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!