportions a few moments later. My arms were shrinking, I felt totally out of proportion and disoriented.

The head pain, when it hit, was unusally sudden and incredibly intense. The visual aura was spread across both eyes and was adding to the chaos of the pain. I lay there for hours digging my head in to the mattress in (futile) attempts to relieve the pain, writhing around and generally sobbing to myself, interspaced with brief tourettes-esque swearing episodes to vent the frustration. It took maybe 4 hours before the nausea passed enough to switch positions. Very, very long hours. The visual issues had all but disappeared, just leaving the drilling into my skull to contend with. I decided to get up to splash water on my face but as I lifted my head, the aura was back. I couldn't even process what was going on by this point, I just knew the pain had suddenly tripled.
I don't really remember a great deal past this point, although I am aware I was very much in what my doctors refer to as 'crisis'. Truth be told I had probably been hovering around it for the past week. It had by this point been around 10 hours in constant, extreme pain, which is definitely not normal. I usually have some let up or at least weakening of symptoms.
I hauled myself down the hallway to Viktor to request a doctor, and exceedingly kindly, he rang the hospital for me and Aleksey drove us there. Can't imagine Lyudmila or George doing that.

In one of my early posts, about a month after I arrived in Yaroslavl, I commented on the miracle that was me avoiding hospital for so long. Well, a week to go and it was clearly time to rectify the situation. Just about time to cram in a medical emergency before I left!

Some time within the next hour I had been practically carried through the hospital for assessment, to find my blood pressure was an alarming 175/130. Considering that it's usually on the low side of healthy, it was a little worrying, as was my temperature which was edging towards 39 (although in Russia, once it hits 37 there is a definite problem according to doctors). My eyes were showing uncontrollable independent movements and I lost my spacial awareness.  Essentially, my body was having a massive and slightly dangerous freak out.

Treatment at this hospital was, without doubt, outstanding, and I have been in a fair few hospitals. I have never been so happy for nurses to attack my poor veins with multiple cannulas. Unlike a previous experience in a Russian state hospital, which left me with nerve damage, they identified my difficult veins just by looking and an intensive care nurse was called to deal with the cannula. It did eventually have to be changed a couple of times, because my veins ruptured, but the initial IV medication was bliss and I now have a terrific bruise to admire as my badge of honour for a while.
I've had every single test possible run on me, nearly all I've had before but this time with a slant to identify meningitis, apparently. Had someone asked me if Id been vaccinated, I could probably have saved some time, but whatever.

The dopplerography, annoyingly, showed nothing wrong with the vessels in my neck, despite a previous showing there was. I'm not consistent enough, it's hugely frustrating when you're trying to prove a point to your doctor in your quest to recieve a definitive diagnosis. But the chiropractor, amazingly lovely woman that she is, after warning me not to try to get up from the bench because she'd 'heard about me' (randomly collapsed in the middle of a chest x ray, apparently a massive shock to all involved) explained that there is something wrong with my neck, and 'most likely, the rest of you, looking at the list of your injuries and fractures'. Oops. It can't be a good sign if someone used to dealing with injured people thinks you have too many to focus on.
The MRI showed a weird tangle of vessels on the side I get Trigeminal Neuralgia, which I already knew about and no sign of aneurysm, which I had expected. I've had so many scans that I'm very complacent about the results-it will come as a massive shock if anything does ever show up. I had to be transferred by ambulance to another hospital for these scans, and a nurse called Gleb accompanied me, setting Russia to rights on the way and telling me where to go for the best Russian book shops. Helpfully, he also told me not to be scared and not to faint, just before I went in for the scan. lols.

So, eventually, with mountains of medication, 'manual manipulation' to the neck and head, a few incredibly welcome visits from the outside world and a lot of the BBC news international channel (I swear I put it on one morning and Prince Charles was presenting the weather-can't confirm I wasn't hallucinating, but fairly sure I wasn't) , I finally got rid of the lingering pain and sickness.
Turns out that I have a curved top spine (kyphosis) and scoliosis, but I'm told that regular courses of chiropractitioner care will help significantly and hopefully help to reduce general body pain and fatigue. 

King of the Hill (царь горы- tsar gori) in Russian helped to whittle away the hours, despite
only understanding all of about 1/16th of it

Three days after being admitted I was let out, expecting to have a horrific bill placed in front of me. The hospital hadn't been clear about the insurance when I first got there-or at least, I was in no state to understand and didn't know what I'd signed-so it was a massive relief to find that the (estimated from prices online) £8k bill did not materialise. Private hospitals are lovely, and I definitely recovered far quicker in a private ensuite with personal nurse than I did in the 6 to a room the same size as my private one hospital a few years back, but are they expensive. Also I have to observe that there is significantly less standing around in your underwear to be examined in other hospitals. Maybe there's just less time to get you undressed in state hospitals. Oh well. I honestly don't think I have a scrap of shame left anymore.
NHS, I love you.

And so off I went home, this time to actually sleep.
Nearly made it through my year abroad, so close! Whatever will my year abroad tutor say?! 'I told you so' springs to mind...

A busy week, Part One: Петергоф

Well. What a week. I do like to leave things to the last minute and I have definitely crammed a lot in during the past seven days. I'll have to split it across two posts because they are fairly different turns of events.

Kicking off on the positive, I finally got to visit Петергоф (Peterhof), which is actually a series of palaces and seriously beautiful gardens on the outskirts of the city. This place is famous for its fountains, and although the pictures give you an idea, when you see it for yourself you can see how it earned the nickname of 'Russian Versailles', it's stunning. The fountains are turned on annually in May, so I had been holding off visiting until then. So worth it. We stood in line for ages to get the hydrofoil to cross the Gulf of Finland for the 30 minute journey there, and irritated the French and Spanish tourists standing in front of us (deserved, when Harriet sneezed, as I'm pretty sure most animals have a tendency to, one of the women glared at her and snatched her friend away as if the source of the Black Death itself was stood behind them, and proceeded to bitch, assuming that we couldn't understand. Both of us can understand French and Harriet also does Spanish at uni. Fail evil women....possibly fail on our part also, since, naturally, they both also spoke English. Oh well, nothing like a bit of....good natured....xenophobia. And who likes the French anyway? Psh.)

We were extremely fortunate to have chosen a rare sunny day to visit, and the view that greeted us as we walked off from the Hydrofoil pier was stunning. My internet is not playing ball so unfortunately I can't upload my own photos yet, but a long 'Sea Canal' led up from the sea to the Lower Gardens, in which are the most amazing fountains I've ever seen. The photos really don't do it justice.

 The amazing thing about the fountains is that none of them are powered by pump, it's all done through elevation pressure and special reservoirs and aqueducts. There is so much gold around too, it all glistens through the sun and the water, and at one point when we were standing up by the main palace looking down at the massive fountain in the picture above, the Samson fountain, there was a rainbow stretching through it. Lovely to watch.
We had a wander through the chapel, to which we gained free entry with our student cards despite there being a clear '150roubles for students' notice, and marvelled at even more gold. The place was gorgeous and intricate religious art covered the walls and ceilings. I think it has recently been reopened after having work done to it, and they have definitely been polishing the floors-lethally slippy, especially in the fetching blue plastic shoe covers you have to wear to look around.

We also had a nose inside the main palace, choosing not to have a tour guide. The problem was that there had to be at least seven tours going on while we were wandering, and because the palace is relatively small, we kept getting stuck in them. First, we hit the Spanish tour. Harriet speaks Spanish. Then we hit an English tour-obviously we both understood. Getting quickly fed up of the Yorkshire woman who kept repeating 'Ooooh, in't that nice o'er there?!' to her husband, we squeezed past and hit the next tour-French. Another one we could both understand. Whilst the changing contrasts between languages made me realise how infinitely sexier French sounds than English, we were more intent on pointing out what pretty shades of wallpaper and what amazingly comfy and luxurious looking pieces of furniture we would furnish our own homes with, (well, we can dream) and shuffled on past another few tours, picking bits up in all of our languages, including Russian.
Needless to say, when we finished our own tour around the house and got over the marvels of some of its contents, we felt pretty smug. Check us. We're linguists. :D

I'd had all of two hours sleep the previous night and the long day was starting to wear, so when we decided to go I was content. In true Russian style, however, the queuing system for the Hydrofoils back was beyond confusing and it didn't seem possible to catch one for another two hours or so. We headed round to the back of the palace to catch a marshrutka (mini van type bus) instead, and realised we'd missed out the whole of the Upper Gardens. These reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, again beautiful and I'll add photos when I have the chance, so I was glad to have the chance to wander round before we left.

The marshrutka ride back did not agree with me. They rarely do. We didn't really know which one we should be taking so missed a lot of buses before deciding to jump on whichever one came along next, and it turned out to be a very long journey to the metro in a very confined space, with a very dubious driver. I had started to get the signs of a migraine by the time we decided to stop off for blini in Chaynaya Lozhka but the chocolate pancake seemed to bring me round a bit. Arriving back to Sennaya Metro we decided to leave further tourist escapades until Friday, planning to go to the Church on Spilled Blood and the tourist market behind.
And so off home I went to attempt to sleep.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Going home early. Again.

It's 3am and I can't sleep. Faced with the option of watching a dvd or writing a blog post, the dvd seemed the more appealing of the two, however it then occurred to me that each of the almost daily migraines I've had in the last week have started during badly dubbed Russian films, so here I am being minutely more productive.
Clearly, I beat the odds and did not pop my clogs after swallowing my suspicious looking Russian chewing gum, so I suppose I am doing quite well, all things considered. Still getting bizarre visual migraines every time I lie on my front, giving me a 20 minute kaleidoscopic beauty of a show in my left eye before many hours of excruciating pain on the opposite side of my head. My neurologist at home, when first questioned about this, responded with the sage advice of 'well don't do it then' but I feel it's probably time to hassle him about it. Is my brain supposed to throw a tantrum every time I lie down and put my head up? Am I meant to almost black out when I get up from lying down? I'm going take a stab in the dark and say no. So it's just as well that my flight is now changed for me to leave early and get it looked at.
After the desperate hiding behind an escalator by the BMI office and the frantic attempts to figure out what we needed to say in Russian to get our flights changed in Moscow last year, I was a little more prepared this time round. I had a pre-prepared script to get me a pass for the security turnstiles and find the BA office, because my brain has a tendency to enter a rapid onset coma when it comes to recalling anything useful at the appropriate time. It being British Airways I wasn't overly worried about a language barrier but would have been able to cope, just about if there was. What I hadn't really anticipated was the 3 hour trek to find the place. Especially when the office was, in fact, only 20minutes walk away from my flat. I had looked it up on google maps and I'd written down detailed directions, but I clearly lack an internal compass, and got hopelessly lost. Story of my life. Someone needs to invent some kind of human gps gadget.

Fortunately for me, I did eventually find the BA office and in the space of 15 minutes I was on the flight leaving St Petersburg LED (the airport is still called Leningrad, strangely) on the 16th May. It's still a shame to leave early, but I am pretty eager to get back to somewhere I can communicate easily. I'm back to the stage where I'm seriously looking forward to wandering around decent sized supermarkets, picking up anything I want and knowing I'm not in for any nasty surprises. Cashiers won't bitch at me for not handing over the correct change, although I am infinitely better with numbers now (surprising difficult in Russian) and there are far fewer awkward silences at the tills these days.

It will also be quite nice to know that I won't be wandering down the hallway in the middle of the night for water to be greeted by the sight of a very drunk and very naked Aleksey, Viktor's youngest son who, on occasion, comes in a little the worse for wear after an evening of drinking and seems to lose his clothes and direction on the way to sitting in the bath under a cold shower for several hours to recover. There is always an awkward few seconds of averting eyes as we attempt to get past eachother but he doesn't seem to remember by the next day, which is just as well. It's funny but I've kind of had enough of living in someone else's flat now. Just what happens in homestays.

Lastly it will be great not to come or go from where I live in fear of what the cats are plotting. They silently sneak out on you from across the courtyard and jump down from windows into your path and just stare at you. There has to be at least 50 of them. It's creepy.

They dart out of holes in the wall and just hang around staring at you. It's unnatural.


Sunday, 29 April 2012

The return of Victor, Migraines and my impending return to England

Victor has returned. I heard the doorbell ring but thought nothing of it initially and continued watching Charlie the Unicorn in my pjs. 10 minutes later, in he bursts to my room. 'Loren!' Oh dear. I had a glance round in hope that the lamp was in sight, looking like it was in regular use as he asked to see my arm. It was down the side of the bed, underneath a pile of Harry Potter dvds. This did not seem to bother Victor as he made all kinds of surprised and gleeful noises at the sight of my (now irritation free) scar. Naturally, it was all 'pochti ne vidno' and 'mne ochen' nravitsya!'. 2 weeks with this miracle technology twice a day is now, to him, a miracle cure for ailments of every kind. I obviously agreed with what he said, making grateful sounds and nodding vigorously at the appropriate moment, slightly uncomfortable that I haven't touched either the lamp or cream since he left. His trust in me to do things properly is very much misplaced. Fortunately the subject was quickly changed as he decided I was looking unwell, a nice cover for the reason as to why I was dressed in Family Guy pj bottoms and  spongebob top at 2pm, and told me to go to bed.

Unfortunately, it turns out that I really was unwell, and subsequently developed a migraine. I should have realised I was due for this earlier, because I'd been picking up 'phantom' smells for days, which is always a good warning sign, but the first indication I got of this, was the feeling that my eyes weren't working together. Then the vague sensation that I wasn't seeing quite everything out of the left eye. And then the prisms , which start in the corner and meander their way across to the other side, flashing and blotting out part of the vision inconveniently. It's a bit like looking through swiss cheese, only the holes keep moving too quickly to ever focus. Generally, this will last 20 minutes and then I will get the head pain, so it's a convenient warning sign. This time round it went, and then a different type of aura struck up, called hemiplegic. A weird combination of pins and needles and numbness started in my hand and then moved to the left side of my face, starting in the corner of my lips and spreading throughout, including in my teeth, which is possibly the strangest sensation I've ever experienced and really scared me the first time I had it, but now I just sit around and ride it out, mainly because it usually paralyses me down one side so I can't exactly go anywhere. The pain didn't materialise straight away. After 15 minutes I was convinced I'd got away with it and decided to paint my nails in a smug shade of purple.

The smugness was premature. 10 minutes and it hit, leaving me writhing in pain, attempting to bury my head in the mattress and feeling immensely sick. Eventually I fell asleep and when I woke 6 hours later the bulk of the pain had gone. Unfortunately it was almost midnight. And unfortunately, it appeared that my bed sheets were covered in purple nail varnish.
The visual aura is kind of similar to this. Everyone's is different, but this is the closest in terms of distorted vision I can find to mine.

So, I'm getting a lot of these migraines here, and they're ever increasing in severity. The neuralgia has spread too and is causing unpredicatable bother. I've talked to uni and decided it's better to go home early before they get out of hand. I'm hoping that when I get back I can sort out the issues which are stressing me out so much and they'll die down, otherwise I will be going home in June, facing said issues and needing to take exams during a massive episode. It's disappointing but there's not much I can do about it, it's just what happens. Migraines enjoy putting a dampener on things. When I was little, I always desperately wanted a Toblerone - they just looked so cool. When I finally got round to trying one, I enjoyed its honey and nougaty goodness for all of about 2 minutes before it floored me with a migraine which had me crying for hours. Sadistic.

I have just accidentally swallowed my gum, and according to the age old and 100% accurate playground legend, it will soon be twisting it's way round my intestines and I will surely be dead by the morning. It's probably time to go and eat some cottage cheese to counter it.



If anyone has any ideas for how to remove nail varnish from bed sheets, please do let me know. So far I have discovered that dousing them in nail varnish remover does not work, but does cause a vaguely alcoholic smell to linger on your pyjamas.
Answers on a postcard please, to:

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Generic blog post title about stuff I've done recently

Spoke too soon about the weather. The rivers are all flowing still, but they're on the rise because it's been raining for the last three days. Lovely. The temperature has dropped a fair bit too, but now that I've been out without my polar gear, I refuse to go back. As such, I am getting death looks from the babushki and stares from the general Russian population for being under dressed. Thankfully, however, Victor is in Voronezh for two weeks, so I'm getting away with going out dressed normally without being told that I'll catch my death without a hat, scarf and boots.
I don't know why he's in Voronezh, but I'm enjoying the break. Victor is lovely, but I'm not used to being mothered and I'm getting a bit fed up of being told that I'm not eating when actually I am, and getting told off for sitting against a wall because my back will suffer. And, of course, I've now been entrusted to complete the lamp routine by myself. Naturally, this means I've been completely neglecting it.

The all powerful lamp
Victor means well. The problem is that he thinks everything can be solved with his bloody lamp. The scar healing technology he so worships originates in China (and I am suspicious over the reliability of their results) and his lamp is Russian. It has nothing to do with the medical 'technology' from China, and I'd happily put money on it being completely ineffectual, although I suspect there's an element of the placebo effect at work. My flatmate here has experienced the lamp, and agrees it's bull. Victor also likes to place a stone between his ribs every so often and smack down on it, because it 'makes him strong'...somehow. Like me, the strongest protest he's been able to summon is 'bolno, Victor....bolno' - ie, that hurts. The thing is, with me, it really really really hurts. When I tell Victor that maybe we should forget the 'Chinese face massage' because the neuralgia is playing up, he takes that as cue to get the lamp out and press into the side of my face afflicted with what is fondly known as 'the suicide disease'. It's not doing me any good, as attested by the dentist, who I visited for the 2nd time today.

The accordion trance which so accosted my ear when I rang for the original appointment was definitely not an indication of poor care. I went to the top private clinic in St Petersburg, opposite Kazan Cathedral in one direction and the Church on Spilled Blood in the other. Prime location. A little thrown by the claim of being an 'international clinic' when nobody seemed to speak English initially, the cleanliness of the place and the unusal friendliness of the staff calmed me down. We muddled through the actual examination in ruglish blend of languages and I was given medication and a wonderfully small bill. Today's appointment revealed that, surprise of surprises, I need to visit a neurologist. I don't really get what's going on with my body at the moment, but my feet are, well, vibrating- or it feels like they are, and I'm dropping everything and tripping all the time in addition to having weird sensations like water trickling down my arms and face. Declined the offer to make an appointment with the neuro there in the hope that my email to my own doctor will shed some light first. If I can actually make it through a term without ending up in hospital over something, it will be a miracle. My year abroad tutor will be so proud of me.

In lighter news, my friend had a birthday last week, and we all went to TGIs to celebrate. It was nommy. I had decided that it was completely necessary for him to receive a balloon on his 21st, and so earlier that day I wandered around looking for something appropriate.

Once I'd seen it, I knew it was perfect. Passed up the usual Happy Birthday round balloons for this beauty:

Introducing Jerry the Cow
I have previously talked about the need to blend in when in Russia. Carrying this around the city did not help. But I love him. Apparently, his name is Jerry.

Then, on Sunday, it was Russian Easter. I think this is just Orthodox Easter, because it's also when the Greeks celebrate, but whatever. Over here, there are no chocolate eggs. It's purely a religious holiday, rather than the Festival of Chocolate which it really is at home. Certain supermarkets in England, so I'm told from someone behind the scenes, have had chocolate eggs in since Boxing day, which is absurd in every way. Here, you wouldn't have known it was Easter other than the abundance of specially baked 'Kulich'- a type of cake with fruit in and some kind of topping. It's really pretty good, although I quite enjoy the packaging of Easter eggs at home...I'm easily taken in by advertising, clearly. Fortunately the supermarkets here play such intensely awful music, similar to that you'll hear on the sims, that I don't stick around long enough to be taken in by anything.
Easter cake - 'кулич'
It's staying light until almost 10pm at the moment, a sign that Summer is indeed coming, not that anyone really seems to believe me that it will get really hot, because the weather has shown zero sign that it's capable of anything over 15degrees. When I was here in first year it was at least 30 by 8am and the night just didn't come - it's strange, but something most people are excited to experience. I have 61 days left until I go home, and it's going much quicker than it did in Yaroslavl. Possibly because I'm not being reminded of how many days I have left by other people this time round, but also because it's just more enjoyable here. I should also seriously get on with my year abroad project, which is rapidly starting to induce 'The Fear' in me.
Where is the time going? Probably to the same place as Sir Rolf, my beloved koala, who is lost somewhere in Russia alone. Sad times.

On a final note, I have been drinking tea. A lot of tea. And it's still utterly disgusting. I don't know who came up with the idea that you grow to like a taste, but I can't say I agree. I even tried coffee, but to no avail.
I will never be the pretentious hipster type sitting in Starbucks with a mac and a tall froppamochalattechino now.
Kak zhal. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Victor and his lamp

Not very good at updating this regularly, am I?

First thing's first: Today it hit DOUBLE figures. For the first time I went out without my down coat. Spring is here! :D
Still very happy with my new homestay, it's very clean and the bedding has already been changed twice (although they have Russian style covers, meaning the opening is right in the middle and consequently I wake up every morning trapped inside, which is a little disconcerting, and trying to get the duvet in in the first place is a task which has seen me swear and stamp my feet a fair amount) which is a marked improvement on Loony Lyudmila's place. Funnily enough, these people actually seem to care about me too, which is just a bit odd given that my experience of homestay tends to be one in which you are given your meals, exchange some niceties and then are left to do whatever the mood takes you.
Victor is a chiropractor. He likes alternative options. The family is also mormon, which is extremely unusual here and consequently have a lot of missionaries and the like to stay. The guest books which people write in after coming to visit are full of entries singing the praises of a family in whose home 'the holy spirit is felt throughout', both in Russian and English. I am somewhat sceptical of a religion which has so many different branches varying so wildly from one another, but they are nice enough people. It is a mix of this kind heartedness and the opportunity to have a live-in guinea pig to experiment on that I think makes Victor constantly check up on me.

He works for a Chinese medical company and is using their products to try to reduce the scars on my arm which I've had for about 7 years now (horse riding, incidentally, 3 operations later having had metal plates in and out and my arm probably looks a bit of a mess to most people I suppose.) He also has this lamp thing, I think it works with red light to break up scar tissue, so every morning and night we have this ritual where he chats away to me in Russian while treating the scars with cream and light.
Now, every so often I get this nasty red patch of irritation on the scar on the inside of my arm, right next to part of it which has healed perfectly and is barely noticeable. It's partly due to my neglecting the skin but always fades eventually. Victor, however, is taking it's disappearance as a sign of the miracle technological advances of his company. I'm not going to rain on his parade by saying that, actually, no I don't think it's amazing because any wound is going to improve in appearance with regular moisturising and massage. Every time he comes into my room with a bowl of fruit and jug of water (because apparently I don't eat and he's going to have to tell my mother if I don't start - a. I eat when I'm out and b. HA.) he takes a look at my arm. This is where it becomes extremely predictable.
His observations are as follows:
1. Oh ty! Mne OCHEN nravitsya! - translation: wow! I really like it!
2. Kak zdorovo!                                translation: how great!
3. I like it!                                         translation: um...yeah he speaks english
4. A zdes...pochti ne vidno!              translation: And here...almost can't see it! (that would be down to
                                                           the 7 years of healing...and that's the bit that was already healed)
5. Mne ochen ochen nravitsya! get the idea.

I'm a little peeved that the credit for this healing is being handed over to a sodding lamp, when in reality it's years of hard work by my body with a dodgy immune system, but whatever, it's amazing language practice. Plus now I seem to have been entrusted with the lamp by myself, which means that I don't always do it and get out on time in the mornings. Tellingly, Victor is still seeing progress in the scars despite the lack of treatment. Hmm.

So anyway, I currently am in less than great health and have been having migraines all over the place while my trigeminal neuralgia is conveniently changing its pattern, which is extremely bad news and difficult to manage over here. On top of that I've had serious pain in one of my teeth and the surrounding area plus eyes, neck and ears. My wisdom teeth never quite came through. But Victor doesn't seem to understand that I'm likely to need neurosurgery at some point which will include a bit of a stay in intensive care in order to deal with some of this, and he is insistent on using his lamp, which has actually made it worse because he uses a lot of pressure. My tooth has been screaming at me for this and tomorrow I am off to the dentist. Less than appealing prospect. But I did ring them up and book it in Russian! Ura for me! (after 10 minutes being put on hold and suffering the trauma of a uniquely Russian kind of 'on hold' music which can only be described as accordion trance. As if the dentist isn't bad enough.)

I should probably go to bed now. I am hoping next week will be more successful than this. I have broken my kindle and cover, iphone charger and had my debit card stopped because some nonce in Liverpool has used my details to buy a bunch of crap online. What a dipstick.

I promise to write something more interesting, less whingy and more happy next time.
Like, I just washed my hair and it's given itself a zigzag parting all by itself. What a clever head I have.

Spokoinoi Nochi.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Moving again!

Much has happened since I last posted. To summarise the remainder of our time living at Lyudmila's, we spent about 12 hours at a time out of the house and crashed Marc's place quite frequently in order to avoid mental breakdowns and food poisoning. (Thank you Marc). After finding the cockroach in my bed this was pushed to the limit and I turned into a quivering wreck, getting no sleep and experiencing various degrees of exhaustion, depression and mood swings. A Russia low point without a doubt, but I have experienced enough of Russia not to automatically hate all things Russian from this, even though I did start swearing at everyone who dared to get in my way on the street and in the supermarket, cursing their (probably very mixed and un Russian, actually) roots.  When we went into school the next Monday, addresses were still not ready, but we couldn't wait any longer, and so skived off the rest of the day to go home and pack and wait to be taken to the hostel.

Now, convinced as we were that Lyudmila didn't know we were leaving, the nutjob had apparently been informed by the school in no uncertain terms that we would be. This left us confused, given the conversations about us staying and the next excursions, but whatever, we accept the woman is insane. George realised we were packing to leave (because he was, of course, still in the house (fully dressed at least) doing nothing with his life) and turned up every television to max and played some awful dubsteb-esque music loudly, to prove some kind of point unknown. We then stole Lyudmila's cheese in revenge. Because we are hardcore. And were hungry. And know there were no cockroaches in the fridge.

Thus I have had about 10 very lovely days living in the hostel with very lovely people, in my own room, eating food that is certified bug free by me and staying up til 6am watching films with everyone. It is somewhat reminiscent of school, except I don't think we ever stayed up quite that late and the food was ocassionally a little suspicious...apart from the curry, the curry was always amazing.
But now, as I write, I am in my new flat on Fontanka. I was told yesterday that I'd be moving, so got myself packed, and fell out of bed today to a text saying the driver would be there in 20 minutes. Russian time keeping is a bit off, so when they said 'between 12-2pm', I should have suspected that could include 10am.

I think I've said it before, but there's something very evacuee like with the waiting for and meeting of your new host for the first time. The very first time I came to Russia, we pulled up in the train, exhausted, to see a hoarde of scary looking Russians standing round on the platform, piled off one after another, and stood sheepishly in a group opposite, waiting for our names to be called. Despite the problem of speaking practically no Russian at this point, it wasn't as bad as I had expected, but then, nothing ever is, and is always over and done with too quickly to really worry too much. Since then, my understanding of Russian and Russia has improved considerably, but I still feel as if I should have a tag round my neck as my host comes to pick me up. Obviously in Yaroslavl' I had Firdaus embrace me in the courtyard in the middle of the night, her dressed in an animal print dressing gown, which somewhat defused any tension, and knew Hannah was upstairs as my English speaking ally. Lyudmila had made things massively easier by speaking in English from the start, although I feel the filth, her son and her craziness outweighed that in the end. So today was not a nervous time for me.

The flat is very big. Sprawling. You keep turning corners expecting it to end, and it just keeps going. Fortunately for me, my room is the very last on the right, so I shouldn't get lost. I have just as much storage as when I was with Lyudmila but the room is much bigger, with a proper desk and chair still, old style soviet windows and high ceilings. Fontanka is a region of Petersburg that used to house all of the old noble families, so the places are nice here. It's on the Fontanka Embankment, a branch of the Neva, although my room overlooks a road and not the river, and is pretty central to everything.
Viktor greeted me, speaking clear Russian (I'm told the St Petersburg accent is the nicest of Russia) although he does speak English. I can essentially understand him, but as always, replying is not easy. He's a chiropractor and his wife, Larissa, is a teacher of English and Russian but currently in Helsinki.
They have a son who lives here (I think) and there's an English student too, who may or may not be on my course...I don't know. So unobservant.

I have possibly already made myself look a bit of an idiot by trying to do an impression of a cockroach when I couldn't think of the word, but the soon they know, the better, I suppose!

The wifi appears to be locked, which is a shame. It was amazing that we got to use Lyudmila's for free, even though it often broke, because skype worked perfectly and video calls were easy. I did buy a dongle during the week when I was at the hostel, because I can't go 2 days without internet, but the connection is often a bit dodgy. The good thing is, though, that unlike other times when you arrive at a new homestay, I'm already able to get online and google map where I am, figure out what's around me and how to get to places. An essential part of settling down, for me, is feeling like I know what I'm doing. That's why, in general, the first few days are difficult, not knowing people, or where you are, or what to do, having no routine and no internet to idly browse for hours on end and settling for playing marathon solitaire/chess tournaments against the laptop gets boring and allows you to dwell on how awful it's all going to be. (It's not). I've learnt to always take the sims3 and some movies with me to get me through those first few days. A bit of Simmish is always a welcome distraction.

Anyway. Viktor has assured me that if I have any problems they will sort them out, that I can come and go as I please, sleep in the morning, afternoon or night and even eat breakfast whenever I feel like it. It is a promising start, and it's nice to be unpacked after not bothering in the hostel, so let's hope it stays that way. I might have to go and make myself look less like I've just rolled out of bed in order to go out and find the nearest produkti, because I am A. starving and B. needing to buy a kinder egg for my friend's birthday...(Because I'm but really, she wants one..)

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Another insane Bab: a story of vindictiveness, filth, and poor pest control

WARNING: After this post was written, a cockroach was found in my bed. This, coupled with recent ingestion of highly potent neurological drugs, led to angry and hysterical writings of an insomniac made a victim in her own room for fear of further bug invasion. These were further aided by obsessive replaying of Beatles' songs, specifically Lucy in the sky with diamonds, Hey Jude and Yellow Submarine. Apologies for bad language and incoherent, rambling rants. It is also very long. Russia is hard work right now, just roll with it.

Alright. So, we didn't have words with the reps like I said, but we spoke to the school directly. About George. About the filth. About the cockroaches. We said we'd like to stay there still, if Lyudmila would just clean up and give us new sheets. Both of us are covered in bites and I'm wheezing my way through the night from the dust but, you know, Lyudmila seemed nice. So the school rang her straight away.
We stayed out for a long time before braving going home, just in case her and George had gone crazy from the complaint. However, we got home and she wasn't in. Just as I was wondering if she was ever returning after us complaining, she came back and gave us new sheets. No anger, no resentment, just lovely new sheets, as I excitedly documented earlier. What a lovely old lady, we thought!

Bitch is craaaazy. Next morning, I spring out of bed, gazelle like and excited to start a new day after I had finally had myself a good night of sleep. Ipod goes on, boogie on into the bathroom and have a spectacular disco of a time cleaning my teeth, oblivious of the happenings at breakfast in the next room. It was, in hindsight, a poor decision to have headphones blaring, because I have already been privy to Lyudmila bitching about me not eating her breakfasts through the grate between the bathroom and kitchen, and of all days for her to bitch, it would have been today. And I'd left Tania to her evil ways alone.

Sure enough, Lyudmila came out with 'I know I normally give you eggs for breakfast, but when I heard all the horrible things you said about me and my family, I didn't feel like buying them'.
This might just seem petty, but in actual fact anyone who has had to endure any length of time under bab rule in Russia will realise that eggs are, as Hannah so accurately put it, 'the only thing we get up for in the morning!'.  Yes, life is that desperate. So, split between laughing in her face and disbelief, Tania attempts to explain that we said nothing horrible, just the truth, ie, that George is a lazy, arrogant arsehole who makes it awkward for us when the pair of them are screaming at eachother, and that her home is a shit hole. (Fortunately, Tania is more diplomatic than I am, and gently paraphrased). To which Lyudmila angrily responded 'You think my home is dirty? You say it is dirty!? Show me the dirt, show me!'. So...she was shown the dirt...because she forced Tania to do so. Except that, apparently, Lyudmila is blind, and 'Maybe I can not see it' was her response to the festering shit in the bathroom. That's some pretty poor eyesight you've got there, Mila. Might want to get that checked. God. And then she got further pissed off that I was not making sandwiches to take with me for lunch. Interestingly, although we know the school mentioned the cockroaches, she hadn't said anything about them in her aggressive rant. Clearly she was concerned that my intake of crunchy cockroach protein was low that day. What a caring little soul.

Go to school and find out they have had problem after problem with Lyudmila, and, essentially, she's a psychotic bitch who they only keep because her location is so good. But we're being moved, because the school believe us 100%. Turns out that Lyudmila says it's me causing all the problems and promised that she would clean instantly, despite claiming her home is squeaky clean and pristine (the bugs must be that OCD kind who only take up habitation in the most hygienic of places) because she was threatened with them moving us. And she's money obsessed, so that would be a disaster for her - when our flatmate moved out she told Tania to find her a new student because she needs the money (lie) and 'you will ask people but Lauren...Lauren will not'. Well, fair enough, she's right. I wouldn't.

The day finishes. Place is still filthy. I decide it is time to investigate exactly where these cockroaches are living. Into the kitchen I ventured at 2am, camera in hand, expecting to find a few of the giants which I have caught wandering over the plates. No. There are hundreds of bugs of all kinds, all sizes and all over the place, including in the rice. The rice which bitchbab has been feeding us. For weeks. In the bottles of oil and boxes of eggs and tea, stuck to the worktops through sheer filth and neglect. Try to move something and a foul smell shoots up your nose while several insects dart from inside and down the sides and backs of the cupboard. The mountains of rubbish stuck down on this side of the work surface meant I couldn't/didn't want to risk moving anything to film all of the bugs, but could hear the tap tapping of masses scattering from the light. I felt unclean just looking. And later came up in masses of tiny bites. The bastards.
Messaged Tania to warn her not to eat the food at breakfast. Fortunately, she got it before eating, and accordingly told Lyudmila that she felt ill and so would be skipping breakfast. And of course, accordingly, Lyudmila angrily told her that she should have said last night that she didn't want breakfast (um...) and she'd wasted so much time and energy now....(again, um...). Then some kind of 'first Lauren, now you' remark. Then the cow left. In her stupid fur coat. To her stupid job where she speaks English badly.

So then we left. And showed school the video. Who showed it to the director. And we were promised that we'd be out by Monday. Great.
This made it all the more bearable when, one evening, having been left alone with Lyudmila 'to help with English pronunciation', she started bitching about Tania to me. If she wanted to leave, it didn't matter because I would find her a new student, so I shouldn't be worried if Tania is annoyed (no idea where this came from) but really she should stay here, in this flat. What was wrong with her anyway? I should find out. Oh and so should I stay here, because it is so close to school and we can go everywhere by foot -  and everyone makes mistakes. so just because she'd forgotten 3 weeks had passed and it was already time to change the sheets (4 weeks) doesn't reflect badly on her. Oh and she tells George he has a very loud voice and to keep it down but he doesn't so what can you do? That's life!'

I wish my Russian was stronger. The number of times I repeated 'esli ona hotchet, ona hotchet' -if she wants to, then she wants to, in order to cut her off mid bitch about Tania leaving and the number of 'ne soglasna's - I don't agree, I came out with, were frustrating. I so wanted to tell her to f off, but had to satisfy myself with taking perverse pleasure in hearing about how hard it is for her to organise the excursion for us for the next weekend, when clearly we would be long gone, and in assuring her that the correct way to pronounce 'sheet music' for her boss' birthday spectacle, is, in fact, Shit Music.

Hah. She thinks she's won and we're staying. It's Sunday morning and Lyudmila still does not know we are leaving. We need to pack in secret and get the hell out of here. This woman is so weirdly vindictive in talking about each of us to the other, yet is so fake and sweet when we are together that it makes us uneasy.

Why does she remind me of Edgar from Men in Black? 

Friday, 16 March 2012

Tea challenge

I do not like hot drinks. This is a shame, since I am 1.English and in Russia, and tea features a great deal in both of these places. I would really like to be able to put all my woes to bed by 'sticking the kettle on', or meeting up for coffee and actually drinking coffee, not a mango/starfruit/peach froppamochalottoiceachino. (I don't go into starbucks much).

As such, I have resolved to drink tea at every opportunity in the hope that the taste will grow on me.
I feel like a fraud when I tell people I'm English but refuse tea. My life is empty and confused. The tea challenge will solve this. I shall be a connoisseur of tea. It's going to be amazing.
Starting tomorrow.
Wish me luck!

PS. Crazy filthy bab is crazier, filthier and more vindictive than ever. Babushki. Just keep away from them.

Monday, 12 March 2012


We had a whinge to the school today, and lo, I have been given new linen for my bed! A month is just way too long without it. There is much that needs to improve before I am satisfied that I can stay here, (George seems to be present still, although judging by the school's reaction to him being here, possibly not too much longer, cockroaches also yet to be evicted) but look! Check out the crazy yellow crispy clean warmth! No more wheezing through the night for meeeee :-)

Also, yes, that is a rug on the wall. Russian decor. Gotta have a rug on the wall.
And so off to bed I now go, in my equally yellow and sparkly clean Spongebob pjs, ready to read my kindle in peace with Sir Rolf the musical koala by my side. He has even sung a celebratory verse of Waltzing Matilda. I have never been so excited to go to bed. Well. You know. In context.

Спокойной Ночи!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The niceties of life in St Petersburg. And George

It takes a few weeks to figure out what is exactly what in Russia. So, I've worked out who I need to do the homework for and who is still going to heap praise on me regardless of what semi comprehensible toddler babble I make up on the spot. I've worked out that copious amounts of fanta will get me through 2 out of 3 90 minute lessons, but will almost certainly result in a visual migraine and nothing will keep me awake for the 3rd lesson, so best save the roubles, submit to snoozing and avoid the prisms and pain. I've worked out that I can stay in bed until 9 and still be in at 10, but not to risk showering in a hurry because it will result in trips to the аптека (apteka, chemist -about 97 on every street, generally located next door to the 24 hour flower shop-ready for your midnight carnations craving) for burns gel. So yeah, pretty much all sorted on the routine front.

24 hour flower shop. Everywhere in Russia. I can only assume Russian men are constantly getting thrown out/staying out too late drinking, and these shops exist to make a killing on their attempts to redeem themselves

What I am still confused about, however, is the living situation. When I arrived, it was me, Tania and the two American guys, Marc and Jim. Jim left to go home last week, Marc moved to his own flat a little before, leaving me and Tania with Lyudmila. And George.
George is Lyudmila's older son. She has two. I estimate that he is somewhere in his late 30s, but as he spends his life sitting round the flat in, at most, a vest and boxers which are too small to deal with his pot belly, my judgement may be a little distorted - I don't want to risk looking for too long. I gather that he once had a job, but lost it. Lyudmila kicked George out when Jim got fed up of sharing a room with Marc when they were both paying full price. So Jim had what is essentially the lounge (Russian sleeping arrangements are flexible to say the least-Lyudmila regularly adopts the kitchen as her bedroom) and George went 'to the suburbs'.
I enjoyed this arrangement, as George's scantily-clad omnipresence made me uncomfortable. However, Jim left, and George was back like a shot. 'The suburbs' must be some kind of gangster wielding ghetto, judging by the lightning speed at which he reappeared, shouting at Lyudmila over the amount of time we spend chatting at the breakfast table. To my mind, he's a fairly intolerable, lazy bastard and I truly can not comprehend the affection with which Lyudmila talks about him, even when he is clearly ignoring her calls when he failed to honour his promise to pick her up in his car. Of course 'the electricity to his phone' is working, Lyudmila, he's just a waste of space and can't be bothered. Saying that, I can think of other mothers who are, to lesser degrees, similar with their own male offspring. But anyway. Now his bed/sofa/table/general hovel is directly next to my own bed in the next room, so I am left pondering the reasons as to why he can't use all his excess tv watching, loud phone call making energy at 3am  for something more productive during the daytime, such as cleaning or purchasing some new clothes.

He makes us feel very uncomfortable. You can't go into the kitchen if George is there. Walking past his room while the door is open will generally get it slammed shut on you. He bitches about us in between arguing with his mother and prancing about in his boxers, cooking buckwheat and not clearing up. Which might go some way to explaining the cockroaches living in the kitchen, a discovery I made the other night looking for some clean drinking water. I have not touched the food or drink since.

HAH. I googled 'cockroach' in Russian and it gave me this. How topical, given the current post election riots :D

It's pretty!

I shall be having words with the reps on Monday. I don't particularly want to move, as it's a good location and the flat is decent- it just needs to be cleaned. And de-cockroached. And de-Georged. And it would be nice if Lyudmila would knock rather than just walk into your room unannounced as you're hopping all over the place trying to pull on your tights, just to announce that 'we are going to drink tea (no we aren't) and eat the soup with the fish (also no, Lyudmila).
Aside from all of this, I like Petersburg. There's infinitely more to do, more possibility in every sense and a really rather good pizza place nearby that I seem to be spending a disproportionate amount of time in.

There's already been two national holidays since I've been here. Coming from the country with the fewest of these, I'm thinking Russia have got it seriously right, especially considering that one was Women's Day. I had two days off school for this-it was on Thursday but we got Friday off too-and happened to be on Nevsky Prospekt during the day. This is the main street in St. Petersburg, setting for many of the most famous of the Russian novels, notably Gogol's 'Nevsky Prospekt' (imaginative title, I know) and Dostoevsky's 'Crime and Punishment' ...As an aside, classic Russian literature is amazing. Read it. And then do what I did and live in the most historic part of Piter where you can retrace your protagonist's steps through the haymarket. Or, you know, don't. Whatever.

Kazan Cathedral, Nevsky Prospekt

On Women's Day, wandering down the Prospekt outside Kazan Cathedral and past Dom Knigi (the bookshop in which I'll happily spend 3 hours), I was given flowers by three separate men and nearly accepted a heart shaped balloon, only I realised that I had to take a bus back home by myself and regularly get completely lost, so I'd look a bit of an idiot standing at a random bus stop in the suburbs with my pink balloon, all alone. The gangsters who drove George away will probably know who I am, given that he is, more than likely given his svelte spy like physique, a top espionage expert and thus at the top of their most wanted list. I felt a pink floating heart would not aid my quest for inconspicuousness. So, balloonless, I marvelled at the number of restaurants offering free champagne for women all day and carried on about my business with my 3 flowers. Handy Tip: Odd numbers of flowers only, in Russia, unless they're for a funeral. Don't get it confused. That would be awkward.

Outside the Winter Palace and the Hermitage, period characters wander nonchalantly  around on the ice
Church of the Saviour on spilled blood - where Alexander II was killed
Some lovely soldiers on men's day, or, officially День защитника  Отечества (Den zaschitnika Otechestva) Defender of the Fatherland day.

I've been doing some touristy things and wandering round impossibly large galleries pretending to appreciate the technicalities of the art on display, taking crappy pictures on my phone because the one thing I forgot is the wire to connect my camera to the laptop, and ridiculously, there's no card reader on here. I could still take decent photos and then upload them all to marvel at forgotten memories once I'm done here, but I need fairly instant gratification because I have the attention span and perseverance of a turnip, so that's that out of the question. I've taken some spectacular falls in the ice but my marshmallow coat has provided decent protection and my fur hat has shielded me from almost certain brain damage when a spiky chunk of ice descended from the roof to connect with my head. Such love for my hat. Oh and occasionally I stop to watch people wandering all over the frozen rivers which separate Saint Petersburg into islands whilst eating a pirog.

On the bank of the Neva, outside Peter and Paul Fortress....that's a river behind us. We could have walked across, but chose the safer, firmer option of the road.

So yes. It's a fairly decent existence here so far. I've discovered it takes no more than 2 Russian beers for me to feel thoroughly drunk, but I can counter that with a brisk walk in -13 night air. I'm having some nasty spikes of neuralgia and seem to be getting exhausted pretty quickly, but there's already a doctor's visit on the cards, so that will be another little adventure! Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some malteasers I must attend to while watching Russia's eurovision entry. Flights to Azerbaijan are looking pretty damned tempting just now...

Бурановские Бабушки

 (Buranovskie Babushki! Singing in Udmurt to raise money for a church in their village and now in eurovision )

And if that has whetted your appetite.....

and for the Eagles fans out there:

Friday, 2 March 2012

Saint Petersburg: The arrival

So, skimming over the true trauma that was home, a week or so before I was due to come to Saint Petersburg, I decided it was probably time to get my visa properly sorted. No excuse this time for being so late, I just didn't want to come back to Russia. Not because I like home, you understand, but because Russia is hard work and I just didn't have it in me to be bothered with it all. Except of course, I didn't have a choice. So I paid for next day processing on my visa and collected my roubles, packed everything up smarter than last time - learnt what I need and what I don't, mostly - and on the 18th of February, after a pretty decent night's sleep this time round, my lovely Padre drove me to Heathrow.
I don't like Terminal 5. It's poorly signposted and I spent a ridiculous amount of time frantically looking for my friend who had disappeared in the swarming mass that was security as our gate was closing the first time I flew to Russia from there. Note: No matter how well hidden your multipack of capri suns and oversized mosquito repellent are in your hand luggage, you are NOT going to get through Heathrow's security. I was panicking that I wouldn't get through security because of the size of my hand luggage or that I'd left liquids in there, because no way would that rucksack close again once it was opened. However,  no such trauma took place, and I was simply left snivelling to myself as I left my Dad to go through the barriers back to misery for 5 months. I think I was feeling a little bit on the vulnerable side...

BA is infinitely better than BMI. Plus I get frequent flyer miles on them, so the incredibly fast 2hours and 50 minutes it took to get to Saint Petersburg were quite comfortable. I listened to the Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy on my kindle. I do love Marvin.

Now, when we landed, I knew what to expect. LED is not a particularly comfortable or modern airport. 3 flights arrive together and everyone is herded into a too small hall where the English attempt to form orderly queues to reach the few immigration boxes everyone needs to pass through to get to their bags, while the Russians snigger at said orderly queues and proceed to push through and crowd to the front. The English, assuming everyone in Russia is a KGB agent or otherwise possess the power to pack them off to the gulag, are too scared to inform them of their obvious mistake, and thus take an abnormal amount of time to actually enter Russia.
So, I take a trip to the bathroom to attempt to freshen up a bit before dealing with the masses in the next room. At this point, maybe 5 minutes from stepping off the plane, something immensely embarrassing happened to me. In fact, having just relived the experience in my mind, I am now chickening out of writing about it. But at the time, it simply added weight to my being convinced Russia was going to be an absolute disaster. And I cringed. A lot. I still cringe. I can't believe these things happen to me. But rest assured it was a fairly horrendous start to Russia, which shall forever be kept to myself. Unless I happen to drink a little too much baltika, which does tend to loosen my mouth ever so slightly.
As an aside, LED have seriously got to make their bathrooms bigger. They seem to assume people travel with no luggage and/or are the size of leprachauns. Which they are not. Unless of course they are actual leprachauns. Still. Get with it Russia.
Luggage carousels aren't up to much there and I had several cases randomly fall on my toes whilst waiting for mine, no surprise given that the first time I landed in Petersburg the sight greeting me was a whole truck load of luggage spilling over onto the runway by the plane. Skilled baggage handlers here. Then there was quite a lot of waiting around for everyone to get through immigration. Was handed an info pack, told 'see you at 10 at school on monday', and promptly packed into a minibus with others to be delivered to respective accommodation.

Most people here seem to be living in a hostel near the school. I do not do sharing bathrooms. Not in Russia. My decision has been confirmed as the right one, incidentally, judging by the recent placement of posters in the hostel loos stating that standing on the toilet seat is forbidden. It's a Russian thing. I don't get it either.
So yeah, my host Ludmila collected me at the bottom of her road, let me settle into my room (much better that in Yaro) and said we were waiting for another girl to come, who was on a different flight to me, at which point we'd then eat and drink champagne. Tania came, we ate and drank. It was pretty sweet, and my expectation for Ludmila's english to end abruptly wasn't realised- she can speak pretty decent english, which is handy when you get stuck in Russian. We knew she had some American guys living with her too, doing a tefl course, but would meet tomorrow.

So, skipping details other than I forced myself to eat salmon (blergh) and drank copious cups of tea (also blergh) we had food, made many toasts and drank really good champagne. I then marvelled at actually having room to store my things, as opposed to the one cupboard and a closet shared with Firdaus' many fur coats and often the stinking cat, and put everything away. I was more comfortable in my room here within an hour than I ever was in Yaroslavl.
There are many differences between the two places, which I'll probably go into at some point, but as a whole, I'm much happier here than I was in Yaroslavl. Everyone seems to think I sounded miserable as hell there too, which I hadn't really considered, but perhaps they were right.

PMainly because I am lazy but partly because it's late and I have to get up early tomorrow, I am going to split this into 2 or 3 posts. I have actually been here 15 days now and done a fair amount (no tv interviews or frog attacks though, I'm glad to report), so I'll stick some photos up too, with my non apocalypse prone internet. Ura for wireless!


Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Token February post

Not wanting to neglect February, this is a quick one to say I'm in St Petersburg now and it's pretty cool. In more than one way. I go to school Monday-Thursday and do whatever I feel like on the other 3 days.
My host is not forcing refried blini down my throat. There is no psychologically upset cat. I live with one other girl from a different uni and 2 American guys who have just completed a tefl. The cashiers in shops don't scream at me for not having the right change. I've wandered round the hermitage for 3 hours, fallen over twice on the ice, misplaced my keys countless times and been interviewed for tv on a total of zero occassions. Tis going well.
And I'll write properly when I can be bothered :)